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Writing in Ilokano for the Ilokanos

Northern exposure to literature


By Ariel S. Tabag


I was born in the northern part of the country, in the province of Cagayan. I grew up listening to folk stories told by my Lilong (grandfather) and Lilang (grandmother) in the quiet and lazy afternoons of our town Sta Teresita. Day after day, Nanang (my mother) would listen eagerly to Ilokano soap operas broadcasted on the radio. Tatang (my father), on the other hand, read the articles and stories on the weekly Ilokano magazine, Bannawag.

Even before I learned how to read and write, long before I got exposed to readings of stories in Tagalog and English in our elementary school, my mind had been filled with Ilokano characters, settings, and cultural references. For me, those stories were real and true because they were told by my elders, my family, or by our neighbors whom I looked up to in my younger days.

Perhaps, this is why at a very young age, I wanted also to tell stories to my parents, my extended family, and our neighbors. I wanted my stories to inspire them, or at the very least, provide some inspiration and entertainment.

Writing for Ilokano

I have already submitted and published a few poems and short stories in the Bannawag magazine when I realized that I needed to be more committed to writing in Ilokano to strengthen and preserve this language and its literature.

I joined GUMIL (Gunglo dagiti Mannurat iti Ilokano) Filipinas, the organization of Ilokano writers, and realized that Ilokano is not included as part of the “two official languages” of the country—Filipino and English. With the dominance of these two official languages, the more than 170 indigenous languages in the Philippines are at risk of being forgotten. By continuing to write, I will contribute to the growth of Ilokano literature.

Solidarity for Ilokano language and literature

Similar to other regional languages, we have limited means and strategies to promote and advocate for Ilokano language and literature. Even before President Manuel L. Quezon declared Tagalog as the basis of the national language in the 1930s, a good number of publishers were already engaged in publishing Ilokano books, particularly novels.

Majority of Filipinos supported the efforts to enrich the national language but, unfortunately, this also led to the marginalization of regional languages. Some teachers and school administrators in Regions 1 and 2 imposed fines for students who are caught speaking Ilokano inside the school premises. I remember being fined P0.50 for every Ilokano word I uttered in high school. As a result, many of my fellow Ilokanos stopped speaking our language. Worse, a lot of them even felt ashamed of speaking the language in public. One by one, the Ilokano publishers folded and the Ilokano publishing scene dwindled.

Thankfully, though, Ilokanos, especially the masses, patronized and continued reading Bannawag. For more than 80 years, the magazine has brought entertainment, inspiration, and some education to Ilokano families. It essentially became the de facto archive of Ilokano literary classics.

In addition, Ilokano writers, even to this day, persevered in publishing their works through Tagnawa (bayanihan in Tagalog, or solidarity in English). Most of the time, they contributed their own money, lacking though they might be, just to bring their works as printed books.

Thanks to the MTB-MLE

Implementing the Mother Tongue Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) throughout the country is a noble undertaking. Through this program, students in the lower grades will use the language that they grew up with. They will understand the lessons more easily; they will also appreciate the importance of their native language in the development of their identity as individuals and as part of their culture.

This program is then important in recognizing the worth of all languages and ethnic identities in the Philippines.

As an Ilokano writer, I am glad that our literary pieces— poems and stories—are helping mold the Ilokano youth. As part of GUMIL Filipinas, we organized a series of lectures and other activities that promote Ilokano literature. We have also developed the official Ilokano Orthography under the guidance of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino.

Telling our stories to the world

I know that there is a bigger world outside our Ilokano circle—we are all part of that. And in this wider world, there are many people that I could consider “kamag-anak” (extended family). They may not speak the Ilokano language, but perhaps, they are interested to listen to our stories.

That is why, on top of my writing, I devote my time and energy in translating the works of Ilokano writers that I respect and admire—Juan S.P. Hidalgo, Jr., Reynaldo A. Duque (deceased), Jose A. Bragado, Dionisio S. Bulong, and Cles B. Rambaud among others.

Translating their works is a way to document and chronicle the Ilokano experience and sharing with the wider world a lesson or two about creativity, thriftiness, resilience, and the enduring spirit of Ilokanos. Also through translation, we are fulfilling the aspiration of Ilokano writers to spread literary works that reflect the “nakem” (loob) of Ilokanos.

Above all, I write to tell stories to Ilokanos

I’ve been writing for 15 years now, and it was clear to me then, as it is now, that I want to tell stories for my fellow Ilokanos. I want to offer them entertainment and inspiration; I want to challenge them to examine things deeply beyond face value; to let them know that we have freedom to choose freely that which is true.

I am committed alongside my fellow Ilokano writers to preserve and defend our “nakem” (loob) as Ilokanos against the violent and irreverent march of globalization and capitalism. And so I keep writing and will continue to draw from the wellspring of our stories about working hard, resilience, thriftiness, and endurance. We will keep telling these stories in one form or another from one generation to the next.

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