THOMASIAN TITANS of Philippine letters as well as other writers and academicians from around the nation stood side by side with art pieces as timeless as their pen and imagination in the halls of the National Museum last Dec. 8 and 9 during the golden anniversary of the Philippine Center of the International PEN (Poets and Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists), the foremost writers’ group in the country.

Founded in 1957 by National Artist and UST Varsitarian alumnus F. Sionil Jose, the Philippine Center is the local branch of the PEN, the prestigious international federation of writers, which is recognized by the Unesco. Reaffirming UST’s contributions to the establishment of the Philippine PEN, the 50th anniversary was supported by UST and the Varsitarian.

With the theme “Literature, Nation, and Globalization,” the two-day congress tackled currents and issues affecting Philippine letters in the era of globalization.

Opening the congress were reminiscences by surviving delegates of the founding congress of PEN 50 years ago, such as jurist-essayist Froilan Bacungan, dramatist Amelia Bonifacio, journalist-critic Rosalinda Orosa, fictionist-essayist Godofredo Roperos, and romantic poet Rolando Carbonell.

In his keynote address, National Artist and former Varsitarian Literary editor Bienvenido Lumbera tackled the global roots of PEN.

“The Philippine PEN has exposed Philippine literature to globalization,” Lumbera said. “It has made different writers in the country aware that they belong to one community.”

In the context of Philippine history, Lumbera cited the capacity of literature not only to inspire, but to foment revolution.

“Poems written by the revolutionaries in the field of battle were part of the struggle for independence,” he said, referring to the revolutionary literature at the turn of the 20th century. “It bonded a people into one resolve and identity.”

In his valedictory speech as outgoing founding national secretary, F. Sionil Jose discussed the role of writers in nation-building.

“We are the creators of identity, of tradition, and of memory in which our nation stands,” he said.

Calling to mind the history of the Philippine PEN, Jose reaffirmed the role of writers in a commercialized world that hardly pays attention to their works.

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“We old writers know that our most important assets are our memory, our capacity to remember, and our history,” he said.

To check the apathy toward Philippine literature by the new generation of readers, Jose urged writers not to be rigid and isolated. Instead, they should remain open and understanding to the needs of their young readers, but without forsaking their respectability.

“Old writers should reach out to the very young but without condescension,” he said.

‘Real’ versus ‘ideal

In the Jose Rizal Lecture, an annual event of the PEN Congress, former Senator and 2007 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Government Service Jovito Salonga discussed the national hero’s passive role in the Philipines’ liberation.

“Being a realist, Rizal would have prevented the revolution,” Salonga said. “However, it was Rizal’s death that gave strength to the flame of the revolution.”

Salonga said contrary to how he is now viewed as the “man of action,” Andres Bonifacio should be seen as the “dreamer” to Rizal’s “passive hero.”

According to him, Bonifacio did not listen to Rizal about the “untimeliness of the revolution,” enabling him to lead a successful rebellion against the Spaniards.

“Bonifacio should be placed side by side with Rizal. As an idealist, he succeeded where the middle class has failed,” Salonga said.

Salonga added that the youth today should emulate Bonifacio.

“The wonderful things in the world were created out of idealism that Bonifacio had,” he said.

The youth should take Rizal as a model for discipline, self-sacrifice and honorable death.

“You are not ready to be free if you sell your rights for personal interest, when you refuse to fight for what is yours, if you indulge in bad habits or vices, and if you do not acknowledge the rights of your fellow countrymen,” Salonga said.

Literature and culture

In the literary session on “Literature and the Struggle for Nationhood,” poet Merlie Alunan and fictionist Macariu Tiu referred to culture as a major driving force in creative writing.

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According to Alunan, there exists a “native imagination” that is revealed by language through the stories of Filipinos.

“Stories tell us more about ourselves more than statistics ever could,” she said. “They reflect the character and ways of our people.”

Tiu said that Philippine literature is often mistaken to be frozen in time and perpetually outmoded.

“(Philippine literature) is not limited to folktales. They also enlighten readers about contemporary issues,” he said.

In the session, “The Meaning of National Literature,” playwright Amelia Bonifacio said the best writing is anchored on experience.

“My play, ‘Bundok,’ was inspired by my student who formed a human chain (with fellow villagers) to protect their homes in the mountains,” she said.
Bonifacio also asserted that national literature is never confined to just one place or time.

“I want children to realize that there are no boundaries,” she said. “What happens in our country affects other places.”

Later in the evening, the PEN launched anthologies on fiction and poetry by young writers, edited by Vicente Groyon and J. Neil Garcia, respectively. The books were published by the UST Publishing House, an instance again of UST’s support for the Philippine PEN.

The books were launched during the PEN dinner at Barbara’s Garden restaurant in Intramuros. Performing for the guests were UST alumni poets-singers such as Jocelyn de Jesus and Lourd de Veyra of the Radioactive Sago Project band.

Evolution

In the literary session, “Literature Without Frontiers,” Muslim writer Pads Paporo described how Muslim writers are marginalized in the Philippines.

“Is literature really without frontiers? How many Muslim writers in Mindanao have been given recognition?” she asked.

Paporo called upon the members of PEN to help establish Muslim writers in Philippine literature.

“Let this 50th anniversary give way in the institutionalizing of Muslim writers in Muslim Mindanao,” she said.

Sociologist Tomasito Talledo, meanwhile, called writers “cultural workers,” paving the way for the country’s development through their imagination.

“Writers imagine the shape of the future. Furthermore, they also criticize the present,” he said.

Speculative fictionist Dean Alfar, the chair of the session, “Philippine Literature in the Post-Modern Age,” said writers should adapt to the changing conditions of readers.

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“The younger generation has a fission of identity, so they take pleasure in reading different materials,” Alfar said. “They are looking for literature that matters to them.”

Alfar said that language should be used without having to deal with the shackles of “nationalism” and “realism.”

“What matters is the story. The rest is just cosmetics,” he said.

Amelia Ylagan, columnist for the Businessworld, agreed. According to Ylagan, it is high time for writers to accept the reality of postmodernism, saying that it is a way for a culturally homogenized world to “move on to the next stage.”

“The Internet and television have affected writers the most. We can either accept it as naked truth or close our eyes,” she said.

Lastly, fictionist Charlson Ong revealed his dislike for the term “postmodern literature,” since it often isolates the youth from the rest of the world.
“It is the cult of the amateur. Young writers have specific audiences and have their own little world,” Ong said.

Back to basics

“Philippine Poetics,” the last literary session, discussed the Filipino’s sense of language, with poet Gemino Abad alluding to a “natural sense of language” inherent in every writer as the core of poetics. For Abad, this skill is shown through the use of form, the way writers use words in creating literature.

Abad also gave attention to the way writers revitalize life through their craft. “When writers write, they are not fixed,” he said. “They make things anew as they imagine it.”

Ophelia Dimalanta, director of the UST Center of Creative Writing and Studies, said that poetry is preceded first and foremost by talent and a love for language. Poetics comes from sophistication with words that progresses over time.

“You must love words, ideas, and rhythm with all your capacity,” Dimalanta said. “If you’ve been exposed to the craft, it will always be there at the back of your mind.”

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