In the public mind, the writer is often regarded as a romantic if not a heroic figure. All too often, we are evaluated on the basis of our writing alone, our so-called artistry. Seldom are we regarded as ordinary mortals, capable of sin, of corruption, even betrayal. This we must not forget particularly in writers' conferences such as this where we are lifted to high pedestals.
We should ask again what is it that we writers really do. To be mundane about it, we tell stories, we entertain. We like to think, however that we are not just simple entertainers. Dignify, ennoble the writer then. Whether mediocre or brilliant, the writer is important to his people, his nation. The written word as journalism is history in a hurry. The written world as literature is history that is lived. The writer then is the tenacious keeper of memory, and without this memory, there is no nation.
Look back then into ourselves, into our past these many years. Look back in anger, in sorrow, but look back without any mote in our eyes. Have we transcended our families? Our ethnic loyalties? Are we paving the way to nationhood?
My first real experience with literature happened when I was ten years old and in Grade 5. My teacher, Ms. Soledad Oriel, found out that I loved reading and she gave me the very first novels I read, Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Willa Cather's My Antonia and that Spanish classic, Don Quixote de la Mancha.
I was immediately engrossed with Rizal's Noli. When I came to the part where the brothers Crispin and Basilio were wrongly accused of thievery, I was so stricken by the injustice of it all, I wept. Rizal of course, clearly defined his purpose. He wanted a robust and free Filipino nation. More than a hundred years after his martyrdom, are we that nation now?
In 1955, the United States Department of State invited me to visit America for six months. Among my memorable experiences from that year was an afternoon spent with the American poet, Robert Frost, at his cabin in Ripton, Vermont. He was then already in his 80s but still hale and alert. He said that when America invaded the Philippines in 1898 several Americans including himself had strongly objected. It was unthinkable that a country that had won its freedom by revolution would now stop another country from doing the same. He asked me, after all these years, what is the American record in the Philippines?
My copy of Complete Poems of Robert Frost, which he graciously inscribed at his cabin in August 1955.
The American literary experience is instructive. Early American literature, being an import from England, was much influenced by the European romantic tradition. Then sometime in the early 18th century, Ralph Waldo Emerson suggested that American writers must break away from Europe and celebrate America. The appeal was accepted by a new breed of American writers--Walt Whitman, Willa Cather, Herman Melville, Edith Wharton--they brought about the "flowering of New England," and after them, the agrarian writers, Eugene O'Neill, Faulkner, then Hemingway, Fitzgerald, the Harlem Renaissance, gave American literature its sinews. They also defined a nation. And remember, they didn’t attend workshops and got MFAs and Ph.Ds.
In the 1950s and 1960s, I was able to travel widely. It was a time of frenzied post-World War II reconstruction as well as rethinking. I met academics, writers who became friends. I am particularly fond of the Korean-American writer, Richard Kim, Hirabayashi Taiko of Japan, Mochtar Lubis of Indonesia and Edwin Thumboo of Singapore. Though our backgrounds were totally different, we had a felicitous meeting of minds. They were all politically engaged, concerned with government, institutions, liberty and, most of all, ethics. They believed in integrity and above all justice. They wrote beautifully while watching their countries emerge from the rubble of war and mature and prosper. I too wrote and wrote, but saw my unhappy country flourish briefly and then decay.
Let us now turn to the literature spawned by workshops and literary studies. I've read a lot of them and found much of them finely crafted but without blood, sweat and iron. Pages and pages of massaged and boring verbiage. All those American-inspired culture models, have they made us better Filipino writers and artists? I emphasize the term Filipino. Are they appropriate for us? Maybe it's time we do away with these writing courses and replace them with heavy doses of history, philosophy, anthropology, and the Eastern and Western classics.
I have said many times that colonialism is not dead; it lives on in the attitudes embedded on the colonized, their sense of inferiority. Their hankering for acceptance and appreciation in the lands of colonizers.
Colonialism has morphed and taken new forms and assumed new names. Globalization is one of them. It has also mutated--the new colonizers are not necessarily the farangs, the foreigners anymore. Our oppressors are now our own elites. As writers, do we recognize this?
When Random House finally published me in the 1980s, my work had already been translated into several Asian and European languages. My editor at Random, Samuel S. Vaughan, was formerly president of Doubleday. When Doubleday was bought by Random, Sam was retained as senior editor. He had a prestigious record; he was also the editor of President Eisenhower and that American writing guru, Wallace Stegner. I told him, do whatever you wish with my manuscripts, but do not make me less Filipino.
The Russians were the first to translate my novels. My Russian translator, Igor Podberezky, was Russia's foremost Philippine specialist. He studied at the University of the Philippines; his Tagalog was archaic Balagtas but he also spoke my sidewalk Tagalog. I asked Igor if the Russians published me because they saw some Marxism in my fiction. He dismissed my comment and said: there are hundreds of talented Marxists in Russia and Eastern Europe and of course in Asia. No, he emphasized, we published you in Russia because you express the Filipino condition beautifully and we want to learn more about your people.
I mentioned in the beginning of this presentation how Rizal's novel had affected me. Our national hero is the greatest influence in my life as a writer. I now realize that my major theme--our search for social justice and a moral order--echoes Rizal's. Roots! Whatever they are which enliven, inspire and sustain you--recognize them and nurture them with passion for it is they that will make you endure. Our country--the land. Yes, the land!
In Boris Pasternak's Dr. Zhivago are some of the most beautiful descriptions of the Russian winter and spring. This is how a writer articulates his love of his native land. But the Soviets did not allow him to go to Stockholm in 1965 to receive the Nobel Prize; they decreed, he did not love Russia enough. Read Manuel Arguila's lyrical evocation of the Ilokos countryside. They, too, express his love of country not just with words. He fought our oppressors, the Japanese, for which reason they killed him.
So then, what else do have I say to young Filipinos who are determined to write?
First and foremost, be honest with yourselves. Celebrate our country, our Filipinoness. Write not only for yourself but for our people. Be true to them as you will be true to yourself. Be contextual. Be involved and politically aware of our peoples' problems. Be engaged, and be able to identify our enemies. Look closely at what you are doing--you maybe one of them without knowing it.
What is your vision of our future? Our lives--have they any meaning at all? Must art be moral? When we ask these ancient questions, we then come face to face with our humanity. Bertolt Brecht said, "We who want the world to be kind cannot ourselves be kind" for man's greatest failing is his own inhumanity.
And now I return to Mr. Frost's question about American colonial rule. I gave his question a bit of thought then said, I suppose it turned out to be all right; if not for the public school system that the Americans brought, I'd most probably be an unlettered peasant today.
But I knew even then that my answer was not complete. I recall an African's response to European colonialism: They told us to go to Church, close our eyes and pray. We did but when we opened our eyes, our lands were gone.
I should have said, the Americans told us to go to school to get educated, and we did. But after we had become educated, something in us was gone. Our dreams perhaps, our identities, our Filipinoness. This we must now ask ourselves and be honest with our reply.
Are you aware of our own literary traditions? Have you used them creatively?
We all know that art and literature have no borders in the sense that the imagination has no boundaries. But what is the purpose of art? Does the artist have any responsibilities? Should his people, his country command his loyalty as much as his art? Does a particular novel or story ridicule us? For a Filipino to denigrate us and profit from it is beyond contempt. So does the movie maker who portrays us as savages and without redeeming qualities.
Are you in touch with the young? I have been speaking before high school students and teachers. Every so often young people visit me as if I were some oracle. Their dexterity with the new technologies amazes me. But at the same time I am appalled by their ignorance of our history, our culture. I was shocked to hear some of them describe Marcos as our "best" President. How did my generation fail to tell them the truth? I am deeply saddened to realize I have not reached them no matter how hard I tried. Who will teach them the truth? Will they listen at all?
It brings to mind my own youth--and a friend who also wrote. I edited my college paper and so did he. We shared a common past and we often talked about the future with determination and candor. After college we parted ways--he became a lawyer and politician and I continued writing. All through those years, I followed his career--he had become powerful and rich. We were in our fifties when we met again. He rushed to me when he saw me, embraced me then whispered, "Frankie, I hope you understand." But how can I, ever? Does a dream wither with the years and die?
I survived darkness, and looking at the young, eager faces of my visitors. I hope to God that they will, too, that the dream which I know is deep within their hearts will not fade and that it will sustain them through the blight that looms before all of us, the lies that confuse and befoul the air, the dark stain that Marcos cast upon our history.
I pray that they will be brave and strong enough to survive like I did, and prayerfully to prevail, which I did not. What can I tell them, then? I repeat: master the language. It is with words that you shock and surprise, move your reader to pity, to anger and hate. It is with words, too, that you give light, the truth.
Nurse your melancholy--all great literature has lots of it. From where does this melancholy spring? Where else but from our truest knowledge of the brevity of life--God's sweetest gift which we must enjoy while it lasts, which we must endow with meaning to deserve it.
Read, write and rewrite. Forgive, live, and love. But above all, remember.
And finally, all of us know writing is hard labor. In this country, it does not pay, and we are not appreciated. Why then must we persevere, why write at all? I'll tell you why: we will do it because it is compulsion, because it is duty to God and country.
Thank you for listening to this tired old man.