The literariness of history, historicizing literature, etc.

Consider this:

In the grades and through high school, I learned that Philippine literature developed through several stages or periods. First, there was the the oral literature of the inhabitants during the prehistorical period; that is, before these islands were “discovered” and christened the Philippines. The literature during this period included the proverbs, riddles, folktales, songs, and epics that were mostly recited (except for those of the Mangyans in Mindoro, who allegedly wrote down their “literature” on bamboo) and passed on from generation to generation. Then, the Spaniards came and thus began the evolution of the country and of its literature.

And for a long time, that is how I thought of literature in this country. Philippine literature developing from its “primitive” roots to “blossom” or “bear fruit” in the writings of our Filipino and, most especially, English authors.

I blame my literature professors in college for shattering this ideal. My aspiration to best all the writers who came before me went pffft! when my professors told our class that the Philippine literary history I had learned from grade school to high school was a big fat lie.

Their proof? The oral tradition I thought existed only during prehistoric Philippines is still very much present in contemporary times, and can be found not just among the indigenous people but also among “ordinary” folks congregating in sari-sari stores. The proverbs, riddles, folktales, songs, and epics I thought had been extracted from old folks (now dead, presumably) and preserved in books is, in fact, still recited and have been passed on to your generation. In other words, Philippine oral literature is alive.

Moreover, my college professors pointed out that our oral literature is not “primitive” and can be placed side by side with the best of contemporary writings. One of my professors compared the imagery and metaphor in Philippine proverbs with those of award-winning contemporary poems. Her conclusion? The use of imagery and metaphor in the former was as nuanced and complex as that of the latter.

So who propagated this wrong notion of our literature? Perhaps the same mold of historians who made us believe that the peopling of the Philippines happened in “waves” of migration; a story that reads so much like an ad for skin whitening lotion — from dark-skinned Aetas to fair-skinned mestizos.

And is this the reason why we always compare our literary output with that from the West — and always with the idea of either being on the same level or of surpassing the works of Western literary greats? (Is this why we refer to some writers as the John Steinbeck of the Philippines or the Emily Dickinson of Philippine poetry?)

But who can blame them? It’s no mean feat trying to retrieve all the raw data from the field — recording the oral literature of indigenous groups, scouring through the accumulated junk collected in the family baul, dusting off frayed copies of antique books and publications , interviewing writers whose recollections of the “glory days” can be just as glorified, etc. Who can blame them for romanticizing their quest for such facts in the (hi)story they finally put together?

After all, like creative writers, they have to weave together all the disparate facts into a coherent narrative. And so they look for a pattern, a “cause” for what they consider an “effect,” a sjuzet from the fabula of facts. Never mind if, because it doesn’t fit the plot, they set aside a fact that doesn’t seem to belong to the narrative.

Never mind, too, if in weaving together a historical narrative we forget to reflect on where we’re coming from or whose side we are on. Never mind, too, if the criteria we use for grouping facts together wasn’t so clear.

We can always say that history is written by the victors, as seen in the books we read about World War II or the Gulf War. Our history, then, does not only tell us what happened in the past but also our politics.

Explore posts in the same categories: 2. Historicizing Literature

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