Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Thursday, February 25, 2010

"Songs of Ourselves: Writings by Filipino Women" by Elizabeth Manlapaz

Songs of Ourselves:  Writings by Filipino Women edited and with an introduction by Elizabeth Manlapaz, 1994, Anvil Publishing, 391 pages-

Before I talk about this collection of  writings from various genres by Filipino women I want to quote this poem from the collection (written in the 1930s by woman from Manila, name unknown):
They took away the language of my blood,
                        Giving me one “more widely understood”,
                        Ah, could I speak the language of my blood,
                        I, too, would free the poetry in me,
                        These words I speak are out of pitch with ME!
                        That other voice? . . . Cease longing to be free!
                        Forever shalt thou cry, a muted god:
                        “Could I but speak the language of my blood!

One of my goals this year is to to spot light some lesser known quality books by Filipino writers.   I have for the last couple of months read several books that have motivated me to reflect on the effects of colonialism on speech and society.    Two notable examples were Indiana by George Sand which is set in the French colony of Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean (in the 1830s) and Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys set in Jamaica in very nearly the same time frame.   Both detail the massive impact of colonialism.   Some times the effect  is as brutal as slavery and some times it lingers on  in insidious ways that may slip under our conscious radar.

Songs of Ourselves:   Writings by Filipino Women is a wonderful collection of writings of Filipino women, selected by Edna Manlapaz.   It is a mixed collection of poems, essays, memoirs and short stories.   I have been reading it for the last few months a bit at a time.   Edna Manlapaz had a very productive and distinguished career as a professor of English and Filipino Literature at the Ateneo de Manila University (the highest regarded university in the country in terms of academic excellence).   She is considered the first academic in the Philippines to make a serious study of issues related to women of the Philippines.   In this post I want to focus on loss of language as a consequence of colonialism as this is the main topic of this book.

When the Spanish took control of the Philippines in 1865 to 1871 they found 100s of languages spoken by the residents.    They found religions that were completely alien to them.    They found no sense among the people of the islands that they were one people.  Also, they found none of the vast mineral wealth they found in Latin America.   The Spanish could not really directly govern the area as almost none of their people spoke any of the local languages.   They could not really rule the country through the people whose land they had colonized as the people themselves only had limited ability to speak to each other.   The solution was to use the priests to select intelligent (and of course one must say "docile and well behaved") young men to learn Spanish.   This was done throughout the Philippines and these men became the puppet rulers of the people.   Of course they used their positions to enrich themselves and their families.   The Spanish looked upon all local languages with contempt and this attitude became part of the mind set of the Filipinos in power.   The Spanish educated only elite class men in their language, by and large.   (There are many cases of Catholic Priests throughout the Spanish colonial period devoting their whole existence to helping those who came to their churches.)    The Spanish did not migrate to the Philippines to near the extent they did Latin America as the   land did not have, as said earlier, huge mineral resources to draw colonists.    Given that women in Spanish Philippines were not trained in Spanish (some learned it through picking it up and the very wealthy arranged in home tutors) they could not have any part in running the country as the Spanish could not communicate directly with them.    The women  of the colonies were, of course, subject to the same kind of abuses from their colonizers as any other place.   As Prof. Manlapaz explains to us, when the Americans took control of the country in 1898 a very important change took place for Filipino women.   The Americans mandated that all instructions in the schools be in English and they required all girls of school age attend school, not just the boys.    This opened up huge avenues for the women of the time.    A woman could go to law school and become wealthy on her own now.   A woman could learn to speak as an equal in terms of linguistic skills (and in many cases actually better than the Americans sent to the Philippines as most were poorly educated) with the rulers of the country.    There was a price to pay for this.   The people of the Philippines lost respect for their own languages and their culture.    The poems, essays, and stories in this collection explain the profound effect this had on the people of the Philippines.   The Spanish took from them their religion and the Americans took from them their language.

I almost do not want to say this but I think the articles and poems in Prof. Manlapaz's collection help  explain why there are so few really world class novels by Filipino writers since 1900.      Prof. Manlapaz says it is because when the Filipinos lost their languages they lost they lost the deepest part of their consciousness from which great literature emerges.    Now their is an economic disincentive to write in  Tagalog (the dominant language besides English) as any work written in this language will have no market outside the country and most residents of the Philippines want their  children to excel in English as that is a must for success so they will not buy books in Tagalog for their children.

Another very useful and interesting feature of this book is the detailed biographies that Prof. Manlapaz has included for each contributor.   Like in the prior collection of writings I reviewed Pinay Auto-Biographical Narratives all of the contributors are from middle or elite class backgrounds.   A large number of them are academics and a lot   have advanced  degrees from American Universities, one is a graduate of Harvard Law School, and several are extensively published poets.   Normally I only read Great Poets like Yeats, Whitman, and others.   I do not normally read small poems from unknown to me writers.   I am very glad I made an exception for the poems Prof Manlapaz has shared with us.   I will let Luisa Igloria have the last words on this:

I have learned your speech,
fair stranger; for you

………..I have covered
My breasts and hidden,
Among the folds of my surrendered
Inheritance, the beads
I have worn since girlhood.
In the night,
When I am alone at last,
I lie uncorseted
Upon the iron bed,
Composing my lost beads
Over my chest, dreaming back
Each flecked and opalescent
Color, crooning their names,
Along with mine: 
Binaay, Binaay.

Luisa Igloria has an excellent web page that details her poems related to colonialism

This book along with Pinay Auto-biographical Narratives will give you a very good look at the thoughts of over 100 Filipino women on a wide range of topics.    Both books also list suggestions for further reading.  

I am including this book with my reading for these challenge

Women Unbound (nonfiction selection)
POC Challenge

I hope others with an interest in the Philippines can find time to join in this project with one book a year-if you know anyone who might be interested please direct them to this post-thanks to all 


Suko said...

Fascinating review, Mel. Language is so much more than just words. The loss of the native languages must have had a great impact on the Philippines in literary as well as other significant ways.

claire said...

This sounds like a wonderful book, Mel. I'll try to get a hold of it sometime. One thing though, the Americans were not the only ones who took away our language. The Spanish also did. Our major dialects, such as Tagalog and Visayan, are heavily ingrained by Spanish words.

I feel saddened that there is little literature being written in Tagalog. It's such a beautiful language; poetic and romantic. I even regret not reading in Tagalog so much while growing up, but like you mention above, books readily available to me were foreign classics, such as Little Women, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, etc. I do not remember having any Tagalog books at all as a kid. I only read Tagalog beginning high school (Noli and Fili) and discovered more in college.

Unknown said...

My heart is breaking... any loss of culture is such a sad thing. Wonderful review Mel :)

Mel u said...

Suko-thanks for your comments as always-

Claire-I did a bit of research-even a best selling book in Tagalog will not go much over 10,000 units sold-I purchased some books jointly in Tagalog and English for my daughters-

Shellie-thanks very much for your comments