Preview: Reconsidering Arguilla and ‘Terrorism of the Text’

Nov. 30, 2017

(From now, until the end of the year, I shall write in English about articles originally written in Filipino, share thoughts regarding their respective contexts, and discuss related themes . Part translation, part summary, part review, I hope these previews pique the curiosity of the readers about the essays and their ongoing conversations with other texts that challenge national narratives and preconceived notions on Philippine literature, art and culture.)


After being assigned to the “Fiction for the 21st Century” panel session of this year’s Taboan: Philippine Writers Festival, I wrote the paper “Terorismo ng Texto: Korte ng mga Kuwento para sa Ika-21 Siglo” (Terrorism of the Text: Shapes of Stories for the 21st Century). Lost in the translation is the double-meaning of “korte” as “shape,” which refers to the form of the narrative, and as “court,” which refers to a space that executes or imposes sentences. In English, the word “sentence” may be a string of words expressing a complete thought, as taught by our teachers in elementary or, well, a death sentence.



On this day, November 30, we celebrate Bonifacio Day on his birthdate, but, next month, we commemorate Rizal on his fuego day. The passing of revolutionary martyrs define the lives they lived and left, their births the starting point of the struggle that concludes in a death that matters to the people they served. Ambo Guran, Cris Hugo, Recca Monte, Wendell Gumban and the recent Jo Lapira are among the many deaths I can remember and name as of this moment. The lives they lived tell stories of the society they tried to change. Their monuments at the core of people they moved can never be demolished by the state.

Actual monuments, for figures like the Supremo would not hurt. Yet, by default, we remember his birth, and not his death so Team Aguinaldo and bureaucrats like him can celebrate with the rest of the Philippines. To pay tribute in advance, the Department of Public Works and Highways recently removed Bonifacio’s monument to make way for progress. How they value and venerate the legacy of the 1896 Revolution. How sincere, for a leadership that once floated the idea of a “revolutionary government”.



Just the thought of “Bonifacio Global City” makes one wonder how distorted the world is. On the other hand, this year’s Taboan celebrates Manuel Arguilla’s life, with a night dedicated to the unveiling of a cultural marker in his honor describing him as “an acclaimed short story writer of local color, patriot, and guerilla hero during World War II.”

The said marker stood in front of the Sts. Peter and Paul Church, blessed by its Father, who would later elaborate on the good news initially shared by the mayor: the bells of their church was once lost but now found, returned by an American colonel. Like the Balangiga’s, Bauang’s Bell of San Pedro was taken by the Americans. If Balangiga’s was used as the cue for a raid, guerillas in the Bauang area have been converting bells to ammunition. The Father thanked the Americans, for without them, the bell of San Pedro would not have been preserved. Thank god, the guerillas had no chance of practicing their alchemy to create bullets out of bells and fend off imperial forces.



In his plenary lecture, “Rediscovering Arguilla,” Bienvenido Lumbera mentioned that Arguilla’s command of the English language, in tandem with “local color,” distinguished him from his contemporaries. However, he noted that “local color” was encouraged by American colonial education in the Philippines so that consumers of English literature may find the reading experience more pleasurable. Moreover, it lends the Americans the eyes to understand their “little brown brothers,” or colonial subjects for efficient civilizing purposes. Likewise, Philippine writers in English use American lenses through the English language to understand our culture or “Filipino soul,” which was manufactured during the American colonial period. Jose Dalisay added that the school of writing using “local color” was a trend even before that period and outside the United States, such as the “costumbrismo” of Spain, wherein some critics categorize Rizal. Since the writer is almost always in the process of development, Dalisay advised against “pigeonholing” writers who could have changed through time, citing that Rizal and Arguilla were killed too early by the Spaniards and the Japanese, respectively, so it is difficult to conclude what he could have written, if he reached, say, the age of fifty.



But Rizal and Arguilla both decided to take action outside of the pages. Colonial and imperial authorities captured them. Rizal, who attempted to form organizations, while writing his novels and essays, had been sentenced to be killed via firing squad. Arguilla developed into a person who would rather risk his literary endeavors and envisioned laurels of greatness for a cause that requires a different, if not higher, degree of commitment. Arguilla’s dream was so dangerous that the Japanese soldiers captured and tortured him. His dream was more ambitious than preserving local culture by using local color in his stories that somewhat invites the tourist gaze of literature connoisseurs who want to experience something oriental or exotic. This is reminiscent of invented festivals that attract tourists and displace the residents. Ideally, for me, a work of fiction, shall feature local culture if it is essential to the narrative and it tells the truth through words weaved from experience or from ideas extracted from the material world.

Using local color for the sake of using local color, merely decorative or ornamental, reminds us of the “art for arts’ sake” versus “committed literature” debate of J.G. Villa and S.P. Lopez. This also calls to mind the problematization of another panel in Taboan about local color that zeroed in on cultural appropriation. While preparing for my talk, I thought I cannot make sense of the 21st century without dealing with the 20th; so I read Literature Under the Commonwealth (1940), edited by Arguilla, Esteban Nedruda, and Teodoro Agoncillo. Take note that I added “for me” in the previous paragraph, to evade the “literary dictatorship” allegation of A.E. Litiatico against A.B. Rotor, mentioned in the book. Leopoldo Yabes intervened, saying that leadership is necessary for literary development, and if that leadership is dictatorial, yet enlightened, so be it. However, after Martial Law, the word “dictatorship” cannot be taken lightly, due to the collective trauma of the Philippine nation. Among the key words of the early 21st century include: millennium bug, end of Cold War, end of History, EDSA 2, fragmentation, hypertext, information overload, tokhang, technology and terrorism. These words are, needless to say, far from comprehensive.

Let me end and focus on the title of the essay supposed to be previewed: terrorism of the text. After 9/11, any challenge against the policies that benefit the United States of America triggers “wars on terror.” As such wars go on, the crises (that should have driven capital to destroy itself) calm down and become stable through war economy. After fighting their respective battles, Rizal, Bonifacio, and Arguilla contributed in constructing a utopia, an ideal state. We live in a utopia that belongs to corporations: their utopia is our apocalypse, reminds China Mieville. The corporations’ apocalypse is our utopia, the kind that the Jose, Andres, and Manuel could have had in mind. Texts convey meaning and value, depending on who says what for whom.

Rewording Mieville, perhaps a story or text becomes a terrorist for someone (or something? Capital and its structures are far from human) if it threatens to turn its dream of acquiring property and monopolizing freedom and prosperity into a nightmare. Its dreams come and remain true, and we are now living in it as our nightmare. Our writers are supposed to wake us up from a deep slumber, drowned in the swamp of our nightmare, colored nicely so it seems like a pleasant dream or a feel-good movie. Yet, because some writers enjoy the richness of this dreamworld with the hegemonic dreamers-patrons, they find and express beauty, then go with the flow that Rizal, Bonifacio and Arguilla went against.



In a society where the president considered a revolutionary government without an actual revolution, where the state and its DDS horde label militants as terrorists, where works of fiction possess more truth than the press releases of the bureaucrat capitalists, a story should have a “korte” that threatens to cut short lav-diaz-length dreams of domination. The text should be like the subversive Rizal, the revolutionary Bonifacio, and the guerilla Arguilla: radical enough that forces the fentanihilist into tantrums and go into a name-calling spree; and progressive enough that leaves the government with no choice but to reveal its real intents on keeping their utopia and our perpetual apocalypse. Fiction for the 21st century shall, at least, imply that the current utopia authored by the few has a sequel, which is being written by a pool of authors, whose worlding is somehow akin to scholars’ theorizing that another world is possible. (

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