Prior to the 1920’s, Philippine short stories are better classified as tales rather than stories, mostly ghost tales or folktales explaining natural phenomena with a theme in which a moral was brought home to the reader. Plot structure was worked along the easy, chronological, “and then” method, to use E.M. Froster’s terminology. The short-story writers of that era drew mostly on Western culture and Western models.
By the 1930’s the market for the Philippine short stories in English was no longer confined solely to the home front but had started to break into print abroad as well. Among the prominent writers were Paz Marquez Benitez, Paz Latorena, Arturo B. Rotor, Amador Daguio, Loreto Paras Sulit, Carlos Bulosan, and Manuel Arguilla. Bienvenido Santos and N.V.M Gonzales, although writing at that time, were not to gain wider recognition and a larger audience until after World War II. The years immediately before the war were characterized by a desire to create a “national literature”, not merely by writing about simple rustic life, Philippine flora and fauna, and Philippine national heroes, but by attempting to define the national psyche or identity, however evasive that might be.
By the end of the 1930’s the Philippine short story had already improved in quality, offering plausible characterization, a stricter control of language, and interesting situations and themes. The “modern” short story (in the sense of “contemporary” or “twentieth century”) was not to be written until after the war.
Manuel Arguilla, who died before the war, wrote the most significant prewar collection, How My Brother Leon Brought Home a Wife and Other Stories, exemplifying a dynamic tension between social commitment and artistic excellence – the objective of good literature both before the war and for all time. The social not was pursued in Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart, in the choice of subject matter and characters like the peasants and the laborers, and in the portrayal of the effects of politics on the private lives of people, the interrelation between economic conditions and political power.
N.V.M. Gonzales began writing in the 1930’s, but his first short-story collection was not published until 1947, when Seven Hills Away appeared. Other distinguished collections followed, all products of serious artistic effort and of an artistic creed which upheld the belief that art must involve working with material (a serious craft) and must be a thing of beauty (artistic/form). The social note in Gonzalez’s fiction never called attention to itself and never took precedence over the artistic objective, and Gonzalez was long considered the supreme craftsman, training many of his students at the University of the Philippines and the University of Santo Tomas always to labor with loving attention over every line and detail.
Likewise, Francisco Arcellana started literary career before the war, but his influence and reputation as one of the Philippines’ finest writers did not spread until after the war. His artistic ingenuity is most apparent in Divide by Two, with its strong emotional impact, its subtle manipulation of symbols, and the powerful rhythm of its language. Bienvenido Santos was another prewar youth and postwar writer whose first book of short stories, You Lovely People, about Filipino exiles in America during the war, was not published until well after the war’s end in 1955. Like Gonzalez and Arcellana, he wrote mostly about loneliness, alienation, and homesickness, all postwar maladies. And of course there was Nick Joaquin, who stood above his contemporaries both as craftsman and as cultural historian. His mastery of the language is manifested in his flexible style, one that could be lush and exuberant one moment, slangy or colloquial and very contemporary the next, depending on his subject, his vision matched only by a creative power that was quite unsurpassed in its sense of history, tradition, and art.
Gregorio Brillantes, in his volume of short fiction titled Distance to Andromeda and in other short stories, wrote particularly about the generation under thirty, adolescent and postadolescent youths who suffered alienation from family, from society, and from themselves. Brillantes writes with a sure hand, frequently offering rich insights about the Catholic faith as it illumines the lives of countless Filipino families.
These were the big names in the field of the short story, the artists who never used their art as a tool for social and political propaganda. More than mere preoccupation with form, their writing showed that they had significant truths to express and personal visions to share. More names shone on the horizon: Kerima Tuvera, Gilda Cordero Fernando, Aida Rivera Ford, Juan Gatbonton, and Andres Cristobal Cruz, to name but a few.
The 1960’s were, summarily, a period when writers seriously grappled with problems of art. The early 1970’s saw a proliferation of politically motivated or committed writing and protest literature. Short-story writers became more conscious of the political milieu and of social issues in the wake of the increased activism all over the world and right in their country, especially during the troubled days of a dictatorial government. Some of the more recent fiction writers include Paulino Lim, Alfred Yuson, Jose Dalisay, Mario Eric Gamalinda, and Cristina P. Hidalgo.
In the meantime, what about the novelists? The war provided postwar novelists with a subject. Stevan Javellana’s Without Seeing the Dawn focuses on an antiheroic protagonist hardened and embittered by the war, but ultimately vindicating himself and becoming almost heroic in the process. Edilberto Tiempo, the fiction writer and critic, wrote with an awareness of social history but remained strictly formalistic in his firm grasp of craft and his handling of history. Bienvenido Santos worked with a sense of pathos, irony, and realism, and took up the theme of personal and sociocultural alienation, especially among Filipinos stranded in America during the war, suffering from intense homesickness but somehow managing to endure with strength and fortitude and “loveliness” of spirit.
Francisco Sionil Jose’s monumental Rosales saga, which is made up of five novels, has, more than any other series of works, touched on this Filipino search for roots, as well as on struggle, social corruption, and the fight for social justice in postcolonial times. No other writer has been more widely translated on his own country and other countries. N.V.M. Gonzalez’s novels also reflect discipline, control, and irony, best reflected in his portrayal of the harsh world of the fisherfolk and peasants who endured and prevailed with dignity and grace in the face of pressure and want. His novels are manifestations of reality turned art.
Recent novelists have ventured into the murky terra incognita of postmodernism, rejecting the traditional concepts of fiction, portraying a world devoid of value and meaning, interweaving literature with journalism, history, biography, and even criticism. The objective is merely “pleasure of the text” through verbal or psychological constructs, a totality of vision. Examples of such avant-garde Filipino fictionists are Mario Eric Gamalinda, Jessica Hagedorn, and Alfred Yuson, to name but three of the more prominent figures.
Meanwhile, the influence of literature in the country is imperiled by the impact of modern technology on life and culture, and the Filipino writer feels it his responsibility to put literature back on track and in the center of life, aware of the perpetual need to upgrade and transform it into a meaningful social yet artistically forward-moving activity, opening up to a large interdependent world, listening to the polyphony of voices which could add to their own largeness of spirit and understanding, aware that they cannot continue to write in isolation, that each of the writings of all writers of the world is but a mere episode within that one general experience of the universal person forever in the process of unfolding and evolving.
(Required Reading! I post here Dr. Ophelia Dimalanta's Introduction to Philippine Contemporary Fiction which appeared in OAD Reader Vol. 2, 2006. Ma'am Ophie's Introduction is educational and more than worth your while.)