Author Topic: "Literature as History" by F. Sionil Jose, National Artist for Literature  (Read 28080 times)

Joe Carillo

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By F. Sionil Jose
Philippine National Artist for Literature

(The author gave the lecture below on May 5, 2005 at the Cubberley Auditorium of Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, where he was Writer in Residence from April 15 to May 15, 2005. The Writer in Residence Program brings writers from different cultural and linguistic backgrounds for one-month visits to the Stanford campus. The program puts writers in direct contact with students, the Stanford community in general, and the local community as a whole, strengthening the connections between the teaching and the practice of literature.)

I am grateful to Stanford, to Prof. Roland Greene and the Department of Comparative Literature in particular, for having me here as writer-in-residence, [and] to Prof. Ann Gelder who is looking after the details of this visit

I am only too aware of this university’s greatness, its trove of Nobel Prize winners. I have a bookshop and I know the distinguished publications of the Hoover Institute. Our best doctors in the Philippines trained here. As for Stanford’s contribution to literature, in the mid-Fifties, your famous writing guru, Wallace Stegner, visited Manila. If I may brag, we have the same editor, Samuel S. Vaughan, at Random House. Mr. Stegner correctly observed that there was yet no literary record of the Hukbalahap peasant uprising that was then winding down. I should have told him then—give me time, for I was conceptualizing a novel on that subject.

I originally titled this talk “Revolution as Literature,” but my wife said it may not sit well with an American audience. Certainly, it does not sit well with Filipinos. But I will digress into it just the same.

When we arrived last month, I was sent to a room where I was detained for about half an hour. When I finally joined my wife at the baggage claim area, we were the last passengers there.

I will share with you my conversation with the Homeland Security officer who corrected my immigration form. He asked what I wrote and I said novels and articles on current affairs, politics, history. That started it. He wanted to know more about [us] Filipinos.

First, we are not Asians like the Chinese, the Japanese, the Indians. The two great religions of Asia, Buddhism and Hinduism, [which were] responsible for the civilization and classical traditions of that continent, never reached us—although geographically we are there. We are Christians who could have been Islamized if Islam [had come] a few decades earlier.

I told the officer we are many islands and tribes. In the past, we were at war with one another. Much of that ethnicity remains in our languages, customs, attitudes. And like the United States, we are a young nation.

I am here now to finish a novel [that] will help us understand our history better. The novel is about Artemio Ricarte, the revolutionary general who refused to pledge allegiance to the United States at the end of the Philippine-American War in 1902. Yes, there was such a war, which brought America to Asia in 1898—America’s first colonial venture. We became America’s first and only colony. But [only] after more than 250 thousand Filipinos, mostly civilians, were killed. In that war, America committed its first atrocities in Asia.

I have been working on this novel for so long—the research is flowing out of my ears, shackling my imagination. The English novelist, Robert Graves, advised an Australian writer to write the novel first, then do the research afterwards. But I got that advice too late.

My five-novel saga is named after my hometown, Rosales. It is framed within a hundred years, from 1872, when three Filipino priests were executed by the Spaniards, to 1972, when Ferdinand Marcos declared Martial Law. This century is marked by peasant revolts. Through three centuries that we were ruled by Spain, peasant revolts erupted intermittently.

A word of caution to those who plan writing historical fiction. Dusk, the first novel in this saga, has a real-life character, Apolinario Mabini, the brains in the revolution against Spain—the first anti-imperialist rebellion in Asia—and later on in the war with the United States. He was a cripple, and I attributed his infirmity to syphilis as told to me by two venerable historians.

Wrong! When his bones were exhumed in 1980, as told to me by a much younger historian, Ambeth Ocampo, it was found that he had polio. I confronted the historians and [they] scolded me for giving credence to what they told me was gossip.

According to Ocampo, the upright Mabini opposed a scheme by some of the rich men who joined the revolution to raise money that would have enriched them but would have tainted the revolution. So they discredited Mabini.

The second novel in the saga is called Tree after the balete tree, Ficus benjamina Linn. A scholar [once] visited Rosales, then returned to Manila to tell me there was no such tree in Rosales. Of course, it is not there but [it] is in many places in the country, in all of Southeast Asia. As a sapling, the young tree is soon surrounded by many vines. The vines grow to be the trunk of the tree itself; they strangle to death the sapling they had embraced. A very apt metaphor for so many of us.

Literature is mythmaking. For a young nation, it is necessary. Who can prove [that] there was a cherry tree [that] the young George Washington chopped down and couldn’t lie about?

Mythmakers or not, all artists are ego-driven, impelled by the human impulse to celebrate themselves in the most personal manner, thereby achieving style, originality. They seek originality, although in the end, so many are just plain imitators of life and of other artists, sometimes doing willfully so, sometimes in blissful ignorance. But the self gets satiated with narcissism, so artists attempt to transcend the self, and transcendence becomes the motive for a more profound expression. I do not claim profundity; there is nothing deep in my motives. They are moored on the reality of my country, and fiction has difficulty catching up with that reality.

I use history to impress upon my readers this memory so that if they remember, they will not only survive, they will prevail.

I also present a nobler image of ordinary Filipinos, so that even if we are destitute, amidst the swirling tides of corruption, we can raise our heads. With memory, we can face our grim future with courage.

I created in this saga characters like Istak, the farmer and healer in Dusk, his vagabond great grandson, Pepe Samson in Mass, and a real life hero from the underclass, Apolinario Mabini. These truths are often ignored by historians, who focus on momentous events and big men but miss the “little people.”

Critics call this effort revisionist, the formalists say I mangled the English language because I think in Ilokano—my mother tongue—and write in English. Still others say I romanticize the common, the mundane. I hope I am shaping not just myths and hollow hallelujahs, but literature [as well].

In 1955, on my first visit here as guest of the US State Department, I spent an afternoon with the poet Robert Frost at his cottage in Ripton, Vermont. He was in his late seventies but still writing. He belonged to that generation [that] included Mark Twain. They objected to the American occupation of my country. They argued that America, which won its freedom through revolution, had no right to invade a nation waging revolution for freedom, the first in Asia against Western imperialism. The millionaire Andrew Carnegie even offered to return the $20 million the United States paid Spain to acquire the Philippines.

Mr. Frost asked how that occupation turned out. I told him were it not for the public schools established by the United States, I would at that very moment most probably be an unlettered farmer atop a water buffalo somewhere in the island of Luzon.

In 1972, I toured this country [to do lectures] under the auspices of the Council on Foreign Relations. I told my audiences: if they did not suffer from historical amnesia and [had only] recalled the Philippine-American War, they would have never gone to Vietnam. It was not communism [that] they faced in Vietnam—it was that impregnable force: Asian nationalism.

To be sure, strident voices in my country are critical of the United States. I sometimes join these out of frustration. [But] do no get us wrong—many Filipinos consider America our second country.

But we must wean ourselves form overpowering American influence, get rid of our American hangover [that has been] induced by benevolent neglect. Our cultural workers must shed off the American veneer, which stifles creativity, and [must] use the mud at our feet, our folk traditions, our sweat and blood to build the enduring Filipino pillars that can withstand the onslaught of globalism and McDonald’s.

I remind our writers about the “flowering of New England,” how Emerson, Walt Whitman, and those innovative Yankees freed themselves from 19th century European romanticism to celebrate America and give America a granite cultural foundation.

It is not easy for us to do the same. History had done its nefarious job. Stanley Karnow’s book, In our Image, sums up the colonial experience. The Americans wanted a democratic showcase and we eagerly complied. The result is a disaster. Your fault and ours.

More than 10 years ago, the Atlantic Magazine editor James Fallows visited us. After seeing the deadening poverty and the callousness and perfidy of our leaders, he concluded that the obstacle to our progress is our “damaged culture.”

Back to our Homeland Security officer in San Francisco to illustrate this damaged culture. He had interrogated Filipinos wanting entry. He said flatly: “They are liars.”

I told him they had to lie, to do anything to escape my country’s poverty and injustice.

What had happened to us?

After World War II, we were Southeast Asia’s most modern, most progressive. Students from the region [would come] to our schools. When I traveled [in Southeast Asia], the backwardness everywhere amazed me. Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur were villages. The tallest structure in Bangkok was the Wat Arun. Seoul and Taipei were quiet, with horse-drawn carts, bicycles, and those low brick buildings left by the Japanese. These cities are no longer recognizable from what they were. Manila has skyscrapers now, but everywhere are the slums that show how we have decayed.

Thus, the massive hemorrhage of talent, the diaspora. There is no ocean-going vessel without a Filipino on board, from the captain down to the steward. An American diplomat had heart surgery in Washington performed by what he said is one of the top surgeons in America. He is Filipino. A Boeing executive told me Iran Air wouldn’t get off the ground were it not for the Filipino technicians there. An Indonesian businessman said most of the banks and corporate headquarters in Indonesia are managed by Filipinos. A Singaporean architect pointed to the city’s soaring skyline as the handiwork of Filipino architects and engineers.

Here, the United Nations headquarters in New York would stand still if all those Filipina secretaries were absent. And what would happen to your health service if all those Filipino doctors, nurses, and technicians left?

Indeed, the Filipina is not just a maid in Hong Kong or a prostitute in Tokyo. We have become the proletariat of the world. This is our shame and our pride, for as a European executive wryly commented: “You are such a wonderful people, why is your country such a mess?”

Is this mess for always?

Your Homeland Security officer said he knew of a Filipino retired general who was poor.

I said that general should be investigated for unexplained poverty.

The “damaged culture” James Fallows pointed out can be repaired. In the Fifties, President Ramon Magsaysay invigorated the Army to defeat the Hukbalahap rebellion. He cleaned up government, made it responsive to the needs of the masses. When he died in a plane crash in 1957, people in the streets wept. When Arsenio Lacson was Mayor of Manila at about the same time, the city was safe, the garbage collected, the coffers were full. A year after he died, the city was broke.

The moral decay is a slow process exacerbated by the Japanese Occupation, when all the rules were thrown out and each man was for himself. The elite conditioned by colonialism collaborated all through our history with the imperialists. Like most of us, they imbibed the vices, not the virtues of our rulers—the sense of honor of the Spaniards, the enterprise and democratic ethos of the Americans, and the discipline and sense of nation of the Japanese. And like the imperialists, the rich Filipinos send their loot abroad—the Chinese to China and Taiwan, the Spanish mestizos to Spain and Europe, and the Indios like Marcos to Switzerland and the United States. As the Spanish writer Salvador de Madriaga said, “A country need not be a colony of a foreign power, it can be the colony of its own leaders.”

How then can we accumulate capital to modernize? How do we end this treason? How else but through the cleansing power of a nationalist revolution, a continuation of the revolution the Americans aborted in 1898. It is not only inevitable, it is righteous.

In 1985, we finally threw out Marcos in a bloodless revolution. But Cory Aquino who succeeded him turned it into a restoration of the oligarchy—not democracy as she claims. Sure, we have free elections and etceteras but these are the empty trappings—not the essence of democracy. That essence is in the stomach, when the Manila jeepney driver eats the same food served the president in Malacañang Palace.

Listen, when I was a child, the poorest farmer ate twice a day but only in the three hungry months of the planting season. Today, the poor eat only once a day. They die when they are sick because medicines are expensive. Millions of grade school kids drop out because they cannot afford to continue. About half of 85 million do not have safe drinking water.

Two ongoing rebellions, one communist and the other secessionist, have cost us billions and thousands of lives. If the communists win—and I know they won’t—they [would] rule just as badly because they are Filipinos hostage to barnacled habits of mind, to ethnicity.

The real revolution has to start first in the mind and its wellsprings are not in Mao or Marx. It is in our history, in Mabini, in Rizal, our national hero whose writing inspired the revolution of 1896.

Its creed is articulated by the peasant leader Pedro Calosa who led the Colorum uprising near my hometown in 1935. It is this: “God created land, air and water for all men. It is against God’s laws for one man, one family to own all of them.”

The American reformer, Wendell Phillips, confirms the Colorums. He said, “If you hold land and land is in the hands of a few, you do not have democracy – you have an oligarchy.”

And this is our curse—an oligarchy that must be destroyed, whose allies are here in this bulwark of democracy. Who, after all, was Ferdinand Marcos’s best supporter but Ronald Reagan? Can you understand now why America is so crucial to us and to those in the poor countries whose despotic rulers have alliances with American leaders? Washington wants peace and stability, and so do we who are enslaved, but that peace, that stability, should not be the peace of the grave.

When we parted, the Homeland Security officer said I was the first Filipino he talked with [who talked] the way I did. What I told him, which I have said here, is also what I say at home. It grates [on] the ears. For this, I have been accused of Filipino bashing, labeled a communist, a CIA agent, an opportunist. You name it. In truth, I am just an old writer whose discordant voice is drowned, unheard in the maelstrom that is my country.

I end Dusk, the first novel in the Rosales saga, with the battle of Tirad Pass in December 1900. To me, that battle is similar to Thermopylae in ancient Greece. There, Leonidas, the king of Sparta, and his men died to a man defending the pass against the invading Persians.

In Tirad Pass, high in the roof of the Cordillera range, the 24-year-old General Gregorio del Pilar and 48 of his men, most of them farmers, died defending it against the invading Texas Rangers closing in on General Emilio Aguinaldo, President of Asia’s first republic.

I remind Filipinos of Jose Rizal who, at 34, was executed by the Spaniards for writing tracts against them. As Prof. Roland Greene said, he was the first post-colonial writer. In World War II, all of Southeast Asia succumbed so easily to the Japanese invasion. We didn’t. Our valiant stand in Bataan Peninsula, our bitter guerilla resistance—these are forgotten.

I repeat—we are a young nation carving our place in the sun. Young, yes, but we have a past which exalts us, which tells us that we have a revolutionary tradition, and that above all, we are (a) heroic people.

In our search for social justice and a moral order, in our struggle to build a just society, we must rely on no one else but ourselves, endowed as we already are with a history that shaped our sinews and our genius.

And from America, what will we ask of you? Nothing, nothing but your understanding and your compassion.

But first, we must remember.

What do you think of F. Sionil Jose’s ideas on literature as history? Click the Reply button to post your thoughts on Jose Carillo’s English Forum.

Read an excerpt from F. Sionil Jose’s The Samsons

Reada more comprehensive biography of F. Sionil Jose

F. Sionil José goes on a nostalgic trip
Philippine Daily Inquirer, September 26, 2016

"Flippers meet F. Sionil Jose" by Sumthinblue (pseud.)

In an interview on March 17,2015, the National Artist for Literature reminisces on how he fiercely resisted becoming a writer and literally struggled to become a noveiist of consequence. He passed away peacefully on January 7, 2022 while in hospital awaiting angioplasty for a blocked coronary artery. He was 97.
« Last Edit: November 16, 2023, 02:19:38 PM by Joe Carillo »


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Since his return from Guam Mabini had lived in seclusion. Captured correspondence of the Rizal province insurgents showed that he had been in communication with them, but the letters were not of a seditious nature.
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