12 December 2018

To read the stars

Driftwood on Dry Land by T. S. Sungkit Jr., translated from Cebuano by T. S. Sungkit Jr. (UST Publishing House, 2013)

I. Oral literature

In the age of the printed word, Nick Joaquín shared a damning assessment of the vernacular literature in "Expression in the Philippines", an essay from Culture and History (1988, reprinted 2004 by Anvil Publishing, Inc.) and a book review of Brown Heritage: Essays on Philippine Cultural Tradition and Literature, edited by Antonio G. Manuud (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1967). Joaquín was devaluing the orality of works written in the vernacular, as opposed to works written in English, in his discourse on the Filipino writer's "language problem". (Bear with me on this longish quote.)

A related mystery is the continuing "naivete" of writing in the vernacular, including Tagalog. The language problem of the Filipino writer is usually posed as a choice between the native tongue and a foreign medium. But Bienvenido Lumbera has made a most perceptive redefinition of the problem: the choice is really between a written literature and an oral one. The modern writer writes to be read; it’s not so much his training in English as the readership he would reach that obliges the 20th-century Filipino to write in English. However well he may know Tagalog, he cannot write in it because, in a sense, Tagalog is not yet a written language. What Tagalog literally has is an audience that does not so much read print as listen to it, the way it listened to bard or storyteller in pre-Hispanic times. It’s still in the age of the ballad, not yet in the age of prose.

Says Lumbera:

One of the fantastic ironies of the literary history of Tagalog writing is that much of the poetry produced seems to have been written as though it were meant to be oral literature. In spite of the fact that it is through the magazines that poetry is disseminated, poets continue to write poems that are often effective declamation pieces but hardly worth anything as reading material. This is an indication that the Tagalog poet has yet to come to terms with the printing press. But he cannot ignore much longer the fact that literature today is more often read than heard. If he is to command more than passing attention, he has to enthrall the reader with what he can do with the written language, such as illuminate the individual's experience of this time and this place. Earlier in our history, the Tagalog poet was a singer. In our time, he can remain a singer only when he accepts that, first of all, he is a writer.

Earlier in our history, the Tagalog poet was a singer. That should provoke a reinspection of certain assumptions about our pre-Hispanic culture – for instance, the claim that we were all highly literate then. But if we were so literate, what did we read? All the evidence, including that of today, points to an oral literature. The supposed writings on tree bark could not have amounted to a book culture, if by book we mean writing for permanence. And the further argument that our books were destroyed by friar and conquistador merely leads to a damaging question: Where, then, are the undestroyed libraries of the Moros? The Moros claim to have had the most advanced culture in the islands circa 1521, but even today theirs is not yet a book culture. The literature they have is, like the Tagalog, still mainly an oral literature.

Still mainly an oral literature. Joaquin's offense – for his judgement is offensive – was the typical denigration and snobbish temperament of the Filipino literary establishment-slash-imperial Manila leveled against Tagalog and other vernacular writing. One of my prized finds in the recent Manila International Book Fair held three months ago was the supposed writings on tree bark, or bamboo, for that matter: Bamboo Whispers: Poetry of the Mangyan (Bookmark, 2017).

I opened this debate on the Filipino writer's language problem – if this could be considered a problem at all in the first place – precisely because one Filipino writer was able to skirt around this problem when faced by a choice between writing in English and Cebuano. T.S. Sungkit Jr., in his novel Mga Gapnod sa Kamad-an, gave two correctives in fact. First, he basically ignored the language problem (choosing between English and Cebuano) and celebrated the oral tradition of epic literature. Second, he wrote in both by translating into English his own novel originally written in Cebuano. And it was ironic that we (I) could only appreciate these correctives after reading Driftwood on Dry Land.

Orality was what propelled this novel's aesthetic registers as myth, as legend, as epic. As it navigates a native peoples' history of a hinterland, the novel succeeded in part because of its singular design and its deep respect for the oral storytelling of the past.

I am that lad. I am that young man. I, who am now nearing the sunset of my days. I, who will narrate to you now the stories I've heard from my grandfather. I, who now believe all the predictions about us who are like driftwood on dry land. I am writing this in the hope that someday, one of my descendants will learn how to read the stars.

The novel was populated by driftwood-like drifters who inhabited the island of Mindanao and who were now adrift in their land of birth like internal exiles: displaced, driven away, marginalized. It began fairy tale-like or Biblical story-like during a time of plenty, when "rice grains were the size of a fist" and "rice plants ... could grow as high as palms", when men and women could live up to 250 years old, and life was guided by maxims so simple as to resemble clichés.

It was a peaceful night. The stars made the sky look like a white sandy beach. Everything was touched by a cool and gentle breeze. The chattering of a brook could be heard in the stillness of the night. The chorus of the insects called kulaleng could also be heard along with the sporadic hooting of an owl from a big balete tree overlooking the Kulaman River. The cogon grasses were swaying in the cool and gentle breeze. Even the few remaining trees seemed at peace in making the birds roost. Like the trees, those birds were already nearing extinction.

It would take a different kind of reading metabolism to get acquainted to the folkloric pace and rhythm of the prose. The telling was at times simple and direct, preserved as they traveled as if by word of mouth from one end of the village to another, from one generation to another. At times it could get incantatory and lyrical in its anger, wonder, and despair. It recapitulated the whole history of Mindanao Island, in southern Philippines, the land now known for its never-ending conflict and struggle for peace and justice.

The beginning was the time of the gods and personages with special abilities, a time of enchantment and magic: far longer than the time immemorial now used as a benchmark to lay claim to ancestral domains by indigenous peoples and indigenous cultural communities. The ancestors of those times were powerful. Magic was commonplace.

Our present-day story has its beginnings then when one day at mid-noon, Buuy Manlugong saw a vision.

So please listen. For this is our origin.

The captive audience was beholden to the teller of the tale who built words and metaphors out of the natural world and the blood and sacrifices of the Lumad (native inhabitants) of Mindanao. What repaid their interest was the mystical and imaginative ways the storyteller combined mythology, ethnography, and fantasy to create a unique blend of postcolonial fiction. For the lengthy duration of the tale, the listeners were rapt in attention because they respect the wisdom and experience of the storyteller.

"Before I answer your questions, I'll first narrate how we arrived into these times according to the stories of our parents."

And so Datu Mambulalakaw told his people about their race since the first great gathering in Tag-olowan which was led by Buuy Manlugong. He traced all the events up to the arrival of the alien Castilians all the way to the noontime when he saw a vision. His narration was even longer than a taltag for it was already a long time since such gathering had been called. It lasted for three weeks. And even in that duration, he was not able to tell everything.

Significant events became the baselines to reckon time, such that new tales hereafter were referred to previous events (e.g., "in the time of Mampur", "up to the arrival of the alien Castilians all the way to the noontime when he saw a vision"). New tales piled up on top of old ones. Each time a new story commenced, the previous ones were consolidated, and summarized up to a certain point.

Sungkit's novel was also a work history in the form of imaginative fiction, taking in the arrival of foreign religious influences which were eventually imbibed by ancient peoples and still prevalent up to now. Wars were frequent: "As the inhabitants of the island multiplied steadily, quarrels over boundaries started to occur." But this was an origin story (the peopling of Mindanao) filtered through the prisms of colonialism and neocolonialism: the provenance of old words, events, and legends giving way to historical fractures and disruptions. The modern interpretation was rather flamboyant and reckless, appropriating knowledge and references from ancient lore and artifacts. (I was amused of a borrowed images of the Manunggul Jar from Palawan and the Great Wall of China.)

Although presented from the perspective of the colonized, the non-domesticated English translation carried over many native words whose meanings (etymologies and even modern usage) were given in context or explicated in footnotes. The copious names of characters and places were constant: the deliberate mapping of unknown or forgotten aspects of Mindanao history, details that were consigned to cultural history and anthropological curiosity. The non-linear, episodic narrative kept being disrupted by external forces (new colonizers, new waves of migration to Mindanao). And yet, after all was said and done, the teller kept circling back to previous poetic images, motifs, and reference codes. Time dilation and time contraction – reliable agents of disruption in fiction of imaginative history – were resorted to at will.

Readers unfamiliar with Philippine, let alone Mindanao, history could resemble the title of the book. Like driftwood journeying from shore to shore, they might get lost in transit and the historical references and waves of events unfolding. But they could readily sense the broad outlines of the history of a people who time and time again faced colonial injustices against outsiders who brought harm and injury to life, property, and lifeways.

Reference was made to Sungkit's first published novel, Batbat hi Udan (Central Book Supply, 2009), a novel in Filipino which I have been trying to locate for some time now but seemed out of print already. Sungkit, who writes in four languages – Higaonon, Cebuano, Filipino, and English – had difficulty publishing his original Cebuano language novel because "there seems to be no mainstream publishing for Cebuano literary outputs". He already finished writing Agalon sa mga Balod (Lord of the Waves) – a sequel to Driftwood, which hopefully would also be translated so that one could luxuriate in the waves of more magical oral storytelling, more disruptive historical narratives, and language problem corrective.

II. Counter-literature

Another critical corrective was at work in the pages of Driftwood, one that was evident in the latter half of the book. It opened up the debate on – or rather challenges – the constitutive power of national literature. In its direct confrontation with colonial and postcolonial agents and its goal of erecting a native, tribal history of the Lumad, Driftwood on Dry Land was a corrective to the centric "national" literature of the Philippines. "The Unending Conflict", the title of the final and longest chapter in the book, gave a glimpse of this corrective in this scene of Japanese invasion of Mindanao in World War II.

The time of trouble arrived one morning. A boat landed with fully armed men called bow-legged by the elders, landed in Dabaw. The Americans were caught by surprise. The people called Filipinos, who were with the Americans, were also surprised. They fought along with the Americans but they lost badly.

I highlighted the phrase above – and the other phrases below – to show how the novelist, through the narrator, exhibited non-identification, almost ambivalence, with the national identity. This was understandable. The Lumad faced one of the most systematic erasures of cultural identity in Philippine history, gross violation of human rights, and involuntary participants in "the unending conflict" that plagued parts of Mindanao then and now.

"One of them said that he will return," said Amay Pidyong when they talked about it at the ilian in Idong. "He [General Douglas MacArthur] was very tall and very white. I'm sure he's an American. But I think the other man with him has the same height with me."

"Then who do you think was that man who came with the American?" asked one of their cousins.

"Well, I really don't know," said Amay Pidyong. But his family was with him. He seemed to be a high ranking official." Amay Pidyong then had no idea that the man was the president of the nation called the Philippines.

Again, Mindanao was as if apart from the nation called the Philippines, as if the people of Mindanao were not living in a Philippine territory. All pointed to the idea that this meta-history or counter-history was in fact counter-literature, running kontrapelo (against the grain of) the constituted national literature.

When the Japanese were booted out from the island, the so-called Filipinos had the government in their hands. Most of the officials were Dumagats but the people knew that it was actually the Americans who gave the real orders. The situation was clear for everyone to see throughout the island.

This was but the acknowledged consensus that the post-war Philippines was nothing but an American-sponsored government, given the neocolonial policies in the islands that practically yielded sovereignty to previous colonizers (Americans and Japanese), the caciques (landed), and the elite. The Dumagats (people who arrived from the sea; essentially outsiders) were the new ruling class running Mindanao, including the diminishing ancestral lands of the Lumad.

Driftwood thereby emerged from outside of centric literature, from the periphery, so to speak. It was directly imagined as apart from national (Philippine) literature, in so far as that literature also emerged from revolutionary and anti-colonial stirrings against the Spanish regime in the 19th century. This consciously decentered literature culminated in further aggression against the indigenous peoples in the southern island via the deforestation and systematic despoiling of natural resources and, later, the massacres perpetrated by an extremist paramilitary group in the 1970s.

It was during those years when the influx of a myriad of people from Luzon and Visayas reached its peak. The news spread that Mindanaw was a promised land. And through the help of the government and some American missionaries, the aliens took root in the wide and fertile plains. It did not take long for some Japanese businessmen to see that they could cut trees on the island. They could use the trees to rebuild the houses in their country which were destroyed by war. The frenzied cutting of trees started. The island was crammed with logging companies. This phenomenon added to the influx of men from Visayas and Luzon.


Soon, the thudding of felled trees echoed in the forest. Many places suddenly had roads so that the logging trucks could haul the logs. The areas which were uninhabited once were occupied by settlers who were usually workers of the logging companies.

At this point the tone of the novel shifted from epic storytelling to contemporary political realities. It was already obvious that the period of magic and enchantment was replaced by neoliberal market economy orientation. The gods no longer descended the earth to talk to warriors and wise elders who in turn told of tales of blessed past alongside future anxieties and dark presentiments. This shift or disruption was the most pronounced in the novel. To train oneself to read between genres or between tonal shifts in hybrid texts, adjustments in reading metabolism could point toward much-needed correctives to Western hegemonic tradition. The map was in the constellation of stories handed down from generation to generation.

He realized that for him to learn how to read the stars, he must remember all things that were already written in the history of their race.

All things were thus remembered and transmuted into old forms and words of mouth. The counsel of the past was the covert mantra of the story. Later, the wind whispered it again to our narrator, the novelist: Gather all the stories to know what the future brings.

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