“LITERATURE AND NATIONAL GROWTH”

“True, my hometown Zamboanga, its peninsula, is an island of ethnic and rebellious strife and conflict: between the Christian and the Muslims, among the different tribes, and even among the Moros themselves.”

(A talk given by the author at Philippine PEN 50th anniversary last December 8-9, 2007, held at the National Museum, Manila. PEN is an international organization of writers. The author’s participation was sponsored by Asia Foundation.)

GREETINGS FROM ZAMBOANGA CITY: BUENAS TARDES A TODOS.

Presently, I am re-reading Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, in which he advocates the abolition of the Church; the divine rights of king; the doctrine of political religious absolutism; and Manifest Destiny, the latter gave roots to American Imperialism and the excuse the United States needed in annexing and colonizing the Philippines in 1898. For Rudyard Kipling said in his poem “The White Man’s Burden,” subtitled “The United States and the Philippine Islands”—he said: “There was nothing left for us to do but to take them all, and to educate the Filipinos, and uplift and civilize and Christianize them …”

Intrigued, and goaded with a bit of sarcasm, I ask myself what if Mark Twain had advanced such provocative thoughts in my country? I am quite certain that he would be investigated by our Senate, which has been engaged in too much investigation and little legislation; although, Mark Twain if by some quirk of nature were to live today would be spared incarceration by that august body, which has been finicky employing roughshod method in swinging its majesterial whip.

Whatever, que sera, sera, as the saying goes. But what does it have to do with our subject today, “literature and national growth”? While thinking thus my eyes fell on a small book, small in contrast to the tome of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee… of 479 pages. This small book is called This I Believe—Gleanings from a Life in Literature, by Philippine PEN’s founder, F. Sionil José.

I mentioned this because I too believe that no nation can grow without honor and pride; that has no moral awareness and social justice. We cannot begin to make a shadow of progress if we have not yet initiated, instilled, and brewed them first in our heart and soul. For this small book tells us that though our country is now saddled and chained with anarchy, shame, moral degradation and mountains of corruption. It had in its being been imbued with being “first” in many and momentous adventures in Asia and the World.

Listen: The Philippines was the first republic in Asia; and rising against Spain in 1898, our insurrection became the first Asian anti-colonial rebellion; and fighting for freedom against the U.S. invaders we became too the first Asian country to resist and fight against Western Imperialism: 250, 000 Filipinos died in that war, it was U.S.’s first atrocities in Asia. Our national hero, José Rizal, executed by Spain for advocating for reforms, not rebellion, was the first post colonial writer the world knew.

As the world chants praises for Thermopylae in Ancient Greece, in which Leonidas, the Spartan king, and his men all died defending Greece, we too should cry mabuhay! for the Battle of Tirad Pass. Here young general Gregorio del Pilar and 48 of his men perished defending the pass against the Texas Rangers.

In his book, Mr. Sionil José has, in simpler but thoughtful terms, advocated and endorsed a moral order and social concern, which we find in the Rosales saga novels—Po-on, Tree, My Brother, My Executioner, The Pretenders, and Mass — to obstruct the fruition of what Atlantic magazine editor, James Fallows, saw as a “damaged culture.”

Now equipped with this knowledge, this pride, of being first in development and a gridlock to the movement of colonialism and imperialism in Asia, I turn to look closely at my own pieces of fiction and search there and ask myself: what have I done to deserve my country’s being “first,” and militant advocate for freedom? And had my fictional pieces contributed anything but waste paper and an ink blot in an unfleshy tissue of pulp.

You know, mi amigos y compoblanos – may I address you once in my own mother tongue – just this once, para debes saber, que sin intencion – I had inculcated in them a high sense of delicadeza, honor, and tradition. And an awareness of ethnic sensitivity, and of course a sense of recall and remembering of antiquity and historical times.

For instance, in my short story “Wild Boars” a wounded Moro outlaw would rather be gored and eaten by sharp-tusked wild boars rather than be captured and humiliated by the Philippine Constabulary. “Etoka fought [the wild boars] with his bare hands…roaring like a beast himself, as though he was not wounded at all, as though death had not earlier lain so close with him on the bamboo pallet”.

In “Pablo-Pedro,” a rice-farmer, Señor Larracochea, refusing to yield his independence and submit to the guidance of IRRI technicians brings horror and destructive effect to his family. The children are clothed in rags, cannot attend school, the grain harvest rots in the bodega. Finally, starving, the family eat rats which invade his crop. Still he doesn’t yield to President Marcos’s bait to study scientific methods in America, but his pride and individualism are not counted as virtues.

But political concern and social justice, I turn to the historical novel. In Subanons, which Franz Arcellana finds unique, for he said, “…Offhand I’d say novels have been written about persons, families, places, houses but this is the first time I encounter a novel about a tribe. Believe me when I say surely that isn’t its only distinction” – Zamboanga’s original tribe survives martial law and “killing fields” by returning to its culture, tradition, and ancient beliefs. When its own gomotan – king (they called their olden times leader “king,” not datu or sultan) is murdered by Dictator Marcos’s military goons, the existence of the tribe seems to be in peril and brink of dying.

But the Subanons persevere and strive and don’t die. I write:
“She [old woman Sigbe, mother-earth symbol] leaned forward in her chair and smiled. Web-like chinks sprayed outwardly from the corners of her eyes, and yet her eyes filled with luster like a child’s.

Then she very seriously said:
‘We mustn’t forget Ginaya’s death, who is mother Talibon’s grandchild. The soldiers have done him great injustice, not only in murdering him; but in treating his corpse as if it were an animal’s carcass.’

Again, she stood up from her chair and walked a little way, then sat back on it. ‘So they used his corpse to frighten us to take away our will to defy them,’ she went on. ‘But they’re mistaken, because the people wouldn’t forget … how for three days and nights they’d to breathe the foulness of repression and terror.’

‘That’s the truth,’ said Kalinga, third wife of Shaman Tampilis, simply to her sister-in-law, Sigbe.

And neither had to look through the window of the landing, from where, if the two women were to gaze out, they would see the outline of Mt. Guillian, as it began to fade in the last light of day.

But tomorrow the sun will rise behind the mountain ranges and Mt. Guillian, and as before in ancient times—their outline will once again show against the sky.”

True, my hometown Zamboanga, its peninsula, is an island of ethnic and rebellious strife and conflict: between the Christian and the Muslims, among the different tribes, and even among the Moros themselves. It has never been at peace in itself nor with others. All governments since have tried to solve this fratricidal conflict by paying tribute to the Moros; if this doesn’t work—an all-out war. Neither has worked.

The root of the problem, I believe, lies on prejudice and bias. In my novella, The Voice from Sumisip, subtitled We Made Footsteps Without Toe-marks, Professor Jose realizes this, and after “accepting the gifts for the Despot [Marcos], Professor Jose shook Shaman Gamutang’s hand extended across by [sic] the oil lamp. Bluish veins swelled like termites’ trenches on it. Right away he realized that the customary Christian handshake was improper here, for the Shaman in his courage and wisdom had shown he was the equal of any man. Thus should be respected, and his hand withdrew immediately, and placing it over his heart, Professor Jose said, ‘Aasalam Walaíkum’—although yesterday, steeped in bias, he had refused to greet the Shaman in their traditional Moro way. . .

Stricken with shame for his old prejudice and distrust of all Moros and Yakans, Professor Jose cursed himself. He knew he was a low-echelon official and it was next to impossible for him to fulfill Shaman Gamutang’s request… to give to the Despot the buyugan and the grand carpet as well as the Shaman’s message of forgiveness. And who was Shaman Gamutang for the Dictator Marcos to listen to his message and even to mind him? If he were a rebel like the Mayor and like the Yakan MNLF vice-chairman Gerry Salapuddin of Basilan Island or Matba of Tawi-Tawi…but no, Shaman Gamutang was just a peaceful and religious man! . . .

Just before a spear pierced his side, there came to Professor Jose the thought how short was his life of being a repentant and enlightened man. For this and among other things his unfeeling and heartlessness and the prejudice he bore against pagan and Moslem tribes Professor Jose grieved and was sorry for. As he fell a deep voice shrieked at him, wildly, and the Professor heard the datu of the Yakan council of elders, with his lungs bursting, shout, ‘Death and curses to the strangers without toe-marks!’”

After these historical novels, I turn to the biographical novel for a centered and sentient appraisal of our local heroes’ honor and valiant stand for freedom. Because it looks as if all Philippine heroes come only from Luzon: Mabini, Bonifacio (we will be celebrating Bonifacio Day end of this week, which dates this piece), Lopez Jaena, Aguinaldo, del Pilar, and, of course, our national hero Rizal—not one comes from Mindanao.

Had giants then not walked our land?

Zamboangueño Brig. General Alvarez y Solis was the only insurrecto we know of who captured 12 Spanish gunboats in Basilan Strait, taking all their guns and ammunition, and a merchant vessel off the coast of Zamboanga; and after capturing the Fortaleza de Nuestra Señora del Pilar he booted out the last Spanish governor-general of the Philippines, Diego de los Rios, from Zamboanga in 1898. Were not this an outstanding feat deserving of a hero!

And just over two decades ago one whom hopefully I shall be writing about: Cesar C. Climaco, the fightingest mayor of Zamboanga City, likely then in the entire country, fondly called “CCC,” who criticized, harassed, “nose-thumbed” at the Dictator Marcos, when during Martial Law, when very few then dared. What piqued most the Dictator and his military Nazi look-alike goons was a huge bulletin board hanging smugly from the porch of Zamboanga City Hall, where Mayor Climaco jotted down every day the number of unsolved, mysterious killings in the city. The last record showed 287 unsolved killings; and then abruptly stopped on November 11, 1984. For on that day Mayor Climaco was gunned down, murdered right in the heart of the poblacion. He would been number 288, if memory serves us well, but even that was ignominiously denied him. Because some over-enthusiastic men took the bulletin board down right after his assassination.

Everyone knows who murdered Mayor Climaco, my compoblanos claim; everyone but the military.
Let me end this by quoting a line from Sionil José’s book This I believe—Gleanings from a life in Literature,

“But first, we must remember.”

Muchas gracias y paz con todo vosotros.

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