Bienvenido Lumbera: The writer as a public intellectual

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Bienvenido Lumbera, national artist, passed away last week. During a recent summons to Diliman where he was present, I said of all the Filipino writers I know, he is the one I envy the most. Much earlier, I told him this. Well had courage. He kept his word, which is why he was imprisoned by Marcos. He was a true scholar who researched our cultural past. Bien also received Asia’s most prestigious award – the Ramon Magsaysay Memorial Award.

Bien was orphaned in his childhood and grew up under the wing of parents. His credentials are impressive. He went to Santo Tomas for his baccalaureate and got his doctorate. in Comparative Literature at Indiana University. He has taught creative writing at UP, UST, La Salle and Ateneo and has lectured on Filipino culture at Osaka University of Foreign Studies.

Bien was really bilingual. I am not a judge of his Tagalog work; even his speech tended to be archaic – I grew up in Manila, my Tagalog is sidewalk lingua. Once I told him – I could barely understand his Batangueño, while I understood the Manila idiom of Jun Cruz Reyes. His essays in English, however, are models of clarity and eloquence.

The only time I didn’t agree with Bien was when he wrote the libretto for the CCP’s mega-production, Rama Hari, based on the Ramayana, the Hindu epic. I told him it should have been by the Indians. There are so many Filipino materials that our artists could recreate.

Bien also organized reviews of our films, awarded awards for excellence. At one point, he also chaired the Philippine Center of PEN International and received the Southeast Asian Writing Award in Bangkok.

Bien belonged to that group of writers not bypassed by creative or imaginary writing that are called public intellectuals.

My sympathies go out to his wife Cynthia and their children. They have lost someone very precious to them and to the country.

I have lost a dear friend.

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The novelist or creative writer who turns to journalism is well equipped to do so. Creative writing requires intense observation, not only of visible and tactile phenomena, but also of character – hidden and manifested by action. A creative writer tries to answer all the whys that result in action and character building. It was for this reason that Nick Joaquin’s journalism was penetrating and insightful; his “A Question of Heroes”, for example, is a first-rate historiography. He traced the decisions, the direction taken by our men of destiny to their innate character. It is therefore possible to predict how a man – or a leader – may act or react to the challenges he is confronted with. In this debate over whether Rizal withdrew his belief in Masonry or not, his splendid biographer, Austin Coates, said that all of these testimonies and documents made by the Jesuits were lies or forgery because they were not ‘did not conform to Rizal’s character. This saying is always on my mind as I shape the characters in my fiction – their consistency, their normality. I don’t make them physically crippled or grotesque – it’s the easiest way for them to be attractive and unique. I do not deny them the contradictions, but these contractions must be justified.

Writers portraying literature to our nationalism – the essay, to illuminate or intensify their thinking – are well within the Western tradition since early historians like Herodotus also wrote travel essays. In modern European literature, they were moralists; this is particularly emphasized in the writings of Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo and, more recently, of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus. They were “engaged” – engaged. As such, their work has had more depth and impact. As the conscience of a nation, they influenced French society and earlier in French history sparked the French Revolution. Regarding our own history, a writer stands out as a committed, José Rizal.

In our time, this tradition – that is, the influence of Rizal – holds, but not as firmly as I had hoped. Our main writers in English other than Nick Joaquin and Carlos Bulosan, Ben Santos, the Tiempos of Dumaguete, NVM Gonzales, were not all engaged. Their writing was almost always limited to the literary genre – NVM who wrote from close to the earth had little to say about society outside of their fiction. Ditto with Manuel Arguilla, who was the most proletarian of them.

On the other hand, Gilda Cordero Fernando and Kerima Polotan were able to step away from creative writing and write some sharp social commentaries. And among the living, we will note Greg Brillantes, Elmer Ordoñez, Butch Dalisay and Krip Yuson.

We need more today to bind our people to the truth and to the past. Straying from creative writing doesn’t stray from the truth in any way. Too often, reality as described in a short story or novel seems more “true”. As the saying goes, journalism is history in a hurry. Literature is a lived story. Conditions in England during the Industrial Revolution are best appreciated by reading the novels of Charles Dickens. And Rizal’s novels give us a vivid picture of what it was like in the Philippines at the twilight of the Spanish regime.

As prophets, the many current realities of technological and scientific achievement were foretold in science fiction a hundred years ago; will science fiction be realities a century from now? Again, the truths must now be faithfully recorded.

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Homosexuality is as old as humanity; it was common in ancient Greece. It was, however, considered abnormal in many societies, but in recent years it has come to be accepted. This development was preceded by the emergence of gay literature in the West to be considered a genre and, as such, deserving serious critical attention. We’ve had quite a few of them, some really great like Morli Dharam, Nick Joaquin and, yes, Jose Garcia Villa.

My favorite gay writer is Danton Remoto. A while ago, when I said that gays shouldn’t post their status, he called me an “old fart”. I found it funny. In fact, almost all writers display their identity – Catholic, Marxist, Ilokano, etc. Danton is moved by his cause, and he even organized a political party to defend it and stood for election. He is also a professor of creative writing and has trained writers here and abroad. His novel, Riverrun, is readable, exquisite in parts, and is a benchmark in our gay literature. The comparisons are odious, but he reminds me of Oscar Wilde, the English writer. He still has years ahead of him. What I would like to see in Danton is more fire, more passion and more commitment like the great American gay writer James Baldwin. Danton has the skill, the vocabulary to do it. Now, how to make him angry. Maybe he should start with Manny Pacquiao, whose rant against Danton’s tribe dominates them.


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