Philippine Literature Today: A View from Afar by H.O. Santos

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ET me begin by telling you about my background and what I did to learn about Philippine literature. This will give you an idea of how my impressions may have come about.

I started writing fiction about four years ago. Prior to that, I had read very few short stories, and only a handful of them were Philippine stories. I read novels because they were easier to obtain. In any library or bookstore you will find only one book of short stories for every hundred or so novels. And because I have lived the major part of my life outside the Philippines, I wasn’t familiar with Philippine writing—they’re not easy to find where I live. It didn’t help that my school curriculum didn’t include Philippine literature—we only studied American and English literature.

However, I have since made up for that by having read a couple of hundred Philippine short stories in the last two years. That was in addition to the 120 contemporary non-Philippine short stories I’ve been reading on the average every year since 1998. Writer friends advised me I needed to read at least two a week if I wanted to write short stories. They said reading novels provides little help to anyone who wants to write short stories.

At the same time I started reading Philippine short stories, I combed the Internet for news and information about what was going on in the Philippine literary world. I read Philippine magazines and tear sheets mailed to me by friends. I exchanged emails with writers to get their views and at least a second-hand look at politics in the Philippine literary establishment.

You can see that my views are those of an outsider and the only thing that can color them may be my prior exposure to non-Philippine short stories before I started reading Philippine stories.

HOW does the Philippine literary establishment look from afar? It appears to be a small, tight-knit community—too small for a nation of 70 million people. In this community, comments critical of another’s work seem to be taboo. Only pleasant words are allowed to come out in print.

When I found references to Filipino American writers (Fil-Am or Filipino-American in Philippine usage), they generally pointed to Filipino writers who have moved to the United States and who have learned their craft in the Philippines.

I found no mention of writers who learned to write in the U.S.—writers who have not had an opportunity to be imbued with the writing styles of prominent Filipino writers whether through college courses or apprenticeship. One example is Lysley Tenorio, one Filipino American who has made it beyond the average college literary journal to Atlantic Monthly. (In the grand scheme of things, college journals don’t amount to much. Except for a handful of prestigious journals like Ploughshares, they have circulations of less than a thousand, usually among other colleges only. Their importance is overblown.)

Tenorio is unknown in the Philippines. I am tempted to say, Just as well, because the average Filipino editor or contest judge will probably dismiss his works readily—they do not fit the mold of the short story they have come to like. Nevertheless, it’s important that Filipinos learn how to appreciate writers like him because they use Filipino elements in their stories, albeit telling their stories in different ways. Their stories help enrich Philippine literature and broaden its scope.

From time to time, I also checked on who the panelists for workshops and who the contest judges were. Whether the workshops were in Baguio, Dumaguete, Davao, or elsewhere and whether it was the Palanca or the Free Press contest, the names seemed to come from a very small group of people whose statures are secure in the Philippine literary establishment. They rotate among themselves as members of panels and board of judges.

I understand how this can happen in a country that doesn’t have too many writers. But this situation raises a troubling concern as it promotes inbreeding,...
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