On Filipinoness in Philippine Literature

For this round of talking-to-myself-again-for-fun, I’ll get into a tricky subject: Filipinoness, particularly in our local/national literature. Because… Pinoy Pride, y’all. 😉

A longtime friend and colleague posted this particular question on her personal Facebook account several weeks ago:

(Other writers have also been commenting on and questioning Filipinoness for a long time, such as Butch Dalisay in 2007 and this creative writing student in 2009.)

I’ve heard that damn word, Filipinoness, repeatedly since I started grad school, and writing for myself. But I think it’s vital for two reasons: it’s this (arbitrary) measurement of how a Filipino writer’s work effectively conveys our history, culture, and experience; and it’s what sets us apart from other authors, and makes us visible in the global publishing market.

Filipino-yes or Filipi-no?

I love that more Filipinos are writing their own books/stories, and giving readers more options. And I totally get why Filipinoness matters so damn much. How many Filipino authors are known, represented/agented and published, here and abroad? How does their work measure up against authors from other countries and genres, whose heritage and culture are “more” visible? How many Filipino stories gain long-term success and recognition, critically and commercially? And how proud are we that we’re telling our stories as they’re supposed to be told? About time we read and champion our own, right?

Then again, Filipinoness also has a nasty flip side. While people do mean well, questioning a work’s Filipinoness could also lead them to dictate how you must write. This is dangerous, particularly for younger writers still trying to figure out what to write about, and in their voice, which is never easy to find.

The push-back can also manifest in weird ways. One former MFA professor of mine required us (or rather, tried to require us) to write poetry only in Filipino. With 90% of her students writing primarily in English, that didn’t turn out so well; by the next class, we were back to writing in either Filipino or English, or in any language or dialect with an accompanying translation, as is school policy. I’ve also been told to increase Filipinoness in my work — and yes, before you lose your shit, I actually agree with you — as if it’ll automatically address every issue, device, or plot hole.

And as I’ve seen in some past workshops and reviews, Filipinoness can be used to dis writing styles and content that don’t follow fixed standards. It thus has that (unintended?) effect of informally segregating writers into four groups or classes — the working-class Pinoy, the comfortable middle-class, the alta de sociedad, and the Pinoys living abroad. You’re lucky enough to belong to the two upper social classes? You’re too Westernized; or not masa/kawawa enough, not outraged enough, not gritty enough, not rooted enough. Your work may be good, but it’s not Filipino enough. You live abroad, have a non-Filipino literary agent and publishing house, and/or are successful outside local shores? Same shit: not Filipino enough, so you don’t get to talk.

The gist is the more Filipinoness your work has, the more authentic and laudable it is. The less Filipinoness, the bigger the unworthiness.

I think that’s seriously messed up. It can be downright exhausting and insulting whenever someone questions your work’s Filipinoness — as if blood, citizenship, knowledge, and/or complete and willing allegiance to an entire nation are unsatisfactory. It implies that you’re actively trying to be someone else on paper and in reality when there’s nothing wrong with being Filipino.

Then again, I also think it reflects badly on the person(s) doing the Filipinoness inquisition. Insisting on Filipinoness and only Filipinoness on everything you read and write limits you from knowing about work published elsewhere; or perspectives, experiences and entire worlds differing from yours.

I have questions.

Like what Alma asked, can’t we just write our stories? Furthermore, do we really have to prove our Filipinoness to everyone else, as if having been influenced by or aware of other things from elsewhere is a punishable crime? Would ambiguity and flexibility in what we write make us less Filipino? And should this really be a critical aspect of telling a story? Are other writers from other countries dealing with this same expectation in their own work?

How about this…

I’ll write as I please; and will continue to accept input/criticism, as long as they’re constructive and within reason. Your insularity is not my problem. Sounds good to you? It sure does to me.