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“The Varied Temperaments of Languages”: A Conversation with Kristian Sendon Cordero

Kristian Sendon Cordero. Copyright © Boyet Abrenica

Poet, filmmaker, and translator Kristian Sendon Cordero is spearheading what looks to be a sea change in cultural production and appreciation in the Bikol region of the Philippines. In 2018, he established Savage Mind, an independent bookstore that boasts the apt tagline, “Naga City’s Creative Heart.” The bookstore has been host to film screenings and poetry readings—a COVID-19 pivot to virtual readings recently featured Filipino celebrity Piolo Pascual reading poetry by Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles—and encourages customer perusal, unlike the country’s big bookstores, which generally offer shrink-wrapped books. Most recently, Savage Mind’s second floor became home to Tugawe Cove Cafe, for more coffee- and pastry-fueled immersion in arts and literature.

I spoke to Kristian Sendon Cordero about the role of bookstores in bringing people together and preserving cultural identity, filmmaking in regional languages, and why he hesitates to call it a Bikol renaissance just yet.


Soleil Davíd (SD): When did you first start getting fascinated with Bikol literature and film? How does it feel to be in the vanguard of the Bikol renaissance?

Kristian Sendon Cordero (KSC): My fascination with the local language that is Bikol finds its roots in the old novenas that I used to collect as a child. These chapbooks were sold in the churchyard alongside amulets and candles and other paraphernalia for rituals and healings. I would say that these religious reading materials gave me an insatiable curiosity toward the written word. The experience was magical, especially in the way these little booklets of devotion could summon communities for a religious feast. For nine days, there was singing and community meals at the village chapel, and I was deeply fascinated by the presence of this little book carried by our elders like a blue book. As a child, I learned to memorize these prayers and articulate the words before I came to know what they meant. When I started writing my own poetry and fiction in this language, the old novenas served as my wellsprings. In this language, I learned to do my own alchemy and cast my own vision of the world from the point of view of the Bikolnon, or the people of Bikol.

Nowadays, I continue to navigate and revolve around this idea of Bikol, and I think of our geographies and climates, our colonial histories, and the dominant religion as primary agents that shape our mannerisms and temperaments, including our political ideologies and economic dispositions. And since I wanted to test the limits of this language, I eventually ventured into filmmaking. I have collaborated with a team of Bikolnon creatives on two full-length films, which I consider as works-in-progress, because I regard this work as something that will become better in the coming years as new filmmakers take on the challenge of filming our own stories, our own languages. Today, we have films that are proud of using their local languages. We have films in Pangasinense, Kapampangan, Kinaray-a, Waray, and Bikolnon. This was not the case several decades ago—the Tagalog/Filipino language continues to dominate film production, but there is a growing movement that favors regional cinema, and I would like to maintain my affinity to this kind of filmmaking.

“Translation will always be the future of literature.” 

I am skeptical about using the word renaissance to describe what is happening in Bikol—it is too early to call this a renaissance, considering that our educational systems remain under colonial patronage, as exemplified by the privileging of the English language. There is a growing interest in anything Bikol now, but we must make this sustainable by providing systematic programs for our writers, artists, musicians, animators, and filmmakers. The academe and the local government should have a tangible plan of action that will encourage and deepen our people’s appreciation toward our arts and cultures.

While there is a commonly agreed-upon lingua franca, we must also continue supporting other languages and variants of Bikol. I do not underestimate what many writers and scholars have done to advance Bikol writing, but I think we must still do more in terms of reeducating our young people because, for example, despite Bikol being spoken by nearly 5 million people, the print run for a Bikolano book remains at 500 to 1,000 copies, and it takes three to five years for these books to sell. We still need to bring these books to our communities, and hopefully more public libraries and book nooks will be built in the coming years.


SD: I’m curious about your sense of community, your willingness to bring people into the fold. The bookstore Savage Mind is an act of collaboration between you and a lot of supporters, and is also a place to display books from Ateneo de Naga University Press, where you are the deputy director. On top of that, it’s a place for independent filmmakers to screen their films, and most recently, a café opened in its space . . . Can you talk to us about your ethos of bringing people together, what’s behind it, how you feel that you practice it, and why?

KSC: I think of my exposure at the Iowa International Writing Program in 2017 as my eye-opener and the reason I finally decided to build a bookshop similar to Prairie Lights, where we would gather every week and listen to fellow writers and artists speak about their countries of origin, their cultures, and their creative practices. I wanted something close to that to happen in Bikol, hence we decided to put up this small independent bookshop that also serves as an art space and a studio. I am all for community events in physical spaces like Savage Mind, considering that everyone has created their own bubble or echo chamber on social media. It can be noisy and loud in all these virtual platforms, so what we offer here is something that can bring people closer to their other personal realities. Adjacent to my office now is the newly opened Luis Cabalquinto Reading Room, named after our most important collaborator, the poet Luis Cabalquinto, who is based in New York. The Cabalquinto Room is designed to accommodate one to three persons who want to take a break and listen to poetry read by Bikol and Filipino authors. We are also opening Kamarin, an art gallery and cinema bar located at the back of the bookshop, so we can accommodate more people and give them the opportunity to see artworks and watch films and performances by artists who we believe can continue to deepen artistic contemplations and contribute to the conversation.

Gathering people of different persuasions and politics can be time-consuming, but I take it as a challenge, to believe in the innate goodness of everyone—and this is also my way of expressing my generosity and my solidarity to my fellow Bikolnons. I have been blessed many times over by the friendship of people who personally support these initiatives and activities, and I would like to share these blessings by putting up this hub that hopefully will make people see that it is not always about money and profit—no matter how evasive it is, something soulful and spiritual must be given our keen attention. Simone Weil said that attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity. It gives me and my colleagues enormous joy to see young people come and discover something new inside the bookshop, be it an old vinyl, an art print, a sticker, a postcard, or a book by their favorite author they haven’t discovered yet, or just simply seeing them immerse into the aura of the place. Savage Mind has been called “the creative heart of Naga City,” and as a heart, we need to keep beating and tapping all these creative energies so that people will remember and make this small bookshop a part of their life stories.

Filipino actor Piolo Pascual reads poet Mesándel Virtusio Arguelles's "Ang Iyong Buhay ay Laging Mabibigo" (Your Life Will Always Fail) for Savage Mind's Himati. 


SD: What one or two books in Savage Mind would you most like people to read?

KSC: I’d like people to get hold of our translations in Bikol and Filipino, particularly the translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince into Bikol by Fr. Wilmer Tria, and Karel Čapek’s R.U.R., translated into Filipino by Rogelio Sicat. The Little Prince is a good introductory read for anyone interested in learning Bikol. We released Sicat’s Čapek translation last year, and I think the work will resonate with many of us, especially in this time of the pandemic, when our lives are heavily conditioned by technology. A hundred years ago, when Čapek was writing what would become his masterpiece, he probably had a vision of the world on the brink of a total disaster—the rise of a new breed of semi-humans and their revolt against us. Today, we face the same angel of history, as our lives are classified as information, data, memory, presences—information that is seemingly eternally replicable and moves faster than COVID-19.

As a bookshop, we highlight these translation projects we have done in partnership with the Czech embassy in Manila by dedicating a shelf to all these projects. Eight books translated into ten different languages in the Philippines have been published under this cultural collaboration. Translation will always be the future of literature. No regional nor national literature will grow if it only concerns itself with its own agenda, but if we continue to “cross-country” by way of our literary resources, we will ensure that people will be more accommodating, tolerant, and respectful.


SD: How have the Bikol and Filipino literary scenes changed since you started at Ateneo de Naga University Press (if at all)? Are there any recent developments that you find particularly noteworthy or interesting?

KSC: The Ateneo de Naga University Press identifies itself as a rebel press, and our rebellion is classified under three acts—namely, we are not a commercial press, meaning that we value advocacy over profit; secondly, we translate and decode the secrets of the foreign—our literature will certainly grow if it is in dialogue with other cultures and linguistic groups; and thirdly, we think and write in our local languages. Our advocacy is to make sure that all languages, particularly Bikol, be promoted and be given their rightful due as languages of instruction, as languages of discourse. When people disregard their language, they will automatically disregard their identities. Language constructs and instructs us. It is our blueprint. Without it, one cannot articulate one’s visions nor build upon them. We make sure, therefore, that we prioritize publishing Bikol materials. We have initiated a project called Bikoliana Klasika—under this project, we started retrieving nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writings in Bikol to republish and to reintroduce to our contemporary readers and scholars.

“Religion continues to attract and evade me.”

 Another of our initiatives is the Bikolnon Biography Series (BBS), profiles of exceptional Bikolnons in the fields of arts and culture, government service, media, history, and social entrepreneurship, which we intend as reading material for junior and senior high schoolers. The university press has also provided an alternative space for writers from other regions, particularly in the Visayas. As an act of solidarity to the people of Waray, who were greatly affected by Typhoon Yolanda (Haiyan), we published the first anthology of Waray writers writing about their memories and trauma related to this disaster.


SD: In your previous interviews, you’ve talked a lot about how Catholic Naga City is. I’m also thinking of your 2013 film Angustia (Out of the Depth), where there was this confluence of Catholicism, myth, and sensuality. Can you tell us about the role of religion and spirituality in your work?

KSC: Having been in the seminary for some good years, I find that religion continues to attract and evade me. I am fascinated by its rituals and its accounts and how these stories are maneuvered by people who attach their own meaning to them within the intricacies and intimacies of the Catholic worldview. I recognize the violent history of this religion and the trauma it has brought upon our collective consciousness, and I would like to continue to investigate and unravel this experience by way of putting my personal narratives within it—my personal dolor, always visceral and vicarial. This kind of sufferance and its affectations have given me the impetus to constellate a language of care, pagmamakulog, pagmamalasakit. This theme I have explored in my poetry collections, Labi and Canticos. I think the same can be said of the films I’ve made, and certainly this strong imagery drawn from the Catholic Bikol will still manifest in upcoming projects. It is probably because I still have faith toward the tangible, the baroque, the hopeful, which characterize the Catholic imagination—something that has been affirmed to me by the stories of Carlos Ojeda Aureus, whose book changed my way of looking at fiction, and my vocation.


SD: Turning to your own work as a poet, you’ve won awards for your work in three Philippine languages (Tagalog, Bikol, and Rinconada). What motivates you to write in one language or another? Do you feel that you express yourself in different ways in each of your languages?

KSC: I think each language affords me a different temperament. I tend to be more experimental in Rinconada and Bikol, while in Filipino, I am interested in charting my own patterns, my own voice as a poet and storyteller (although at this point in my life, I try not to burden myself with this anymore). My motivation for writing in two Bikol languages (Bikol and Rinconada) is that not so many people think of the local languages as literary languages. Our colonial education has tremendously ruined our sense of identity, and I would like to believe that by writing in these languages, by experimenting with them and by pushing the limits of what they can articulate, I can help encourage young Bikolnons to roll up their sleeves and start writing and imagining in the language of their birth. In my translation of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, when Samsa finally realizes that his body has become unhuman, I made him speak Rinconada, my other language. I think there is no point in our history where you will find these two languages (Bikol and Rinconada) on the same page. Bikol is a language engineered by the colonial church, while Rinconada remains unstudied and underdeveloped despite many of our contemporary writers speaking and writing in it. The same motivation to highlight this language is one of the reasons I made sure to work with the great actor Nora Aunor, who, like me, speaks Rinconada. In our second film, Nora, for the first time onscreen, speaks in her mother tongue. By way of Nora, and by way of Kafka, I wanted for the translation to not just be about the descent of Gregor Samsa to the abyss, but rather to cause a new metamorphosis in our languages. If we fail to value and pay attention to these languages, we will just find ourselves in a similar position as Samsa, that is, made unhuman.


SD: You’re an accomplished translator into both Bikol and Filipino. How have you decided which authors and works to translate? Are you working on any projects you’re especially excited about at the moment?

KSC: The authors I have translated were my literary companions at a particular period of my life when I was undergoing some difficult changes. When I left the seminary, I read Rilke’s sacred poems and they served like my own personal vespers. Translating these poems into Bikol showed me how, as a child, I became attracted to the language’s sounds and its assumed meanings—that someone is listening to your utterances or as you speak or sing, that the universe hymns with you. After Rilke, I moved to Kafka and Borges. Borges’s poetry is such a pleasure to read, considering that my encounter with him is through his fiction. Many of his poems inform his fiction, and I can relate to this, since many of the stories I wrote were initially conceived as poems. The experience of translating his poetry to Bikol and Filipino can be described as Borgesian in itself. Which one is which? I guess Borges is the kind of author who allows you to construct your own Borgeses. 

“We must continue to push the limits of our languages.”

I am now working on the third translation of José Rizal’s two novels into Bikol. The first translations were published in 1923, then we had another edition in 1961, during the birth centenary of the hero.

I hope young people, when they read in Bikol, will find some kind of nostalgia in it that they probably heard from their elders and that I think is a good entry point into the language—it is also memory, a familiar sound, a voice or face, no matter how briefly it comes to them. The challenge is for them to hold on to it, to grow in that language until it becomes part of their body again, a second skin. 


SD: Why did you feel that a new Bikol translation of Rizal was needed?

KSC: The Bikol language, like Tagalog-Filipino, has evolved through the years. As a translator comparing my work to the 1961 edition, I get to track the evolution of meanings in our language, the sensibility and temperament of the times, and how it has moved from being a language engineered by the colonial church to a language accessed by our local intellectuals, and somehow this is like the history of our language. No serious study has been devoted to this work that is almost like archaeology. When I took on this challenge, I knew the Bible was constantly being retranslated into Bikol, so why not try it with the novels of Rizal? I am also advancing the idea that those who study the novels in school should read the Bikol edition: that way, our students will learn to regard Bikol as a language of literature. We need to do these initiatives that will give the local language a new lease on life, otherwise the domination of Tagalog-Filipino is inevitable, as it has become comfortable for many Bikolnons to resort to the national language.


SD: Do your translation and poetry practices influence each other, and if so, in what ways?

KSC: Yes, in Canticos, I wrote the poems in Bikol and then would “self-translate” into Filipino. But as I was about to finish the project, there was a shift, and I found myself writing in Filipino first and then in Bikol. For someone who writes in three languages and reads most world literature in English, translation is something that comes as naturally as the air that I breathe. When reading poetry by other poets, I try to assume their voice and listen to it as if I were the one talking.  It’s like driving—I try to choose the gear that will bring me in a particular direction. Sometimes I hear the poem in Bikol, sometimes in Rinconada, and I think there were instances when I was able to write a poem because I was listening to it in all three languages.

Many poets from other regions, particularly those of my generation, like John Iremil Teodoro and Genevieve Asenjo of Panay, who also write in three languages (Kinaray-a, Hiligaynon, Filipino), consider this kind of writing as our way of building the national imaginary, which should not be limited to a particular ethnolinguistic group. Debates on issues regarding the national language and the regional languages continue to haunt us, and this also happens on a smaller scale within the regions themselves. While I am all for this kind of conversation, it should not stop us from working, from taking the risks of experimentation. We must continue to push the limits of our languages, and most importantly, regions should start translating work from other regions. To quote from the old breviary I used to read as a night prayer: Let our Babel be our Pentecost.


Kristian Sendon Cordero is a poet, fictionist, translator, and filmmaker based in Bikol. His books of poetry in three Philippine languages have won the Madrigal-Gonzales Best First Book Award, the Philippine National Book Awards, and the Gintong Aklat Awards (Golden Book Awards). In 2017, he represented the Philippines in the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He was also appointed artist-in-residence by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He has translated the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka, and Oscar Wilde into Bikol and Filipino. His current projects include the Bikol translations of José Rizal's two novels. He serves as deputy director of the Ateneo de Naga University Press and runs an independent bookshop and art space, The Savage Mind, in his home city. In 2019, he received the Southeast Asian Writers Prize (SEAWRITE) in Bangkok, Thailand, from the Thai monarchy. He has been named the Artist-In-Residence in the 2022 StellenboschInstitute of Advanced Study in South Africa.


© 2022 Soleil Davíd. All rights reserved.


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