03 September 2016

Juanita Cruz

Juanita Cruz by Magdalena Gonzaga Jalandoni, tr. Ofelia Ledesma Jalandoni (The University of the Philippines Press, 2006)

With my reading of Juanita Cruz by Magdalena G. Jalandoni (1891-1978), I have completed (save for one other out of print Jalandoni book) my reading list of Filipino women novelists in translation. It was a refreshing experience, particularly since Juanita Cruz was as entertaining as it was rewarding in its old-fashioned milieu and barely melodramatic storytelling.

This was only the second novel translated from Hiligaynon language that I read. From what I gather there were only four of them translated so far, a pair of novels each by Ramon Muzones (1913-1992) and Jalandoni, the two leading novelists in the Hiligaynon language and the two most heavily debated in terms of which writer from Hiligaynon better deserves the title "National Artist for Literature".

The National Artist award is, of course, the highest and most coveted prize given to Filipino artists, including writers, alive or dead, in recognition for their body of work. Like any other literary prize on the face of the earth that was decided by fallible human beings, the National Artist in the Philippines was a political exercise and was not exempted from ugly controversies and abuse of authority. The controversy in 2009 was even elevated to the Supreme Court which found (decision here) that "the former President committed grave abuse of discretion" in choosing several individuals as National Artists.

Jalandoni and Muzones were two hapless Hiligaynon novelists pitted against each other for the National Artist award. No writers writing in languages other than in English and Filipino had been awarded so far.

According to translator Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava, in her prefatory essay to Shri-Bishaya, the second novel of Muzones that she translated, Muzones is "the most awarded Hiligaynon Writer of the Century ... and its most likely candidate for National Artist." She considered Muzones a better writer than Jalandoni and the more deserving of literary awards such as the Republic Cultural Heritage Award conferred to Jalandoni in 1969.

Leoncio P. Deriada, in an introduction to Shri-Bishaya, categorically crowned Muzones as "the greatest Hiligaynon writer":

Certainly, there is a good number of detractors – all women – who think it is Magdalena G. Jalandoni who deserves this honor. These detractors have read a lot of Jalandoni, but sadly, I doubt if they have read enough of Muzones.

What makes [for] good literature anyway? Among other things, literature must be enjoyable reading. Reading Jalandoni's prose is a torture. If we are looking for greatness, we will find it in her poetry, not in her prose.

The problem with the Philippine literary landscape was that it was a very small field. Writers rubbed shoulders against each other or rubbed other writers the wrong way. Even dead writers were not exempt from posthumous postmortem.

According to Virgilio S. Almario—himself a National Artist—in a foreword to Locsin-Nava's translation of Margosatubig which appeared in 2012, Locsin-Nava's critique of Jalandoni made her a kontrabida in the eyes of Jalandoni's supporters.

After reading the translation of Margosatubig, I myself have started to wonder why the Jalandonistas would prefer her to Muzones. Because she is a woman writer and he is a male chauvinist? Because she remained detached from hometown politics while he indulged in it and was a politician until his old age? Or more nonchalantly kuno [so to speak], because she is rich and he is poor?

He offered a challenge to the Jalandonistas, his term for the followers of Jalandoni.

I wonder now what literary qualities the Jalandonistas saw in the ga-bundok [mountain-high] output of Jalandoni. Well, this is my challenge to them: Unless they come out with a greater study and translation of their favorite's works, Cecile's [Locsin-Nava's] books have earned my support for Muzones as a National Artist.

Perhaps unbeknown to Almario, there were already two published translations of Jalandoni's novels: Juanita Cruz (translated by her niece Ofelia Ledesma Jalandoni and published in 2006 by The UP Press) and The Lady in the Market (translated in 1976 by Edward D. Defensor who was also the first to translate Margosatubig in 1979). Lucila V. Hosillos, who wrote the foreword and introductory essay to Juanita Cruz, herself wrote a study of the writer in Interactive Vernacular, National Literature: Magdalena G. Jalandoni's Juanita Cruz as Constituent of Filipino National Literature. To my mind, Hosillos made a convincing case for Jalandoni in her essay which highlighted the novelist's aesthetic sensibility and style; her treatment of Philippine life and society as compared to José Rizal, N.V.M. Gonzalez, and Nick Joaquín; and her perception of the writer's singular brand of feminism that is distinct from Western feminism and that is closely integrated to her deep nationalism.

The characteristics that Almario was looking for in literary criticism of regional literatures were present, I think, in Hosillo's appreciation of the novel Juanita Cruz. This was a form of criticism that incorporates cultural and literary context and background to the discussion of the art of the regional novel.

The first big problem, I think, is the need for thorough and knowledgeable literary criticism of our regional literatures. It is true that all Philippine literatures share a common history and thus some mainstream characteristics. But there are particulars—details, deviations, innovations—which are found in one regional literature and not in others. These particulars can only be articulated through a criticism which is intimately familiar with each and every nuance of a regional literature. This kind of criticism will contribute to a delineation of every regional literature's history, and ultimately, to the fashioning of a truly national literary history. What we need is the emergence of good critics who are dedicated to the regional literatures of the country. Such a good critic must be well-informed about the region's culture and the literary traditions available in the region, as well as the national literary situation, and, most importantly has a Taste (as Kant would define it) for the genius of the region.

The "second big problem" for Almario is the lack of translations of regional literature in the country. Only through translations can many readers adjudge for themselves the virtue of one writer over the other. Non-Hiligaynon readers would not be able to confirm or verify the competing claims of the two camps without the aid of competent translators like Ma. Cecilia Locsin-Nava and Ofelia Ledesma Jalandoni. A sense of greatness of the two novelists in question could only be detected once a good selection from their prodigious outputs were 'bridged' in translation. Only then can the literary arbiters of award giving bodies—majority of whom does not speak the regional language in question—would be able to render a wise decision.

As can be seen in the footnotes in the Supreme Court decision, Jalandoni's name was included up to the third round of nomination before losing out to Lazaro Francisco. The Muzonistas and Jalandonistas had to work overtime in their advocacy.

To date, I only read one book each by Muzones and Jalandoni and certainly was not qualified to make sweeping judgements like Prof. Deriada. I am not even sure if Deriada has read Juanita Cruz. In that novel, I believe Deriada's claim about Jalandoni's writing—that reading her prose is a torture—fails to convince. In his piece, Deriada would later backtrack in his damning assessment and say, "aside from Cebuano Resil Mojares, only Muzones and Jalandoni deserve to be national artists." And then he reiterated, "if it is between Muzones and Jalandoni, I will always vote for Muzones" as national artist.

But why should there be room for only one National Artist for a novelist writing in Hiligaynon? Why do the Muzonistas keep insisting on gender politics over the anointment of Jalandoni by her supporters? Why are the critics not engaging with these writers beyond personal biases?

* * *

Juanita Cruz revolved around the life of its eponymous heroine, who was a delicate and extremely beautiful woman from an aristocratic, landowning family in Iloilo City in central Philippines. It was easy to see why certain readers might be put off by what appears at the surface to be a melodramatic story of a love affair between a beautiful woman of means (Juanita/Nita/Inday) and a poor handsome seminarian with a beautiful singing voice (Ely/Elias Navarro). Nita's materialist family was against the poor guy so their love was kept a secret. The period of the novel was the latter part of the nineteenth century, squarely in the Spanish era in the Philippines, at a time when women from aristocratic families were not given free rein to choose their husband. Arranged marriages were the norm, and Nita's family was bent on having her marry the wealthy and influential Spanish governor's son. Nita rebelled against her parents and brothers. She was persecuted and physically hurt by her father for her impertinence, practically made an outcast by her own family when she was accused of losing her virginity to her lover Ely, and consequently disinherited, divested of all of her family's wealth and possessions. Thence she ran away.

What was apparent was that this was a very humanist novel in that it concerned itself with the yearning for freedom and self-determination. The story traced a woman's nascent feminism and nationalism coming into full force through her liberation from her family's dogmatic materialism and patriarchal orientation. Her coming into a strong sense of self and self-worth was delineated through careful pacing and slow expository style that nonetheless exhibited its own tension and suspense.

For me, there were two aspects of the novel that made it ultimately a modern one: its repetitiveness and the small inconsistencies in the details of same stories retold by others. Different characters narrated versions of the same stories to Nita or to other people, and either there were redundancies in the stories being told (several times by different people) or there were small details that were in conflict to what was previously narrated. At first the clunky repetitiveness of the story made it ... well, clunky. But one realized that the repetitive stories from various perspectives slowly filled the gaps, for Nita's (and the reader's) benefit, of what went on in her home after she left it. Jalandoni may or may not be mimicking the mechanism of fickle memory. Her writing style, as described by Hosillo, certainly testified to this tendency. 

In Jalandoni's case, most of the intervals between novels were a matter of months, for even before she finished a story another one obsessed her. Inventiveness she ascribed to her fertile and boundless handurawan (imagination). It is obvious in her unpublished autobiography, Ang Matam-is Ko nga Kahapon (My Sweet Yesteryears), written in 1966, that she was not only precocious but also prodigious. As the stories sprouted out of her imagination and cascaded through her pen to her notebook, she did not look back to her just finished text to edit it. A new story gnawed at her until she had lived through its artistic process, which she would finish hurriedly to embark on another artistic journey. It was all she could do to capture and imprison through pen, ink, and paper the characters, dialogues, subjects, situations, and other elements that overwhelmed her. This is characteristic of writers with so much to write about and who are carried away by the narrative after they had given life to their characters in their fictional world. There was no time to edit and rewrite, to compress and stylize. Let the critics complain, the readers were waiting and the writer had more journeys of the imagination to take.

Perhaps this "speed writing" mode was what gave her slowly unfolding plot its internal forward steam and momentum. Moreover, as Hosillo noted, "the time of the narrative instance in relation to the story" of Nita's life was "in the past, and the narration is in the past tense. Yet Jalandoni's artistry creates the duration of the narrative as if the narrativized act is instantaneous with the story, so that this narrativization is in the present tense." This instantaneous realism, if one may call it like that, sustained the reader's interest in a novel of domestic life and relationships. The effect was not unlike Muzones's in his epic stories full of magic and action.

The tricky handling of memory was justified early on in the novel's "Prologue."

I would like to ask my dear readers to bear with me for not being exact with the events and my corresponding age in this my narrative. I can no longer remember the exact days, months, and years of my experiences for in my old age my memory can no longer ascertain the glimmering past of the decades.

This disclaimer was, if I'm not mistaken, the only instance in which the author made a direct address to the reader, an intrusion that, as Hosillo wrote, was practically absent in the entire narrative.

Although there is a narrator, a first-person one at that, who is a participant in the story, the narrator is so distant from the author that she could not be identified with the author. It is precisely the "I-ness" of the narrator that distances the story from the author. Had Nita been a witness-narrator or observer, it would be easier to identify her with the author. Such distance imbues the protagonist-narrator with a perspective entirely her own, free and independent of the author. And nowhere does the author intrude to make herself heard, felt, or noticed.

That non-intrusion was what made Juanita entirely believable and sympathetic. Even if she admired her own beauty in the mirror, adorned by expensive clothes and blinding jewelries of "diamond solitaires", her pride was true and without a touch of narcissism and conceit. Even the dialogues between the two lovers were surprisingly not as syrupy and pa-tweetums as the ones heard in current local drama serials shown in TV.

From her secret love for a man to her "secret love" for country, Juanita Cruz was an essay on the emergence of feminist and nationalist consciousness in an individual who asserted her right and freedom to love as she pleases.

* * *

The National Artist award is one of the biggest jokes in Philippine literary history. Every expert had an opinion and everyone had a candidate but the true and deserving winners were not (yet) selected, and may be not even considered in the first place. Wilfrido D. Nolledo, the best modern Filipino novelist in English, was not a National Artist. Linda Ty-Casper was not a National Artist. Edgardo M. Reyes was passed on. The innovative novelist Rosario de Guzman Lingat was not included. The confirmation of the excellent actress Nora Aunor as National Artist for Film was rejected. The Jalandonistas and Muzonistas are still fighting it out for a place for their writer of choice.

As long as the same "national" tastemakers who were quick to blame gender politics were given the right to nominate and vote in this political and politicized exercise, the in-breeding of stale literary ideas and ideologies will continue to prosper in our "nationalist" literature and will continue to marginalize the genius of our regional and vernacular letters. As long as important works remain untranslated, unpublished, undistributed, out of print, the important readership and the very important powers-that-be will remain imprisoned by their limited perception of greatness.

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