Interview / K Magazine

K Magazine: Interview: Merlie M. Alunan

by Michael Carlo C. Villas

Almost every writer in Eastern Visayas today, whether he or she writes in English, Waray or any of the mother languages, acknowledges the Visayas Writers Workshop (VisWrite) in their trans/formation as a poet, fictionist, essayist, or critic. The influence of its founder, the multi-awarded poet Merlie M. Alunan, on their writing lives has become writer’s lore in this side of the country.

Photo of Merlie Alunan by Anina Abola

Photo of Merlie Alunan by Anina Abola

A 1981 fellow at the National Writers Workshop and a graduate of the master’s program in English, major in Creative Writing, of the Silliman University in Dumaguete, Alunan brought to Tacloban City, Leyte the technical know-how of poetic craftsmanship taught to her by her formidable mentors, Edilberto K. Tiempo and Edith L. Tiempo. She spent more than two decades of her academic life at the University of the Philippines in the Visayas-Tacloban College (UPVTC). There, she founded VisWrite in the late 1980s, together with two literature professors and literary critics, Victorio N. Sugbo and David Genotiva. At first, the workshop aimed at teaching the aesthetic operations of language in poetry, fiction, and other genres. Eventually, the workshop sought to revive writing in the Waray language, decreed at that time as dead by no less than National Artist for Literature, Bienvenido Lumbera.

The pronouncement caused quite a furor. Alunan, in her introduction to Mga Siday ha DYVL (The Poetry of DYVL Radio), recalls this moment but was quick to point out that Mang Bien, as she usually addresses Lumbera, was not being irresponsible when he said that. She, in fact, agrees with his statement which was true at that time. There were no new writers coming out of the literature. There was a dearth of literary publications. There was the absence of a reading community. In short, there was no literary activity, and the only sign of literary life in the 1980s, she recounts, was the hortatory DYVL siday, aired daily, every morning, in the AM radio station’s Puplonganon program. Puplonganon is the Waray word for the gnomic oral literary form, proverb, which explains the form’s didacticism. The task of language revitalization through literary writing was the day’s tall order, and it found its place in VisWrite.

The workshop ran a span of more than a decade. As long as Alunan taught at UP Tacloban, there was VisWrite. She labored in the pedagogy of creative writing from the littlest classes in her college’s Communication Arts program to the Panagsugat, a workshop that gathered young writers in the Visayas where their works were discussed to the All-Visayas Centennial Creative Writing Workshop, a conference of seasoned writers from the various speech communities in the Visayan islands held during the UP Centennial celebrations. Renamed as the University of the Philippines in the Visayas Creative Writing Program (UPVCWC), she directed the workshop until her retirement in 2008.

Alunan reads from her collection 'Pagdakop sa Bulalakaw ug uban pang mga balak' at the Taboan Writers Festival on February 7-9, 2013 in Dumaguete (Photo by Ang Paglaum)

Alunan reads from her collection ‘Pagdakop sa Bulalakaw ug uban pang mga balak’ at the Taboan Writers Festival on February 7-9, 2013 in Dumaguete (Photo by Ang Paglaum)

Although she speaks of VisWrite in this interview as “only a memory,” the literary historian could not help but attribute the current upsurge of writing in Waray to her workshops. A hefty produce of literary works started coming out after years of silence. Victor N. Sugbo’s Inintokan (University of the Philippines Press) and Voltaire Q. Oyzon’s An Maupay ha mga Waray ug iba nga mga Siday (National Commission for Culture and the Arts) came out in 2008. Two years later, Phil Harold L. Mercurio’s Ayaw Pagpudla an Tuog, Neil D. Lopido’s Salog, and Janis Claire B. Salvacion’s Siso sakradang came off the press as part of the UBOD New Authors Series, a project of the NCCA and the Ateneo Institute of Literary Arts and Practices. Following these writers is a vibrant crop of both published and upcoming writers in Leyte, Samar, and Biliran, the three islands that comprise Eastern Visayas. More books are expected to emerge from Waray Literature in the years to come.

In the following interview, I engage Merlie M. Alunan in a conversation about writing in the Philippine languages, the troublesome binary of region and nation, her poetics, her life in the multilingual environment of the Visayas, and her take on a “Southern Consciousness,” the schema from which writers in the South conceptualize and articulate their experiences. Her view of what she calls the Philippines’ southern literary corridor alludes to the American South to which her literary heroes, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, belong. Her idea of a southern specificity has been stipulated as early as 1999 particularly in her critical introduction to Fern Garden: An Anthology of Women Writing in the South:

The south is a socio-political idea (sic). It implies a dominant north where resources, talent, expertise are concentrated, where power and authority emanate, where quality of performance is assessed and affirmed. For the southern writer, the concept of the north includes a colonizing national language which reduces the regional languages to secondary status. Away from the center, southern lifeways thrive on their own. These lifeways yield their own stories, and breed their own unique modes of thinking and seeing. Crude though this may seem, the north-south configuration nevertheless forms a dimension of the composite national identity. The rhythms of southern speech are as diverse as the languages spoken in the major Visayan islands and among the many tribes of Mindanao. The diversity of language also implies a diversity of attitude and habits of thinking.

With the recent publication of her Cebuano poetry collection, Pagdakop sa Bulalakaw ug uban pang mga balak (Catching the Firebird and other poems) by the Ateneo de Manila University Press, her place in the Cebuano balak tradition and by extension, the poetic corpus of the Visayan languages is confirmed.

“I have written a story in Cebuano, some poems, and a few essays. I hope to write more, of course,” she mused in her essay, Crossing Borders: Coming Home to a Language of One’s Own. She added, speaking from the viewpoint of a Filipino writer in English: “I am content enough to have regained the use of one Visayan tongue. I am at home in a language of my own.”

Kalatas: You are one of the voices in Philippine Literature who strongly promotes writing in the mother tongue. Your work in the Visayas was instrumental in building up young writers to write in their first languages. What motivated you to do this, considering that your training under the Tiempos at Silliman was steeped in the Anglo-American literary tradition?

Alunan: Ideas like this do not appear all once in one’s mind. I finished my academic units for an MA in English, major in Creative Writing at Silliman in 1970. I relocated to Tagbilaran City. I taught at the Divine Word College, now Holy Name University, for nearly ten years. I taught three more years at UP Cebu College. During all these years, I was not writing, not even contemplating becoming a writer. I was totally engrossed with raising a family. I would come up with a piece now and then, but that quickly got snowed under by household priorities.

When I began writing in the early 80s, I had no chance to contemplate on language and creative writing–I readily took up English as my medium, the way I had been taught, the way I knew literature. Every so often, I would experience bumps, difficulties for which I could not find solutions in English. For instance, the family owned this lovely riverside land deep in the Amandewing mountain range. We came into this property in the early sixties. In the 90s, progress had come to Leyte and there was a mad scramble for road-building materials, materials for seaports. They began quarrying rocks and sand from the river in our vicinity. Logging upriver, legal and illegal, was denuding the hills, and the floods were becoming more ferocious.

I wanted to write a poem about it. I wanted a native voice in the poem, a woman who would curse and rant in defense of the rock where she had done her laundry all her life, which was soon to be harvested to be part of a bridge perhaps. I am familiar with the colorful and eloquent curses of Waray women when they are angry or bantering with one another, to be experienced firsthand to be appreciated. It must have been then I realized that writing in English effectively cuts the writer off writing about life in the countryside. This realization moved into a stronger realization: as long as English is the dominant language in Literature, as long as we are not using the mother tongue in our creative expressions, we are not giving voice to our people. Language defines our reality. What is not “languaged” is not real enough to us. Anything you write in any language is Filipino, Gemino Abad said to me then. Today, he tells me, “If I lose my Cebuano, I will lose my boyhood.” These are distinct phases of my growth into realizing the language issues in our sociopolitical life and in the life of the imagination.

Kalatas: Your aesthetics was undoubtedly shaped by the teachings you received from your teachers at Silliman University. How did you reconcile their aesthetics with writing in the first language that already had its own literary tradition?

Alunan: So do our languages have their own literary traditions. I saw that already when I was doing translation work in the Ulahingan project of Elena Maquiso. The Ulahingan was a classic piece of literature. It had a formal structure and verse motif. I have also noted similar patterns in Cebuano and Waray verse. They indicate our implicit sense of literary aesthetics. All these, we might say, are strivings for elegance, for eloquence, for refinement, for conceptual depth and emotive power, no different from the strivings of Western Literature in whose altar we “worshipped,” in a manner of speaking. Can one transfer the drawing room courtesies of Jane Austen’s very English novel into a middle class Filipino family? Yet our languages surely have their own usages of refinement and courtesy. Aesthetics seems a basic pursuit of literature or art in any language or culture respectively. As long as we understand this, there is nothing to reconcile. Manners, techniques are surely different, but these are material. Beyond these are the fundamental human desire for balance, order, emphasis, refinement, power, beauty, meaningfulness, the human strivings for the good, the true, and the beautiful, as Imelda Marcos had so facetiously put it once. If you notice these days, Western artists, musicians, even writers, are scouring the globe looking for “new” things, materials outside of their own culture. The boundaries of culture are exploding in this new form of piracy. We could lose our own legacies this way before we even know they exist in our habit of indifference, ignorance, or sloth.

I must add, too, that elements of form are not written in stone. In Cebuano verse anyway, there were already poets who wrote under the influence of the new poetry of the West, of English, that is. Poets like Vicente Bandillo, Rene Amper, Ricardo Patalinghug, Temistocles Adlawan, Don Pagusara, Eon Auman, Ester Tapia, to name a few, have already written poetry using the university-learned techniques of writing.

Kalatas: What was your concept of the Visayas Writers Workshop (VisWrite), which was the workshop that produced today’s vibrant crop of writers in Waray? What did you have in mind when you started it? What was your philosophy when you established the Panagsugat and All-Visayas Centennial Creative Writing workshops?

Alunan: When talking about the Visayas Writing Workshop or the UP VisWrite, I must give credit to Dr. Emil Javier who gave me the money to set it up in 1998 or thereabouts. The first semester I received the first tranche of Php 300,000, I allowed myself a small honorarium of Php 4,000 a month. Subsequently, I stopped the honorarium and just used the money to hold workshops in the Visayas, anywhere I could find a partner to organize the writers in his locality. Thus, I held at least three workshops in Tagbilaran with former colleagues and students organizing the groups. I paid my fare from my Viswrite funds, the host paid for board and lodging, no honorarium required. In Eastern Visayas, I initiated the establishment of Lamiraw at the then Tiburcio Tancinco Memorial Institute of Science and Technology (TTMIST), now the Northwest Samar State University (NwSSU), in Calbayog City by encouraging Phil Harold Mercurio, a new teacher then and a UP graduate, to propose a workshop project to the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA). As long as the funds lasted, we supported Lamiraw as best as we could until Harold developed more confidence in running the show and the Workshop developed a track record to strike out for funding from other sources, and also, of course, to ask for more funding from the NCCA itself.

I’m sorry to say that I did not get the rest of the money from the University of the Philippines (UP) System, an offshoot, I can only surmise of UP System politics. I turned to UP Visayas for support. At that time, the UP Institute of Creative Writing was hoping to consolidate all the UP workshops going on around the external units under its wing. But it proved too much to do. But it did allow major writers to visit the campuses and throw their weight around a little bit, urging the chancellors to support the creative writing program. Dr. Ida Siason graciously supported the Viswrite Workshops, especially the Panagsugat I and II which were held in UP Tacloban and in UP Cebu respectively. She promised that once we had second-line faculty and a track record, the workshop may be institutionalized. We banked on that promise up to the time of Chancellor Glen Aguilar. But a new dispensation was coming in and I retired from UP Tacloban in 2008. VisWrite is now only a memory.

Kalatas: At the time of these workshops, you were already a name in Philippine Literature in English. In some of your essays, you spoke of the “dis-ease” that characterized your relationship with the English language. How did you deal with your issue on language?

Alunan: I still am most comfortable writing in English. It comes automatically to me. Ordinary Cebuano and Waray, that’s my level of usage. I am grateful that I have English. I only wish that I can use Cebuano and Waray as fluently. How do I deal with them? Respect, love these languages, and do your best.

Kalatas: How did you discover writing in the first language, in your case, Cebuano? What was writing your first poem or story in Cebuano like? How did you feel about it? How would you describe your relationship with the Cebuano language?

Alunan: I tried to write my first poem in Cebuano somewhere around ’88, ’89. Rene Amper and Tem Adlawan, both Cebuano poets, would show me their manuscripts and encourage me to try my pen in Cebuano. Rene Amper read my draft and called it yabag. Yabag in Cebuano is such a rich word. It basically means off-key. Cebuanos are musical and greatly deprecate a person who cannot sing. Hence, the term extends to other meanings such as a person who goes out of the norm, or a situation which gets out of hand. “Nayabag na si Inting,” Inting has gone crazy, or “Na, nayabag na nang imong gibuhat,” You’re doing it all wrong, or “Ay’g yabag-yabag diha. Masukmagan ‘nya tika,” Stop that foolishness or you’ll get it from me.” That quickly demolished my illusion of writing in Cebuano.

It took me 10 years to recover my confidence and try again. Kung Unsaon Pagdakop sa Bulalakaw came then, writing itself almost effortlessly. Pure imagination. The book itself is a 10-year effort, a total of 25 poems. The language has gusto, great tonality, musical, complex. I wish I knew it better. But I’ll do what I can with what I know. Ernie Lariosa and Lam Ceballos, both Cebuano writers, have pointed out the intrusion of Hiligaynon and Waray terms in my poetry. What can I do? I am simply Bisayang Dako.

Kalatas: Let’s talk about your creative process. Is your creative process in writing in English the same with that if you’re writing in Cebuano? Or is it different? How do you conceptualize your works in English? In Cebuano?

Alunan: There is no one way of conceptualizing a poem. Would it suffice to say that some poems arrive in your mind in English, and some poems do show up in Cebuano. Amper said in an interview with Isagani Cruz, when I write about Alaska or Vermont, I don’t write in Cebuano. I write in English. It’s hard to determine why the poems appear as they do or why certain experiences show up at all as a poem. To me, poems are less planned as “ambushed,” a glimmer captured, as it were, and held in the mind until it yields its meanings and intentions. It is the same for me in either languages, the processes, I mean.

Kalatas: Cebuano is not only the language you speak. In one of your essays, you said that Kinaray-a is your first language, the language that your mother used at home. Hiligaynon, too, was one of those first languages that entered your early repertoire of languages. How did this multilingual environment influence your current beliefs about language and writing in the first language?

Alunan: Every language has a quality all its own. The distinction is not only merely lexical. I spoke Kinaray-a up to the age of seven, maybe even nine. When I think of Kinaray-a, I think of walking behind my father at dawn break to a well surrounded by trees. It is very cold. I carry in my hand half a coconut shell with a bar of fragrant soap and a pumice to slough off the dead skin from my body. My father is carrying a pail and a bamboo pole which we will fill with water and bring home to fill the banga, the earthen jar for storing household water. But first we had to bathe. The well water is warm but the mountain air is icy. My father rubs my body with the pumice and the soap. Then he bathes himself. Then we walk back home again. The sun has risen higher and makes the dew on the grass sparkle. This is the life I remember: market on Sundays, stealing lumps from a huge basket piled with muscovado sugar; mushrooms in August in the cornfields. Every language bears its own psycho-social character. Kinaray-a has a certain lilt. That lilt is part of that character, part of how it had fused itself into my sensibility, even now, so many years ago from that time by the well side with my father.

Kalatas: What is your view of the categories “National Literature” and “Regional Literature”?

Alunan: In the long run, when we are done arguing over the national language, it will just be Philippine literature, respected and loved all over the country. What would it take to get us there? Create a strong body of literature in every mother tongue. And let the people sing it or read it and take pride in it. The way to go is to let the dividing line fade into obsolescence and all Filipinos take pride in their rich linguistic heritage which is their legacy.

Kalatas: What is your reaction to some sectors of the Filipino literary community saying that recalcitrance from writers from the regions asserting themselves by writing in their own language and not “Filipino” is divisive or “regionalistic”?

Alunan: The idea of Isang wika, isang diwa, has always been a fishbone in my craw, even back in the days when we had to study Wikang Pambansa. The spirit of nationalism cannot redeem the low level of literature we had to read in our classes, and certainly, the heroic exploits in war or in politics of its authors would not necessarily elevate them into literature. Having said those fighting words, I add fuel to the fire by saying that pushing for a single national language violates our natural plurality and is unspeakably reductive. That is even more divisive. Indonesia and Malaysia are often brought up as examples of countries which have engineered their language successfully. What we do not know are the losses they might have suffered for the death of their other languages. As for us, because some of our regional languages are still fairly alive, we can imagine what we may if we lose these languages.

Kalatas: In a conference in Mindanao last year, you spoke of a “Southern Consciousness.” What do you mean by the term? How did you arrive at this idea that writers from the South are writing from and within this framework?

Alunan: I just came from Taboan 5 (February 7-9, 2013) where once more resounded the old grumble about the Manila imperium and the headway that Visayas and Mindanao are making in claiming a consciousness and pride of their language and diverse cultural heritage. No less than Dr. Resil Mojares raised the twin-headed hydra of national and regional literature, affirming that this divide does exist. This situation is exacerbated by the region’s continued dependency on Manila to affirm its efforts. Whereas, Mojares asserts, we should learn to affirm from within because these are matters that affect us, that we know more about, that is done primarily for us. Cebuano writers live and write within the context of their language and their way of life. It is within their means to affirm their work among their own peers. It is in this sense that I began talking of a “southern consciousness,” awareness of our own uniqueness, pride in cultural legacies. This is important as long as the national and reductive “regional” consciousness is still a powerful notion that divides the nation in a center-margin configuration.

Kalatas: The direction of Philippine Literature today is towards the regions. The national literary landscape is shifting. In your own estimation, what kind of Philippine Literature can we project and expect, say, in the next 10 or 20 years?

Alunan: Ten, 15, even 20 years is too short a time to see some real developments. I look forward to more publications in the mother languages. And more readers reading works in the mother languages. Of course, that presupposes improvement in the quality of writing. I suspect that the shift to writing in the mother languages today is brought about by the correlative diminishment of our fluency in the use of the English language.

Still, our bigger problem today is to deepen, acquire more weight in our literary productions, in the languages, and even in English. Our young writers are still given to literary fads and follies. Our literature is young, barely 200 years old. Our writers these days are equally young, giving rise to even “younger” productions, lacking in depth and gravitas. I can’t tell where this present trend will lead to. But this is a good wave, and it would be a good thing to ride it and see how far it can go. The technology of writing is changing fast. This, too, will lead us where we had not expected to go. Meanwhile, the important thing is to write and to write well.

Michael Carlo C. Villas teaches writing, literature, and research at the Leyte Normal University. He has been published in the Humanities Diliman, Philippines Free Press, Corpus, Asia Literary Review, and Under the Storm: An Anthology of Contemporary Philippine Poetry. His research interests are Waray literature, Philippine Literature, translation studies, English language teaching, language policy and planning, and mother tongue education.

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