may be as opportune a time as any to discuss Filipino writing in English.
In the space of less than three years, a handful of superb Filipino authors who write almost exclusively in English has passed on. They write in what I would, for lack of a better term, describe as a literary version of English, using words outside of a layman’s vocabulary.
And by layman, I mean my Tita Nina.
My Tita Nina is my eldest aunt, an Ilocana housewife born in Tuguegarao but has lived in Balic-Balic, Sampaloc her whole life. She is married to a retired upholsterer from Paco, my Tito Ben, with whom she has raised five beautiful daughters.
She speaks and reads the following languages: Tagalog, Ilocano, Ibannag, Itawis and English.
How amazing is that, right?
But back to writing in English.
My Tita always shakes her head whenever she reads what I write. “Ang talino mo, Pi!” she would exclaim. “Ang lalim mo magsulat!”
When I was younger, I loved hearing these words. They conveyed admiration for an expertise that, in those days, I desperately wanted validation for. I wanted everyone to admire me for writing well in English. I loved winning essay-writing contests and receiving those medals. I loved it when my classmates immediately assumed that my writing skill would naturally translate to debating and made me part of a debate team. Unfortunately, verbal eloquence under duress is another skill set altogether, one that I’m still striving to develop.
Now at 43 years old, I question myself whenever I hear those words from my well-meaning Tita, or any person for that matter. They seem to convey a sense of wonder over, say, the mechanism of an artifical arm attached to my back, or, Kawhi Leonard taking the Toronto Raptors all the way to the NBA finals.
Like – it’s unnatural. It’s unexpected.
Like – why do you even do it?
Why did I ever want to write in English when I didn’t even live in England or America? And why did I want to keep doing it at ever-increasing levels of expertise?
Hell, I didn’t even want to write a book. I don’t even know who runs the New York Times bestsellers.
The only New York I know is in Cubao! (And that my photographer friend Erik Liongoren and his family have a house there).
What the hell was wrong with me?
Honestly, I didn’t know.
But I just loved copying how others wrote or spoke in English, and then I’d make my own go-at-it.
When I was in Grade 3, I watched TV a lot. Millions of other Filipinos did. Channel 7 and 9 carried a lot of these American shows that I loved. One of them was a mini-series called Lace, which starred Phoebe Cates as a young woman desperately looking for her real mother. There were five women in her life who were potentially the one, and she had to play detective to find out.
I remembered their dialogue and wrote it out on one of those popular multi-colored lined paper pads. I would later learn the term for it: transcription.
And that, my friends, was how I actually learned to write in English.
I continued to transcribe the world around me in written form. There were no computers back then, so I wrote them out by hand. This is why my penmanship got better and I even ended up taking home some school awards for it.
(Back in the day, our teachers in St. James School of Quezon City checked your notebooks and gave out Best in Penmanship awards every year. On June 1, 2019, St. James School rounded up 2,600 alumni in its Tandang Sora Campus to celebrate its existence one last time. Thanks for the memories, Mr. Bernardo, Ms. Limcauco, Mr. Torres! Thanks for handing out my essay-writing awards and paying for my lunch when I competed to represent Quezon City at the Division Level. That was one memorable afternoon of officially skipping class! I shall honor these memories in an essay very soon!)
Now back to writing in English.
Writing in English eventually got me employed in several jobs. Promo specialist for ABS-CBN. Copywriter for Channel V Philippines. Staff writer and associate editor for PULP Music Magazine. And so many other writing gigs in between, including many literary gigs, most of which were so low-paying to be almost free.
Now I come to the whole point of this rant.
All the written works that I consider my best in terms of my handling of the English language were devalued in the Philippines, either by design or by circumstance. Or perhaps, both.
My essays and short stories were published in small-market publications, read mainly by academia and those who love the English language like me.
The highlight of my career was getting published in PDI’s Youngblood column. I was thrilled, not only because it was considered a bastion of excellent English writing for and by young Filipino writers, but also because its wide readership introduced me to hundreds of thousands of Filipino eyeballs.
That was how my lovely Tita Nina read my essay.
And she was the person – and the market – I’d always wanted to reach.
Along with Filipino academia and those who love the English language like me.
My wish has always been to reach as many Filipinos as possible with my skill as a writer in English. In the future, I believe this facility for English will become genetic in the Filipino race. The waters of digital media, where today’s youth flock and hang out, consist mainly of English, albeit reconfigured in the newer programming languages of C, Python, Java, to name a few. Members of this generation will be formidable in their creativity with its use and application.
But despite millions of Filipinos reading and writing in English, having been immersed since the 1940s in the American-style educational system, a real language barrier still exists, as conveyed by my Tita Nina’s well-meaning words of admiration.
I don’t want my writing to be admired.
I want my writing to be understood.
Understanding doesn’t come from admiration, but from transcribing and really making a go at it.
I’m finding out that admiration can be a wall too, no matter how soft and scented it is. It can be an excuse to draw a fine line between you and me.
In one of his essays, Clinton Palanca uses the word “odious” several times.
So I looked it up in the dictionary. And learned something new. I didn’t say to myself: “Ang talino niya. Ang lalim niya magsulat. Mayaman kasi.” To me, this is an odious way of detaching yourself from a fellow human being.
Instead, I tell myself: I speak and read Tagalog and English (pakshet ang talino ko!) How amazing is it that I can understand my fellow Filipino and translate for him if he/she doesn’t feel confident about his/her English (grabe, ang talino ko talaga, ahluvet!)
How amazing is it that I can communicate clearly in more than one language.
For all you know, Filipino writers writing exclusively in one language may be nursing a bit of regret for not having partied a bit harder when they were single and traveled the Word some more. Well, you know what I’m getting at, right? (I lurve wordplay!)
In the end, the barrier can disappear in the tinola of acceptance if simmered long enough.
It’s futile to resist a new English word. Members of my generation have all been swimming in a sea of English language/s even before we were born. We have a primal awareness of it – our mothers’ amniotic fluid inside the womb carried all its resonances and nuances from the world outside.
So why not embrace it and let it float back into the surface of your awareness? Who knows, you may have use for it someday.
Perhaps not in the Philippines but somewhere else, where you will survive and (hopefully) flourish.
One of my goals in life is mobility in every way. I want to experience the world. We are not Nemo living in an aquarium – there are 190+ countries in the world and I have only experienced one!
My English writing skill proved to be indispensable in my bid to become a bird. You can say that I wrote my way out of the country – and winged it!
Now, as I interact daily with people from diverse cultures – Iranians, Koreans, Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, Canadians, to name a few – I’ve since realized that one can attain physical comfort and stability here but live out their whole lives inside a silos of their own making. It’s safer and warmer inside the familiar bubble of family and ethnicity, after all. It’s a choice that many residents here make, but I have decided to choose something else entirely.
The alternative is not as safe and warm, and freedom-loving birds like me do get shot down regularly. But words have set me free and so I must accord them the respect they deserve by using them incessantly towards a great vision of the future, in which the words “language barrier” will no longer exist except in one and one document only: