LAST September 21, the inferno of Marcos’ dictatorship was ignited once more as the UST Center for Creative Writing and Studies (UST-CCWS) held it’s 10th USTINGAN, a round table discussion on literature and other related issues. The lecture was dubbed as “Martial Law and Literature”.

Key speakers were writers who survived and fought the regime, namely, poet and screenplay writer Jose “Pete” Lacaba; feminist writer and critic Dr. Lilia Quindoza-Santiago, and National Artist for Literature and UST-CCWS senior associate F. Sionil Jose.

The discussion began to blaze when the audience questioned the politically- dominated angle presented in the lecture.

A man from the audience addressed Santiago if she, as a woman, was even more oppressed than her male co-writers. The speaker uneasily agreed and was interrupted by another male member of the audience who asserted that it wasn’t a matter of gender, but rather of political standing. He then asked Jose if today’s writers (like the man himself) were any less of writers just because they did not go through the same oppression as the speakers of the lecture during martial law. Jose then gave an abrupt sermon about social ethics.

The forum was a muddle of arguments reflecting the almost synonymous treatments of journalism and literature of the seventies. There were a few who refused to use their writings as political vehicles. These works, as Santiago revealed, were considered irrelevant and therefore despised and burned by the enraged protest writers.

She told of how the “protest writers” of the seventies disregarded the awards given to these “irrelevant” and pro-oppressor literary works. They were treated as fairy tales told by writers out to butter up to the dictator and his family.

This all boiled down to the same debate of Jose Garcia Villa vs. Salvador P. Lopez: art for art’s sake vs. art for the people’s sake, or form vs. content. But what content was considered “relevant” by the martial law-era writers? Perhaps the debate was no longer a question of what was to be considered aesthetic, as much as what was to be considered “of greater and selfless value.”

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Rhetorical quarrels described these protest literary works, Santiago quoted W.B. Yeats: “Whenever a writer quarrels with the world, he produces rhetoric. But when he quarrels with himself, he produces poetry.”

Santiago commented, “That this may render as rhetoric all that is called protest poetry since protest, as a human act, definitely is a quarrel with the world. The protest poetry…is, I think, poetry of the highest order. This is because, in context, the poet’s quarrel with the world is at the same time a quarrel with the self.”

She presented examples of slogan and placard poetry, including the controversial “Prometheus Unbound,” by an alias, Ruben Cuevas. The poem, printed in Focus Magazine before martial law, led to the resignation of its managing editor. (N.B. During the lecture, the speakers referred to “Jules,” Focus Magazine’s Managing Editor, as the literary editor. The former associate editor of Focus, Doris Trinidad, clarified this information).

The only problem was, Santiago only presented examples of protest literature (or what she also considered earlier as “relevant” literature) mainly concerning the male-dominated political ire. So as expected, the examples aroused the skepticism of a feminist in the audience.

As a form of protest, women writers produced more personal poems to represent the woman’s experience during that period. These works were almost wholly disregarded, as they did not tackle the more popular political ire.

Unlike majority of the women during that era, Santiago was directly involved in the political scene along with a pack of male co-writers. She was a member of the underground in 1971, and was already hiding somewhere in Northern Luzon by the 1972.

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But as CCWS assistant director Lito Zulueta said, the lecture was a “cruise through history”, not her story.

Voice from underground

Pete Lacaba told of how the explosive “Prometheus Unbound” got printed in Focus Magazine under the name Ruben Cuevas. Recently, when the Cultural Center of the Philippines released Kamao, an anthology of protest literature during the martial law, he revealed that he was, indeed, the writer of the controversial poem. “Inamin ko na para masingil ko na sila,” he jested.

Lacaba belonged to an underground organization of student writers who had contacts with the Varsitarian. Originally, the poem was to be printed in the university paper, but the text proved to be too much of a risk. Lacaba used acrostics; when read downward, the first letters of each line spelled “MARCOS HITLER DICTADOR TUTA.” The line, “Mars shall glow tonight”, sounds very much like “martial law tonight.”

As a scholar of the Ateneo de Manila University, Lacaba shared his struggle as a proletarian student among the filthy rich.

“Manggagaling pa ako ng Pateros…naka-jeep lang ako…papasok ng campus, lalakarin ko na habang dinadaanan ako ng mga de-kotseng kaklase ko…”

With this, he said it was impossible not to develop class-consciousness. He stopped writing literary works in English, and started writing in Filipino instead.

By focusing more on images instead of sound, he turned his back on “the tree-ness of the tree” (the existentialist debate that poets used to ponder on; essence vs. existence). Through this, he lost his scholarship.

Lacaba worked for the Philippine’s Free Press without finishing his studies. The assassination of his brother Emanuel Lacaba (also a poet) and the struggle of most Filipinos like him (he was detained for two years), made up the skeleton of most of his writings.

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Common fate

Jose, for his part, shared the common fate of his paper Solidarity in relation to Focus Magazine. But, quoting Salvador Lopez who gave a lecture in Honolulu criticizing the martial law regime, Jose said, “It is better to be silenced than silent.”

“When martial law came, I was here, I was very fortunate, I wasn’t jailed, I wasn’t tortured—I was only harassed. I was not allowed to travel for four years. In 1974, I drafted an appeal to the president, asking for the release of these imprisoned writers… I went around asking for signatures. It was a one-to-one meeting. So that if you refused to sign, now, you would not be embarrassed. This is where I found out that many of our writers were cowards… I only got about 16 signatures,” Jose told the audience.

The tension inside the room was hard to explain. Many in the audience were not born yet, or hardly had any idea of how it was to live during the martial law era, much less how literature during that era ought to be judged.

Perhaps, it is true that, as Jose pointed out, “The problem of the young writers today is that they do not exactly know what they are fighting against.”

Perhaps the best way to look at things, as Lacaba quoted, is how the Greek philosopher-writer Terence looked at life and himself: “I am human and nothing that is human is alien to me.” This way, the young writer today would not be afraid to lift the picket sign and write about politics, as much as s/he must not be ashamed to write about other “human” aspects of life as well.

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