Some 18 years ago, Umberto Eco (in The Name of the Rose, Foucault’s Pendulum) echoed a sentiment of many great writers. He stressed that literature creates a sense of identity and community. In his book, On Literature, he said it is unimaginable for Italian to have evolved into the language the world knows today without Dante’s The Divine Comedy. Without it, “the idea of political unity might not have made any headway.”
Eco also wrote similarly about Greek civilization owing a great deal to Homer. He attributed German identity to Luther’s translation of the Scripture; to Pushkin, the Russian language and to Indian epics, Indian civilization.
Philippine literature is uniquely written in several languages. Our major writers write in both Filipino and English. Before and right after the turn of the last century, writings were in Spanish.All together, our literary ancestors have defined a substantial part of our country’s rich, dynamic, and definitely, globally competitive cultural heritage.
In his remarks before the National University of Singapore in 2006, F. Sionil Jose proposed, “It is a writer’s primordial function to explain his countrymen to themselves, to remand their past no matter how demeaning, to give them a sense of nation, and hopefully as well—ideals, a destiny.”
In my view, if there is a living Filipino writer who has come of age and who personifies the role that literature plays in defining Filipino history and culture at this time, it must be Jose “Butch” Y. Dalisay, Jr.
Butch retired from the University of the Philippines as professor emeritus of creative writing only last year. While Butch was still in active service at the state university, someone endowed the U.P.with the Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr Professorial Chair in Creative Writing.
His retirement and the professorial endowment capped decades of publishing almost 40 books of creative fiction and nonfiction. His nimble pivot from short stories to novels is legendary, recognized here and abroad. He wrote and won awards for his film scripts and biographies of Philippine movers and shakers including those of Senate President Edgardo J. Angara and Washington Z. SyCip. His prose is poetry. The speeches he wrote for himself and for others, resonated with sublime seriousness of thought and intention.
The Carlos Palanca Memorial awards for Literature extended the Palanca Hall of Fame in 2000 to Dalisay who at age 46 had already garnered 16 awards in five genres. Three years ago, having run out of regular awards to bestow, Palanca recognized Dalisay’s even greater achievements in literature outside its annual competition by awarding him a Palanca Special Honorary Award, “Gawad Dangal ng Lahi.”
Dalisay is an icon in literature not only for his uniquely and widely admired precise and fluid expression, but also for his philosophy of society and literature. His thinking is unequivocally enlightened and yes, definitely nuanced to the social milieu.
During the 67th awards ceremonies in 2017, Dalisay quipped, “The most dangerous thing in our world today is intelligence without values.”Dalisay dispensed wisdom when he said the award will bring honor and fame to the winner. But after feeling “heaven, nirvana, Camelot all rolled into one,” he would then go back to the “humdrum of teaching, call-centering, Uber-driving, or whatever it is that keeps you and your family alive.”
For Dalisay, fleeting illusion is winning and should matter less than writing. As long as one writes for truth, reason and justice, and for the beauty and value of life itself, he would be first prize in Dalisay’s book.
Dalisay is credited with two published novels: Killing Time in a Warm Place and Soledad’s Sister. Both chronicle milestones in Philippine history and annotate them with familiar narratives. In Killing Time, Dalisay explains what drives citizens to militancy during martial law. In Soledad’s Sister, he talks about why people work abroad even in times of peace.
In Killing Time, almost his own narrative, Dalisay speaks through Noel Ilustre Bulaong who grew up during the period of military dictatorship. Typical of Dalisay, there is nothing in this novel that exaggerates. It simply records Noel’s consciousness and of his being pummeled by his own guilt. He is faced with a crossroad after a period of awareness.
Filipino literature is fortunate that Dalisay re-joined the mainstream, completed his bachelor’s course, and pursued his Ph.D. After this, he used his literary gift to explain to our nation, who we are and the challenges of what we have gone through.
Soledad’s Sister raises questions against a social order that compels one to fake her identity for overseas employment and ultimately be repatriated in a casket. In the novel, the woman in the casket was not Aurora V. Cabahug as stated on the airline manifest, but was actually Soledad, whose remains bore signs of foul play and abuse. At the time Dalisay wrote the novel, he cited that Soledad was among the 600 overseas Filipino workers who returned as corpses every year. The number must be higher today. Yet, the motivation to go to “Saudi” persists. Soledad’s sister, the real Rory was neither in an enviable position, with a job of singing at a karaoke bar in the distant town of Paez.
Soledad’s Sister was shortlisted for the inaugural Man Asian Literary Prize in Hongkong. Out of 23 entries, Dalisay’s novel was among the five in the shortlist. The other four were ReetiGadekar’s Families at Home; Jiang Rong’s Wolf Totem; Nu Nu Yi Inwa’s Smile as They Bow; and Xu Xi’s Habit of a Foreign Sky.
In World Literature Today (2000), there is a commentary. Of Filipino contemporary novels, it comments: “history does not merely provide the setting, but enters into the motivation of the characters, propels the plot…the real protagonist here is the nation itself, and the real conflict its desperate struggle for survival.” Dalisay’s novels are prime examples of the magnifying and mirroring functionalities of literature.
Dalisay has received enormous recognition apart from Palanca. He won the National Book Awards from the Manila Critics Circle six times. Twenty-two years ago, he made it to the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) Centennial Honors List as one of the 100 most accomplished Filipino artists of the last century. He was recognized and awarded by FAMAS, URIAN and Catholic Mass Media. Earlier, in 1993, he was among the Ten Outstanding Young Men (TOYM) for creative writing.
When not busy writing and collecting rare pens and old typewriters, Butch Dalisay teaches at the University of the Philippines and in writers’ workshops and festivals.
In The Knowing is in the Writing: Notes on the Practice of Fiction, Dalisay gives a virtual short autobiography. In it, he mentors on the craft of fiction, life and livelihood.
We saw these writing tips translated into annotated graphics in his slim book with illustration by Marcel Antonio, Why Words Matter.Dalisay actually revealed the reasons why he is a great writer. He was so refreshingly honest and transparent. He cannot get the hang of numbers, so he renounced his ambition of becoming a scientist or an engineer, and took up writing. Words to him are more fun than numbers. He is the face of many forms of literature not because he is brilliant but because he writes for a living! He quoted Nobel laureate Toni Morrison who, to Dalisay, gave the simplest and most honest reason why writers write, and this is to read themselves.
The key idea of Dalisay is that literature is the shield of Perseus against Medusa‘s fatal gaze that could have turned him intostone. By reading literature, we see the truth about ourselves as a nation in all our “harshness and unpleasantness.” What is to be done is the next fundamental question not just for writers but for the whole of society as well.
To be sure, Dalisay is never selfish with his craft. In the same book, he explained to readers that to be a writer, he needs one, a love for words; two, love of books and reading; three, insatiable curiosity; four, empathy for people; five, a sense of narrative, a desire; and six, faith in art. We find no one who writes well and deep without possessing any semblance of these ingredients.
Dalisay is an effective teacherbecause he is unlike those great economists who could prove theorems and reduce the real world in several equations, but could not relate these principles with jobs and income, poverty and inequality.
For him, “we best make sense of our lives by stepping away from them—by momentarily becoming a stranger unto ourselves, by exploring more interesting alternatives to what we already knew or most likely would do, and, ultimately, by giving ourselves a new reason to hope and believe that life follows a plot we can direct—if we only knew what it was.”
Dalisay’s literature is relevant because in his works he was able to establish the nexus between Philippine literature and politics. He was a well of thoughtful ideas which we explained and elaborated on in his address before the 4th International Seminar on Southeast Asian Literature in Kuala Lumpur in November 2005. His thesis was most eloquent: “expressive literary imagination continues to be a significant political force in Philippine society today.”
He was correct to have observed that creative writers “have been the bane of an almost unbroken succession of colonial rulers, despots, autocrats, and dictators.” Balagtas’ Florante at Laura, Rizal’s Noli and Fili, Bonifacio’s poems and in recent history, anti-Marcos’ writings are heroic literature. In the end, literary figures ended up as heroes and heroes were the literary figures.
In many ways, therefore, Philippine literature has opened the way for the people to know their suffering for freedom and salvation, in the process inspiring acts of liberation, even as the act of writing itself not only lessens the pain but also celebrates what Dalisay calls agony.
There is one difference today and Dalisay was quick to observe it, that it is journalism, not creative writing, that is now more politically engaged front and center. In this new game, the price is quite steep. More than 550 journalists have been liquidated in the last ten years.
We share the view of Dalisay that the political edge of literature in the Philippines is undermined not by human timidity or open censorship but by mere “logistics or market forces.” Literature has a tiny market and therefore its audience and reach are limited. Two other factors pull back whatever literature can share in shaping the destiny of the nation. Literature appears to have opted to do physical distancing from the mainstream of socio-political debate. It has allowed the politicians to singularly define the vision of our society. Filipino literary writers also write in English, something that is handicapped by its inadequacy to translate into words our native experience.
Dalisay has to take a position for the arts and culture against the exigencies of politics and governance. And he did. “We need to see the arts as more than a frivolous diversion that keeps on drawing funds without producing appreciable pay-offs, like an exotic and expensive pet you keep around the house, but rather as an area of strategic and profitable investment that will yield both moral and material dividends.”
Earmarking for “that journal, that play, that exhibit, that concert…is the price we pay to understand ourselves in all our complex, and wondrously unquantifiable, humanity—and also, in ways you may never expect, to create new knowledge and new wealth in many forms.”
Let us give honor where honor is due. A good way for the nation to demonstrate its appreciation, is to recognize the pure skill, talent, courage and insight in the rare contributions of Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr. In his works he gives an unadulterated understanding of ourselves in all our humanity. To recognize this purity is to consider him for the Order of National Artist for Literature. Dalisay sa Literatura.