ARTS

Bienvenido Lumbera and a legacy of resistance

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The death of the National Artist for Literature leaves a void not only in the Philippine arts but also in the political struggle of the masses.

“May titis na nagliyab sa dibdib / Ng bawat isa sa amin, / At ang mga dila ng lagablab / Ay sasanib sa ipo-ipong dumarating, / Hahawanin ang lupaing sasaksi / Sa itatanim naming lipunang / Malaya at hindi na paaapi.” (“There is ash smoldering inside the chest / Of each one of us, / And the tongues of fire / Will merge with the coming whirlwind, / To clear the land as it stands witness to / The society we will cultivate / Free and no longer oppressed”). These are the last lines of “Agunyas sa Hacienda Luisita” by Bienvenido Lumbera — a poem that the late writer performed on the eve of Nov. 21, 2004 as tribute to the slain workers of the notorious Cojuangco-owned sugar plantation in Tarlac.

Such politically-charged articulations expressed through cultural and artistic practice were not new to the late writer. At the onset of the Philippine martial law in 1972, Lumbera went underground as editor for the revolutionary literary publication, “Ulos,” prompting his illegal arrest in January 1974. He also wrote a number of plays with thematic preoccupations that were unafraid to arouse and provoke political thought, including “Nasa Puso ang Amerika” in 1984, a stage adaptation of the Carlos Bulosan novel, “America is in the Heart.”

In February 2003, over a year before the Hacienda Luisita massacre, Lumbera performed his poem “Paanyaya kay Bush” during an anti-US war protest in Plaza Miranda. This happened at the height of the Arroyo administration, known for its military allegiance to the Bush administration. Decade after decade, Lumbera’s work sought some sense of material purpose beyond whatever arbitrary notions of aesthetic suitability. In each attempt, his work took on the form of something political. Uncomfortable. Revolutionary.

How his literary criticism also shaped his own literary work

As a critic, he believed in challenging our age-old concepts of nationhood. In his essay, “Harnessing Regional Literature for National Literature,” he questioned, “Who was it who decided that regional literature ought to consist only of works written in the vernacular? Who was it who relegated ‘regional literature’ as a mere sub-category of ‘national literature’?” By tracing the ethnography of Philippine literary production, he argued that the country’s American education system aligned with the bourgeois aspirations of the Filipino ilustrado who endorsed and authorized a literary tradition that privileged discourses concerning the country’s cultural and political center.

A similar argument against bourgeois art is made in his essay, Philippine Theater in Confinement: Breaking Out of Martial Law where he explores the shifts in local theater as spurred by the heightened precarity of the Marcos period. Lending itself into the hands of activists outside the glittering stages of auditoriums, Lumbera explained that “Those who directed and acted in these [protest] skits called themselves ‘cultural workers’ instead of ‘artists’ and the distinction was significant. As ‘workers,’ they identified themselves with the ‘common people’ in the audience, instead of raising themselves as belonging to an elite specializing in ‘art.’”

Consistent with his beliefs, Lumbera did not allow his American education (Comparative Literature at the University of Indiana as second degree under a Fulbright scholarship) to preclude his ability to connect with the common audiences. He produced work after work written in Filipino — from his poetry collections, including “Likhang Dila, Likhang Diwa” (Creation of the Mind, Creation of the Tongue) and "Poetika/Politika: Tinipong mga Tula” (Poetics/Politics: Collected Poems), to his stage plays, including “Bayani” (1985) and “Sa Sariling Bayan: Apat na Dulang May Musika” (2003), among others.

Despite being a sharp critic, Lumbera remained friends with many people in the literary scene, often addressed by peers with much fondness and respect even long before his passing. Sir Bien to his juniors and Ka Bien to those whom he aligned with in the larger political struggle, Lumbera was relentless in the wisdom and clarity of his contemplations. As such, he produced honest scholarly work that continues to inform and embolden the country’s culture of literary criticism.

The national artist award and Bienvenido Lumbera’s legacy

Upon being proclaimed national artist in 2006, an article by writer Krip Yuson published in The Philippine Star pejoratively labeled the order as the “nationalist artist award” for having chosen Lumbera over other nominees, especially with his body of work entrenched in anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movements. “These same beer house rhetoricians also predict that it is the ‘extreme Left’ that will be overjoyed by their champion’s ascension as National Artist. The communist candidate, it has been said rather bitchily,” Yuson wrote.

This was before terms like “red-tagging” were popularized on social media, which punctuates the late writer’s enduring relevance to the present day political entanglements of Philippine artistic practice.

Today, the intersections between art and activism have become a hotbed for state-sponsored violence. Cultural organizations like Panday Sining are often subject to harassment both online and offline. Artist-activists are tagged as rebel warriors, their pro-people stance being conflated with the act of taking up arms and receding to the mountains. One can’t help but wonder how much of these similar assaults Lumbera had to endure in the last 89 years.

Interestingly, the late writer also helped found and lead many progressive cultural groups including Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Samabayanan (PAKSA) and the Concerned Artists of the Philippines.

Spanning his early works in the ‘60s up to his more recent ones in the 2000s, Lumbera’s resistance to oppressive institutional forces is embedded so intrinsically in both his critical and literary writing, it only makes sense that he is periodically criticized by those whom he is blatantly opposed. As a consequence, not only did he endure the violent repressions of an authoritarian government, but he also had to contend with elite institutions who undermined the merits and validity of his art.

Lumbera’s death leaves a void not only in the Philippine arts but also in the political struggle of the masses. More than the national artist award or the various cultural monikers of poet/playwright/essayist/etcetera often ascribed to his personhood, Lumbera’s true brilliance emanates from his belief in the kind of art that goes beyond the mere pursuit of beauty.

What all of this tells us is that in a country whose artistic sensibilities are often dictated by what’s palatable to upper-class, therefore, to colonial preferences, Bienvenido Lumbera dared to write what many weren’t interested in writing. He dared to write what others wanted to write but were simply too afraid to. Above all else, he dared to write even when it meant advocating against his own safety and personal interests.

Lumbera’s death leaves a void not only in the Philippine arts but also in the political struggle of the masses. More than the national artist award or the various cultural monikers of poet/playwright/essayist/etcetera often ascribed to his personhood, Lumbera’s true brilliance emanates from his belief in the kind of art that goes beyond the mere pursuit of beauty.

What he was more interested in was a purer and more rigorous path; a pursuit of truth. Of critical thought. If there is anything that young writers today can learn from Lumbera’s legacy, it’s that in deciding what work one churns out in the vast sea of things, one must always ask the question, “for whom?” Para kanino?