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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A National Artist’s perspective on heritage

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I once spoke with National Artist F. Sionil Jose, both of us hailing from Pangasinan. He often invited me to his bookstore in Ermita to converse in Ilocano, although I’m not fluent. I learned Ilocano during my high school years when my family moved to Pangasinan, but Filipino remained our main language at home, sprinkled with occasional Ilocano expletives and phrases.

Our conversation centered around writing. He advised me to pick up a dictionary and learn new words daily.

“Pick a word, write five sentences using it, and you will own that word,” he told me.

He encouraged me to read books and write daily to improve my skills. I mentioned that I write every day for a national daily with strict deadlines. He responded, “News writing is your livelihood. Write fiction. Write stories or poems. They are for the soul.”

For a while, I dabbled in writing poems and short stories, but I haven’t fully mastered it. It’s been a long time since I wrote fiction, and I’m unsure if I still have the imaginative spark. Nonetheless, I occasionally attempt it when my daily responsibilities permit.

But I do love reading good stories and poems. Metaphors in poems draw me in. Lemlúnay: Pagunita sa Gunita (Lemlúnay: A Reminder for Memory), the latest collection of poetry by National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario certainly has tons of metaphors.

Published by the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and carrying his pseudonym Rio Alma, Lemlúnay: Pagunita sa Gunita featured 30 Filipino poems, written from 2018 to 2023. The poems are accompanied by English translations by poet Marne Kilates.

One of Almario’s most visual books, it contains photographs by journalist and publication designer Roel Hoang Manipon, and book design by Mervin Concepcion Vergara, adding a way of seeing and interpreting.

The title of the book is a term that denotes the concept of paradise in the mythology of the T’boli people of southern Philippines, signifying the aspiration or dream of a better country through a deeper and critical reflection on our history and culture and interactions with cultural products.

Former Vice President Leni Robredo (fifth from left) is one of the guests that graced the launch of Almario’s book

“All of these are recent products of my ponderings, including Lemlúnay. I am now creating a literature for myself, which will combine my poetry, and my critical mind to form a new what I call theory about our literature, a new way of seeing our literature that is more authentic, Filipino, and not much influenced by colonialism and Americanization,” he said in the vernacular.

The book launch of Lemlunay, last December 2, 2023, was aptly a literary celebration attended by esteemed writers, artists, historians, academicians, and cultural workers including National Artist for Dance Alice Reyes, National Artist for Film and Broadcast Arts Ricky Lee, National Artist for Music Ramon Santos, UP Chancellor Edgardo Carlo L. Vistan II, and former Vice President Leni Robredo, who the Philippine culture and the arts community supported in a historic and unprecedented move.

The launch was organized by the NCCA, Office of Senate President Pro Tempore Loren Legarda, Filipinas Institute of Translation, and Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika, at Anyo at the Ignacio B. Gimenez Gallery in University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City.

On his birthday this year, last March 12, Almario launched his other books: Mga Póon, Mga Piyón, Mga Pusóng, Isang Púsong, a collection of poetry published by San Anselmo Publications, Inc.; Ang Wikang Pambansa at Amerikanisasyon: Isang Kasaysayan ng Pakikihamok ng Filipino para Maging Wikang Pambansa, published by Ateneo de Manila University Press; and the third edition of Si Balagtas at ang Panitikan Para sa Kalayaan, published by University of Santo Tomas Publishing House.

National Artist for Literature Virgilio S. Almario’s ‘Lemlúnay: Pagunita sa Gunita’
is filled with 30 of his poems from 2018 to 2023 written in Filipino

In his speech, Almario provided the context in which the book was written, saying that Lemlunay, along with his most recent books, is a product of his search for new methods and ways of writing poetry and seeing our history and culture that are more Filipino and divested of colonial influences.

“Lemlúnay is a remembrance of our history. The difference of this book is that I reflected on the history of the Philippines through cultural objects, from primitive art objects, relics, and recently discovered fossils and others, as well as works by our great painters and writers, which we must return to, study diligently and correct our perception about them,” said Almario.

Going back to my conversation with the National Artist, I’m still not sure if I have the calling in fiction writing. Who knows, but for now, I would surely enjoy reading fiction works by Filipino writers and celebrating the richness and diversity of Philippine literary heritage.

Happy National Literary Month, everyone!

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