Literatures of the Visayas

One of the longest known epics in the world is the ethno-epic Hinilawod of the ancient people of Sulod in Central Panay, the only epic recorded in the Visayas. Recorded in the 1950s by anthropologist F. Landa Jocano who hails from the province of Iloilo, Hinilawod is more than 53,000 lines long and takes thirty hours to recite. Segments of this epic have been adapted at festivals (the Hirinugyaw-Suguidanonay in Calinog, Central Panay) and for the stage (e.g., Nicanor Tiongson’s Labaw Donggon: Ang Banog ng Sanlibutan).

During the Spanish colonial period when natives were indigenizing the pasyon and korido/corrido (metrical romances), Spanish and native aspiring writers were also looking to the available literary models at that time, the religious and didactic genres like saints’ lives, prayers, and books of conduct. The first literary works in the Visayas were a miscellany of these forms: the immensely popular Lagda sa pagca maligdon sa tauong Bisaya (1734) and another Cebuano work, Fr. Bias Cavada de Castro’s Ang Suga nga Magadan-ag sa Nagapuyo sa Cangitngitan sa Sala (1879), combined into one book several dialogues, maxims, tales, meditations, and ejemplos (pananglitan).

Toward the end of Spanish rule in the 19th century, a new set of economic and social conditions prepared the ground not just for the revolution at the end of the century but also the rise of vernacular writ-ing in the Visayas (as elsewhere in the archipelago). Relative prosperity in Iloilo, Negros, and Cebu where large haciendas grew export crops like sugar helped create a middle class who could send their children to Manila or abroad to study. Educational reforms were introduced in 1865 with secondary schools being built in Cebu and Jaro. Filipino-led movements (the secularization of the Filipino clergy, the Propaganda Movement, the Revolution in 1896) slowly changed the atmosphere from monastic to liberal, that although the early 20th century saw the Philippines only changing colonial masters rather than gaining long-term independence, the liberal atmosphere that Filipino-led movements helped create led to a burst of provincial journalism and native language writing. It also helped that the Spanish language was already losing favor, and the English language had not yet taken root at this time of the early American colonial period.

This golden age of vernacular literature in the first decades of the 20th century would not have been possible without the rise of provincial journalism, because it was in the spate of native language periodicals that a new form of literature gained wide popularity for many years: the serialized novel. Before the turn of the century, the dominance of pro-Spanish periodicals was already being eclipsed by native language papers like El Porvenir de Visayas (1884-1989) of Iloilo and El Boletin de Cebu (1886). The creation of new native language 3 periodicals continued: in Cebu, Ang Suga (1901) and Ang Camatuoran (1902); in Iloilo, Ang Kagubut (1900) and Kadapig sang Banwa (1905); and later on, in the 1920s and the 1930s, Bag-ong Kusog (1915-1941), Nasud (1930-1941), and Babaye (1930-1940), and the weeklies Bisaya and Hiligaynon. Serialized fiction that dramatized popular sentiments became such a hit especially in the 1930s that periodicals heavily depended on them for sales.

These works of fiction were hugely popular because they hardly departed from traditions beloved by the ordinary folk. For instance, when Magdalena G. Jalandoni moved on from writing versified corridos to long prose narratives, she imported the romantic element of the corrido into her “novels,” which ended up reading more like corridos-in-prose rather than real novels.

Let’s pause for a while to ask what we mean by “novel” because common usage defines it as any book-length story in prose, as in the term “romance novel,” which is actually a contradiction in terms. Strictly speaking, the novel of the European Enlightenment tradition (in which Rizal wrote his Noli and Filz) is a long work of realist prose that focuses on the psychological aspects of human character and the socio-political dimensions of collective existence. Realism in a long work like the novel provides ample space to develop several psychologically complex characters moving together in a multifaceted social environment. Romance, on the other hand, is an older mode that celebrates and idealizes life, and is usually rendered in poetry (itself a genre as old as oral forms) but has also found its way into later literary developments like written prose. Because romance does not incisively examine social issues like realism does, these two modes are seen as opposites, with the novel more strongly associated with realism.

At this point in Visayan literary history, vernacular writers deeply steeped in the age-old versified romance tradition of the corrido were experimenting with a new genre, the prosaic realist novel that could tackle newer social realities. The result was the voluminous production of hybrid “romance novels” and other hybrid forms.

The first Visayan novel, Hiligaynon Angel M. Magahum’s Benjamin (1907), was one such hybrid that combined the Spanish-era exemplum (novel of manners) and the modern chronicle (short historical account). The chronicle, a newer form closer to realism than romance, enabled fictionists to tackle current social problems that the idealized worlds of romance could not adequately represent. However, the pull of romance proved difficult to resist. Nicolas Rafols in his novel Ang Pulahan (1919) attempted to present a semi-fictionalized chronicle of actual events in Cebu, the abuses of the Philippine Constabulary, yet it could not be called a fully realist novel because like many novels of its kind, it could not resist the romantic impulse popularized by the corrido. It is the characteristic of early novels like Ang Pulahan to combine the realist chronicle with the devices of the romance mode: idealized characters, surprises and coincidences, sudden changes in fortune.

As novels-in-installments published in newspapers and magazines dependent on profit to sustain circulation, this popular literary form is, of course, subject to commercial demands and readers’ tastes. But it was also through this that journalists-turned-novelists were able to sustain age-old folk sensibilities (especially the tendencies to romanticize and moralize in the epics and tales, corridos, and Spanish-era friar literature) in new forms and in the context of emerging modern realities. The vernacular writers deeply steeped in tradition started adding the socio-political element (as in Rizal’s novels) to this mixed stream of native expression. For example, Cebuano Juan I. Villagonzalo’s Walay Igsoon (1912) added the social element of labor problem to the familiar romantic-didactic mold.

Let’s do it!

What are the features of didactic melodrama? Do you still encounter this mode in today’s popular novels, films, and TV serials? Do the didactic melodramas of today still attempt to bring up sociopolitical issues?

As can be inferred from this lesson, local media entertainment forms—usually accused of having predictable, formulaic plots and conventional character types—actually draw their popular energy from deeply seated folk and vernacular traditions. Their “formulaic” quality may thus be kindly read not as lack of creativity, but as sensitivity to persisting issues embodied by these familiar tropes.

Think of the local teledramas and romantic films you have seen and draw up a list of popular Filipino character types: for example, the star-crossed lovers who come from different social classes, the lost twin, babies switched at birth, the aristocratic villain, the corrupt mayor, etc. Select students who can role-play these character types. Have the student/s representing a character type deliver a monologue or dialogue that reveals, perhaps, a formulaic back story to the character type, or the character’s motivations for his/her actions. After this activity, reflect on the social tensions that such stock characters embody in the popular mindset—e.g., the corrupt mayor signifies society’s distruct of local leaders.

Let’s do it!

Despite the commercial pressure to churn out saleable serial nov-els, this period produced fine fictionists like Siilpicio Osorio, Angel L. Enemecio, Elpidio E. Villacrucis, and Natalio B. Bacalso. Societal ills depicted through the moralistic melodrama of convention appear in the works of early fictionists Vicente Sotto and Juan I. Villagonzalo, and later on in the works of Vicente Rama and Tomas Hermosisima.

To end this section let’s turn to the most prolific of them all, “The Grand Dame of Hiligaynon Literature” Magdalena G. Jalandoni, who is possibly the inspiration for the main character Anabella in Rosario Cruz Lucero’s “Doreen’s Story,” one of the finest specimens of Hi-ligaynon literature in English in the 21st century. notes down the numbers of Jalandoni’s astonishing accomplishment: “36 nobela, 122 maikling kuwento, 7 nobelita, 5 korido, 8 tulang narat-ibo, 231 lirikong tula, 7 dulang ganap ang haba, 24 dulang may isang yugto, 7 tomo ng mga sanaysay, at 2 sariling talambuhay.”


The above account of Visayan regional literature is heavily indebted to Resil B. Mojares’s Origins and Rise of the Filipino Novel.

Exploring Texts and Contexts

Recommended reading for this lesson is Rosario Cruz Lucero’s Feast and Famine: Stories of Negros (2003). In it are four long stories and one novella (“Doreen’s Story”) that depict Negrense life in dense local detail from the Spanish colonial period up to the post-Marcos era.

“Doreen’s Story” is exhilarating in its complexity: a work of meta-fiction that blends historical facts and fiction (thereby questioning the historicity of the facts themselves), magic and realism, academic re-search and town gossip. A story within a story, the frame narrative features the narrator at a restaurant with real-life author and scholar Doreen Fernandez who tells her the story of Anabella of Silay, a hacienda heiress whose life has been a point of constant interest among the townspeople. The story moves in and out of the frame narrative: at one point, the narrator tells her version of the Anabella story to another real-life academic named Jonathan who suggests revisions to make the story sound more plausible (after which the story of Anabella contin-ues, incorporating Jonathan’s suggestions); at other points, the narrator provides research notes on historical moments in the story, and tells the reader where Doreen’s story ends and where her own additions and (re)interpretations begin. “Doreen’s Story” is thus not only about Anabella’s story as told by Doreen; it is about the process of storytelling that turns a person into a town legend and, in the frame narrative, a work of fiction (or very suggestively, creative nonfiction). Furthermore, Anabella is revealed to be not just a historical character or town leg-end, but a writer too herself. In a list somewhat parallels Magdalena G. Jalandoni’s output, Anabella is revealed to have written these in her reclusion: “72 novels, 122 short stories, 7 novelettes, 5 corridos, 8 narrative poems of 100 to 1,000 stanzas each, 231 short lyrics, 7 long plays, 24 short plays and dialogos in verse, 7 volumes of essays, and 2 autobiographies” (49).