Contemporary literary criticism in the Philippines: preliminary notes*
by J. Neil C. Garcia
What I will read to you this afternoon comes out of my experience editing The Likhaan Book of Philippine Criticism, a project of the Likhaan: UP Creative Writing Center. As such, my remarks are going to gravitate around the fact that for this book, I have needed to profess my dual loves, to wear my two hats—as poet and as literary critic—and to do so in the least schizoid manner I could manage. After giving my observations regarding the current state of literary criticism in the country—both as it is practiced in most collegiate classrooms, and as it is textually produced, chiefly in the national center, Manila—I shall provide a brief summary of the best local criticism that has been written in English in recent years. I shall accomplish this by classifying the different critical essays that I selected in The Likhaan Book, and by describing, rather briefly, those particular works of criticism that may be said to be more remarkable than the rest. It may not be a completely irrelevant fact that most of them happen to have been written by practicing writers. Admittedly, my intention in this presentation is not so much a descriptive as a polemical one. Just exactly what this polemic is should become obvious early enough.
Over and again, we’ve heard it preached: literary criticism, thanks to Roland Barthes and the post-structuralists, need not be literature’s inimical or parasitic supplement, inasmuch as both are instances of what has now been routinely called text—a demonic production, a stereographic plurality, an open-ended activity of signification. Thus, the creative text should no longer be given interpretive primacy in the final analysis, for what a critic reads into/writes about it eventually becomes an inalienable part of it: an intertext. And we have heard it said, in this regard, that all texts are intertexts of some sort or other.
While it remains unclear whether this prescription to dismantle the creative/critical binary has been followed seriously in the West, certainly in the Philippines it would seem to be how things are and most likely will always be: over the years, our writers have demonstrated themselves to be rather avid purveyors of literary criticism, either of their own or other writers’ works.
In 1998, I enjoyed the good fortune of editing The Likhaan Book of Philippine Criticism, which was intended to be a decennial anthology of the best essays of literary criticism being written in English by Filipinos about the various literatures of the Philippines. Of the fact that a mutually inclusive relationship, if only by virtue of provenance alone, obtains between creative writing and the otherwise discrete activity of producing critiques and literary analyses, this self-same book provides eloquent proof. As it is, The Likhaan Book of Philippine Criticism consists of twenty-three samples of “recent” or “contemporary” Philippine literary criticism, and it is part of a series of titles in Philippine literature being put forth by the Likhaan, the Creative Writing Center of the University of the Philippines, where I serve as an associate for poetry. While the Likhaan, as an institution, has always been known as a moving force behind the sustained creation of literature in this country, sponsoring yearly workshops for aspiring writers in various languages and genres, it is only with the publication of this critical anthology that it may be said to officially acknowledge—at long last!—its gleeful complicity with that amazing open secret: writers, if only in this part of the textual world, make for the best critics.
But there is a good reason why this is so, in our case more poignantly than in Europe or America: as with every other local field of knowledge, literature’s boundaries are immensely permeable to whatever surrounds it. Needless to say, life in these islands has not been rationalized to the same degree it has in the modern and/or postmodern West: it remains possible—if not likely—that anyone will have to practice more than one expertise, traffic in more than one conversation, eke out more than one kind of living, just to make ends meet hereabouts. Local writers have been known to ghost-write propaganda for the powers that be, to conduct classes in corporate or business English, copy-write advertisements, hack-write columns and feature articles for the dailies, “sell their souls,” as it were, so why shouldn’t they also crank out pages of occasional criticism? Indeed, as far as we are concerned, writing about literature may well be of a piece with writing literature—or at least, the passion they require may well be one and the same. (And our writers most probably arrived at this wondrous piece of knowledge despite their ignorance of post-structuralism and Barthes’s famous admonishing).
Moreover, Filipino writers who do criticism on the side are invariably also academics, as the dossiers of the contributors to The Likhaan Book should indicate. In fact, this anthology is a distinctly academic undertaking, if not an academic undertaking of the metropolitan kind. And in this respect, it bears mentioning, too, that there exists a sharp disjuncture between the kind of criticism these essays represent, and the practical, “classroom criticism” being conducted by literature teachers all over the country today.
Five years ago, I participated as a fellow in the first national writers workshop to be held in Iligan City. It was a unique and enlightening experience, to say the least, for other than the usual workshop, the event also brought together a number of college and university teachers of language and literature from all over the Visayas and Mindanao.
Aside from attending their own sessions on pedagogy, the teachers were made to observe how older writers tore apart younger writers’ manuscripts, for the ostensible purpose of teaching them the intricacies of the sullen art. At the end of each workshop, the teachers were allowed to share their opinions and ask questions about the works just discussed, which unexpectedly gave me and my fellow writers invaluable insights into the state of literary appreciation outside our immediate circles of writers-teachers back in the national capital. I, for one, came away from that workshop at once humbled and disabused: the practical criticism that existed in the country at large had very little resemblance with what I had always thought to be the case, which of course was what I believed to be desirable, for it was how I wished my own works to be received.
As a writer, it saddened me to realize that, in the main and even under the best of circumstances, the literature I wrote was being criticized in the classroom as being largely a question of message or theme, the form of which was of little consequence to its overall appreciation, and moreover — horrors! — as a message that needed to be evaluated as being either good or bad. But let me say this, as well: I cast these foregoing sentences in the past tense not because I think this condition no longer obtains — indeed, as fecundated by my readings in Philippine history, my thoughts on the matter more and more convince me it can only ever obtain  – but that I no longer feel the same about it. No longer sad or horrified, I mean.
For there is another way of looking at this peculiar state of literary affairs: while it is true that the “moral criticism” being perpetrated in virtually all Philippine schools is bound to overlook the specific nature of texts of literature (as distinct from other texts, for instance), recently I have come to see that this may not be such a terrible thing, after all. Indeed, hasn’t the search for the “literariness” of literature been declared a form of misguided scientism everywhere in Euro-American civilization? It would seem, yet again, that despite the absence of the particular historical conditions that brought about a certain cultural practice in the West, our own culture has managed, surprisingly enough, to evince its own distinct, yet comparable, practice.
We already know that most forms of contemporary criticism in the West do not even pretend that reading and writing are neutral, value-free acts. Post-colonial, feminist, anti-homophobic, cultural materialist, new historicist, Marxist and other current schools of literary and cultural theory are avowedly politically committed and even confrontationally so. How different can our local criticism be from such newfangled criticisms when, just like them, it is acutely cognizant of literature’s practical value, its function within the culture that produces it, its nature as a social discourse?
Of course there is a vital difference, come to think: contemporary Western criticism is the way it is—which is to say, political—precisely because it used to be otherwise. Thus, none of the many -isms that populate the field of literary studies in Europe and America these days is completely uninformed by formalism (the high-point of which being the many variants of structuralism), which is something that definitely cannot be said of the practical criticism being advanced in most Philippine classrooms. In the first place, the ethos that propels the moral imperative in our culture’s dominant reading practices is arguably different from the ethos behind these contemporary western theories. Although critical of the objectivist pretense attending much of formalist thought, these theories otherwise deploy the vast arsenal of formalist-derived categories painstakingly evolved over the past century by the many specialists in the field of literary studies.
Thus, there is always some kind of formalism required of every criticism, if it should ever wish itself to be literary. I am convinced it is the extent of its sophistication that distinguishes every such criticism, including our own, which happens not to have really very much of it. Of course, all this does not change the fact that our practical criticism is already, despite its limited use of literary terminology, irreparablyfunctional anyway, subjecting the text to a purposeful reading in order to advance certain extra-literary imperatives, of which the moralist and the nationalist are arguably the most common and “correct.”
It seems most literature teachers in our country expect good literature to proffer a didactic gift: their delvings into any text should ideally turn up religious and/or nationalist nuggets of wisdom, for which they feel immensely rewarded and turn incredibly happy. (At least in Iligan they did). Just now I realize that, unlike what I previously thought, there is a certain kind of pleasure that inheres even in such an unassuming critical strategy. Such a pleasure, though obviously different from Barthesian jouissance,  may yet be analogous with it in certain ways, for it is a pleasure that inescapably accrues from a process of interpretation, from one’s intimate experience with words as they exist on the written page. Yet again, we cannot so easily dismiss this admittedly “crude” approach to reading literature, for the very reason it has persisted all these years is that it has proven itself adequate in the face of what our society operatively is, and what it requires.
How else can a criticism be if not socially adequate?
Allow me, at this point in my paper, to confound my own previous pronouncement: there isn’t such a sharp disjuncture, after all, between the criticism the pieces in the anthology I edited purvey, and the ubiquitous practiced criticism I have been speaking of, except perhaps for the former’s vaster knowledge and greater use of formalist terms and categories.
Thus, on the one hand, we can expect to encounter a nuanced vocabulary in these essays that denotes increasingly complex literary concepts, while, on the other, classroom criticism confines itself to the barest minimum of such concepts. The purposefulness of the critical enterprise in both endeavors is undeniably the same, however: there are ends toward which the reading directs itself in each and every essay in this book, ends which must — just like the way a typical literature teacher in our country probably rounds off her discussion of a poem or a story — be made to serve a meaning/purpose outside the mere enjoyment of words as words.
In fact, the pieces in The Likhaan Book of Philippine Criticism were selected for a variety of reasons, some of which cannot be spelled out — might it help if I put it as a question, simply, of “taste”? — although the most salient may well be this: ultimately, they must be as zealous as the “moral-seeking” teacher is with regard to literature’s practical function. (And I am sure they are, despite the cool and sober sophistication of their formalist language). If only to satisfy this requisite I did not, my previously avowed hubris notwithstanding, limit my choices to criticism that had been penned by creative writers alone.
A second consideration that guided my selection is this: in spite of “cultural studies” and the blurring of genres customary to much of contemporary criticism, the object of attention of the chosen essay must still be, or primarily include, a Philippine literary text — whether or not it be in English. Hence, unlike a recent important anthology of “translocal essays on Filipino cultures,”  for this project I had to forego essays that, though intriguing in their assumptions and ruminations about the textuality of everyday life, did not pay respects to any particular local works of drama, fiction or poetry.
I am aware that this editorial decision to exclude non-literary criticism shall be taken, finally, as this collection’s greatest limitation, but as an editor of any anthology should know, I had to be willing to sacrifice certain usefulnesses in order to propagate and assure others. Since there is a dearth of venues for literary criticism in our country today — indeed, since there is a dearth of literary criticism per se — I thought it vital to devote this book’s energies to just the rectifying of this sad situation. If I am not mistaken, this may well be the first time that an anthology of this sort is being put out in our country’s relatively short literary history, and it is the Likhaan’s wish — even as, after more than half-a-year of tracking down articles and poring over manuscripts, it may never again be mine — to pursue this project on a more or less regular basis.
While a few of them were solicited, the bulk of these essays came from established inter- or multi-disciplinary journals like Philippine Studies and Diliman Review, as well as the lesser known publications of English and literature departments of certain universities in the metropolis. I have grouped them according to what I perceive to be their “performative tasks” — that is to say, what I think they are actually trying to do, given their specific interpretive talents and obsessions. In this part of my paper, I will describe, in rather broad but hopefully vivid strokes, what I perceive to be the main interpretive preoccupations of contemporary literary criticism in the Philippines—to my mind there are four—and will summarize some of the studies that best exemplify each of these. In the following exposition, my intention isn’t to analyze, but merely to present and describe, in what I would like to believe is an early or preliminary exploration into this area of inquiry.
The first critical project I have found is one which attempts to carry out a kind of “survey” of certain texts, if not certain aspects of Philippine literature. As any Filipino academic will recall, the end of the 1990s saw a flurry of conferences, fora and publications whose purpose was as fervidly nationalist as it was nostalgic and/or evaluative—obviously serving to complement if not discursively perform the Centennial of the Filipino Revolution Against Spain. Not to be caught napping, Philippine literary criticism enthusiastically partook of this celebratory moment.
Poet and short story writer, Gemino H. Abad, taking issue with Bernad’s famous put-down — having to do with how Philippine literature in English is “perpetually inchoate” — maps out the topography of Philippine poetry in English in his essay that forms the introduction to the third volume of his well-known anthology series on Philippine poetry in English. In his critical survey, Abad discovers a wondrous and rich landscape covering three distinct but overlapping terrains: romantic, new critical, and post-structural. Citing specific poems from each of these “phases,” Abad demonstrates the specific concerns and skills that both distinguish and unify these three movements in our poetry. In the end, he avers that “the (Filipino) poet must… liberate himself constantly from both his language and his subject.”
Bilingual poet Rofel G. Brion examines in another study the intriguing “lessons” embedded in a number of recent Filipino novels in English. Predictably enough, these lessons link these novels with the tradition of other forms of local literature (for instance, the Tagalog novel), as well as other postcolonial literatures in “english” (some critics would insist, in englishes) being written/ read in the world today. Didacticism, alienation, communal memory, myth-making, and the conscious (or unconscious) appropriation and sabotage of the English language are preoccupations and themes common to all the novels Brion studies, and he surmises, at the end of his preliminary and provisional work, these same qualities may collectively adumbrate a kind of “aesthetics.”
Playwright and short story writer Isagani R. Cruz subjects the works of criticism of three Filipino poets/ critics to a comparative analysis, and uncovers an astonishing, almost counter-intuitive fact: none of these poets/critics—namely: Ricaredo Demetillo, Ophelia Dimalanta and Gemino Abad—remained mired in the bliss of their New Critical ignorance for long, inasmuch as their more recent ruminations on poetry may be seen to already reveal a less Eurocentric, more locally situated, post-colonial consciousness. In another part of his essay, Cruz criticizes the universalist theories of literature internalized by even our own critics and writers, and argues about the need to view these, like everything else, as constituting specific forms of a limited and culture-bound ethno-knowledge.
Somewhat coming from a different position, newly declared National Artist, Edith L. Tiempo, tempers this relativist spirit with a caveat in her paper on national unity from 1994: there really are universal themes — “laughter, wounds that never heal, the never-to-be in this life, the endangered and dangerous environment of humankind” — and it would do Filipino writers well to allow these themes into their imaginative worlds, regardless of what the nationalist imperative under which they labor should decree.
The second kind of critical essays is one that sets out to analyze individual authors and/or texts. As in a great majority of contemporary studies, the works falling under this classification employ a number of textual strategies and methodologies, the deconstructive (or a purported though not necessarily credible “brand” of it) being the most common, if not most commonly avowed.
In a study that appeared in the inter-disciplinary journal, Mindanao Forum, southern poet and short story writer Jaime An Lim considers what has been said of Nick Joaquin’s famous three-act play, “Portrait of the Artist as Filipino,” and after undertaking his own fastidious and impressive reading of the text concludes that its form, contrary to the prevailing critical wisdom, is “open”: the choice and treatment of characters, the devices of irony and paradox, modes of presentation, the oppositions of concepts and metaphors in this play all undermine its apparent structural rigidity. Thus, the form of “Portrait…” may be said to echo most faithfully its theme: disintegration, things falling apart, an Old World teetering on the brink and finally falling into Chaos. But An Lim’s essay, religious at heart, chooses to end on a note of hope, as does Joaquin’s much-pondered text: the dream, the memory of the artist shall keep the vision of art’s glory ever shining and resplendent.
In a textured study by food and theater critic, Doreen G. Fernandez, the reader is taken on a guided tour of an actual extant komedya, “Princesa Miramar at Prinsipe Leandro.” She discusses not only the text of this particular example of local community theater, but also the nature of the theater experience itself. In loving detail, she describes the barrio of San Dionisio in Parañaque, whose members participate in the staging of “Princesa Miramar…” in rather real and immediate ways: while merely serving as the outside context in which the play occurs, they are yet free to “enter” it at will. Indeed, Fernandez concludes that “Princesa Miramar…” occupies the nexus of three concentric and interimplicating worlds: the textual core, which is the story of Leandro and Miramar’s love; the interior layer of historical allusions and aesthetic modes that have sedimented around the komedya as a form of communal performance and literature; and the exterior community of San Dionisio itself, committed to the komedya as a form of devotion to their beloved saint.
In an essay written by Lolita Rodriguez Lacuesta that appeared in Philippine Studies, we have a study, written in English, about the works of a writer in Filipino, in particular, Liwayway A. Arceo’s stories which were written during her first decade as a published writer. Lacuesta identifies the themes and techniques present in these ninety-nine stories, and concludes that despite her traditional concern with the theme of love, Arceo is a literary modernist who eschewed the blatant didacticism of Tagalog literature, as well as infused freshness and individuality into her stories and characters. It would also appear that even at an early age — she started writing these stories when she was barely out of her teens — Arceo already possessed a kind of political, “proto-feminist” consciousness.
And also, there’s a study written by a US-residing Filipino academic, Jorshinelle T. Sonza, who looks at Eric Gamalinda’s third novel, The Empire of Memory, and assigns to it a revolutionary project, a narrative transgressiveness that seeks to discursively reinvent the Filipino nation by allowing the contraries of empire — the ambivalences of colonizer and colonized — to be caught within “the deadlock of history,” thereby endowing the “masses” with the agency to dismantle this very same logic that has wickedly governed their lives. Sonza concludes: with this novel, “Gamalinda dismantles colonial narration, releases the people’s story from its containment, and expands closure.”
The third preoccupation I perceive to be endemic to Philippine literary criticism of late is the feminist. I may be wrong about this, but in terms of frequency and prevalence alone, feminist and/.or quasi-feminist criticism has become the most popular brand — if not “style” — of local literary analysis nowadays.
Short story writer and poet, Jhoanna Lynn. B. Cruz, writes about Ruth Elynia Mabanglo’s poem-cycle, Mga Liham ni Pinay, and faults it for not being cognizant of the allure of phallocentrism, a problem which can most acutely be seen in Mabanglo’s inability — or unwillingness — to “deconstruct sexual difference” in some if not all of the seven poems in question. Thus, the female personae in these poems, though arguably aware of their oppression, invariably remain trapped in it. In any case, Cruz maintains that Mabanglo remains important as a woman poet in the Philippines — even though she leaves more to be desired as far as her feminism is concerned — because, despite her shortcomings, she occasionally succeeds in inverting the usual order of privilege attending certain phallic economies: public and private, rational and irrational, proper and obscene.
Filipino-American Ninotchka Rosca’s second novel, Twice Blessed, is the subject of a critique written by short story writer and De La Salle professor Connie J. Maraan. Maraan sees reading this text as the perfect occasion for carrying out both post-colonial and feminist investigations. Going by this particular analysis, Rosca would seem to believe that the contemporary Filipino woman suffers from both colonial and patriarchal oppressions, and yet, as a story-teller, she inevitably finds comfort in the fact that history is an open-ended process, an unfinished story, as it were, of change. Maraan proposes the controversial thesis that Rosca’s own experience informs such an insight, and that this novel is about her life as a “twice oppressed” woman whose own name — a strange concatenation of consonants and vowels that troubles any confident assumptions about her identity (is it even a woman’s name? might she be Russian?) — betokens a kind of escape from this double bind.
Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, seasoned fictionist and travel writer, in a paper she delivered for her professorial chair lecture at the UP Diliman, examines some stories written by five Filipino women. In her study, Hidalgo concludes that it is through their use of the young girl protagonist that these particular writers — as well as, presumably, other women writers coming from the same social background as theirs — have explored otherwise improper “erotic” and “egotistic” desires. This may be because the female adolescent figure is technically, psychologically, and socially more suited to facilitate these explorations than either the girl-child or the adult woman. From a close reading of stories by Kerima Polotan-Tuvera, Aida Rivera Ford, Lina Espina-Moore, Rosario Cruz-Lucero and Ninotchka Rosca, Hidalgo concludes that the dissident and repressed fantasies of middle-class Filipino women have found their legitimate expression — at least, for these writers they have — in the wonderings and wanderings of the young female ingenue.
Because of the Centennial “fever” that inflamed (some would say, “afflicted”) local academia in the last decade, critical re-readings of the novels by national hero Jose Rizal were inevitable. Obviously, even if not especially to such an enterprise, feminist critics had more than a mouthful to contribute.
Dancing careful and wide-eyed attendance on Rizal’s most theatrical scene in hisNoli Me Tangere – the one in which the terrifying “muse of the guardia civil,” Doña Consolacion, orders the madwoman Sisa to dance at the end of her whip – Albina Peczon Fernandez comes up with a kind of bravura though somewhat attenuated performance of her own in her symptomatic reading of “women and the arts in and out of blank space.” In a series of quick and dizzyingly disingenuous steps, Fernandez argues that Rizal had been keenly aware of the “woman question” before and around the time he wrote his first novel, and that he made use of the figure of art – embodied in the novel, tropologically, as variants of music/song – in order to connect as well as proffer answers to the different yet interrelated oppressions experienced by his disenfranchised female characters: Maria Clara, Sisa, and Doña Consolacion.
An interesting neo-Marxist feminist reading can be seen in the work of Neferti Xina M. Tadiar who, in a piece specifically submitted for the anthology, establishes a poetic and insightful nexus among the operations of “time, body and madness” in a short story written in Filipino by Luna Sicat, which appeared in Forbidden Fruit, the first (and so far, last) collection of erotic writings by Filipino women. Writing in the hortatory “we” of feminism, Tadiar enjoins the Filipina reader to, like the nameless woman who makes love to a feminine-coded embodiment of Time in Sicat’s story, “bring (madness) into the world, make (it) flow over the world, let it run, let it do to the world what it will.” In the end, the bodies of women will realize themselves more fully not just as continuities in time, but as discrete yet interleaving moments of space, as “surface areas beyond the modern corporeal units (women) are forced to inhabit.”
The fourth and last project carried out in recent literary criticism may be distinguished by the varying degrees of and affinities with historicism with which the critics infused their respective analyses and readings. Personally, I find these critiques to be the most challenging to read and, in the end, the most rewarding as well: not only do they implicate and interimplicate a variety of textual approaches that we are mostly familiar with—like deconstruction and “close reading”—they are also the most satisfying in that they devote a great deal of their interpretive energies to elucidating the material and historical contexts within which both text and criticism must necessarily occur. I find that historicism—which can be Foucauldian, Marxist, post-feminist, antihomophobic, postcolonial, subaltern, or any novel cross-hatchings of these—provides what is currently the best critical reading strategy that needs to be increasingly employed by more Filipino literary scholars, for it is the most thoughtful, context-sensitive and specifying criticism to date.
A Filipino-American poet, John David Blanco, comes up with a fresh and cogent reading of Rizal — that is to say, a select handful of his works, chiefest of which are the Noli and his letters to a Jesuit priest, Fr. Pastells — as well as of Rizal himself. In all “texts,” Blanco perceives a “wondrous economy” characterized by a series of re-turns (that is to say, exchanges): a coming back to origins, a redemption, a payment of a debt, a restitution. This economy is wondrous precisely because it ends with the giving of a marvelous gift: in Rizal’s case, his gift of life (for which he had to die), which is like “a treasure thrown into the sea,” a mysterious bequest that we can choose to sell, forget, or respect.
Short story writer Caroline Hau has a critical study, “The Mismanagement of Grief: Kidnapping the Chinese in the Philippines” that first appeared in the new UP journal,Public Policy. Hau’s essay is a timely and crucial intervention and exemplifies just how criticism can be practically useful, can even spell the difference between life and death: by examining the discourse surrounding the horrendous spate of kidnappings directed at the Chinese community in the Philippines, Hau proves that the response of such Chinese Filipino entities as KAISA (Kaisa Para sa Kaunlaran) and Filipino-Chinese fictionist Charlson Ong are failures of criticism. After carrying out perspicacious readings of a story by Ong, as well as of the pronouncements of KAISA through its staunchest proponent, Teresita Ang See, Hau argues that appealing to citizenship – to the Filipinoness of the Chinese Filipinos – cannot completely negate the popular conflation of Chineseness and excessive wealth that propels these incidents of kidnapping. To the degree that this appeal is addressed to the state – hence, to the degree that the Chinese Filipino response remains circumscribed by statist ideology – it is bound to misapprehend the fraternity with every other Filipino that it wishes to achieve. Thus, the problem of Chinese-specific kidnapping – as well as its solution – needs to be worked out within the broader context of the Philippine class struggle.
In her study of the Pangasinan zarzuela at the turn of the century and during the opening years of the American occupation, Priscelina Patajo Legasto uncovers and explicates the ideological machinations of the anacbanua (the local ruling elite orprincipalia) that used this popular cultural form to consolidate its economic influence, and thus perpetuate its ascendancy. It tried to do this by typically demonizing the non-Pangasinan and other peoples (Ilokanos, Chinese and Chinese mestizos chiefly) who threatened its supremacy, at the same time that it wrestled with the difficult question of the national revolution.
In an essay that must have been reincarnated at least thrice in the last decade, sometime-fictionist E. San Juan Jr. asks the obviously rhetorical though nonetheless vexing question: Whose America is being reclaimed by Filipinos writing in the United States? In the face of the unremitting erasure and denigration of their culture and identity, Filipino writers in America, San Juan contends, need to cultivate a “critical transformative discourse” that will seek to preserve the residual and resistant aspects of their Filipino nationality. To this end, Juan proposes a literary pantheon of sorts, with the works of Carlos Bulosan as the primal pinnacle, the fiction by Bienvenido Santos and NVM Gonzalez as exemplars of how Filipinos have successfully negotiated the experience of dislocation and exile, and Villa’s poetry as “salvageable for counterhegemonic articulation.” The exciting surge in recent Filipino writing in the U.S., represented by such com-mercially successful authors as Jessica Hagedorn, Marianne Villanueva, and Michelle Skinner, also signifies a welcome development.
In another interesting study-one that first came out in the Diliman Review-Neferti Xina M. Tadiar provides a persuasively argued critique of Jose Y. Dalisay Jr.’s novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place. In her essay, Tadiar locates at the heart of this text a secret, a “fantasy,” whose unveiling is precisely what her essay attempts to perform. She takes this novel as a symptom of the unequal history of Philippine-American relations, and it serves to display to the global market economy the image/commodity of the alienation of its Filipino protagonist, who identifies himself with the Other (America) only because he knows — that is to say, he fantasizes — that this Other owns everything in his world, including even the revolution he used to believe in, his own wished for redemption, his very soul. Thus, the secret of this text is the form of its desire-fantasy: a transnational novel meant to feed the scopic and self-affirming demands of the global, late capitalist economy.
And so, a cursory glance at the selected essays in this anthology reveals to us some broadly obtaining characteristics and concerns: based on who produces it and where it is published, criticism written in English of Philippine literature is solidly and almost exclusively located in Metromanila; nearly all current schools of Filipino literary thought about local literature and literary appreciation purvey and evince a social dimension, which is something they share with practical “classroom” criticism, despite the paucity in the latter’s store of literary terminology, or its vastly impoverished formalism; contemporary literary criticism in the Philippines employs a variety of methods and textual strategies, the deconstructive—or at least a putative though not necessarily rigorous version of it—being the most dominant, if not the most avowed; and lastly, the best (because most attentive) instances of criticism, at least insofar as the past six years and the selected pieces in this anthology are concerned, have been penned by creative writers themselves.
On the other hand, if it should prove possible or necessary to endorse a specific set of literary approaches, it is the post-feminist and historicist studies that would seem to be the most desirable to undertake, inasmuch as they lovingly attend to issues that would seem to be most vitally important to both the Filipino writing community, and well as to its presumptively politicized public.
In conclusion, I’d like to recur to an issue I raised earlier on in this paper, one salient to the “name” under which I find myself falling in this afternoon’s panel after all, which is the rather daunting and quizzical “Creative Writing and Culture.” The way I choose to handle this now is by asking the related questions: What business do creative writers have writing literary criticism, and indeed, what business does a creative writing center have putting out an anthology of literary criticism?
Perhaps the best answer to both queries isn’t anything specially complex or befuddling, but the haughtily interrogative: More than anybody else, writers care for literature — which is why they go through such great lengths to produce it — so why shouldn’t they also write about literature? Part of that caring, I suppose, is assuring that literary texts assume an increasingly powerful role in this world. (A self-important delusion all writers cultivate, to be sure). Other than helping young writers through the tortuous defiles of their craft within the purview of a workshop, it would seem that the second best thing a writing center¾in a cultural setting such as ours—can do to help literature along is precisely to sponsor more and more books like this one. For if anything, The Likhaan Book of Philippine Criticism proves that, over the past decade, someone out there—or, seeing as how nearly all the contributors to this book are writers themselves, someone in here-has actually bothered to read.
And let me end with something befuddling, after all: only when a text is read does it begin to be written.
* Delivered by the author at the international conference, “Ruptures and Departures: Language and Culture in Southeast Asia,” sponsored by the Department of English and Comparative Literature, Faculty Center, UP Diliman, 20 January 2000.
This post-structuralist doctrine was most perfervidly preached by Roland Barthes in his famous and much-anthologized essay, “From Work to Text.” (See Robert Young, ed., Untying the Text [New York: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1981] ). Of course, many other critics propounded similar ideas about the text’s polysemousness, and consequently the necessarily increasing dissolution of writing genres.
I refer to the works of historians Reynaldo C. Ileto and Vicente L. Rafael that both assume varying degrees of native agency—if not recalcitrance—in the face of the overwhelming colonial project.
Of course I cannot begin to assume that a useful homology exists between the sexual enjoyment implicit in Barthesian jouissance and the hermeneutic, almost “spiritual” pleasure associated with thematic interpretation.
Vicente L. Rafael, ed., Discrepant Histories: Translocal Essays on Filipino Cultures (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 1995).