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Notas de viaje

This blog was originally published in 2015 on UEA’s New Writing website.

In October 2015 I attended the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators conference in Manila and enjoyed three days of intense exchanges and privileged insights into literature and the writing life in the Philippines. Writers in the Philippines are writing in English and Filipino, as well as in the regional languages, but literary translation is an incipient art in the archipelago. Geographically the Philippines is a little out of the way; writers there feel isolated from the global literary scene, and so welcomed the international attention brought about by this conference.

Writers and struggle

The theme of conference was ‘Against the Grain – difference, dissonance and dissent’. We were hosted by the University of the Philippines in their Diliman campus, a long-standing centre of dissent. Nicknamed the Republic of Diliman, the campus prides itself on being free of influence of government, church and military, offering a zone of critical thinking.

The conference opened with a keynote address by writer Butch Dalisay, who told us that writers in the Philippines have always had plenty to write about and struggle against. One of their heroes is the 19th century writer José Rizal, who published two anti-clerical novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, which contributed to the rebellion against the Spanish colonisers and led to his execution in 1898. Today Rizal is a revered figure, with statues and museums celebrating his life.

national hero
national hero

Filipino writers continued to use literature to protest and raise social issues throughout the twentieth century, from feminism in the 1930s to the political ferment of the 1960s and 1970s. During the decade of martial law, independent newspapers were referred to as the mosquito press, known for biting at the dictatorship until its collapse in 1986.

Now there is freedom of speech but against a background of poverty and powerlessness. Butch told us that there are no taboos or sacred cows: writers can write about sexuality and gender, identity, the diaspora, love and war, beauty and politics. That evening in the Conspiracy garden cafe, a popular hangout for writers and artists hangout, the readings by Filipino writers highlighted this lack of taboos, with sexuality a common theme.

Through fiction, writers can express their ideas and stay alive, but journalism is dangerous. In the Philippines, journalists face libel cases, even assassinations, especially in the boondocks, still ruled by warlords, including the 2009 massacre of journalists and others in the southern island of Mindanao.

Filipinos are proud of their strong writing community and self expression is encouraged. Unlike other Asian countries, there are long-standing creative writing programmes and enrolments are rising; literary awards have been given for the past 65 years; there is a Manila book fair and two literary festivals; and new writers are given recognition.

However, there are few readers or book sales, in part due to poverty: the price of a paperback is higher than the average daily wage. There is also little real conversation across the languages and the classes, between the powerful and the disempowered; literary writing in English is often far removed from concerns of ordinary people.

daily life
daily life

The novel is historically under-developed in the Philippines and is a form readers do not find easily accessible. Rizal wrote two towering novels, with revolution in the background, a love story in the foreground and a cast of thousands. Contemporary Filipino writers are constantly trying to reproduce this, rather than aiming for writing that, while also dealing with big issues, is more intimate and allows readers to get to know each other across the different parts of the Philippines.

The reach of writing in Filipino is broader, but literature doesn’t sell well; people tend to prefer other forms of entertainment such as melodrama, films and television. Over lunch, I heard about a local bestseller by Jack Alvarez, a transgender sex worker based in Saudi Arabia who’s written his memoirs, self published in the Philippines in Filipino. My dining companions told me that Filipino-language non-fiction that tackles serious subjects but in a light and humorous style can outsell imported English-language bestsellers. The audience exists, but – as elsewhere – writers of literary fiction find it hard to reach the readership.

Notions of literary quality are imported from the west; according to Butch Dalisay, Filipino writers need to revisit and reconsider their ideas about literature and writing if they want to connect with the Filipino audience.

Manila cityscape
Manila cityscape

Voices from the regions

There are 173 distinct language in the Philippines and a palpable tension between them. There is also tension between writers writing in the regions of the Philippines and those writing from Manila. In one of the conference panels, we heard from writers and translators based in some of the southern islands of Philippines, including Mindanao.

Playwright Roger Garcia spoke about translating Shakespeare into Cebuano, one of the languages of the Philippines. His students learn English and speak Cebuano in daily life, but not this lofty Cebuano; the translations need contextualisation and humour to make the plays accessible and the language recognisable.

Poet Christine Godinez-Ortega spoke about the writers’ workshop in Mindanao, which has been running for the past twenty years. Recognising that the national literature is multilingual, they are open to papers in all languages of the Philippines. The writer should bear witness to people’s lives and generate ideas in the language most intimate to them, with the creative freedom to interrogate the past. Many regional writers are steeped in native traditions and ways of seeing, using metaphors in indigenous languages, and sharing their writing with the rest of the world through the internet. Their topics include communities, politics, corruption, conflict, and the military. In Mindanao, Christine said, you find a showcase of indigenous literature untouched by Spanish colonialism; she believes that writing about present realities recreates the past for the future.


Victor Sugbo is a poet from the city of Tacloban, where the native language is Waray-waray. However, he studied in English, graduating without any knowledge of regional literatures, and didn’t know who he was as a writer or a person. And he was not alone in this; when he put together an anthology of Waray writing, he provided an English translation for local readers, as a way of reorienting them to their own language and literature.

Through the anthology Victor found himself returning to the cultural community of his father and grandfather and finding out about the fabric of his own social history. Oral poetry and song from the 1600s showed him that people in Tacloban had sophisticated ways of predicting weather, an advanced system of boat building, and witty songs. In the 1800s, men were shy and courtship rituals were complicated, they expressed their feelings though love songs that revealed their sad plight. From periodicals dating from the late 1800s to the 1960s Victor learned that the Waray language has changed little, incorporating just a few loan words from English. In the 1920s he read that the film-watching public adopted American dress but didn’t always get it quite right; women took a shine to bathrobes, thinking them fashionable, and wore them to market. In the 1940s poets ridiculed people who were adopting American language, and in the 1950s they wrote disapprovingly about women wearing make up, speaking broken English and flirting with Americans. Even then they were worried about the dominance of English language writing.

Victor translated Waray texts into English in the 1990s, for local readers who prefer to read in English rather than for a global audience. In Manila, he said, the English-language writers seek acceptance from critics, but this isn’t necessary for local writers, who publish on the internet. In theory they could be read by readers the world over, but they’re not – this is illusory. According to Victor, unknown writers in other languages generally become known only if they’re translated into English by an English-language writer or translator, a new form of literary colonisation. You can read the full text of Victor’s talk in the Leap+ magazine.

Playwright and composer Steven Fernandez spoke about the concept of national literature, which should be the merging of all regional literatures, except that the centre dictates what is national literature. Classification also comes from the centre, but terms such as lyrical and narrative poetry don’t mean anything in regional languages and literatures, where engagement and performance is more important than form. Meaning depends on context, there are different definitions of the concepts of time and space in the regions, and humour doesn’t always travel.

Manila on the river
Manila on the river

Manila writers, particularly those who write in English, don’t make sense to people in the provinces, according to Steven. This is partly a language issue, as English sets the structure and frames the mind view. Meanwhile Filipino English has its own structure and meanings that are not always understood by US publishers.

Karlo David is a creative writing graduate from Davao, where there are three language groups: migrant settlers from the north of the Philippines; Muslim groups; and the indigenous residents of Mindanao. Karlo is a Tagalog-speaking migrant who lives in a linguistically diverse neighbourhood and often uses several languages. This linguistic turmoil is a challenge for writing. Writers who choose their mother tongue have to erase their other languages and as a result may have difficulty articulating their local identity.

Karlo chose not to purify his language but to write in the Tagalog he knows, mixed with words from other languages, such as Ilongu, Cebuano. In his writing he articulates local ways of cursing, flirting, and expressing cynicism. This doesn’t always go down well with university teachers, and it can be hard to get published, especially for pay. But Karlo fears that regional writers are becoming like writers from Manila, with enforced homogeneity; he believes that it’s important for writers to embrace regional diversity.

Women’s words

The conference closed with an absorbing keynote lecture by Christina Pantoja Hidalgo on ‘The Subversive Memory – Women Tell What Happened’. Few women in the Philippines have published literary memoir as candid self revelation makes Filipinos uncomfortable; much autobiographical work is written against the grain. In Manila, many personal documents were destroyed during the second world war; few were able to preserve their letters and diaries. Autobiography and memoir is not listed as a category in the Philippines, but is found embedded in other genres, such as poetry, essay, history, literary criticism.


The earliest Filipina memoir was by Gregoria de Jesús, born in 1875. Her ‘Notes on My Life’ was published in 1935. Much of her memoir focuses on her life as the wife and then widow of Andrés Bonifacio, a revolutionary fighting against Spain, rather than on her personal life and reflections.

Some memoirs were in the form of travel writing, including ‘Notas de Viaje’ by María Paz Mendoza-Guazón, who worked as a professional journalist in the early twentieth century. After a trip to the US, she felt that she had a duty to report on what she learned, in particular the level of ignorance of Americans about the Philippines. Another memoir was about of the Japanese occupation, the war seen through the eyes of a non-combatant, written first as a private diary. Other women recorded their lives through their cookbooks, collecting culinary notes, recipes, newspaper clippings, poems, all within the bounds of a traditionally female space.

Christina noted that Filipino men don’t like talking about their problems; they write about their profession and work, but not about their personal life. Most of the women memoirists that Christina discussed don’t talk about sex and intimate details such as marriage break up. Only one journalist and memoirist, Griselda Morales, writes about being abandoned by her lover.

For many of the women, writing memoir allowed them to find a core of stillness and stability within themselves, to reconstruct and rewrite their lives.

contemplating life and death
contemplating life and death

It took me three days to travel from Norwich to Manila but it was more than worth it, to spend three full days at the APWT conference learning about a distant literary scene and different ways of thinking, in such inspiring company.