Imaginative Writing in the Philippines by N.VM. Gonzales (Essay)

This is an essay by N.V.M Gonzales that I found in an old Philippine literature book called Philippine Prose and Poetry for Appreciation: Volume IV (Revised Edition, 1974). It's an essay that I found to be very interesting thus worth sharing to everyone studying Philippine literature. The essay is several decades old but it's not as outdated as you might think.

Imaginative writing in the Philippines can today be said to have reached a "point of no return". Perhaps this statement can best be explained with the help of a brief exposition of certain facts of geography, history, and culture. Our land area, 115,000-odd square miles, represents the habitable surface of thousands of islands, with a population of over 26,000,000, of whom the majority are Christians. During the last 400 years the Philippines drew heavily upon Spain and afterwards upon America for many of its social institutions.

We had at the close of the Spanish regime a successful revolution, rendered less successful by what turned out to be the Philippine-American War of 1900-1904, after which our people had to take willy-nilly to an American public schools system in which English became the medium of instruction. In these last five decades, our people have seen two world wars, the first one quite far removed from us, the second not removed at all. It was, in fact, fought in Bataan and in the underground.

Our national political experience has thus included extensive agitation for independence, culminating in the grant of independence in 1946, and excessive dependence on American economic aid programmes, as a result of which our industries are ill-developed and we have a highly developed market for factory goods while our economy has remained largely agricultural. There is a continuous imbalance of forces, the feudal as against the industrial, the primitive as a against the modern, the progressive as against the conservative, and for the purposes of arts - if art is the form which man produces as his commentary upon the illusions of this world - nothing can seem more interesting; perhaps no material can be as dramatic.

You probably will ask, what has the Filipino imagination done with all this material? Certainly it has been put into some kind of shape. Our struggles against Spain found expression, on the literary level, in the poems of Francisco Balagtas, who wrote in Tagalog; and in the novels of Jose Rizal, who wrote in Spanish. Balagtas is regarded as the father of Tagalog Poetry. Rizal is even today our foremost novelist.

In moments of national crisis, we have not been found wanting in writers eager to explore the problems so that men of action might pursue the required solutions. This was particularly true during the period of propaganda against Spain - and it is a tradition we are trying to keep. Spanish then was the main medium of expression, and it was in that language that Jose Rizal, then in Europe, where he had gone to study medicine, wrote his two epoch-making novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. Dr. Rizal's work has even to this day, never been equaled, either in scope or in inspiration, and it has a tremendous influence among our intelligentsia. Both novels deal with life in the Philippines under the Spanish regime when the clergy was at the height of power, and it is perhaps difficult for the non-Filipino mind to understand the considerable influence which the books still exert in spite of the fact that the conditions which they portray no longer exist, although obviously one reason for this is the fact that we as Filipinos find it difficult to separate the man from his work, and the work from the man.

Rizal was an integrated person, and as such, he has become our ideal of manhood. Our writers, the best of them today, writing both in English and Pilipino, the national language, feel that it is after Rizal's life that a dedicated life may ne patterned. Incidentally, Rizal was one of our first students of Oriental culture, and along with T. Pardo de Tavera, one of those who did what they could in seeking the lines of cultural affinity between India and the Philippines. Serious India-Philippines scholarship began with Rizal's generation but has since lagged.

You'll find in the Philippines today an active generation of writers, all of whom are imbued with the same sense of our nationhood that the writers of Rizal's generation felt. If, however, in the case of Rizal's generation, the writers of the time made their mission felt in spite of their use of a foreign language - Spanish - today this new generation, using English and Pilipino as their means of expression, are finding the expression of their Philippinism - if that's the best word for it - a little difficult. One reason that is apparent is that Philippine life is so varied and, for the writer eager to achieve integrity of personality, so full of temptations. The materialistic spirit is everywhere about us, and when the Filipino writes today he is at the same time aware of his rent and his food. If even with such practical matters at the back of his mind he succeeds in creating a work of art, it is little short of a miracle, achieved only once or twice in his writing life.

This should not give the idea, however, that there is little creative activity in the Philippines today. As is perhaps also true in this country, the short story is one of the favorite literary forms. The modern Philippine short story began with the generation of writers who, when the Americans came to the country, were hardly born. The first Philippine short story of any importance is said to have been written about 1925 and the writer, Paz Marquez Benitez, has been well remembered by our anthologists. The Philippine short story forms a major part of the literary diet of every boy and girl who goes through high school and college. English has been since the 20's the principal medium of expression of the best writers, and it is the short story in English that is considered important.

What about the short story in Pilipino, the national language? There have indeed been very able writers in Pilipino, but they have not managed to keep pace with their colleagues, writing in English. The Pilipino short story has tended to be sentimental in both treatment and subject, a defect from which the short story in English suffered in the beginning. Because criticism has not been developed in Pilipino, the writers in this language have not had the incentive to excel themselves. Writers in English have had to improve at every turn of their work, but they have had the advantage of access to English and American literature. Extremely imitative writing was the only kind of output possible for a time; this was true especially during the 20's. In the 50's, it can perhaps be said that the Philippine short story was on its way to becoming more and more original.

 An interesting development in the novel occurred when shortly after the coming of the Americans, writers in Pilipino explored this form. The Pilipino reading public, while not a select one, was vast. The Pilipino novel was then occupied with the national movement for political autonomy, and even then, there were writers like Lope K. Santos, who, in his novel, Banaag at Sikat (Dawn and Sunrise), attempted to give a critical view of Philippine society. Perhaps it should be said that the Philippine novel, whether in Pilipino, Spanish, or English, has always had a special preoccupation. This was true, as has been hinted, of Jose Rizal's great works. It was true especially of the best Pilipino writers during the period from 1904 to 1916.

In 1916, the Philippine agitation for autonomy made headway in the enactment by the United States Congress of the Jones Law, which stipulated the condition under which Philippine independence would be granted. It would have been interesting if the Pilipino novel had pushed its interests further from that point on, but it did not. At the highest point of its development, it provided food for thought and made the people conscious of the values inherent in our national life. We were, for example, extremely family-conscious; womenfolk were held in high esteem; and modernism, even in dress, was scorned. It might be said that the Pilipino novel held forth in favor of a Philippine culture of a kind - the product of the exposure of the Malay temperament to Spanish culture and to the Catholic religion. For some years, the novel was sold at the patio of churches, side by side with candles and other religious objects, and it was avidly read.

After the Filipinos gained autonomy and became more politically advanced, the Philippine novel changed its tone. While popular Pilipino literature continued to flourish, the more serious writers took to English as a medium. This was only natural because English had been taught, by this time, practically all over the country. The writer did not usually have a full command of the medium, but he tried nevertheless. Where he became sentimental, he usually succeeded in selling well, and to the grief of Philippine critics there are several titles, usually mentioned in essays on the subject, which are not novels in the strictest sense of the word. Nevertheless, these books indicated the direction toward which the Philippine imaginative mind would go.

In 1940, the Philippine government organized a nationwide contest in which handsome prizes were offered for literary works in English, Spanish, and Pilipino. A sizable committee of judges selected the most artistic works, and something like 40,000 pesos ($20,000 U.S.) - perhaps 45,000 rupees - were given away.