April and the richness of our literature
When, in 2015, President Benigno S. Aquino III signed Proclamation No. 968 designating April as Buwan ng Panitikan or National Literature Month for the country, the National Commission for Culture and the Arts then headed by Felipe M. de Leon Jr., the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino chaired by Virgilio S. Almario, and the National Book Development Board (NBDB), had every reason to be jubilant. For it took much documentation and patience over two years to see this dream come true.
The official recognition was important for the three government agencies in highlighting the richness of our traditional literature—vibrant and thriving even in pre-Spanish times. The need to have a language—and our 170 languages, besides—leads us to take pride in our national identity. There is also urgency in making our very own literature well-known to us; no thanks to colonization, many of us are more familiar with western literature.
So, what a milestone it was to have the country honor Philippine literature with a special month devoted to it. (Ideally, it goes without saying that focus on it should be year-round.) April was the logical choice for a literary month, because the month begins with the birth anniversary of Francisco Balagtas on April 2. Literary luminaries born in April include National Artists Bienvenido Lumbera and Edith Tiempo. It is also the month when Nick Joaquin and Emilio Jacinto died.
April is likewise associated with Hans Christian Andersen, William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes. That is why Instituto Cervantes holds its annual Día del Libro on April 27. Other international literary events in April are the International Children’s Book Day on April 2, and Unesco’s World Book and Copyright Day on April 23.
The Buwan ng Panitikan 2019 was officially launched with the annual pilgrimage to Orion, Bataan on Araw ni Balagtas. But the month may as well have begun a week earlier, when Ateneo Press held a triple launch of the English translations of Tagalog novels: Liwayway Arceo’s “Canal de la Reina” (1972), “Timawa” (1990) by A.C. Fabian and “The Last Timawa” (1936) by Servando de los Angeles. The release of these titles in English makes available to a larger audience the artistry of our Tagalog novelists. Why, even Serj, the namesake grandson of novelist and zarzuelista De los Angeles (“Ang Kiri” and 30 other zarzuelas, and the poem “Bituing Marikit,” which we know as a moving song), confessed that he could not read the original novel in its entirety.
The NBDB takes special interest in Arceo’s “Canal de la Reina,” as this classic novel is one of the initial beneficiaries of the NBDB’s Translation Subsidy Program, which aims to fund the translation of Philippine titles into foreign languages to make our literature more accessible to a global audience. This modest grant of P150,000 per title is open to Philippine publishers who have sold translation rights of a published Filipino work to a foreign publisher, or Philippine publishers who have translated into English works in any of the Philippine languages.
Ateneo professor emeritus Dr. Soledad Reyes deserves commendation for her dedication to scholarship and Tagalog literature. Like a true pioneer, all on her own, with little need to be commissioned (but a grant would be welcome, of course!), she continues with the discovery and appreciation of our very own literature, unknown and lost to us were it not for her efforts. How impoverished we would be, otherwise.
Two English novels, “Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café” by Alfred Yuson and “All My Lonely Islands” by VJ Campilan, whose rights Anvil has sold to UAE publishers, are the other translation grantees.
I especially await the theme of each year’s Buwan ng Panitikan because it makes us all aware of words that point to the richness of our literary heritage. In 2016, it was “Alab Panitikan,” the fervor and passion for literature. In 2017, it was “Banyuhay,” the Filipino word for “metamorphosis,” emphasizing literature as a transformative force, a creative endeavor. Last year, it was “Pingkian,” or flint, for literature on fire. This year, it is “Buklugan Panitikan,” from “buklog,” a thanksgiving ritual of the Subanen indigenous community in Zamboanga.
A quick check — what work by a Filipino author have you read lately?
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@ gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.