A CASE FOR LITERATURE AS CRUCIAL FOR IDENTITY AND MEMORY
As an AB Literature student, I certainly expected to be taught the Western canon for my undergraduate education. Homer, Virgil, Alighieri, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Flaubert, Kafka, Proust, Camus — weren’t these the names we see in every academic reading list?
But by the middle of my four-year-course, I found myself in a required class called Lit 161: Philippine Literature in English. There I discovered an entire roster which includes Yuson, Apostol, Batacan, Gamalinda, along with the usual greats NVM Gonzalez, F.Sionil Jose, Kerima Polotan. I remember thinking, we are so rich in talent and even richer with stories.
It was also when I wept over a book unlike I have ever before. The text was Nolledo’s But for the Lovers, a novel anchored on the story of a young Filipina who was closely guarded by Spanish, Japanese, and American figures. Clearly, it was a story of our young nation in the shadow of colonial powers. At the time I could only think that while we may aspire to be like the Greeks, draw similarities from international neighbors, none can ever move my heart much as one who tells tales of the Filipino.
Just recently, I saw the movie Saving Sally and amidst the possibly alienating live-action animation style they used for the film, a few things were deeply recognisable. For one, the young woman was a fan of fishballs. Not only a generic kind of fishball, but the famed U.P. fishballs. Though it is only part to notice her choice of snack and altogether another thing to see her slurping all the sauce left from the disposable cardboard saucer as uniquely Filipino. I may not have tasted it, but I can be sure as the sun would rise tomorrow that it was one made out of salt, sugar, vinegar, soy sauce, with floating bits of red and green spring onions.
And how could it be that Sally, who had the capacity to create a rocket ship in her secret workshop, was left to pin fresh laundry on a series of clotheslines? She also obviously did not think of inventing a dishwasher, so every plate she had to rinse and dry one by one. It’s 2017, but the Philippines is still more solar and manual than electric, and this is why we can receive the movie today, for this is the way that we still are.
But perhaps Sally is the Filipino from Manila. So we might want to ask where are the other Filipinos from the regions? As Wordsworth painted his countryside, Carlos Angeles describes the habit of our coastal fronts in “Gabu.”
The vital splendor misses. For here, here
At Gabu where the ageless tide recurs
All things forfeited are most loved and dear.
It is the sea pursues a habit of shores.
Gabu is in Ilocos Norte, a Philippine region of restless battering from the sea and storm, which only news coverages could only inform us Manileños about. But those are merely reports, while Angeles reminds us of the fate of our countrymen up north.
NVM Gonzales in A Season of Grace, also lulls us all to the unremarkable days of the agricultural Filipino. It was the text purposed to activate my compassion for the man whom I hired to drive me to work every day. He was from a crops and kaingin culture, as were Sabel and Doro. Though I’ve been served by this faithful staff all these years, it took a work of Philippine fiction to provide insight into the life of a non-global, non-cosmopolitan Filipino; he who inhaled the very same air I did in my car every single working day.
The truth is that we are a fragmented nation. After all, we have more than 7,000 islands. If we want to talk diversity, it isn’t hard to find it here. I have been to Batanes some years ago, and it was astonishing to see how people lived without being consistently connected. At the lobby I asked for the password, but the lady tells me their internet is not working and so I wanted to know, when it will be fixed? “Maybe next year,” she answers. Maybe, and next year? This standard was unbelievable for someone like me. Yet it was the way of life for them, who are governed by howling winds and regularly cancelled flights. But guess what? They are also Filipino.
And not only are we fragmented, but also forgetful. This was an astounding discovery I made while working on my thesis. My text was Butch Dalisay’s Soledad’s Sister, a story of an OFW’s homecoming, albeit dead in her coffin. Since I was on the subject of women and nation, I gravitated toward the crucial works of Hau, Tajar, and Choy. The last of them was most responsible for unlocking pivotal information as I interpreted the text as rooted in the American Dream. In Choy’s work on Empire of Care, she shows that nursing schools were built by the Americans on our soil as early as 1906. Yet decades down the line we see how the best of our nurses continue to fly to the U.S. and how more of them are training only to leave our land. Today, we have a good number of migrants providing care for other nations, with families left behind who are half here and half with migrated minds. Again, it was Philippine fiction that brought me this far. A literary text that was not even more than 204 pages.
During holidays, it is my son who naturally receives the most gifts. Shiny and colorful plastics, if not apparel printed with his favorite characters. Surprisingly, none of those gifts he would visit daily. Yet the photo book my sister-in-law gave our family, he browsed every morning. “That’s me and papa and mama.” “That’s in Istanbul.” “Philip is a baby.” “That’s in the new house.” It is amazing to watch how a young child, in the effort of understanding the self, stitches a personal story and puts together his own narrative, some true, some added. We’d have to keep these photos, documentation, and stories always at hand, I realize. For we are all bound to forget.
The great Gemino H. Abad says, “a people without memory has no country.” But what do we do when forgetting is inevitable? “All profound changes in consciousness…bring with them characteristic amnesias,” says Benedict Anderson. He further proves his point by recounting that even though the thousands of days passing between infancy and early adulthood, direct recall simply vanishes. And so he proposes that documents, like photographs and birth records, help one to formulate identity, which, “because it cannot be ‘remembered,’ must be narrated.”
Here I come at last for my call to action. If a sole human being, with a single history and identity cannot possibly remember everything then what more nations? And how can we even begin working through the geographical, now ideological and political, fragmentation? My answer? Stories. Narratives. And yes, fiction. Read and write it, to remind us of who we once were, who we are today, and how we’d like to be tomorrow. Perhaps a better sense of self will emerge, and hopefully, a better sense of future.
Note: This piece originally appeared on Panorama, perhaps within the first quarter of 2017.