Short paper delivered during the Manila International Literary Arts Festival: LOL—Lit out Loud
Intercontinental Hotel, November 19-21, 2010
by Abdon M. Balde Jr.
When I was offered the chance to lecture here and was given only a title, I immediately accepted it. It is both a challenge and an opportunity.
A young writer once aspired for a position in the editorial staff of a technical magazine. The magazine was published by manufacturers of mechanical fittings. He was asked to write anything about, bolts, nuts and screws. He wrote a story about a patient in an insane asylum who raped an attendant and escaped. The title of his article was “Nut Screws and Bolts”. The editors thought he had no mechanical aptitude.
I thought I could say anything from a title like “Writing Your Own Center Away From the Center.” Unfortunately, I have no aptitude nor flair for insanity, rape and flight.
Because this is a literary event I immediately remember Resil Mojares’ article about “Writing from the Margins.” Mojares defined the literary center as the place where one could locate 1) the central power, 2) the primacy of print, 3) the dominant languages and 4) the concentration of resources. Thus writers are either writing from the center or writing from the margins.
I was born in the Bikol Region—located over 500 kilometers from Manila, supposedly the center. I grew up in Bikol; I was educated there. I graduated a Civil Engineer long ago and far away from Manila. I spent more than 33 years of my life as a technical man in the construction industry, building roads and bridges, airports and dams and irrigation canals here and abroad. I supervised the construction of the King Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, Nepal. I retired from construction in year 2000. In my “retarded” years. at the age of 55—without any training— I turned to writing, a preoccupation in this country with little economic returns.
Starting in 2001, I have published 8 books, and another is coming up in a couple of months. Of these, four are novels, four books containing over 160 stories and one book of essays on aging—and yet I am still not sure if I am writing from the center or from the margins.
My mother tongue is Bikol. During my corporate life I used to write in English. Now I write my novels and stories in the national language, Filipino, which for me is a borrowed language. However, my stories, poems and anecdotes are written in the three dialects of Bikol.
According to Mojares, there are three factors to consider in order to know if a writer is writing from the center or from the margins:
The first is LOCATION: Not simply one’s residence but “the place that has shaped the kind of person one is or has become, and the site one has consciously chosen to imaginatively locate oneself in.” I live in Las Piñas, a part of Metro Manila. But when I write I always locate myself in Bikol. More than 80% of the settings of my stories and novels are in Bikol. So in this aspect I guess I am writing from the margins.
The second is the STANCE the writer takes. If one is confident and assured that what one writes is the living truth, then it could not be marginal, because “the truth realized in literature cannot be marginal.” I am definitely writing from the center.
The third factor has to do with ORIENTATION, not only where one stands but where or in what direction one is turned. According to Mojares, “So dominant is the center that a writer may start out from Davao but Manila is where he hopes to ‘arrive’.”
Now I am confused. I started from the center, writing and publishing in Manila, borrowing the dominant language and creating my network among writers of national stature.
However, during the writing of my third book, which was about legends surrounding Mayon Volcano, I went home, and it was as if I discovered my birthplace for the first time. I found confort in using my mother tongue, writing about my own people; about events that I knew when young. When in Bikol I find that my memories come easy and and are clearer. From then on I turned southwards—to Bikol, to the margins.
I have encouraged my province mates to write in their mother tongue and to publish their works in local magazines and in folios. We formed writers groups. We organized literary events involving literary forms that are unique to the region, such as tigsik, rawitdawit and osipon.
For example my town of Oas, Albay has a population of barely 12,000 households spread in 53 barangays. Six years ago no one wrote in the Oasnon dialect. Every one thought it could not be written because of the many umlaut vowels, like abu, buku, ba’bu, bubuyuku. In 2004, I accidentally discovered a website called “For All Oasnon” at oasnon.com, set up by Cesar Redito, an Oasnon living in America. There were 6 contributors writing news about Oasnons living in the Los Angeles area. I joined them and started uploading my poems written in Oasnon dialect, using the German umlaut. From then on many Oasnon from other parts of the world started uploading stories of their experiences abroad, writing the vowels in the same form. Soon, the Oasnon living in Oas responded with stories of growing up in their barrios.
I grew up in a small barrio of rice farmers called Busac. In the early morning, men would walk out of their huts, and meet in a small bridge called kantarilya. Kantarilya is a bridge with railings on both sides; it spans a small stream. Men who have not washed their faces or brushed their teeth would meet there carrying cups of coffe or brewed ginger (salabat) and their fighting cocks. They would sit on the railings of the Kantarilya and tell stories while sipping their drinks, smoking and caressing their fighting cocks. When I was young I thought the men in our place caressed their cocks more often than their wives. Their fighting cocks, I mean. The stories that they tell were about their surroundings and their simple lives: Ang palayang sinalanta ng mga uod, na-tunggro na niyugan, naputol na saplad, saragateng natuklaw ng ahas, kung sino ang naka-score nang nakaraang gabi, ang numerong tumama sa jueteng, ang sinto-sintong nakahuli ng kalapating mababa ang lipad, ang palikerong natiklo sa akto ng asawa, ang pari na sumimple sa loob ng isang kabaret, ang kiri na nabuntis, ang batang mapurol ang ulo na natanggap mag-US Navy, ang magta-traysikel na nakajackpot ng maestra. The story-telling just go on and on and on, until the wives would fetch them for breakfast or for work. We call this “iristoryahan sa kantarilya”
We revived this “Iristoryahan sa Kantarilya” in the Oasnon website. We now have over 200 storytellers from many parts of the world sending their writings in digital form. They are writing stories, poems, memoir, history, news, and even songs about the town of Oas. Unwittingly we have given birth to what is slowly developing as an Oasnon literature.
If you ask me now where I am writing from, I would say that I am writing from my own comfort zone, writing the things that I know best, using the tools that I know best. It is not a fixed location. It is like a movable home. A place where, according to Robert Frost, if you have to go there they have to take you in. It is a place where I could pick my brain with unusual ease. It is like a pitstop in the gruelling race for fame and fortune.
Speaking of comfort zone, a young Jew was heard praying loudly in front of the Wailing Wall saying, “Lord, please bring me to where my people are! Please bring me to where my people are!” An elderly Jew heard him and said, “What do you mean bring you to where your people are? You are in Jerusalem, this is Israel the land of the Jews, where are your people?” The young Jew said, “They went to Miami Beach!” Comfort zones are like pleasure zones, they are not permanent places.
I suppose I am just like any writer who creates his own center, and it doesn’t matter whether it is in the center or in the margins. What matters is that I am comfortable in my own center.
Re-posted with permission from original note posted on Tuesday, 23 November 2010 at 18:06