Sunday, September 23, 2007

On Being Nationalist

Hi, everybody. My name is Sean, and I'm a Filipino writer.


That sounds kind of wrong, doesn't it?

I mean, I obviously don't fit most standard stereotypes of a "Filipino writer". For starters, I don't write in Tagalog, much less in any of the other dialects scattered across seven thousand islands. Moreover, I don't carry a Filipino ethnicity -- I am a pureblood Chinese, descended from an intellectual refugee of China's cultural revolution. I don't even have much of a Filipino upbringing to speak of -- I was born and raised in an upper middle-class family in the big city, and I attended a private sectarian Chinese school for half my life. I don't even like Filipino cuisine all that much.

Now, despite this kind of background, you might expect that I attempt to bring a Filipino "theme" into my short stories. In truth, however, I don't usually do that: My stuff is heavily plot-driven, wild-idea conceptual, and not specifically Filipino-oriented at all. I wait for something interesting to come to mind, and then write about it. If it has something to do with the Filipino context, then so much the better; If not, then it simply doesn't.

In short, if you want to be all technical about it, then my only claim towards being a "Filipino writer" is by virtue of my citizenship. I mean, nothing else that I do, say or write seems to be exclusively Filipino anyway.

But I don't particularly advertise myself as a "Filipino writer", much less a so-called "writer of Philippine Speculative Fiction". That first line of this post is the only time I've ever said something to that effect. I have a hard enough time being a plain old "writer" without any constraints of nationalism or patriotism bearing down on me.

I mean, you can't expect me to write in Tagalog (or any other local dialect) without grammatically shooting myself in the foot. My Tagalog is terrible, even compared to the hordes of casual speakers out there. In addition to this, I've found the language to be inadequate when dealing with technical or fantastic terms... and I deal with a lot of both. I simply express myself better in English, regardless of what anyone might say about the language requirement for Philippine speculative fiction.

You can't expect me to write from an effective Filipino background either, because I have little or no exposure to one. I live among a traditional Chinese community of closed associations and significant income. I get much more things like Buddhist rituals, dragon dances, and mooncake dice games, and much less things like Santacruzan gatherings, Holy Week pabasas, and walks along Luneta Park. And even then, my nontraditionalist streak means that I don't deal with the former very well.

I suppose that anyone who attempts to put together a clear identity for "Philippine" speculative fiction has the genre's best interests at heart. I do think that; really, I do. But what makes me scratch my head and start whacking away at my keyboard is the notion that "pure" Philippine speculative fiction is something that we want.

Under what circumstances would we want to exclusively read "Philippine" fiction, anyway? Do we have some strange nationalistic hunger that we should constantly feed, or something? I mean, it's not as though we've been able to pinpoint a specific quality or characteristic of Philippine fiction that makes it unique from international literature.

In fact, I think that it's the other way around -- we're in the process of producing a Filipino literary identity to begin with. To me, that implies that we haven't pinpointed a unified nationalist aspect yet. And to me, what that means is that we don't have a clear purpose in demanding tangible standards behind "Philippine" fiction, much less "Philippine" speculative fiction. At least, not yet.

I don't want to read good Philippine fiction... I just want to read good fiction. The last time I checked, that form of art was supposed to be free of international boundaries.

Under the same logic, I just want to write good fiction. Whether the results turn out to be good Philippine fiction or otherwise is completely up in the air. I don't care about nationalist standards or background or identity or other stuff like that. I just write.

To you, I might just be an immature conceptualist who has a lot of growing up to do. For all I know, there's a complete world of distinctions out there that I should be schooled on. Say what you will, I suppose. I'm willing to consider any number of viewpoints on the subject as long as they have perfectly valid arguments.

But I will say this right now, and I doubt that this statement's going to change much in the future: My name is Sean, and I'm a writer.

I'm not necessarily a Filipino writer, or even a Filipino speculative fiction writer, or even a nontraditionalist Chinese-Filipino speculative fiction writer/conceptualist/twinkle-toed ballroom dancer, mind you. I'm just a writer. I'm just a *plain*, *old*, *writer*, darn it. Life's complicated enough without being forced to drill that down any further.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's about time that I got back to work.


Ida said...

Wait... Maybe it's just me, but I didn't get the point of your entry. Did you mean that you don't want to be labeled as a "Filipino writer"? Or that there's no such thing as "Philippine Speculative Fiction" so the genre should just be called "Speculative Fiction"? Or that, naming genres and labeling writers, should be free of nationalistic biases, or stuff like that? And, are you really a twinkle-toed ballroom dancer? /:)

Thanks for the birthday greeting, by the way. :)

banzai cat said...

hehe ironically, we as writers write but what we do afterwards gets examined by critics with a microscope. so this is just talk on what we do... but we do what we have to do and damn the consequences later.

likewise, your situation is interesting in that it avoids all the much-talked about descriptions of what RPSF (to give it a shorthand) should be. however, i do think you give your environment short-shrift. granted this talk could denegerate into nature vs nuture but even though your upbringing is strictly chinese, you can't escape the Philippine background of that upbringing (like static noise). the fact that you mention the Santacruzan gatherings and pabasas means you know more about the Filipino experience as compared to Chinese in China (or other countries). i suppose you could say you're a stranger in a strange land. *wink*

Sean said...

Ida: To be honest, I don't know. I'm not even sure if there's a point in there somewhere.

What I do know, however, is that my situation right now is so confusing that I've abandoned all pretense at labeling it. As far as I know, I just write. Why some people persist in trying to pinpoint a national identity for writers or genres, I don't know.

And no, I'm not a twinkle-toed ballroom dancer. I don't even know what that is, apart from the fact that it sounds tiring. :)

Banzai Cat: It's a passing knowledge, unfortunately, which means that it has about as much exposure as the pork in a can of pork and beans. As it stands, I feel that I can't work most of my "Filipino" experience into a story right now -- I think it's that superficial.

Alexander said...

Hiya Sean!

I understand the desire to write "whatever-the-heck-I-want", however I do also have this sorta guilt when writing (possibly because I spent almost a decade of my life in the U.S.) that pushes me to want to write about something / someone Filipino in it.

So, am I recognizing that there's a responsibility there SOMEWHERE? Yeah, I guess that at one level I want Filipino fiction to be recognized FIRST as good, but then I also want to be able to communicate aspects of my experience / knowledge / opinions on what apsects of Filipino life and character are.

Still, I think I restrict these to "texture" or "subtexts" when I write, rather than elevating the filipino-ness to "theme" level.

banzai cat said...

hehe sean the only thing I can say is that: you're being too harsh on yourself. :-)

put it this way: I feel the same way about feeling superficial. But then, I discovered my imagination was far richer than my real life and hence, that's why I'm writing these stories. Except that I thought that writing Filipino stories would be a lot cooler. :-)

In the end, I think, it's all a matter of choice of what you want to write.

Sean said...

Alexander, Banzai Cat: I suppose that there's some sort of innate responsibility there, something that pushes us to write for the sake of nationality. But I don't think that it's the first and foremost thing that drives us to write. It's neither the base urge nor the primary motivator. I'm inclined to think that it is little more than -- as Alex mentions -- an insistent twinge of guilt. As far as nationalism goes, I don't see why we should owe it anything at all.

For the record, though, I do see it as a challenge. Despite what sparse background I have, I do dream of being able to write a uniquely Filipino story. I'm just saying that there's a fine line between being nationalistic enough to consider your stuff to be "Filipino fiction", and just plain writing.

Dominique said...

My own take on the subject.