Thoughts on the MILF: LIT OUT LOUD! Day 1

No, the title is not referring to a particularly attractive woman who has procreated, but to the first Manila International Literary Festival organized by the National Book Development Board (NBDB). Held at the Hotel Intercontinental Manila on November 18-20, this year’s MILF, titled Lit Out Loud, gathers a pool of writers and academics from here and abroad (mostly here) for a three-day discussion about books and the writing, publishing, and reading of them.

Yesterday was the first day of the festival, and since I can’t attend today’s session (as that would make for one too many absences from work) I wrote this instead. Yay. Never mind that I haven’t completed the three-part reflection on the Future of the Book Conference and the Manila International Book Fair that I promised to write a month or so ago. (If you’re interested, the first two parts can be found here and here. The third part can wait another month, maybe.)

The Filipino Novel

The festival started with a keynote speech by Jose Dalisay about the Filipino Novel. He said that the writing of a novel demands a different—greater, broader, stronger—kind of vision, artistic scope, and drive. Filipinos, according to him, are masters of the short form—of short stories, poems—but our writing space is small, crowded, with a low ceiling, and does not accommodate the kind of view—as from a mountaintop, no less—that fosters novel-writing. He also said that though Filipinos have written novels (generally short, by the form’s standards), these novels reach only a very small part of the population; most Filipinos are not aware of such books, while those who do read prefer to consume imported, bestselling books. And the thing is, according to him, without great novels, Filipino literature cannot make a lasting mark on the literary world stage.

Next came a panel discussion, moderated by Dr. Dalisay, on Philippine novels. Dr. May Jurilla gave an overview of the Filipino novel throughout the 20th century and explained how different historical contexts affected novel-writing. The destruction and restriction during Word War II and Martial Law, for instance, understandably led to a dip in the production of novels, as did the eventual rise of more popular forms of literature and entertainment, like komiks and film. The Filipino novel in Tagalog, once dominant, was eventually overtaken by the Filipino novel in English, what with our city-bred, workshop-produced writers with their American MFAs, as Dr. Dalisay put it. This tracing of trends was followed by discussions on the Filipino novel in English by Dr. Jing Hidalgo, and on the Filipino novel in Tagalog by Dr. Rosario Torres-Yu.

The afternoon was occupied by break-out sessions. I attended the one on intertextuality and plagiarism, led by Angelo Lacuesta, Carljoe Javier, and Angelo Suarez, and moderated by Isagani Cruz, and the one on roots, the imagination, and what we write (or should write) about, led by Christopher Cheng and Charlson Ong, and moderated by Dr. Gemino Abad.

book sale at the Bahia Room lobby

Intertextuality and Plagiarism

The session covered such issues as the inevitability of intertextuality; the surplus and sharing of information amplified by the advent of new media; “creative plagiarism” vs. lazyass copying and the shifting notions of these; and copyleft and the insufficiency—even approaching obsoleteness—of copyright in our time. The discussion of these issues have become familiar, given recent, prominent plagiarism cases, such as those involving Manny Pangilinan and a justice of the Supreme Court; this essay by Adam David is similar to much of what the speakers said.

What struck me in that session was what Angelo Suarez said about how the task of the artist now is not so much creation as the appropriation and reframing of what is already there—of taking them from their accustomed contexts and meanings and transplanting them. He values process over product, because it is in the work of decontextualizing and/or recontextualizing something that thought and artistry operate.

I commented that this appropriation is, in a way, also creation, because it gives rise not only to questions, but also to new/different meanings, and that this process of creating is shared with the audience/readers/consumers of the cultural product, because they are the ones who ask the questions and create meanings out of the reframing—they are thus empowered through creative engagement. To this Suarez replied that actually, much of the artistic appropriation going on aims to resist being consumed, being read, being assigned definitive meaning. Such works do not seek to cultivate readership, but thinkership. (And then he proceeded to drop a shit ton of references, none of which I caught.)

While I agree that good art makes people think and not necessarily conclude, what he said made me realize why I’m not really into all these opaque postmodernist projects. Believing that life and the world has no inherent meaning, I turn to art to create meaning and order for myself, and if even art eschews meaning, then what is left to me? *cue existential angst* BUT, that, of course, was not the point of the discussion, and so I’ll end this paragraph with Lacuesta’s and Javier’s ending insights, if you will. Lacuesta said that art will go on—all this discussion about the appropriateness of appropriation is moot and academic, because art cannot be regulated—the development/appropriation of artistic works reflect the changing notions of property, of what’s “original” and “new” and not, what’s “right” and “wrong.”  Javier said that no work can be said to be fully original or isolated, given the inevitability of intertextuality, of tradition and influence. Artists may get overly fixated about getting recognition, getting paid, but this attitude limits the potential for derivative work that all this technology affords us, for what literature can be.

Volunteer pass that got me in for free. The perks of joining college organizations! *cough* join the UP Writers Club! *cough*

Roots and Imagination: What do we write about?

Two points in the second break-out session I attended struck me, both of them raised by Charlson Ong: first, our ambition to write the nation, and second, the people we write for. As Dr. Dalisay pointed out in his keynote speech, the writing of a novel requires great vision, a big theme that can sustain fifty thousand words or more. Often, this vision concerns the nation (and perhaps that is why our novelists labor under the shadow of Rizal, whose observations and social critique remain true to this day). According to Ong, the nation is a central figure in the Filipino novel; however, he personally thinks that one should not begin a novel trying to write about the Nation, but about people—who make up the family, the clan, the community, and eventually, the nation, which should be the end, not the beginning. Indeed, to construct the idea of the nation in a novel seems like a difficult, even potentially irrelevant/removed, endeavor if one does not ground it in the reality and human drama of the people who make it up. He also said that we should always ask, Who do we write for? According to him, we don’t play a large part in global affairs; we’re not even in the imagination of the world—we do not figure in the oriental conceptions of the West, nor are we very influenced by “great Eastern cultures.” All these make us hard to place, and therefore easier to exoticize and misrepresent. He cited how the Filipino indie films that garner acclaim abroad seem to try to outdo each other with increasingly sordid depictions of our reality. He said that we should question whether our representations and constructions of ourselves serve to empower us, or only cater to the western hunger for/conception of the Third World.

On the question of writing for our people, I asked him how we can reconcile the writer’s desire to tell a good story in the best way he can, and the need to create empowering fictions that are accessible to the masses. It’s just that most writers seem to write with their ideal reader in mind—the sort that can appreciate the skill and artistry that goes into their writing—and not for the typical Filipino. As a result, though we produce good literature, this literature does not reach our people; we remain removed from our own. Christopher Cheng said that first, a writer has to write for himself and produce the best work that he can. And sure, there is satisfaction in that, in developing one’s craft, but what is the use of this, if a writer cannot reach the people she wants to write about and write for? Charlson Ong did not offer an answer to this admittedly difficult question, but he said that he believes that we have an untapped readership—the problem is getting these people to read our books.


I’m still thinking about all these things, and so this post is more of a recap of Lit Out Loud Day 1 rather than a reflection on it—perhaps that will come later (after I’ve attended tomorrow’s session, wheee~). But I’m really happy that the NBDB is organizing forums like this. Such discussions are often limited to classrooms, to the coteries of the intelligentsia, but I believe they are integral to national and cultural progress and should therefore be accessible to more people. I certainly hope that in succeeding years, they will.

[Read: “Thoughts on the MILF: Lit Out Loud! (Day 3)”]

This post has been rewritten for Manilafied.com. Read the revised article here.

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2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the MILF: LIT OUT LOUD! Day 1

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the MILF (part 2) « tenant on the top floor

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on the MILF: LIT OUT LOUD! Day 3 | tenant on the top floor

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