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?

 

Advertisements

‘People on Claveria Street’: A Review

(Appeared on Davao Today, 3 September 2017)

20170520_135554

People on Claveria Street, Leoncio Deriada’s second novel, is far from his best work of fiction. But it nevertheless demonstrates the value of this living literary legend to Davao and its people.

Set in Davao City just after the Second World War, the autobiographical novel chronicles Deriada’s first few months as a boy in the city where much of his fiction is set. His family has reunited after the War, having left their hometown of Dumangas, Iloilo to join his eldest brother Gener in Davao. Much of the novel features scenes from daily life in the house of the Pagunsans (distant relatives and family of Gener’s love interest Isang), where the Deriada children are made to live to study in the city. The house is located along Claveria Street, then a quiet bajo de campanilla neighbourhood with mangoes, mansanitas, and cheap theaters.

The novel is chronologically set shortly before Deriada’s first novel, People on Guerrero Street, and is intended as its prequel. But unlike his National Book Award winning debut novel, Claveria Street does not seem to have a coherent plot, and it could hardly be considered a novel. There are episodic story lines featuring young Leoncio’s student life in Ponciano elementary school, his supernatural encounter in San Pedro church, his involvement as go-between in the romance between Arnold Espejo and the opera singer Crescencia Pagunsan, his experience seeing elephants in Davao, and his missing his grade four final examination. But these experiences do not seem to be fully introspected on, their human implications not polished into revelation, and overall they do not form a coherent whole. The reader is left wondering what ultimately is the point of all these narrated experiences.

The avid reader of Deriada will find this novel falling short of expectations. There is none here of the cleverness in his stories like ‘The Hunt’ and ‘Phonepal at Padre Selga Street,’ the novelty in ‘Dam’ and ‘Pigpen,’ nor the subtle but profound gravitas of ‘The Road to Mawab’ and ‘Day of the Locusts.’

Which is not to say it is entirely without its merits, for there are many glimpses of Deriada at his best in this novel. The descriptions of his first encounter with the Durian, his impressions of Calinan, and his descriptions of the Ilonggo recipes are written with the signature simplicity with which Deriada portrays the wonders of his locale without exoticizing them. His subtle reaffirmation of the Catholic faith when he encounters reading materials from the Jehovah’s Witness shows how a skilled writer renders to concise but by no means diminished concreteness a complex and cerebral theme with imagery. Where the late novelist Antonio Enriquez would choose to violently romanticize ‘the Mindanao wasteland’ in the harrowing story of Bibang, Deriada instead chooses to show the human and domestic sympathy of his mother, reducing her incident to an isolated tragedy.

But at most points one gets the impression that much of the book is the linear but random reminiscing of an old man, Deriada merely recording his distant memories before he forgets them.

That is until one realizes the value of such reminiscing. For in spite of its shortcomings as a novel, People on Claveria Street offers a rare glimpse into Davao as it once was. To the Davao old blood, the novel is a nostalgic book that harks back to the smaller and more rural Davao of their or their parents’ past. To the more recent Dabawenyo, it defamiliarizes familiar corners of the city by showing us the sheer recentness of what we know of it (Mangoes growing in Claveria!).

1286_620394667980140_1413664691_n

Claveria in the 1920s (twenty years before Deriada lived in it). Photo courtesy of the Davao of the Past page

Ultimately, what Deriada has done is chronicle the bygone domestic history of this rapidly changing metropolis: the primate city of Mindanao is ruthlessly abandoning much of its colourful past. The episodic scenes of Claveria Street serve as historical vignettes, little reminders to Davao’s collective soul of the quaint and quiet frontier town it once was. In the novel’s preface Deriada calls himself ‘a relic of the last century,’ and with this novel he has given us a glimpse of that century from whence he comes.

Despite the surplus of wannabe Davao writers, there is in fact precious little literature about Davao. Claveria Street is only the fourth novel about the city, and of the four Deriada has written two (don’t worry about not knowing the other two, most of Davao’s writers don’t either).

And this is Deriada’s true value to the city of his childhood. No other writer has charted Davao’s literary map as he has. Most of this Palanca Hall of Famer’s large body of work deals with Davao at various points in its history and from diverse perspectives. If Davao had a diary, Deriada has written a substantial portion of it, and for all its shortcomings Claveria Street is another big part of that.

Published by Seguiban Press, the novel’s printing and layout is homely and far from sleek, almost DIY. Deriada played a very active role in its layout, with the cover illustration drawn on his instructions. Between People on Guerrero Street and the present novel, his former novel was more competently laid out, but I like this one better because it’s more colourful. It may seem clumsy and amateurish, but the book design has Deriada’s personality all over it.

Hardly anyone in Davao knew when the novel came out in 2015. As much as I try to keep myself updated with the news from Davao’s exclusive and prohibitive literary scene, even I did not hear about it. The local literary establishment did nothing to spread word about the book and make it more available (so much for promoting Davao literature). It did not help that the book was published in faraway Iloilo, and even there had a limited circulation. I only got my copy – probably the last copy available – earlier this year when my girlfriend came back with it from a workshop in Iloilo.

When I got the copy, the first thing I saw when I opened it was the preface, where Deriada, now nearing eighty, announces that he is planning to write thirteen more novels, at least five of which are about Davao. The last time I checked he was already done with another one, and it was now with the publishing house. So while I am not too impressed by this latest novel (I’ve seen him do better), it is still delightful to know that the Grand Old Man of Davao Literature is at it writing Davao’s sould own for posterity.


On Senior High School Students Interviewing Filipino Writers

Recently in Mindanao, local writers have been surprised to receive emails and private messages on social media from senior high school students about their life and work. These questions and requests for interview seem to be from requirements being asked in school, an innovative class activity, I suspect, by idealistic young teachers who want our young people to get in touch with our local literary scene.

This is of course unprecedented, specially among local writers, as Filipino literature in general is largely underrated, unread by the Filipino readership. This is particularly the case with the youth, which largely consumes foreign literature, and if there is ever local consumption it is limited to works of popular fiction, very far from the literary crop.  Our writers rarely get so much attention.

How, you ask, did the writers react to this sudden surge of attention? Scorn.

Many writers decried the intrusive nature of the interviews. Others deplored how the students did not even bother researching basic information about them before asking. Still there are those who called on the teachers to teach their students to be formal enough and write a request letter. And others simply complained that with the barrage of interview requests, they don’t have time to write.

 

There is, first and foremost, nothing mature or professional about bashing senior high students on social media. If there are rude requests from them (and admittedly there have been), simply tell them off or ignore them without making it public that you have done so.

Then there is a certain arrogance to demand that any interview be conducted in formal terms.

This, I think, reveals the underlying elitism that so defines our literary – and our artistic – community.

The pervasive attitude among artists, specially writers, is that their art – and their dedication to the field of art – makes them important, somehow worthy of utmost respect and veneration. The artist is a sacred person according to the Filipino writer (many will always think of the celebrity of Neruda or the venerability of Hugo), and one ought not to treat them the way one would treat other, more ordinary people.

Filipino writers dismiss the dearth of readership they should be getting as the result of the unwashed masses’ lack of education and breeding. They scorn teenage Filipinos for reading Wattpad novels and Kilig Romances. Ironically they do so while espousing generally Gramscian ideologies.

The Filipino writer has long decried the lack of attention, and when she finally gets it, she complains it is not in the necessary note of reverence she thinks she deserves.

The truth of the matter is (and it is a painful reality I am saying as a writer myself), a writer who is not read is an irrelevant writer, and the vast majority of our so-called ‘literary writers’ are irrelevant writers who are not even read by one another. We are no important Hugos and Nerudas to whom formal letters of request have to be given so interviews can be asked, it is just downright arrogance to demand something like that when a polite, even if informal private message on Facebook, would have done.

There is even more arrogance in those saying students ought to research about the writers first. It assumes, first of all, that the writers in question are important enough to be on the books (trust me, even National Artists sometimes have very little information out there). They also forget the fact that in the Philippines, Filipino books and other material that deal with Filipino writers (academic journals, literary magazines, etc.) are both often prohibitively expensive (a 350 peso novel is average), and excessively difficult to find. I cannot even find anywhere the birth places of so many Filipino writers that I have to ask from common friends. This all just goes to show how out of touch our writers are to their own realities.

But I think the biggest manifestation of delusions of grandeur are in those saying they don’t have time to answer questions because they have to write. How utterly snobbish can you get. You refuse to entertain what can be your potential readers because you have to write stories and poems nobody will read.

It is very counterproductive. One of the frequent reasons cited by less egotistic writers as a reason why Filipino literature remains so inaccessible is because our writers are not introduced to our children. That is now being remedied, and even if the efforts are facing challenges, the sheer snobbery with which writers respond to them are far more damaging to the efforts than whatever glitches these first efforts may have.

We need our kids to start appreciating our very good body of local literature, but how do we expect them to like our work when their first experience of it is a writer publicly humiliating them on social media?

 

 


Leoncio Deriada’s ‘People on Claveria Street’

20170520_135554.jpg

I just finished reading Leoncio Deriada’s latest novel, People on Claveria Street.’

A prequel to his last novel ‘People on Guerrero Street,’ it’s about the author’s first year in Davao in the late 1940s, when he was still an elementary student. It is to date only the third novel written about Davao.

The books offers a fascinating glimpse at Davao in the past, back when the now highly urbanized metropolis of Mindanao was still a semi-rural frontier town recovering from the War. This has always been one of the charms of Deriada’s work, specially as Davao and much of Mindanao is terribly apathetic to its own history.

I will be writing a review of the book soon!


Six Iconic Anime Main Themes

Anime music dominated my childhood. I grew up in the late 90s and early 2000s watching anime on television, dubbed in Tagalog on ABS-CBN or GMA-7. In the Kidapawan of my youth there was no Hero TV or Animax, and one’s only chance at getting to watch anime – the dominant form of entertainment of my generation – was to hope class or cleaners’ duties would end early enough so one can make it home by the time the 4pm to 6pm anime time-slots started. For the neighbourhood children who didn’t have TVs, they had to look for a neighbour who would open a window to let them watch along.

Today my memories of Kidapawan are coloured with the soundtrack of these afternoon shows, and they’re always on mp3 in my phone if I’m feeling nostalgic.

But of the near hundreds of OPs and EDs and BGMs that will evoke memories of youth from any child of Kidapawan of my age, six iconic tracks stand out, main themes from some of the most successful anime titles, now occupying timeless places in the anime canon. Even in Japan these tracks are now classics, and with the global popularity of anime they may as well be regarded international music. As a child of the early days of Globalization, I certainly let them be classics in my playlist.

These are the six iconic anime main themes from my childhood.

1. Negishi Takayuki, ‘Sakura no Theme 2’ Cardcaptor Sakura

Cardcaptor Sakura has a gorgeous soundtrack, each track full of emotion and blending beautifully with the anime’s colour shades to evoke the somewhat classy impressionability of the 90s. Of all the tracks of this CLAMP masterpiece, this one stands out most, playing on key climactic moments (when Sakura is about to capture a card) and on the next episode preview.  I was Grade 4 when I first heard it, as CCS aired on ABS-CBN every 5pm.

 

2. Ono Katsuo, Detective Conan Main Theme, Detective Conan

This jazzy riff from one of the longest running series in anime has always given the Japan-set detective series a Chicago feel, a subtle but family-friendly nod to hard boiled fiction. It is a Japanese classic, with established orchestras and military bands regularly performing it. On TV my viewing of Conan was sporadic because GMA-7 kept on taking it down and back up again, usually in the 3:30 time slot (GMA-7’s commercial of it, and that of Dragon Ball Z, were nevertheless memorable, as they featured my first encounter with Linkin’ Park). But I started watching it again some years ago, and today I still watch Conan every week. The track now feels beautifully anachronistic, a throwback to the 90s.

3. Masuda Toshio, Naruto Main Theme, Naruto

Ah Naruto. The title of this blog post just begs for this track to be included in the list. Naruto’s main theme has one of the most recognizable melodies in all of anime fandom – to some extent it has become the anime theme song. With its shakuhachi and taiko drums it is also a stereotypical track to play for anything Japanese. I first watched this series when I was in grade 6 (it was on ABS, 5pm, filling in the old time slot of InuYasha), but it did not catch on among my classmates until we were in 2nd year high school. I had watched the Naruto franchise until it ended a few months ago (that’s half my lifetime!). Since Naruto Shippuuden started the theme has not been played in the series, and the series easily moved on from it. Then in 2016 – almost ten years since it was last heard – the melody makes a comeback in the last moments of episode 469, when Kakashi’s face is finally revealed. And I felt a surge of nostalgia. It was an emotional watershed moment, signalling the end of the Naruto era, and as I watched that episode for a few seconds I was forced back in Kidapawan.

 

4. Tanaka Kouhei, ‘Overtaken’, One Piece

One Piece is another long running series with a magnificent soundtrack, appropriately breath taking for its grand world building. The global hit has many tracks that would fit well into this list – ‘Luffy Moukou‘  being on top – but I think ‘Overtaken’ is the most memorable, utterly epic with just a few notes. One Piece was shown at 4:30pm on GMA-7, thankfully when ABS-CBN had nothing else of interest to compete with it. I remember whistling this track as I walked around Kidapawan during lunch breaks from NDKC.

 

5. Sahashi Toshihiko, ‘Hunter X Hunter no Theme ~ Densetsu’, Hunter x Hunter

The original Hunter X Hunter anime series was a more artistically accomplished adaptation than the 2011 series – it was darker, grittier, more emotionally charged. Much of that was thanks to the soundtrack, which was still better than the 2011 series’ even if music was that adaptation’s greatest strength. ‘Hunter no theme ~ densetsu’ was the starring piece in the soundtrack, a melody with electronic organ and guitars that evoke both the unknown and the hard, rugged but still somehow classy grownup-ness needed to explore than unknown. It is a haunting track. The series’ equally haunting first ED, ‘Kaze no Uta‘ by the late Honda Minako, has a bridge featuring a short and fast riff of the melody.

This piece – and the series itself – captured the sense of uncertainty I often faced as a student, not least because it aired on GMA-7 at 7:30, right before sleeping time (it was often the last thing I heard before an exam or deadline I dreaded).

6. Wada Kaoru, InuYasha Main Theme, InuYasha

This isn’t really the title of the piece, but the same melody is featured in at least four tracks on the soundtrack of InuYasha, ranging from a slow, mournful track for a sad scene to a loud, fast-paced piece for a battle. The version above, entitled ‘Elegy,’ is I think the most beautiful version, with the few notes of the biwa and the ryuteki evoking the Sengoku Era in which this Rumiko Takahashi masterpiece is set. InuYasha was a huge hit in my generation, as much a craze when I was in Grade 6 as Meteor Garden was. It played on the prime 5 pm time slot of ABS (taking over from CCS), but the song somehow reminds me today of Kidapawan mornings.

 

If you’re wondering why there are no theme songs here (Cha La Head Cha La?), that deserves another post!


An International Mention

 

20170509_180406[1]

Well, this is unexpected.

While vacationing in Singapore, I found my name in a book in Books Kinokuniya. My ego purrs with delight as it is stroked.

20170509_180348[1]

This is perhaps the most flattering rejection I have ever had. I sent a play for inclusion in Southeast Asian Plays, edited by Cheryl Robson and Aubrey Mellor and published by Aurora Metro Publications in the US. I didn’t get accepted, but it seems they acknowledged the writers who sent in submissions.

Normally, publicly accepting you were rejected would be unflattering. But this time it isn’t.

  • For one thing, I see my name in a book in Singapore. Beat that, HaveYouSeenThisGirl!
  • Then, the only Filipino to get in is Floy Quintos, and I don’t stand a chance against the likes of him
  • The other writers acknowledged were pretty accomplished writers too, so I’m in prestigious company

The least I could do in return, of course, is to promote the book. It’s available in most branches of Books Kinokuniya!

Every rejection should be like this!


SALEM 2017 Writers Workshop Fellows

(My old club in Ateneo de Davao is doing well!)