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Creative Nonfiction

My Trilingual Career

Francis C. Macansantos ? Butch to his friends and family ? considered many places home. Born in Cotabato City in 1949, he spent his boyhood in Zamboanga City, hometown of his parents. A Zamboangueno at heart (and palate), his memories of growing up with boyhood friends in Zamboanga were vivid and came to life in many of his poems written in English and his native Chabacano. Though he earned his A.B. (English) degree from Ateneo de Zamboanga (where he also completed his high school education), he earned some of his collegiate units at MSU Marawi, where he came under the mentorship of talented Literature teachers such as Nena Marohombsar. On the recommendation of fellow Zamboangueno writer Cesar R. Aquino, Butch attended the Silliman Writers? Workshop in the early 1970s, and was drawn to the Dumaguete community of writers and teachers, enough for him to subsequently enroll in the university?s MA Creative Writing program. He lived the writer?s life in Dumaguete for close to a decade, learning to speak Cebuano, and enjoying the company of friends both in the university and in the city. This stay in Dumaguete afforded him regular attendance in the annual summer workshop, where he later served (formally and informally) on the critics? panel, with his mentors Dr. Edith Tiempo and Dr. Edilberto Tiempo. At Silliman, Francis also worked at some point with the late Antonio Enriquez, who taught briefly at the University, and who remained a close friend until he passed on in 2014.

Butch taught for close to two years at MSU Marawi until 1980, when he had to leave after incurring the ire of the then University president, for a parody performed in public by Francis? group of faculty members. Mindanao during Martial Law was not the best place for outspoken academics and writers, and though the stories seemed unbelievably horrific, it was later confirmed by fellow teachers (who hid Butch and his fellow offenders in the women?s dorm) that indeed gunmen were on the lookout for the group. In 1981 Butch relocated to Baguio to join his spouse Priscilla ? whom he met in 1976 at Silliman. He has since lived in this mountain city, save for a five year stay in Newark, Delaware in the US, in 1990 until 1995. Though he learned only a smattering of Ilocano, the lingua franca of Baguio, Francis considered Baguio and the Cordilleras his home for more years than the periods of stay elsewhere. He was a regular market-goer and had many sukis in the market and the neighborhood. One of his sukis at the local talipapa was the wife of a writer in Ilocano ? Jimmy Agpalo- and he interspersed literary banter with everyday neighborhood gossip whenever he had the chance to chat. (At his wake, friends from the university were joined by his loyal market vendor friends and members of the barangay council.) Teaching briefly at UP Baguio, he made friends with the visual artist Darnay Demetillo, a fellow Sillimanian, and joined the artists? collective Tahong Bundok, founded by Darnay and fellow Baguio visual artist Pyx Picart. Before the turn of the century, Butch also formed, together with the late National Artist Cirilo Bautista, the Baguio Writers Group. He mentored young writers in and out of the university, and sometime in 2007, initiated the holding of the Cordillera Creative Writers Workshop at UP Baguio. It was also during this period when he served in the Literary Arts Committee of NCCA as representative of Baguio and the Cordillera region. The essay that follows was read at the last Cordillera Writers workshop in which he participated as panel member.

While in Baguio, Francis made regular visits to Dumaguete and Zamboanga City, at times to serve in the critics? panel of the Silliman Writers Workshop (upon the invitation of Dr. Edith Tiempo), at other times to panel at the Western Mindanao Creative Writers Workshop in Zamboanga City. Though writing mostly in English early in his career, he later embarked on poetry in his native Chabacano, producing in 2011 his collection Balsa: Poemas Chabacano. He encouraged young writers from the Cordilleras to write in their first language, and these efforts bore fruit with the increasing output of writing in the Cordilleran languages, as well as the earmarking of an NCCA Writers? prize category for poetry in the Kankanaey language.

Though better known as a poet in English, Francis also wrote prose, fiction and literary criticism. An avowed late blooming culinary enthusiast, he recently contributed to the cookbook The Filipino Kitchen, published and distributed by Agate Surrey in Chicago. His essay titled ?Nashville? was published posthumously by the Shanghai Literary Review, and was later nominated in 2018 for the Pushcart Prize. He has written and published reviews of works by Epifanio San Juan, Ophelia A. Dimalanta, Antonio Enriquez, among others. An extended biography of the writer Antonio Enriquez, written on an NCCA grant, remains unpublished, as are numerous essays, poems, plays, and short stories. Of Francis the man and his poetry, the writer Alfred (Krip) Yuson, in a review of Francis? last book Snail Fever, wrote: ?Indeed, his humor was both mercurial and vaporous? In contrast, his poetry was seditious in its sober sensitivity, employing themes that drew from his academic training in the classics as much as his affinity with nature that is becalmed with acute language.?

Francis passed away suddenly in July 2017. In the months before his sudden demise, he was preparing a collection of poems on his experiences during Martial Law.

(Alfred Yuson?s review appears in: https://www.asiancha.com/content/view/3255/676/)

  • Priscilla S. Macansantos

       When I look back across the years I realize that I started to teach creative writing in Baguio almost from the moment I arrived in 1981 to teach English at the U.P. College (two decades before it became a university.) That very same year, I found myself mentoring a much younger colleague who was just starting out as a writer. Her name was Luisa Cari?o, and for the longest time she would be known as such in the realm of Philippine letters until her remarriage in America to a Fil-Am surnamed Igloria. But back in 1981 she was a green-horn, and I was far more accomplished. My poems had made their way into national magazines, including the very prestigious Manila Review. She on the other hand had stopped writing, she told me ruefully. But would I look at her stuff? Having been mentored by the Tiempos at Silliman (my last place of employment) and having been a panelist for the two previous years at the Silliman workshop, I considered myself competent to mentor beginning writers. Of course I accepted the task. But of the fifteen or so poems she submitted I only chose a few I said we could work at. Nevertheless, those few showed indubitable promise.

       Her favorite poet then, as she averred, was Robinson Jeffers, a preference I felt could lead her to a dead end, no matter how great he was. Besides, he definitely was male. My mentor Edith Tiempo had two favorite women poets: Denise Levertov and Elizabeth Jennings. It was to this fine pair that I introduced Luisa. I also shared with her copies of the literary journal of Silliman?Sands and Coral–where she read not only the works of Edith Tiempo but also Edith Tiempo?s brilliant women prot?g?s: Merle Alunan and Marjorie Evasco.

       Her development proved to be meteoric. It may be said to have closely ?coincided? with my own, at the start, although it hardly has to be said here that her career not only took off from then on but overtook mine, as well as those of many other Filipino writers. I won my first national award in 1983, in a Palanca poetry second-prize tie with our friend Freddie Salanga. Luisa followed hotly on my heels in 1984, winning the first prize in a tie with fellow Baguio native Edgar Maranan.  But I will not belabor history here, which is well-known. Besides, we were all writing exclusively in English (except, notably, Ed Maranan). I was not bilingual at all. Writing in the vernacular was farthest from my mind.

       My mother tongue is Chabacano. In the 1950?s, it was spoken in most homes in Zamboanga City and the island of Basilan, and even in some homes in a couple of towns in Zamboanga del Sur. Linguistically, this was how it was like there when I was a child growing up in Zamboanga. Nowadays, of course, the linguistic area has shrunk, with more incursions of non-Chabacano (e.g. Cebuano, Tausug, Tagalog) speakers into the community, particularly in the urban center. But Spanish was still being spoken in a few households, although upstart English was fast replacing it. My paternal grandfather still subscribed to El Deber (the Spanish weekly). Spanish priests went on excoriating the mainly Chabacano-speaking congregation in Spanish. But Spanish was only the ghost of what it had been. It was a mere remnant of the colonial past, and although my Father did speak Spanish and even went on to teach it to mostly unwilling students, the language spoken at home was that other remnant that came to stay: Chabacano.

       But Chabacano then could hardly be said to possess a literature. If any oral literature still did exist in the language then, it was no longer chanted in the city. What literature there had been was written in Spanish, but this survived the American occupation only in Spanish-speaking households of the educated elite. Speaking for myself, I only had access to this literature (reminiscent of the ?modernismo? mode of  Nicaraguan Ruben Dario and other poets in Spanish) late into the 1990?s, if memory serves, and from a source I could never have predicted: my older sister (the eldest in our brood, in fact) whose translations of a couple of poems of the American period authored by a certain Zamboangue?o (surnamed Orendain) I had the luck to read in a textbook of regional literature for college students in Mindanao. Beautiful poems they were, with no heirs.

       The literature I read as a child came mainly from two language sources: English and Tagalog. I learned Tagalog mainly from the comics in Liwayway magazine and from comic magazines such as Pilipino Comics, Hiwaga, Espesyal, and others. My paternal grandparents (Grandfather grew up in Manila) were regular readers of Liwayway, particularly of its serialized novels. My siblings and cousins helped me along in my reading, and although I did not speak it, Tagalog was my virtual second language.

      I learned English in nearly the same manner (i.e. thru movies and comics) although schools taught us all English through our readings and songs. Movies, too, were an even more influential medium. I learned English faster than I did Tagalog partly because my father, who disliked Tagalog movies, discouraged his children from watching them.

       Even as a growing child I considered myself indubitably a Filipino, a Zamboangue?o Filipino who spoke mainly in Chabacano. To this day I think of myself as such. I also speak (and exile from Zamboanga has made this inevitable) in what is now known among academicians as Filipino?and often as not, in Taglish. I also consider myself as definitely Filipino. Even as I speak occasionally and write mainly in English, I identify myself to myself as a Filipino, a Zamboangue?o Filipino. A few years ago, I wrote a collection of some ten poems for children in Filipino. I would have to say here then that I am a trilingual writer.

      Of course writing in three languages does not make me unique, not in the Philippines where a few writers (the late Federico Licsi-Espino comes to mind) even write in more than three languages. Our cultures are nearly as varied as our languages. Factor in our colonial past and you get a hint of Babel. Only our two main linguae francae help us communicate with each other.

       Language identifies us. However, I started to write in Chabacano late in life, when past fifty, having written solely in English before that. Unlike many Filipinos, I did not have a mother tongue with a solid literary tradition behind it, whether oral or written. There were no oral epics or written masterpieces in our past to fortify us in our literary journeys. Except as personal letters, or scripts intended for radio drama, the Chabacano language I knew until I deigned to write in it was oral, merely oral, and not even oral literature. To be a Chabacano writer when I was starting to seriously consider writing as a career would have been considered absurd.

       Then again, because I wrote in English, my model writers were mainly English and American, and if they were Filipinos, they were writers in English like my mentors in Silliman University such as the Tiempos, Cesar Aquino, and Antonio Enriquez. Joaquin, Villa, Demetillo, Arcellana, and Arguilla were also among my models, writers with a definitely Filipino sensibility who happened to write in English. As for themes, there were always the universal ones.

       My awakening to the world of Philippine vernacular literature may have been induced?even compelled?by what I heard in a lecture presentation by a panelist at the Pen conference held in Baguio in 1998. The presentor, Franklin Cimatu, was a young Baguio bilingual poet and a reporter for the Philippine Daily Inquirer. One of the highlights of his presentation was a very engaging account of a reporter in a distant mountain community rendering his news report in verse! Whether this report was oral (i.e. thru radio) or written I can no longer recall. Fantastic or not, this account fascinated me and stirred in me the nascent sense of an advocacy. This sense was all the more consolidated by a survey the panelist relayed to his fellow writers including an entire panel of Cordillera-based writers, a survey indicating both the great number of Cordillera languages, as well as the fact that most of them were dying. This tragic situation touched me to the core. I felt that surely something could be done. But the magnitude of the task must have driven me to a sense of hopelessness. But decades later, when a renaissance in vernacular literature seemed possible, I felt certain that there was one way the rehabilitation of a language (and with it, culture) could be done: by developing or reviving and reinvigorating its literature. One of the ways this revivifying process could be done was by training young writers in the craft of writing and by encouraging them to write in their mother tongue.

       Perhaps at the back of my mind I was thinking of Chabacano which was deteriorating, and was on its way to nada. But I was still writing in English. In fact I was contemplating an epic poem on a grand theme: machismo and its dire consequences, psychological and historical. Cirilo Bautista, even then already our master epic poet suggested that if I wrote an epic, I ought to write about Zamboanga. But my mind was going global and would not take the road back home. (Of course, to be fair to myself, the finished work included Philippine regional motifs including the Cordillera, the Ilocos, and Mindanao.) Eventually, in 2003, my epic in progress (about a fifth of its eventual length) won the NCCA Writer?s Prize for poetry, and I was tasked by the judges to finish the draft for their approval by yearend (which was 2004).

       I then ran for membership to the literary committee of the NCCA and was elected representative for the Cordilleras. In the committee I worked for the approval of a project to establish a writers? workshop in U.P. Baguio. Having no academic appointment myself, I sought the help of the Prof. Elizabeth Caliwanagan, then the Dean of the College of Arts and Communications at U.P. Baguio. Trained in Linguistics, but a writer as well in the vernacular, she was most enthusiastic about the project. Eventually, when my wife Priscilla took over my Cordillera slot at the NCLA (and became head of the committee as well) there was no difficulty in actualizing the project after NCCA approval. The first NCCA sponsored Cordillera Writers? Workshop was held in 2007 at the U.P. in Baguio with Dr. Elizabeth Calinawagan as director and Dr. Benilda Santos and myself as critic-panelists.

      I had not conceived or imagined the project as one that would foreground vernacular literature of the region. Fortunately, the NCCA itself had policies that institutionalized preferment and support for the ethnic arts and required writing in the regional languages as a component in regional workshops. The NCCA was thinking for me. I did not have to persuade anyone. Light seemed to begin to peep through from the tunnel end. There seemed hope for what had been a moribund advocacy.

       Actually, this was not the first time for me to teach writing in the vernacular in writers? workshops. Along with other Zamboangue?o writers who were panelists at summer or mid-semestral writers? workshops in Zamboanga (sponsored by the NCCA), I had long experience since the late 1990?s of  critiquing literary manuscripts in the Mindanao vernaculars, along with the usual submissions in English and Filipino. But most of the works in Chabacano (if at all there were any) were not noteworthy until a Professor of linguistics at the Western Mindanao State University submitted a brilliantly written short story in Chabacano. A couple of years later, the story won for its author, Jonathan Ver-Ayson, not only a fellowship at the Iligan National Workshop but the award of best short story manuscript for the year as well.

       The workshop where this story was originally submitted to was held in the late 1990?s. Amazed by such a feat (the first-ever short story written in Chabacano) I myself started writing poetry in Chabacano, that very year writing two poems which I read in a literary program held at the Fort Pilar in Zamboanga attended by visual artists and writers. Zamboangue?o novelist Antonio Enriquez, the WMSU workshop director also read a freshly written passage of a novel in Chabacano that he was starting to write. One of the poems I read was ?Balsa? (?Raft?), which was later to provide the title for my first book of poems published in 2007 by the NCCA. Enriquez and I also taught writing at the Ateneo de Zamboanga sponsored by the NCCA with writer and scholar Prof. Servando Halili  as its director. Writing in the local languages was encouraged in these workshops that were held from the 1990?s until 2010. The workshops that included works in Chabacano have led to acceptance in the writing community in Zamboanga of Chabacano as a literary medium. Literary journals in Zamboanga schools now feature Chabacano poetry and prose.

       By the time I became a member of the NCCA literary committee, I felt I knew where the Cordilleras were to go: The way Zamboanga and I were going?towards the vernacular. Yet I was still mainly a writer in English.  I was a regular visiting panelist at the Silliman/Dumaguete writers? workshop from 1996 to 2008, and surely its reputation as bastion of writing in English is not undeserved. And I did continue writing in English even as I taught writing in the vernacular in Zamboanga and the Cordilleras. I felt really proud of my English translations of the Chabacano poems in the book, Balsa when the book was selected finalist for the National Book Award for poetry in English.  I even felt a twinge of sadness when Prof. Calinawagan, in a bid to empower Cordillera literature, excluded English manuscripts from admission to the workshop?no matter if I saw the justness of the decision. Anyone who writes in two, three, or more languages will tell you a certain loyalty to each of these languages is required to be able to write in any of these with some degree of success. And every feeling of loyalty is never without a tinge of betrayal once one has decided on the language to write in at what particular time.

       What makes it easy for me to decide to write in Tagalog is my own lack of mastery of the adult lexicon. I know that my verbal range will limit my attempts to one particular genre, where my own relative innocence of the language may even work to my advantage. However, I will have to choose my audience–I also write poetry in English for children–from the very outset, and that choice will not be easy. It has to be a conscious choice. All literary intuition must come after the choice of language has been made. John Paul Sartre once asked a question that has become famous: ?For whom does one write?? His thoughts on this subject have made us realize that the audience one writes for, even if one is not conscious of such is always implied, always a given. Addressing requires an addressee or an intended beneficiary.

       Of course, I know the psychology of this is a subtler matter than can be threshed out here. But we can simplify it for our purposes by slightly changing the question to: ?To whom does one write?? to take off the burden of explaining political or cultural interest. Now, then, to the business of audience: When I write for (or should I make that to?) children in Filipino, it is out of  a deeply felt need to reach out to them, particularly those who, not being Tagalog speakers, are just beginning to learn to read in the language. They are also learning to be Filipino. I don?t want them to feel left out as I did when I was growing up, ostracized in class by the arrogance of Tagalog teachers and classmates who made the rest of us feel like second-class citizens. This my literary audience of children will have the opportunity of starting out young in the language, enabling them to achieve equal mastery with native speakers of the language as they mature.

       When I write in Chabacano my target audience is definitely Zamboangue?o, Basile?o, and other Chabacano speaking peoples. But the accompanying translations in English that I provide enable the poetry to reach a wider audience. The audience for the poems I write in English is, at least potentially, global, and for the same linguistic reason. Of course the poems often have Philppine material and a Philippine context, but they endeavor to achieve a global relevance. I am a Zamboangue?o,  a Filipino, and a  citizen of the world. My identity is never negated by my identities or the languages I use.

       Once when I was still the Cordillera representative in the NCCA committee for Literary Arts, I heard a fellow member wonder aloud why a writer in Chabacano was representing Cordillera writers. Had I tried to answer the question, I would not made sense if I did not relate my entire trilingual career. It wouldn?t have made sense either if I did not explain how I have waited, and for so long, for the Cordillera writer to stand up and speak for themselves when good and ready. The question addressed to them on the occasion of the seventh Cordillera Writers? workshop is simply this: ?Are you ready?? Well, after all these years, you ought to be.

       Incidentally, it was also in that 1998 PEN conference that Sionil Jose asked what Cordillera writers in the audience considered an insulting question: ?Is there Cordillera literature after Sinai Hamada?? It was also in 1998 that Cirilo Bautista (the keynote speaker of that conference) organized the Baguio Writers? Group with Luisa Cari?o, Napoleon Javier, Gabriel Baban Keith, Francis Macansantos, Vangie Murillo and a certain Abastilla (a fiction writer). Bautista, it must be noted, never envisioned the group as exclusive, preferring to think of it as an umbrella organization.

       Looking back, I feel I should not regret being a writer in English at all. Here we were, all writers in English, in the 1990?s creating a body of works. And through English we brought in the world into our region and nation. Literature in the vernacular is not and can never be innocent of the world after English, and all the better for that. World literature pours into our consciousness in English, whether in the original or as translation. Should we give up English? Of course not. Not even Tagalog.

By Francis Macansantos

Francis C. Macansantos was born in Cotabato City, grew up in Zamboanga City, and was a resident of Baguio City from 1981 until his demise in July 2017. He earned his MA (Creative Writing) from Silliman University in Dumaguete City and was a five-time Palanca award winner in English Poetry. He won the NCCA (National Commission for Culture and the Arts) Writer?s Prize for Epic Poetry in 2003, and has four books of poetry: The Words and Other Poems (UP Press 1997), Womb of Water, Breasts of Earth (NCCA 2007), Balsa: Poemas Chabacano (NCCA 2011) and Snail Fever (UP Press 2016). Snail Fever won the National Book Award for Poetry in English in 2017. Balsa - a collection of 31 poems in Chabacano, with translations into English - was finalist in the National Book Award in 2012 for Poetry in English. Macansantos taught at several universities, including Mindanao State University and the University of the Philippines, and served in panels of critics in creative writing workshops throughout the Philippines. In 2007 and 2014, he was elected as Baguio/Cordillera representative in the Executive Committee for Literary Arts of the NCCA. In 2014, Macansantos was one of the recipients of the Martha Faust Sonnet Prize in Minnesota.

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