“Filipino-ness” and Philippine Literature

It is difficult, to say the least, to give a definition to box “Filipino-ness” in Philippine Literature. First of all, there is too much to say on the Filipino, a being not only confined to 7,107 islands, that giving the intangible quality of being Filipino a straightforward definition will definitely leave a lot outside, perhaps even the majority composed of a thousand minorities. Nonetheless, difficult does not merit that this quality does not exist in what we consider as our own Literature.

Painting a line to strictly demarcate Philippine Literature as the ones made by Filipinos is logical, but doing so raises the argument of Nature vs. Nurture. What, then, of Filipino-Chinese Literature, of Charleson Ong, and other works made by Filipinos not by blood? Language, also, proves to be a credible wall, but an easily crossable wall at that, considering that we include a number of works in Spanish and English part of our canon of Philippine Literature. Although some radicals push for the utter termination of anything not written in Filipino from our Literature, truth is that this will cripple Philippine Literature, starting with the godly Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. We can also romanticize that a run for our native roots will fill our Literature with the “Filipino-ness” it is looking for, but truth be told, a lot of Filipinos have not lived a day as a rural or indigenous Filipino. For example, a story set in the Philippines, say, the movie A Gentleman and an Officer starring Richard Gere, is set in Olongapo in the early 1950’s, but that does not make it part of our Literature. Even the inclusion of certain Filipino traditions, such as the Bayanihan or the town fiesta for the patron saint, are faulty once we consider the truth that it is gradually being distorted by Western ideas such as commercialism and relevantly, today, electioneering, and other –isms of a world which is not distinctly ours. To add to this, the presence and essence of these Filipino traditions, indeed, are hardly found today.

The inclusion of these elements do not equate to a black and white verdict that a certain piece of Philippine Literature is indeed filled with that “Filipino-ness”, no matter how much Filipino color these elements add. In painting a picture of the Filipino, there is a certain depth, not simply achievable by the addition of a jeepney, or naming the painting something as Filipino as “Balut”, or if a Filipino painted it or not. It may, perhaps, add a little Filipino flavor to it, but it is not exactly what I believe “Filipino-ness” is about.

Given these possibilities I have discounted in boxing “Filipino-ness”, arguing that the quality is deeper than simply flavor, I am left to include no physical or obvious criteria for defining the trait. However, I cannot leave the trait to a euphemism of intangible feelings, mere gut feel, or whatnot.

Something quite noticeable in reading Philippine Literature is that more than any other piece of Literature, it relates to a Filipino more easily. Whether it be close to home, as Manuel Arguilla’s pieces are, or something set in a distant land, such as Nick Joaquin’s A Woman With Two Navels, Philippine Literature translates easier, arguably deeper, to us, Filipinos, than the ones Mario Puzo creates in The Godfather, or J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Some of us, Filipinos, may want to be Don Vito Corleone’s or Lord Voldemort’s, but we cannot erase the fact that sometimes, we already are Connie Escobar’s or that wet, seductive temptress in Arguilla’s Midsummer.

This vicarious emotion is something I attribute to the presence of “Filipino-ness” in these pieces. This emotion is something we can further dissect into our problematic search for identity. I believe that Filipino-ness is not simply an allusion to all things Filipino, but a relation with our struggles in finding where we situate ourselves, being Filipinos, in segments of our lives. The Filipino-ness of Philippine Literature lays in the How’s and Why’s we, being Filipinos, tackle the Who’s, Where’s and When’s of What’s. In short, the Filipino-ness of Literature puts our Filipino Identity into question as it faces up to itself. Literature gives this power to continuously allow a search for our Filipino Identity. Philippine Literature presents a mirror of how we, as Filipinos, imagine ourselves to be.

This does not mean that Literature should always have a certain thesis on how we behave. In itself, Literature reveals something human as it is a product of humans (and humans alone). Consequently, this entails that a “rivalry” between Art for Art’s Sake and Art for Nation is not a necessary argument since both causes boil down to a cause of dwelling on Identity. No matter how masturbatory Art for Art’s Sake is, it creates a certain character on how an Identity perceives art. Jose Garcia Villa’s Emperor’s New Sonnet pronounces certain mastery and brilliance a man of our nation has of the English language. Inversely, no matter how objective Art for Nation is in problematizing how society reacts under tensions or conflicts, it cannot be wholly removed from the purpose of artistically creating an Identity. A dozen books by F. Sionil Jose, attached to a nationalistic theme, cannot be removed from the fact that it remains in the domain of the Arts, and its beauty in form and content will always be a matter for concern. Whatever the motives are for creating literary pieces, a critical reading on Literature will always result to something about an Identity. In the case of Philippine Literature, it will always result to something about our Identity. It is Literature’s role to present that Identity to its readers and writers.

One, therefore, asks whether this role is restraining since it boxes our Identity in its forms. However, this is not the approach that should be taken. We cannot escape history and its stories, but that doesn’t mean we do not have free will. We do not box ourselves in the Identity presented to us by Literature. Rather, Literature presents our Identity in a box. One looks at it from afar and one thinks of how one goes about this box. Through Literature, we are given that choice — a view free from its constructs.

Literature does not work on its own, though. It is doubly-edged, presenting both a window of opportunities, and a window pane too difficult to break open. Its purpose for society is to be written and to be read. It is the lack of the accomplishment of the latter that makes Literature nowadays no longer have the power it used to hold. As mentioned, Philippine Literature does not need to focus its strength on either Art for Nation or Art for Art’s Sake since however it is aimed, it hits on the question of our Identity. It only needs to be written well, and to be read just as well.

Reading Philippine Literature, however, is an entirely different story.

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