Thursday, August 23, 2012

“Will Magdalena Jalandoni Ever Be a National Artist?”

Building the National

Penman for Monday, February 15, 2010

I’M IN Cebu as I write this, attending the second edition of Taboan, the Philippine International Writers Festival which was first held in Manila at about this same time last year, February being National Arts Month. Taboan will be making the rounds of the regions from year to year before returning to Manila, so this moveable feast (poet and NCCA commissioner Ricky de Ungria beat me to the metaphor) will see many places yet. The Arts Council of Cebu under the very gracious festival director Mayen Tan and presidenta Petite Garcia is in charge of Taboan ’10, a project of the Committee on Literary Arts of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

The festival got off to a lively start with a keynote speech by Cebu’s own Dr. Resil Mojares—a formidable, internationally recognized scholar of Philippine literature, history, and society—who chose a deliberately provocative subject and title for his talk: “Will Magdalena Jalandoni Ever Be a National Artist?”

For those who don’t know Jalandoni (and—perhaps to prove Resil’s point—99.99 percent of us don’t), the Iloilo-born Jalandoni (1891-1978) was a prolific writer in Hiligaynon of fiction, poems, and plays, her novels alone totaling an astounding 36.

Resil made it clear that he wasn’t making a brief for Jalandoni’s selection as a National Artist; with typical scholarly modesty, he said that he simply didn’t know her work well enough to make that judgment. Rather, he was using Jalandoni’s case to draw attention to the gross disadvantage at which Filipino writers working in languages other than English and Filipino lie, particularly when it comes to recognition on a national or international level.

While they may have achieved much in their own literature in, say, Cebuano, Bikol, or Hiligaynon, they remain obscure elsewhere, because their work has been little translated, little critically reviewed, and therefore little seriously considered for national or international awards. Jalandoni is hardly alone in this predicament; the Philippine literary landscape is littered with the skeletons of mute inglorious Miltons whom most Filipinos will have never heard of, much less read.

Critiquing the NA selection process—of which he himself was occasionally a part, one of the expert “peers” who sift through the nominees at the first level—Mojares noted that “In the discussion of the nominees of Jalandoni last year, all the 10 or 12 members of the ‘Council of Experts’ (except perhaps for one or two) had not read Jalandoni’s works, either due to language, unavailability of texts or translations, or simply because Jalandoni did not fall within their area of expertise. This has been the problem in the three or four times in which she was nominated.

“This is abetted by a procedural constraint. Because of confidentiality rules, members of the Council of Experts know who the candidates are only on the day of deliberation itself. Hence, they have no time to prepare for the deliberations by way of reading, research, or consultations with those knowledgeable about particular candidates. Although brief research reports are prepared by the Secretariat for reference by Council members, these reports are made available only on the day of the deliberation and are not of much help.”

Again, Resil was really much less concerned about awards than by the inequality (and, therefore, the injustice) of popular perceptions. “The politics of national recognition” he went on to say, “is such that it matters where you are read, in what language, and by whom. Someone who publishes in Hiligaynon (or Cebuano, Waray, or Iluko) in a periodical with a circulation of 50,000 is a ‘regional writer.’ A writer in Manila who publishes a 500-copy of English poems is a ‘national writer.’” (Interestingly enough, we’re holding our sessions at the Casino Español de Cebu, a social and architectural tribute to a language we’ve almost entirely lost, literarily.)

The marginalization of writing from the regions has been a long-festering sore in the body of Philippine cultural politics, and Taboan’s discussions following Resil’s speech revived some of those familiar issues. To the Antique-born poet and playwright John Iremil Teodoro, the common practice of denoting any writing outside Manila as “regional” literature merely reinforced “Manila-centrism,” according, by implication, a superior quality to products coming out of the capital. However, to Carlo Arejola from Bicol, the regional badge was a challenge rather than a hindrance. “You don’t need to look to Manila for approval or affirmation,” Carlo said. “You can create a readership among yourselves. We created our own awards, our own workshop.” Indeed, as other delegates and Resil himself echoed, the question to ask was “What can the regions do for themselves?”

I offered the opinion that, while some form of affirmative action or intervention may be required to level the playing field, there’s a point at which the national/regional or national/local dichotomy becomes patronizing and ultimately more destructive than constructive. It’s not as if a Cebuano writer can or will only think of Cebuano, and not national or global, ideas; one’s local roots and experiences may provide strong, unique material, but that’s still only raw material, yet to be refined. And the world out there couldn’t care less: it doesn’t see us as Tagalog, Iluko, or Bikol writers—we’re just all Filipino writers, period, and perhaps we should think as such.

Resil Mojares’ conclusion put it succinctly: “The greater challenge lies outside the awards. We need to address inequalities in conditions of literary and cultural production by investing more heavily (by the regions themselves ad not just Manila) in more effective and strategic initiatives in scholarship, literary education, translation, publishing, dissemination, and promotion. We need to build the national in the National [Artist] Awards.”

I’ve always suspected that a great work will manifest that greatness in whatever language it’s written in or translated into. (Of course, you need to have that translation first.) Apparently, I’m not the only one who thinks so.

Clearly, before we can begin recognizing good and great Filipino writers from all parts of the country, we should lay the critical groundwork and first develop and support translators and critics who can give literary judges a fairer basis for their evaluations.

Curious about how the Nobel Prize committee in charge of literature managed to choose a laureate from hundreds of nominees writing in a dozen languages, I Googled the subject and discovered the following exchange at between Professor Horace Engdahl, Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, and a reader who sent in the same question I had in mind.

Question: Are Nobel Prizes in literature based on the assessment of the writings in its original language, translations, or both? If assessed in the original language, how does one remove nationalistic interests, if any, from the nomination process? Unlike physics, chemistry, etc., where the symbolism/equations/conventions are clearly agreed upon globally, I would imagine that language and its interpretation would pose an additional challenge.

Answer: Whenever possible, the Nobel committee and the Academy will read the works of the candidates in the original language. Obviously, we often have to rely on translations, but in those cases, we make an effort to read several versions of the same book, e.g. one French and one German translation. It is true that literature, unlike science, is rooted in a cultural code with language as its most important expression, but a great work of literature should have the power to reveal the universal meaning of local symbols and conventions.


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