Wednesday ∗ 30 Apr 2008

preying on the birds

i’m the last person who will look down on what people enjoy reading, nor will i insist that you must read certain books in order for you to be called “literary”. i will insist though that anyone who decides to diss any form of literature, particularly philippine lit, even more so literature in our vernaculars, has better sense than just his or her superficial notions of taste and literature, and in this case, language.

this is exactly what connie veneracion did in her column last Tuesday, where she complained about the difficult Tagalog of Amado V. Hernandez’s Mga Ibong Mandaragit, and in the end questioned its inclusion in her daughter’s school curriculum. she was obviously exasperated that neither she nor her husband could read this Filipino classic that she went on and on about literature and creativity, about writers making things more difficult on purpose, about the simplicity of Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea and how it was so easy to understand, and how there are Filipino writers like Jay David who do write in a Filipino that’s easy to read. in the end, she blamed Ka Amado – and i imagine any other writer – for the difficult writing she had, and failed, to endure.

the question really, is this: why was she not blaming herself?

in truth, when we have difficulty reading literature in Filipino, and then have the gall to complain about it, we must be ashamed. the question here isn’t whether or not a writer purposely made his or her writing difficult – how do you even prove purpose? – but why exactly you yourself, as a Filipino, cannot sit through a Filipino classic novel without complaining about its language. in the case of veneracion, Ka Amado was to blame for his kind of writing, because look! Hemingway and Jay David are so much more easy to read. never mind that Hemingway writes in a different language altogether, and David is of a different generation and therefore uses a different kind of Filipino in his writing.

it seems to be lost on veneracion that these were false comparisons, the only premise of which was her taste and range of reading capabilities, both of which are infinitely problematic in its insistence on simplicity and ease in reading, because literature of any kind is so much more than these.

whose requirement is it that literature be easy, anyway? isn’t this different for every person? popular literature such as David’s, for example, will be a difficult read for a Filipino who has English as a first language, for example, or someone who doesn’t use Manileño Tagalog; in the same way that Old Man and the Sea will not be an easy read for someone who isn’t familiar with Hemingway’s kind of English.

the language of literature – even when it seems easy – never is. in truth, if anyone imagines Hemingway to be easy, then in reality they do not understand him. in fact, the last thing i imagine any writer would want to hear is that his or her work was “easy” or “simple”, as neither is synonymous with “well-written” or “life changing” or even just “ang galing mo magsulat!”.

which points glaringly to another fact about veneracion: that she isn’t even aware of her own limitations as a reader of all these texts, and how what she had to say against Mga IbongMandaragit wasn’t a simple case of language, or the dichotomies that have come out of her discussion: creative writing versus popular writing, the classics versus the contemporary, (as the discussion in her blog has pointed out) high art versus low art.

none of these dichotomies are easy to pin down, and that last one’s particularly difficult for a text such as Mga Ibong Mandaragit. yes, Ka Amado’s status as a Tagalog classic that’s required reading makes him “high art” in a sense, but contextualize that in the continued dominance of philippine writing in english (and here i speak not just of literature but of magazines and blogs as well), and the notion of high and low become problematic.

in fact, a little reading would tell veneracion that the presence of these Filipino classics (Mga Ibong Mandaragit, Florante at Laura, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo) in our school curriculum is anything but an effort at making it more difficult for our daughters (and apparently their parents) to appreciate literature. reading some history would’ve told veneracion that in truth, the presence of these Filipino classics in the curriculum is the product of a continuous struggle to wrest our classrooms from the throes of a western(ized) syllabus/reading list. and yes, save our children from colonial mentality – for good measure, as apparently some parents are beyond saving.

all the issues veneracion raises about literature in this country are complex, none of them are easy. what was wrong was that her discussion went beyond simple. it was simplistic. and unjust.

this is revealed even more by veneracion’s assessment of Jose Garcia Villa and his comma poems which she calls “crap” (in her blog she calls it “lokohan”). my question of course is “relative to what?” because if you are forced to respect ee cummings for his experiments in form, then why not the same respect for Villa? and let’s say you don’t care for cummings either, then at the very least, Villa – and any other writer for that matter – deserves respect for writing the way he did in the context of Philippine poetry that had yet to get it, or do anything like it.

i wish veneracion had better literature teachers when she was growing up, then maybe at the very least, she would have the words to actually praise the literature she likes other than saying their “easy” and “simple”; she’d also have better sense than to simply say that the works she doesn’t like – and can’t understand – are crap.

because no text, no literature, no one, least of all Ka Amado and Mga Ibong Mandaragit, deserves that.

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