(Note: On April 12, I had the opportunity--or I was given the opportunity--to take part in the Philippine Literature Festival put together by the UH Manoa's Tagalog Program, with the festival showcasing the pride of Philippine letters in the Philippines and abroad, one writing in Tagalog, Joi Barrios, and the rest writing in English: Ninotchka Rosca, R. Zamora Linmark, Michelle Cruz Skinner, Francis Tanglao-Aguas, and Marianne Villanueva, with all of them based in the U.S. Mainland, although Linmark shares his time between teaching in UH Manoa and residency in New York. The topics presented by the panelists were well prepared, with all of them zeroing on the duty of the writer to be faithful to the human experience, to the human condition. Aguas was passionate about his call to keep on with the struggle to make a space for the Filipinos writing in America; Linmark talked about the need to support the small publishing houses, Rosca lamented the negligible percentage of immigrants who read (about 3 percent, she said); Villanueva said she would email me on publishers wanting to publish translations; and Skinner, ever the silent type, talked of her need to be left alone most of the time. In many ways, one theme that cropped up is the issue of invisibility in Filipino-American Writing in America.
I listened intently, taking down notes in my head. I would be asked to give my sharing after the six panelists were done with their presentation, me as a member of that category, 'local writer.'
Below is what I said, my short spiel creating various reactions from some groups. I spoke from the heart--I did not read from any notes but spoke directly to the audience. Here is how I would remember what I said--although I know I would not remember exactly how I parsed them. The issues and meanings I wanted to drive at are reconstructed here. The provocation created by my extemporaneous talk is most welcome to open up the floodgates for a discussion on the mistakes--and prevailing mistakes--related to the concept of 'Philippine Literature', which, in reality, is an anomaly since it is plain and simple Tagalog literature and 'Filipino as National Language', which is, in reality, another anomaly, since it is Tagalog language with a token of 'manang' and 'manong' and a hodge-podge of other words the uninformed proponents pick up along the way. These are two anomalies that need to be addressed now and soon, with urgency, immediacy, and expediency.
I would like to speak from the heart. I am a writer, and I write in three languages: Ilokano, English, Tagalog (mark that I did not say Filipino, initially, because I believe that somewhere along the way, the whole nation, the whole Filipino people have been deceived by this idea that we now have Filipino, although the only proof that claimants can say is that they have a 'Tagalog-like/Tagalog-based language' that is called Pilipino, and now, because this is what is demanded by the opportunity to keep on with the opportunity to Tagalogize the Filipino mind, is now called, unfortunately, Filipino.)
When we speak about invisibility, I am wondering: What could be the invisibility of the Ilokano writer like?
What is that invisibility that is being experienced by the Fillipino American writer writing in English in America and who has been able to create a space for himself, or the opportunity has created a space for him?
What is that invisibility that is being experienced by the Tagalog writer in the Philippines and the abroad, with that writer having all the privileges and entitlements the Ilokano writer does not have?
I do not know. If we have a problem with these languages--or the literatures from these languages--the problem on the shoulder of the Ilokano writer in Hawai`i is far more than the one on the shoulders of these writers.
For the Ilokano writer to be affirmed, he has to write in Tagalog.
For the Ilokano writer to be affirmed, he has to write in English.
Now we have a triple problem for the Ilokano writer: for him to write, for him to write in Tagalog, and for him to write in English to be affirmed, to be accepted.
Considering that in the State of Hawai`i, from the census data of the Philippine Consulate, we have about 9 of 10 Filipinos here who trace their heritage from the Ilokos, from the Amianan. In short, we have here Ilokanos and Ilokano-speaking people whose voices have never been heard. We cannot hear them because they are made invisible, they are rendered invisible by so many social, linguistic, and cultural forces.
The playing field in Philippine American writing has never been level, has never been even, has never been equal.
When I was in California, I edited an Asian Pacific American newspaper. I decided to publish works in Ilokano and Tagalog by poets and essayists. Some liked the idea, as it showed the position of the newspaper in terms of affirming diversity and ethnic pride. But many did not like the idea as this made the paper 'too ethnic.' I held on to the celebration of diversity, and at the cost of losing readers and subscribers, I contintued to pubish ethnic materials, in Ilokano, in Tagalog, and in English, in a variety of topics and issues concerning the Asian Pacific American immigrants, with columnists from New Jersey, San Diego, Salt Lake, Hawaii, Manila, and Los Angeles. I wanted to zero in on the immigrant experience and celebrate that experience using the lens of diversity.
It is this diversity that concerns me now even as we speak of Filipino Literature and Philippine American Writing.
My concern stems from the invisibility of the Ilokano writer and other ethnic writers except Tagalog and English, with all the entitlements and privileges of these two forms of writing.
We do not have these entitlements and privileges in Ilokano writing, not even in this State with the majority of the population tracing their heritage in Ilokano , with a ratio of 9 of 10 Filipinos over here. In all of Philippine history in this State, the writing that we talk of is English writing by Filipinos and it is Tagalog writing by Filipinos sometimes called P/Filipino, ambivalence and ambiguities intact.
I dare say that the Ilokano writer writing in Ilokano has no voice in this State even if he is more than anyone else among the ehtnolinguistic groups coming from the Philippines.
No, his voice has been silent, has been silenced. And he has no space to speak except that space he creates for himself.
He can only talk to another Ilokano writer, and both he and the other are the only readers, are the only listeners. It is the same in the country where we come from; it is the same in this State, our destination State, and no better. How do we deny the voice of the majority of the Filipinos over here? What morals can we resort to to justify this continuing systemic rendering of the Ilokano writer and the Ilokano writer to that category which is not seen, not heard, not allowed to exist in the same way that the Tagalog writer and the English writer and Tagalog writing and English writing are allowed to exist?
I do not know, but like Ninotchka's phrase, the Ilokano writer will certainly continue to be a warrior on the road. He will continue to resist, claim and fight for his rights, and will continue to fight it out till kingdom come.
The prospects are not bright, but an enduring spirit is what is needed here, and a space reserved for the Ilokano writer so he can be permiited to language his pain, his struggle--so that he can learn again to speak, to have his own speech.
We have started this speech--and this will continue from hereon.
(Note: This extemporaneous talk provoked reactions from predictable sectors and individuals. It probably is going around town now, but I will continue to stand my ground. Some ugly truths must be said, verbalized, and worded in an effort to transform this ugly reality that is killing all Ilokanos in the Philippines and in the diaspora. Two languages continue to kill our sensitivities and senbilities, and unless we did something creatively and with understanding, we will end up mouthing our understanding of ourselves in the language of our neocolonizers. That, I think, will inaugurate our death as an ethnolinguistic group.)