Ninotchka Rosca on Ding Nolledo
at the San Francisco Book Launch
of Cadena de Amor & Other Stories
October 1, 2004
Melissa, the daughter of Ding Nolledo asked me to speak about her father. And I asked Rene de los Santos how long should I spend speaking about Ding Nolledo; and he said, how about five minutes? And I said, Aarrrggh! That's not enough. One of these days I would like to have a class on Ding Nolledo. One whole semester. That would suffice. Maybe.
|And moreover, this was Wilfrido Nolledo speaking, someone whom I had never heard say a negative word in his life. This was really exceptional in my crowdwe specialized in character assassination. But Ding Nolledo: not a single negative word, not a single negative opinion about anything.
Ding Nolledohe said to me upon his return to the Philippines, and this was after the publication of But for the Lovershe said to me, "You won't like it there." This was a surprise. Here he was at the cusp of what seemed to be a victory with the publication of his novel. A massive one; really very elegant. Published by Dutton. All the reviews were good. This was a prestigious publishing house. And moreover, this was Wilfrido Nolledo speaking, someone whom I had never heard say a negative word in his life. This was really exceptional in my crowdwe specialized in character assassination. But Ding Nolledo: not a single negative word, not a single negative opinion about anything.
So for him to look at me and say "You won't like it there" was really very strange to me. And I asked him, "Why? Why? I am very flexible and I can adapt to anything?" And he said, "You will be treated as an ethnic writer. Like someone only good for a very small, specialized market. They won't accept the fact that you can write in English and write well in English. They won't accept the fact that you can write better English than many of them." I was so surprised. As he turned away he said to me again "You won't like it there." It wasn't the "You" he stressed it was the "there," meaning the United States.
Years later, his words would return to me like a moment of epiphany when I was negotiating for advance royalties for my first novel, State of War. The advance royalties offered were so small it barely covered the cost of paper, typewriter ribbon (at the time there were no computers, just ribbons) pencils, you know, etc., all the materials I needed to create six versions of this novel. This advance assumed that in those five years I was writing the book, I did not need to eat, I did not need clothes and I did not need housing, not to mention a night out on the town.
So, I was deep into these negotiations . . . then I saidI pulled out my trump card (hindi pa pamoso noon si Trump). I said, I have a readership based among Filipinos residing in the United States and there are so many Filipinos in the USA. And the Acquisitions Editor looked at me with a half smile and said not even one percent of Filipinos residing in the United States read. And she pulled out all the spreadsheets and I was like
totally and absolutely horrified
It wasn't even "less than one percent" read a book or "less than one percent" read a newspaper, or "less than one percent" read a magazine, it was less than one percent read. Period!
And so, I suddenly remembered Ding and what he said, you will be treated as an ethnic writer, you won't like it there. The assumption is that you cannot appeal to a wider audience, that nobody is interested in the experience of the Filipino whether in the Philippines or in the United States.
So, it is very nice to be very proud of being Filipino or of Filipino ancestry, to congratulate ourselves for being just that, Filipino and of Filipino ancestry. We start with that but we also have to go beyond that. We have to address our own flaws and look at our reality with very cold and very wide open eyes and under very, very clear lights.
This year for instance, the Philippines will be exporting 1 million overseas contract workersthis is a record even for the country. One million overseas contract workers. 65% to 70% of them will be women. Although majority of those women leaving the Philippines will be working as domestic workers, the second largest occupation is in the sex trade. So, for those writers who are here, this is my challenge. Write their stories. Write their stories in whatever language you are capable of. Because, beneath the words of Ding Nolledo when he said, "You won't like it there" was the assumption that we, as a people, and as writers of a people of a particular culture and of a particular nation needed a context. We all need a context.
* * *
I was introduced to Ding Nolledo when I was a fairly young published writer and barely into my teens (not that I am trying to be younger). He was an extraordinarily refined young man, already married at the time. Someone who would not immediately associate with the Nick Joaquin crowd (that was us, the Nick Joaquin crowd). We were made up of the boisterous but brilliant, angst ridden and rebellious in search of something je-ne-sais-quois young writers.
|We Filipinos, we do not work in stone. We do not create imperishable materials. Our cultural artifacts have been wood, bamboo, palm fronds, fiber, easily shattered clay. But, our memories are held by our languages, all 150
At the time I met Ding, I was at the periphery of the gang, not yet at the center, though even that was a minor miracle because every single person there was male (except for me). A minor miracle, as we did what was chic rebellion at the time: drank, smoked, uttered shocking statements, looked down at authority and generally suffered. But from what, it would take more years before we understood what it was we were suffering.
Ding would occasionally join us but he only drank one bottle of beer, which was my capacity. Although I understand he can drink more, but he was always in a hurry to go home. Always mindful of his wife and of his children (at the time he had only one I think, that must have been you, Melissa). How he loved his wife and his family was legend in our circles. At one point he wrote an essay, I believe, on . . . how providing for your family very often defeated your desire to write. Because writing, especially good writing, went unrewarded financially. And for people like Ding, hack writing was just impossible.
Now, there was that story, very famous, about Ding's first movie script. You know, in movie scripts you have dialogue then you have instructions
and one of the instructions he gave was the hero was supposed to step into this cobweb which would shatter like glass and segue way into the next scene. And the director said "how am I gonna do that!" Shrieking.
But that was Ding, he demanded as much creativity from others as of himself. When I met him, it was at a time when there was an intense but quiet struggle over literary aesthetics in the Philippines. There was much discussion over issues such as language, style, craft, subject matter so on and so forth. Some writersand they were much praised by those academicians who studied in the United Statessome writers, these kind of writers devoted so much time to the perfection of absolute craft but the content was just the content of everyday existence. And then there were those of us, and I believe Ding Nolledo belongs to this, those of us who worked within the context of what my old friend Karl Marx said: History weighing like a nightmare upon the brains of the living. That was us.
Philippine literature has always been a social documentation of sorts. Starting with Urbana at Felisa to Francisco Balthazar down to our very young writers. At the time I met Ding, there was a concerted effort to wean Philippine writing from that tradition, to reduce the epic memory of our literature to the minutiae of daily life without anchors in time. Joaquin was attacked. Ding Nolledo was attacked. Every one of us who searched for a context, the Filipino's context in time, which is another phrase for history, was severely criticized, every single one of us.
I did not understand the full impact of this destruction waged by the academicians in Philippine literature until some years ago when I chanced upon very old stories written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez when he was a young man. At some point I had to put the book down and say to myself, we wrote like this. When I was 16 years old, I was writing like this. We could have had a boom, and just about the same time that there was a boom in Latin American literature.
But we still have time. Taking what Joaquin, Nolledo and the others have left us for our learning springboards, let us look at our time NOW, our context NOW, and shape a literature that does not mimic anybody else's.
Just as Joaquin, Nolledo and the others have done, think of it in this manner: We Filipinos, we do not work in stone. We do not create imperishable materials. Our cultural artifacts have been wood, bamboo, palm fronds, fiber, easily shattered clay. But, our memories are held by our languages, all 150 of them. When the Mangyans of Mindoro say sandugo instead of kaibigan, there is a straight line from that word to the rituals of the blood compact and the sense of kinship all of our tribe must feel. A kinship that globalization cannot and must not be allowed to disrupt.
We have 150 languages, and with those languages we will define our context both in the past, the present and the future and build in those 150 languages our monuments to a land called the Philippines and a people and culture called Filipino.
© Ninotchka Rosca
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