OF ESSAYS AND OF ESSAYISTS IN PHILIPPINE SETTING

Let me start by saying that I do not wish to apologize if I am not as adept in writing in English compared to writing in Filipino. Writing in Filipino is what I am accustomed to do, or shall I say, is in my blood, and I am proud of it. I must admit I am a frustrated English essayist, and have yet to acquire the flair and elegance of writing in a foreign tongue. But who cares? I am a Filipino, and English shall remain foreign to us as long as there is Filipino nationalism, and as long as our native tradition has not been completely wipe out in the face of the earth. Though there are certain limitations that I must confront, these limitations - I hope - will not obfuscate your views about what you have been expecting me to say in this gathering.

The present state of essays produced in the Philipines is not really far behind from what is being produced in Southeast Asia or in other parts of the world, particularly in the west. Our essays nowdays seem to have no definite image, no clear standard, no definite content. They border on fiction narratives, newspaper reports, or foreign treatise, and have even gone beyond the traditional paradigms as set by early Tagalog great writers Emilio Jacinto, Julian Cruz Balmaseda, Cirio H. Paganiban, Teodoro A. Agoncillo, Lope K. Santos, Inigo Ed. Regalado, and Clodualdo del Mundo, among others. Filipino, our national language and the medium for many essays, has been gathering storm since the 1990s, thoungh English appeers to have established a firmer ground in major publications.

Philippine essays have been categorized lately into two: first, the informal type, and second, the formal type.

On the one hand, the informal type of essays mostly presents the personal points of view of the writer on a certain subject, minus the kilometric references you would expect in a post-graduate dissertation. The subject may range from the nabal to the grotesque, from Generation X to dying native cultures, from book reviews to film critiques, from sexual trysts to carefree travelogues, from unorthodox philosophies to unexpected bigotry and intolerance. On the other hand, the formal type of essays captures mostly the reinterpretation of Philippine history and of other related disciplines; the introduction of jargon-laced literary criticisms in various genres; the discourse in the form of inversed satires as conceived by politicians and academicians; and the dialogue on both politics and show business that seem to have no demarcation line in Philippine setting.

Newspapers, magazines, school organs, books and other non-mainstream publications became the vehicle for such essays. (Conrado de Quiros, Ambeth Ocampo, and Bambi Harper have written many good essays in their respective weekly columns for a national broadsheet). Sometimes few university presses and publishing houses, though not as big as those of other networks, ventured into publishing and printing essay anthologies of prominent old writers as well as emerging young writers. A few non-government organizations had tried to publish some collections of essays of lesser-known writers, but such ventures did not prosper or were not sustained because of limited funds.

Perhaps many publishers would say, "Books of essays do not sell like hotcakes in the Philippine market". But there are exceptions, like those written in the past by Adrian Crisstobal, Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil, and the rest of Ravens. National Artist Nick Joaquin can now command the price he wants when a publisher approaches him for an essay. Noted writers Virgilio S. Almario, Bienvenido Lumbera, Rene O. Villanueva, Lamberto E. Antonio, Soledad Reyes, Resil B. Mojares, Cirilo F. Bautista, Charlson Ong, Mario J. Francisco, Gemoni H. Abad, Jose Dalisay, Jr., Rosario Torres-Yu, Elynia S. Mabanglo, Benilda S. Santos, and Isagani Cruz, among others, have found their own niche within the terrain of Philippine letters. They have captured a following in and out of the academic circles; and may be a few years from now, one of them will be recognized by the global literary community for his or her outstanding achievement in the development of world class Filipino literature and of culture and the arts. Among the young crops of writers that everybody should watch out are Galileo S. Zafra, who did literary critique of the Tagalog Balagtasan; Rolando S. Tolentino, who has several books of criticisms on Filipino filmography; and Caroline S. Hau, who recently launched her collection of essays on some Filipino writers and their works.

Meanwhile, there are institutions in the Philippines that promote the production of essays. Among these are the Don Carlos Palanca Foundation, Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF/Commission on Filipino Language), Collantes Foundation, the National Commission on Culture and the Arts (NCCA), the Cultural center of the Philippines (CCP), and some universities that have established their respective annual literary contests for their students. In its 50th. year of existence, Palanca Memorial Award Foundation noted that it has gathered 142 award-winning essays from various writers. Collantes Foundation recently launched its harvest of award-winning essays (1992-1998) that mostly concern on Filipino language, history, sociology, and other related fields.

Literary criticisms, under ther term "critical essay", have slowly but surely making a distinct mark in Filipino literature. Yes, there are many Pinoy literary critics espousing foreign and western oriented theories on criticism, but no one perhaps has captured the imagination of the new Filipino generation with the entry of poet and critic Virgilio S. Almario, aka Rio Alma.

Since the 1960s, Almario has consistently written extensive critical essays on poetry, fiction, history, films and other related arts. He has created his own version of Filipino theory on literary criticism, which he termed as the "New Filipino Formalism". If only his literary criticisms were to be translated into English, many readers from all over the world will begin to appreciate the beauty and depth of Filipino literature as seen through the eyes of a Filipino.

You do not have to ask me about Almario. He is with us in this gathering, and I am sure he is the best person who can answer all your questions about Philippine poetry, essay, and literary criticism.

But going back to essay, I must say that it is the best medium to convey the sentiments of our people. It is where you will find a meaning in some insensible things. Essay is the shortcut to understanding the truths that you have discovered, but refuse to recognize, in such genres as poetry, fiction, and drama. In the long poetic tradition of the Philippines, some early Tagalog poems - like those written by Forentino T. Collantes and Jose Corazon de Jesus - were designed like an essay in verse form. Early Tagalog poets were experts in satire, and their fiery commentaries in various aspects of society were meant to destroy the unjust structures of colonialism, imperialism, poverty, graft and corruption, religious bigotry, violence, and intolerance, among others.

Philippine essays at present cannot be defined easily. The seek refuge in newspaper columns, especially during times of war and poverty; the look for comfort in academic journals when mainstream publishing opportunities are scarce; or they simply appear like alien to us when there are threats of violence, censorship, and the like. Nevertheless, we still habe to watch out other promising young Filipino writers who are just waiting for the right time and the right place for their works to be read by the world.

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