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An anthology for Mindanao

Mindanao writers often get left out in the country’s literary shuffle.

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The anthology reflects Mindanao’s oft-ignored problems to the more critical reader and are themselves points for introspection.

Mindanao reaps its most abundant literary yield yet with Mindanao Harvest 4: A 21st Literary Anthology, edited by Jaime An Lim, Christine Godinez Ortega and Ricardo de Ungria (FEU Publications, 2018).

This latest and thickest installment of the island’s most comprehensive literary anthology, at 346 pages, serves to address (better than ever) the marginalization in the Philippine canon of literary works from one of its (and Southeast Asia’s) most culturally rich islands. But it is far more important to ensure that Mindanawons themselves get to read this latest crop of their own island’s creative production.

The anthology’s introduction, penned by one of its editors, An Lim, candidly acknowledges the longstanding exclusion of Mindanao and its writers in the national imagination.

“Mindanao writers often get left out in the country’s literary shuffle,” writes An Lim, pointing out how the concentration of opportunity and community in the capital has served to reinforce this exclusion (the fact that this book had to be printed in Manila is telling).

“In general,” he adds, “the country’s literary anthologies do tend to be Metro Manila heavy in terms of representation. The inclusion of a few southern voices smacks of tokenism… the center-periphery paradigm, after all, is relentless and inescapable.”

When An Lim calls for an end to “whining” and calls on action to “do something about” this marginalization, he and his co-editors speak with a wealth of experience doing just that: An Lim himself and Godinez Ortega were co-founders of the Iligan National Writers Workshop, which for over two decades has trained generations of Mindanao writers, while De Ungria is behind the establishment of University of the Philippines Mindanao’s creative writing program, the first and so far only such program in Mindanao. Mindanao Harvest 4 is only the latest in these three luminary decades of work encouraging this island to write.

If the intention of this anthology is to introduce more Mindanawon writers to the nation and give Mindanao a greater presence in the Philippine literary scene, it has already succeeded, what with large sales in the recent book launching in Manila, and a Manila-based writer’s organization buying dozens of copies to give to foreign writers in an upcoming international conference.

But Mindanao Harvest 4’s true success will only come if it serves to address that even greater malaise caused by this island and its peoples’ long exclusion: Mindanao’s lack of introspection into itself.

An Lim writes of Mindanao being “in the periphery,” and of its “absence in the national narrative.” What he does not mention is how these realities apply even to the people of Mindanao. Because this island has long been excluded in the top-down imagining of the Philippine nation, Mindanao’s people know neither themselves nor the land they call their home. Mindanao is absent even in its own imagination.

And to be blunt about it, no matter how much literature we here in Mindanao produce, we will remain in the periphery and remain excluded in the Manila-centric Philippines that only ever knows to be tokenist to us.

For Mindanao to stop being at the periphery, it must be its own center.

Only with its writers writing for its own people can Mindanao stop being absent in its own imagination and narrative. This latest crop of Mindanao’s literary harvest must therefore be read by Mindanao.

Literature offers a reflection of the people which produced it, and Mindanao Harvest 4 is a collection of glimpses into this land and its realities that Mindanawons must see for themselves.

In glorious display in the anthology is the island’s vast reservoir of human experience. The excerpt from TS Sungkit’s Driftwood on Dryland demonstrates the place of man as he takes part in a lived tradition often spanning generations, while Gutierrez “Teng” Mangansakan II’s “Tea with Salman Rushdie” puts the Moro in the greater international reality of Islamic fundamentalism.

Between Leoncio Deriada’s Guerrero Street and David Lao’s dinner at “Famous” are decades and lifetimes in Davao, while Potri Ranka Manis Queno Nur’s poem, “Rambayung, Gadong, Mariga, Benaning,” celebrates the glory of traditional ranaw in a manner contrasting sharply with the no less compelling account of the Marawi siege in Rebekah Alawi’s “A Time to Weep.” In a single spread, Ralph Semino Galan writes of seas while Gerald Galindez writes of Mount Apo. We get the whimsicality of a bayot looking at a prostitute in Alton Dapanas’ “Ang Babaye sa Cruz-Taal,” but also the trauma implied ever so subtly in the poems of Jose Canlom.

Godinez Ortega is right in her foreword — Mindanao is poised to be “ASEAN’s cradle of culture,” and that is demonstrated vividly in this anthology.

Even when the works it includes are lopsided and imbalanced in their media and messages, the anthology reflects Mindanao’s oft-ignored problems to the more critical reader and are themselves points for introspection.

We celebrate Mindanao’s rich cultures, revealed either very personally like Lolita Lacuesta’s “Ata Rice” or very academically like Danny Castillones Sillada’s “The Quintessence of Being a Mandaya,” but we also acknowledge distortions and inaccurate portrayals of it.

Erwin Cabucos’ story, “Give Us This Day,” typifies this best, demonstrating the author’s casual ignorance to his (and my) own province’s culture and to the workings of ancestral domain: Cabucos writes of an ethnic group which worships “god Sandawa” (what the Obo Monuvu in my hometown of Kidapawan call Mount Apo), but he makes this ethnic group play the feglong, a Blaan instrument. He involves this ethnic group in a mining dispute, but we do not see the National Commission for Indigenous Peoples intervening. Works written from a position of ignorance like this show how our literature often risks perpetuating cultural inaccuracies.

Apparently better researched is Jude Ortega’s “The Last Guardian Seeker,” but it begs the bigger question of what a settler Ilonggo like Ortega is doing writing about Dulangan Manobo culture. Can a Dulangan not be trusted with talking about their own traditions?

We celebrate perspectives like those of Sungkit and Almuzrin Jubaira, but we acknowledge that settlers continue to speak for and hijack the discursive agencies of cultures not their own, all while they ignore their own cultures and histories. We thus celebrate works like those of Josie Tejada and Macario Tiu, which imagine and remember as settlers.

With works written in five languages (Danny Sillada’s and Mubarak Tahir’s respective poems in Mandaya and Maguindanao being particular blessings), Mindanao Harvest 4 is easily one of the most multilingual anthologies to be published in the country to date. But we note how so many other languages are not included, with the major languages of Hiligaynon, Kalagan and Tagabawa perhaps the most conspicuously absent.

This, of course, is less the fault of the editors and more a testament to the sheer diversity and cultural vastness of Mindanao. An over 500-page anthology is not enough to do justice to one of the most linguistically diverse islands in the world. We look forward to 10 or 12 more instalments of Mindanao Harvest.

We nevertheless call attention to the language imbalance that the anthology also reflects: the majority of literary works are in English, a proportion removed from the linguistic realities of this island where English is largely the province of the formal and the elite.

And I call particular attention to how the Tagalog/Filipino used in many of the works in the anthology is alien to what is used in Mindanao, where natural hybridization is the norm. In the case of the plays by great writers, Steven Patrick Fernandez and Nassefh Macla, this ends up causing a failure in verisimilitude of dialogue in otherwise well written plays. I regret how Galindez did not contribute his poems in South Central Mindanao or Soccsksargen Tagalog.

I make these and other such observations not to disparage Mindanao Harvest 4. Far from it, such critique is, I think, what will make this book relevant to Mindanao, and more such observations and introspections must be elicited and stimulated from other Mindanawons. Because it is only when Mindanao reads these stories and poems and essays and plays that we can really call them works of “Mindanao literature.”

An Lim calls Mindanao Harvest 4 “a fire around which we tell our stories.” It is a beautiful metaphor. This fire and these stories must illuminate us, that we Mindanawons can see ourselves more clearly, and that we understand better who we are.

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