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Philippine literature in the age of Tokhang or the function of writing in trying times


By Karlo V. Guerrero


I remember my classmates and I as we sat in an airconditioned room: all 40 of us were intent on listening to our teacher who was a published writer and a full professor of literature in one of the country’s top universities, so to speak—that is—if one believes in such rankings.

We were in our second year in college, and the class and discussion was all about fiction. And after having just finished recounting a story written by a foreign writer concerning a necklace, the professor then went on to lecturing on the concept of “defamiliarization.”

To defamiliarize in creative writing means to twist the everyday perception regarding an object, so as to make it novel, intriguing, and/or even shocking. Our professor then continued to concretize his point by illustrating a possible (if not already happening) scenario.

Consider, for instance, two entries of poetry submitted in a highly-competitive and “prestigious” writing contest. The first one, a poetry collection that tackles the age-old theme of love—instead of using clichéd imageries on romance such as “a red, red rose” and/or even the “moon”—uses fingernails as an alternative to profess the point. Dirty, uncut fingernails, with grit collecting under, becoming black. Should the poet be successful in writing the collection with finesse in form, observation of standards, while ultimately and at the same time transforming the aforesaid mundane object into a “defamiliarized” object of love, then the poetry collection and poet would win. This is in sharp contrast, however, to another example of writing, where even if the topic and theme are noble such as revolutions, justice, and/or long-lasting peace, if not written with an observed acceptable form fitting to the standards of the literary establishments, then the said collection would fall short compared to the former. In other words, form reigns mightier than content.

This was then according to my professor, which in retrospect now is a symptom of a long-existing tugging contradiction between two tendencies in the production and consumption of Philippine literature, which is rooted ultimately in our national history. And these two tendencies, as they are largely apparent in our literature, are that of the American-sponsored New Criticism—to which defamiliarization as a technique could fall under—and that of Socially-Committed literature standing opposed to it.

On the State of Philippine Literature

That Philippine literature is in a state of crisis when it comes to the problem of low readership, and problem of costly market-driven publication is a different topic altogether. Here, the state referred to is that of the country’s body of literature having mainly two historical even philosophical orientations. The first of which are those forms of literature, whether short stories, poetry, essays, theater plays, or screenplays that are written with a New Critical thrust.

New Criticism, or formalism, in this regard, is a school of writing or reading literature that focuses merely on the aesthetics or beauty of the crafted text, and which excludes as non-important the societal contexts outside the page. Several writers and critics—such as National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera, Epifanio San Juan, and Conchitina Cruz just to name a few—have already written about the thrust and impact of New Criticism to the development of Philippine literature, and society at large, as it has been taught to us by American masters coinciding the era of American imperialism, and is still being dominantly taught in creative writing workshops across the country. Here now is where such love poems on fingernails belong—beautiful as they are in being depoliticized and dehistoricized—as for New Criticism, form matters more than content.

On the other end of this is socially committed literature, which recognizes as starting points the socieites from which they come from, and the societies to which they’ll go to. In the 50s and 60s, as a reaction to the New Criticism taught by the Americans to detach its Filipino writers from the country’s conditions, several nationalists started resisting by writing active, evocative pieces that detail our needing society. Amado V. Hernandez, Gellacio Guillermo, and Emmanuel Lacaba are salient examples of such writers who embodied this tradition as they saw literature as not detached, but instead, even within and integral to the processes of society. And society—to put lastly—which refers to the masses composed of exploited workers, farmers, indigenous people, youth and other sectors, need liberation from the many chains that bind them above all else.

The Function of Writing in Trying Times

Going back to the story of my professor, it was fallible for him to think that form is more important than content, more so to think that the two are diametrically and necessarily opposed to one another. Such conservatism and conscious propagation of apathetic literature—mindful only of craft and form, and not of content that consciously and commitedly engages with society—is what exactly preserves the status quo that thrives on the desensitization and miseducation of the masses, concerning the exploitation and oppression that they experience everyday. And in the age of Tokhang or impunity allegedly sanctioned by the state—whether the killing of the many defenseless poor in the drug war, the killing of farmers, indigenous people, and activists in the hinterlands, and/or even the repression of press freedom—what we need as a nation is literature that does not talk merely of defamiliarized fingernails, that seem to exist in a vacuum, despite beauty in form. What we do not need furthermore are detached writers who only build up their resumes with the number of awards they’ve won, or the number of institutions they gatekeep, for multitudes of lives are being lost, and writing, when put into this perspective, becomes therefore an opportunistic act complicit to the violence of the system.

With all of these in regard, the function therefore of writing in the age of Tokhang, or in these trying times, is to be for and one with the toiling masses and, as such, expose everyday exploitations and oppressions. Our writers therefore must ultimately choose their sides, and either be one in service of the people, or in service of the self. Philippine literature in the age of Tokhang must take upon this necessitous challenge, else the Philippines be lit in the age of Tokhang itself.

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