“When we write, we are truly alone,” said Philippine Center of International PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists and Novelists) founder F. Sionil José during PEN’s annual literature conference held early last week at De La Salle University Manila.
The National Artist for Literature cited the need for writers to “break out of that lonely shell and get to know other writers and form a community.”
Theme for the conference was “Literature of Concord and Solidarity: The Writer as Peacemaker.” “Peace,” “war” and “Mindanao” were the most mentioned words during the conference.
“War can brutalize people who may otherwise be humane and peaceful,” said former UP president Dr. Jose V. Abueva during his José Rizal lecture. Abueva’s parents were tortured and killed by the Japanese at the end of the World War II and, ironically, he worked with the United Nations University and lived in Japan years later.
Quoting former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, Cagayanon poet and fictionist Raul G. Moldez said, “In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, but all are losers.”
“Fr. Miguel Bernad called Mindanao ‘a great island,’” said Christine Godinez-Ortega of the Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT).
“Mindanao means there are many bodies of water, or there is life,” said Higaonon poet and novelist Telesforo Sungkit Jr.
Philippine society is multicultural, according to conference keynote speaker Jaime An Lim, who cited 35 tribes or subtribes among the Lumad, 13 ethno-linguistic groups among Moros, as well as Christian-settler groups in Mindanao, among them, Ilocano and Tagalog from the north, and Ilonggo, Boholano and Cebuano from the Visayas.
“According to the 2000 census,” said Lim, who taught for many years at MSU in Iligan, “the Christian settlers now constitute about 72 percent of the entire population of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago, the Moros about 18.9 percent and the Lumad about 8.5 percent… The marginalization of the Lumads and Moros and their displacement from their own ancestral domain are at the heart of the conflicts in Mindanao today. This is the historical context of the Mindanao issue.”
There is much money to be made in Mindanao. Seventy percent of the population is Christian since the descendants of settlers have intermarried with the original inhabitants of the land, noted Sungkit.
Encroachment comes via homesteads, “national integration,” divide-and-conquer tactics, the use of religion—and in previous centuries—even the poisoning of wells.
Sungkit pointed out conflicting ideas on what progress is: Is it “many people and buildings, rich people with gadgets, denuded forests and people sleeping without beds and blankets? Of (tribal) leaders killed because of encroachment … legal logging activities protected by the Philippine government?” This against their concept of progress where “everyone gets to eat, the hunter shares his game, widows and orphans are fed, and everyone in the community benefits.” He also mentioned recent evidence pointing to a superior/advanced pre-Hispanic culture in Mindanao.
“My outlook,” An Lim said, “as an ordinary citizen changed just as my writing developed a degree of political consciousness. I realized that ‘art for art’s sake’ as an artistic creed or philosophical principle is profoundly problematic. Today, we live in a world of increasingly urgent economic, political, environmental and ethical issues— concerns that demand our active engagement because they affect the quality of our lives and determine our very own survival.”
“To persist in an ivory-tower attitude, as though we were insulated from the realities of our country and the world, is foolhardy and self-indulgent… Writers have the responsibility to take a stand and speak out in the face of tyranny and oppression,” said Lim.
“As writers, how do we contribute to the quest for peace in Mindanao or elsewhere in the world? Simply by speaking for peace, truth, justice and freedom whenever and wherever they are threatened,” Lim said. “By speaking for the voiceless and standing for the defenseless: the aged, the young and the women who are the most vulnerable segments of the population in any war. By documenting the plight of war victims so that it is etched deeply in the national consciousness, and the government is moved to action. By writing honestly and well so that the people will never forget what has been sacrificed and lost in the floods and crossfires of war.”
Moldez agreed. “As writers, it is our primordial calling to put into words the things people experience in wars and conflicts because these things help shape our artistic and literary production. Wars and conflicts provide our imagination with rich anecdotal details. Their impacts also help writers articulate and assimilate the horrors of wars and conflicts in their literary creations.”
“We can definitely contribute to peacemaking by writing,” said 20-year-old poet Nassefh Macla. “I am Moro. I have to stand for the Bangsamoro and its right to self-determination. I may not have to do the jihad, but I feel I have the duty to tell the world the Bangsamoro actually exists—not through long guns and grenades—but through paper and pen.”
“That is the responsibility of the writer: to harness the power of the word to stand for what is true and just and fair and compassionate, and in the process make of this world a peaceable kingdom,” said Lim.
When asked by a Philippine Embassy official abroad why he doesn’t feature whatever is nice and beautiful in Mindanao and, instead, tackles topics such as abuse, rape and killings, filmmaker-writer Arnel Mardoquio said he replied, “Hindi po ako taga-Department of Tourism.”