In the Philippines, the writing of fiction in English began during the second decade of the last century as English became the language of government and commerce under U.S occupation. The first writers in English were among the first generation of Filipinos educated under the U.S created public school system. Most critics regard Paz Marquez Benitez' short story Dead Stars, published in 1925 as the country's first modern "classic" in English. The first single-author collection was Jose Villa Panganiban's Stealer of Hearts (1927), the second was National Artist Jose Garcia Villa's Footnote to Youth (1933). Between these two collections, the critic Leopoldo Yabes suggests, was a leap across a chasm both of insight as well as technique. Filipino writers in English mastered the form and the language so quickly that given the ambitions of the times, Villa reached the summit of American approbation in being cited by Edward J. O'Brien as one of "The half-dozen short story writers in America who count. Then, as now, Filipino fictionists in English were much influenced by American writers.
The novel has been a much less popular form among writers in English. National Artist Nick Joaquin attributes this fact to the Filipino artists' "Heritage of smallness". We have no monuments or grand epics to serve as models or inspiration, he observes. But economic reality may be the more practical cause for this dearth of novels. Without a large scale non-text book publishing industry, Filipino writers must take on occupations which often keep them from undertaking longer works. Many writers stop producing creative works all together by age 40. To date, no novel in English can yet rival the Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo of National Hero Jose Rizal, which were written in Spanish at the end of the 19th. centruy in terms of popularity or influence. This may not be a fair measure of the quality of novels in English, as Rizal's works have been required readings in high schools and colleges since the 1960's, still this fact highlights the two conditions that continue to bedevil contemporary literary writing: low volume publishing and limited readership.
Since a large segment of Filipinos who are inclined to literature read English, the Filipino book in English must compete against the entire English language publishing world even at home. Filipino books are often prized out of their own market as mass produced foreign paper backs and second hand books are dumped in local bookstores. The discriminating would rather save up for expensive foreign first editions of world renowned authors than spend on local writers.
Still, there are Filipino novelist in English who have made their mark not only at home but abroad. Nick Joaquin (1917), who is often touted as the Filipino author most deserving of a Nobel Prize, published Women With Two Navels in 1961. The book dwells on Joaquin's favorite theme: the tension between the modern Filipino's Hispanic-oriented past and his American-influenced present. On another level, it is also about the intersection of time and eternity. The possession of Connie, the book's protagonist, of two navels symbolizes as well the co-existence of the diabolic and the angelic within the human psyche. Joaquin's second novel is Caves and Shadows. Though celebrated as a fictionist, poet and playwright, Joaquin is best known to the general public for his insightful journalism and cultural essays.
Perhaps the novelist best known abroad is F. Sionil Jose (1924) who has produced about a dozen novels to date and has been published in 24 languages. His works have been re-issued by prestigiious international publishers such as Random House. Jose is best known for his Rosales Saga five books which inclued Poon (Dusk), Tree, The Pretenders, My Brother, My Executioner (Don Vicenter), and Mass which chronicle imaginatively the family history of one Antonio Samson from the pre-Hispanic past in the Northern Philippines to the Manila of the turbulent 1970's when Martial Law was declared. Rosales is Jose's own natal home town in Pangasinan province. Jose describes his own work as a Filipino's search for "Social justice and a higher moral order", claiming artistic and ideolsogical progeny to Rizal. Jose, among writers in English maybe closest in spirit to novelist in the native languages especially in terms of his prodigous output.
A number of Filipino authors have have made their names in the U.S since the 1930's. Among them was Carlos Bulosan whose autobiographical novel America is in the Heart, (1946) continues to be studied in Asian-American courses. A socialist writer known for his wit and humor, Bulosan travelled to the U.S where he found himself working in plantations and organzing labor unions. He died poor and penniless in America just as certain Filipino intellectuals of an earlier generation perished in Spain.
Bienvenido Santos (1911-1996), who travelled to the U.S before the outbreak of the Pacific War and spent a great deal of his life in America, is best known for his stories and novels that chronicle the sadness of working class Filipino expatriates in the US. His novel What the hell for you left your heart in San Francisco? (1987) displays his theme of Filipino alienation in America across a larger canvass.
In the 1980's Ninotschka Rosca came out with State of War a novel set in Martial Law Philippines that is much influenced by Latin American magic realism. Her latest work is Twice Blessed. In more recent times, Jessica Hagedorn has attracted mainstream attention in America with her novels Dogeaters and Gangster of Love. Bino Realuyo's Umbrella Country also set in 1970's working class Manila has also garnered much praise. A more recent phenomenon is the coming-of-age of second generation Filipino-American writers whose works and interaction with local writers are leading exciting experimentation in language and theme.
At home, the Centennnial Literary Contest with its top prize of P1M, held in 1998 to commemorate the country's First Republic established in 1898, inspired the writing of many new novels. First Prize went to Eric Gamalinda's My Sad Republic, a fictionalized account of the rise to power of Tomas Agustin, a charismatic, peasant-born revolutionary leader in the Southern Philippines who declared himself "Pope of Negros (Island)" in 1900 but was finally incarcerated by the U.S colonial government. Gamalinda (1956), now U.S based is among the most prolific of his generation having produced to date three other novels including: Planet Waves, Notes of a Volcano, and Empire of Memory which looks at the Martial Law years from the point of view of a character who is hired by the authorities to write a paean to the dictator.
Second prize went to Embarrassment of Riches. The novel is set in a fictional eastern Pacific Island-Nation, the Victorianas, which is quite similar to the Philippines. The narrator, Jeffrey Kennedy Tantivo of Chinese descent, returns to his country after years of exile in Manila to help his childhood friend the heiress Jennifer Sy, run for the Presidency after the death of the military dictator. Events unfold that lead Tantivo to realization of his true identity as well as to a second exile after the collapse of the democratic government. The book is my attempt to locate Philippine nationhood imaginatively in "Sout-East Asia" and from a Chinese-Filipino perspective.
Joint third placers were Alfred Yuson's Voyeurs and Savages and Azucena Grajo Uranza's A passing Season. "Voyeurs" is a playful, post-modern tour de force featuring various representations of the Filipino from 19th century highlanders to contemporary writers who are constantly being interpreted by colonialists yet continue to insist on self-definition. The book extends the theme and style first inunciated in Yuson's earlier novel The Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café. The author's historical consciousness is unabashedly the main character in Yuson's novels.
Grazo-Uranza's work, as well as her earlier Bamboo in the Wind are more conventional historical novels featuring well-known heroes and heals.
Other novelists of note include Stevan Javellana whose Without Seeing the Dawn stands as the finest novel on WWII and National Artist NVM Gonzalez who is famous for his subtle, imagistic, yet powerful rendering of rural life in his native Mindoro province. A Season of Grace, is perhaps Gonzalez most sustained accomplishment. Critic Leonard Casper describes the book as presenting the "Ritual of longsuffering pioneers restoring a reluctant jungle to its garden state". Kerima Poloton-Tuvera's Hand of the Enemy (1962) stands out for its urban realism as well as its precision and intensity of perception regarding social divide. Recent novels include Renato Madrid's (pen name of a Catholic priesthood as well as folk Catholicism. Also notable are Jose Dalisay's Killing Time in a Warm Place, (1992) and Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo's Recuerdo(1996).
Re-definition of class and gender relationships as well as of nationhood and history envigorate the work of contemporary novelists. Because of their monumental effect on the country, as well as on writers' lives the Martial Law years remain a favorite subject.
Unlike his predecessors the Filipino novelist in English today has the option of approaching anyone of about six major publishing houses (including university presses) who might take interest in his or her work. With the democratic restoration in 1986 came a publishing "boom" as new publishers entered the trade while academic presses were revitalized. It is no longer surprising to see writers in their thirties or even twenties publish their first collections of poetry or fiction. At least a dozen literary titles see print yearly not too bad considering that up to the mid 1980's the works of National Artists were rarely seen in bookstores.
However the print run of literary titles remain low. A novel in English that sells a thousand copies in three or four years, itself a rarity is deemed a best-seller by Philippine standards. This fact continues to militate against the writing of novels and larger works. Non text-book publishing in the Philippine is still in its infancy and rarely can a writer hope to obtain financial advances from publishers for the completion of a book.
Given a population of close to 80M, optimists regard the Philippines as a growth market for books. But poverty and disinnterest in reading continue to hamstrung book publishing. Television is the preferred medium of entertainment and information among Filipinos. In the rural areas, radio is king. Among the more privileged urban youth, surfing the Web has overshadowed old-fashioned book reading.
The main bookstore chains are usually housed in commercial Malls located in Metro Manila and other big cities, so that provincial readers have limited access to the latest books. The Filipino fictionist, moreso the novelist in English, today must settle for at most a few thousand but more realistically, a few hundred readers with the education, inclination and disposable income to buy literary books in English written by local authors. The expansion of creative writing workshops as well as writing programs in the major universities, through the past two decades, have engendered a new generation of writers and readers but this is still a fraction of the audience available to mass media.
Small wonder that many writers in English dream of access to foreign readership. Still, most works being written speak eloquently to Filipino readers and are not deliberately aimed at foreign audiences. Despite difficulties and modest prospects, the Filipino fiction writer, as well as committed publishers, continue to persevere, buoyed as we are by the admonition of National Artist Francisco Arcellana that fiction is the only form of truth, reality that we can accept the tsruth that otherwise we can not stand, the reality we cannot bear to see, our truth and our reality It is becoming a man and putting away childish things; sit is seeing through a glass darkly but then, face, it is knowing in part since we can only know in part and prophecy in part, it is knowing even as also we are known. That is the pride of fiction ".
And so we in our time echo the pain and the pride of Philippine fiction.
© Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka, Malaysia. SEMUA HAK CIPTA TERPELIHARA 2002
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