23 December 2008

Decolonizing literary standards

Similar to the efforts of other postcolonial theorists around the world, what I am working for is to get Philippine students to learn literary terms and standards by reading Philippine literature, rather than non-Philippine literature. When I was growing up, I was taught the elements of a short story by reading Guy de Maupassant, O. Henry, Edgar Allan Poe, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and so on. From these non-Philippine writers, I learned about plot, character, conflict, etc. By the time I started reading Nick Joaquin, N.V.M. Gonzalez, and other Philippine short story writers, I had pretty firm ideas about what constituted a good story. It was inevitable that I thought that Hemingway wrote better than Gonzalez, that Joaquin was no match for Faulkner, and that Philippine short story writers sucked. The culprit here is that the standards are set by non-Philippine writers. Philippine fiction takes a lot of its narrative strains or plots, its characters, even its types of conflicts from Philippine fiction written in various vernacular languages long before the short story became popular in the United States. Naturally, these Philippine short stories do not follow the American rules on short fiction writing. Philippine writers wrote short stories even before Americans did, so it does not make any sense to insist that the short story as a form should follow American standards. It makes more sense to insist that American short stories should follow Philippine standards, since Philippine readers are steeped in Philippine narrative traditions and evaluate stories in the context of this tradition. In fact, the stories of Joaquin and Gonzalez are marvelous if read as stories in a second language. If they are read as stories in a first language, they fail, sometimes miserably, even in terms of grammatical correctness, not to mention idiomatic accuracy.

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