Saturday, January 29, 2011


A recent Pinoy Kasi” column by Michael Tan, Intsik” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, January 28, 2011), reminded me of a paper I wrote back in 2008 for a literature forum for writers of Asia,” on the subject of Asia, from Extinction to Formation.” That writers’ conference, held in the last week of May 2008 in Pohang POSCO, South Korea, was sponsored by the Seoul-based quarterly journal Asia: Magazine of Asian Literature, with the POSCO TJ Park Foundation as co-sponsor.

This is the paper I wrote for that conference. It was published in the Spring 2009 issue of Asia: Magazine of Asian Literature (Vol. 12), with the above-the-title kicker What It Means to Live as a Writer in Asia.”

By Jose F. Lacaba

My country, the Philippines, is geographically situated in Asia. That makes me, not only a Filipino, but also an Asian—or, as we say in my native tongue, Asyano. I am both Filipino and Asyano.

My facial features and the color of my skin advertise my Asyano origins to the rest of the world. Although Mexicans in the telenovelas shown on Philippine television look like Filipinos to us, I don’t recall ever having been mistaken for Latino. In Europe and the United States, I am invariably seen as Asyano, even if the exact country of origin remains an unknown factor: I have often been asked if I am Chinese, or Indonesian, or Malaysian, or Thai.

In fact, I do have a bit of Chinese blood. My great-grandmother on my mother’s side was pure Chinese. Her family name was Quiogue—that’s spelled in the Spanish way, but it sounds unmistakably Chinese. Many Filipinos, like me, are of mixed race, mestizos of Spanish, or American, or Arab, or Chinese ancestry, and lately, of Japanese and Korean ancestry as well.

So my compatriots and I are, to repeat, both Filipino and Asyano. But I have a confession to make. Though I am Asyano by virtue of geography and bloodline, my country’s colonial history and the continuing economic, political, and sociocultural dominance of former colonizers in our daily lives, plus the educational system that shaped me, have all but cut me off from my Asian roots. And I am not alone in this predicament.

We have, in my country, a joke in the form of a riddle, which is at the same time sociopolitical commentary in disguise: “What’s brown on the outside and white on the inside?” The literal answer to the riddle is: coconut. But at the same time we see the native coconut as a self-criticial metaphor for ourselves, for what we have become: we may be brown-skinned Asians on the outside, but on the inside, in our minds and even in our hearts, we continue to carry the baggage of our colonial past. We have what we call a “colonial mentality.”

This means, in the concrete, that while we are nominally an independent republic, we remain in many ways a colony, a protectorate, an adjunct of our most influential former colonial master, the United States.

So our government continues to conduct its affairs in the language of the colonizer: executive orders, congressional laws, and court rulings are written in English, or what passes for English. As consumers, we often belittle the output of our native economy, referring to it as “local,” meaning, shoddy and inferior, compared with goods that we call “stateside,” that is, imported from the U.S.A., even if “imported from the U.S.A.” these days does not necessarily mean “made in U.S.A.” Our educational system is still debating the merits and demerits of bilingualism, and there are highly placed officials in government who want to revert to the exclusive use of English as medium of instruction. In the sociocultural arena, Hollywood movies are still seen as superior to the productions of our own film industry, whether mainstream or indie; bookstores are stocked with U.S. bestsellers and trade books, while books by Filipino authors are relegated to an exotic section called Filipiniana; and the prestigious print publications are still English-language newspapers and magazines.

I am, of course, being unduly harsh. I have put myself in the role of the pessimist who sees the glass as half-empty rather than half-full. In truth, times have changed.

Today, we no longer have U.S. military bases on Philippine soil, even if we still have U.S. troops operating in the field in the guise of “visiting forces.” Primetime newscasts on the top-rating free channels are now primarily conducted in Filipino and in other Philippine languages, although you can still catch English-language newscasts on cable channels. As a part-time professorial lecturer at the state-owned University of the Philippines, I can teach in a combination of Tagalog and English, that linguistic hybrid that we call Taglish, even if the textbooks and reference materials that my students use are in English.

I belong to a generation that was once required to observe an English-only rule on campus and in classrooms, and we were fined if we were caught speaking in a Philippine language. But it was this same generation, the generation that came of age in the Sixties, that eventually rebelled against the prevailing colonial mentality and took up the banner of nationalism. It is no exaggeration to say that this generation’s efforts contributed to the political climate that led to the pullout of U.S. bases and the institution of the still-controversial bilingual policy of education, among other notable achievements.

One of the side effects of the nationalist movement was my personal decision to stop writing poetry in English, to write poetry exclusively in Filipino. I also used Filipino when I went into occasional scriptwriting for cinema and television. But at the same time, to earn a decent regular income, I continued—and still continue—to use English in my writing and editing work as a journalist.

I struggle on a daily basis with these contradictions. I live uncomfortably with these contradictions.

This brings me back to the personal contradiction I mentioned earlier. In addition to being Filipino, I am, to repeat, Asyano by virtue of geography and bloodline. And yet, as a writer, I must shamefacedly admit that my knowledge of Asian traditions and cultures is minimal.

In the early Sixties, as a college student enrolled in the humanities, I was exposed to the Japanese haiku and the Malayan pantun in poetry, and to the ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Hokusai and Hiroshige. Then, in the mid-Sixties, when I was already working as a reporter, the international political situation led many of my generation—writers, artists, cultural workers, and journalists included—to turn to Vietnam and China for inspiration. Poets, myself included, worked on translations of the poetry of Ho Chi Minh and Mao Zedong, in the search for a new poetics, for different metaphors and rhythms that could adequately deal with the agonies and guilt feelings of those tumultuous times.

Yet these past efforts to recognize my Asian-ness were in the nature of wading in shallow waters, not an immersion. I remained, in effect, submerged in the Greco-Roman, Judeo-Christian, Anglo-American tradition, the tradition I inherited as a result of my schooling and my own private reading.

We are meeting here today in a time of great devastation and unbearable torment in Asia. An earthquake in China, a cyclone in Burma, tsunamis in India, Indonesia, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, and supertyphoons in my own country, the Philippines—the atmospheric upheavals are matched by the turbulence in the political sphere, perpetually shaken by protest marches, coup attempts, suicide bombings, massacres, extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, ruthless terrorist attacks, equally ruthless counter-terrorist attacks by invading armies, and never-ending charges and counter-charges of graft and corruption, of exploitation and oppression.

But I am a senior citizen now, old and gray and full of sleep, and coping with gout and skin allergies and bronchitis and adult-onset asthma, not to mention erectile dysfunction. While I keep reminding myself that I should not allow my sense of outrage to grow old along with me, I find myself unable to shake my sleeping muse out of her stupor, long enough to bring Asia and its discontents into my verse.

“Poetry makes nothing happen,” W.H. Auden once wrote. “It survives / In the valley of its saying where executives / Would never want to tamper; it flows south / From ranches of isolation and the busy griefs, / Raw towns that we believe and die in; it survives, / A way of happening, a mouth.”

On the other hand, to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, we may not be able to do much with literature as our weapon, but without it the rulers would sleep more soundly.

For poetry and literature to survive and to disturb the sleep of rulers, they need a place in which to grow. And for Asia to occupy a significant place in our poetry and literature, they need Asian fields on which to thrive.

The co-sponsor of our conference today, Asia: Magazine of Asian Literature, has been providing an outlet for the publication of Asian literary works. Writers’ conferences such as this one are also helpful because they provide a forum for us to share ideas and experiences, and perhaps even to air grievances, real or imagined.

But perhaps we also need a specifically Asian literary festival similar to the Osian’s-Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema, a literary festival in which we can be exposed, not to academic disquisitions, but to poetry and fiction and drama.

Perhaps we need a literary contest similar to the Asian Games, a literary contest for Asian writers dealing with Asian themes.

And certainly we need programs of translation that will make sense of the Babel of tongues in which we speak and write, programs of translation that will make our books and our literature accessible not only to English-speaking elites, but also to readers in our native tongues. Soap operas and telenovelas from Korea and Taiwan, known in the Philippines as Koreanovelas and Chinovelas, along with anime from Japan, won a wide following among Filipino televiewers after they were dubbed in Tagalog. Could a similar translation process achieve similar results for our poetry and fiction and drama?

Well, we can dream, can’t we? And dreams can make things happen.

I hope I will still be around when they happen, so that I can tell my unborn grandchildren that, unlike me and my generation, they can become not only Asyano on the outside but also Asyano on the inside.