Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Ireland-based Filipino author Jose Raymund Canoy is not professionally qualified to write “An Illustrated History of the Philippines.” At least, that’s one of the first things he tells me when we sit down for an interview prior to the book’s launch in Manila.
As an academic, Canoy primarily writes on European history. His first book, “The Discreet Charm of the Police State: The Landpolizei and the Transformation of Bavaria, 1945-1965,” is on German history, with most copies, he says, being in libraries where its readers are usually other historians. Writing “An Illustrated History of the Philippines” came upon the insistence of his publisher, John Beaufoy.
“John convinced me that exactly because I'm not a Philippine historian, I might have a chance to have a little bit more of a stepped back view,” says Canoy. As such, the book is a bit different from most Philippine history textbooks. The most obvious being that this one comes with color images, maps, a detailed timeline.
And despite (or perhaps thanks to) this “stepped back view,” the author is very much in tune with a persistent theme that has long hounded Filipinos: our seemingly never ending search for a national identity. In this book, Canoy captures our collective anxiety and, borrowing from what other historians have shared in their own works, urges us to look at the forces that have brought us to this state of restlessness, asking if perhaps who we are lies in how we’ve managed to survive at the hands of such forces.
The book’s throughline is thus Canoy’s assertion that the story of the Filipino is that of “human resilience in a weak state.” This is evident in how its seven chapters are split accordingly: “The Community as a Boat” (regional pre-colonial history), “The State as a Convent” (Spanish colonial rule), “Imagining a Nation” (the revolution and First Philippine Republic), “The Trials of Benevolent Assimilation” (American colonization), “Showplace of Democracy in Asia” (Post-World War Philippines), “The ‘New Society’ and its Aftermath” (the Marcos dictatorship and the Aquinos), and “New Forms for Old Challenges” (1986 onwards, covering Fidel Ramos’ presidency until Rodrigo Duterte’s).
Admittedly, I am not so much a heavy reader on history. Yet even for a casual reader like me, “An Illustrated History of the Philippines” is quite a compelling read — perhaps enough to get even those disinterested in history hooked. This, Canoy says, was all carefully planned.
“Among other things, it's designed to be skimmed,” he says. “So that [if anyone] skims an average page they'd want to stay with it.”
CNN Philippines Life sat down with Canoy before the Manila leg of the book launch to talk about his book, as well as his thoughts on the resilience of Filipinos, our search for a national identity, and the need to imagine a post-America Philippines. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
This doesn’t read like your usual history textbook. I thought it was interesting for you to make the point, or there was this overarching theme of “human resilience in a weak state.”
It's not my formulation, it's by a historian [Patricio] Abinales. He is the one who formulated the concept first of the weak state. The other way to phrase the question is, “Why don’t Filipinos like a strong state?’” When was the last strong state you remember or you experienced yourself?
The strong state doesn't have to be evil. Britain has a strong state, the U.S. has a strong state. What was the last strong state before Marcos? And how did the Marcos state end? The American state wasn't our state, it didn't belong to us. Bonifacio tried to create a strong state and it killed him. The strong state hasn't really done much for anybody. It's made some people powerful and wealthy, but it isn't in the interest of the normal people to have a strong state. So they're resilient because there is no strong state. Because a lot of people prefer it that way.
Why do you think that is preferred in the Philippines?
I think it's not a question of a deliberate choice. I think it's because the foundations of a strong state would rest on your real loyalty. And the loyalty of real, honest people, it's not there. The state has never been the people's state.
I also think it's interesting because, you talk about the resilience of the Filipino people, and I've seen criticisms on romanticizing Filipino resilience.
I think it's just the least confusing word to use. I could use other words like “doggedness” or “persistence” or even “superhuman patience,” but the point is it's not a choice. They have no choice but to be resilient.
And because the weak state environment rewards certain behaviors and not other behaviors, we call that resilience. Being able to operate a business out of a shop that is half the size of this room, and one half is a tailoring shop and the other half is a barbecue stand that sells cellphone load — that's resilient. That shop is gonna be there long after a lot of malls have closed. It's collapse-proof because it is already collapsed. It can't collapse any further.
Toward the end of the book, you wrote of “a national tendency to create fantasizing and wish-fulfillment in the search for historical roots of national identity,” and I feel like it's very relevant today because there was recently news about President Duterte wanting to change the country's name to “Maharlika,” and people have been critiquing it, and calling it “Barong Tagalog nationalism.” Why do you think we insist on this form of nationalism?
Historians have seen a lot of similar patterns before and whatever the current situation is, I'm not speaking of that current case, but in general, identity is something by which a community lives or dies. It's more important than food, security ... and identity is built on experience. The historian Benedict Anderson said, [as well as] others who talked about creating a past that is usable, no one really knows what the past is like, not even historians. They don't have the truth about the past. They just happen to dig around a lot of it. So they have lots of evidence. But they don't generally know the truth.
It's different than trying to construct a path that is the past, selectively picking things that only are the usable parts. And that's not history. Other Asian countries don't have such a big problem because there's a big consensus on their deep past pre-European contact. The evidence is there, the stone temples are there, the legends are there, the Ramayana, the texts, so you can't just make things up because that's been studied intensively by the people who are part of the living tradition back to pre-European colony times. But we don't have that. That was cut. The Americans and the Spanish cut those links at the beginning and the end of the Spanish period. So because we don't have those reliable links to clear evidence, then there's the tendency to fill the void with what you wish is there.
It's not necessarily bad. It's a human trait. Where would you be without knowledge of who your family was, right? It's identity. And if the void is not filled with evidence, it will be filled with other things. Some of them are useful and positive, and some of them are really scary. The last example in the scary direction is 20th century racial fantasies about the superman and racial discrimination. It can get very complicated very quickly because the need is there for identity.
As a historian, with the knowledge that the evidence that we're looking for is not there, how do you think we can move forward in finding our identity?
I would say base identity on more recent experience. And there, resilience goes back into play. We have a documented record for resilience. Going back to resisting polo [forced] labor with the Juan Tamad legend. The stereotype is there for a good reason. Back when it was created as an insult, it had a political purpose: to prevent exploitation of natives by unpaid polo labor. So that's documentable. And from then onward, until today, there's a lot to build a solid identity on.
The other thing that I think is a key part of our identity — you don't find that in the same form anywhere else in Asia — is our sense of humor. That's not fake. That's real. Where did that come from? What's the basis for that? How did that emerge? That, for me, is so evident.
Historical facts and figures aside, what do you wish for readers to take away from your book?
We are leaving the American era and there's no plan B. There's a lot of uncertainty. And into that vacuum come the old questions: Who are we? What are we doing? And if you don't fill that with something constructive, all sorts of scary things will start to enter that ... Because there's an existential kind of, ‘Who are we?’
For 120 years, who we are has always been resisting America, embracing America, fighting America, defining ourselves against America. It's always been reacting to something else. What if it's not welcome now? What are we left with? What is the plan B? I'm not talking about economics, I'm talking about identity. The real record is the resilience that's documentable in the last 300 years. That's real. That can never be taken away.
“An Illustrated History of the Philippines” is available at National Bookstore.