Wednesday, November 22

On Not Writing

Notes on the Fictionist's Role in the Time of Emergency*

A month or so into the Duterte administration, when the killings began as promised, a blog called “The Kill List Chronicles” began to gather works that constituted what the curator, the writer Ian Casocot, had called “the new protest literature.” These are the stories, essays, and poems, he said, that were being written in response to the manifold violence that was unleashed by the president and the impunity with which they are committed.

In a brief introductory essay, Casocot traced the genealogy of such new works to the writings during and about critical periods in Philippine history, from the waning years of Spanish rule to the American occupation and all the way to Martial Law. While he implies a sort of urgent documentary ethos to the project, the alignment with figures like Jose Rizal and Jose Lacaba nevertheless attempts to lend a sense of gravity and foresight to the endeavor.

Consider, for instance, how Casocot appraises the project’s potential value: “Only the future can tell how this literature, as a prospective tool for change, can impact what is going on at present. Protest literature are almost always considered only in the aftermath; perhaps this project can change that, and can demonstrate, once and for all, the power of literature as a social tool.”

I remember being puzzled by this project, in particular the self-christening as “new protest literature.” It diverged so wildly from the tradition that I was familiar with. The spirit of works like Lope K. Santos’s Banaag at Sikat (1905), Amado V. Hernandez’s Mga lbong Mandaragit (1965), or the anthology Sigwa (1971) go beyond mere documentation. While they sought to bear witness to the immediate reality of everyday violence and injustice, what sets them apart is an astute diagnosis of how such violence and injustice are rooted in entrenched social structures. And always they culminated in a clear call for these structures to be dismantled. Their radicalism, their protest, in other words, whether they’re novels or vignettes or poems, lies in how they situate something within a larger ecosystem of oppressions.

Also curious for me was the role that the project assigns to the writer in the task of fermenting social change. Too cavalier, I thought. Too writerly, which again represented a divergence from the tradition that I knew. After all, we remember that Carlos Bulosan became heavily involved in the labor movements in early 20th-century America en route to writing America is in the Heart (1946); Emman Lacaba, as an NPA cadre in Mindanao in the 1970s, not only penned what is often considered the ars poetica of Philippine revolutionary literature, he also learned Bisaya and put revolutionary lyrics to popular Visayan folk songs, some of which are still used today; and, more recently, groups like KM 64 write protest poetry even as members participate in teach-ins and mobilizations, bringing their works to the broader society about which they write.

Their writing, in other words, represented but a mere fraction of a broader engagement with society’s myriad contradictions. They venture outside the page and abandon the heinous solitude of writing in order to participate in other ways. Which means protest literature didn’t really stop, especially outside traditional publishing channels, the natural and most potent habitat for these works. They continue to be written and recited and sung, whether it be in picket lines outside factory premises and haciendas or the invisible forest trails in the countryside. Any grandiloquent declarations about its resurgence must reckon with this fact.

These misgivings, of course, are not incompatible with welcoming a project like “The Kill List Chronicles.” Any well-meaning response to Duterte’s bloodbath is a move against acquiescent silence and is thus welcome. It is understandable for writers to be moved by images of bloodied bodies splayed on pavement and to respond in the way writers know: by words.

But it’s instructive, I think, and might reveal a pervasive attitude about writing as a response to crisis that’s worth further examination. After EDSA, there was an upswing in literary production due to a regained sense of independence and the potency of an experience like Martial Law. But the increasing academization of creative writing in the country with the establishment of creative writing centers and programs saw the writer retreating ever so gradually to the cozy cocoon of academia, lulled by the occasional award, grant, or publication. And as the writing community grew insular, for many, this also imperiled, if not completely discarded, modes of involvement that go beyond writing.

For instance, that the works in “The Kill List Chronicles” are archived in a website for wider access and posterity certainly has its value; but in the context of such an insular writing community, and as an intervention in Duterte’s genocidal rampage, its worth is suspect. I think it’s important to be suspicious of the comforting notion that writing can ever be enough, and that by writing about something, we would have already done our part.

In an interview, the poet and teacher Conchitina Cruz talked about the danger of poetry acting as “insufficient proxy” in responding to a crisis. She said: “I think the least we can do as poets is to be conscious of the limits of engaging ‘as poets’ in the work of social transformation. Our words on the page simply can’t stand-in for our bodies out on the streets.” An infatuation with writing’s relevance, she said, can authorize detachment from collective struggle. For me this is why it is always heartening to see writers participating in the many mobilizations against the killings, to see writers, in other words, not writing, or not only writing.

But isn’t the intervention proffered by fiction enough? Fiction, after all, by its very nature, engages with notions of reality and is thus inherently in the business of raising political consciousness in some shape or form. Furthermore, by scrutinizing motivation, it cultivates empathy. By attending to details, it commands a meditative attitude. Because it relies on imagining a possibility, an alternative, whether for the self or for society, its default stance is always hope, even as its avenue is via hopelessness. These alone can be radical, especially as antidotes to things like modernity’s penchant for speed, for example, or the reign of literal-mindedness, or a broad sense of debilitating despair.

But all these are impotent in the face of a nation that doesn’t read us. The fundamental material conditions for many Filipinos remain violently incompatible with the nourishment of an interior life, for many a prerequisite for the complete appreciation of literature. For Filipino writers then, I think an important truth that writing should testify to is its own inadequacy, whether in times of emergency or not.

And for Walter Benjamin, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule.” In the Philippines, this state goes well beyond the killings, horrible as they are. Just recently, Manila’s hosting of the ASEAN Summit gave us a scene right out of either a terrible dystopia or a Latin American dictator novel: Duterte toasting to Donald Trump at a lavish gala dinner in a sparkling pavilion while Manila’s homeless scavenge for their next meal, driven away from their regular spots along the suddenly immaculate Roxas Boulevard.

More importantly, the mad hosting signaled the country’s dogged belief in a mode of development that had brought little relief to its citizens. Between 2010 and 2015—before the killings—the wealth of the 10 richest Filipinos has more than tripled, from an already obscene P630 billion to P2.2 trillion. This, as 66 million Filipinos live on less than P125 a day. Elsewhere: landlessness, extrajudicial killings, attacks on higher education, institutionalized bigotry, fake news, the West Philippine Sea and China, the traffic on EDSA, climate change, etc. etc.

Any form of artistic production is necessarily in conversation with these realities. In a country like the Philippines, inscribed in the Filipino artist’s subject-position are the many privileges that make art production possible in the first place, be it education or a disposable income or free time. My book, which will be launched later, costs just shy of the daily minimum wage in Metro Manila. It may contain interesting ideas about the call center industry and globalization, but it is written in a language and structure that some call center agents, my target audience, might find inscrutable or unappetizing. (I hope I’m wrong though.) Thus, the categories of “truth” that I think fiction should bear witness to has not changed: the capacity of fiction to imagine an alternative and at the same time a constant disenchantment with this self-same capacity.

I’d like to end with a quote from a writer whose fiction writing was famously interrupted by doing something else other than fiction writing. It took 20 years for Arundhati Roy to write and publish a follow-up to her 1997 debut The God of Small Things. In the intervening years she did many things. She joined Maoist fighters in central India and lent her voice to many causes that could use amplification, consequently earning the ire of just about every group in the country, from the religious right wing to big business, among others.

Responding to being described as an activist, she said: “To call someone like me a writer-activist suggests that it’s not the job of a writer to write about the society in which they live. But it used to be our job. It’s a peculiar thing, until writers were embraced by the market, that’s what writers did—they wrote against the grain, they patrolled the borders, they framed the debates about how society should think. They were dangerous people.”

The absolute lunacy of this regime, it’s true, demands more than ever for writers to regain this sense of danger, not only in condemning the killings but in dissecting the basket case society of which the killings are merely symptomatic. Fiction as a form can of course do this, but given our realities its value as a potent intervention might well be fictional as well; hence, the need to do more. Thank you.

* Delivered during the “The Fictionist and the Challenge of Truth Telling” panel, Philippine PEN 60th Congress, Buenaventura Garcia Paredes OP Alumni Center, University of Santo Tomas, November 21, 2017

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