Why Leoncio Deriada Should be National Artist

(Appeared on Davao Today 10 September 2017)

Last week I wrote a review here of Leoncio Deriada’s novel, “People on Claveria Street.” With the nomination process underway, readers will forgive me if I will be a fanboy again this week as I push for the man’s declaration as National Artist for Literature.

To those who don’t know, Leoncio Deriada is a prolific writer of fiction, drama, essays, and poetry, writing in English, Tagalog, Hiligaynon, Kinaray-a, and Cebuano. He has won the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Award – the Philippines’ version of the Pulitzer prize – so many times that he has been named a Hall of Famer (and he holds the distinction of winning it in the most number of languages). He is also an influential literary activist, organizing lectures and workshops for the past few decades.

The Order of National Artists is the highest honor the Republic of the Philipines can grant to any artist, a recognition of a lifetime of relevant work promoting the country’s arts and contributing to national consciousness. National Artists are named for music, dance, literature, theater, film, visual arts, and architecture.

And these are the reasons why I think Deriada should long have been named National Artist for Literature.

1. He’s a great writer. The awards should be indication enough that Leoncio Deriada doesn’t just join contests a lot, he wins them a lot. Deriada’s fiction manages to strike that difficult balance between good writing and gravitas of theme (far too often, well-written stories are shallow, while socially relevant ones are boring). Deriada’s plots are clever and original (just read stories like ‘Dam’ and ‘The Hunt’), and his language is easy and accessible but often throws out startlingly fresh phrases (I and my girlfriend Nal love how he describes one character’s crossed eyes as ‘a facial calamity’). But at the same time they deal in an insightful manner with some very serious realities: the urban-rural divide in Mindanao, landgrabbing of tribal ancestral domain, the horrors of the war in the countryside, the dehumanizing impact of modernity.

2. He’s the local writer par excellence. The bulk of Deriada’s fiction is set in Davao, with the rest set in his ancestral home of Panay. One of my first exposures to literature set in a locale familiar to me was his work (I started my college life devouring the Ateneo de Davao’s copy of his short story collection “Week of the Whales”). Deriada represents best the power of literature to elevate the local into the realm of creative imagination: the lingering horrors of war in Guerrero Street, the deep knowledge of life among frontier settlers in Mawab, the clash of classes in Artiaga.

3. He created the literatures of two Philippine languages. Deriada has been nicknamed ‘Father of Western Visayan Literature.’ But as grand as that moniker sounds, it doesn’t fully capture the monumental achievement of this man in Philippine literature. Before Deriada, Akeanon (the language of Aklan) and Kinaray-a (the language of Antique) did not have literary traditions. This was largely because these two languages were treated as inferior to the local lingua franca Hiligaynon – which in turn was considered inferior compared to Tagalog and English. In a span of a few decades, Deriada went about looking for young writers who speak these languages, and mentored them to write in their mother tongues. These young writers have gone on to achieve international recognition (“Kinaray-a is now an international literary language,” as Isagani Cruz put it). No other Filipino writer can claim to have started the tradition of one language, and Deriada single-handedly did it with two. In a country where only English and Tagalog are considered prestigious languages, Deriada managed to convince government agencies to give grants to writers in languages which have long been marginalized twice over.

4. We need a regional writer as National Artist. The Order of National Artists fails ridiculously to represent the diversity of Philippine cultures. The rostrum of National Artists for Literature in particular is the crowning institution of Tagalog Imperialism: of the twelve awarded National Artists since the honour was first granted, only one, Edith Tiempo of Dumaguete, is not from the Tagalog area (although she ultimately comes from Luzon). And all awardees were or are writers in either English or Tagalog. Deriada is uniquely positioned to address this gross cultural injustice, being prolific in the most number of languages among the country’s many literary figures. Seriously, the Order of National Artists needs him amongst its ranks to fully deserve the label ‘national.’

5. A Dabawenyo President deserves a Dabawenyo National Artist. Digong’s election as President threw all your Manila imperialist expectations of what is likely in the Philippine halls of power out of the window. There is no better time to name a regional writer and regional literature advocate to the National rostrum of artists than now. And what better way to fulfill this timeliness but with a writer who hails from the same frontier town as our hillbilly president?

 

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