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Philippine Literature in English is Dying -- Celso Carunungan
by Tony P. Fernandez
Date: 8/5/2003

Philippine literature in English is dying. This was the dire conclusion of Celso Carunungan, one of the country’s foremost literary writers in English, who died in Manila on February 15, 1988, at age 65.

While on a visit to Manila in 1985, I had the good fortune to meet Celso Carunungan, who spent long years writing fiction in English and was among those who voiced his concern that literature in English by Filipino writers is flickering, and will perhaps one day burn itself out.

In a lecture that he delivered on June 11, 1985, at the B & B Executive Lounge atop the Makati Stock Exchange, sponsored by the Philippine Futuristic Society, Celso said Filipino fiction writers in English face a bleak future because they don’t want to write, saying there’s no market for fiction writing in English. “It’s a vicious circle,” Celso said. ”The writer today doesn’t want to write because there’s no market and the market cannot publish anything because there’s nothing to publish. And although we are a nation or a people who can read, we are also a people who don’t buy books to read,” Celso told his listeners.

Celso said this is borne out by the fact that in 1984, Singapore produced 500 novels, Malaysia printed 350, Indonesia put out some 1, 200 novels, with Japan by far having the largest number-some 3, 500 novels produced during the same year. The Philippines, which is considered an English-speaking country, produced only four (4) novels, according to Carunungan.

This impoverished state of Philippine literature in English has been felt by the Palanca Literary Contest, where Carunungan has been consistently a judge for a number of years. According to Celso, the Palanca literary awards have been relegated to a contest every three years because of lack of entries. “Last year, there were only three entries,” Celso said. “It’s not something that you can be proud of.”

Carunungan also said that some people are saying that the reason Filipino literature in English is failing miserably is due to lack of freedom (the country was still under martial law) and because there’s really nothing to write about.

Celso disagrees. “During the Japanese Occupation that is exactly what all the writers were saying. Just wait. After the war, fiction writing will flourish. But this did not happen,” he said.

Carunungan said as far as he knows the only piece of fiction on the Japanese Occupation was Stevan Javellana’s Without Seeing the Dawn. Perhaps there were many other short stories on the Occupation but nothing substantial was written about that period, says Carunungan.

For Celso, a repressive regime should not be the excuse not to write. “Perhaps the most repressive regime in the history of England was the regime of Queen Elizabeth 1, and yet she produced the Golden Age of English Literature. This was the age of Shakespeare and Marlowe and Ben Johnson and a host of other writers,” Carunungan stated.

“I feel that the writer who complains about repressive regimes is a mediocre one trying to use the regime as a crutch for his inability to write,” Carunungan added.

In delineating how to save Filipino fiction writing in English, Celso wants Filipino fiction writers in English to look beyond their country. He wants them to write for American magazines, and to write for British magazines. He wants them to write for other foreign publications printed in English. And he wants Filipino writers to be themselves. In other words, to write as Filipinos and to choose universal themes that will appeal not only to Filipino readers but to foreign readers as well.

However, Celso recognizes that the reason Filipino writers cannot penetrate the foreign market in English is due perhaps to the fact that the ordinary Filipino writer who writes in English does not have a “living acquaintance “ with the English language.

He said the English that they know is the English that they learned from books, from the movies or TV and reading these books they get influenced by such writers as Hemingway, Faulkner and other American authors without realizing perhaps that Hemingway wrote in Midwestern English, Faulkner in Southern English, Steinbeck in California English.

The result is ‘chop suey’ English ala Filipino’, Carunungan told his audience. And to make matters worse, Carunungan says: “We speak the English language in a manner that an American will need a code to understand it.” So unless something is done to save Philippine literature in English, Celso sees little hope for our fiction writers to flourish using Shakespeare’s tongue.

About Tony P. Fernandez

Antonio P. Fernandez or 'Tony,' was born in Manila and grew up in San Juan, Rizal. His father, Tomas Fernandez Lumba, was of Spanish descent and originally from Manila, while his mother, Marina Pasion, hails from Mangaldan, Pangasinan.

He finished high school at San Marcelino Catholic High School and enrolled at Lyceum University majoring in journalism. He worked in Manila in the late 50s as a reporter for the Herald Publications Inc., publishers of the Philippines Herald, Mabuhay, and the El Debate, a daily in Spanish. He also worked as a the Publications Divisions of the Philippine National Library.

In 1966, he was awarded a scholarship to do research and reporting in Spanish by the Instituto de Cultura Hispánica of Madrid, Spain, and lived in that city for several years after which he traveled to various countries of Europe. He then moved to the United States in 1968 where he co-founded the Filipino American Herald, a Seattle community newspaper.

Fernandez attended the University of Washington in Seattle and took up Mass Communications and Spanish. As well, he worked as a Spanish substitute teacher in the Seattle Public School System.

He then moved to Montreal in 1974, and worked for the Medical Records Department at the Montreal General Hospital. While still working for the General, Tony founded Bulalakaw, a monthly community paper, which was later renamed The Tamaraw Times and published this paper for more than a decade. He became the editor of the The Filipino Star since its founding and stayed as editor for many years until the Star changed ownership in 1998. Fernandez later joined the Asian Leader in 1998, as a contributing editor and was named the same year as the Vice-Chairman of the Montreal Philippine Centennial Movement (Quebec Chapter). He is also the Area Commander of the Knights of Rizal (Montreal Chapter).

Fernandez was instrumental of having Dr. Jose Rizal’s statue to be erected in Mackenzie King Park after months of lobbying with an Ad Hoc Committee of Filipinos he formed to have the City of Montreal approved this project with the backing of then President Fidel Ramos.

He is married to Lina V. Fernandez. They have a son - Antonio V. Fernandez who was born in Montreal. Comments may be sent to

Source: By Tony P. Fernandez, submitted through e-mail

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