In one literary event in my hometown, Iloilo City, I jokingly told my audience, “ako gali si Karla, ang taga diri nga indi man taga diri” or “Ako pala si Karla taga-rito pero hindi naman taga-rito.” This is my writing place. When I am in Iloilo, the emcee introduces me as a writer from Cebu. In Cebu, I am always the writer from Iloilo.
I first came to Davao in 2011 for the Taboan Writers Festival as a delegate representing Cebu although my works are not entirely in Cebuano and I am not a Cebuana. I do admire Cebu, in fact, I now consider it my home; however, my roots will always remain in Iloilo. It is my diri, dito, dinhi, here. Being a Filipino writer is a quest to situate the self in a multifarious linguistic and literary space.
Two years ago, Cebuano National Artist (but actually born in Dipolog, Zamboanga) Resil Mojares delivered in UP Visayas in Iloilo City a keynote speech that asks the provocative question, “Where in the World is The Filipino Writer?” Mojares urges the reader to view his paper as “notes or his desultory thoughts” on the place of the Filipino writer in the world.
He opens the discussion by quoting Pascale Casanova’s book The World Republic of Letters that traces the historical formation of what she calls “world literary space,” a space that has its own capitals, provinces, borders, forms of communication, and its systems of rewards and recognition. This space is dominated by “big” languages and “big” literatures, while “small” literature in “small” languages are “either annexed to dominant literary spaces or are invisible outside their national borders.” The word Eurocentric was expectedly mentioned, and he highlighted that Southeast Asia and the Philippines do not appear in any pages of this remarkable book. He explained that he is not complaining, well aware that our literature may be among the marginal and invisible, and Casanova’s lens made it even more marginal and more invisible.
I then imagined how puny regional languages like Hiligaynon must be when compared to French. In the Western Visayas or Region 6 where Iloilo is located, Hiligaynon is considered the lingua franca, and in this space, it is seen as a “big” language compared to the Kinaray-a of Antique, or the Akeanon of Aklan, but again it suddenly deflates when compared to Filipino or English, the “big” language widely used in the capital, the place where “big” commercial publishers and university presses are based. The reality for me as a poet who writes in a regional language is this: if I want to get published by the “big” publishers, I have to translate my work into either English or Filipino. This is the requirement even if there are over 100 languages in the Philippines. Imagine a wine bottle that is full of varied and beautiful marbles, all of these rolling so slowly down a narrow neck, battling for that tiny space where it can turn and land on someone’s palm.
Does writing in a “big” language guarantee a wide readership? I am not sure. In Cebu, where I now write, the Cebuano tabloid SunStar Superbalita has a bigger readership than its English broadsheet Sunstar Cebu. There are also more contemporary literary writers writing in Cebuano than English. In 2016, Bathalad Sugbo Inc., a non-profit organization of writers started publishing books of local poets and essayists in their own languages without this burden of translation. The main intent was to publish books by individual authors. There were a good number of Cebuano literary works printed in the past years, mostly in the form of anthologies published by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, or the University of San Carlos Cebuano Studies Center. The vision of Bathalad Publishing is to provide a space for authors who choose to write and publish their own books in their own language, especially in Cebuano.
Bathalad is not a traditional publisher. It is considered as a POD or print-on-demand kind of publishing house. It has a committee that screens the submitted manuscripts and approves them for publication. The deal between the organization and the author is for Bathalad to help the author design, layout, and market the book, while the author funds the printing cost. The author is the sole owner of its copyright and earnings from sales go to the author.
This is obviously not the traditional way to publish a book. Commercial publishers and university presses have their own established processes and practices. Bathalad has to operate differently and be an alternative to the dominant approach to publishing. In a span of three years, Bathalad printed twelve books: several collections of Cebuano poetry, a book of travel essays in English, a multilingual poetry collection, an illustrated poetry book in Cebuano, and a book of essays in Cebuano. But Bathalad’s self-publishing endeavor did not start in 2016. In its history written by Lamberto Ceballos, he narrated that Bathalad’s first two chapbooks of balak or Cebuano poems were self-published. They were only mimeographed because of the lack of funding and the contributors had to pay 100 pesos per page of their work. Mojares notes that this kind of effort goes way back to the great Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere that he had self-published in Berlin before it was reprinted in various languages in different countries.
Mojares adds, “Browsing in a country’s bookstores is a quick introduction to its people’s mental environment.” He shares his experience when he walked into a big bookstore in Barcelona and found that 70 per cent of the books were in Spanish, a substantial part being translations from non-Spanish works, a sizable section of work in Catalan, the regional language of Barcelona, and some sections for works in English, French, German, and Italian. This to him conveyed a “cosmopolitan literary space.” This scene is strikingly dissimilar when one walks into a big mainstream bookstore in the Philippines. I have not seen any shelves for regional literature at all, while most of the books are foreign and in English. One would ask, where in the world is the Filipino writer? When I see the section of say, American Literature, I see books by Emily Dickinson, Toni Morrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, or Mark Twain. The selection is not composed of different anthologies with titles like “Best American Poems 2001 to 2010,” or “American Short Stories from Central America,” or “Anthology of New York Poetry in American English.” The shelf is an assortment of books by individual authors in diverse genres and languages.
Self-published Cebuano poet Adonis Durado, during one of our tagay-tagay discussions that involved beer and videoke suggested that regional authors go on a “book caravan” as an alternative way of distributing our books. His vision was for this group of authors to bring their books to readers, starting in Cebu, then maybe proceed to other parts of the Visayas, and also in Mindanao and Luzon. When we published Tingog Nanay, an anthology of motherhood stories by women writers and artists from the Visayas and Mindanao, we attempted to execute his idea. The book was launched in Iloilo, Ormoc, Davao, and Baguio through the personal efforts of the women contributors involved in the project. The fairly small print-run of 300 were sold out in less than two months and there are still demands for copies; however, reprinting has yet to be arranged with Libro Agustino, the university press that published the book. The reception is very promising. It can be said that we have a readership for literary books and these readers purchase the books, especially when they meet the authors and hear them talk about their work.
So, are we visible now? Going Mojares sees promise and hopes that works by Filipino writers have won recognition abroad. A selection of Nick Joaquin’s works now appears as Penguin Modern Classics. Is this visibility? Mojares urges, “We have to show them there is more where they come from because it is also a question of quantity.” For Mojares, the most important component in building a “national literary space” that has an “autonomous literary identity” is a “truly distinctive body of work.”
There has to be a paradigm shift in writing and publishing literature. To the young writers, it is not enough to publish a single poem, a short story, an essay, or even win an award. You need to see yourself as an author, nurture your works in a way that someday you can produce a book. This book will take up space on a shelf that says “Philippine Literature.” What is “small” and “big” is relative. Think about it, we cannot really call it a harvest if it is just two or three mangoes hanging on the tree. When the tree is bursting with fruit, the whole neighborhood can smell the sweet aroma.
Should it matter that we are not part of the “republic of letters?” Even Mojares observes that Casanova’s description is more an empire than a republic. Let us start growing our own forest of letters where different literary and linguistic ecosystems coexist and thrive in their own location and environment. The word ‘gubat’ in Filipino means ‘forest’. In Cebuano, it means ‘struggle and growth’. In Hiligaynon, it is a verb that means ‘to confront or attack’. For me it suggests that we can only achieve a truly distinctive body of work that represents us as a people when we accept and celebrate our plurality.
Karla Marie Quimsing delivered this as a keynote lecture in the 2018 Davao Writers Workshop. She is the current Chair of Bathald Sugbo, Inc. Her first book, Pansit Poetry is in four languages: Hiligaynon, Cebuano, Filipino, and English.