Sunday, November 25, 2012



Dr. Caroline Sy Hau is a critic by accident.

“I don’t think of myself as a critic, that is a label others paste on me,” she admitted, “but as a student of Philippine literature. And while good critics do not necessarily make good writers, and vice versa, people who are interested in writing train themselves, or are trained, to read critically, so the line between critic and writer is fluid, albeit not always overlapping. I always look up to Resil Mojares for inspiration: here is an enormously talented fiction writer who turned to scholarship, and the result is a body of work that has greatly enriched our understanding of Philippine history, society, culture, and the arts. I’m afraid, though, that I have neither his gift for writing beautifully nor his intellectual breadth nor his passion for meticulous research.”

Actually, her first love was writing, as in weaving short stories and novels.

Her B.A. English degree was, in fact, in Creative Writing, when it was stillknown as Imaginative Writing!

At the University of the Philippines, she studied under N.V.M. Gonzalez, Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio, and Franz Arcellana. In the early 1990s, for her, the idea of becoming a full-time writer was quite daunting, almost unimaginable.

“I had neither the leisure nor the income to do be able to do so,” she recalled,“and found myself doing what then felt like the next best thing -- becoming a teacher. To my surprise, I found that I enjoyed teaching and interacting with students. Furthermore, pursuing graduate studies in literature and teaching were good excuses to read books and write about them (and be paid to do so!). Again, to my surprise, I found that I enjoyed doing them.”
She described her doctoral dissertation as the intimate but thorny relationship between literature and nationalism -- “a question that has haunted Filipino writers and one that she herself was grappling with as someone who wanted to write about what she knew and understood best.”
Now, her books, Necessary Fictions: Philippine Literature and the Nation 1946-1980 (2000) and On The Subject Of The Nation: Filipino Writings From The Margins (2004), are two of Ateneo de Manila University's award-winning and best-selling titles.

Her most recent publication, which she co-edited with the Thai scholar Kasian Tejapira, is called Traveling Nation-Makers: Transnational Flows and Movements in the Making of Southeast Asia wherein she wrote about the Chinese writer-guerrilla Du Ai. Jointly published by Kyoto University Press and National University of Singapore Press, the book contains essays by Mojares on Mariano Ponce, Odine de Guzman on Connie Bragas-Regalado of Migrante International, and essays by other scholars on nationalist-activists from Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

Dr. Hau will arrive next week for the international conference celebrating the sesquicentennial birth anniversary of Dr. Jose Rizal -- Rizal in the 21thCentury: Local and Global Perspectives. And we had the honor to speak with the said creative writer turned critic before it began on 22 June at the Diliman campus of UP in Quezon City where such exhibits are held as CANVAS' Relevant Rizal at the Vargas Museum that opened 3 June and College of Arts and Letters' Rizal at UP with Home Economics' Baro at Sayaat the Bulwagan ng Dangal two days before Rizal's 150th birthday of June 19!

Vim Nadera: How would you compare the state of our literary criticism before and after you left the country?
Caroline Hau: My understanding of Philippine literature was shaped by the critical writings of people like Leopoldo Yabes, Salvador Lopez, Gemino Abad, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Edel Garcellano, Virgilio Almario, Soledad Reyes, Priscelina Legasto, Helen Lopez, and Jing Hidalgo. I also learned a lot from people of my generation like Neferti Tadiar, Bomen Guillermo, Leo Zafra, Bliss Cua Lim, and Jody Blanco. Each generation reads and understands literature in light of its preoccupations and concerns. It’s neither fair nor valid to make judgments about the quality of scholarship before and after one’s time: one almost always finds fault with those who came before one, and in turn gets faulted by those who came after. More interesting are the historical and intellectual contexts that shape a work of scholarship. There are younger critics who are now publishing interesting work that cuts across the disciplinary boundaries that separate the humanities and the social sciences—to me, this cross-disciplinary aspect of literary criticism is an exciting and welcome development, but hardly a novel one. We need only remember that people like Teodoro Agoncillo and Resil Mojares started their careers in literature before turning to history. Neferti Tadiar majored in Imaginative Writing, too.

VN: They say Filipinos hate to be criticized. Is that the reason why you migrated?
CH: I migrated for the same reason that many of our Filipino compatriots did—to earn a decent living, and later, to raise a cross-cultural family. Filipinos dislike being criticized the way Americans, Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesians do—which is to say, it all depends on who is being criticized, what the criticism is, and who is doing the criticism. I don’t think we as a people are more sensitive to criticism, although perhaps our situation and standing as a nation among other, better-off nations, might make some Filipinos more sensitive to slights—personal, professional, and national—than others.

VN: Why Cornell University?
CH: I had applied to, and been accepted by, doctoral programs at three universities in the US: Berkeley (which had good English and ethnic studies programs), Columbia (which had people like Gayatri Spivak and a good postcolonial studies component) and Cornell. Cornell had a good English program, just like Berkeley, but the deciding factor for me was that it also had an excellent Southeast Asian studies program and a library whose Southeast Asia collection was arguably the best in the world. I had taken a few MA courses on Asian-American studies and postcolonial studies while I was teaching at UP, so I decided to go to Cornell, where I could learn about Southeast Asia because I hardly knew anything about the region.

VN: What can you say about Fil-Am literature?
CH: Filipino-American literature has always been a part of Philippine literature. One cannot understand Philippine literature in the 1930s and 1940s without reading (Carlos) Bulosan. Celso Carunungan and Stevan Javellana found publishers abroad. Similarly, Linda Ty-Casper and Ninotchka Rosca wrote and published novels on the Philippines. For the first-generation Filipinos in America, the Philippines is still very much “in the heart.” Second- and third-generation Filipino-Americans have a more complicated relationship with the Philippines because their notion of the Philippines is a mosaic of parents’ (and grandparents’) stories; ideas and images culled from books and films and music; trips of varying lengths of time to the Philippines; participation in Filipino-American activism and organizations; and their own attempts to claim their “heritage” as Americans of Filipino descent. Understandably, the paths they choose and the questions they ask about the Philippines may diverge from those of Filipinos in the Philippines. There may be disagreements, tensions, and conflicts between Filipinos and Filipino-Americans, but perhaps some of the resentment harbored by Filipinos against Fil-Ams is rooted in a contest over the power and right to speak of, and on behalf of, the Philippines. Some Filipinos think that because they were born in the Philippines, grew up there, or live here all their lives, they “know” the country more, and are entitled to claim the moral and intellectual high ground. But we all know of homegrown Filipinos who know less about the Philippines than some Fil-Ams do. And the fact that we have OFWs now in all corners of the globe makes the contest over knowledge, power, and the right to speak of, and for, the Philippines more complicated than those who affirm the simple binary between Filipinos and Filipino-Americans would have us understand. And I should add that criticisms about “selling out” or “misrepresentation” often come from Filipinos with middle-class or upper-class backgrounds.

VN: Why Kyoto University?
CH: Kyoto University? Because I was recruited by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies as their first foreign, female, and Southeast Asian (Filipino) tenured faculty member. This was part of the Center’s effort to internationalize itself, and also part of its effort to expand its research field to include the Humanities.

VN: Is there such thing as Fil-Jap literature?
CH: In the Philippines, there is Sinai Hamada, of course, who is best known for his short story Tanabata’s Wife. In Japan, the most well-known example of “Filipino-Japanese literature” is Funado Yoichi’s May in the Valley of the Rainbow (2000), a coming-of-age novel told from the point of view of a thirteen-year-old “Japino” named Toshio Manahan, whose mother, a prostitute, died of AIDS and who went to live with grandparents in a small town in the Philippines. Funado himself is Japanese, but his novel won the prestigious Naoki Prize. The pattern of migration and settlement of Filipinos in Japan has greatly changed from the time when the majority of residents were entertainers. Now, there are more and more Filipino permanent residents, many of them married to Japanese and having children. There are quite a number of Japinos now growing up and studying in Japan as well as the Philippines, so I am expecting some of them to write in Japanese, English, Filipino or in other Philippine languages, about Japinos, live in and across Japan and the Philippines, and their rich experiences.

VN: Are you plannning to move to Spain afterwards?
CH: No. The fact that learning Spanish is no longer mandatory in Philippine classrooms is more likely to cut off Filipinos from their Spanish heritage. Who, for example, reads Rizal in the original Spanish these days? I’m more excited about what is happening in Southeast Asia and East Asia generally than in other parts of the world, whether Spain/Europe or America, or wherever.

VN: It seems that you tend to stay in countries that colonized us. Is that a conscious postcolonial effort?
CH: Not a conscious effort, but the kinds of pathways Filipino scholars follow tend to be determined in part by the history of their countries—hence, because of colonialism, more Filipinos are trained in the US than, say, France or Germany. In some ways, this is the easiest path to take because its routes are well-established, though the experience of studying in the metropole can be quite fraught with anxieties and tensions, as it was for me personally.

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