top of page

Six memos to Bikol writers

The following was delivered by the author as keynopte speaker during the Pagsurat Bikol 5 held at the Camarines Sur Polytechnic Colleges, Nabua, Camarines Sur last January 28, 2017 with the theme, “Pagpapahiwas kan Sinugkaran, {arta’naw sa Kinaagahan” (Expanding the Horizon, Looking Towards the Future).

DIYOS MABALOS tabi sa paggiromdom sakuya kan maski madaralian buda sa tahaw kan rawraw sa buhay asin kabuhayan na iwinalat kan bagyo, idinagos nindo an pagtiripon na ini kan mga parasurat Bikolnon.

It’s a bit convenient, I’m sure, that you would think of me, although I will be the first to claim no authority on the state or practice of Bikol writing, doing so little of writing in the language myself, and knowing only from my scant reading of the literature that is being written right now in the region.

I had a temporary direct experience or at least a vantage point on contemporary Bikol writing when many years ago I sat on the teaching panel of the UP Writers Workshop together with my friend Jun Balde. That’s how I got acquainted with the likes of Frank Peñones, Vic Nierva, Kristian Cordero, Jimple Borlagdan, among others, and still others whose names I can’t recall now. And then they changed the format of the workshop and the Bikol Desk, as I referred to it then, disappeared.

Then again there are the current anthologies being produced by almost the same writers in their dogged devotion to the language. Ateneo de Naga University Press, some assistance from the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, in which I am involved as consultant, and individual initiatives, or even collective efforts by Kabulig and other organizations, signal to us the healthy ferment that is happening within Pagsurat Bikol.

My own online publishing initiative afforded me some vantage on what was happening as well. Between 2008 and 2011, I was publishing a blog, later reformatted as a magazine, called poet’sPicturebook and later Electronic Monsoon Magazine. The online publication attracted contributors here and abroad—it welcomed poetry mainly, the occasional essay, and photographs. It encouraged the ekphrastic kind of poetry, or poetry based on or about a work of art like painting or other visual medium. It was also multilingual, and since I presumed it had an international readership and contributor base, I took on the translation chore for contributions in Filipino, and of course those in Bikol. That’s how I more or less witnessed the “development” among individual Bikol writers and the news and briefs they brought with their notes on their contributors.

Besides, it gave me the venue to regularly practice my translation of poetry from the two languages I knew, Filipino and Bikol. Anyway, that’s also how I came to know, perhaps close at hand, the the ongoing work of Bikol poets as they and their work matured, what their subjects were and how they chose them, what they thought of the world. It was like being a witness to memory being created in poetry, and I even was not spared of the news of the sudden departures of fellow writers like Val Fajardo, Mike Bigornia, and as the online magazine evolved, Rudy Alano and Jun Belgica.

But many good things do not last. The little online magazine was getting contributions from everywhere. On the other hand, I was running out of time in some form. I could not wait for contributions forever, and I needed cash for the rental of online space. The first payments I got from my freelancing—I was semi-retired by this time: retired from advertising but not retired from making a livelihood—I bought a domain name for the mag. There were two solid years of issues based on a loose application of themes. Sometimes the theme for the issue was announced. Sometimes the theme was derived from some common thread in the available contributions. It was a nice game to play. Still the contributions, while coming from everywhere around the globe literally, were not that frequent. As my writing projects made more demands of my time, I was missing issues. In mid-2011 I stopped planning the issues and announcing for contributions.

My short-lived personal online publishing venture had ended. But not before affording me this vantage point into the creative work especially of Filipinos and Bikolanos abroad and at home. The building of the houses of memory does not stop, anywhere, everywhere, in every language.

Iyo ini, siguro ang sadiri o personal kong pagtâ-naw sa padagos na paghiwas kan sinagkuran kan pagsurat buda tataramon na Bikolnon, asin an pagtâ-naw man kan lengguwahe mismo sa kaagahon kan saiyang futuro. Kaya, bago ko malingawan, saro ngonang Maligayang Pagbati sa mga organizers ng kumperensiyang ito, buda mainit na enhorabuena sa inda sa tahaw kan aram kong sari-saring kadifisilan madagos lamang ini.

Which brings us to the main points of my little discourse. Aram nindo siguro na among the writers from the regions, an sakuyang obserbasyon na ang Bikolanong parasurat an halos dai ko madangogan ki reklamo manongod sa sa sitwasyon kan tataramon buda pagsurat sa Filipinas? Bako masusupgon o mabooton ang parasurat na Bikolnon, kundi bilog an saiyang boot, an tiwala sa sadiring kakayahan na baklayon an responsabilidad kan parasurat sa sadiri, sa lengguwahe, buda sa banwa.

Sa pagkaaram ko, halos gabos na mga aki pang parasurat na midbid ko, tri-lingual. Daing takot sa imperial Manila daa, garu man sana natural ang magdara o maggamit nin tolong lengguwahe, and he does it as a matter of fact, and so nonchalantly.

Ining kusog ki boot na ini, ining kumpiyansang ini sa sadiring kakayahan ang sarong birtud na mahatod saiya sa mas mahiwas pang kasagkoran nin bisyon, an mas maliwanag pang kinaagahan kan Tataramon na Bikol.

Here’s my little advice. Looking ahead, looking to expand horizons means to look more inside yourselves. It also means, as writers, it is looking to and into the language itself. How far has it gone since the start of the Bikol resurgence or renaissance? How, in fact, did that resurgence start?

The answers to those questions are not as important as how to proceed now that you Bikolano writers have started the resurgence. We could say that the Bikol Desk at the UP National Writers Workshop helped some by exposing young writers to the rigors of a collegial critical look at the first draft of a poem or story, and it helped that those fortunate enough to attend the UP workshop submitted their works in the Bikol language. But that is as far as it goes. The continuing resurgence is at your own locomotive power and what other push or pull do you still need?

First, you need language itself. That’s why I say look into Bikol and ask how else, what other elements are needed to further strengthen it? Many of you, if not all, are already writing in it. So here’s my first memorandum: 1) Take Care of Your Language. Taking care does not mean protecting it jealously from encroachment. From within or without. Taking care does not mean keeping it pure. There is no such thing as a pure language. The only pure language is a dead language. A living language grows and growth is from without and from within. Do not be afraid to borrow but be bold in the act of appropriation. Taking care means to build the language. Build it firmly and robustly. Build it with a liberal lexicon and usage. Build it by using it expansively. Build it to explore the houses of memory, build it to build memory itself.

Using it expansively means bringing it to the various domains of knowledge and life. I know you know this already. Perhaps your experiences are broader than mine. You have travelled literally into farther territories and horizons, into other modes of living and professions. All the more should you write, take down notes, create your obras—stories, poems, memoires, novels. Never stop. The Internet is there for you to use in research, in comparing notes, in publishing itself. Create a blog or a website. Correspond with your friends.

But I have to warn you. The Internet democratizes information and data. But it does not empower or bestow knowledge. It is a great venue or medium for the acquisition of information but it is not triggering the proper synapses for the building of knowledge, and for the refinement of knowledge and information into wisdom. It is still a machine that at this stage crudely resembles our brain, but it still has not the power to contemplate. It still has not the reflective capacity or even reflexive instinct to meditate. It cannot make Buddhas out of us.

Only physical and printed books can. The printed book in its own limitations imposes a linearity to our thoughts while reading; the electronic data base of the Internet gives us snatches of information and an amalgam of undifferentiated data. Converting it into knowledge is still the work of the human brain.

Therefore, write your books in the Bikol language but have them published and printed physically, in the analogue machines of Ateneo de Naga University Press or Agnus. Send them out on the Internet and cyberspace digitially, sell them if you can on Amazon or other online sellers, but the physical ink-and-paper books will still have a different effect on the knowledge and wisdom building of your readers. Take note, even Amazon will soon go back to physical stores. And the sale of books still grows t in incremental proportions as well as exponentially in both format simultaneously—digitally as well as analog. This means that people read as much from their Kindles as from hardcovers and paperbacks, both ordered from Amazon and the like. Technology does not readily replace or kill formats. The physical book still has a long way to go before extinction, whatever the digital producers or consumers say.

Next we even go a bit more basic and analogue. 2) Write the New Bikol Orthography. I would also say create because now is the best time as you have the most ample resources and experience. I understand Ateneo or another institution is publishing a new edition of Lisboa’s Vocabulario de la Lengua Bikol—did I get the title right? And I understand we have extant Bikol dictionaries by Lynch and Mintz. Now is the time to start writing a modern Bikol Orthography. The language is growing and it is being used first by the most conscientious users of the language, the writer and poets. And of course it is being used by the church, and the government. I really have no exact idea to what extent.

Therefore make lexicographers of yourselves, writers. Make it a parallel career or a major project. Or organize a collective. Get representatives from all the major users, geographically, the livelihoods, the professions, and all the power domains. Use all the extant dictionaries as reference and starting points to create the modern Bikol orthography. I will not prescribe how to do it, or pretend to know what specific elements it should contain, but use all the references possible, local, national, and from abroad. Orthography is not a new thing. But it is a legitimate branch of language studies. And a practical necessity for a growing and modernizing language. Orthography is the first step in codifying a language.

Why do you need it? For three reasons mainly: standardization, modernization, progress. Standardization is not only for uniformity’s sake. It is for the ‘recognizability’ of words and for the differentiation between shades of meaning especially if two words sound the same. Or, if one word is used for two or several meanings.

Before I give examples, I would like to shift to the third but parallel task for Bikol writers at this stage of the Bikol literary renaissance. Modernization and progress would be the objectives of the third parallel task which is to 3) Unify the Bikol Lexicon. As writers and main users of the language, you are in the pivotal position to write dictionaries. The linguists or linguistic scientists would like to arrogate to themselves the task of writing dictionaries but I would insist they not do it without the involvement of the primary users of the language, the writers.

Now for the examples—which I remember mentioning similar examples in my similar role as speaker for an earlier group of Bikol writers in the past. That seems like a lifetime ago. Unification of lexicon would mean the stock vocabularies of the two groups of users of what we refer to as the Bikol language—Legazpeño and Nagueño. Even before that maybe you writers and other users of the language should decide what to officially call these two components of language based on the geographical capitals of the region. —Eño is, of course, a Spanish formation or suffix. Would you like a more “native” manner? That should be one of the more basic things to consider.

Again to the examples. I remember I gave two pairs years ago, but right now I can recall only one pair: pandok and lalaogon. In the unification of lexicons this represents what we can do with existing words as a means of enriching the language. Why not use pandok to refer to the physical and visible face, and lalaogon for a “deeper” or more meaningful term to describe the face as a manifestation of the soul, which is, in fact, what it is. Thus we can say, for example, that dai ko masabutan ang pandok niya for an impenetrable facial expression, and sarong mahamis na gigidom an bumisita sa saiyang lalaogon. Isn’t that, perhaps, a richer Bikol we are speaking and writing?

The way I observe in many written examples is the use of saldang and aldaw, with the former referring to the heavenly body (the sun) and the latter to the day or time period. That to me is a practical way of assigning denotations and not having to constantly distinguish between the name of the heavenly body and the name of the day if we have only one term, aldaw. And that is one way of growing the language.

I am sure there are still many examples for unifying the Bikol lexicon and this is also another way we can import words from other Bikol languages or dialects to continually enrich and make practical and usable what we call the Bikol language. And borrowing is of course one of the main means of language building, but borrowing from related languages is always better than borrowing from foreign ones for quicker absorption into the mainstream and readier understandability by users. In Filipino, the classic examples are kalayaan and katarungan. You probably know the story about how Rizal got wind of at the time a neologism from Marcelo H. del Pilar, the word kalayaan. Rizal wrote his brother Paciano, while he was in Germany and translating Schiller’s play, William Tell, that he had no Tagalog word for the German freiheit (freedom) and could only think of the Spanish word libertad. But Rizal remembered Del Pilar’s Tagalog translation of one his essays where he first encounters kalayaan. The root word is extant, laya, which is related to layas and has to do with wildness. But when you reassemble the word with the prefix and suffix, kalayaan seemed just right for Rizal to translate the rather abstract German ideal of freiheit.

Layas, which is familiar to us Bikols, is related to the Visayan word ilahas which is the relatively new Filipino word for wild as in wild animals, to distinguish it from the usual term mailap (elusive literally) which can apply to both humans and animals. The other early modern example I cited because it has become so familiar is katarungan, which did not exist before Lope K. Santos’ Balarila. We know the root tadong or tarong, which both mean straight and uprightness in Bisaya. Again, with the Tagalog affixes at the beginning and end of the root it performs a very formal purpose of denoting justice so we do not have to borrow the Spanish justicia.

As recent as ilahas is the Ilocano rabaw and the Bikol lawas. Rabaw and lawas have been adopted into Filipino to technically denote the physical surface and body instead of just saying ibabaw and katawan. Note how easier it is to use them to designate the material surface (ang kahoy na rabaw ng mesa) and geographic bodies of water (ang malaking lawas ng tubig tulad ng Dagat Pacifico). The precision is very useful instead of incurring unintended humor as in saying ang katawan ng tubig.

Our languages (Tagalog, Bikol, Bisaya) all belong to the bigger Austronesian language family of the vast Pacific area. From the examples above the wisdom of borrowing from native Filipino languages instead of from English or Spanish, with the former being of the Anglo-Saxon Germanic family and the latter a Romance language, an offshoot of Latin. It is said that an Ilocano or Kapampangan can live for one week in Naga City and learn at least conversational Bikol, but a child must make a triple or quadruple leap from his his native Bisaya or Bikol when being taught English. (Of course the proliferation of English in media lessens the difficulty, but so it does for Filipino which has become the archipelago’s incontrovertible lingua franca.)

This internal borrowing must happen if we must strengthen Bikol as as literary and technical language for our region. Again, there is none more practical and empowered than writers, you and me, who can accomplish this. You might want to organize a Bikol academy for the propagation of the Bikol language, and send out researchers on Bikol terms for livelihoods, industries, and commerce, but the lead and vanguard is still the writers.

4) The fourth task is to translate, translate, translate. Perhaps one of the proofs of the maturity of a language is its ability to translate the best from any other language. The Bikol we are working on must translate between and among the other Bikol languages, must translate into or from Filipino, the national language, and into foreign languages like English or any of your preference.

That is the only way you can converse with our archipelagic nation and with the world. So become translators as well, Bikol writers. Make it another parallel career.

Translation has always been denigrated as a second-class citizen of sorts in literature, a parasite of the original work, an imperfect art that is always in progress. Some of great writers had their share of bad words for it. Rumi said that “Silence is the language of God. All else is poor translation.” Or as the poet Yevegeny Yevtushenko, who is not always politically correct, said: “Translation is like a woman. If it is beautiful, it is not faithful. If it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful.” Praise is given grudgingly. “Translation is the art of failure,” the semiotician Umberto Eco said. There is the classic Italian adage, “Traduttore, traditore.” Translator, traitor—for betraying to us the meaning of a language we do not know or do not speak.

On the other hand, the literary philosopher Walter Benjamin called it the “afterlife” or resurrection of the original work, its recreation in a new language, not necessarily the translating or target language but a greater or ideal language which I suspect used the universal grammar imagined by Noam Chomsky. Perhaps one of the most sober descriptions comes from the leading theorist of translation today. Lawrence Venuti says, “To read a translation as a translation, as a work in its own right, we need a more practical sense of what a translator does. I would describe it as an attempt to compensate for an irreparable loss by controlling an exorbitant gain.”

Well, he only means we gain more than we lose in translation. We gain understanding, we engage in the conversation between languages, we close the gulf between cultures. Imagine if there was no translation, would we know Sophocles or Aeschylus or Virgil or Dante? Would we enjoy the exquisite quatrains of Omar Khayyám’s Rubaiyat if there were no Edward FitzGerald?

5) Rethink role of language—and Bikol—in the dichotomy between science and the humanities. If we knew that Khayyám was in fact a mathematician and an astronomer while being a poet we might have to rethink the role of language in the painful divorce between science and the humanities. We must start start looking into how the Bikol language itself is or might be used in teaching or studying the sciences, technology, economics, engineering, mathematics, and all the so-called technical fields—the STEM in the curriculum—or how it can open more windows through the use of the “local imagination,” i.e., the Bikol language, in elaborating technical and scientific theories and subjects.

If you must know, there several pioneers and practitioners of teaching the sciences in Filipino in Manila. One of them, wrote dictionary of economic terms in Filipino, and continues to teach the subject in a university, became KWF’s Dangal ng Wika awardee. Another, a young man, teaches math in Filipino and does so in the most sophisticated style you can imagine, with fantastic effects on students. A group of medical practitioners are compiling a dictionary of medical and surgical terms in Filipino, while a leading engineer and OFW is writing a similar dictionary for engineering and holds conferences on the use of Filipino in their profession. That is only glimpse of what is happening to the national language. Something similar must happen to Bikol if it must fulfill its responsibility in this part of the archipelago.

Every language must test itself against the realities of a changing world and face the challenge not just of conveying new ideas and the intricacies of science and technology but the possibilities and risk of the loss of humanity in, for example, the complexity of astrophysics where human consciousness is nowhere considered in interplanetary travel; or closer to home, in the continuing atomization and fragmentation in global capitalism. We live in the cusp of this domination of science and math and technology in human affairs. Language, perhaps the highest manifestation of humanity in the world of the technical and abstract, must bring back that humanity, must restore the place of human consciousness now missing in the mechanistic universe and reduced mainly to being a ghost in the machine.

Obviously, the last task I can see for writers is 6) To open once more the links or synaptic channels between the interior and exterior life of the people. This, for me, is the basic function of language. It is not just self-expression, nor communication, but everything brought together to enflesh the soul of a people. And in that incarnation the interior and the exterior come together, the repository of social and historical experience, of values and aspirations, becomes the self-aware and self-respecting created and creative image of the individual and society. Thus the Bikol writer shapes himself through his language. Unlike Umberto Eco’s speech-challenged character but who became a hero nevertheless, Baudolino, for whom time was an “eternity of stammers,” the Bikol writer will be an articulate voice describing and inscribing the wholeness, the memory and future of the Bikol soul.

(With apologies to Italo Calvino)

bottom of page