Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

A Native Clearing Revisited - Positioning Philippine Literature

Academic journal article Cross / Cultures

A Native Clearing Revisited - Positioning Philippine Literature

Article excerpt

IN 1998 THE PHILIPPINES CELEBRATED 100 YEARS OF INDEPENDENCE, an event that was accompanied by considerable fanfare, orchestrated by the state. In literary circles, the centennial remained largely unnoticed, the one major exception being the decision taken by the University of the Philippines Press to reprint one hundred literary texts, many of which were available only in libraries. In comparison, the celebration of fifty years of independence by India, and the literary response thereto, was striking, with a number of international journals and magazines, including ARIEL and the New Yorker, bringing out special issues to mark the occasion. From a postcolonial perspective, the literature of the Philippines has generated very little international interest during the last two decades, much less than the number of shoes that Imelda Marcos owned. The objective of this essay is to reiterate the need for recognizing writing from the Philippines as a distinctive and important segment of postcolonial writing in English. While this essay does not seek to discuss the specificities of a Filipino poetic, it attempts to provide a frame and a backdrop as a way of initiating discussion about postcolonial notions of canonicity.

In general, anthologies of postcolonial literature have tended to pay little attention to writing from the Philippines, and while the growing corpus of Asian- American literature often includes Filipino writing, it focuses on North America, or diasporic writing, rather than on literature from the 'home' country.1 As a Filipino writer, Jessica Hagedorn is much better known in postcolonial circles than, say, Nick Joaquin or Alfred Yuson.2 Curiously enough, while other postcolonial literatures have moved from obscurity to prominence, the reverse has happened with Filipino writing. Filipino writing was better known in the 1940s and 1950s in North America than it is today. Despite the complex relation between politics and literature in the 1970s and 1980s, and the substantial body of important literature it produced, very little critical attention has been paid to that body of writing. Despite the censorship of the Marcos era, literature flourished. But literary giants such as Joaquin have never been considered for major literary awards given in the West. San Juan sums up the situation by saying:

Complex historical reality always defies 'postcolonial' wish-fulfilments... Born from the violence of colonial occupation, Filipino writing in English, for example, has never been recognized by U.S. arbiters of high culture upholding canonical standards of taste.3

The reasons for this chronic neglect by postcolonial studies are unclear. Some countries, such as Malaysia, are often under-represented in postcolonial studies, but at least that might be justified on the grounds that, in quantitative terms, the output from that country is relatively small.4 Singapore, Fiji, Bangladesh, etc., may well fall into this category, although Singapore has in fact asserted its presence effectively. Apart from the argument that, strictly speaking, the term "Commonwealth" does not include the Philippines, there is no rationale for the neglect of a corpus whose literary history is as rich as that of other postcolonial nations. Man of Earth, the anthology edited by Gemino Abad and Edna Manlapaz, begins with a poem published in 1914, and this is not even the first work to be published in the Philippines.5 The trajectory of literary history in English begins at least one hundred years ago.

Strangely, Jose Rizal's work has been known internationally for almost a century, although he wrote his novels in Spanish. Jose Garcia Villa enjoyed and continues to enjoy a reputation in North America, but it can be argued that he turned his back on the Philippines after he moved to the USA. But they were, nonetheless, products of the Philippines. And yet the corpus as a whole continues to be neglected. The lack of international recognition has not, however, been a serious deterrent for Filipino writers. …

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