(Paper read during the Annual Congress of the Philippine Center for International PEN, December 3-4, 2013, De La Salle University, Manila)
Former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain said that “In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers.” This statement is a gospel truth when we talk about wars and conflicts.
It is a fact that human existence, or human history, has been replete with wars and conflicts. In the Bible, we can read stories about wars and conflicts. In History books, we can likewise read stories about war and conflicts, which lead me to believe that as long as man is man, there will always be wars and conflicts. There are small wars and conflicts as there are also big wars and conflicts. And no matter how small or big it is, it is always disturbing. Along the way, there is always a collateral damage—innocent people including children, die as result thereof. These flaring conflicts and wars also create economic hardships, dire refugee problems, and a sustain sense of despair.
The Mindanao conflict
There are wars and conflicts in almost every corner of the world. But let me focus in Mindanao—the island of my birth and where I am presently living with my family. In the early part of this year, Mindanao was the subject of a sweeping generalization. When a team from the Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu ‘invaded’ Sabah, and when such report was carried by both the local and international media, my cellular phone was flooded with text messages coming from friends in Luzon and the Visayas, reminding me to take extra care of myself as they feared it might escalate into a full blown war in the entire island of Mindanao. The same thing happened when an armed men belonging to Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) engaged themselves in a war with the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Zamboanga City. These events lead many people to think that the entire island of Mindanao is in war. But that is not true. In some areas of the island, many are living in peace. But nonetheless the headlines say otherwise.
According to Prof. Julkipli Wadi, dean of the UP Institute of Islamic Studies, the Mindanao conflict is a combination of the major variables of ethnicity, religion, colonialism, ancestral domain and struggle for self-determination. He said, that there is a dimension of looking at the Mindanao conflict as a peace direction. And it is by looking at the conflict as an element in understanding one’s journey of life in dialogue. There are quite a number of movements which look at the Mindanao conflict as a search for peace dimension, leading the people to introspection, reflection and self-discovery. Whatever, their initiatives are always aimed at achieving social harmony in the south.
The writers’ imagination
By their nature, these conflicts and wars have affected writers in profound and paradoxical ways. As Bautista puts it, “to write is to liberate one’s psyche from regular realities without completely being alienated from them. It is a never-ending attempt to escape. For art is a paradox, an illusion, and a magical performance which human experiences, and is transformed into an aesthetic product. But art is also culturally determined, that is, shaped by the artist’s environment. A poem, for instance, is a manifestation of social dynamics as interpreted by the poet. It is always an artifact of social relationship, a code reflecting human behavior. Its essence is narrative, its purpose is commentary. It does not intend to change society—no work of literature can do that—rather to change people’s attitude towards society, to make them conscious of the need to improve it. This purpose is embedded in the very nature of poetry because it works through the agency of language, which is a social tool.” It is a fact that any literary output—fiction, poetry, drama—is animated by conflict. And the dislocation of people and the resulting crises unleashed by wars and other kinds of conflicts also give some kind of important contribution to artistic exploration and literary expression. I must say that writers’ imagination knows no boundaries. It is the only thing that enjoys absolute freedom. As writers, it is our primordial calling to put into words the things people experience in wars and conflicts because these things help shape our artistic and literary production. Wars and conflicts provide our imagination with rich anecdotal details. Their impacts also help writers articulate and assimilate the horrors of wars and conflicts in their literary creations. In 2011, at Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, Harvard president Drew Faust says: “Humans are unique in their creation of an institution of war that is designed to organize violence, define its purposes, declare its onset, ratify its conclusion, and establish its rules. War, like literature, is a distinctively human product.”
Indeed, war is a human product.
And I think and believe that everybody will agree with me in saying that war is a messy product. It is a dirty product. And I cannot romanticize it. Yet writers, can produce romantic outputs based on wars and conflicts. Faust added, “It would indeed be impossible ever fully to capture war’s contradictions, its paradoxes, its horror, and its exhilaration. We have grappled to use the humanity of words to understand the inhumanity of war. As we continue to be lured by war, we must be committed to convey its horrors. We must make it our work to tell a true war story.”
Through the writer’s imagination, they can easily reduce war and conflict into a story with a plot and characters moving toward a promise of victory. The Harvard Gazette reported that Ernest Hemingway once remarked to F. Scott Fitzgerald that “war is the best subject of all” because it gathers narrative material, speeds up the action, “and brings out all sorts of stuff that normally you have to wait a lifetime to get.” And for this Faust added, “the inherent ‘magnitude’ of a war story is, of course, that it is about life and death, about the quintessential moment of truth when the ultimate is at stake.”
There is no way for writers to prevent wars and conflicts. It is one of the major disasters humans will always see and experience for themselves. And as writers, we are left with no other alternative but to write about it, using the power of our imagination. To paraphrase writer-poet John Iremil Teodoro, “writers have no other weapons against the ugly memory of wars and conflicts but words.”
On July 26, 2013, the peace and tranquility of Cagayan de Oro City was shaken when a bomb exploded in a bar in Limketkai Center, killing several people and injuring many others. I believe the perpetrators had a conflict either against himself or against a group of people and resorted to planting a bomb to send a message. Who are they, I do not know. But the result thereof provided us with a gruesome reality that conflicts can make.
The incident moved me to write the following poem which I titled Imagining Distance:
More or less. That’s how you describe
the distance between us. You, being
in the city that never sleeps, humming
lullabies for babies that never grew in
your womb. Babies, in whose veins, there’s
a clear absence of our blood. And I, here
in the city that gets new monikers each time
a new chief executive sits in. What used to be
the city of golden friendship, it later progresses
into a city in bloom, in blossom and in boom.
This new tagline speaks of accuracy.
Because recently a loud boom exploded
amid the city’s silence. And on the spot, lie
amongst shattered glasses, broken San Mig light
bottles, deformed chairs and tables, bodies
lifeless like statues. So don’t come home
yet as I thought of going in there instead. And
join you in finding hopes for our tomorrow.
And together, perhaps a decade from now,
let’s pack our stuff and fly back home. By
that time, maybe the pangs of grief that grip
the people’s heart are gone. More or less.
Yes, as writers, we can humanize the ugliness of wars and conflicts through the beauty, rhyme and rhythm of language.
Writing from Cagayan de Oro and a fellow to some national writers’ workshop, Raul G. Moldez is pursuing his Doctor of Philosophy in Educational Administration and Supervision at COC-Phinma Education Network.