Writing Ethnicity: Searching for an Igorot “Native Clearing”
@ Scott Mágkachi Sabóy
Department of Language, Literature and the Arts College of Arts and Communication
University of the Philippines Baguio
We look to literature for an understanding of ethnicity not because ethnicity is writable, but because it is readable. Writing (noun) about ethnicity, performs the writer’s reading of ethnicity.
@Dean Franco (1999: 106)
The epigraph to this paper reminds us that writing ethnicity – whether by this one means either actually writing about one’s ethnicity or metaphorically superscribing one’s ethnicity on his writings – is contingent on multifaceted, overlapping cultural contexts and complex personal experiences.
This is a good starting point for discussion because it helps us guard against the tendency to reify ethnicity and to forget that it is subject to an indefinite process of reinterpretation and negotiation. As sociologist Richard Jenkins wrote, ethnicity is not
‘something’ that people ‘have’, or, indeed to which they ‘belong’... [but] are… complex repertoires which people experience, use, learn and ‘do’ in their daily lives, within which they construct an ongoing sense of themselves and an understanding of their fellows (2008: 15).
It also helps us guard against the temptation to generalize our individual notion of ethnicity. Because ethnicity is “a biographically grounded, emotionally charged way of living, experiencing, perceiving and remembering (everyday) life situations” (Karner 2007:
5), we cannot assume that our “sense of [our ethnic group’s] uniqueness and solidarity” (Tolentino 2002:1) actually represents or accurately articulates that of our ethnic group.
The “Igorotness” I speak of here is one of those “widely shared, though intensely debated, collective fictions that are continually reinvented,” (Sollors in Anderson, 1995: 60). Further, the attitude I take on this subject is not that of a self-assured theologian who thinks he fully apprehends the truth about himself and the world, but that of a self-styled, self-reflexive skeptic willing to contest even his own notion of being and belonging.
I trace my roots to two major ethnolinguistic groups in the Cordillera, the Kalinga and the Bontok, each of which has its checkered history of social classification and group identification. Kalinga, for instance, is a geopolitical unit fragmented into over 30 distinct ili (“village”) – centered aggrupations circumscribed by artificially created, porous territorial boundaries. It is often exoticized or sensationalized as a land bereft of the blessings of modern technology and beset by frequent tribal wars and occasional headhunting. It is also “typically imagined,” again, to borrow from Werner Sollors, “as if [it is a] natural, real, eternal, stable, and static unit”(in Anderson, 1995:62).
I also identify myself with the “contemporary pan-Cordillera Igorot consciousness” (Finin 2005: 273), one wrought in modern historical accidents (i.e., colonial historiography and administrative policies) and indigenous political movements (Florendo 1999; Finin 2005).
By “native clearing” I, of course, allude to Gemino Abad’s idea of a form of consciousness, an aesthetic, a literary mold, and a nationalistic or ethnic niche where the Filipino writer finds or imprints his own identity; a space created by the Filipino writer
resulting from appropriating unto his own personal experience, cultural background and literary style what used to be a foreign or borrowed language, practice or context (Abad 2004: 170-175; 2006).
This immediately connects to my current preference to write in English – or, as Abad would put it, from English – in most of my creative and critical works. Parenthetically, I count myself as among those referred to by Butch Dalisay as “young writers today [who] use English unapologetically, refusing to be burdened by colonial guilt” (in Abad, 1998: 145). I also appropriate Abad’s concept to refer to my attempt at staking an indigenous flag and marking out a space in this fictive forest called “Philippine Literature.” Part of this challenge is to be able to write in the languages of the ethnic groups I identify myself with.
My recent search for an indigenous creative space began with what Benedict Anderson might characterize as a “profound [change] in consciousness” (2003:204) – my deconversion from religious sectarianism. For over a decade, I had ardently advocated a highly sectarian evangelistic project under the Star-Spangled Banner of the Baptistic-Restorationist Cross which has often casually dismissed my ethnic culture as “pagan” and has not taken theological indigenization seriously. When I started questioning the basic assumptions of my exclusivist, fundamentalist sect, I also began to realize that my religious fanaticism had all the more alienated me from my indigenous roots. I was thus twice displaced – first uprooted from my rural place of origin (Kalinga), transplanted in a highly multiethnic urban space (Baguio City) and then replanted in some celestial space where my identity was to be caged in a patternistic theological grid (Stone-Campbell Church of Christ ideology).
As it happens to many who have wholly committed themselves to certain political, social, and religious ideologies, I went through the passage from Cloud 9 Idealism to Ground Zero Realism (or downright naivete to healthy scepticism, if you please) at which I initially, like the boy in James Joyce’s “Araby,” “gazed up into the darkness [and saw myself as a creature] driven and derided by vanity… eyes burn[ing] with anguish and anger.”
This epiphany almost coincided with my pursuit of higher literary and cultural studies at the University of the Philippines Baguio (UPB) where I eventually began teaching amidst the painful process of tearing myself away from a subculture to rejoin a larger community, I celebrated my escape from the dungeon of religious fundamentalism to a fertile field of academic freedom. UP Baguio opened outlets for my literary passion and was fortunate to have a few of my creative works published. With “Cordillera Studies” as UPB’s niche, I began to re-educate myself about my own culture by poring over texts about the Cordillera and seeking out some cultural masters for wisdom. Informed by liberating theoretical constructs from both literary and cultural studies, I came to see the theological system I once espoused as part of a hegemonic, homogenizing discourse carried over from our colonial past.
This is not to say that my Bible School training and my preaching years killed my literary talents; it is to say that ironically, as a sectarian preacher then, studying a great literary work as the Bible actually caged my creativity. It was so, for the Bible School I was in was built and maintained as a camp of indoctrination where I and other aspiring Bible scholars would treat that sacred text as a legal treatise primarily laying out absolute rules of faith and practice for a small faithful herd. With a pedantic obsession for “the pattern of
sound words” in texts both prophetic and poetic, we often neglected to explore how the
poet in the prophet and the human in the hermeneut can make the multiple reading of a heavenly text an enriching earthly experience.
This is not to say too that my passion for the literary germinated in college, for the literary seed was first planted by my parents who exposed me to literature early in life; it is to say that this passion recovered from a stunted growth after over a decade and I began writing again as my journalist father had wished me to do. My father was a writer-politician who deeply involved himself in the pressing issues of Kalinga and the Cordillera as a whole, something I had shunned while pursuing my undergrad studies being then a religious zealot who viewed my “divine calling” as more noble than his “worldly works,” not knowing that, years after his death, I was meant to pick up where he left off.
I once wondered why he had to name me after his dear friend, William Henry Scott. To start with, I look anything but a Scot(t). But re-reading Scott and other scholars on Cordillera studies led me to realize how iconic he was in Cordillera historiography, how crucial his role was in politicizing many Igorots. So I began believing that perhaps, my first name was meant as a constant reminder for me to always go back to my roots in the face of imperialist cultural discourses, and to contribute to the textual representation of Igorot culture. And so I vigorously sought to identify myself with a “’politicized [Igorot] culture,’ a culture conscious of itself” (Karner 2007: 65).
My small corpus of creative work thus touches mainly on socio-political issues and the interface of imported religion and indigenous knowledge systems and practices and somehow articulates my desire to join the call for more inclusive thinking that can “[open] up the way the world is viewed, making the experience of previously excluded groups more
visible and central in the construction of knowledge” (Andersen & Collins, 2004:17).
So “Shifting the Center” came to be one of the themes in my write ups. Now, this envisioned shift is not informed by “nativism,” an essentialist view of group identification which, in Bryan Turner’s words, involves “a naïve trust in the ‘native’ or the pre-modern as a form of humanity which is not corrupted by Westernization or modernization” (in Macfie 2000: 373). So when I express great pride in my “Igorotness,” I write as one fully aware of the modern constructedness, contingency and plasticity of my ethnicity.
I must readily acknowledge that in attempting to view the world with a different lens, mine is tinted too with my psycho-social circumstances. This admits the fact that I and any other people belong to or are dressed up in what David Berreby (2005:14,15) terms as “human kinds” – those real and imagined aggrupations that “fall Between All and One” or those “labels that define more than one person but fewer than all.” And with all these overlapping circles of identification that largely determines who I am, who I think others are and what the world is, I must always strive to be aware of my subject position.
I often write about the need for a sustained reconstruction of a frequently-essentialized Igorot identity. One strategy I adopt in working toward this end is from Feminists who seek “to occupy the metaphorical objects of derision and fear” by casting the “well-proven magic… [of] uttering a curse in order to undo its claim or its power, pronouncing a name in order to command its field of meaning” as Marina Warner put it (1994, 15).
Tasked to articulate the core values of a newly formed group of young Kalinga professionals, for example, I used “Kalinga” as an acronym for a collective statement that attempts to proffer a gentler face of this ethnic group. The online and offline ethnic slurs of a certain “Francesca” in France, Candy Pangilinan and others also provided an opportunity to employ this strategy. Far from just a form of counter-essentialism, this strategy proposes that Igorots admit that they are themselves complicit in the negative construction of their identity; that by much of what they say and do they unwittingly reinforce an unsavory social categorization; that crafting their own “narrative repair [of] damaged identities” (Nelson 2001) must involve an examination of their associative and dissociative discourses and a confession of their guilt in the mangling of their own image.
Part of this narrative repair is the burden of Igorot creative writers like me to produce works that depict the contemporary conditions of the Igorot and help disabuse the un/ ill/misinformed of essentialized notions of Igorotness. For it seems that there are some who imagine the Igorots as being forever laminated in the textual frame of Sinai Hamada’s “Tanabata’s Wife” or Amador Daguio’s “The Wedding Dance.” This is no different from the case of other outsiders who cannot imagine Igorots apart from the camera-obsessed, toothless and barefooted natives begging at Botanical Garden and Mines View Park.
So far, I have talked chiefly about putting words on paper. But I think writing ethnicity is made more alive not in those private moments of tapping on the computer keyboard or scribbling on a notepad or even toasting with fellow writers in a book launching, but in those public periods of engagement with community issues. The greater challenge is not that I write but that I do what I write; or to put it in Salvador Lopez’ words, to be “no longer a florist, scissors in hand gathering lovely blossoms… but …a tiller of the soil, spade in hand, digging into the roots of things and planting seeds” (in Abad 1998:374).
Similarly, Malaysian lawyer-activist-writer Cecil Rajendra posed this challenge in his paper, “The Artist as Activist,” which he read in the 1985 Southeast Asia Writers Conference in Bali:
To lend authenticity and credibility to his writing, the writer must himself intervene in processes of change at whatever personal risk. If he elects to stand apart and merely record what’s happening around him without personally stepping into the cauldron, as it were, then no matter how fine or powerful his writing is, it is merely a forgery – a fraud!...
This is a challenging and daunting task but as Yukio Mishima once said, “It is no longer enough to write a poem, you must be the poem.” (1989:80)
Whether I am up to this challenge to become the literary piece I write remains to be seen.
As I look over the few creative and critical works I have written thus far, I could see that my reading of my ethnicity continues to be performed in the interplay of my family background, historical accidents, political culture, religious experience, and academic training.
One can tell by now that my search for my “Igorot Native Clearing” has just begun. What form that imagined space will take, what “crops” and “structures” it will have is anyone’s guess.
Who knows, my search will eventually lead me to finally realize that what I should have been aiming at is not that I finally plant the flag of my poetics on some literary clearing but that I only meander with the Diwata as far as I could in this vast enchanted forest, chat with Terabithian creatures, help make the woods ring with my fellow travellers’ laughter, leave my footprints along the trail, and etch my initials on some trees.
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 Social anthropologists define social classification as the “external imposition of a classificatory grid on populations and thus involves powerful outsiders in the construction and reproduction of group boundaries and cultural communities.” Group identification refers to a “people’s experience of solidarity and meaning as self-identifying group members” (Karner 2007:5).