Toward a Borderless Literature

Sherma E. Benosa


[Reprinted below is a timely piece written by SHERMA E. BENOSA published in The Manila Times Friday, January 14, 2011, reflecting on some soul-searching on an elusive “solidarity in literature without borders” — elusive only because of a government-imposed bilingual language policy forged chiefly on account of some “nationalistic” stirrings that dominated the public dialog a few decades ago and whose remnants are still trying to hang on to impose their collective will. That bilingual policy — intent on eliminating borders on the pretext of building a nation — is slowly wiping out not just those borders, but the languages and cultures that proclaim and adorn our diversity — a national treasure in itself that we profess to cling to. Else we would not even have to deal with this yearning for a borderless literature. — JP]

WHEN writers reflected on the theme of the 2010 Philippine PEN Conference in Cebu City from December 4 to 5, two strong images emerged. The first image, crafted by the conference keynote speaker, Judge Simeon Dumdum Jr., was of birds.

“When I reflect on our convention theme, ‘Solidarity in Literature without Borders,’ especially on the phrase ‘without borders,’ I think of birds. For me, they exemplify what it means to live without borders,” he said.

“Of course, that solidarity and that borderlessness now take on more sophisticated forms, consistent with advances in technology. But the basic things remain—our commitment as writers to justice and compassion, and the rest of the virtues that advance the causes that dignify and fulfill the human race . . .

“Writers and birds should not be put inside cages, whether territorial or political,” he added.

The second image, which came about on the second day of the conference, was of seas embracing islands.

Writer Ruth Elynia Mabanglo, who sat in the panel of writers in the Americas, shared during the open forum that to achieve borderlessness we have to focus on the seas that separate the country’s more than 7,000 islands.

They separate us, and yet they also unite us, Mabanglo told her fellow delegates.

Defining, crossing borders

To speak of literary borderlessness is to also speak of borders. For, in order to achieve the former, one must first identify and cross or defy the latter.

So what seem to be the borders in literature, especially in the Philippine setting?

As they shared their writing praxis, their works, and the literary situations and experiences in their respective regions/countries and languages, the panelists shared the literary borders they crossed, or are presently facing, in their literary journey.

Definitely, these borders are not just geographic, although the country’s geography contributes to the creation of these borders. As realized by writer Jaime An Lim when he tried to identify Mindanao writers for an anthology, writers are mobile and hence, identities based on localities are arbitrary.

In his opening remarks where he explained the conference theme, National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera spoke of and called for “writing that opens up cultures and demolishes borders set up by racism, elitism, gender discrimination and ideological stereotyping.”

Cebu writer Erma Cuison who talked about women writing about war seemed to have identified gender as a border.

But for many of the writers, especially those who are writing in their vernaculars, the one border to cross in this multilingual society that favors English first and Tagalog (or F/Pilipino) second while relegating all the other Philippine languages to lower standing is language use.

Many of the panelists, especially those in the Luzon, Visayas and Mindanao panels, shared how, in writing in their vernacular, they had to go through rough terrains and how they were able to cross the borders set by the country’s linguistic situation.

Lumad writer Telesforo Sungkit Jr. shared how minority languages (minority in terms of number of speakers) are left out in the national literary scene, and how difficult it is for writers in these languages to gain the recognition they deserve.

“Lumad languages are yet to be recognized in the literary sphere of this country. So for now, a lumad writer could just content himself in tongue-bending. He will be using the same languages employed by the colonizers past and present to subjugate his race,” he lamented.

“In a nation where the history being taught excludes the lumads in its ‘national’ narratives, it is indeed an epic task for a Higaonon/lumad writer to craft his own narratives,” he added.

Poet Santiago Villafania shared that Pangasinan literature became silent from the 1960s to 1990s and that Pangasinan almost died as a literary language. And it would have, had it not been for the efforts of some writers including Villafania to write and publish in the language. Villafania shared that he self-published his books, and even utilized the Internet to promote and keep Pangasinan literature alive. To date, a work by Villafania has been translated to various foreign languages.

Bikol writer Carlos Arejola, on the other hand, shared some of the initiatives in Bicol, which includes literary workshops and competitions, most of which, he himself conceptualized and spearheaded. “Things look rosy in the Bicol literary scene today. It is a good time to be a Bicolano writer,” he shared.

Chancellor of the University of the Philippines Baguio Priscilla Macansantos shared that Baguio is still without a distinct literature. In her speech, she shared that Sinai Hamada could have been the “flag bearer of modern literature” in this part of the country. But Hamada has long since died, and no one has followed his example, or crafted a new, distinct face for Baguio literature.

This writer shared that although Ilocano has a much longer literary tradition than many of the non-Tagalog languages in the country, Ilocano writers have also gone through (and still go through) the same hardships that other vernacular writers face.

And although international delegates Alvin Pang of Singapore, Robin Lim of Indonesia and Joseph Akawa Ushie of Nigeria chose to read some of their works, like most of the foreign delegates, they also shared the language situations in their respective countries during the open forum following their presentation.

Pang said that other Singapore languages have also been relegated to the periphery and that perhaps there may be very little literature written in these languages. “We don’t talk about our ties with Britain, we don’t talk about Malay and Malay literature and yet these are important part of what Singapore is,” he shared. He added that although they may not actively try to reclaim these languages through literature, Singapore writers are strongly against government move to wipe out Singapore English in favor of “proper English.”

Asked about the language situation in Indonesia, Lim commented that writers there are also baffled by the question of “keeping one’s culture and at the same time joining the international dialogue.”

Mother-tongue education and literature

As noted by Elmer Ordoñez right after the presentation of the Luzon panel, the issue of vernacular writing and the struggles vernacular writers go through are long-standing issues and have in fact arisen in a previous literary conference.

But the fact that these still surface a decade or so after that conference just shows that writing in the vernacular still faces similar challenges. The good thing is that, as Ordoñez himself remarked, the antagonism that used to accompany such discussions are no longer present.

Regionalistic tendencies seem to be slowly being crossed.

Or perhaps because change is slowly creeping in, not only in the literary scene, but also in the country’s educational system. More writers are now reclaiming their mother tongue, and the bilingual education that bedeviled mother tongues and vernacular literatures is soon to be replaced by a mother-tongue based multilingual education which is seen not only as the solution to the problem on the quality of education in the country, but also as a way to promote (finally) the country’s various languages.

Many of the writers did call for the promotion and support of mother tongue literatures. In ending her speech, Macansantos said, “Languages die everyday from disuse, and consequently, cultures are also threatened. The younger, possibly more educated members of indigenous groups must be encouraged [and supported] to write, to keep language and culture alive.”

This writer also ended her speech by calling on her fellow writers to help regional languages and literatures flourish side-by-side Philippine English and the Tagalog (P/Filipino) literatures. “We do this, not because we promote regionalism, but because we recognize that we are composed of various regions; that we have hundreds of languages whose literature must flourish in order for us to know more about our nationhood, and to understand better what makes the Filipino,” she said, emphasizing that recognizing and promoting mother-tongue literatures in the national sphere completes the landscape of Philippine literature.

Or, in the words Mindanao writer Steven Patrick Fernandez, regional literatures are “the streams that feed the mainstream of national literature.”

Indeed, in order for literature to become borderless, it needs not only to cross borders, both external and internal, but also to learn to be inclusive and appreciative of the literatures that make up the national stream. As Vicente Garcia Groyon put it, “it is recognizing difference without making difference as a reason for exclusion.”

One thought on “Toward a Borderless Literature

  1. Hello Manong Joe! Thank you for posting it here.

    Ngem, please do me a favor, Manong. Yanusmo koma nga editen. In-rush-ko daytoy nga insurat, diakon naedit, ket gapu ta naladaw a naisabmit, in-printda latta metten nga unedited. Adda sumagmamano a sentences that need to be tightened. 🙂

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