27 August 2011

Editing James Soriano

The unedited version of this article, written by a Mr. James Soriano, originally appeared in Manila Bulletin.

"Language, lLearning, iIdentity, and pPrivilege"

English is the language of learning. I’ve known this since even before I could go to school. As a toddler, my My first study materials as a toddler were a set of flash cards that my mother used to teach me the English alphabet. (A set that must have been missing a dangling modifiers card.)

My mother made home conducive to learning English: all my storybooks and coloring books were in English, and so were the cartoons I watched and the music I listened to. She required me to speak English at home. She even hired tutors to help me learn to read and write in English.

In school, I learned to think in English. We used English to learn about numbers, equations, and variables.  (Another James—Henry James—would have disapproved of the missing Oxford commas.) With it, (and again!) we learned about observation and inference, the moon and the stars, monsoons and photosynthesis. With it, we learned about shapes and colors, about meter and rhythm. I learned about God in English, and I prayed to Him in English.

Filipino, on the other hand, was always the ‘other’ subject—almost a special subject like PE or Home Economics, except that it was graded the same way as Science, Math, Religion, and English. My classmates and I used to complain about Filipino all the time. Filipino was a chore, like washing the dishes; it was not the language of learning. It was the language we used to speak to the people who washed our dishes.

We used to think that learning Filipino was important because it was practical: Filipino was the language of the world outside the classroom. It was the language of the streets: it was how you spoke to the tindera tindera (vendor) when you went to the tindahan tindahan (store), what you used to tell told your katulong katulong (maid) that whenever you had an utos utos (command), and how you texted manong manong (a hierarchal marker) when you needed “sundo na sundo na (to be picked up).”

These skills were are required to survive in the outside world, because we are forced to relate with the tinderas tinderas and the manongs manongs and the katulongs katulongs of this world. If we wanted to communicate to with these people—or otherwise avoid being mugged on in the jeepney—we needed to learn Filipino.

That being said, though Having said that, I was proud of my proficiency with in the language. Filipino was the language I used to speak with my cousins and uncles and grandparents in the province, so I never had much trouble reciting.

It was the reading and writing that was tedious and difficult. What proved to be difficult was the reading and writing. I spoke Filipino, but only when I was in a different world like the streets or the province; it did not come naturally to me. English was more natural; I read, wrote, and thought in English. And so (do not use "and so" unless you're Jonathan Franzen or David Foster Wallace), in much of the same way that I later learned German later on, I learned Filipino in terms of English with an essentially English understanding. In this This way, I survived Filipino in high school, albeit with too many sentences that had the preposition ‘ay.’ ('Ay' is not a preposition; it's a linking verb.)

It was really only in at university that I began to grasp Filipino in terms of as a language and not just dialect (do you mean) a "lingua franca." Filipino was not merely a peculiar variety of language, derived and continuously borrowing from the English and Spanish alphabets; it was its own system, with its own grammar, semantics, sounds, even symbols.

But more More significantly, it was had (or "inspired") its own way of reading, writing, and thinking. There are ideas and concepts unique to Filipino that can never be translated into another. another language: try Try translating bayanihan bayanihan, tagay tagay, kilig kilig, or diskarte diskarte.

Only recently have I begun to grasp Filipino as the language of identity: the language of emotion, experience, and even of learning. And with With this comes the realization that I do, in fact, smell worse than a malansang isda malansang isda. My own language is foreign to me: I speak, think, read and write primarily in English. To borrow the terminology of Fr. Bulatao, I am a "split-level Filipino."

But perhaps this is not so bad in a society of rotten beef and stinking fish. For while While Filipino may be the language of identity, it is still/also (just helping you out here) the language of the streets. It might may have the capacity to be the language of learning, but it is not the language of the learned. (It was the language of Jose Rizal, though—one of the twenty-two that he allegedly used.)

It is neither the language of the classroom and the laboratory nor the language of the boardroom, the court room courtroom (a compound wordthank you, Cory, for the reminder!), or the operating room. It is not the language of privilege. I may be disconnected from my being Filipino, but with a tongue of privilege I will always have my connections.

So I have my education to thank for making English my mother language.

Editor's note: I hope that your education taught you the meaning of the word "asshole", because you'll have to forgive me for being one to you. Now go ask your mother for a new set of flash cards.

18 August 2011

Littérature Engagée

Dear Mr. J.M. Coetzee,

I just finished reading Diary of a Bad Year. It's the first novel of yours that I've read; it certainly won't be the last. (Promise.) Also, while it hasn't, according to the Internet, generated as many good reviews as, say, Disgrace, I'll likely think of my first Coetzee as more meaningful than whatever will come next. And not just because you had rather accurately written up a Filipina character; but also because Diary exampled the kind of novel that I think the world sorely needs today. Never mind the reviews; never mind the critics.

"And one is thankful to Russia too, Mother Russia, for setting before us with such indisputable certainty the standards toward which any serious novelist must toil, even if without the faintest chance of getting there: the standard of the master Tolstoy on the one hand and of the master Dostoevsky on the other. By their example one becomes a better artist; and by better I do not mean more skilful but ethically better. They annihilate one's impurer pretensions; they clean one's eyesight; they fortify one's arm."

Of course, it isn't only at this latter passage that I'd nodded my head. (And that's all I can do! Part of my agreeing with the opinions in your book is recognizing my inability to come up with similarly intelligent ones.) An earlier one ("On universities") just went straight to the point. "The real university," it read, "may have to move into people's homes and grant degrees for which the sole backing will be the names of the scholars who sign the certificates."

This cannot be emphasized enough. I myself come from a university here in Manila that, from the looks of it, is being turned, slowly but surely, into a business enterprise: buildings being named after entrepreneurs; programs and premises being vested by moguls; professors struggling to fulfill quotas. It's the sort of system in which money so often changes hands; the sort of system, therefore, wherein gaps in learning can occur. Well, yes, but who am I to underscore the problem? No one; I am one of the damaged goods, in fact. But this doesn't make the task of restoring our learning institutions to its purest form any less urgent indeed. Otherwise, the whole freaking undergraduate bulletin will soon turn into a press release, or a sort of marketing kit. And more students will be mined ("mine!") instead of instructed.

Anyway, enough of that rant. I do hope you appreciate the fact that your books are actually widely available here, in terms of shelf presence in bookstores. (I know I do! And while I understand your fundamental aversion to the ceremonies, the prizes do help.) I'm probably going to read The Master of Petersburg next, since I see copies of it everywhere I look. This is not to mention my terrible interest in seeing how you had reimagined the life of a Russian novelist who also happens to be one of my all-time favorite writers. 

13 August 2011


What a name: “Pius”. I didn't know him well; I just knew that he served at San Isidro Labrador Chapel. His name may explain why my most vivid recollection of this neighbor is of his performance at my grandmother’s wake, at Saint Peter’s in Quezon City, three or four years ago. As if to render unthinkable the kind of rumors that circulated about any middle-aged bachelor who attached himself to church in these fallen times, Pius played his guitar with an innocence that approached the holy. He’d brought along the usual retinue of teenagers—Len Len, Jenny, Men Men, Rey Boy, among others—who otherwise would have had nothing else to do but whistle the time away on street benches or place their fathers’ bets for the San Lazaro horse race (with its racetrack that evoked the socio fundadores, in sepia).

Led by Pius, and flanking the open casket of my father’s mother, they sang a chorus of church songs. During Mass, Pius sort of doubled as a lay minister, spreading cloth over a makeshift altar and assembling the chalice and ciborium at a makeshift tabernacle. After Mass he put his guitar in a corner and stayed with us, cleaning up cookie crumbs left by family friends whom he had also encouraged to mark their condolences in the guest book.


Well, he died, too. He was forty-seven. Diabetes. He spent his last days walking around the neighborhood with his neck covered by a makeshift scarf; he had this wound on the back of his head, from the nape downwards, this wound that wouldn’t heal and he wouldn’t show and which people who had nevertheless seen it described as being the size of a plate. “That’s impossible,” I thought, when mother announced at the dinner table that Pius had died. She wasn't kidding me. “Maybe the size of a saucer,” I went on thinking, “but not a dinner plate, I shouldn’t think. That’s horrible.”

02 August 2011


"No one reads Trollope now," Mrs. Ballinger interrupted impatiently.
Mrs. Roby looked pained. "I'm only just beginning," she confessed.
"And does he interest you?" Mrs. Plinth inquired.
"He amuses me."
No one reads Trollope now. I mean, if there's something I can say to Edith Wharton about the state of "now", it's that there is so no one who reads Trollope now, compared to then, when she'd written this masterful short story called Xingu. But what is Xingu anyway? That's part of the joke that she tells.
"Amusement," said Mrs. Plinth sententiously, "is hardly what I look for in my choice of books."
"Oh, certainly, 'The Wings of Death' is not amusing," ventured Mrs. Leveret, whose manner of putting forth an opinion was like that of an obliging salesman with a variety of other styles to submit if his first selection does not suit.
"Was it meant to be?" enquired Mrs. Plinth, who was fond of asking questions that she permitted no one but herself to answer. "Assuredly not."
And the joke that she tells is a joke that still works today. I smiled, I gathered my eyebrows, I laughed, I blushed—all at the same time—at the thought of a Lunch Club, and at the thought of the not-so-remote possibility that, if I were a woman, if I were living in the first two decades of the twentieth century, I'd be part of something so pretentious and terrible.
"Assuredly not—that is what I was going to say," assented Mrs. Leveret, hastily rolling up her opinion and reaching for another. "It was meant toto elevate."
Miss Van Vluyck adjusted her spectacles as though they were the black cap of condemnation. "I hardly see," she interposed, "how a book steeped in the bitterest pessimism can be said to elevate, however much it may instruct."
As it turns out, of course, I find myself situated between the first two decades of the twenty-first century—which, really, would be the perfect time to raise my eyebrows and turn my nose up at things like Twitter, Facebook, postmodern literature, bromance and chick flicks, that sort of stuff, that sort of gimmick. But I do enjoy that sort of gimmick.

True, after a healthy dose of Wharton's shorts, I am now reading J.M. Coetzee's Diary of a Bad Year (pretty heavy stuff, both for dilettantes and intellectuals), but I have also already ouched at several people's assumptions that I take myself "way too seriously".
"I meant, of course, to instruct," said Mrs. Leveret, flurried by the unexpected distinction between two terms which she had supposed to be synonymous. Mrs. Leveret's enjoyment of the Lunch Club was frequently marred by such surprises; and not knowing her own value to the other ladies as a mirror for their mental complacency she was sometimes troubled by a doubt of her worthiness to join in their debates. It was only the fact of having a dull sister who thought her clever that saved her from a sense of hopeless inferiority.
So I've taken pains—or, come to think of it, taken none at all—to do Ms. Roby things like wear 3D glasses to see Avatar, stay up at night to catch TMZ, listen to Bruno Mars instead of Rufus Wainwright, and choose Evelyn Waugh over Anthony Trollope because the latter, in my opinion, is, you guessed it, more amusing.

Why have you got to be so harsh? I'm enjoying myself.