A country of short story writers

By Elmer Ordonez

Last week, in a tribute to novelist Azucena Grajo Uranza, I said something to the effect that we have very few novelists in a country of short story writers.

How so? This has something to do with our literary history particularly in English. It is commonplace to say that two novels of Jose Rizal sparked the Revolution of 1896. They were the first social realist novels ever written, departing from the earlier harmless novel Ninay of Pedro Paterno and the epistolary novel Urbana at Feliza, providing moral guidance to women. The next epoch-making novel is Banaag at Sikat (1906) by Lope K. Santos with a more explicit socialist message than El Filibusterismo which has a failed anarchist character in Simoun.

In the 1880s Rizal, with funds from friends, sent his manuscripts directly to printers in Europe while Santos had his novel Banaag at Sikat serialized in his Muling Pagsilang which was the mouthpiece of the workers movement. The magazines that came later like Liwayway, Bannawag and Bisaya continued the practice of serializing longer works of fictionists like Amado Hernandez with his anti-imperialist Mga Ibong Mandaragit. The novel in Spanish died with Rizal but saw a brief resuscitation in the surviving writers in Spanish like Antonio Abad whose El Campeon won in the Commonwealth Lirterary Contest. Novels in Tagalog, Ilocano, and Bisayan continued coming out in serial form.

The first novel in English is said to be Zoilo Galang’s A Child of Sorrow, a product of the author’s stay in America. Maximo Kalaw, a UP professor and dean, came out with The Filipino Rebel, a roman a clef whose characters are based on real personages in the political scene. A few other novels in English came out before the war like Jaime Laya’s His Native Soil and N.V.M Gonzalez’s The Winds of April which won the Commonwealth prize in 1941.

Leopoldo Yabes marked the coming of age of the Filipino short story in English with Paz Marquez’s “Dead Stars” in 1926. At about this time the UP Writers Club was founded by Jose Garcia Villa, Federico Mangahas, and Gabriel Tuazon. Its publication Literary Apprentice began publishing stories from campus writers and others who were also contributing to A.V.Hartendorp’s Philippine Magazine and the Philippines Free Press, edited by another American. F. Theo Rogers. Villa who had left for the United States after winning the P1000 prize for the short story “Mir-i-nisa” in the Free Press , continued to keep track of the burgeoning literary scene by coming out with an annual Roll of Honor of stories during the thirties which saw prodigious output of stories and even poetry in English in campus and national magazines.

Teachers like Paz Marquez-Benitez and Paz Latorena taught the short story form to UP and UST students, respectively. Short story anthologies from US publishers served as textbooks in English courses.

Writers mainly from the UP like Salvador P. Lopez, Federico Managahas, Jose Lansang, and Teodoro Agoncillo formed the Philippine Writers League which had a proletarian bent, influenced by Marxist writers all over the world during the Depression years. The New Critics initially composed of conservative Southern writers espoused formalism to oppose the Marxist approach in literature. But their influence did not reach Filipino writers until after the war. The Philippine Writers League convinced President Quezon to pursue a social justice program and to fund the Commonwealth Literary Contest, 1940-41. Younger writers like Francisco Arcellana, NVM Gonzalez, Hernando Ocampo, Delfin Fresnoza, Manuel Arguilla and others had their own group The Veronicans who put out little magazines Expression and Story Manuscripts. Ocampo, Fresnoza and Arguilla were inclined to write about workers and peasants while Franz Arcellana argued with S.P. Lopez and Arturo B.Rotor’s call for literature with social content. Franz sided with Jose Garcia Villa about literature for art’s sake in a debate in journals like the Herald Midweek Magazine.

This debate ended during the Japanese Occupation when some writers collaborated with the Japanese for putting out Philippine Review and Pillars where for less than two years (1943-44) they came out with a number of stories, essays, and poems. It was a bleak period all around.

After the war Bienvenido Santos came back from exile during the war with many stories like “Scent of Apples.” He also wrote four novels in his lifetime. NVM Gonzalez got a Rockefeller award that enabled him to write and attend writers workshops in Iowa, Breadloaf and Stanford, and was the first to introduce the workshop idea in UP Diliman, formally in class and in other venues during the 50s. The national UP Writers Workshop was first held in 1965 in Baguio. The Tiempos returned in the early 60s and began the Silliman writers workshop.

Since then, the writers workshop (replicated in other schools) with emphasis on the craft of fiction and formalist tenets has produced bumper crops of short story writers and poets who were all aiming for cash prizes in the several literary awards like the Free Press and Palanca. As Free Press editor Angelo Lacuesta said, the 90s produced “the workshop generation.”

Many are writing novels. As fictionist Rony Diaz noted as judge, he had to read 350 novel entries for the Philippine centennial literary contest in 1998. (To be continued)