Fiction Making and History in the Era of the Selfie, Part 1
WHAT HAS CAUSED the monkey’s outrage upon hearing this inadung? Indeed, the inadung has aroused the monkey’s empathy, he has seen himself in it—and that is really the goal of every writer, is it not? Unfortunately, however, the monkey’s empathy is not of an introspective, but of a possessive kind. “This is about me and no one else, least of all about humankind. And I do not like how it reflects my character.”
To understand literature as the portrayal of ourselves as human seems to require two things: It calls for the examination of diverse cultures, and it calls for introspection (i.e., meditating on oneself as an exemplar of the human race); and these are part of the same mental act, a matter of asking, “What would it be like to be who-I-am-not?”
The relation of the individual to history is not a straightforward affair and has to accommodate a paradox: that the proper ambition of any human is to be within him or herself the whole of humankind. But, these days, as writing moves closer and closer to the personal it has given way to the self, reinventing itself as the pop star: spectacularly and ludicrously—the meaningless stuff that used to be the sole property, and bane, of celebrities, and written by showbiz writers, not even by themselves. But now it is a free for all; one can tweet one’s thought bubble while walking in a crowded mall, call it CNF, and voila, one has “written” something. The dangers of this trend toward the personal and unmediated reportage of the local, the actual, the lived experience include complacent anti-empiricism, coupled with aggressive emotionalism, reinforcing and justifying each other.
On the other hand, certainly, there is a case for focusing on the local, the actual, the lived experience, and trying to reconstruct it by one’s own terms. After all, the individual’s experience as a kind of national microcosm comes up too insistently in Philippine literary history not to be worth using to one’s advantage. How can we then as writers contribute to this process of genuine creative writing, one way or another? By eliding the personal and the national, by making history a kind of scaled-up autobiography—by accounting for ourselves and thus helping to make history or, better yet, we account for ourselves by making up history.
Ironically, when historians are now blazing new trails in recovering the voices and experiences of the forgotten and marginalized, and thus helping to illuminate structures and mentalities lurking behind local and specific antagonisms, creative writers are more and more preoccupied with the personal minutiae of their lives, which—may I venture to add—are significant only to themselves. Narcissistic, or selfie, writing seems to be the vogue now, so much so that it has been dignified into what is ostensibly that new “literary” genre, CNF.
I venture to guess that this is largely the effect of globalization upon our creative production. But if globalization means that we must fashion ourselves according to its demands in the global political, economic, and cultural structure, then here we are again, victims of our eagerness to please the world—sailing on a tide of fashionability, hopping from the isle of modernism to the isle of postmodernism. Do we have this luxury, on the pretext of being creative writers, to unreconstructed, unexamined, opinions about ourselves? This is all the more striking since in this part of the nation, on this island, people are groping toward some sort of accommodation with each other, and with their own contested pasts.
So then, how to create, and then maintain, the equilibrium between selfie writing and the creative distance provided by metaphor and allegory? My answer: To weave personal experience and local history into an apparently logical and self-referencing construction; to write our tales as narratives of Philippine history, rather than as variants of international models.
And then there is the problematic relation between personal narrative, local history, and the metanarrative of national history. The advantage of local history is that it can re-create realities that are not forced into episodes in the preordained national narrative. In fact, local history is the most creative and most imaginative mode because it is basically a counter history—it begins with the writer looking at her own conditioning within the rubric of the national metanarrative, and then going on from there to write deliberately against this grain.
Here are the elements of the Philippine literary tradition that are my favorite to use in this kind of writing: 1) a powerful oral tradition; 2) a half-lost language; 3) the necessary stratagems of irony, collusion and misdirection of a colonized culture; and 4) a characteristic Filipino mode: the story within the story. All these, I would like to think, make up the elements of Philippine fiction as a transfiguring wonder tale, a fiction preoccupied by historical subjects of which we know nothing, or hardly know anything, about.
To remember what we never knew—is what, finally, will restore us to our mythological pedigree.
Rosario “Chari” Cruz-Lucero is an award-winning writer and teaches creative writing and Philippine literature at the University of the Philippines Diliman. This keynote lecture was delivered for the opening of the 2015 Davao Writers Workshop on October 27, 2015 at Lispher Inn, Matina, Davao City.