Let literature in all our languages grow

For the past three years, the month of April has come to stand for the celebration of Philippine literature in all Philippine languages, recognized and upheld as our precious cultural legacy.

When National Artist Virgilio Almario, who chairs both the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA) and the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF), and former NCCA chair Felipe M. de Leon Jr. lobbied to have April mandated by law as National Literature Month, they asked us at the National Book Development Board (NBDB) if a month full of literary and cultural activities would be possible. It seemed initially intimidating having to schedule programs for November as Philippine Book Development Month and now, also April. But it was a most welcome “problem” to push books and reading twice a year (yes, when it actually ought to be 12 months a year) with more programs than what our limited agency budget can accommodate.

But look at us and our April calendar now, with programs for every reading taste and inclination that the NCCA-KWF-NBDB partnership has produced. We at the NBDB (with newly appointed executive director Jerry G. Tizon and governor Karina Bolasco of the Ateneo Press) will launch the month that honors Francisco Balagtas in Orion, Bataan, the place of his death. It is to be a literary journey to what is now known as Hardin ni Balagtas, where his bronze statue created by well-known sculptress Julie Lluch captures the poet deep in thought, seated in a writing pose with a quill pen in hand, surrounded by trees and gazing toward the sea.

That the statue faces the sea is said to be based on a short poem of Balagtas about a poet who built a hut facing the sea where he constantly thought of his lost love. It is a biographical detail because records show that he was indeed spurned by his first love, leading to imprisonment and his eventual move to Orion, where he married Juana Tiambeng with whom he had 11 children.

It is amusing that while Balagtas’ contribution to Philippine literature is widely acknowledged (and shamefully, I have to add, not as widely read), and that his April 2 birthday—his 229th—makes April the most appropriate choice for our National Literature Month, he is said to have told his children at his deathbed that none of them should become poets, even going on to say it would be better that their hands be cut off than have them become writers. Whether apocryphal or not, this story discourages the aspiring writer, but at the same time highlights the struggle every writer undergoes with every creation. All the more reason, then, for writers to be honored and celebrated.

And all the more reason then for Proclamation No. 968, which was signed into law in 2015 by then President Benigno Aquino III, recognizing that “national literature plays an important role in preserving and inspiring the literature of today and in introducing to future generations the Filipino values that we have inherited from our ancestors.”

Indeed, without our distinct literature, where would we be as a people?

“Banyuhay,” the Filipino word for “metamorphosis,” is the theme for 2017. It reminds us all that literature is “a creative endeavor and also a political and social institution … a force that shapes life and everyday living.”  The word is a combination of three syllables from the words “bagong anyo ng buhay,” or a new form of life. It is attributed to poet Alejandro Abadilla (1906-1969), who defied the conventions and techniques of traditional poetry.

Almario explains: “We chose this theme because we want to uplift the young literary writers and to give them the spotlight in this year’s celebration. This is the year that we discover the new faces of Philippine literature and continue to let our literature grow, in the different dialects and languages of our country.”

Welcome, April, Buwan ng Panitikan ng Filipinas, a proud tradition in the making.

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.