Imagination and the Making of a Nation, Part 1

Nonfiction by | June 16, 2013

Keynote speech delivered on the occasion of the Ateneo de Davao Writers Workshop 2013 held last May 27.

We have just completed a major political exercise, the mid-term elections of 2013, which left in its wake varied effects upon the countryside, conflicting memories for us to deal with, many dilemmas, lessons and realizations to ponder, and prospects and speculations about our future as a nation. This election has not been as loud and strident as elections past. It did not leave us mountains of trash–literally–to put away as in earlier elections, when thousands of brigades had to be mustered nationwide to rip off the posters and markings from walls, electrical posts, even trunks of trees in every barangay and even along the highways.

This election left a bad taste in my mouth because for the first time I had a close encounter with the vote-buying syndrome. Our day helper is a nice cheerful garrulous lady in her mid-forties, who lives near our little subdivision in Tacloban City. In my family the helper sits and eats with us. So for the duration of the election season dinnertime conversations were instructive on how our neighbors were gearing up for the election. My house help told us how much she expected to “earn” from each candidate, from mayor down to councillor. She did not give a thought about the senators–there were no pickings to be had there, she observed dismissively.

It came to my mind that among the grassroots, excitement over the election was not because of the opportunity to change an unworthy political leadership, or the chance to root out a corrupt official, and the extraordinary power to install a good man into public office. The excitement and anticipation focused on how much a candidate is willing to put out to insure a vote. How much will the incumbent give to keep his office? How much will his opponent pay to top the bill. Whom to vote for? The one who pays more, of course. Within the week in which the election was to take place, people kept their eyes peeled for the vehicle or vehicles that would bring in the loot from this or that candidate. There was much speculation and counting of the fingers–how much

cogidawill this election bring me? The point of interest is pure and plain: how much money will my vote make for me in this election? The ballot, that sacred instrument of our democracy, goes for sale. In our system of governance, it has been turned into a seasonal commodity that comes every three years. The ballot has a price and the buyers have proven their willingness to pay, setting the price themselves, aware that in this kind of contest, the best man is the one with the deepest pockets.

Why would I think of Philippine elections when the business at hand is the opening of a creative writing workshop? Because Filipino behaviour in this process mirrors the way Filipinos look on themselves, the way they regard the government and its institutions, and ultimately, their sense of identity as Filipino, their notions of accountability to the idea of nationhood. We might also include here our blindness, our own failures, which makes us prone to miss opportunities and overlook dangers when they present themselves to us. Our people have a price tag for their loyalty. Unable to trust the government, it’s every man for himself, and to hell with decency, knowing besides that corruption happens in the government from the President down to the meanest barangay officer. Why mustn’t he get a share of the action, it’s little enough, heaven knows, in comparison with the millions that disappear from the public treasury through graft and corruption. Because we are conscious of the labels attached to our name in the global scene and the miasma of discontent, lack of confidence and distrust characterising interrelationships within our civil society, we have developed the tendency to cling to family as the ultimate bastion of our security. Though this may not be said to be evil in itself, it has fostered a culture of dependency to which we may attribute some of the economic ills that have plagued the nation these many generations past.

How did we get to think so poorly of ourselves and of our country? These attitudes, I warrant, are shaped by the imagination which installs the figures by which we remember ourselves. Rizal left us with the powerful symbol of Sisa and Basilio. Our nationalist reading of these characters attribute to them the symbolism of nation in the throes of colonialism–Inang Bayan and the hapless anak ng bayan in the merciless hands of the tyrannous colonialist. Independence has succeeded only in extending that symbolism to include the masa,victimized by capitalism, feudalism, history, locking them in the bonds of poverty and despair. The victim’s narrative is rife in our subconscious that has given us a vocabulary of helplessness, despair, and a huge inferiority complex.

There were attempts in the past to reshape these attitudes with slogans like Pinoy, OK ka, or Iba ang Pinoy,or even that queasy slogan the Department of Tourism is using to sell the country to the tourist, “It’s more fun in the Philippines.” Between Church and State, the Filipino has had his/her fair share of being talked down to by their presumptive betters, be it priest or politician. They have developed virtual earplugs against these slogans. One of those means of resistance is to turn these slogans into demolishing jokes. Humor is the Filipino’s single sharpest weapon to buck his circumstances. For instance, in the early days of Martial Law, the slogan “Sa ikauunlad nga bayan, disciplina ang kailangan”suffered many revisions, one of which, in tuba-guzzling Leyte, goes thus: “Sa ikauunlad ng bayan, tuba ang kailangan.” Filipino humour can be raw, abrasive, uncouth and in its best moments, dripping with sarcasm and irony, but it is always dependable to bail us out of our psychic discomforts and redeem us from the ignominy of total despair.

I just came from another Creative Writing Workshop–the Iligan Writers’ Workshop. The INWW is past its 20th year. There I met two writers of speculative fiction (or spec-fic in modernese) and a young Higaonon poet. The spec-fic writers wrote in English of course, about a world concocted purely out of their imagination. They wrote with confidence and competence. As readers, we obediently followed the permutations of their stories, waiting for the thrill of recognition that comes with the progress of enchantment. When it did not happen despite our best intentions, we were quite prepared to bow our heads humbly and own up to the inevitable–we may be too old for these extravagant flights of fancy and do not know how to read such stories. Literature had taken off to some esoteric realm, too wondeful, too refined, too high-bound for the cloddish, earthbound imagination such as we have.

The young Higaonon poet, on the other hand, wrote in the hidden language of his tribe. His love poem was about the confluence of star and moon that is said to make a maiden complaisant to her lover’s wish. He wrote a passionate poem celebrating his identity as a Higaonon. In this poem he asks, “I defend my land from invaders. Is that evil?” “I want my people to live in peace, but they (the outsiders) enter our village with their guns to drive us out. If I fight back, is that evil?” The poet cried as he read his poems. He has much to cry about as we all know: loss of ancestral land, destruction of indigenous culture, displacement, marginalization and the low self-esteem and disempowerment it generates. Both poems were flawed, since it is the business of a writer’s workshop to look for flaws, but the clarity, the passion, and the sincerity of his vision are sound basis for a poetic endeavour. This young poet cried as he talked about the experiences that generated these poems. Whatever else it was that compelled him to write, he was writing about home, about love, that complex idea we often find ourselves at a loss to define.

(To be continued)

Merlie Alunan is professor emeritus of UP Visayas in Tacloban, writer, and mentor to many young writers in the Visayas and Mindanao. She has won several awards for her work including the National Book Award, the Thornton Award, and the Palanca Award. Ms. Alunan launched her latest collection of poetry, “Ang Pagdakop sa Bulalakaw”, in Ateneo de Davao last May 29. To purchase the book, please call 221-2411 loc. 8213.

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