Thursday, January 03, 2008

THE PLANET AS HOMELAND: Charlie Veric on BALIKBAYANG MAHAL




E. San Juan, Jr. Balikbayang Mahal: Passages From Exile. Morrisville, NC: Lulu.com, 2007.


A book of translations, Balikbayang Mahal: Passages in Exile is about making history in unexpected places. Take, for instance, the following cases. The names of the dead haunt the poet as dusk descends on Punta Spartivento—Juvy Magsino, Benjaline Hernandez, Eden Marcellana, Rafael Bangit, Alyce Claver. It is springtime in Den Haag and the memories of political detainees in Muntinlupa rise from the roof of the Christus Triumfator. The poet remembers the Moslem insurgency in Mindanao in the land of the Pequot Indians as night falls. Here, the poet finds himself in unexpected places where he comes to grips with the gathering forces of history. Everywhere he goes in the world, his country follows. To the poet-exile, then, the vertigo of bilocation is an old reality.

The African American thinker W.E.B. Dubois has a similar concept; he calls it double-consciousness. The double-consciousness that an African American confronts for being not quite American and not quite Negro is the same enabling predicament that the poet-exile of Balikbayang Mahal faces. That is, the poet-exile is of a particular country, but not fully from it because he lives elsewhere. For this poet-exile as it is for African Americans, both of them children of diaspora, the doubleness of location is the doubleness of consciousness. The implicit argument in this proposition suggests the intimate dialectic between place and consciousness; the historicity of consciousness informs the materiality of place. Perhaps no other process captures this logic more than translation itself. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term as the removal or conveyance from one person, place, or condition to another. And as the Latin origins of the term suggest, translation is transportation. To translate, in other words, is to transport. In Balikbayang Mahal the poet-exile transports the self from place to place and, in doing so, achieves the parallel transformation of consciousness. Thinking of America in Mindanao is, for this reason, not the same as thinking of Mindanao in America; the place shapes the production of consciousness.

For the poet-exile of Balikbayang Mahal, those two thoughts are complementary despite being dissimilar. For instance, he has suggested in his criticism that the aspiration of the Filipino around the world cannot be separated from the people’s aspirations in the Philippines. And as the essay included in the collection states: “Despite local differences and multiple languages, the submerged rallying cry of all Filipinos abroad, of all Filipinos overseas, is ‘Tomorrow, see you in Manila!’” (125) Here, one sees the importance of the return to the homeland. This return, however, is yet to come. This future return, rather than arrival itself, is more important to the poet-exile. But those who insist on being in the homeland are wont to denigrate the idea of future return. The poet-exile must work against this denigration; he must insist that his longing to return, however suspended, fulfills a function. For him, this insistence is the self-fulfilling labor of the negative. The longing to return, even as a promise to be broken, is no less powerful. In fact, this longing is empowering for it expands the domain of the possible. Away from the homeland, the poet-exile regards a foreign landscape and says: “Everyone will meet here at the Punta Spartivento of the revolution” (68). The revolution in the homeland is transported to a different place with a different history; consequently, a new sense of place and history is imagined.

This leads us to the other meaning of translation. The OED states that translation also means transference as in movement of translation in physics, the transference of a body, or form of energy, from one point of space to another. The poet-exile of Balikbayang Mahal accordingly translates the law of revolution into the law of physics; politics is made to recognize the workings of the material universe. If the poet-exile cannot be in Manila today, let him imagine the revolution wherever he may be. It is only fitting that the poet-exile takes the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci as his “only mentor in the labyrinth of the garden of communism” (40). For in the language of Gramsci, place occupies an important role. It is prudent, then, to distinguish between war of position and war of maneuver. And clearly, the poet-exile takes the former in hopes of realizing the latter. Tomorrow, see you in Manila!

If the poet-exile has chosen to engage in a war of position, what, then, are the conditions of his engagement? In the same essay in the collection, a chronology is given. From the mythical “Manillamen” who fled the Spanish galleons and resided in the bayous of Louisiana in the late 18th century, to the native intelligentsia in Europe who challenged the colonial authorities in the late 19th century, to the pensionados in American universities and laborers in Hawaii sugar plantations in the early 20th century, to the domestics, caregivers, entertainers, and professionals around the planet today, the Filipino as a subject shares the history of slaves, refugees, detainees, and immigrants. These are the constituencies in motion that the poet-exile is addressing on behalf of Filipinos everywhere. This marks an important break in the Filipino literary tradition. From Francisco Balagtas, to José Rízal, to Amado V. Hernandez, to Bienvenido Lumbera, the homeland has been imagined as a bounded territory. In the work of the poet-exile, a new conception of homeland is heralded. The poet-exile may be dreaming of returning to Manila, but the place is not a final destination for him. Instead, it is a portal to other places where homeland is without boundaries; it is not an essential place, but a set of affinities that Filipinos everywhere and other people with similar fates can embrace. The poet-exile of Balikbayang Mahal is, in the best sense of the word, the translator of 10 million Filipinos in Amsterdam, London, Tokyo, Dubai, Rome, Hong Kong, Montreal, and New York. His name is E. San Juan, Jr.


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Charlie Samuya Veric, Ph.D. Candidate in American Studies and member of the Working Group on Globalization and Culture at Yale University, is the editor of Anticipating Filipinas: Reading Bienvenido Lumbera as Critic and co-editor of Suri at Sipat: Araling Ka Amado. His recent publications have appeared in American Quarterly, Rethinking History, and Common Knowledge, among others.

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