Mining our historical resources
I knew last week’s “Gunitâ: A Pursuit of Memory,” the National Book Development Board’s (NBDB) 10th Philippine International Literary Festival (PILF), could not but be off to a good start with Resil B. Mojares, National Artist for Literature, as keynote speaker.
Mojares left us with questions to allow us to think deeply about the current state of our literature. We have not mined our historical resources enough. If one were to draw a literary map of our islands, would every province be represented by a novel? Why have we not gone beyond the 19th century, the Philippine Revolution and Andres Bonifacio? Considering the many islands making up our country, why is there so little of maritime life in our writing?
Mojares observed that our writing workshops focus too much on the technical and on ready manuscripts. What about guiding the writers toward finding a subject matter and undertaking research on it? That appears to be a grave need.
He quoted Nick Joaquin’s comment that Philippine history seems to begin with the American era and our fiction is so contemporary, with no grandfather writing to manifest our roots. In 1988, NVM Gonzalez similarly wondered about the presence of our proud history in our books.
It is timely that this year’s theme is “Gunitâ” or memory. Literature has always served as a site of memory or, as French historian Pierre Nora called it, “lieu de memoire,” a monument or an object vested with historical memory, acting as an expression of our shared past. We reiterate that literature is not a mere artifact of nostalgia; it is an active record of our witnessing, our victories, our failures and our traumas. More than that, it has served as a call to arms, a reminder that we should not remain passive in the face of persecution. Literature as a site of memory is a starting point for investigating our history, and for the pursuit of justice.
The PILF is an annual commitment of the agency to gather authors, illustrators, publishers and other content creators, and provide a venue for artistic and intellectual discourse about the most pressing matters affecting Philippine literature and book publishing. This year, despite the delay in date because of a reenacted budget and many other challenges (the event is usually held in April, Buwan ng Panitikan), it took off, thanks to the leadership of NDBD’s poet in residence and project development officer Jason Tabinas.
Over the years, the PILF has played host to established international authors like Edward P. Jones, Vikas Swarup, Junot Diaz, as well as up-and-coming Fil-Am writers such as Mia Alvar and Elaine Castillo. We have also gathered emergent voices from the different spheres of Philippine literature. As we cannot deny the transmedial quality of literature, we’ve also opened up our program to other creative sectors to include discussions of literature in film, literature in gaming, book technologies for the differently abled, and other such fields.
This year, on the 10th anniversary of this project, our program boasts the same diversity and rich content as proposed by the many book industry professionals in the country. The interesting two-day program (with meals and no registration fees involved) was developed mainly through proposals submitted to NBDB, which it curated into a cohesive whole.
While the PILF is a mostly Manila-centric event, we are especially proud that keynote speaker Mojares flew in from his residence in Cebu, and Man Booker Prize winner Miguel Syjuco was with us, too, from Abu Dhabi. We are elated and encouraged to know that other regions and institutions have mounted their own literary festivals across the country, e.g. the Cebu Literary Festival, the Polytechnic University of the Philippines Literary Festival, and the National Book Store’s Readers and Writers Festival on Aug. 2-4. For us, this means that literary discourse is thriving throughout the regions. These other festivals need our support as well. PILF was in Davao in November 2015 and has ambitious dreams (and a corresponding budget, it is hoped) of going to other regions.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ([email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.