THE CREATIVE WRITER AS CRITIC (SECOND OF THREE PARTS) (June 13, 2011)
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.
VN: You will come home for the Rizal International Conference. Does this sesquicentennial birth anniversary call for a celebration?
CH: Any occasion that allows us to re-examine Rizal and his legacy is welcome, and this 150th anniversary celebration is as good as any.
VN: Are there things left unsaid about Rizal?
CH: The power of a novel or work of art lies in its ability to provoke many different interpretations, rather than one single, definitive reading. Rizal’s novels are a signal achievement in Philippine literature, because after a hundred years, readers are still able to find something interesting in and about the novels.
VN: Being a Chinese, are you proud that you share the same roots with Rizal?
CH:I don’t really think of Rizal as Chinese, although I am aware of his Chinese ancestry. I am proud of Rizal because he is, like me, a Filipino.
VN: Was Rizal ever proud of his Chinese ancestry?
CH: I don’t think Rizal ever thought of himself as Chinese, although he was pretty aware of his Chinese-mestizo ancestry. Much has been made of the fact that he elected to identify himself as “indio,” based on his father’s decision to change the family’s legal classification from mestizo to indio.
VN: What can you say about his portrayal of Quiroga and other Chinese characters he created? Do you have justifications for Rizal's anti-Chinese sentiments?
CH: Rizal’s views of the Chinese were colored by his background, his class, his education, and the mores and racial attitudes of the time. Anti-Chinese sentiment, especially among mestizos and naturales, was a fact of life in the late 19th century, and you can expect some of these sentiments to color Rizal’s portrayals of the Chinese in his novels. But you have to remember that his portraits of Chinese like Quiroga, the vendor, and panciteria waiters are only one of many, and no less scathing, character sketches of other “types” in Manila and its environs, indios, mestizos, peninsulares and all.
VN: Do you really believe that Rizal was guilty of refusing to acknowledge his ancestry which, they say, was a worse sin than just forgetting his origins. But will you forgive him?
CH: Each generation reads Rizal in light of its own preoccupations and concerns. From our perspective, Rizal’s anti-Chinese sentiments may be inexcusable, but the task of a critic is not to pass easy judgment on writers and writings from another era or even the present, but to try to understand why and how the context—whether historical or contemporary—shaped the ideas and attitudes expressed by the novels. And Rizal himself reminds us that we should not assume that all the ideas expressed in his novels are his as well.
VICTOR EMMANUEL CARMELO D. NADERA JR.
A Manila Bulletin columnist, Victor Emmanuel Carmelo Nadera Jr. was the youngest director of Likhaan: U.P. Institute of Creative Writing that won the Francisco Balagtas Award (2006) from the National Language Commission. Some of his projects include the text-a-poem contests such as Textanaga (2003), Dalitext (2003), Dionatext (2004), and Textsawikain (2005).He also initiated the first student literary conference called Panitikabataan. Every Tuesday he host the Conspiwriters’ Tuesdays for three years at the Conspiracy Garden Café and O.M.G.: Open Mic Gig every last Monday at Mag:net Gallery (Katipunan). The portal to Philippine literature panitikan.com.ph was his brainchild too like Pistang Panitik or Literary Fiesta which coincides with the annual Manila International Book Fair since 2006. Elected Chairman of the Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas (UMPIL) during its Congress on 25 August 2007, Vim is also the incumbent president of Kapisanan ng May K sa Pilipinas, an umbrella organization of cancer support groups.