The Filipino as literary artist

Alexander Villafania

PASIG CITY, METRO MANILA—In this modern age when people would rather read online than pick up a piece of literature, one might wonder if the published Filipino literati is going the way of the newspaper. Then again, I am but one of the many Filipinos who, for years, have failed to read scriptures from Filipino writers.

Conscripted to a life of grinding through days, my consumption of creative literature has taken a backseat. It is replaced by staggered doses of reading through social networks, YouTube video disasters, and a few downloaded comics. Sadly, few of these give any mental challenge, only reasons to gripe about the ravages of daily living.

Doubly ironic is the fact that I graduated with a degree in English literature, having speed-read through 800 years of Anglo-American lore (yes, I can still spit “ye Olde English” between my teeth while taking a nap).

Few realize that the tunnel vision of boredom can be broken if only a dose of creative writing is taken in. And even with our deep affinity to American culture, there is still a fair amount of good, if not amazing material made by our very own countrymen.

The Filipino literary community, suffice to say, maintains a healthy brood of creative writers. The website has perhaps the most extensive network of Filpino writers around, enlisting the names of the country’s National Artists for Literature. It also has a list of writers from the regions.

It was here that I discovered I had a distant relative, Santiago Villafania who wrote extensively about our home province of Pangasinan.

A particularly interesting anthology of Filipino literature is the Philippine Speculative Fiction series started by fictionist Dean Alfar. They are already in their fifth volume, which was just launched last April 24.

Institutions, such as the University of the PhilippinesUniversity of St. La Salle [not DLSU], University of San Carlos, and Silliman University also hold regular creative writing workshops for students. So does the National Commission For Culture and Arts, which also holds a few writing workshops.

The extent of the Philippines’ literary heritage can be mustered from the local awards that are offered to Filipino writers. The Philippine Free Press conducts one of the oldest literary awards in the country. Another is the prestigious Carlos Palanca Awards, which continues to harvest volumes of entries for its yearly activity, from budding to veteran writers.

In fact, some Palanca winners have gone to become renowned in the international scene. One such person is Miguel Syjuco, who won the Best Novel in English category in 2008 for his work “Ilustrado.” Syjuco has earned accolades for writing somewhat a hybrid fiction/non-fiction novel that featured a protagonist who has the same name as him.

Not surprisingly, even if there are good Filipino novelists, some already agree that there are getting fewer.

An interesting presentation by another Palanca awardee, Jose “Butch” Dalisay pointed out that the reason there are fewer novelists as primarily, it does not pay as much. While Western novelists get millions in advanced payments and royalties for their books the earnings of a Filipino novelist for one book, according to Dalisay, “won’t even be enough to buy you an iPhone, if and when all your royalties come in.”

Dalisay adds: “Unfortunately if also unfairly, no one will take us seriously on the global stage unless we announce ourselves with big, emphatic, memorable novels. It’s the hard fact of literature as a global industry.”

One might say that we’re trapped in the days of Jose Rizal’s “El Filibusterismo” and “Noli Me Tangere” (perhaps the only two Filipino novels that are generally familiar to most Filipinos) but that should not deter us from taking interest in a Filipino literary work and appreciate it.

Perhaps we should get off the Internet for a while and go back to reading a book. It’s an exercise in cultural appreciation, if not an exercise in using our imagination.

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