Celebrating Books and Writers



It was a short walk from the gate closest to the old Peñafrancia Shrine to the grave of Dr. Lily F. Realubit, pioneering scholar of Bikol Studies. In those few minutes, in the company of writers invited to grace the First Bikol Book Festival, were memories of a woman who had made the younger generations understand that their literatures, dubbed as local, had a place in the universe of literatures that linked the periphery to the central, the native practices to those traditions forming the canon admitted in the academic institutions.


For all the setting, the afternoon of paying tribute to two major literary figures - the other one being Socorro Federis-Tate - was a vibrant and vital celebration of Bikol literature and studies. The National Board Development Board sent its representatives to make aware of the fact that for those writing and wishing their works published, there is an institution ready to help them. But there was another guest that day, Jana Sedeva, the Czech Ambassador to the Philippines. This was her second visit and, just like the first, this was to be about cultural ties and partnership.


Ambassador Sedeva led the offering of wreath on the niche of Dr. Realubit, one of the first major scholars to systematically pursue a study of Bikol literary forms. In the quiet of that afternoon, the sun hot, a most familiar tune soared above the grasses and the wild flowers that abound in that area of the cemetery. It was a violin, sweet but also full of sorrows, that played the music that, like many other musics, interested the same scholar almost to the point of obsession.


Many scholar at present would perhaps disagree with her analysis of the literary artifacts she gathered with passion but no one could dispute the fact that, without her, the next generation of Bikolano scholars would have gone partly blind into the forest of symbols, if we may borrow the term of Victor Turner, that hide or disclose the social realities of this peninsula.


Realubit did not claim students as disciples; in fact, the opposite happens: she let go of younger scholars, criticizing them when she saw fit. But this trait endeared Realubit to the other scholars, for she was an astute observer of attitude and behavior. To the amusement of two generations of scholars, this writer included, it became a pastime to identify who Tia Lil was most critical of.


From the shrine, we proceeded to the Sto. Niño Memorial Park where Socorro Federis-Tate was buried. A motherly and strict mentor to generations of Ateneans and seminaristas, she was a character in the classroom and in hallways where you could meet her with her piquant accent puncturing the air with questions and comments. She, of course, reserved her most acerbic remarks for the good students who would understand her wisdom.


She was one of the two professors in what was then Ateneo de Naga College who wrote and taught literature. She did not move to Manila but stayed all her career in the city of Naga but she was known by the peerless editors and writers like Nick Joaquin and Kerima Polotan Tuvera.


If you were fortunate to have borrowed her books by Nick Joaquin, you would be one of those few students who would have read the dedication of Joaquin to her. I did see the dedication and it read: Dear Coring, with whom I have battled for a hundred years.


Mrs. Tate, as I would refer to her always, contributed at least one story each year to the Philippines Free Press. She wrote in longhand sometimes or typed them. Her stories were never edited by Joaquin or Polotan; they were left as submitted. One of her most celebrated stories, Midnight, was handwritten on an elementary pad paper.


On the second day of the Bikol Book Festival, we traveled to Baao to honor an even much older writer, Luis Guevara Dato.


Before the pandemic, Kristian Cordero and I traveled to Dato’s town to check the marker built to honor him in 2012. The visit encouraged me to write a piece for this column. I gave it the title, How Do I Write About Baao. It began with these lines: “How do I write about a town and its forgetfulness? I could write about a town and how it forgets its marker and poet.”


What urged this critique was our discovery of Dato’s marker covered by makeshift stalls selling everything other than good literature.


Last April 18, 2020 the second day of the Bikol Book Festival, we would be jubilant to stop upon the marker, newly painted, preserving for posterity the fame and legacy of Luis Dato. The second leg of the literary conference became a vindication for the poet and the literary arts in general. The small town of Baao was remembering one of her sons.


This should interest you: in all of the tributes read, non-central Bikol languages were used. For Dr. Lilia F. Realubit, a novelist and doctor of medicine, Dr. Mary Jane Guazon-Uy, read her piece in Bula language; Mia Tijam, another novelist, honored Socorro Federis- Tate in the Iriga language, which was also the language of the honoree. Frank Peňones, multi-awarded poet and cultural worker, recited his citations not in Baao language but in Irigueño language.


The organizers were making a point about how language could easily move between cultures, or blur boundaries? Who said only the major Naga Bikol language is fit to be employed for eulogies or rhapsodies?