Literatura hispanofilipina actual, by Isaac Donoso and Andrea Gallo.  Madrid: Editorial Verbum, 2011.  ISBN 978-84-7962-694-5


Incomprehensible to the vast majority of the 110 million Filipinos who do not read Spanish, ignored by the vast majority of Hispanophone readers of the world (more than 400 million), Philippine literature in Spanish has come to be considered a sociocultural irrelevancy, an historical anachronism, an oddity at the periphery of Hispanic letters. In the face of this situation of scorn or neglect, Isaac Donoso and Andrea Gallo have accepted the challenge of establishing the importance of reading recent works of literature written in Spanish by Filipino authors. Literatura hispanofilipina actual (2011) offers the most comprehensive survey to date of the contemporary scene of Philippine literature in Spanish, with insightful interpretations of representative works.

The authors’ chapter title "Crónicas de la heterodoxia" says it all: contemporary Philippine literature in Spanish language is a heterodox entity in the world of Hispanic letters. The writers who produce it come from or hail from a country that abolished the status of Spanish as an official language with its 1987 constitution, effectively relegating it to the less-than-prestigious category of a "colonial language" associated with a pre-American past and with the members of the elite who had access to the educational institutions in which it was taught. Spanish in the Philippines, paradoxically, however, as the authors remind us, retains its value as the expressive medium of that country’s nationalist discourse: it was in this language that the illustrious makers of the Philippine nation--the activist scholars of the nineteenth century called ilustrados, either reformists and revolutionaries, whose company included the revered names of José Rizal, Marcelo H. del Pilar, Graciano López Jaena, Antonio Luna, and Apolinario Mabini, among many others--wrote and published and orated in the language of Castilla  With this broken genealogy in mind, the authors of Literatura hispanofilipina actual attribute to the literary phenomenon "la capacidad de manifestar integralmente la entidad filipina" (9), giving it a claim to a wholeness whose fracturing, the authors aver, lies at the roots of the country's continuing state of dependency and the nation's continuing search for identity (10). Donoso and Gallo, in drawing attention to recent Filipino writing in Spanish, refute therewith the notion that Spanish language had sounded its swan song in 1987.

Philippine literature in Spanish divides broadly into three great blocks in Donoso and Gallo’s periodization. The first block extends from the end of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the Pacific War in 1945, a span that embraces the work of the cosmopolite ilustrados of the nationalist Propaganda Movement and extends through the period of the American colony and commonwealth, prior to the Japanese occupation. It is not clear why the authors did not foreground at this point the emergence of a vibrant Hispanophilippine production of the early decades of the twentieth century that saw the publications of Wenceslao Retana, Rafael Palma, Claro M. Recto, Jesús Balmori, Enrique K. Laygo, and Manuel Bernabé, among many others whose period and achievement has been dignified with the name of "The Golden Age of Spanish Philippine Literature." The second historical block mapped by Donoso and Gallo accounts for the three decades, from 1946 to 1987, when Hispanophilippine literature, along with the works written in the islands' vernaculars, are further eclipsed by the hegemony of English; during which time a national language based on Tagalog is formed on the Bahasa model, a sort of Philippine coiné. The authors reserve a bit of praise for the accomplishment of such Filipinos writers in English who openly acknowledge the Hispanic presence in Philippine culture (as do Nick Joaquín, F. Sionil José and Bienvenido Lumbera), and yet, surprisingly, they remain silent on the achievements of Filipino writers in Spanish in the postwar period leading up to the People’s Power Revolution of 1986. The third phase of Hispanophilippine literature accounts for works emerging after the nullification of Spanish language officiality, and it is the production of this period that constitutes the main focus of the book.

Literatura hispanofilipina actual itself is divided into the two parts titled “Estudio crítico” and “Antología.” The part of critical study provides an overview of Spanish writing in Philippine letters since its colonial beginnings inclusive of the following: a discussion of the "linguistic canon" in its relations to Hispanophilippine literature; a summary of the media channels by which Spanish language expression attempts to address an international audience; a discussion of the "origins" of twenty-first century Philippine literature in Spanish, consisting of a typology of recent publications with representative figures; and a survey of contemporary Philippine literature in Spanish. These synoptic chapters of the first part are followed by a series of studies of individual Hispanofilipino writers, both modern and contemporary, whom Donoso and Gallo have identified as leading figures in the field. The section "Continuidad histórica" gives an account of the three established writers of some renown (virtually a triumvirate) of Guillermo Gómez Rivera, Edmundo Farolán Romero, and Hilario Ziálcita Legarda. The last chapter of the critical study part gives a detailed account of the rising stars in the field (Edwin Agustín Lozada, Elizabeth Medina, Paulina Constancia, Daisy López, Marra Lanot, Noel Guivani Ramiscal, and "Otros escritores"). That women authors figure prominently in this list is a salutary sign in a literary landscape long dominated by men. In the part of the book dedicated to the anthology can be found pieces and excerpts of the previously discussed authors, and these texts fall into the generic categories of poetry, narrative, theater and essay. Passim, the book’s footnotes provide detailed bibliographical information to those who wish to pursue further research in this overlooked body of literature.

Explaining thus the whys and wherefores of this largely forgotten body of literature and its tradition, Donoso and Gallo’s history-cum-anthology can serve as a traveler’s guide through the scattered texts of recent and contemporary literary works written in Spanish language by Filipinos, both in the archipelago and abroad. Another unique feature of this study is the authors’ account of the e-publishing Hispanophilippine works on the internet, by which they undergo a globalizing, deterritorializing dissemination, one that allows it to link up with the discursive universes of literature “originating” in Spain and Latin America. 

Informing the authors’ classification of recent Hispanophilippine literature is John W. Burton's 1975 categorization of the same body of works. In Burton’s broad taxonomy divides these writers into 1) Tradicionalistas; 2) Innovadores; and 3) Experimentalistas. The first two comprise the authors who have learned the language at home, as a lengua materna, going on to write either in a classical mode, as in the case of Francisco Zaragoza (Quiapo, 1914-1990) who combined his classicism with modernist elements. A clearer distinction could be made between the Innovators, who crossed from neomodernismo to postmodernism, and the Experimentalistas, the latter being those who learned their Spanish in school or by other means and wrote in two or more languages. The works of the Experimentalistas are represented by the Duchamps-inspired "Desnuda bajando por la ecalera" of Federico Espino Licsi, published in 1970 (28-30).

Among the authors to whom Donoso and Gallo give special recognition are Guillermo Gómez Rivera, who, as a poet, dramatist, essayist, and polemicist who defends in his writings the idea of Spanish as a patrimonial language of the Philippines (35-36). A writer representing the group of author writing in the diaspora is Edwin Agustín Lozada. Born in the Philippines in 1958 and resident in Spain, Lozada is the founder of the Carayan Press and webmaster of Revista Filipina stands out like Gómez Rivera in keeping the legacy of Philippine literature in Spanish alive and promoting its stature in the world literature. The search for the Hispanic grounds of Philippine identity has an intimate dimension, as manifest in the Lozada's Bosquejos (2002), in which the poet give voice to the experience of solitude and recourse to a certain aestheticism; or, more exactly, to "un amor nerudiano a la belleza." The case of Elizabeth Medina--born in Quezon City in 1954, raised and educated in the United States, married to a Chilean and living in Santiago de Chile since 1983--is especially illuminating for understanding the significance of Hispanophilippine literature today as writing that is subject to the dislocations of the expatriate. Donoso and Gallo see in Medina's Sampaguitas en la cordillera "un libro mosaico, una auto/etnobiografía en la cual relata acontecimientos de su vida y su familia, especialmente como consecuencia de los hechos que afectaron a los Medina durante la invasión japonesa" (42). With a uniquely trans-continental perspective, Medina seeks in her “mosaic book” to create a bridge between the Philippines and Latin America.

Something different, a metaphysical perspective, one that Donoso and Gallo call “anagócica,” finds expression in the haikus of Noel Guivani Ramiscal’s Noelses. Selected Poems in English, Tagalog, Spanish (1985-2005). Donoso and Gallo remark the way these poems evoke the gestation or phenomenological origins of the world, achieving therewith an “eschatology,” a mystical elevation glimpsed in silence: "No te temas,” writes Ramiscal, “La luz ahuyenta la sequía / De las preguntas y los dioses" (109). Writing itself for Guivani Ramiscal amounts to an act of “weaving the void,” but there is somehow somewhere a miraculous burgeoning of something: "Tejo el vacío / De las palabras en papel / Mientras se abre un girasol" (110).

Throughout Literatura hispanofilipina actual the authors return repeatedly to the idea that the very persistence of a contemporary Hispanophilippine literature is a value unto itself: it is an "elaboración cultural" that continues "una cierta tradición" carrying a patrimony of unknown riches into the present, resources with which to interpret this present in ways in which the dominant culture remains oblivious (44-45). In the context of the re-Hispanicized present, in Donoso and Gallo’s multifaceted portrait of the Hispanophone author as Filipino, identity matters to the subject who wonders at his place and role in a world not of his making, who asks what place and role she must assume to make the world the home it should be. A correlative to this theme, expressed perhaps most saliently in the poetry of Edmundo Farolán Romero (Manila, 1943), is the motif of the fragmented self: of identity that is broken, alienated, dispossessed, displaced, and mediatized. This universal condition is experienced with special poignancy by the Filipino as a sort of global villager in search of “roots and routes” (as in Elizabeth M. DeLoughrey’s homonymous topoi for “navigating” Caribbean and Pacific Islander literatures), and it is by the route of the Hispanic way, if Donoso and Gallo and their authors are correct, that the Filipino will discover the roots of this identity. 

Literatura hispanofilipina actual does an outstanding job of bringing a vibrant and significant body of works to the attention of a wide Spanish-reading public. The study foregrounds the critical resistance performed in those works with a generous account of their producers, publishing venues and reading publics, both actual and potential. By giving the reasons of being of contemporary Philippine literature in Spanish, and by providing more than plausible reasons for reading it, this slim but substantial volume more than amply justifies a reloading the canons, so to speak, of a what is becoming a truly global Hispanophone literature.

Eugenio Matibag

Iowa State University