A writer’s discovery of his Bikol soul
In the current din regarding the incredulous and lamentable loss of Panitikan in Filipino in the college curriculum, I was heartened to reread Premyo Valledor winner Niles Jordan Breis’ acceptance speech for the award. For me, a writer’s words always ring with such grace and credibility, literally words to hang on.
Breis’ winning Bikol novel is titled “Kalatraban sa Alkawaraan,” which he says may be translated loosely as “A Long Wait Into the Vanishing.” When an excerpt was read by professional actress Tess Consulta during the awards ceremony at the James J. O’Brien, SJ Library (a most fitting place, as Father O’Brien is well remembered for encouraging Bikol research and studies) of Ateneo de Naga University (Adnu), I did not understand a word but understood the spirit and the mood of the novel. And how the audience responded to the language close to their hearts!
Breis was amused at the choice of the excerpt, which was apparently rather sexually explicit in description and language. He says it was not the essence of the novel, which he describes as a violent and political story, but also a story of redemption. That is an intriguing description, and in pursuing it, Breis falls back on poet Maya Angelou’s “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
Hence, he says, “my novel ‘Kalatraban sa Alkawaraan’ which I think is also a story of redemption, a story of that which contains (what lies) between memory and truth.” It is optimistic in the long run, he adds, akin to Chekhov’s “a glint of light in a broken glass.” Words that left me so eager to read the novel, but wait I must.
Friends have asked how and why I can show appreciation for manuscripts I cannot read. But I appreciate the rationale of the university press deputy director Kristian Cordero, who explained, “I want the Bikol readers to enjoy these first in Bikol.” It’s the publishing house’s way of enriching and propagating the Bikol language. The readers in English will just have to patiently wait for the translated texts.
Breis recounts how surprised he was that the writing of this novel in Bikol took only all of three months, in stark contrast to his novel in English, which was long in progress and saw completion in six years. Why the ease then in Bikol writing, despite his award-winning proficiency in Filipino and in English? “Maybe because I was writing then in a language closest to my heart, and also allowing me to dream up things and places.”
While Breis is the first to admit that a good novel is a good novel in any language, he says he was pleased to discover himself as a Bikol novelist. It was a liberating feeling for him as a writer, bringing him back to his asthma-stricken childhood years when his aunt would take him at the crack of dawn so that the morning sun’s rays would pierce his chest and heal his ailment.
Today, he says, “Just like that throwback sunlight that once pierced into my chest, then lurking inside for many years—same sunlight, I believe, is now out in the open. I’m within the ease of breathing. No longer gasping for air.”
How fortunate for us who can read Breis in English, Filipino, Bikol. A familiar byline and a four-time Palanca winner in essay and in poetry, his writings make one proud of Filipino talent. I am still recovering from the beauty of his powerful Palanca essay in Filipino, “Angela Buruka,” about his townmate, esteemed poet Angela Manalang Gloria—his initial acquaintance with her as an eccentric and his touching discovery of her as a writer. It was a process so life-changing that he strongly advocated that she be better remembered and acknowledged. Thus, her home in Tabaco, Albay, is now a historical landmark.
What a promising start for the initial run of the Premyo Valledor for the Bikol Novel to have this roster of winners, Niles Jordan Breis and Jerome Hipolito; and runners-up Arthur Justine P. Alemania and Roxanne E. Berido, and Marvin Davila Aquino.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected] gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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