A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: A View From The Periphery

REVIEW: Beyond The Bansalan Skies – A Memoir
by Leila Rispens-Noel
Edited by Marilen Abesamis
8Letters Bookstore and Publishing, 2021

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 07 November) — There was a time when documents were written mainly by the colonizers. It was not as if Philippine Literature did not exist in the pre-colonial age, but our ancestors were more into orality. Their poetry, songs and narratives were sung, chanted and recited.  In the post-colonial era especially with the dawn of a nationalist consciousness, there have been attempts to record these and come up with documentations which are now part of reference materials for classroom purposes.

Writing texts came with the chroniclers including the likes of Pigafetta. Many friars had records of their actual experiences throughout the Spanish epoch which are all referred to now as archival materials for scholars wanting to dig into these records for scholarship purposes. However, as most were written in Spanish, one had to be fluent in that language and only a few Filipinos mastered that language.

Filipinos at the tail-end of that colonial era who began to write everything from propaganda materials to novels (as Jose Rizal did with his Noli and Fili) wrote in Spanish, whose works would be translated only much later. And they, of course, constituted the elite of Philippine population, as most of the downtrodden were still holding on to the oral tradition which explains the popularity of the Pasyon.

During the American colonial era, mostly books and other documents written were written by the colonizers, and naturally were written from a colonial perspective. Thus a lot of labelings took place in reference to our ancestors, many of which were pejorative. Fay-Cooper Cole, an anthropologist for example, referred to the Davao indigenous peoples as “wild tribes.” But as their documentations were in English, they are more accessible to today’s scholars. Writers who wrote about the Philippines were not just the American colonizers but those who came as tourists and adventurers. But these were still mainly consumed by those in the capital city.

In the early years of the Republic, when Filipino scholars, a number of them having studied in the US – mainly from Luzon, with many from Metro Manila and therefore whose mother tongue would be Tagalog – began to take writing seriously. Their writings were mainly in English and consequently carried with them the colonial baggage. For a while until the dawn of the nationalist era spawned by the students’ protest movement in the 1960s, the majority of these writings were published in Manila and appreciated mainly by the elite of this country.

In the 1960s a new shift took place owing to a growing number of scholars who were no longer beholden to the European and American influences and perspectives. It began with a few universities – chiefly the University of the Philippines (UP) system – and spread, but still only in urbanized centers of the country. Essays, poems and other written texts were now written chiefly in Tagalog and in the other art forms – films, songs and music and visual arts – there was an upsurge of interest to indigenize.  Literature became more diversified although for a while until the 1990s, these were still published in Manila. But some teachers were using these as materials for classroom instruction.

In the 1980s, theories on literary criticism – ironically arising out of Europe but critiqued the colonial perspectives of texts e.g. Foucault, Derrida – began to be required reading for graduate students. But this was also true for those in the fields of philosophy and related social sciences. With the popularization of post-colonial (the likes of Edward Said and his Orientalism)  and post-structural theories, scholars who ventured into writing now took more seriously the “nationalist-regionalist perspective.”

The former domination of the center was critiqued, as voices from the margins began to assert their place in what is truly a national scope of a nation’s literary productions. Fernand Braudel in his book – Out of Italy, Europe, in 2019 wrote) that “the dialectic of the internal and the external” of the Italian renaissance noted  that “it is sometimes said that the light shed from the margin is the best, that a complex whole may be best be apprehended from its outer limits.”  In a situation in which “every fact, every event has been minutely studied by generations of devoted historians, the vantage point of the periphery, of the diaspora, can provide new clarity to developments in the core.”

The regions began to catch up, as more writings were being undertaken in what used to be the country’s periphery.  Such a movement has led to a growing number of Mindanawons producing written texts. This began with the likes of Rudy Rodil, Macario Tiu, Greg Hontiveros, P.N. Abinales and a few others mainly in the fields of history.  Ethnographic studies followed so also books in poetry (pioneered by the likes of Tita Lacambra Ayala), short stories and novels.

Comes now, Leila Rispens-Noel whose Beyond The Bansalan Skies – A Memoir has just been published and available for sale. In a Foreword I wrote for this book, I wrote:

Ms. Rispens-Noel informs her readers why she decided to write her memoir: “I would be lying if I said that I have lived a glorious life, although I can say I had tried to live it the best way I could. Despite only having a few accomplishments in life, I believe that I have stories to tell that may inspire others, especially the younger generation.

“Thus, this memoir aims to help people like me recall and cherish what we have lost in time. It does not entail going back literally to the past— when life was difficult— but it means being able to understand and reflect on where we came from as we learn to embrace what the present and future hold.

‘This memoir is my legacy, not only for my sons, but to everyone who is interested to know about the old Bansalan. It provides an account of how I was able to overcome many challenges in my life — from growing up in a poor family in a rural town to my travels to Europe and Africa.”

By writing her memoir, Ms. Rispens-Noel follows a path undertaken by others who have paved the way to explore this genre in literature. The American author and social activist Gloria Jean Watkins whose books carry her pen name Bell Hooks (All About Love and The Will to Change) wrote: “I gather together the dreams, fantasies, experiences that preoccupied me as a girl, that stay with me and appear and reappear in different shapes and forms in all my work. Without telling everything that happened, they document all that remains most vivid.”

One can tell that it is her childhood that Ms. Rispens-Noel treasures most of her life’s experiences. More than one-half of the book looks back to that period of her life where she shared many stories about her family, her childhood friends, her teachers, and fellow pupils in school.   Recalling our childhood is oftentimes the setting of many novels (e.g.  To Kill a Mockingbird).  As the English novelist Graham Greene (The Power and the Glory and The Quiet American) posits:  There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”

I hope that this book finds an audience especially among young Filipinos, especially those in Mindanao. It should be required reading for schools needing more local literature so the millennials and Gen-Z Generation and those who will come after them have an idea what characterized the lives of their parents (or grandparents) and how they responded to the challenges of their times.

Meanwhile, we can only hope that there are more writers out there who will follow the lead of Ms. Rispens-Noel to courageously take up paper and pen (or face their computer) and begin to write their own memoir.  For in the words of the author Thomas M. Cirignano (The Constant Outsider): “Each of us is a book waiting to be written, and that book, if written, results in a person explained.”

(If you are interested in buying a copy of the book, email Ms. Rispens-Noel: leila.wimler@gmail.com)