An Overview of Philippine Literary History

It is a given, especially in a significant number of accounts of our literary history, that what we designate as the body of work called “Philippine literature” evolved in relation to our historical experience. It is now commonplace, for instance, to explain the emergence of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere as a reaction to our experience of colonial oppression during the Spanish occupation. This notion of literature’s embeddedness in history as a set of events undermines the claim that literature is the product of the writer’s creativity, and that authorial intention is the most reliable guide for the interpretation of the literary work. Moreover, a consideration of literature’s abiding relationship to history can enlarge our understanding of how the literary, in its “symbolic representation of human experience,” can also effect changes in how we live out or experience and interpret our realities, if not reality itself.

The Noli’s realism is Benedict Anderson’s paradigmatic example in his landmark work, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, of how the novel’s mode of narration enables its readers to imagine themselves as members of a united community, never mind that they will never meet all of its other members. In this study of the roots of nationalism as an ideology, Anderson proposes that the nation emerged as an imagined political community. This symbolic or ideological membership, for Anderson, is precisely what the form of the novel enacts. As a type of narrative made available by the advent of print capitalism, the novel, as exemplified by the Noll, presents a cast of characters who share a common past, present, and future. Moreover, since Rizal directly addressed his Filipino readers who were still under Spanish rule, the sense of a common time marking the unfolding of events in the story was experienced simultaneously as “real time” by its readers. This synchronicity enabled the readers to identify with a historical sentiment about Spanish colonial presence. A sense of moving together through common time led to the readers’ imagining themselves as a community of “Filipinos” with a common sentiment 

This two-way determination between the literary and the historical should allow us to be more critical in our understanding of genres as well. In its most common usage, genres are synonymous with literary forms; thus, one refers to the short story as a genre and lyric poetry as another. Beyond, however, this sense as a label or classificatory slot, genre is a kind of writing that shapes meaning through a particular organization of language. For instance, the phrase “not guilt( is part of ordinary speech in that it figures in conversation, but if written NOT GUILTY, the enlarged font invites a consideration of the phrase as a news headline. The capitalization of all the letters in the phrase derives its meaning and function from what we understand as the formal, linguistic conventions of print journalism, which relies on the socially-held assumption that news is important, thus the all-caps spelling of newspaper headlines. The same situation or context is at work when we consider literary formations of language like the short story. “Once there was a family” cues us to expect a fairy tale to unfold since the phrase is recognizably a formula of the genre. In the same way, ang mamatay nang dahil sa yo strikes us as meaningful because we are part of the speaking situation of the song from which it is taken: we, as members of a culture, recognize it as the last line of lyrics in our national anthem, and we are addressed by it as listeners as a reminder of our common national past. Other linguistic conventions enable us to identify the genre and therefore the meaningful context of language. When something rhymes, we associate with it the qualities of poetry. Thus a genre is a group of conventional and organized structuring effects that enable the production of meaning.

This notion of genre as a linguistic contract between a particular aesthetic and its readers or public thus emphasizes its historical specificity and explains how literary forms emerge, develop, mutate, or die. That each historical period is marked by its own unique coexistence of genres is a manifestation of that moment’s ideology.

The Spanish colonial and American colonial periods brought about the emergence of several new genres as a consequence not only of our appropriation of foreign literary forms but more importantly of our response to both colonial presences. Among the borrowed forms is the pasyon, a Christian narrative poem; the sinakulo, a stage play on the passion and death of Christ; and the komedya, a genre of drama which, like the aunt and the corrido, derived its theme and structure from medieval Spanish ballads that extolled allegiance to both the Catholic faith and the monarchy. Literature, in the last half-century of the Spanish colonial period, became a fertile ground for the expression of a growing nationalist consciousness. The novel, first attempted by Pedro Paterno in Ninay, and the essay, as popularized by Marcelo H. del Pilar, eventually became the two dominant forms. And although Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filiburterismo were not the only literary works that envisioned the idea of a Philippine nation, these two novels would remain a starting point for any subsequent consideration of Philippine nationalism.

Although we can trace the emergence of fantasy as a sub-genre in the short fiction of as early a proponent as Nick Joaquin or Gilda Cordero-Fernando, realism has maintained its status as the dominant mode of representation in Philippine fiction since Rizal’s Noli. Realism is held to be the most conducive structure for representing social realities. In the last fifteen or so years though have evolved a more substantial crop of works whose narrative strategies are developed by the alternative modes of fantasy, science fiction, tabulation, and magic realism. 

Fantasy is often compared to the fairy tale in that it contains the same elements of magic and the supernatural which impel the main action. In Damiana Eugenio’s multivolume archive of Philippine folk literature, tales of magic or fairy tales are a type of folktale. As our pre-colonial literature, epics, myths, legends, folktales, proverbs, and riddles are not technically “literature” in the sense that these are not written texts intended for a reading public. They are varieties of oral lore whose creation owes not to the work of an author but to the collective imaginary and common experiences of a specific community. Legends are similar to myths since they likewise explain events and realities, but the former are more secular narratives that developed out of closer ties to the local. In fact, legends are held to embody the native knowledge of the folk whose response to an extraordinary experience or event motivates the telling. Legends typically revolve around a cultural fact or given that merits contemplation by the members. Folktales are the most fictive, least serious of the three in that they embody neither dogma nor history. Under this classification are fairy tales, fables, trickster tales, and religious tales.

Unlike oral lore though, fantasy is a modern work written by an author although it may borrow a number of motifs from epics, myths, and legends. Whereas the fairy tale is set in mythic time, detached from history, fantasy begins and ends in the here and now of the reader.

Fantastic plots typirally begin in the real world with a protagonist, usually a child who encounters a supernatural object, event, or being which transports him or her to a different, alternate, or parallel setting or world. This complication transforms the protagonist in some way when she or he returns to reality. Apart from the difference in plot, the main characters in fantasy tend to be more complex and ambiguous than the characters in fairy tales who are either good or evil. Lastly, the listener or reader of fairy tales knows that the story is “true” or “real” on an allegorical or symbolic level, which offers a generalization or a moral. For instance, while Snow White can be read on the one hand as a story about female jealousy, it can also be read as an observation on the vulnerability but eventual triumph of innocence when confronted by the unseen ambitions of those who would misuse the advantage of experience.