(Abridged version of a talk prepared for the University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii, February 22, 2006. Sponsored by the Ilokano Program, Department of Hawaiian and Indo-Pacific Languages and Literatures, the National Foreign Language Resource Center, the Center for Philippine Studies, and the Department of Ethnic Studies. The talk is part of the Centennial Celebration of the Filipino Sakadas in Hawaii.)
The Genesis of a Novel
There are always certain issues that a novelist must confront himself with when going down to the serious yet playful business of writing a novel in whatever language he imagines the world of the novel from.
In my way of doing things, I strongly hold on to the view that language is a site and that when a writer begins to create a world in his world, he does create that world from that site which is language in the here-and-now, a language in the particular, a language in the concrete.
In my case, for instance, I have blessed to have been able to navigate three sites afforded by three languages.
These three sites have given me a certain perspective of worlds made richer by a productive encounter with the language of the Ilokanos which is the language that I was born into even I could say that I am only half-Ilokano, with my mother being a Pangasinense, another one of those major Philippine languages in Northern Philippines; the language of the nation, Tagalog, sometimes passed off as Pilipino with either a P or an F; and English, which is the language of my academic life.
In my academic life, I have had the chance to get into a nurturing environment, one that did not frown upon the other Philippine languages but had pushed for a rethinking of an appreciation and a political and moral duty to recognize and allow these languages to become part of the repertoire of national language and discourse.
So while all throughout my academic life as both a student and eventually a teacher—and while I was bombarded with things “American” and things “English” as is the case of every colonized people when they put a premium on the values and ethos of their colonizer—I had held on to the English language, Philippine-style, as my passport to peace and progress and productive scholarship, I was also dabbling in the language of father which was my first language and the language of the nation that went from one metamorphosis to another.
I have always been drawn to language and its possibilities, more so because I believe I could write and that I knew how to play with the terrors and surprises of language.
Also, I had specialized in philosophy of language for my graduate studies in philosophy and was particularly captivated by the issues about symbols and meaning, the question of the artistic, and the hermeneutic theory of interpretation.
All of those would force to look at language up close so that when I was about to write my doctoral dissertation, I knew right there and then that I would use the novel form to write my ethnographic account of the 100 years of struggle of the Ilokanos to free themselves from oppression and bondage and injustice.
The Ilokanos are a logical choice.
First, I was born into their culture, not exactly in a place where “pure” Ilokano was spoken but the kind of an Ilokano brought by Ilokano exiles and immigrants in Isabela as they moved away from the hard-scrabble life in the drought-and-famine ridden Ilocos countryside. Pure or not pure, the Ilokano spoken in Isabela is Ilokano still.
Second, because of this jus soli accident of birth, I somehow felt a kinship with my people in Isabela even if by the time that I was about to enter pre-school, we moved back to Laoag where there, in the innocence of barrio life, I had a first-hand exposure to all things Ilokano done in the ancient ways of the ancestors who thought that life is multi-layered and that the dead could come back and leave signs for us to understand what the afterlife is all about, and that life is one of celebration and not a tragic annihilation of all things that have meaning and relevance.
Third, there is that immediate admission that the Ilocanos as “my people” in an ethnographic-anthropological sense is more familiar than any of the possible “my people” in any research field.
This sense of the familiar, of course, is misleading in the end because that which seems to be familiar, like my nose, like my own self, like my own emotions, are not necessarily logically easier to understand. I realized this too late-- that to learn the ethos and the narratives of struggle of your own people is not as easy as learning your ABC. It is most difficult to learn anything concrete about your own people.
As a writer tinkering with the possibilities of the three languages available to me, I was most at home with English, initially. The reason is obvious: my colonial education. I knew more about Mayakovsky, Dostoyevsky, Sylvia Plath, Neruda and Hemingway than any of our writers writing in Ilokano; my first bible was in English and my first-ever dictionary was in English as well. I must have read Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” many times over than any of the Ilokano pieces that I eventually learned to like.
Where does that lead me to this talk on “Redemption: an Ilokano Novel in English”?
It is not a simple act, this one—this act of writing “Redemption.” It is a novel-in-progress and has been, at least with the first ten chapters, written in English. And I am happy that I am writing this in English.
Now, what does this mean, this decision to write in English for a long work such a novel?
The question is not easy to answer. But I give you a clue: that my having become an exile is a big factor, one of the newest fresh of the boat/fresh of the plane immigrants of this country of immigrants, of this nation among nations.
I wanted to speak to my people in exile, in the diaspora, among the invisible immigrant communities.
I wanted to speak to them about the homeland and in a language that the people of the diaspora would understand, the English of the new homeland, but the English that they understand everyday: familiar and light, celebratory and ruminating, not so academic and difficult but free-flowing, with the narrative strategy somehow structured along the way we think with all the criss-crossing thoughts coming in handy, with the thoughts somehow contradicting each other and yet able to come up with a synthesis, a compromise, a clarity and coherence.
I wanted to reach out to the middle class forces in the country, the middle class forces that do not know much about the sufferings of the poor but do not know as well the excesses of the elites and thus, have not been corrupted in some sort of way by the corrupt and corrupting practices of the a-historical, amoral and yet overly-political ruling class.
I have left out the poor in this piece. It is their life story, any which way you go. And then, of course, they do not have to be reminded of their misery over and over again.
So there—there are my readers—those that I want to reach: the exilic community, those who have gone away to seek their fortunes elsewhere.
There are the middle forces, the professionals, the workhorse of the mental life of the nation minus the filthy rich who have nothing to lose during any of the social turmoil affecting the homeland of the Filipino exiles in the United States except those social events that they go to where they flaunt their riches—and their power over the suffering masses.
The Choice of Language
The recognition that language is a site of aesthetic experience and the creative imagination makes the writer realize that he is duty-bound to look make a choice of the language that he uses if he has that alternative.
For the many writers who are monolingual, this should not be a problem. But for exilic writers and writers of the diaspora who usually come from other heritage languages, this luxury of a monolingual world does not apply.
The exilic writer has to keep on navigating between and among languages that he carries in his soul.
This is my particular case—the writer writing from exile, the writer writing as exile, the writer writing about exile.
And so my choice of a language is borne by a need to speak the language of the exile, the language of the Filipino in the diaspora.
On a large, demographic scale, those in exile in the U.S. are professionals. And professionals, being of the middle force, tend to speak the language of colonial education, administration, and commerce. It is English.
One other thing: the choice of a language is sometimes dictated by the aesthetic requirement of the material on hand.
This means that: the literary material dictates the language to be used.
There are certain text that cannot be written in other languages, well, not in the way we would write that text in question in the language we feel it should be written.
This is where the notion of “original” language in which the text is written takes its cue on meaning, fidelity to the issues raised, the accounting of meanings, the accounting of sensibilities and sensitivities.
It is also in this light that “translation” remains a translation, a movement from one world to another world, a re-articulation of sense and meaning of the material in which it was originally written.
I chose to speak of “Redemption” in English because of these reasons.
What is this “Redemption” all about?
It is the story of a family—but I am working on the stories of the women making up this family.
There are six main characters:
Ria, born 1964, 42 years old, 2 kids, married to an overseas Filipino working in an American base in Guantanamo bay.
Lagrimas, 1970, 35, years old, 3 kids, living in Hawaii with family; came to the U.S. an adopted child of an aunt and an uncle.
Rosario, 1972, 33 years old, 1 kid, divorcee, living in Florida with a son; came to the U. S. as an adopted of an aunt and an uncle.
Ditas, 1976, 30 years old, single parent of Wayawaya, separated from husband who was mending the house of the rich.
Lorena, 1978, 28, years old, married to an unambitious man who works as a Kristo in a cockpit.
Nanang, 1940, born during the war, at the time of the evacuation during the war; married young, got involved in many entangling relationships; was forced to evacuate again during the militarization campaign of the Marcos regime; and then during the late part of the Marcos regime, lost her mind and from there, on and off, she becomes crazy and she becomes sane. She becomes a witness to all that has been promised to the Filipino people from the time she was born till the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo regime; during her sane moments, she joins the rallies and protests about so many social issues affecting the Philippines.
Though their stories, written largely in epistolary form, we get a glimpse of what they have gone through in life.
Personal Stories as Political
But I refuse to believe that the personal stories of my characters are merely personal stories; my take about life stories is that they are always-already entrenched in the life of a community, in the life of a country, in the life of a people.
There is no personal story that to me is plain and simple personal.
This idea of a story linked with the historical is untenable.
For me, even the fantastic story, in whatever form, is always-already rooted in history.
Because every story of an individual is a part of the story of a larger community.
Because every good and happy story of an individual is part and parcel of a happy and good story of a community; each bad and sorrowful and sad story of an individual is part and parcel of the bad and sorrowful and sad story of a larger community.
Stories are all we are—this we know very well. If we are not stories, what are?
If we are not stories, what are we then?
The answer is: If we are not stories, we are nothing, we are no-thing, we do not exist, we simply are not.
For me, the question of existence is a question of the “storyness” of human life.
Like the mindset of the Ilokanos who are peopling all of my stories, story is linked with history: sarita—story—is the root of history, pakasaritaan.
In my way of dealing with the realities and demands of “storyness” I always refer back to this fundamental connection between story and history.
I see the connection clearly: one implicates each other.
This is my story technique; this is my methodology for accounting the complex lived experiences of a people who are part of a bigger whole.
As always, one thing that I have learned is to permit the voice of a people to speak—and speak even the unspeakable, to say the unsayable, to name the unnamable, to turn into a speech that which has been muted for so long, muffled for so long, stifled for so long.
In doing this, I use the tools and techniques of critical ethnography: an accounting of a thick description of a culture.
In a sense, I am making full use of my training as an ethnographer to put together what I believe would constitute a good story of a culture, a novel.
I will now give you a reading of some of the chapters of “Redemption.” I would say that some of the chapters come as independent short stories—or episodes if you like.
I do not know where I ever got the title “Redemption.” While I recognize its religious overtone and undertone, I do not think I ever got it from religious sense but from the long history of struggle of the Filipino people that has talked about kaligtasan/pannakisalakan since the coming of the Spaniards. Redemption, is not a Christian teleology but the dream of the good life a society for its people: good because that life is just and fair, good because opportunities are afforded to each one to pursue their dreams.
I think of redemption as some kind of a primal, unconditional, non-negotiable need. I had always thought that the Philippines as a homeland of a wandering people and the Filipinos as the new exiles need to look for the formula for social redemption if that is at all possible.
Perhaps, the word formula linked with the collective act of self-redemption is not apt; perhaps it is not formula that we need but small and big stories that are put together to come up with a grander, more socially relevant story that will remind out of our commitment to life lived with meaning and truth.
So what makes an Ilokano novel? What makes an Ilokano novel in English? When you tell the story of the Ilokanos using their language and framing their story with the grander dynamics and demands of social history—when their stories of the Ilokanos are intertwined and mapped out in the larger history of the country. That to me, is the Ilokano novel. And when that story is told in the language of exile and diaspora—that is the Ilokano novel in English.