Literary workshops and shrinking spaces for the humanities

Literary workshops and shrinking spaces for the humanities
Poster invitation to 59th University of the Philippines National Writing Workshop. —LIKHAAN FACEBOOK

There’s now quite a lot of evidence that the prestigious Iowa Writers’ Workshop was supported by the CIA in order to deradicalize writers during the Cold War. This is not surprising. In fact, our schools and universities themselves were set up by the Americans, just a few decades earlier, expressly to quell Philippine nationalism and turn us into “Brown Americans.”

When Gelacio Guillermo went to the Iowa workshop in 1969, the impression I got from the stories he brought home is that he spent more time raising hell with the Black Panthers than in the workshop proper. I think it was singularly unsuccessful in reforming my father for its political and poetical ends.

Closer to home, one now feels the urgency of adequately understanding the University of the Philippines’ National Writers’ Workshop (UPNWW) as a six-decade-old institution in Philippine letters. The history of the UPNWW is still to be written. In order to do this properly, one would have to look more deeply into the various roles it has played within the very specific political, cultural, and literary contexts in which it is embedded.

Once fellows

Guillermo Gelacio’s note to Joey Baquiran (fellow 1987)

Many writers who became personal heroes in my literary and activist upbringing (as they undoubtedly were for many others) were once fellows in the UPNWW: Jose Lacaba (1965), Emman Lacaba (1969), Ricky Lee (1969), Roger Ordoñez (1969), Lilia Quindoza (1971), Jun Cruz Reyes (1971), Heber Bartolome (1974), Reuel Aguila (1976), Jess Santiago (1976), Tom Agulto (1982), and Chris Millado (1982). Of course, I would later meet Joi Barrios (1986), Luna Sicat (1986), Roland Tolentino (1986), and Joey Baquiran (1987) as colleagues and friends. I myself, too wild, too shy or too mediocre, was never a fellow. Only Allan Popa saw any merit in my scribblings aside from my dad who, of course, wasn’t really objective. 

Some of those who became part of the UPNWW in one way or another—such as Lualhati Bautista (1986), Resil Mojares (1986), Edel Garcellano (1985), Luis Teodoro (1984), Amado Hernandez (1969), and Elmer Ordoñez (1969)—also showed me the way. Many of these former fellows and collaborators continue to contribute to the workshop in many different ways, even as the words of those who have passed on continue to reverberate in each and every workshop. 

I remember that the UPNWW in the ‘80s, during the years before and after the fall of the dictatorship, was a virtual hive of unbridled literary and political discussion and debate. I felt this from the outside, through my dad, as someone who was still too young to drink beer with the writers I looked up to. 

Important venue

Some may disagree with this, but I think that the UPNWW today is still, or still has the potential to be, an important venue for significant countercultural debate and discussion. One need only consider the disheartening prospects for the study of literature in today’s academe. In fact, the “literary” in universities has ipso facto almost become countercultural in itself. Here, one should bear in mind that even though the UPNWW is housed within the academe, it is not simply “academic”.

Spaces for the humanities are continually shrinking in universities. In the push towards market-driven specialization, the study of languages and literatures is seen as a useless distraction and a major waste of time. Literature and language subjects are routinely stricken out of the curricula. GE, or general education, programs are reduced to a mere phantom of what they were. Despite the fact that the UP Institute of Creative Writing (ICW) has chronically been underfunded and given only the most minimal institutional support, isn’t it a great thing that it still perseveres in spite of everything? Or should it also be “stricken out” along with all the vanished subjects in the humanities?

Though the reputation of UP as a “radical” university is greatly exaggerated, it is nevertheless justly famous for its strong and non-negotiable positions on academic freedom, freedom of expression, and freedom of thought. These ideals have generally been upheld, perhaps to an even higher standard, by the ICW and the UPNWW throughout their history.

The UPNWW may be validly criticized from various angles (gender balance, regional representation, selection process of fellows, “elderly” panelists, perceived political conservatism, etc.), and it may or may not change in the ways we want it to, but it is still an evolving institution which can hopefully adopt practical and concrete proposals for further improvement. 

Having the UPNWW around doesn’t prevent progressive writers from setting up their own alternative workshops. Progressive writers naturally seek a free and emancipatory ethos in their literary lives. These may even be able to develop and discover new ways of conducting workshops which others, including the UPNWW, can learn from. But this possibility does not negate the need for progressive writers to continue to engage on a cultural and literary level with institutions such as the UPNWW. 

Gelacio Guillermo, no shirker from passionate disputation, would insist that important discussions and debates should be brought to where writers are, wherever they may congregate, wherever that may be, and that includes the UPNWW.

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