Imagination and the Making of a Nation, Part 2

Nonfiction by | June 23, 2013

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

My Facebook shows a photo of the well-known critic, Isagani Cruz, home from an European sally. He writes, “Geneva might be the cleanest city in the world…Soon I will return to the Gates of Hell, but dirty or corrupt though it may be, Metro Manila is home sweet home.” It’s almost the same way I feel about every place where I have set up a bed and a kitchen, home in its plainest sense–it may not be much of anything in comparison with the magazine-sleek, full-colour portrayals of the homes of the rich and famous. Home to me is three-dimensional, solid and sensual, populous and visceral. It is the house where I live, the cluttered room, the dirty kitchen, the straggling garden, the people I love, those who might dislike my smell or the sound of my speech, the heat, the cold, the mud. If you transport me to another, better place, this sense of home will follow me like the smell of frying buladin the morning, like the muscular memory of the language I grew up with, like the tireless eyes of my mother watching us all from her grave in Ormoc’s hillside graveyard. No matter where I would be in the world I know I belong here even if by chance I will never return here for the rest of my life.

At home in the virtual world of information technology, the young may fancy themselves more as citizens of the world than of the Philippines. As such they may consider themselves at home anywhere, but most especially in an urban setting. Their postal address may be somewhere in the proverbial Gates of Hell of the National Capital Region, but that is not where they live. They thrive in a virtual world infinitely awesome, exciting, limitless, and safe beyond imagination, on a computer screen. Why would anyone wish to be anywhere else but in this inexhaustibly fascinating intriguing virtual environment? Here, whoever you might be in real life, within this enviroment, you are always the hero. You can make many amazing moves no human being can do. Although in real life, you may be nothing more than a pen-pushing paper chaser, in this virtual world you are armed and dangerous, in command of amazing weapons that allow you to decimate galaxies with one gentle push of a button. What you are fighting for may not be clear. There are no stakes in this war, no homeland, no ideology. The combat is the only thing. What matters is your own capacity to outwit the computer. But this is, of course, illusion, for whatever the story-line might be, the computer has been programmed to make you win or loss randomly, playing on your psychology to trudge onward from one level to the next to the virtual end. This is how those contemporary allegories work.

Outside of that virtual world that so preoccupies the young these days, there is the nation embroiled in an ancient struggle for redemption–from poverty, from inequities of power, from injustice. The politics of corruption has flung a web of evil across the archipelago. No one is spared from this web, not the innocent infant, not the old man waiting for death. Not the youth in the first flush of awareness. Not the laboring men and women struggling without hope to find their places under the sun. It is not for the refugees of our own pocket wars, the children mis-educated by our inept public school system. Not even the good man or woman is spared from this web–they too are overwhelmed by forces that prey upon peace, dignity and justice. Yet as Isagani Cruz says, The Gates of Hell where destiny has cast us, is surely home sweet home. We may try to escape, as millions of Filipinos have done, choosing to emigrate and find homes away from the land of their birth. Or escape into virtuality through the cyber world or through substance abuse.

What pulls a young person to writing? In my generation, the stirrings of sexual awakening signal the sudden and powerful interest in poetry. Every young male becomes obsessed to acquire the skill to write, at least the love letter. In my time, it was always the guys who make the first move. Girls meanwhile worry about how to answer back without showing their feelings too much or discourage their presumptive admirers. Thus the young’s almost instant interest in the word, in my generation, that is. In these days of email and the text message, the playing field might have drastically changed. As soon as they grow up, however–a job started, the girl won, a family on the way–the intense young poet, male or female , becomes a pragmatic man or woman of the world. The dream of writing falls by the way along with the trappings of childhood. This is entirely correct and to be expected. Still, there are a number who persist, finding time for writing despite the serious business of making a living and making a life.

Some of you may be in this workshop for the same reason that the young people in my generation took to the word–to write the ultimate love poem for a beloved, the perceived alpha and the omega of your life. But the maturing sensibility soon realizes that the ultimate love poem is the one that one writes about country. Like it or not, our individual destiny is bound up with the land, water, earth and air that have nurtured us through generations past and continue to nourish us, and the Great God be kind, will continue to nourish generations of Filipinos to come. The notion of country is as much the work of the imagination as it is the concretions of governance, history, or statistics. If the Word can discover God for us, reveal to us His mercy and His grace, it should be able to show us the country of our own, and ignite in us pride for and loyalty to it. That country is the sum of the sounds, flavors, sight, textures, odours of all the days of our life in which land, water and air had sustained us.

Words shape our belief in a Life Hereafter in a world that are material only in so far as words proclaim it. The writer begins his career with the appreciation of the power of words to discover truth, to define reality, to win love, , to punish, to destroy, to create dominions, to uncreate a world known and familiar, to reveal worlds of terror hidden beneath. Consider the political significance of the language you use. Every day in the streets we distinguish social levels by the language they use, from the pidgin Bisaya or Tagalog of the colegiala,to swardspeak, to the gentile accent of the middleclass, down to the brogue of the peasant. We adjust ourselves constantly to whoever we are dealing with. In the streets, the words that come out of your mouth could mean respect or ignominy for you. In Philippine TV the Bisaya will always play the maid to a Tagalog mistress, in almost the same manner that in many American novels of the early 20th Century, the Chinese character was always portrayed as a houseboy of dubious intelligence, or a denizen of the Under-world, mysterious, secretive and unspeakably evil. These are gross gross generalizations, of course, but they serve well enough as examples of how mere words create and uncreate our notions of reality.

If words can make us believe in God and His Kingdom on earth and in Heaven, then too, country is a craft of words, a work of the imagination. Among the many other tasks we may assign to the writer, this is the most important–to recreate a country from the shambles of history, to rescue it from the ruins of corruption, greed, and sloth; to make the people believe again in the virtues of hard work and honesty; to restore faith in the future and not to be focused on the gross exigencies of the present such as in the exercise of vote buying.

Manila, which a western writer refers to as the Gates of Hell, may indeed be all that he has touted it to be, but we who live there know better–we know that in this seeming Hell that is the islands of this archipelago, there are people who love, and sacrifice, and hope, upholding with all the strength they can muster the will to remain human despite the brutalizing forces of poverty, corruption and misuse of power. Thus the writer coming of age will find a great purpose for this preoccupation, in exploring the many layers of nationhood, of being Filipino. He will find no other affirmation from anyone else for this task. Writing had always been and will always be a lonely preoccupation. It is the most unglamorous of the arts, despite the saga of one J. K. Rowling whose entry into the world of words is as sensational as the characters she created. But though she wrote about magic, the magi-types, and battles fought in what appears to be a purely imaginary world, Rowling also wrote in a thoroughly British mien, and everywhere one turns in her work, one sees the English countryside, hears English speech, and partakes of the English point of view. If she touches people all over the world from all kinds of cultures despite her Englishness, it may be a matter of history, and then again, it may be that we respond to the archetypes that abound in her stories. All peoples in the world share these universal archetypes after all. You can become a Rowling, why not, with some talent and enterprise, and with a lot of luck, just go for it.

No one can tell anyone what to write about, or even how. But in case you find yourself wondering one day why you are writing, you might consider this simplest of all answers–to tell the story of our people, and as such to be the chronicler of the race, the maker of memory. Your songs and stories are the multiple mirrors through which we may view the faces of our people as they go through the changes of history and human experience. If you choose to go on in this perilous journey of writing, think now and then of that young poet somewhere in the vastness of Mindanao, mourning his desecrated village, crying for his dispossessed people. For it is said, they who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. If you add your voices to his, we might learn little by little how or what to remember, to rewrite the errors of the past and to sculpt the visage of our nation for the future.

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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