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Monday, February 15, 2010

Writing Ethnicity: Searching for an Igorot Native Clearing

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 writers 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.[1] 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 UPBs 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 Turners 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 Daguios 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 travellerslaughter, leave my footprints along the trail, and etch my initials on some trees.
 Works Cited

Abad,  Gemino  H.  1998.  The Likhaan Anthology of Philippine Literature in English from 1900 to the Present. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.
                        . 2004. Filipino Poetry in English: a Native Clearing. World Englishes 23:
                        .        2006.        Creativity        and        Philippine     Literature.        Available,                 upforum.php?i=37&archive=yes&yr=2006&mn=5. Accessed, 27 September 2007.
Andersen, Margaret L. & Patricia Hill Collins. 2004. Race, Class, and Gender: An Anthology.
5th ed. Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.
Anderson, Benedict. 2003. Imagined Communities. Manila: Anvil Publishing, Inc.
Anderson,  Walter  Truett,  ed.  1995.  The  Truth  About  the  Truth:  De-confusing  and  Re- constructing the Postmodern World. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Berreby, David. 2005. Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind. NY: Little, Brown & Co
 Dalisay, Butch. 1998. “The Filipino Short Story in English: An Update for the 90s. In
The Likhaan Anthology of Philippine Literature in English from 1900 to the
Present,  ed.  Gemino  H.  Abad,  139-146.  Quezon  City:  University  of  the
Philippines Press.
Finin,  Gerard  A.  2005.  The  Making  of  the  Igorot:  Contours  of  Cordillera  Consciousness.
Quezon City: Ateneo de Manila University Press.
Franco,  Dean.  1999.  Ethnic  Writing/Writing  Ethnicity:  The  Critical Conceptualization  of
Chicano Identity Dean Franco II (Winter)1: 104-122.
Florendo,  Maria  Nela  B.1999.  Cordillera  Historiography  and  the  Crisis  of  Ethnicity.
Cordillera Studies Center (CSC) Monograph, University of the Philippines Baguio.
Jenkins, Richard. 2008. Rethinking Ethnicity. London: Sage Publications Ltd
Karner, Christian. 2007. Ethnicity and Everyday Life. New York: Routledge.
Lopez,  Salvador.  1998.  Literature  and  Society. In  The  Likhaan  Anthology  of
Philippine Literature in English from 1900 to the Present, ed. Abad, Gemino H.,
373-379. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press.
Nelson, Hilde Lindemann.   2001. Damaged Identities, Narrative Repair. New York: Cornell
University Press.
Macfie, A.L. 2000. Orientalism: A Reader. New York: NYU Press.
Rajendra, Cecil. 1989. Cecil Rajendra Biography & Selected Profiles, Reviews, Essays. London:
Bogle L’ouverture Publications Ltd.
Sollors, Werner.1995. "Ethnicity." In The Truth About the Truth: De-confusing and Re-constructing the Postmodern  World,  ed.  Walter  Truett  Anderson,  58-65.  New  York:  Jeremy  P. Tarcher/Putnam.
Tolentino, Delfin Jr. 2002. “Ethnicity and the Issue of Representation in Cultural Forms.”
Cordillera Studies Center (CSC) Monograph, UP Baguio.

[1] 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).


Luz Afidchao said...

Helloooo....KUNG HEI FAT CHOI (lai see tuloy, he he he)!!!! GOOD HEALTH, GOOD HEALTH!!! I like your write up. True, WHAT'S REALLY AN IGOROT? OR RATHER, WHO ARE THE IGOROTS? The Ifugaos don't want to be called Igorots as what the Ifugaos here in HongKong told me.Even some of the Kalingas here. Only the Mountaineers and IBenguets called themselves Igorots. It's up to us to turn that negative impression of what an Igorot is to a positive and competitive Igorot. Thanks God, you are one of those Competitive Igorot of today. Keep it up and more power to you.......TO CHE......

scott saboy said...

Gongxi facai met ken sik a pengyou! thanks for reading... no ipalubos ti Apo gayam baka dumagasak HK nu mapanak agattend ti maysa nga conference ijay Hangzhou this August. i will be reading a paper on an indigenous person's critique of American restorationist theology. kayat ko met lang bisitaen jay maysa nga Zhongguo de pengyou tayo dita nga ni Yuen Yuet Chun. I hope awan to snags tapnu waday chansak ay makisab at ken chakhayo am in sisa. Ganbei! :)

Luz Afidchao said...

CHO SAN!!! at least adi ag drop by ka...i hope sunday ti adda am ditoy. You know, sunday ang day off namin. Inform me what date in August. Share mo met no anya dayta report. seems interesting to know. thanks.....HAVE A NICE DAY.....

scott saboy said...

sige kabsat, try ko. August 27-29 jay conference ( ikkan kan to copy after jay presentation. ingatz!