Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

May 30, 2014

Writing from memory

Speaking of national memory, Virgilio S. Almario's Seven Mountains of the Imagination (2011), translated by Marne L. Kilates and had something thoughtful to say on the subject:

Your language of poetry is the language of your pure and native memory. Your most intimate memories of your life are the purest and sweetest. Your behavior, habits, and experience speak a native language. But there is a great possibility that your pure memory might not be native to the national memory—the traditions or customs and history in the national memory. You may aspire to rhyme, but even the hair-like interval is like a whole region of lacuna where a thousand and one agencies of mediation distort, constrict, and twist the language of your pure and native memory about the native memory of the nation. It is your bounden duty, therefore and if truly you so desire, to merge the language of your poetry to the deepest, most intense, and noblest memory of the nation. Only in this manner the most intense and broadest internal unity takes place—the full and entire merging of the pure and native memory of the poet and the pure and native memory of the nation in the language of poetry. Unless all you want is to deceive and because you only want to assert the possibility of creating poetry from the pure memory of the nation by way of your foreign language. You might in fact succeed in such a traitorous undertaking. There are in fact many traitorous advocacies in the world. But only to curtail creative and artistic freedom. Only to imprison the language of poetry within the boundaries of your purest and most native autobiography. [author's emphasis]

The words "pure" and "native" occurred eight times each in that paragraph. Almario is a nationalist writer, probably the foremost Filipino poet in the native language. The argument here assumed a collective, national memory, which Susan Sontag, strictly speaking, would have none of. National memory is of course a useful and convenient fiction, the very same ideal that defined the canon of Philippine literature: the collective work of Filipino writers declared as National Artists. (The problem with this citation was its limitation of the subject matter of literature that is deemed "worthy". One of the criteria for the award is an artist's contribution, through the content and form of her work, "in building a Filipino sense of nationhood". This was a lofty enough criterion, since declaring certain pieces of work as literature of nation building (itself a kind of exercise of genre-building) was always a positive propaganda. But there will come a time when certain brilliant works will appear and they will resist or leave out politico-historical ideas of nationalism and post-colonialism. The tendency to label and lump significant literary works under the rubric of nationalism could curtail the critical imagination.)

Going back to the passage, Almario's romanticization of the "pure and native language" and its correlative in the "national memory" reflected his general prejudice against certain Filipino writers writing in English, specifically American English. 

Modern poetry cannot be liberating if it is under the sway of and unable to free itself from the powerful influence and allure of Americanization. "Writing from English" is therefore merely wordplay, if ever; an aspiration and attempt within the limited freedom that writing in English allows. Limited, because it can only do so much and because it is impossible for an international language to make room for the fully creative freedom of naturalization. Instead, an international language will impose subservience to anyone desirous of its advantages and allure. It has been stated before, and must be admitted, that there are many meaningful elements of the native sensibility and experience that will never have a place in the English language. Cultural and political naturalization has its limits. It is only allowed by the receiving culture up to a point where the naturalized cannot dominate the whole of the native body of culture. On the other hand, "writing from English" might simply be an excuse to absorb English to make it a "native" language, which in fact has always been the intention of literature in English in the Philippines. It is part of the opportunities in reserve for the Americanized Filipino. [author's emphasis]

This form of argumentation can already be considered obsolete if we think of writers like Nick Joaquín, N.V.M. Gonzalez, Carlos Bulosan, and Edith L. Tiempo. All of them very fine writers in English language who were able to beautifully communicate their literary greatness and mastery, naturalization or whatnot. In the end, the measure of nationalism and literary greatness was clearly independent of language. Nationalism was an important subject matter of literature but the latter must not be confined to the straitjacket of labels.

The standard of greatness, moreover, could not be generally attributed to the language a writer uses, be it in poetry or prose. Reading these passages in translation, I suppose, only highlighted the need to look at the "international language" from a broader perspective. An alternative mountain of ideas—on Filipinos and Filipino-Americans' deployment of native feelings in English—could be gleaned from another thoughtful book of literary criticism, Work on the Mountain (1995) by N.V.M. Gonzalez.

Almario's nationalist and post-colonialist stance had its merits. But I tend to agree with Benedict Anderson.

Nothing suggests that Ghanaian nationalism is any less real than Indonesian simply because its national language is English rather than Ashanti. It is always a mistake to treat languages in the way that certain nationalist ideologues treat them – as emblems of nation-ness, like flags, costumes, folk-dances, and the rest. Much the most important thing about language is its capacity for generating imagined communities, building in effect particular solidarities. After all, imperial languages are still vernaculars, and thus particular vernaculars among many. If radical Mozambique speaks Portuguese, the significance of this is that Portuguese is the medium through which Mozambique is imagined (and at the same time limits its stretch into Tanzania and Zambia). Seen from this perspective the use of Portuguese in Mozambique (or English in India) is basically no different than the use of English in Australia or Portuguese in Brazil. Language is not an instrument of exclusion: in principle, anyone can learn any language. On the contrary, it is fundamentally inclusive, limited only by the fatality of Babel: no one lives long enough to learn all languages. Print-language is what invents nationalism, not a particular language per se. [author's emphases]

Traditions and customs and history may be part of national memory. But in the end, we only allowed them to be so as part of the construct of national memory. National imagination may be the mechanism or agency of national memory but it does not or should not favor any language to express its nationalist sentiment. The sense of belonging to a community and how nations come into being—both may be triggered by the call for native resistance against colonizers. At this juncture in history where multiculturalism dissolves barriers and promotes understanding, poetic sensibilities must be free to transact in its own terms and words. No language should be privileged enough to be the modern prescriptive, or to be the rightful conduit of literary imagination and the creative act of becoming. A nation, a person.


  1. I have always been wary of national purity and have often felt a sense of being excluded from the accepted view of what is (in my case) 'Irish". At the end of the day I can no more help being Irish that I wish to be a 'pure' Irishman. One of the more interesting (to me) online trends is the collation of histories around more recent alternative Irishnesses - Irish rock & punk / Irish communism etc. I think memory is a chisel which can be used to chip away at the "noblest memory of the nation" and make caves for all us troglodytes to live in. Purity is death to culture, mongrelisation is life.

  2. Totally. This is a hybrid reality we live in. Talk of purity nowadays is anachronistic. If there is an identity to subscribe on, one might as well apply for the nation of humanity.