The Philippines’ Archipelagic Nonfiction

One of the most popular genres of literature in the Philippines has always been the essay also known as creative nonfiction. The essay is often defined as a short piece of writing on a particular subject. Sometimes, it is also defined as an account of historical, personal, and academic events. However, the definition of an essay can also be vague and that it overlaps with that of the always popular short story. Because of this, the essay is sometimes seen as a literary genre that is of lesser form than poetry and fiction.

Generally speaking, the essay takes the same passion, craft, and artistry as any literary genre. It is also known to be immensely popular, because newspapers nowadays still bear essays in the form of editorials, columns, and bylines. Some of the most popular newspaper columnists who are known to write in the essay form are Conrado de Quiros of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Jessica Zafra of the Philippine Star and Business World, and, more recently, Patricia Evangelista and Shakira Sison of the online news portal Rappler. In publishing, Carlos Bulosan’s America is in the Heart has always been a staple for creative nonfiction. In this work, he writes about his migration to the United States and the painful life he has lived there, and yet, ends the whole memoir with a declaration that America will always be in the “heart.” Another famous essayist is Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil, who has also defined the essay as something that “what no other forms of writing seems willing to be.”

What, then, is an essay for you? Have you ever written an essay for school? Was it difficult to write or was it easy for you to accomplish? Did you focus on only one subject or quite a lot within one essay?

An essay can take many forms, but there is one main requirement, as stressed by the country’s premiere essayist Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo: the voice of the writer must ring clear, true, and fine all throughout the written work. What is a writer’s voice? The writer’s voice is the distinctive style or personality of a written work (an essay, in this case) that will separate it from other written works. It is an important component of writing for it shows the essay’s personality as much as you would if you were the one telling the story to someone else. It is one way to make the story truly “your own.”

The art of writing essays in the Philippines has been through many historical events. According to Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo’s scholarly essay, “Breaking Barriers: The Essay and Nonfiction Narrative,” during the Propaganda movement of the Spanish occupation, the illustrados and katipuneros wrote essays that were designed to awaken their fellow countrymen in the newspaper La Solidaridad. Their essays were written in either Spanish or Filipino, depending on their target audience. These essays were revolutionary in nature and were frequently formal ones, The Commonwealth Period brought about the rise of the informal essay in the country.

An informal essay is an essay on any topic available and is written in the author’s own unique style. However, it is always understood that when an essay is being written, the author should have something important to tell his or her readers and must say it well through the use of his or her voice.

Eventually, in 1937, Alfredo Q. Gonzalez released the first ever single-author book of familiar essays entitled The Call of Heights. It was preceded by Dear Devices in 1933 as the first volume of familiar essays in the country written in English.

After the war came the likes of Yay Panlilio-Marking and Carmen Guerrero Nakpil., who were distinguished voices among the new essayists of their generation. As the country progressed toward Martial Law, so many popular publications such as the Philippine Free Press, Philippine Graphic, Manila Times, and Manila Chronicle published essays that were also intertwined with journalism. During the Martial Law era, there was a great suppression of essays in print or media; a lot of essayists also went to jail or were exiled for their involvement in the revolution.

Nowadays, the EDSA Revolution has paved the way for essays to come back in the limelight. The essays that you now read in newspapers or online are how essays have been written since the beginning of literature in the Philippines: to write what one wanted and how one wanted.

There is also a spike in the number of adventurous women essayists, and one of them is Gilda Cordero-Fernando (who also is a fiction writer and a newspaper columnist of thePhilippine Daily Inquirer). Read her essay below about the colonial mentality of the Filipinos.