A SOJOURNER’S VIEW: Literature Bursting Out

BOOK REVIEWS

1.) SIGAW NG DEKADA
At Iba Pang mga Dula

Ni G. Rolando O. Bajo
Midtown Printing Co., Inc., 2017

2) ALL QUIET IN MINDANAO
A Novel of Corruption

By Elizabeth Cowans
Self-published: Las Vegas, U.S.A., 2016

3.) PROCLIVITIES, A COLLECTION OF STORIES
By Karlo Galay David
Cover Design and Artwork: Raffael David Westram
Aletheia Publishing House, 2022

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 26 July) – There are still reverberations following the strong interest in books generated by the Second Mindanao Book Festival last June. Unseen and unread books appeared from everywhere and even as they have been published years ago deserve to be reviewed, even as new publications are bursting out across Mindanao. Year 2022 could surpass the output of the past two years, which – despite the pandemic – yielded a rich harvest of more than 70 books, mostly written by Mindanawons.

A recent event, however, caused a lot of sadness among those who care about Mindanawon literature with the passing of Telesforo Sungkit Jr. Except for Mindanawons and Filipinos who are familiar with a major breakthrough in Pinoy literature – namely, that an indigenous person writing in various languages including his mother tongue created waves of interest among critics and readers – the name of Sungkit does not ring a bell. But among those who care about the present state and future of Pinoy literature, Sungkit has now become a legend.

Sungkit Jr. was a Higaonon poet and novelist, the author of Batbat hi Udan, a novel in Filipino. He won the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) Writers’ Prize 2007 for his Cebuano novel Mga Gapnod sa Kamad-an and the NCCA Writers’ Prize 2011 for his Cebuano novel Ang Agalon sa mga Balod. Mga Gapnod was translated as Driftwood on Dryland, published in 2013 by the UST Publishing House. Sungkit’s books opened a path for indigenous writers so that a distinguished writer and multi-awarded author – Ricky de Ungria – is pursuing a project to set up a publishing house exclusively for Moro and Lumad authors.

Sungkit Jr. represents a quintessential Mindanawon author who could write in various languages. In his case, he proved his fluency in Higaonon, Cebuano-Bisaya, Filipino and English. Unlike Manila-based authors who are only able to write in English, with a few struggling to write in Filipino, most Mindanawon authors are multi-lingual. They certainly represent one feature of the Mindanawon identity. Owing to their exposure to various ethnicities and academic backgrounds, they do venture into writing in various tongues.

Bajo’s Sigaw ng Dekada is mostly written in Filipino and his texts show his fluency in the national language, even as his everyday language is both English and Cebuano-Bisaya. He also has a familiarity with Ata-Manobo as he had earlier written a book – Ata-Manobo: At the Crossroads of Tradition and Modernization). A bibliography of his books and publications (as author and co-researcher) shows a most impressive output: three books, two published plays and various modules.

There are seven scripts of plays that are included in Bajo’s Sigaw, which are divided into five categories: Mga Dulang Protesta (protest plays), Mga Dulang pang-Tribal (plays about IPs), Dulang Pampamilya (Family Plays) and Dulang Pangtanghalan (plays for stage performance). Apart from those included in this anthology, Bajo has written other plays including life stories of St. Lorenzo Ruiz and Datu Bugsuan. He also ventured into his retelling of Ibong Adarna and to celebrate IP Month in Tagum, Davao del Norte, he staged Ang Huling Pangayaw (The Last Indigenous Uprising).

As with plays, they are better seen performed live on stage rather than read from the pages of a book. However, as staging plays are no longer in vogue – even in colleges and universities who used to hold theater festivals – considering costs and efforts involved, the next best option is to have them available as published documents. This way, they can be used as primary resource material for professors of literature who should be teaching more local rather than foreign literature. And for the rare readers who do enjoy sitting quietly to read plays and imagine how they can be transformed to stage and even to film – Sigaw is certainly a book to hold, read and enjoy in those quiet moments of introspection!

The reviewer only managed to read Elizabeth Cowans’ ALL QUIET IN MINDANAO,
A Novel of Corruption
because a friend was able to purchase online a copy of this 2016-published novel and lent it to him. The title must have easily piqued her interest and thought her friend would like to read this, too, since it promised to be about “Mindanao being quiet?” (oh yeah? Quiet like the silence of a cemetery?)

Just scanning through a copy of the book – indicating that it is self-published by the author herself and printed somewhere in Las Vegas USA, it provides very scant information. It does not indicate the name of a publishing house with an address. And the author is identified only as having novels “that have been translated into other languages and have, along with her literary, stage, radio and screen work, enjoyed acclaim.” Google her name and there is hardly any post to identify who she is.

So we are left to review the book on its own merits. If one is curious what the book is all about and if an American author could capture the atmosphere, mood, contexts and realities of the Marcos martial law years from the lens of an outsider who finds herself immersed in our situation, the answer is that the author does well. In fact, the reviewer found it interesting enough to keep on reading for a day until he finished reading cover to cover.

Overall Gowans do manage to tell a good story the narratives of which followed the life events of a good representation of the people caught in the web of the abuses and brutalities of the Marcos regime. For that alone, this is one more book to add to the need to consolidate “the historical truth” – and not the revised version that the troll farms are trying to manufacture – of what took place when the conjugal Marcos dictatorship and their minions pillaged the nation and treated the people to barbarian subjugation.

However, Gowans’ book does not fully satisfy for those of us fully immersed in the situation she describes in the book. For all her good intentions to view and fictionalize this reality from the lens of the oppressed and subjugated, her optic is still one of a foreigner. That would always be a handicap for the outsider, not matter if she/he does her/his best to be fully immersed in that reality as well as find the right key interviewees in the field in order to wear the shoes of the native. Something is bound to be shortchanged and, indeed, there are many gaps in the story-telling and inaccuracies.

What the reviewer has written in an earlier review piece where he quoted the words of Xavier University’s Arlene J. Yandug, Maria Elena L. Paulma and Lilia A. Coterjar rings true as they posit: “In the light of the nation-region discourse (where ‘region’ implies being overshadowed by the nation-center which dictates the tempo of literary production), we believe the places where we were born or raised in are the true sources or wellsprings of our literary expressions. And that small, multifarious compiling is the way to go in Philippine literature as it is more likely to ferret out hidden, underrepresented literary imagination, writing gestures, and consciousness.” In Cowans’ case it is, of course the foreign-nation discourse.

Names of people, places, trees and plants are invented by the author and may not be the ones known in Mindanao. For example, names of two main women characters, Efiigenia and Emerenciana – are not your usual common names this part of the world; in fact the reviewer does not know women in Mindanao named as such. She tries her best to “sound” Mindanawon by using colloquial expressions, but one is perplexed why her character speaks Waray in presumably a dominant Cebuano-speaking community. And there are words we hardly use at all in our everyday life, so one wonders who supplied her with such words.

But otherwise, her listing of characters, government agencies and social movements and legal institutions are based on their equivalents in the real world. All the major characters of Philippine/Mindanawon society of that era appear and come alive as the author provides the habitus arising from their milieu. Consequently, the reader can easily conjure their faces even after the passage of half-a-century: the Marcoses and their minions, the abusive military and paramilitary, the mining company heads, the banana plantation owners, the intelligence agents, the local oligarchy, the society matrons devoted to their favorite saints, the priests, the community organizers, the hapless peasants, the victims of human rights violations, the bakwits, the rebels and the children of all these households. All agencies of the martial law government are identified from the AFP to PANAMIN, to LGUs. The CBCP, the religious congregations, CO groups, Share and Care Apostolate are identified (conspicuously unnamed is the TFDP), although there is a lot of reference to political prisoners.

The plot is hard-hitting but rather melodramatic, thus this book could have been made a movie by Lino Brocka. The story is told from the perspective of the typical oligarch family who owns a vast banana plantation in Davao del Norte with a patriarch who is a capitalist at heart but who wish to be a “good Christian” (which is to say: to give money to build a cathedral, a hospital and school for his workers, as well as to pay the prescribed legal just wage but not to tolerate labor unions), a matriarch whose devotion to the Infant of Plaque demanded a miracle that could transform her shrine to a place where thousands would seek God’s favor, sons who would follow in their father’s footsteps and a daughter who is a combination of the Maita Gomezes and Nelia Sanchos and those colegialas who romanced the underground movement.

The author, however, places her own perspective through the eyes of another main character, a European missionary named Jack. Arriving in the Philippines to replace a deported American priest (presumably based on the incidences involving American Maryknoll priests), he was expected to be the opposite of the previous missionary. He was to only say Mass and administer the sacraments and not be engaged at responding to the social justice issues. Innocent about what was the concrete reality of that period, and a guest of the banana plantation owners who were the first to provide him hospitality, he had no inkling that what appeared as a quiet Mindanao was actually seething with outrage at the margins. Nonetheless, the events that would unfold in the following months as Norma gets him more involved in actually experiencing life among the oppressed make it imperative for him to make a choice!

Lastly, there is Karlo Antonio Galay David’s PROCLIVITIES, A Collection of Short Stories which will soon be published and launched in Kidapawan City where the author hails from. This anthology includes 10 stories; nine written in English and the last one in Tagalog-Bisaya (which the author claims is the popular local language of Kidapawan and other parts of Mindanao).

In his introduction, David writes: “We are all victims of our histories. But as our histories unfold in different layers, that victimhood and how we deal with it take on diverse forms. The nacre of human obstinacy comes in different, often contrasting textures. The stories in this collection explore how the idiosyncratic manifestations of trauma – and the proclivities and inclinations they cultivate – shape the identities of people. In many cases, rituals are conceived to retain order and meaning in a life devastated by the world’s random cruelty, and on which people build better – or at least bearable – futures.”

All that the reviewer wants to do right now is just to alert the reader to the publication of what promises to be a most interesting book of stories in order to help publicize its launching. Social media should shortly let the readers know when and where this book will be launched and how it can be purchased. It deserves a full review in a week or so. Abangan!

*The paperback edition of Gowans’ book that the reviewer read indicated it was written in 2016 and published on May 19, 2022.

[MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Redemptorist Brother Karl Gaspar is a professor at St. Alphonsus Theological and Mission Institute (SATMI) in Davao City and until recently, a professor of Anthropology at the Ateneo de Davao University. Gaspar is author of several books, including “Manobo Dreams in Arakan: A People’s Struggle to Keep Their Homeland,” which won the National Book Award for social science category in 2012, “Desperately Seeking God’s Saving Action: Yolanda Survivors’ Hope Beyond Heartbreaking Lamentations,” two books on Davao history, and “Ordinary Lives, Lived Extraordinarily – Mindanawon Profiles” launched in February 2019. He writes two columns for MindaNews, one in English (A Sojourner’s Views) and the other in Binisaya (Panaw-Lantaw). Gaspar is a Datu Bago 2018 awardee, the highest honor the Davao City government bestows on its constituents.]