Tuesday, January 01, 2008

F. Sionil Jose's challenge to writers for the new year.


Those of us who have reached this rickety age — who have written this long — we all know that our most important asset is memory, the capacity to remember, to know history, our past, and to retrieve from this treasure trove those artifacts which we then shape so carefully, so lovingly.

Then we hope our puny creation is literature.

Fifty years — to use that tired cliché — is a lot of water under the bridge. What does this half a century tell us, if it tells us anything at all?

For those of you who are oh-so-young, so eager and so hopeful, let this old man repeat what he has said again and again, since that half a century ago: We did not wallow in the muck of corruption, this squalid political moro-moro. We were then the leading nation in Southeast Asia, with a high standard of living next only to Japan. How I strutted then when I visited our backward neighbors. We had the best schools, the best professionals, yes — because we were the best. But what happened?

And so, what has the past taught us — if it did teach us anything at all? What now can you who don’t know ever retrieve from it?

These five decades taught us to know ourselves, our weaknesses, so that we may vanquish them, and our strengths so that we can walk toward the light with firmer steps.
As writers, we know we are not a people who read, although our national hero was a novelist.
And if we have slipped behind, it is because my generation failed. Mea culpa, maxima mea culpa! We did not transcend ourselves.

Alas, we are still Moros and Christians and ethnics. We are Ilokanos, Cebuanos, Maranaos. In all these years, although we have become a modern state with all the institutions of a state, we have not become a nation — and as cultural workers, we should always keep this in mind, that we are the nation builders, although many of us do not recognize this, although our own people do not look at us as the creators of that identity on which a nation is built.

Yes, we are the creators of tradition, and the memory on which that identity rests. I have always said, what is Spain without Cervantes, England without Shakespeare, Greece without Homer, Germany without Goethe? Do you realize, now, how important we are even if our countrymen do not recognize us?

Those of you who are academics know how transitory literary fads are. In the ‘50s it was the New Criticism, followed by Existentialism, Structuralism, Deconstruction. Now the fashion is post-colonialism.

But is colonialism really over? We all know that it is not, that its more pernicious variety is domestic colonialism. McDonald’s, Toyota, Harry Potter — we may not be aware of them as such, but these are the cloying harbingers of domination and control. Listen — the logic of colonialism is exploitation and, therefore, no matter what guise it takes when it beguiles us — to spread Christianity, to make the world safe for democracy, civilization — forget these; colonialism is immoral.

Nick Joaquin was a dear friend, the most decent Filipino writer I know. He was, perhaps, our very best but I fault him with being an apologist for Spanish colonialism. I like America and Americans but nunca — I will never be an apologist for American imperialism.

And so I do pray that we do not become apologists for any form of colonialism, Spanish, American or the domestic variety.

What does Rizal teach us? That all those who leave this country, whether it is our powerful businessmen who send their money abroad, or as writers and teachers who seek greener pastures, all must come back to the native land, to be welded with the soil, for in the end, this is what nationalism truly is — to be with this earth and people.

Rizal wrote in Spanish, not in his native Tagalog; he knew that most of the Filipinos did not read Spanish, that it was the Spaniards and the ilustrados whom he addressed. And why novels? As a propagandist, wouldn’t he have been more effective if he simply wrote manifestos and spoke directly to the populace? He chose literature because literature would live long after the event, literature because it would touch the heart.

We will always have coteries, cozy groups bonded by college, ethnicity. Such groupings give us social and emotional comfort. But the generational gap is now very wide and we must close it. I would ask the older writers to reach out to the very young, to do this without condescension, without flaunting your achievements, your Ph.D.s. And for the young, I would ask you to venture out of your brave, new world and know your elders, to learn of their demons, the mountains of rubble they had to scale. Do this to form that granite continuum, that community, the shared purpose with which we build the future.

We know we are not heard or appreciated, that this country starves its writers. But even so, we must not give up, we must not stop. Even if we may not know it, accept it, or believe in it, what we write in its entirety, in its enduring integrity — contributes to the foundation of our nation.

The young Filipinos and those who are yet to come — we owe them this responsibility
All of us are egoists with deeply rooted convictions. May I quote a philosopher who said “Convictions are prisons.” We regard other writers as opponents, but most of all, it is our own selves that we will always wrestle with.

The creative life is harsh. We have no economic or social base; we are often condemned to penury. Do not despair — the insecurity, the anxiety, the suffering — these form the real matrix of creativity.

A few months before he passed away, Nick Joaquin asked my wife if she could invite the young writers so he could meet them. They came; he looked at them, had pictures taken with them, then he drifted away with the comment: “They are all so young and I am so old.”
And looking at all the young faces today, I would say the same. And I would add — “And you are all so good.” With you, I know our literature will flourish and, hopefully, this unhappy country, too.
* * *
The author founded the Philippine PEN in 1957.

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