The Broken Word: Exclusivity, Fragmentation and the Quest for Relevance in Philippine Literature

Christian T. Ylagan


Juan E. De Castro frames an essential question about the nature of Philippine literature in the context of one chapter of José Rizal’s seminal novel, Noli Me Tangere. In the chapter entitled “En casa del filósofo” 'The Philosopher’s House,' Rizal’s protagonist, Crisostomo Ibarra, asks the old philosopher Tasio, “ ¿En qué idioma escribe Ud.?” 'In which language do you write?' (303). This question belies the complex dynamics of the Philippine literary tradition. The pervasive regionalism within the country has caused numerous socio-cultural, linguistic and literary traditions to exist side by side, which has resulted in the absence of a unified national literature. The existence of these diverse yet co-existing regional literatures has divided the Philippine literary landscape horizontally, that is, literature developed in primarily mutually exclusive spheres across geographic lines. Concurrently, centuries of colonial influence have dichotomized linguistic use into diglossic hierarchies of low and high languages, which in turn has produced vertically divergent traditions of literary production. Textual production and readership in the mother tongue of Filipino, as well as in the populist regional dialects, remain distinct from that in English. The conflation of these divergent horizontal and vertical factors precipitate a state of fragmentation in the Philippine literary tradition. This paper will focus primarily on the apparent disconnection between the literatures produced as a result of these high and low languages, and on the implications of this disjuncture for Philippine literary culture’s quest for relevance in the global realm, where Philippine literature has yet to break out. I suggest that this “as-yet” quality of Philippine national literature — what can be seen as a seemingly protracted immanence — stems from Filipino writers’ essentially fragmented sense of self, which is a direct result of the historical and continuing colonialism that pervades Filipino nationhood and identity, and which in turn polarizes the literary tradition into mutually exclusive spheres.



In his essay “The Quest for Relevance”, Ngũgĩ Wa Thiong’O notes how the writing and teaching of African literature in Africa “can only be understood and meaningfully resolved within the context of the general struggle against imperialism” (286), that is, with an acknowledgment of the fact that African literature is inextricably linked to an active engagement with colonial languages such as English or French that both dynamizes and oppresses it. This argument is rooted in his epistemic belief that “how we see a thing — even with our eyes — is very much dependent on where we stand in relation to it” (286). It is inevitable, Ngũgĩ claims, that Africa will see itself and its literature amid the historical reality of Western colonization. As colonial languages continue to exert their formidable influence on the teaching, analysis, and understanding of African literature, Ngũgĩ persists in his search for the relevance of the marginalized literary voice in relation to the continuing hegemony of the center.


The quest for literary relevance, indexed by Ngũgĩ, is not an exclusively African phenomenon. On the contrary, writers who come from peripheral traditions continue to contend with the persistent traces of colonial language and literature to this very day. Georg Brandes brought this issue to the forefront as early as 1899, when he claimed that “when one speaks of world literature, one thinks primarily and principally of belles-lettres in all their forms, [while] alongside the world-famous works, numberless others are preserved, loved, and respected — and continuously read — in their countries of origin without being known abroad” (62-63). That writers who come from some traditions enter the world market more easily than others is a testament to Brandes’ argument that “writers of different countries and languages occupy enormously different positions where their chances of obtaining worldwide fame, or even a moderate degree of recognition, are concerned…. It is only writers from [France, England, and Germany] who can hope to be read in the original by the most educated people of all nations…, but whoever writes in [any other national language] is poorly placed in the universal struggle for fame. In this competition he lacks the major weapon — a language — which is, for a writer, almost everything” (Brandes 63). Édouard Glissant expands on this imperialistic view of world literature when he talks about how previously silent or marginalized peoples need to “assert themselves in the face of a totalized [or perhaps more accurately, totalizing] world…. National literature [reflects] the urgency for each group to name itself: that is, the necessity not to disappear form the world scene and on the contrary share in its enlargement” (250). The insecurity of peoples who have only an amorphous national literature, therefore, can be related to what Pascale Casanova calls the “single principle of differentiation” (331), which is the desire for a cultural and literary capital that resists assimilation into Sameness, a kind of “sublimated difference… marked from within the West’s impetus towards a single ambition: to impose on the world its particular values as universal values” (Glissant 250). National literature, Casanova argues,

emerges when a community whose collective existence is contested tries to put together the reasons for its existence. The literary production that is part of such a collective consciousness in search of itself is not only a glorification of the community but also a reflection on (and concern with) the specificity of its expression. Discourse is not content merely to speak to speak, but expresses at the same time why it speaks in this manner and not in another.  (254; emphasis added).

This emphasis on the “specificity of expression” relates to Brandes’ argument, which is predicated on the assumption that language is an essential, if not the primary, consideration for a national literature to erupt into the landscape of world literature. Here the medium becomes the message; literary texts belie their dialectic relationship with the language in which they are being written. Hence, the primacy placed on language is not without grounds, especially when this language is used to reflect the collective consciousness and literary heritage of a people. This becomes problematic when we consider how politics and power structures dictate that Western languages such as English, French or German should be the main modes of discourse, and more so when writers from peripheral traditions take up these languages as necessary for discourse to happen.


If we accept Brandes and Casanova’s claims, it would seem then that breaking into world literature should not be a problem for Filipino writers, who come from the multiple language traditions of Spanish, Filipino,1 and English. While Spanish is no longer widely spoken, as it was superseded by English during the American occupation of the Philippines in the early 1900s, the Philippines continues to claim bilingualism both on paper (the Philippine Constitution) and in practice (everyday speech). The reality, however, is that Philippine languages are more diglossic than bilingual. Charles Ferguson defines “diglossia” as

a relatively stable language situation in which, in addition to the primary dialects of the language (which may include a standard or regional standards), there is a very divergent, highly codified (often grammatically more complex) superposed variety, the vehicle of a large and respected body of written literature, either of an earlier period or in another speech community, which is learned largely by formal education and is used for most written and formal spoken purposes but is not used by any section of the community for ordinary conversation. (1)

The question of which language to use in writing is one that anti-colonial or postcolonial writers has had to contend with. Frantz Fanon argues that “to speak means to be in a position to use a certain syntax, to grasp the morphology of this or that language, but it means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization” (qtd. in De Castro 306). In this sense, the decision to use one language over another becomes problematic because “writing in the colonizer’s language hints at an affirmation of belonging precisely to the culture which is, at least politically, rejected. The medium of communication can be seen as betraying the message [and] subversion is expressed in the language of submission” (De Castro 306). Meanwhile, using a vernacular language delimits the extent of transmission and reception of one’s message. The negotiation of this choice reveals that in the colonial setting, writers embody the struggles of their historical-cultural subjugation through the schizophrenia of their “conceptual instruments”. A nation like the Philippines, with its polylingual hierarchies, is further disadvantaged in establishing a cohesive literary tradition because not only does it need to negotiate between the colonial language and the vernaculars, but also between the internal preferentiality accorded to some vernacular languages over others.  


In the Philippines, the mother tongue, Filipino, is considered a “low” language (L) alongside the many regional dialects of the various provinces. Meanwhile, English is considered the “superposed” or “high” language (H), or the language of education, business, government, literature and the intellectual elite, a position it assumed after the predominance of Spanish as the high language during the Spanish occupation. This situation creates multiple gaps in terms of transmitting literature even from within the country: first, texts written in English are usually considered “elitist” and are not read by the average Filipino (e.g., works by Jessica Hagedorn and Miguel Syjuco); second, texts in Filipino are usually written in formal or archaic rather than simple or conversational terms (what can be called an L2 language), which can be difficult for the common Filipino to appreciate (e.g., works by Francisco Baltazar, Virgilio Almario); and third, texts written in “simple” Filipino are either only read by the Tagalog-speaking population or are considered low-brow by the English-wielding intellectual elite (e.g., Filipino romance novels, works by Bob Ong).


This diglossic nature of language in the Philippines points to another level of the quest for relevance. The dichotomous nature of language and literary production in the Philippines can be attributed to a certain fragmentation in Filipinos’ very concept of “nation.” This conception can be reduced to the question: what, and whose, is Philippine literature? When we speak of Philippine literature, are we referring to, the “high” literature of the elite, or the “low” literature of the regions and the masses? These questions raise a multiplicity of issues and ambiguities related to the nature of Philippine literature. Over and above the medium of literary production, the kind of cultural memory or identity transmitted by such a literature is also put into question. Do the L or L2 languages transmit a different kind of cultural memory or identity than the H language, and if so, what is this cultural memory or identity? Furthermore, when we speak of breaking out from the realm of national literature into the world scene, which cultural memory or identity should be transmitted?



To further understand this linguistic and literary divide in Philippine literature, it is important to go back to the foundational texts that serve as the model for many other Filipino texts. The Philippines’ national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, wrote two seminal novels, Noli Me Tangere 'Touch Me Not' (1887) and its sequel El Filibusterismo 'The Filibustering' (1891). The novels’ protagonist is Crisostomo Ibarra, son of a wealthy Filipino businessman, who returns to the Philippines after studying in Europe for seven years, only to find out that his father has run afoul of the corrupt Spanish clergy, who were the dominant authority at the time. Despite being antagonized by his father’s critics, Ibarra decides to fulfill his father’s wish of building a school, as they both believed that the education of every Filipino would pave the way for the country’s progress and eventual empowerment. A series of events orchestrated by the corrupt friars leads to Ibarra’s excommunication and imprisonment. After escaping from prison and fleeing the country, Ibarra returns thirteen years later in the events of El Filibusterismo as Simoun, a wealthy yet cynical jeweler who insinuates himself into high society and influences the members of the upper class to commit abuses against the masses, with the intent of instigating a revolution that will topple the status quo. Simoun’s quest for revenge comes to a head in the final chapters of the book, where he executes a plan to commit genocide against the members of Philippine high society.


Widely regarded as one of the foremost examples of Asian resistance to European colonialism, Rizal’s novels are renowned for their wit and ironic depiction of the social plight of a colonized country like the Philippines. These works influenced numerous Filipino revolutionaries such as Andres Bonifacio, who took up arms against the Spanish government. Both Noli and Fili, as they are fondly called in the Philippines, are considered seminal texts on Filipino nationhood and identity, and in 1956, the Philippine Congress passed Republic Act 1425, which mandated that all Philippine high schools teach both of Rizal’s novels as part of their respective Philippine literature curricula (Phil. Congress, An Act to Include in the Curricula Courses on the Life, Works and Writings of Jose Rizal).


While it cannot be questioned that Rizal’s works are admired in the Philippines to the point of deification, a closer analysis of the texts and their nature reveal two important points. First, the character of Crisostomo Ibarra/Simoun appears to be an extension of Rizal himself. Born in 1861 to upper class Catholic parents of Chinese descent, Rizal was encouraged early on by his mother to engage in the arts and sciences (Laubach, ch. 1). He was educated in the best, most exclusive schools, receiving his Bachelor of Arts from Ateneo de Manila University in 1876, and later on his Licentiate in Medicine with honors from Universidad Central de Madrid in 1886, as well as a second doctorate degree from the University of Heidelberg (“The Life of Dr. Jose Rizal”). A certified polymath, Rizal was a medical doctor, novelist, poet, essayist, and polyglot, having known to be conversant in twenty-two languages (Craig 123). Rizal can be likened to Ibarra/Simoun, who as the scion of a wealthy Filipino family and someone who was educated abroad, was an ilustrado, a member of the rich, elite Filipino intelligentsia (Krakow 15).  This positioned him as an enlightened mover of the sociopolitical condition, though like Ibarra, who initially pushed for integration rather than liberation, Rizal’s “own attitude regarding independence was ambiguous” (De Castro 304).


Rizal’s ilustrado background manifested itself in a reformist project, which was in contrast to the decidedly revolutionary freedom movement initiated by the indios (indigenous). Along with the other ilustrados, Rizal and other reformists “at first advocated the elevation of Filipinos from the status of subjects to citizens of Spain, with equal rights. They asked for representation of the Philippines in the Spanish Cortes or Parliament. [While] this by itself was revolutionary because when a slave demands to be equal to his master, it is a revolution,… it was still short of the demand for national independence” (Almario). Like Ibarra, Rizal preferred integration rather than independence; he sought equal treatment and empowerment for his fellowmen through representation and education. This can be seen in Noli in Ibarra’s desire to build a school for his fellow Filipinos, as this will enable them to be united in their enlightenment, and hence allow themselves to acquire the empowerment necessary for independence. To this end, Rizal wrote in Spanish, the colonial language of the time, and saw

his readership as necessarily constituted by allies and enemies that are both local and foreign…. Moreover, as [Noli Me Tangere] clearly shows, colonial Philippines [was] a space in which a heterogeneous population comprised of Filipino (in the sense of criollo), indio, mestizo, Chinese, and peninsulares are not univocal representatives of specific political or ethical stances. But not only is the population culturally and ethnically diverse. There was, as we will see, no real majority language in the archipelago. Nationality was for Rizal necessarily something to be constructed. Even the title of Rizal’s novel, Noli Me Tangere, the words uttered by the just risen Jesus to Mary Magdalene, may indicate a belief in the inchoate nature of Philippine nationality. (De Castro 304)

Thus, we see here a facet of Rizal’s own concept of nationhood and identity: on one hand, he criticizes the Spain for its colonial policy of subjugation via the perpetuation of forced ignorance among the Filipino people, and wishes that the Spanish were more accommodating of their colonies; on the other, he tries to rouse the Filipino people from their mechanical acceptance of Spanish civil and ecclesiastical exploitation, which has resulted in “individual progress and perfection but not a national or general one” (qtd. in Majul 29-30). As a consequence of this fragmentation into individuals, the prerequisite for Filipino empowerment is that “the people had to be first of all integrated into a national community, … [then] such a community would fight in a corporate capacity in the name of and in the interest of the community” (Majul 62). Literature is a significant way in which this community can be defined and can fight its oppressors. Rizal’s conception of Filipino empowerment is problematic insofar as it presupposes an important fact: that the national community is non-existent, and first has to be created. This apparent non-existence of a national community raises a fundamental question: if there is no concept of national identity, how can there be a national literature?


The second point that needs to be made about Rizal’s texts concerns his preferred mode of literary production and transmission. Earlier, we spoke of the diglossic nature of Philippine language, and this was as true in Rizal’s time as it is in the present. Coming from a very small community of elite and foreign-educated intelligentsia, identifying himself as a member of that intelligentsia, and advocating the same political projects as that intelligentsia, Rizal writes primarily in Spanish, the language of power during his time, in order to engage the political center in his discourse. The fact that both novels were first published in Europe (Noli in Berlin, Germany; Fili in Ghent, Belgium) and were not translated to the “low” language of Filipino/Tagalog until fifteen years later in 1906 — ten years after Rizal’s death — attests to the fact that they were not written for the indio, but primarily for members of the Spanish government, other ilustrados, and Hispanophones. One can argue that through his novels, Rizal actually wanted to open the eyes of the Spaniards more than the Filipinos’ by telling them that “if the Spanish government, in order to please the friars, remained deaf to the demands of the Filipino people, the latter would have recourse in desperation to violent means and seek independence as relief for their sorrows; and in the second, he warned the Filipinos that, if they should take up their country’s course motivated by personal hatred and ambition, they would, far from helping it, only make it suffer all the more” (qtd. in Almario). The choice therefore to write in the “high” language and the language of power was a conscious one given his target audience and intended purpose. Thus, Rizal’s texts are at “variance with [themselves, for they are] assertions of bourgeois nationalism allied to a classical and quasi-aristocratic culture, its standard bearers the Catholic church… and those avatars of creole and Chinese mestizo elite” (Roskies 9). Rizal’s novels were instrumental in the Philippine independence movement, and it has been appropriated as a fulcrum for the creation of a national consciousness.  As De Castro observes,

Noli Me Tangere is one of the examples from which Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities developed. According to Anderson, that novel implicitly presents the Philippines as an “imagined community” providing “a hypnotic confirmation of the solidity of a single community embracing, characters, author and readers, moving onward through calendrical times”. (qtd. in De Castro 305)

Ironically, however, the foundational novel of Filipino nationhood and identity, which we consider to be our national text and the quintessential Philippine work, does not seem to be written for the majority of Filipinos at all, but for members of the Spanish government, fellow ilustrados, and other Hispanophiles.  This not only raises issues of how a text becomes canonical, but how it becomes canonical for a specific sociocultural group, who receives, internalizes, and retransmits it as an extension of their own historical and ideological consciousness.


We can see in Rizal’s texts some fundamental elements of marginal, and specifically Philippine, literature. The first is that those who write (or even read) “high” literature are predominantly from a social class or group that is distinct, non-representative of, and even alienated from the greater population by virtue of their education or economic standing. The second is that those who write those texts that we are likely to apprehend as literature usually do so in the “high” language, both as a matter of preference (it is their context) and necessity (to be read). A corollary to this second element is that those who read literature only read works written in the high language because they are the only texts considered “literary”. From both of these elements, two qualities seem to define Philippine literature: exclusivity and fragmentation.   



These elements of exclusivity and fragmentation continue to persist in the Philippine literature of today. In his essay, “Philippine Literature and the Filipino Personality”, preeminent writer and literary critic Bienvenido Lumbera tries to explain why Philippine literature in Filipino has not taken off despite having a longer history than Philippine literature in English. He claims that

first, there is the history of the language as a literary medium. Tagalog has always been the underdog language in Philippine literature, from the Spanish occupation down to the present. We have been, until 1946, a colonized people who were led to look up to the language of the occupying nation as the language of the cultural elite…. The second reason is the unconcealed hostility of commercial publications for “literary” writing which has considerably contributed to the exodus to English writing. True, there are very few outlets for English writing [but] these outlets are however receptive to serious (as opposed to commercial or hack) fiction. (5)

Lumbera’s analysis reinforces a number of points that we have already mentioned about Philippine literature. That many Filipino writers choose to write in English is a direct and perhaps lingering effect of centuries of colonialism. While the language of power has shifted from Spanish to English, the underlying reason for prioritizing a foreign language has not. As it was during the Spanish era, so it is now: writing in a foreign language is the mode by which Filipino writers can initiate discourse. It is important to note, however, two underlying questions: which writers, and what kind of discourse? Lumbera himself notes the peculiar position of English writers in Philippine society, saying that

although they belong, like the Tagalog writers, to the middle-class, they are not representative of the attitudes of that class, [and] their writings do not depend on mass appeal for survival…. [Our] English writers have been pushed into a position not unlike that of the ilustrado class…. Reading, writing, and thinking in a language that only a small percentage of the population can command, they tend to write for one another…, and for the few readers whom they can reach. (13-14)

Lumbera’s observation about Filipino authors who write in a colonial language historicizes not only the class divide between the ilustrado and the indio of the Spanish occupation, but also the divide between the modern-day elite and the masses, who are polarized along sociocultural, intellectual, and even linguistic lines. While Lumbera believes that the disconnectedness of the elite from the rest of society is actually a positive thing, citing how, by being both native and alien to Philippine society, these writers can view its life and values with objectivity (14), this exclusivity reinforces the intellectual divide between the elite and the average Filipino. No better example illustrates this than the elite’s obvious distaste for Tagalog romance novels, which many find to be no better than Mills & Boone pocketbooks for their maudlin, contrived, and pulpy natures. However, these are the books that are readily accessible to, and in fact read by, the Filipino masses, from housemaids living in opulent households to overseas Filipino workers, primarily because of their easy-to-understand language and inexpensive price tags. The issue of cost is especially prohibitive; Jessica Hagedorn’s Dogeaters, for example, retails for Php 599.00 (Philippine pesos), while a Precious Hearts romance novel is on average Php 35.00 ( Conversely, these same people who read Tagalog romance novels may not have heard of, let alone read, works by preeminent Filipino authors in English such as F. Sionil Jose, Nick Joaquin or N. V. M. Gonzales. If a Filipino does not go to high school, it is very possible that he or she will not be familiar even with Rizal. Hence, within the realm of the nation itself, there is an apparent literary fragmentation brought about by the exclusivity of intellectual spheres that polarize the population.


The Philippines was granted sovereignty by the United States in 1946, but while there is no longer a physical occupation in the country, American influence is still very much present. Indeed, perhaps one should really define the Philippines “not as a classic colony but as a dependency, thus an internal colony like the Native American territories” (San Juan). High literature is still written in English by the educated elite, even as many writers experiment with new forms, grapple with the significance of local mythology, and retrieve forgotten aspects of Philippine culture (Pantoja-Hidalgo 308-9). This high literature is still exclusive, as seen for example in how “the average print run for a collection of short fiction or a novel is only one thousand copies” (Pantoja-Hidalgo 306). Meanwhile, writers in the low language continue to churn out texts that are considered ‘pambakya2 and are therefore looked down upon, whereas writers in the L2 language (the more formal Filipino) are still only read in schools and universities.


This literary divergence is further compounded by the “impact of the breakthrough being enjoyed by Filipinos living abroad … [writers who] reside outside the Philippines [but whose fiction] is often set within the country” (Pantoja-Hidalgo 309-310). These writers, such as Jessica Hagedorn, Miguel Syjuco, Ninotchka Rosca, and Eric Gamalinda have gained acceptance and even renown in their own respective Western locales, but their works are virtually unknown and unread in the Philippines, except again by the intellectual elites. Many of these diasporic writers are either Filipinos of mixed heritage or Filipinos who spent most of their lives abroad, and whose literary voices are inevitably foreignized. This points to a socio-cultural conception of nationhood and self that is inevitably different, and perhaps even at odds, with the conception of domestic writers living locally. These authors’ hybridized rootedness in both East and West presents the very real possibility for a radical self-orientalization, born out of the inescapable stigmatization of one’s Otherness, as seen in Jessica Hagedorn’s postmodern  novel The Gangster of Love:

I am unable to leave, overcome by helplessness in the face of family, blood, and the powerful force of my own reluctant love. Family sickness, homesickness. Manila, our dazzling tropical city of memory. The English language confuses me. What is at the core of that subtle difference between homesick and nostalgic, for example?... ‘Ties to the spirit world, fierce pride, wounded pride, thirst for revenge, melodrama, fatalism, weeping and wailing at the graveside. We're blessed with macabre humor and dancing feet — a floating nation of rhythm and blues,’ Voltaire answers, repeating what this old guy known as the Carabao Kid used to say: ‘We're our own worst enemy.’ (57) 

These examples point to an intellectual divide that is symptomatic of the greater issue of a vacuum in the cultural identity transmitted by Philippine literature. It is already apparent that to speak of Philippine literature is to speak of a tension between low-brow and high-brow, and by extension, between the pedestrian and the literary, between the hoi polloi and the elite. This tension becomes problematic especially when placed in the context of Herder’s argument that literature is the “embodiment of a given nation’s faults and perfections, a mirror of its dispositions, the expression of its greatest ideals” (6). It would seem that the lack of a national literature belies the lack of a singular conception of nationhood and identity. What chance does a national literature have of entering the realm of world literature if it is fragmented and broken?



There is an inherent vacuity in the essence of national literature in the Philippines, and the existence — or nonexistence — of this cultural capital becomes problematic when placed in the context of a quest for relevance in the world. This quest is not the Philippines’ alone; it is common among  “several small literatures [that] share a colonial past. This [colonial experience] strongly determines their identity and tempers all their dealings with power and symbols of otherness. More than any others, colonial literatures are permeated, motivated, and impelled by a sense of minoritization … as well as by the echoes of power which created and continue to create them” (Paré 10). The heritage of an imperial past coupled with a preponderance of neocolonial structures reinforces this minoritization in the case of the Philippines, where we find multiple instances of fragmentation in our conception of a national self.


To illustrate, Epifanio San Juan, Jr. claims that the “retooling of the neocolonial apparatuses of domination [as] mediated through the World Bank/International Monetary Fund and various international agencies and foundations” (ix) has occasioned among Filipino writers a ‘creative reappropriation’ (x) of Western ideology, which insidiously reinforces their status as inferior to their American counterparts. Americans employed a “strategy of cooptation articulated in terms of equal exchange” (6), as seen in how Americans utilized and continue to utilize economic structures (WB/IMF) in order to enact new political and sociocultural ones (Americanization, ideological domination through education, &c.), which resulted in Filipinos unconsciously accepting their “subjugation [as it was] transcoded into freedom” (6).


Hence, the English language was embedded into the Filipino psyche through the sustained practice of ideological domination on numerous fronts: political (the introduction of neoliberal democratic ideals), pedagogical (Americanization of educational institutions and structures) and socio-cultural (living the ‘American dream’; imbibing the ‘American spirit’, pop culture). As Ophelia Dimalanta notes, “the development of this Western cultural orientation resulted in the submergence of those Asian values which are the bases of a national culture in evolution. With American textbooks, instructors, and writers as models, Filipinos started to learn not only a new language but also a new way of life alien to their tradition” (313). Anti-neocolonialist historian Renato Constantino pushes this line of thinking further by saying that the institutionalization of sociopolitical and educational policies were actually attempts at

miseducation because it began to de-Filipinize the youth, taught them to regard American culture as superior to any other, and American society as the model par excellence for Philippine society .… [The] question of identity became more blurred as colonizer and colonized were pictured as being welded in a common undertaking of preparing the nation so that it would be deserving of independence (qtd. in Roces 283).

Among writers and critics, an awareness of these structures occasioned the need to “retrieve (or gain for the first time) their ‘lost’ and ‘unified’ identity” (Hebbar) and to reconcile this with their own existing value and epistemic systems, creating a hybrid, minoritized culture among Filipinos who were exposed to the hegemonizing influence of the United States. I suggest that we need not quail from this minoritization; an awareness of the essential smallness of our literary space, or what Paré calls our “exiguity” (1), should afford a certain clear-sightedness to the realities of our struggle. The constant dialectic between the center and the periphery occasion the codification of an extant narrativity such as the Philippines’.



While some writers believe that Philippine literature is alive, well, and even thriving (Pantoja-Hidalgo 311), the extent to which our literary tradition is being received and making an impact beyond national or even regional boundaries is still in question. That our literary tradition is rich yet still embattled, both the product and field of struggle, assimilation, cooptation, and appropriation, is perhaps what occasions this anxiogenic need to examine the exclusivist and fragmentary nature of our literature and its corollary identity, and which demands that we enact concrete steps to solidify the foundations of our literary tradition.


Paré’s references to Jacques Dubois’ anthropological conditions for understanding literature are of particular note to this end. Dubois claims that “first, there exist mechanisms … which ensure that certain works and writers retain a permanent place in history; second, processes are based on a system of ideological norms and values; third, institutional mechanisms are linked to power…or the ‘ideological machinery’ of State — religion, education system, grants, culture, etc.” (Paré 19). The mechanisms he talks about include: “the system of education, writers’ groups, publishers and booksellers and literary history and criticism” (Paré 18-19). Developing these institutional mechanisms, not just for ‘high’ literature but even for ‘low’ literature, can help strengthen the literary tradition in the country. For example, government support needs to be more extensive, not just financially, but also ideologically. In other words, the government must recognize that literature is a necessary tool for self-actualization and the development of nationhood and identity. Taken this way, infrastructures for producing, teaching and propagating literature need to be established and maintained. This includes not just financial support that can fund more grants for literary production, research, translation and scholarship, but also well-defined curricular support in the education sector. For example, the traditional breakdown of teaching literature in Philippine high schools definitely needs to be revisited, as it follows a dissociative and compartmentalized view of the literary landscape, i.e., First Year students study Philippine Literature, Second Year students study Afro-Asian Literature, Third Year students study Anglo-American Literature and Fourth Year students study — ironically — ‘World’ Literature, whereas perhaps a more integrative pedagogical model should be used, one that focuses not just on formalistic analyses of texts, but more so on values formation and critical thinking skills as applied to the formation of a national consciousness in literature.


The institutionalization, professionalization, and internationalization of textual production in the country also needs to be revisited as this is the mechanism by which literature is generated and transmitted. While obviously limited by financial resources, publishers must continue to “[do] their share in making literature an attractive occupation” (Pantoja-Hidalgo 311). This should be especially taken up by schools and university presses, as one of the direct consequences of literary scholasticism should be literary criticism and production. Furthermore, publishers must utilize new advances in technology to make literature more accessible to the general populace. For example, small and independent publishers such as Flipside Publishing 3 have turned to the digital e-book format as their preferred mode of transmitting literature. While this admittedly targets a very specific demographic, it allows for Philippine literature to travel much faster and penetrate untapped markets of readership. This would address the observation that while “the literature is in constant flux”, readership has grown “just a little, not much” (Pantoja-Hidalgo, “Philippine Novel” 336).


Another important factor is the level of recognition accorded by the academe to literary production and creative writing as a distinct and socio-culturally significant discipline. Specifically, the practice of literary criticism and and its essential role in honing the writing and reading traditions need to be further concretized and promulgated in the country. Philippine writers can have neither a lackadaisical attitude towards criticism, nor a deluded sense of grandeur about the national literature. Perhaps there is a need to reevaluate critical standards as applied to the various literary traditions existing in the country, both those written in the “high” language of the elite and those in the “low” language of the average Filipino. The academe has to answer for the hitherto uneven treatment of these divergent traditions, when in fact these are co-constitutive of the matrix of the Philippine literary experience. The diglossic nature of the language, the sociocultural and ideological positioning of writers and intellectuals, the insoluble colonial heritage: these are elements whose synthesis hypostasize literature in the Philippines. Through the discursive nature of writers’ workshops, the establishment of writing centers and the cultivation of a general interest in literature among the members of the population (Pantoja-Hidalgo 311), the texts and the literary tradition from which they come can be engaged, problematized, and developed.


Intrinsic to this problematization is the need for Filipinos to confront the difficulties of their literary tradition. Because “it is possible to produce great literature only in a language that has been mastered …, and by mastered [we mean] more than mere grammatical or idiomatic mastery [but the assimilation] of thought processes, verbal nuances and the characteristic rhythms peculiar to idiom” (Bernad 343), Filipinos need to imbibe the genius of their own languages, both English and Filipino, and perhaps even in the vernacular languages. Pantoja-Hidalgo predicts that bilingualism will continue to rise with the extant dynamics of globalization, and that multilingualism may rise as well with the rediscovery of regional cultures (311). This might eventually necessitate a shift away from a monolithic nationalist model of literature towards that, interestingly, of a multilingual, cross-class, and ultimately decentralized literary platform. As it is, other more experimental forms of language are also on the rise and figure in literary production, such as ‘Taglish’, an English-based creole language, or textspeak, a kind of simplified code brought about by the SMS technology found in cellphones. Of these, English and Filipino still remain dominant, and Bernad argues that whatever language or languages we choose to put our cultural capital in, we must treat it as a “seed to be nurtured, to be allowed to grow,… [otherwise] our literature [would] forever be inchoate, forever adolescent” (345-346). Inevitably, this necessitates finding an elusive middle ground between the perceived intellectualism of the writers in the H language and the accessibility of the writers in the L language, and both these dichotomous traditions need to fulfill what Glissant calls the desacralizing and sacralizing function of a common national literature, that is, both need to engage “in the heretical function of intellectual analysis, whose purpose is to dismantle the internal mechanism of a given system, to expose the hidden workings, [and] to demystify, [all the while trying to] reassemble the community around its myths, its beliefs, its imaginary or its ideology” (251). The development of the literary tradition is thus an ongoing performative dialectic between the mythification of a cultural heritage and the demystification of the structures that govern it. The resulting narrativity is what, in Glissant’s terms, “irrupts” into modernity.  


Pascale Casanova acknowledges the adversity that national literatures encounter when they try to enter the landscape of world literature, explaining how national literatures are inherently born out of political struggles and insecurity of other nations. However, she also notes how literatures eventually diversify and come to a degree of stability, autonomy and literary emancipation. As an example, 18th century German nationalism, which was rooted in a sense of humiliation and inferiority to the French, emerged out of

the arguments that were employed, the principles that were at issue in the debates of the period and the very form that these debates assumed, the stature of the greatest German poets and intellectuals, their poetical and philosophical works, which were to have revolutionary consequences for all of Europe and for French literature in particular — these things  gradually gave German romanticism an exceptional degree of independence and a power all its own. (334)

By shifting the discourse away from the quest for national legitimacy to that of literary legitimacy, Casanova explains that a writer’s nationality is indivisible from his historicity, “but his position also depends on the way in which he deals with this unavoidable inheritance; on the aesthetic, linguistic and formal choices he is led to make which determine his position in the larger space” (337). Here, Casanova seems to argue implicitly that a writer’s association with a national literature and its corresponding linguistic or epistemic identity is secondary to the sociocultural and politico-economic dynamics that inform it. If this were to be the case, a truly Filipino national literature would textualize the very experiences that historicize it: coloniality, fragmentation, poverty, hybridity, diaspora. Perhaps only then would the discontinuous aspects of the Filipino literary tradition be reconciled towards an identity that can resist Sameness and can be relevant to the rest of the world.



The struggles in Philippine literature should not dishearten us; rather, they should impel both writers and critics from either end of the literary and linguistic traditions to reframe our motivations for literary production, reception and criticism. This necessitates careful and critical discernment to understand better our writers’ values, because it is only through an awareness of these values that we can truly codify a national literature. However, this is true not just for writers, but also for readers who consume literature. What values and traditions inform our literary production, consumption and criticism? Shall we have a defeatist acceptance of our supposed neocolonial inferiority, or a critical proclivity to engage in dynamic discourse with the dominant centers of power and authority? That there exists a thriving and even vibrant literary production in the country despite (or because of) various intractable challenges reflects how the literary tradition revels in these multifarious tensions, subversions, and negotiations.  


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Christian is a second year PhD student of Comparative Literature at Western University in London, Ontario. His research interests include the intersection between post colonialism and popular culture, the queering of the heteronormative politics of cultural nationalism, and the formation of subjectivity through body modification. He has published articles in Inquire and the Canadian Review of Comparative Literature. His latest project was Streetprint Manila, a research project focused on the readership and the development of popular print culture in Manila, Philippines. He is currently co-organizing “Trans- and Trance”, the 17th Annual Graduate Student Conference at Western University, to be held on March 5-7, 2015.



1. Filipino, the official national language is based on one of over 100 regional dialects, Tagalog. It is spoken as the lingua franca across many provinces in the Philippines, as opposed to English.

2. Bakya are wooden clogs typically associated in popular imagination with the lower classes, which were not wont to wear proper shoes. Hence, “pambakya” literally means “for the lower classes”.

3. Flipside Publishing maintains an online catalogue of Philippine and Asian e-books called Flipreads that “serves as a secure distribution platform for Filipino and Asian publishers, authors, and other content providers and gives the Asian reader easier access to e-books.” (



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