CREATIVE RE(EN)VISIONING AND THE REDEMPTION
OF ILOKANO LITERATURE FROM THE MEDIOCRITY OF THE PRESENT
By Aurelio Solver Agcaoili, PhD
President, Nakem Conferences International
Program Coordinator, UH Ilokano Language and Literature
Editor in Chief, Fil-Am Observer
Talk prepared for the 2009 Strategic Planning Seminar, GUMIL La Union, National College of Science and Technology, San Fernando, La Union, July 4, 2009
Please allow me to start by first thanking Ms. Djuna Alcantara, your most able leader, for this kind invitation.
This is my second time to come to your organization’s gathering, the first at the launching of your creative writing program in Ilokano in tandem with your province’s state university some two years ago.
I have written elsewhere of my congratulations for your leader’s innovative skills and linkage capability.
No one has done what Djuna has done—not in light of the pathologic mediocrity we all have caught on after the gradual passing of the greatest minds of our Ilokano literature. Our current case is worse than the swine flu, as many of us have not only caught on the AH1N1 but have allowed ourselves to go down the level of the swine.
This is most unfortunate, sad to say.
And at this time that in our globalized and irrationally ‘nationalized’ lives, with but Tagalog and English linguistic and cultural values dominating our everyday lives, we have been pushed more and more at the margins, more peripheralized than before, more rendered somebody else because we want to look at the world with the eyes of the English-speaking people and the Tagalog-speaking people but never with the eyes of our own people.
It is for this reason that I wish to express my sense of envy, what, among Ilokanos we would call “apal a nasayaat”.
This “apal a nasayaat” asks questions at the same time: How come that when God showered graces and wisdom and blessing and humility, you at GUMIL La Union were all so awake you almost got all of these while the rest of them, writers real and not-so, have been left with the crumbs?
A, mabatikami laeng nga umap-apal.
You are counting your books while them the braggarts and self-aggrandizers—organizations and individuals alike—have yet to prove that they know how to publish for the world to see and for us to finally scrutinize and tell them to their faces that, well, they can write pulp and graffiti.
While you keep on churning out books, some other groups are left with their own wicked devices and can only publish stodgy columns about how to make calamansi juice or about some inane events in some faraway island, the columns not meant to educate really but to self-aggrandize and make the columnists grow more and more bloated with their sense of self, bloated with their irrational ambitions and hyper-inflated egos.
We can rattle off great names of our golden years, of course, and we can only have fear in our hearts for the kind of intellectual and creative abilities they exhibited in those golden days that we have succeeded in turning into some form of perpetually fuzzy days marked by an endless appearance in the dark skies of Ilokano Literature of some kind of a “cloud of unknowing”, to borrow a religious metaphor for the kind of doubts and uncertainty we have at this time.
For today, we certainly need to ask: Where is the new Marcelino Foronda among us?
Where is the new David Campaniano?
And where is the new Leopoldo Yabes?
Certainly none can even come close to him and his achievements.
And where is Alejandrino Hufana among us at this time?
None too. He is absent, certainly not among us, certainly not in our midst.
What we have at this time are some mediocre Pedro Bucaneg Awardees whose claim to such a dubious honor is as dubious as the circumstances of their having been given the honor, circumstances that certainly the GUMIL Filipinas, an organization that has dominated the writing life and dreams of virtually every Ilokano writer, whether real or pretender, through the years.
What we have at this time are some Leona Florentino Awardees—some even do not have any single book to show—whose claim to such a dubious honor is as equally dubious as the circumstances of their having been in the right places and the right sponsors and right connections and the right time even when they do not have the right credentials. Some do not have the body of work to show in order to prove that they are worthy of the recognition given them by GUMIL Filipinas.
The bringing to the academe of the public discourse of Ilokano creative writing is one way we can guarantee that the public nature of the kind of public discourse that we are duty-bound to create as creative writers, and thus, by extension, cultural workers, will be assured.
This public duty is what we create for, with and in the name of our people.
We want this to remain “public” and not arrogated personally, privately, and in patriarchal way by those who have a “stranglehold” over us.
We must remember now: Ilokano creative writing is a collective action that belongs more appropriately to the public sphere even if the stakeholders are also individual writers.
The irony of every act of writing is that while the act is individual, the result is always public as the written—anything written—belongs to the public, to the community, to the collective, and thus, to the future as well.
Your organization’s move, thus, to lay bare the processes and procedures of your planning for the present and the future by being informed by the lessons of the past is not only laudable but is, in fact, the right thing to do.
This opening up of your doors to exchanges—this allowing of minds to come into an interaction with each other—these, truly, are the hallmarks of democracy in creative writing that is truly engaged with truth and meaning.
For truly, when a writer’s organization only engages in a talk that is self-serving, when that writer’s organization—as is the case of one I know, has declared, by the words of its shallow and mindless president that “uray bassitkami ngem nalalaingkami amin” to refer to her organization’s penchant for self-aggrandizement and proverbial pluffing of their member’s feathers (Daproza 2008; Saludes 2008)—then that is the time that we need to begin to sit up and say the word that truly, truly, something is wrong here, that something is truly wrong with the present production and reception practices of Ilokano Literature.
Because this penchant for self-aggrandizement is not only pathologic of insecurity, personal and organizational, but is also symptomatic of a defense mechanism whose intent is truly to hide that which is inane, shallow, and mindless.
The failure of an organization to let in other talks in order to inaugurate a genuine conversation—the failure to wait for the others to compliment your good deeds by preempting the public with your self-pronouncements of your own imagined greatness—is truly an organizational failure that does not require strategic planning any more.
I have come to know that part of the key concerns you will take up at this present gathering is the formation of some plausible strategic plan for your organization—a crucial work, indeed, a work which not many creative writers would understand as this applies to the ‘hard’ side of organizing work, that hard side essentially questioning the issues about linkage, resources, vision, mission, and goals that are not only smart but smarter.
Long have I stopped talking about SMART goals that refer back to how we translate into action what reality we want changed in our vision, and how we arrive at that kind of change we dream of through our mission.
I have come to speak to you of a different set of goals I call SMARTER: specific, because we know exactly what we want done; measurable, because we know that we have to produce and that we want to see the results after some time; acceptable to those people like you who will work hard to realize them; realistic as they are grounded in what you can do; timely as they respond to the opportunities opened up for you; extending and enhancing of the capabilities of your members and those who work hard to realize your organization’s purposes; and rewarding for those who will make it sure that at the end of the day, you all can sleep the sleep of the just because you have done your work to make it certain that Ilokano Literature will not go the route to extinction as four of our original 175 Philippine literatures (via our Philippine languages) have done: the route to final extinction, with no capability of reviving. (Gordon 2005; see also: Ethnologue report on the Philippine languages, ethnologue.com, with an accompanying report on the four extinct languages: Agta Dacamay of Jones, Isabela; Agta Tayabas of Quezon; Agta Villa Viciosa of Abra; and Katabaga of the Bondoc Peninsula.)
For many writers in any language not challenged by the demand of putting food on the table—and even among Ilokano writers who pretend that having their names published on the pages of magazines or newspapers and nothing more is more than sufficient to make them live good and bountiful lives—this road to extinction might not pose a problem.
There is this popular statement—not necessarily valid, this one—even among the young today about having your name printed on the page in order for your existence to get legitimation, and thus, validation—and that validation is more than enough to make your day whether the rice on the bin is still there or not.
It amounts to this: Basta mai-Bannawag. (For as long as it is published in the Bannawag.)
Or during the heyday of the conjugal dictatorship: Nai-Bannawag kadin? (Has it been published in Bannawag?)
Such a view of creative writing—or writing in general—is at best uselessly romantic and absurd, hollow and counter-productive as it does not recognize the producer of the work with flesh and blood, the producer who needs to eat in order to survive, the producer who needs to translate the abstraction of truth into something that is graspable, concrete, day-to-day, everyday.
Such a view of Ilokano creative writing—or Ilokano writing in general—is at best a form of self-flattery for those who can write a stodgy column but confuse their column pieces with the timeless and ennobling literary piece, that piece that can touch our soul forever, that piece, that while it is of the everyday, is also of and for all time; that piece, that while it is about ‘the here and now’, it is also about ‘the everywhere and the nowhere and the eternal’ as is the case of every masterpiece.
1.0 Looking Again at the Pathologic
There are three concepts that I wish to zero in on in this tactical and strategic exchange I am privileged to have with you at present:
[a] The creative (re)envisioning needed to push on ahead a reality that Ilokano Literature will attain its rightful place in the pantheon of human letters;
[b] The redemption of Ilokano literature from its sins of commission and omission and from its learned silence in the face of abuses, atrocities, brutalities, social injustices, tyranny, totalitarianism, dictatorship, and barbarism, and
[c] The mediocrity that characterizes Ilokano Literature at present, and hence, the urgency of this mediocrity to be turned into a eureka moment—a moment of metanoia, a moment of examination of its social conscience, a moment of critical self-reflection so that in the end, it comes to a fuller understanding of its conversion to truth, meaning, commitment to social justice and cultural democracy, and engagement to an education to liberation and to a pluralist form of life.
All these three—creative re-envisioning, the search for self-redemption, and the search for excellence to combat its mediocrity—these are what Ilokano Literature strategically has need to plan for at this time.
This simply means that any act of strategic planning for Ilokano Literature can only be had with meaning if such kind of a planning looks broadly at these three crucial things.
Failing to address all these can only spell death, extinction, and utter uselessness.
We will see why: these three things are the clues to the pathological in Ilokano Literature.
If by pathology we mean that trope to make us sit up and figure out something is wrong somewhere in the condition of something, if by pathology we mean that metaphor to lead us to account the metaphor of sickness, if by pathology we mean that set of conditions that reveal to us the otherwise tacit and the hidden so that by the power of that revelation we can get to know, then, these things tell us that there is something utterly wrong in Ilokano Literature right now.
One, Ilokano Literature lacks a coherent vision.
What new reality we wish to have?
What new things we would like to see?
Where do we go from this current state of affairs?
Do we have something cogent to start with in that move from what we have got at this time to what we want to get some time in the future?
My answer to this set of questions is: No, we have got nothing.
What we have got are sporadic bursts of energies from some individuals and some self-aggrandizing “international conferences” from incoherent “writers groups” or what passes for one even if these groups’ members or the majority of them, including their Leona Florentino Awardees, cannot even distinguish what a good Ilokano syntax from a bad one.
One posting reported to me by the novelist Terry Gabriel Tugade from Iluko.com speaks of an unconscionable ignorance of a Leona Florentino awardee of the syntax, semantics, and accepted contemporary orthography of the Ilokano language.
Ask Tugade, one of the pillars of better Ilokano writing in the 60s, and he will tell of his abhorrence to the claims of excellence to Ilokano writing by many of our organizational “leaders” who do not know “leadership” and that kind of “envisioning” that should go with it except as a popular cultural performance meant to generate sound-bytes and media coverage and increase the ratings game we see most of the time in annual national conventions that are becoming more and more pulp and a spectacle of patriarchal power each year.
We realize too soon that some members of these groups are unable to distinguish between what a seminar is, what a forum is, what a convention is, and what a conference is, much less an international one, unable to see the distinction between the kind of discourse being generated in an intellectual exercise such as a conference, much more in an international conference.
These people are pathetic: their pathological condition of years of self-lies makes them so.
We realize that these writers or pretenders have gone through years of self-deception that includes that misplaced self-knowledge that they, as individuals and as groups, the best of the lot, that self-knowledge essentially redounding to a misplaced feeling of self-importance.
Two, the need for Ilokano Literature for self-redemption—and this need is not only a conditio sine qua non to an imagined future but an ingredient for the very survival of the Ilokano nation.
Simply put: even if we can trace a certain rudimentary written form of Ilokano Literature by way of the 1621/1622 account of the Doctrina Christiana in Ilokano, it would take almost three hundred years, up to the late 19th century, for an honest-to-goodness written form of Ilokano Literature to come by.
And yet, with these honest beginnings of such forms in the late 19th century, what we have got are Ilokano writings with their fuzzy claims to feudal values and religious truths that are all linked to a syndicate based on a parasitical tutelage between a colonizer and the colonized.
We must understand: that we all are inheritors of a literature that is mired in so much of the same, in what the poet Prescillano Bermudez called ‘sumilasu’: “isu met laeng nga isu nga aso” (or the same dog).
We are mired in the same means and methods of producing the same literature over and over again and we are not moving away from that same “sumilasu” way of doing things.
Pray, tell me, when did we ever have any conscious act of changing the way we write our short stories?
Do we have any conscious act of defining and redefining our aesthetic experiences or expressing those experiences in a literate and literary language since the 60s when in the years in that decade, there was a certain outburst of color in the way the younger writers then experimented with that we could term now as ‘artistic vision’?
In that decade, for instance, Tugade in “Puraw a Balitok” (White Gold) has antedated a certain sense of the diasporic in his long narrative of the personal and thus, political, struggle of a certain Alvaro Cortez. And to think that the novel is set in a place he has never seen is something that makes us wonder of the surprising power of human imagination.
Do we write new poetry, as we should? No!
With the exception of the works of younger writers such as Roy Aragon, Daniel Nesperos, Joel Manuel, Prodie Gar. Padios, Abril Varilla, George Pagulayan, and Ariel Tabag, to name some of those whose works we will continue to plumb in the future, Ilokano poetry has remained the preserve of Jurassic-like view of verse and stanza, and the current language remaining bland and unimaginative as in the old language you cannot be transported to another country, another terrain, another experience.
Do we need the voices of younger poets? Definitely.
Do we need a new language for Ilokano poetry? Certainly, we do need one, and this need is urgent.
Three, the need to get past the mediocre.
What has become of our literature thus, since the last century is a continuing narrative of the mediocre.
We think of world literature as a stage to show our capability as a people.
And yet we think in terms of a village, a barrio, and a dead-end of an alleyway.
We think of universals.
And yet we think of Don Corleone, the Mafiosi-lord and master in terms of privileges and perks so that when we write, so that when we build our alliances, we only think in terms of how much benefit we get from this Mafiosi of a guy or his ilk if we kiss his feet to death.
If this is not a literature based on an “I-scratch-your-back-and-you-scratch-my-back” tactic, I do not know what to call this.
If this is not a literature that is not based on a narrow and miserable notion of a tribe, I do not know what it is.
Whoever has brought our literature on the world stage?
You count your fingers.
And even those who can flaunt their Pedro Bucaneg or Leona Florentino for the world to see, their minds have remained parochial, provincial, and patriarchal, each one heaping phony praises on each other for everybody to hear.
You think of a tribe—but you need to think of a mutual admiration club as well.
It is exclusion, a principle honored only by gangsters and syndicates and bullies.
2.0 Quo Vadis?
Where do we go from here?
That is the famous question at Damascus when one man met the Redeemer and that man asked the question that was—and still is—most difficult to ask, Where are we going?
Where, indeed, is Ilokano Literature going?
My simple answer is this: If we are not going to be bold with our answers, if we are not going to be courageous with our tactics, if we are not going to be daring with our strategic planning that includes a new of vision, a new way of stating our mission, and fresh ways of drawing up our SMARTER goals, then, indeed we can honestly say: We are going to the dogs.
To be frank about it: we have gone to the swine.
When we allowed dishonest and self-aggrandizing men and women to dominate that public sphere part of Ilokano Literature and when we permitted them to rule over us, we have commenced our going to the swine.
For how can public discourse be possible when we let loose the power of a syndicate, with its power, for instance, for debasement with impunity?
For how can a conversation be possible when only the words of the patriarchs are being held to account even their basest of their lies—with the rest of us simple but decent writers remaining both silenced and silent?
How can we expect a literature to survive when it cannot even afford to have an examination of conscience?
How can we expect a literature to thrive when respectable writers cower in fear before shallow patriarchs?
How can we expect a literature to have a future when many of our leaders adopt the attitude that “God will take care of the rest in the face of abuses, injustices, and excess” of some writers and pretenders?
Of the older writers today, how many are capable of saying the word—that word—about social justice and against all forms of injustice with boldness and daring?
Against the abuse of power?
Against cultural tyranny?
Against linguistic injustice?
Against the power of the center?
Against the hegemonic hold of Manila and its agents of hegemonic culture?
Against attempts at the imposition of dictatorship of any form?
Of the older writers today, how many have the guts and the gumption to even admit that, yes, during the time of the dictatorship, they played games with the powerful, and by virtue of that power, they allowed Ilokano Literature to be at the service of that Power of the Absolute and the Absoluteness of that Power however tentative and fragile that was?
Of the younger writers, how many have discovered the way to creativity and courage?
Of the younger writers, how many struggled to find their voice, and in finding that voice, preferred to stand away from the debilitating power of the patriarchy?
Certainly, if there is going to be a honest-to-goodness strategic planning that should come by in any organization dedicated to the promotion, perpetuation, and production of Ilokano Literature, it should be one that is based on honest answers to this set of questions.
Certainly, when Ilokano Literature shall have become one of the vehicles for a liberatory form of education—for an education to democracy and social justice, then and only then can we say that our literature has been true to its vision, mission, and goal.
Without that as a measure, any claim is simply kaput. In that way, Ilokano Literature should instead go kaput.
Or it can rise and redeem itself once more and become our glorious institution that will guarantee our thriving forever.
Gordon, Raymond, Jr. 2005. Ethnologue. Languages of the World, 15th ed. Dallas, TX:
Daproza, Brigido. 2008. Eyewitness account of presentations by GUMIL organizations of their own respective organization at the 2007 GUMIL Filipinas Conference held in the Ilocos as corroborated by Pacita Cabulera Saludes. Daproza at that time was president of GUMIL Hawai’i.
Saludes, Pacita Cabulera. 2008. Eyewitness account of the Daproza narrative of the 2007 GUMIL Filipinas annual convention.