11 December 2005

Philippine PEN in Iloilo City

The Philippine Center of International PEN held its National Conference last Saturday at the University of San Agustin in Iloilo City on the theme, “Mapping Our Multilingual Literatures.” SM and the University of San Agustin were the major sponsors.

In his opening remarks, PEN Chair and National Artist Alejandro Roces stressed the need to remember our history, if we are going to move forward.

In his keynote speech, Carlos Palanca Hall of Famer and Metrobank Outstanding Educator Leoncio P. Deriada said it plainly and directly: “The greatest evil in the Philippine educational system is the use of English as the language of instruction in the classroom. The greatness of the Filipino is preserved in the various languages of the country.”

Calling the continued use of English as “cultural genocide,” he urged writers and teachers to master their own language before they master another’s. “We must teach in the language of the learner,” he urged. Incidentally, Deriada is the only writer in the Philippines (probably in the world) who has won major writing awards in four languages (one of which is English).

During the first literary session on “The S in Philippine Literatures: State of the Literary Art in the Center of the Philippines,” Erlinda Alburo of the University of San Carlos in Cebu City then reported on several projects (such as the compilation of a language corpus, writing workshops for farmers, and literary publications) done by various Cebuano writers’ organizations.

John Iremil Teodoro of the University of San Agustin deplored the continued dominance of judges illiterate in languages other than Tagalog or English choosing the National Artists. He cited the case of Magdalena Jalandoni, who was not declared a National Artist a few years ago only because the judges had not read her work. Teodoro pointed out that Jalandoni wrote 36 novels and Ramon Muzones wrote 61, while even National Artists in English have not written that many.

Regina Groyon of the University of Saint La Salle in Bacolod City acknowledged the influence on her life of Bienvenido Lumbera, who urged her to research on literature from her own region. She urged young writers to read the old writers in Hiligaynon, in order to heal the generational breach in our literary tradition.

A lively discussion followed, focusing on the role of writing workshops (virtual and real) in developing young writers in the various vernacular languages.

Summarizing the first session, Malou Leviste Jacob of De La Salle University Manila assured the audience that PEN would take steps to ensure that all literary languages will be given due recognition by national award-giving bodies.

In the second literary session on “Mainstreaming the Marginalized: Preserving, Promoting, and Developing Visayan Literatures,” Victor Sugbo of UP Tacloban urged DepEd and CHED to strengthen the study of local languages and literatures in the curriculum.

Melanie J. Padilla of UP Visayas reported on the extensive collections of the university of materials written in Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a, and Aklanon.

Isidoro Cruz of the University of San Agustin questioned the word literatures as perpetuating what it attempts to challenge. He instead proposed using the old term literature to refer to any and all works written in the country.

Merlie M. Alunan of UP Tacloban stressed the need to have more literary texts available to the general public, particularly to college students.

Joefe B. Santarita of UP Visayas pointed out that, even within Western Visayas, some literary texts are marginalized – thus forming a double bind. He found “Iloilo imperialism” as unacceptable as “Manila imperialism.” He mentioned various prolific writers (fisherfolk, farmers, or otherwise non-academic) not recognized by most scholars.

The lively discussion that followed focused on the need to decolonize our own minds.

Summing up the second literary session, Frank G. Rivera pointed out that, since West Visayan literary texts have many readers, the mainstream is really West Visayan and everybody else is “marginalized.”

In the third literary session on “Reaching In, Reaching Out: Translating Our Texts into the Languages of the Global Village,” Genevieve Asenjo of De La Salle University Manila related how, in the course of her traveling around the country, she discovered that Philippine languages are very similar to each other. She also recommended that foreign students be required to study at least one Philippine vernacular language.

Amorita C. Rabuco of the University of San Agustin related her difficulties and joys translating several poems, legends, and folktales from Hiligaynon into English.

Palanca Hall of Famer Elsa Martinez Coscolluela of the University of Saint La Salle pointed out that, based on her own experience, speaking a language is very different from writing in it. She herself, speaking in Spanish, Chinese, English, and Cebuano in her childhood, could only write in English and Filipino.

The discussion that followed was extremely lively, particularly because a student stood up to say that literature was boring.

Summing up the session, Marjorie Evasco quoted Jorge Luis Borges’ concept of a literary work as forever unfinished and described translation as a way a literary text moves from culture to culture.

In the year’s Jose Rizal Lecture, Agustin Misola (who writes in Hiligaynon, Spanish, and English) spoke of his encounters with Rizal, both the Rizal of matchboxes and the Rizal of the novels.

The conference was distinguished by its use of several languages. Speakers spoke in the language they knew best (Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a, Aklanon, Waray, Tagalog, Filipino, or English). Interestingly enough, everybody understood each other. That proves that differences in speaking disappear when confronted with commonalities in writing.

The next Philippine PEN conference (on Dec. 2, 2006) will be held in Vigan, Ilocos Sur. All writers are invited. It’s not too early to plan. (The Philippine Star, 8 December 2005)