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from the November 2019 issue

(Re)writing the Philippines: An Introduction

The year 2021 will mark the five-hundred-year anniversary of Christianity’s arrival in the Philippine Islands, an event associated with the first circumnavigation of the world, led by Ferdinand Magellan. Both historical points launched the mapping and invasion of many parts of the archipelago for more than three hundred years, followed by an American invasion that has furthered the country’s long, tragic history of coming under the rule of one colonial power after another while remaining subjugated throughout.

In a time when the country is enmeshed in a territorial dispute with its new aggressor China, we remember. We remember and remain vigilant in the face of the apparatus—the apparatus controlled by the state, academic agencies, and businesses—the exact same one that purports to compel us to remember. We remember the five hundred years since Europeans and their Christianity arrived at the archipelago they linked to the patron saint Lazarus, the leper, the biblical character raised from the dead. We remember the Europeans’ supposed discovery of our islands, even as the necessary struggle for self-determination rightfully continues in the southern end of the archipelago, where the Bangsamoro people of Mindanao live.

Although the history of the Philippines is often just a cursory note in or a supplemental extension to the colonial discourse that is still the go-to marker of religion and civilization, the works we have selected challenge a monolithic view of the fragmented histories and interconnected, overlapping cultures in the Philippines. That monolithic take was reinforced in the Marcos dictatorship era’s propagation of the isang bansa, isang diwa (one country, one consciousness) stasis in preparation for Bagong Lipunan (The New Society). The new writings in this groundbreaking Philippines issue of Words Without Borders are founded mostly on hope—hope for the eventual collapse of this monolithic, monopolizing, crippling structure. 

Among the more than 150 languages in the archipelago, English and the national language Filipino remain dominant in literary production. In the past few years, however, there has been a vigorous stream of writing from the regions, including literatures in the languages Bikol, Ilokano, Kapampangan, Minasbate, Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a Binisaya, and from other ethno-linguistic communities. One example comes in Voltaire Oyzon’s Waray-language poem, “Water.” Oyzon presents that substance as an unwanted guest, an invader that can just as easily steal our possessions; yet we still find ourselves trying to please—even appease—it, recognizing again and again our natural affinity for the water that surrounds us. 

Like Oyzon, also writing in their respective native languages are Genevieve Asenjo, who writes in Kinaray-a and Hiligaynon, and Enrique Villasis writing in Minasbate. Asenjo and Villasis are also avid Filipino-language writers, and their pieces here are translated from that language. It is apparent from their writings how their common inclination to write in both their native languages and Filipino has enriched their work; their native cultures have informed how they reworked Filipino. Meanwhile, in the poems of Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles and Marlon Hacla, both Filipino poetry and language itself present as revelatory enterprises. The two poets skillfully explore the philosophy of language, the meaning of experiences—even when they are brutally frank or still steeped in the irony or absurdity of characters arching back to the site of lalang ng grabedad, the hub of either pleasure or painful complexity of a city, a city whose claws resemble that of a raptor that feeds on our light.

Instead of America or the Middle East, the typical spaces for migrant Filipinos and usual stimulus for their narratives, Asenjo’s story “Norebang” takes place in South Korea. That choice is noteworthy, as South Korea in recent years has been aggressive in its cultural forays into Filipino consciousness. The conduits, which have been effective in their infusion, include Korean telenovelas, fashion, and technological gear, as well as Korean immigrants learning English from Filipino teachers, spouses, and house help. 

In a conversation with WWB, Jessica Hagedorn considers the intersections of the many languages of the Philipines with each other and with English and how that affects Philippine literature. That relational dynamic of Philippine languages with English can also be seen in the fluid way Daryll Delgado and Tito Genova Valiente have tried to own colonial language. Although their stories are originally written in English, they are fortified with their authors’ uniquely specific experiences from the islands of Samar and Ticao, respectively, both places present and very much alive in the works’ theme, style, and language. This is no longer the English of the American colonial education from the early twentieth century. Delgado’s narrative on the ruins in the wake of super typhoon Yolanda/Haiyan in 2013 emphasizes the Waray word dunot and the subversive jokes of Johnny Pusong. Valiente, on the other hand, neatly recounts the nursemaid Erlina’s story and her love for the mythical creature Onglo. Valiente reimagines sugilanon—roughly described as “kuwentong katulong, mga kuwento ng kababalaghan” (“stories for the house help, stories of the supernatural”)—which he uses in his construction of an ethnography for driving discussion on the logic of experience rooted in the islands where it is sourced, cultivated, or erased. Valiente writes,

I keep waiting for more tales from Ticao but there have been no tales from the place. Perhaps there are no more narrators. Perhaps, they have cut the trees where enchanted creatures take their entrance and exit to our world. Perhaps, the enchanted beings have all died . . . what Ticao has now are tales about corruption, election fraud, poverty, and killings. They are the new tales of enchantment and I do not have access to their narrators.

This violence, sometimes mistaken for backlash after the long period of colonial and imperialist aggression, remains familiar—even cozy in its predictability—because it never really went away. It simply changes shape, becomes articulated in a different language, possibly gets called a different name. M. J. Cagumbay Tumamac’s poem on the harrowing plight of the indigenous Badjao tribe and Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano’s Binisaya short story on the creeping militarization in indigenous communities attest to the near-ubiquity of this violence. In Tumamac’s poem and Serrano-Quijano’s story, laid bare is the vicious encroachment into and persistently dissolving boundaries between the confines of home and its environs, a revolutionary and a member of the state’s military complex beholden to the whims of the ruling class, a native and a foreigner. 

Just like the literatures of the world, this issue’s short fiction and poetry selections impart their own set of complexities and proclivities, sense of purpose and of place. It is in literature that we find the bulk of experiences that deepen our understanding of the world, regardless of the sensitivity of the themes that get brought to the fore. Moreover, the writers in this issue have been keen on advancing their understanding of what discovery entails. And it may well be the discovery learned from the navigation that has taken us across or forced us to skirt the compulsions and cruelties of our colonial-feudal society. It may also be the discovery that comes with awe, with truly learning at last to speak our languages, to see through the manifold us, a move that might obligate us to hope.

© 2019 by Kristian Sendon Cordero and Kristine Ong Muslim. All rights reserved.

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