Linguistic confluence and diversity as dissidence

(written from a panel discussion on Regional versus National and Global Literature, during ‘Against the Grain,’ the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators Conference 2015 in Manila. I could only dream I had put it this articulately, it was supposed to be an informal panel discussion. The panel was with my literary idol Steven Fernandez, Christine Godinez Ortega, Roger Garcia, and Vic Sugbo, with Jeena Rani Marquez as moderator)

Before I begin with my discussion, I think it best to describe my background. Mindanao, where I come from, is very linguistically diverse, composing of three main language groupings: the migrant settlers from Luzon and Visayas who speak the many languages up North; the various Islamized Moro tribes, who each speak distinct but related languages; and the indigenous lumad tribes who are among themselves also quite diverse.

But even among the migrant settlers – who are mostly Christian – there is a great degree of diversity. You have Tagalogs, Cebuanos, Ilocanos, Ilonggos, and many other ethnicities, often in the same neighbourhood and often intermarrying.

Such a situation naturally exposes those born in Mindanao to many languages, and it would not be unusual for a Mindanawon to be able to speak more than one language.
I’m from the town of Kidapawan in North Cotabato, where many migrant families came in successive waves from the North.I come from one of these settler families, with Tagalog, Ilocano, and Boholano roots, and while my family has been in Mindanao for four generations already, we have always spoken Tagalog at home. And yet I had neighbours who were Cebuano, Hiligaynon, Bicolano, Batanggeno (when our Hiligaynon and Batanggeno neighbours would quarrel, it would be an amusing battle of inflections). If my father had taught me Ilocano I would have been even more of a polyglot.

This linguistic diversity has its difficulties. Many migrants I know are linguistically – and ultimately ethnically – liminal, uncertain about their mother tongue and their sense of belonging. We are neither natives to the place we call home nor are we children of our ethnicities’ homelands. The tongue we speak at home, even if definite, is invariably influenced by the other languages spoken in our locale.
Many young writers struggle with this linguistic turmoil, and the solution most take is to go for purity, to return to their ethnic roots (to choose one, for those of mixed heritage) and ‘exorcise’ their native language of any purities. As such we get very good writers in Tagalog, in Cebuano, in Hiligaynon, or in Waray down in Mindanao. Some evade the linguistic liminality altogether and opt to write in English.

I am one of the few writers I know who has actually embraced the linguistic diversity as my roots. I write in Tagalog, but the Tagalog I use in writing is what I – and many Midnanao, particularly Davao and Kidapawan-based Tagalogs – use in daily life: influenced by Cebuano and, to a lesser extent, Hiligaynon. I call it Davao Filipino, and I have since written and published fiction, drama, and occasionally poetry in it.
The medium opens up possibilities. For one thing, it broadens my lexicon. There are concepts that have no words in Tagalog but are in Cebuano, and because my Tagalog has free access to the Cebuano language I can freely and naturally borrow these terms. It also makes my writing truer to its locale – it wouldn’t be very realistic for a jeepney passenger in Davao to speak Manila Tagalog.

But it also has its challenges. I was aghast to encounter one local teacher who rather bluntly told me that ‘my language was wrong.’ To be told that one’s mother tongue was wrong hurt in a distinct way, I must say. It did not help that the teacher was not of Tagalog ethnicity, and to be told that my language was wrong when I was ethnically Tagalog questioned my very authenticity.

Good thing I had already resolved my identity issues. The remark instead led me to realize that there is a pervading culture of purism in the academe, particularly in the far flung corners of the education system. Education in the Philippines is organized top-down, and this occurs vis-à-vis what is rightly described as ‘Manila Imperialism,’ or the Tagalog areas’ imposition of its language – and ultimately its culture, on the rest of the country. In the native regions it is simply encroachment, but in Mindanao it manifests itself with purism that denies the Mindanawon of his or her locale’s rich linguistic diversity.

This is coupled rather disastrously with – and I think the terminology will only be bluntly appropriate – a sense of puritanical prudishness, the insistence on moralizing (Catholicizing, mostly) everything, an unproductive conservatism. After Butch Dalisay’s keynote speech yesterday morning Merlinda Bobis speculated that it is in the regions and in the regional languages where subversion and dissent are taking place. She could not be more mistaken: our regions are deplorably backward-thinking.
Many schools in the regions actually monitor the language and content of their student publications, stifling the students’ freedom of expression and beginning a vicious cycle of censorship across the generations: these students in turn will grow up thinking that they must stifle any opinion (or medium) they find unconventional. Censorship in the country then is, true enough, not official, but it is all the more systematic – and brutal – because it is social, beginning in our schools, where ironically freedom of expression is most needed.

This all complicates the Mindanawon attempt to explore and define his or her linguistic and ethnic identity, which needs experimentation and a lot of transgressions. How can you begin carving out an identity from wilderness when you have an education system breathing in your neck, insisting you be purely Tagalog, or purely Cebuano, or whatnot. Hybridity is unconventional, and therefore to the old hags objectionable.

Strangely enough then, in Mindanao identity, creation in the form of embracing linguistic confluence and diversity, is a form of dissent. To define the self as a hybrid is to rebel against the imposed purism.

On a more practical level, there is great difficulty in publishing in Davao Filipino. My variety of Tagalog is very localized, and yet because my locale has limited publishing venues, I can hardly see print. The fact that Manila enjoys a hegemony in publishing is one of the factors to blame for this. And I doubt I could try my luck there, where the purism of Tagalog is insisted.

All this while, many young Mindanawon writers enjoy thousands of local readers with stories in standard Tagalog (or Taglish) on Wattpad. This is unfortunate – for me of course because I could only dream of thousands of readers – but also for the locales from whence these young writers are writing. They could be telling Mindanawon stories in Mindanawon languages – articulating Mindanawon identities – but they’re writing about love stories set in Korea written in Taglish. If Mindanawons won’t write about Mindanao, who will?

A sense of unproductive conservatism, of puritanical prudishness, enforced by a Tagalog hegemony, has taken its toll on the young Mindanawon imagination, but embracing regional divergence and diversity is – and will hopefully continue to be – a productive form of dissidence.


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