A critic, teacher, playwright and poet. All these describe the 72-year old cultural giant, Bienvenido Lumbera. But perhaps the most important description is that Lumbera does not write from the ivory tower. His poems inspire the downtrodden and extol the struggles of the ordinary, as he himself does not hesitate to visit strike areas and exchange views with workers, peasants and students. (* Para Kanino? – Filipino for “For Whom?”)
BY RONALYN V. OLEA
Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera usually recites his poems during rallies and other political gatherings. His Paanyaya kay Bush (Invitation to Bush), for example, was read at an anti-U.S. war rally at the Plaza Miranda in Manila in February 2003. The poem’s satirical tone held the audience captive. More recently, Agunyas sa Hacienda Luisita (Funeral hymn in Hacienda Luisita), which he performed during the night of tribute to the slain workers, captured the agony and stirred the courage of all those who have been left to continue the struggle.
The 1993 Ramon Magsaysay Awardee for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communications Art is a recognized nationalist artist. In its citation, the Ramon Magsaysay Foundation “recognizes his [Lumbera’s] asserting the central place of the vernacular tradition in framing a national identity for modern Filipinos.”
Lumbera himself searched for the “national identity of Philippine literature.” He found it and with it also came the gradual transformation within himself.
Born in 1932 in Lipa, Batangas, Lumbera grew up with his paternal grandmother. He was orphaned at an early age.
After finishing high school, he wanted to become a creative writer. But he took up journalism instead as recommended by his English teacher. He said he intended to study at the University of the Philippines but his guardian wanted him to enroll at a school in Manila. He finished his course at the University of Santo Tomas.
Lumbera taught shortly after college at a secondary school in his hometown. He enjoyed teaching, he said, but feared he might stay too long. Thus, he decided to take the position of a staff writer in a civilian employees’ newsletter in a former U.S. naval base.
He described his first experience with American arrogance. Their American boss inquired into the problems in the newspaper, citing factual and grammatical errors. Lumbera and a colleague would not concede. “He said he has never met such insolent Filipinos,” Lumbera recalled.
He decided to teach again, this time at a public high school in Manila, and took up education units at the Far Eastern University.
The Fulbright scholarship came while he was writing for a Catholic publication. He took up Comparative Literature at the University of Indiana.
Search for national identity
Back then, he said he had no school of criticism. A colleague once told him his writing was platonic, speaking only of eternal truth and permanence. “I was more interested truly in absorbing as much the culture of the university and of the American society,” he says. He spent time watching drama, films and opera and listening to jazz.
During his second year at the university, he recalled being invited to a poetry reading to introduce Tagalog (Filipino) poetry. He did some research but found limited materials. “I read Parnasong Tagalog (Inside Tagalog poetry) by Alejandro Abadilla and concluded there was no such thing as modern Tagalog poetry.”
From then on, he decided to write Tagalog poems but had a dilemma. “Susulat nga ako, wala naman akong readers” (I wrote but I had no readers.). He explained Filipino scholars in the U.S. then were not that interested in literature as most of them were into other fields.
Lumbera devoted his masteral thesis on Federico Garcia Lorca, a Spanish poet. He was then taking several subjects for a PhD. For his doctoral thesis, he proposed to write about the English writers in India. He would have dealt on the subject only that Rony Diaz, a Filipino friend asked, “Bakit hindi tungkol sa Pilipinas?” (Why not about the Philippines).
Lumbera related, “Noon ko lang namalayan na dapat kinokonekta ko ang mga pinag-aaralan ko sa mga nagaganap sa Pilipinas at hindi lamang sarili ang pinagbibigyan.” (It was then that I realized I should connect what I was studying with what’s happening in the Philippines).
And so he wrote about modern Tagalog poetry. “I felt I cannot come to any conclusion. I had to study the history of literature in the Philippines.” The product is now a classic study—Traditions and Influences in the Development of Tagalog Poetry (1570 – 1898).
Lumbera said that while defending his thesis, the panelists commented he had blamed colonialism too much for the conditions in the Philippines. Looking back, he said, “There was no intention.” He, however, gained an insight, “Oo nga pala, kapag nagsulat ka tungkol sa Pilipinas, hindi mo maiwasang talakayin ang bisa ng kolonyalismo sa kultura at mga institusyon nito.” (Indeed, if you write about the Philippines, you cannot avoid touching on the effects of colonialism on culture and its institutions.)
His becoming a nationalist was not overnight. He recalled having told a staff member of the Fulbright Office in Manila that if given the chance, he would not choose to become a Filipino. He said, “I cringe whenever I retell this.”
Upon returning to the Philippines, he taught at the College of the Holy Ghost (now College of the Holy Spirit), an exclusive school for girls. He recalled having to tame the naughty girls. “It was a nightmare. Pinaglalaruan ako ng mga babae” (Girls were making fun of me). He said he gave failing grades to some of his students because of poor performance but the nuns did not approve. “Sabi nila, secretarial lang ang kurso ng mga iyan, ibabagsak mo pa sa Rizal.” (They said, they are only taking a secretarial course, you shouldn’t fail them in Rizal.)
Soon, he taught English at the Ateneo de Manila University. Lumbera said he thought that his role was to “make them [Ateneo students] fit into the bourgeois society which they can easily do because they belong to the elite.”
He came back to the U.S. to finish his PhD. The civil rights campaign of the Blacks was surging then. A Black American, also a graduate student, asked him what he thought about their campaign. He told him, “You have begun to gain your demands, you just have to wait and eventually you would have them all.” Lumbera related, “Binalikan niya ako, Kayong mga Pilipino, anong mangyayari sa inyo kung naghintay na lamang kayong mapalaya mula sa Espanya? Natigagal ako.” (He retorted, You Filipinos, what would have happened had you simply waited for Spain to free you? I was dumbfounded.) It was Lumbera’s first encounter with the concept “hindi mo hinihintay ang karapatan o kalayaan, ipinaglalaban mo ito.” (You don’t wait for your rights and freedom. You fight for them.)
In 1967, he returned to the Philippines and taught again at the Ateneo. This time, he was caught in the intensifying contradictions and decided to take the progressive side.
Lumbera described the situation then: “Students were no longer content with the way Jesuits were educating them. Americans were running the university. Students were tuned to doing well should they go abroad. Walang malinaw na papel ang edukasyon sa lipunang Pilipino” (Education had no clear role in Philippine society).
Ateneo graduates, he said, could feel the distance between them and the ordinary people. Language is an important factor. “The more idealistic students initiated the Filipinization movement on campus,” he recalls.
Outside of the Loyola campus, the radical Kabataang Makabayan (KM or Patriotic Youth) held demonstrations. Lumbera took the side of the students and became one of the figures involved in the Filipinization movement.
By 1970, Lumbera said radicals had surfaced in the Ateneo. “Nagsimula na ring magbago ang Ateneo. (Ateneo finally started to change) Jesuits became repressive. Activists were being eased out of the campus.”
Writing for the people
This was also the time he began to have contacts with the national democratic activists. He joined study sessions at the University of the Philippines. “Iyong estudyanteng umuugnay sa akin, inimbita ako sa Vinzons Hall. Naka-barong tagalog ako, ang mga kapulong ko naka-tsinelas, kamiseta. Hindi ko alam paano magbe-blend. Outsider ang aking labas.”(Students invited me at Vinzons Hall. I would come wearing my barong tagalog and the others would be in slippers and t-shirts. I didn’t know how to blend. I appeared like an outsider).
Then came Panitikan para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan (PAKSA or Literature for the People’s Development), an organization of progressive writers. He was elected its chairperson in 1971. After martial law was declared, he went underground and edited Ulos, the revolutionary literary publication. Smiling, Lumbera said, “Ulos then had very crude illustrations.”
In those days, what he called “panitikan ng pagsisiwalat at pagtutol” (literature that exposes and opposes) emerged. “Malinaw sa mga manunulat ang kanilang mga tungkulin” (It was clear to the writers what their tasks were). Their writings, he said, were aimed at a specific target — the dictatorship.
Lumbera said that because of Mao Zedong’s “Talks at the Yenan Forum,” the relationship of art and politics become clear. Committed writers created works with political content without sacrificing the aesthetics. Lumbera said his own understanding of Mao Zedong has been gradual.
“Sa akin, halimbawa, problema ko sa pagsulat ng tula, ano ang estilo, paksain, teknik na gagamitin kahit pa politika ang subject matter. Nilutas ang mga ito ng katanungang ‘Para kanino?’” (With me for example, the style, topic, and techniques are always a problem when writing poetry, whether or not the subject is political. But all these were resolved by the question, ‘For Whom?’).
He said when that question has been answered, the technique ceases to be a problem. But, he quickly added, language is also very important. Lumbera believed this is the most important legacy of PAKSA: to determine whom to write for.
Lumbera was arrested by the military in January 1974. He was released in December of the same year. Cynthia Nograles, his former student at the Ateneo graduate school, wrote to Gen. Fidel Ramos for his release. Lumbera married Cynthia a few months later. Asked about their love story, he said smiling, “Niligawan niya ako” (She courted me).
In 1976, Lumbera became a lecturer in UP’s Department of Filipino and Philippine Literature. In 1977, he served as editor of Diliman Review upon the request of then College of Arts and Sciences Dean Francisco Nemenzo. The publication was openly against the dictatorship but was left alone by Marcos’ authorities.
Around this time too, Lumbera had taken on other creative projects. He began writing libretto for musical shows. The Philippine Educational Theater Association (PETA) requested him to create a musical based on Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart.
Lumbera also helped in founding cultural organizations such as the Philippine Comparative Literature Association (1969); Pamana ng Panitikan ng Pilipinas (1970); Kalipunan para sa mga Literatura ng Pilipinas (1975); Philippine Studies Association of the Philippines (1984) and Manunuri ng Pelikulang Pilipino (1976). In such ways, Lumbera contributed to the downfall of Marcos although he was in Japan during the 1986 Edsa uprising, teaching at the Osaka University of Foreign Studies.
On today’s artists
After Edsa revolt in 1986, Lumbera observed many creative writers have different orientations. Having been invited to numerous writing workshops, Lumbera said of today’s writers, “Maraming pinoproblema. Hindi gagap ang ideya na ‘pag may audience, kailangang alamin ano ang kakayahang masapol ang mensaheng ipinararating” (Writers today worry about a lot of things. They don’t get the point that if you have an audience, you have to find out their capacity to understand the message you want to send).
Asked about the national democratic movement’s protest art, he said, “Mas creative na ang skits… Gamit ng sayaw, maunlad na. Awit pa ang kailangang pahusayin. Hindi binabalikan ang mga classic songs ng movement. Laging bago, usually pangit ang creation…Kailangang matutunan ang akda ng nakaraan.” (The skits are more creative… the use of dance is more developed. But the songs have to be improved. The classic protest songs are not being revived. Always new songs, usually not well-composed…. It is necessary to learn the compositions of the past).
The important development, he said, are the works of workers and peasants. Lumbera said there is a need to encourage the creation of more works from their ranks. He, however, posed the problem of raising standards. What standards should be used? The movement, he said, has yet to have a systematic framework for this question.
The literary giant left some words for today’s young writers. “Ang pagsusulat ay patuloy na pagtuklas, paghahanap ano ang pinakaepektibong mga teknik. Kailangan ng masusing pagsusuri sa audience.” (Writing is continuously discovering, finding the most effective technique. There is need to carefully analyze the audience). Lumbera said, “You perform your poems.”
A glimpse into Lumbera’s life is also a glimpse into the rich history of Philippine literature. Now Professor Emeritus at UP and a nominee for the National Artist title, he remains today a political figure who performs his poems for the people. Bulatlat