the house that literature built
thanks, Rogue Magazine, for letting me share this.
something that’s not common knowledge, and needed to be said.
BURN AFTER READING
By Katrina Stuart Santiago
There is much to be said about the probability that the writer who has not done any of the writing workshops, has not come out with a book with any of the commercial and academic publishing houses, has not taught at one of the four major Manila universities in the past five years, has not won any major writing prize in the past three, has not been employed by the academe or the publishing industry either, would be brushed off as a non-writer. Or just a not-one-of-us, the “us” being the writing community—the literati—in third-world Philippines. That “us” necessarily revolving around Manila’s academe and the literary stalwarts—and yes, they exist here and now even if you would rather read Game of Thrones any day.
This “us” of course is no surprise, and lest you imagine that this is another conspiracy theory about how the literary sector sets out to ostracize and disenfranchise people who are unworthy, I assure you that it’s so much worse than that. The years have taught me that right here what operates is an unspoken/ unconscious/ unexplained set of rules that have nothing to do with writing skill or literary merit. Right here, what operates is a togetherness that might be premised on friendships, but half the time is just a fascinating display of parochialism and patronage. Here’s a shameless alaga system versus real mentorship, here’s condoning the mistakes elders make because they’ve got past glory to fall back on, here’s a togetherness that banks on closing ranks against the deemed enemy.
Which would be okay if we were talking about the grand enemy that is globalization bringing in cheaper imported books, or the commercial publishing industry making sure writers don’t make money, or the government failing tremendously at funneling support to the arts in general. But no, the enemy is not the system as it is just a person. You or me, depending on who has dared point a finger at—or who has given them the finger for—what can only be a bubble within which criticism is frowned upon, no one’s held accountable, and everything happens with the giddiness of the most recent book launch/contest/workshop and a false sense of relevance.
Welcome to the Philippine literary world, leave your self at the door.
Because here’s a house with its own set of unspoken rules, ones that you know for certain exist because the moment you enter it there’s a sense of propriety and order in the hushed tones you suddenly use to speak, in the silences you’re expected to keep. And you shouldn’t mind. After all, right here your writing will be deemed legit, no matter how uncertain even you are about its merit. Here, all it takes to survive is to keep your critical thoughts to yourself, and (maybe unknowingly) keep your writing within the box of the expected. Here, the question “Is it new?” doesn’t matter as much as “Who wrote it?” Here, creativity is the least of your worries.
Here, all you must know is this: the foundations of this house are as strong as the literary barkada is, in control as they are of the academe and publishing, workshops and contests, everything that would deem anyone a “writer” on these shores. It’s a private literati party, and you’re made to believe you’re lucky to be invited. Know that it takes very little to keep you out of this house. Very few consciously and knowingly walk out that door.
There is after all a sense of security in community here, and the warmth of hearth and home can only be inviting. And you can learn in this space, make friends here, too, but it doesn’t mean that you’re home safe. Dissenting with popular opinion or aesthetic, doing things differently will not only warrant a reprimand or a snub, it could mean being thrown out the window altogether. Just like that, there will be no friends in sight.
Yes, it sounds brutal. Welcome to the real world of the Philippine literati. And much like reality TV, it’s a world where everything—everything—is personal.
Which is to say that any form of criticism is reason enough for you to be seen as the enemy. Questions that go against the grain of established thought, or which bend in a different ideological direction, are taken against you. It doesn’t matter that you talk about the work and not the people; the work is the person who wrote it, and these writers have built this house. How dare you bite the hand that feeds you. Don’t be surprised when “lacking collegiality” and “disrespecting elders” become epithets used against you. Soon enough, out of the woodwork, the monsters of this house reveal themselves.
They reveal themselves in letters written and sent out declaring you persona non grata, telling the world that you should be reprimanded and/or kicked out of the job you love. Or instances where you are told to your face that you’ve got an ideological chip on your shoulder. It won’t matter how fantastic a teacher you are, because outside your classroom talk can and will bring you down. When you find that no matter how wonderful your writing is, you will be without a publisher for your books. And forget about winning contests.
In what we imagine to be the most creative and intelligent of houses, where we’d like to imagine that conversations about culture and society, writing and responsibility, are taking place, right here is tsismis that can be vile and vicious, the kind that can break you. That is if your heart isn’t broken yet by this revelation: this house would rather the elder who commits intellectual dishonesty, than the young asking the most valid of questions. In here, you are as puny as you are negligible, as you are someone who can be transformed into the obedient, unquestioning, bright-eyed, and bushy-tailed son or daughter.
It is in these instances that it becomes clear that you’re not one of “them” and it takes a while before you realize that there is much freedom in that, in being away—far far away—from the house that literature built.
Because it means that you dare grow up, you dare stand by writing with which not many might agree, but for which you do find readers. Or haters who are willing to talk to you about it, who will tell you what’s wrong, who will dare question you because they appreciate that you do the same for them. Out of that house you will find that creativity is not about how the workshops or creative writing classes taught you to write, nor is it about finding so much comfort in the writing niche that’s gotten you published.
Out here where there are no comforts, there is also much freedom. Out here is where survival of the fittest actually applies, because they are the most creative, because they are continuously evolving, because they are continuously learning. Out here, people read, they write, they talk to each other and come up with ideas that are different, if not new. Out here, the more daring of writers challenge limitations and transgress institutionalized lines. Out here, the Internet, technology, and the changing landscape of cultural production across the world are not scary things; they are the writing on the wall. Out here, you prove there are readers, and they are beyond Manila, beyond the division between English and Filipino, beyond the familiar academic and cultural institutions. Out here, you see this audience and you want to write the books they might like to read. Out here, writing and creativity find their relevance.
Out here, you find that the great house of multiple sensitivities actually lives off the idea that there are no readers on these shores, that there is no money in writing, because this idea is what keeps that house up. The stronger the belief in the lack of readers, the easier it is to justify the little money that writers are paid for their books, the easier to justify the need to keep to oneself, keep to this house, stay in the rooms many others inhabit. The better, too, to imagine that the audience is America—for we should all want to be published there, after all.
This is why the Pinoy reading public doesn’t care about the literati. It’s because the literati doesn’t care about these readers. And that’s you, the Harry Potter, Hunger Games-reading public, you.
Meanwhile that house sure looks like it’s getting smaller and smaller by the day. And as you grapple with your writing, and think of how to self-publish your book, you look out the one window you, yourself built and see that the house up on that hill is on fire, ready to crumble under the weight of its own monsters. But the literati’s in there and they’re keeping it up—writers, plagiarists, sons and daughters, and alagas, all together now.
You got out just in time.
This article can be found in the April 2012 issue of Rogue Magazine, out on newsstands now! Other essays: How Nick Joaquin shocked polite society by Marra PL. Lanot; Junot Diaz on Writer’s Block, Oscar Wao, and Winning the Pulitzer Prize; “We were enemies of the state.” Butch Dalisay, Jo Ann Maglipon, Ricky Lee, and Pete lacaba revisit their darkest chapter.