MODERN technology, freedom of speech and political repression were the three compelling issues discussed during the national conference of the Philippine Center of the International PEN with the theme “The Ethics of Novel Writing.”

The PEN Conference held last Nov. 25 at the Thomas Aquinas Research Complex Auditorium was attended by prominent writers such as 2006 Ramon Magsaysay laurete Eugenia Duran-Apostol and National Artists Bienvenido Lumbera and F. Sionil Jose, who founded the Philippine chapter of PEN.

PEN, which stands for Poets-Playwrights, Essayists and Novelists, is the global federation of writers across all genres. It promotes freedom of expression and writer’s rights.

Great power, greater responsibility

In his welcome speech, UST Rector Fr. Ernesto Arceo said that ethics in literary writing is badly needed today as the good and evil have been “relativized.”

Palanca award-winning novelist Azucena Grajo-Uranza emphasized that with the power of the pen comes responsibility, in her keynote address, “Ethical Issues in Literature–Vision and Responsibility.”

According to Uranza, a writer has three responsibilities: to present to the people his discoveries about the various aspects of human life, to express the aspirations and frustrations of his countrymen and, to be accurate and balanced in everything he writes.

“The writer faces his own strict standards of integrity and truth, and is doubly responsible for the honesty and fairness of what he writes. Needless to say, the writer’s tools for great literature are the very same tools that can maim and slay the soul,” Uranza said.

Literature’s new challenges

The ethical challenges facing literature and new media were tackled in the first literary session, “Literature and the New Media.” The panelists were Varsitarian adviser and National Commission for the Culture and the Arts chairman for the literary arts Lito Zulueta, fictionist Dean Francis Alfar, National Historical Institute chairman and Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist Ambeth Ocampo, UP Creative Writing Institute director Filipino poet Victor Emmanuel Nadera, and fictionist Charlson Ong.

According to Zulueta, writing has become more popular with the arrival of modern technology.

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“Any writer can break into electronic print by coming out with his own website or his own blog journal. The electronic media have boosted a democracy of writers, where practically everybody is a writer,” Zulueta said.

However, according to Zulueta, the problem with the “democratization” of writing is the process of selecting entries that are worth reading as there is no filtering method done to assure the authenticity and quality of a blog entry, unlike the “gatekeeping” process present in print media, wherein editors and publishers screen a manuscript first before it is put on print.

From a historian’s perspective, Ocampo lamented that many pieces of material evidence would be lost as more and more people are using cell phones and computers, instead of writing letters as a means of communication.

“We read the text message, then delete it, or we talk on the phone, after which the conversations are gone.” Ocampo said.

But for fictionist Dean Francis Alfar, technology is of great help in creating literary works since it promotes interaction between reader and writer through the posting of comments. He also said that while there are blogs that contain little literary content, there are still others that possess quality literary content and these get visited often.

Rebutting the idea that the print media will die soon because of modern technology, Nadera said that the print media would still survive as long as modern technology failed to reach everyone.

“There will be an equilibrium depending on where you are and you will always have these things,” Nadera said.

Education is power

During the Jose Rizal Lecture, Apostol said that Filipino students today find it hard to appreciate literary masterpieces due to their lack of reading and writing skills.

“An average Grade 6 pupil can only answer half of the National Achievement Test questions correctly,” Apostol said.

She said that this contradicts education’s mission “to develop people’s mentality since it (education) is the foundation of society and a prerequisite to social progress,” quoting Rizal in his essay “Instruction.”

Apostol blamed overcrowded schools, substandard facilities, and lack of competent teachers as the culprits behind the decline in quality education.

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To solve the problem, the Foundation for Worldwide People Power (FWPP), an advocacy group for people empowerment which Apostol heads, has launched the Education Revolution that aims to help schools and communities draft plans to improve the quality of education, like community-based reading and math tutoring program.

Road to freedom

The connection of literature and human liberty was tackled in the second literary session, “Literature and Human Freedom,” with fictionist Susan Lara, former Philippine Educational Theater Association playwright Malou Jacob, UP professor Bonifacio Ilagan, and novelist Domingo Landicho as panelists.

For Lara, literature is the passport for a writer to enter the “zone of freedom” since he can still soar with his own imagination even if he is imprisoned.

She also traced the etymology of the word ‘freedom’ to the Sumerian word arma ar gi which means “going home to mother.”

“The link between freedom and home makes sense. Home is where you can be yourself and the mother is the one person who gives love to you unconditionally,” Lara added.

On the other hand, Jacob depicted the connection between literature and human freedom in her play, Huling Salubong, which narrates the story of an idealistic, radical professor who left his career and pregnant wife to go underground during martial law years.

“The play probes into the morality of the use of violence as a means, as a method of attaining one’s goal of a just and humane society,” Jacob said.

As for Ilagan, human freedom and literature could be best seen in activist-poets like Eman Lacaba and Axel Pinpin.

“They lived and died as they wrote and fully committed their writing to society. Lacaba and Pinpin wielded human freedom by exercising it,” Ilagan said.

Lacaba was a poet-activist who later joined the communist movement during the 1970’s and was killed after a firefight with the military in Davao. Pinpin, meanwhile, was one of the so-called “Tagaytay Five” activists who were arrested by police on suspicion of being New People’s Army rebels.

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Mirror of repression

Meanwhile, UP professor Rosario Cruz-Lucero, playwright Nicolas Pichay, Thomasian historian Jose Victor Torres, fictionist Jun Cruz Reyes, and Newsbreak editor in chief Marites Danguilan-Vitug showed the different kinds of repression in the third literary session, “Literature in a Time of Repression.” Lumbera served as chairperson of the session.

Lucero demonstrated how language, through seemingly innocuous parts of speech, could become a window into the realities of Spanish imperial policy. Citing the Hiligaynon-Spanish grammar book, Arte de la Lengua Bisaya, Hiligauyna de la isla de Panay, Lucero gave examples of Ilonggo words like “hain,” meaning “which,” showing the status of women in 1628 when their mothers would auction them to Spaniards by asking, “Which among my daughters would you like to marry?”

Meanwhile, Pichay pointed out that gender repression had long been present in Philippine literature. He used the example of soap operas showing scenes of men slapping their wives or mistresses to illustrate how literature has condoned gender oppression on women.

“I don’t understand why slapping must always be part of every Filipino television program,” Pichay said. “As a general rule, our culture allows gender oppression in literature.”

Lastly, Vitug described the situation of media in the Philippines as paradoxical, saying that although the Philippines is acknowledged to have the freest press in Southeast Asia, its media are of dubious quality.

“Although democracy is an important factor in having a free press, it does not guarantee that Philippine media is exemplifying quality press,” Vitug said.

She said that as an institution, the media are hobbled by vested interests and unethical practices. To solve this problem, Vitug said writers should be paid better wages so they would not be forced to moonlight in public relations and politics.

Founded in 1959, PEN is one of the oldest and the biggest writers’ group in the country. It holds annual national conferences, including the Jose Rizal Lecture. Ruben Jeffrey A. Asuncion and Kristine Jane R. Liu

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