Saturday, January 6

On autonomy

A comforting thought I always carry is that Baguio City is four hours away. The usual calm that often accompanied the stretch between Christmas and new year didn't materialize this year--odd all told, for how shamefully good the year was--and the restlessness had to be placated by, well, movement.

How did that awful, awful line from The Hand of the Enemy go? The tremor comes from coming so close to happiness? I think my favorite moment of 2017 was late one Tuesday when I read the manuscript of The Quiet Ones just before it went to press, and I realized, with absolute relief, that I still like it. It was still decent, I thought, a book I can still stand behind. Years of obsessing about it didn't completely dampen my enthusiasm for the thing.

Talks of autonomy and artistic production closed the year hereabouts, and that early October morning came to mind when I tried to think about my own notions of (artistic) independence. I felt completely, happily alone at that moment, happily sovereign, my sense of self momentarily shored up by the familiar god-like satisfaction of having created something I (self-reflexively) appreciate. Then I remembered that the first words from RCL when I told her about Palanca were, "Wow, and you did it on your own, without a patron." That this had to be said, of course, already reveals the political dimension of the win, in particular the existence of a system under/against which Filipino writers produce, which we all navigate, acts of resistance notwithstanding.

Which is why when I saw the book and all its heft (and beautiful design) for the first time, it really didn't occasion the sort of chest-beating euphoria that it might have elicited from a younger version of myself. Of course I was happy. Of course. But for the better part of my adult life I had derived the entirety of my livelihood from writing, from annual reports to press releases and AVP scripts. Writing had always been labor to me, this book a product, suffused, to be sure, with all the amorphous investments of experience and politics and ideas but a product nonetheless. To unnecessarily fetishize it is to succumb to the logic of capital. In addition, my participation in the literary ecosystem here and, marginally, abroad--enthusiastically in my youth and with reservations today--have all but demystified literary production, mine included and specially. 

For how to assert sovereignty when portions of the work underwent (brutal) workshoping from RCL, or edits from an Australian editor, when it bears the imprimatur of the Palanca awards (the head judge a former teacher; another, a colleague whom I first met at a workshop), when my connections made possible blurbs from GA and JT, advance reviews in newspapers? How to insist on autonomy when I wrote a big chunk of the book in the five years that I was a freelance writer, something I could do because of contacts and networks (JD among them) and a marketable skill I acquired from my state-funded education, which also, come to mention it, made possible whatever virtues the writing itself demonstrates--the comfort in the language, the formal skill, the political insights? How to claim isolation when the very act of writing in English, in a country like the Philippines, is already a politically exclusionary decision?

Do these diminish artistic agency? Do they disempower? Perhaps they should. To valorize the autonomy of the writer is to affirm the bankrupt notion of the individual as free, a most dangerously comforting proposition. And like people, the ideas converse, too, and that GA wrote the blurb for the book was heartening because it gestures toward this conversation (contrary, I hope, to the arbitrary, if not incestuous blurbing business that I've observed dominates local books). The web thus is endlessly intricate, and any critical stance against it necessitates a thorough accounting of one's embeddedness in it, even as one flails and flails to break free. Maybe that's a provisional act of agency one could realistically aspire for in the meantime.