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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‘People on Claveria Street’: A Review

(Appeared on Davao Today, 3 September 2017)

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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!).

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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’

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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!


An International Mention

 

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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.

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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!)


The Pasmodern Manifesto

The Pasmodern Manifesto

By Frank Edwin Macapanas

  • The very nature of modern Filipino identity is of hunger – for belongingness, for recognition, for resolution. And yet the Filipino is unaware of this, for he is sustained with the bahaw (stale) – pan-os (spoiled), even – ideology of the past. He is essentially hungry and malnourished, he is pasmo. This is called the Pasmodern Condition.

 

  • What are the stalenesses and spoilednesses that the Filipino partakes of? These are foreign essences he imbibes to define himself: Spanish holy water, the American spirit, and today for those in the regions the water of the river Pasig. And yet this does not help him define himself, it only ascribes unto him the identity of the cultures from whence these objects are pirated. We are all just indios, just little brown Americans, just variations of Manileno, or a combination of all these with K-pop bangs. The Filipino identity is a Budots identity, a repetitive and heterogeneous pastiche of influences, but forever devoid of coherent substance.

 

  • The condition of being unaware of one’s hunger for identity is called Dinanghag. The Filipino must liberate himself from this ignorance, from the blindness at his own malnourishment, and realize that he is hungry. Only then can he move forward as a human being.

 

  • The duty of the artist is to dispel Dinanghag by exemplifying hunger. He must embrace his own emptiness and let it define his art.

 

  • Prolonged hunger begets delusion, and the acceptance of the Budots identity without knowledge of it is itself a delusion. And yet this is a world of lies, we are all caught in Indra’s net, all beneficiaries of Nietzscheian balikbayan boxes. Nothing, therefore, is truer than the delusions of the Pasmodern.

 

  • True cultural incorporation is the making of borrowed elements our own. We however make ourselves what we borrow, we adjust to what we take, compromising our identity creation in the process. The artist must redeem the Filipino identity of such compromises, purge it of its anomalous voids. Before the Filipino can recognize he is malnourished of actual identity, he must wretch out all the otherness he has swallowed. He must kill the Spanish Jesus, he must kill Uncle Sam, he must kill Rizal. The beginning of Pasmodern awakening is purgation.

 

  • And yet truths that establish themselves are difficult to remove, like addictions to the immediate and familiar pleasure of junk foods. Dinanghag is most problematic when it is permeated by a sense of attachment, of seriousness. But the solution to this is whimsicality in derision. To move the Filipino with art, the artist must yaga-yaga, but he must not only yaga-yaga, he must yaga-yaga with the intention of hurting in order to scrape off barnacled old ‘truths’: the artist must bugal-bugal. The artist must initiate Bugal-Bugal Revolution, for the individual Filipino and for the Filipino people synchronically. This will lead to identity purgation.

 

  • The initial result of successful Bugal-Bugal Revolution is Kahasol – an immediate feeling of somewhat bereft consternation, as if sense had been ‘hustled’ away from one. This then leads to alienation, the Filipino finally seeing he is not an indio, not a brown American, not simply a variant of Manileno. And he will realize he cannot continue thinking he is any of these. Everything he has come to know as familiar will be unpleasant and different. And there will be nothing, other than these now strange lies, but emptiness. He will be incapable of determining then who he is. This is his recognition of his own hunger for familiarity, and the discomfort he will feel is Kalain (difference/unpleasantness).

 

  • And yet he will continue to see delusions, for hunger always begets delusions. But this time he knows he is seeing delusions, and these delusions will consciously emerge as an attempt to fill in the void where truth is supposed to be. The Filipino must embrace the delusions of the Pasmodern as they are, and not as truths, for it is better to be deluded and know that one is deluded than to see the truth and not know that the truth is a delusion. There is no truth, so we must make it. This is Pinataka, the deliberate creation of truths in its inherent absence.

 

  • The role of the artist is to create. The artist must take Filipino identity in his own hands, grip it firmly, stroke it violently until it blisters, and let liquid possibilities spurt out of it. The artist must not be limited to who the Filipino is, or who he seems to be, but must be preoccupied with who the Filipino can and in his own opinion must be. The Pinataka artist consciously contributes to the endless discourse of identity creation.

 

  • Any artist who believes he is ‘depicting’ realities is being deluded without knowing it. The nostalgics who hark back to long gone precolonial times, the colonialists who deify the Spanish or the Americans or the Koreans, the activists decrying anything not dealing with farmers or the urban poor or the environment or gender as ‘socially irrelevant,’ the removed poets aspiring for ‘moral universals:’ all of them are deluded without knowing it. The only serious artist is the Pinataka artist.

 

  • The Pinataka artist is also superior to De Man’s ‘deliberate misreaders,’ for more often than not the deliberate misreader is not really misreading deliberately but accidentally, inadvertently forging new meaning out of the old. The Pinataka artist is conscious even of his deliberate accidents.

 

  • There are two types of Pinataka artist: the ones who are completely devoid of any tradition, and the ones disowned by their tradition. Both types contribute to the creation of identity, but the latter is superior to the former, as the former, out of native genius, may simply produce unwittingly what has already been produced, while the latter are aware of what has been said in the discourse before and will deliberately be different.

 

  • The Pinataka artist is a prophet, and as such he cannot be encumbered by the mundane communicative difficulties of class in conveying his prophecy. And yet in his attempt at initiating Bugal-Bugal Revolution he can take advantage of class. He can Lim-buwag – shatter (in Tagalog ‘buwag’) the established Dinanghag by overturning (in Cebuano ‘limbuwag’) the accepted hierarchies in that class. Bakhtin calls it carnivalesque, but we will not borrow his term (we must rehabilitate ourselves for the time being of our addiction of borrowing!) as we already have our own. By presenting lower class culture to the upper classes and vice versa, they will see not that their class has defined who they are, but that they have allowed their class to define them – seeing what is not one’s own does not present universals, it alienates one from the familiar. This will lead to Kahasol, then ultimately Kalain.

 

  • The end of the Pasmodern endeavour does not exist, one Bugal Bugal Revolution must come after another endlessly. The Filipino identity will never be fixed. It is the duty and mission of the Pinataka artist to make Filipino identity one of permanent kalain, one of Ka-ugaling-on, ‘however-ness,’ the state of identity that will always have its insufficiencies and contradictions. Liberated from Dinanghag, the Filipino will never be complacent and will forever be a being ahead-of-himself, constantly taking his own identity as an issue.

 

  • It is not strange for the Pasmodern Filipino, enlightened by Pinataka art, to embrace his Budots identity. Rather it is expected, as true and complete rejection of any sense of inherent essence will make incongruous hybridity as acceptable as, if not preferable over, any delusions of purism. Filipino identity may easily become its own question. It is the duty of the artist to constantly ask that question.