Writing Poetry in My Mother Tongue: A Literary Art Practice in Binísayâ
Writing Poetry in My Mother Tongue: A Literary Art Practice in Binísayâ
  • Marjorie Evasco Pernia
  • 승인 2022.11.01 06:11
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Marjorie Evasco Pernia is a Filipina poet who writes in two languages: English and CebuanoBinísayâ, which is her mother tongue. She has received several literary awards from the SEA Write(2010), Ani ng Dangal Award(2011) from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts of the Philippines. She is currently on the list of the Emeritus Faculty of literature at De La Salle University and writing as a resident writer since 2019. She has been published extensively in Asia, Europe, and North America and her works have been translated into various Philippine languages and world languages including Spanish, Italian, German, Korean, Japanese, Estonian, Vietnamese, Chinese, and Kannada language


비니샤야어(Binísayâ) : 필리핀의 중앙 비사야 제도의 보홀섬의 모어는 비니사양 볼-아논(Binísayang Bol-anon)이다. 이 언어는 ‘비사얀어(Visayan)’ 혹은 ‘세부아노어(Cebuano)’—이 명칭은 세부섬의 언어를 뜻하는 것으로, 세부시(市)가 중앙 비사야 제도에서 정치적, 경제적, 문화적 중심지라는 사실과 관련되어 있다—의 방언이다. 세부아노-비사얀(Cebuano-Visayan)은 필리핀에서 타갈로그어(Tagalog) 다음으로 큰 민족 언어학적 집단이다. 마닐라와 세부 같은 권력의 중심지에 대한 이러한 저항은 오늘날 비사야스어(Visayas)를 사용하며 활동 중인 작가들 사이에서 나타난다. 그들은 의식적으로 우리의 토착어를 ‘세부아노어’—일반적으로 사용되는 명칭—로 부르길 거부하면서 그것의 참된 명칭이 ‘비사야어’ 혹은 ‘비니사야어’ 혹은 심지어 더 구체적으로 ‘비사양 볼-아논(Bísayang Bol-ánon)’이라고 주장한다.

마르조리에 에바스코 페르니아
마르조리에 에바스코 페르니아

Writing Poetry in My Mother Tongue: 
A Literary Art Practice in Binísayâ

Serafin Colmenares of the Center for Philippine Studies of the University of Hawaii in Manoa says, “Bísayâ is a group of related languages belonging to the Malayo- Polynesian family. Spoken in the central and southern Philippines, it is comprised of roughly 25 languages, some near extinction with under 1,000 native speakers and others spoken by millions. Bísayâ includes Cebuano, Hiligaynon or Ilonggo, Aklanon, Capiznon, Kinaray-a, Bantoanon, Romblonanon, Cuyonon, Waray, Surigaonon, Butuanon, Tausog, etc. Spoken by approximately 28 million people, the Bísayâ language family has the largest number of native speakers in the Philippines.” (http:// www.hawaii.edu/cps/visayans.html). I was born in the island-province of Bohol in the Central Visayas of the Philippines, and my mother tongue is Binísayang Bol-anon, which is considered a dialectal variant of “Visayan” or “Cebuano”— the name, a reference to the language of the island-province of Cebu, with Cebu City as the dominant political, economic, and cultural center of the Central Visayas. Cebuano-Visayan is the second largest ethnolinguistic group in the country, next to Tagalog. Only English and Tagalog were taught to me in school.

In Paz M. Bevez’s article “Development of Filipino, the National Language of the Philippines,” she says: “FILIPINO, the national language of the Philippines was finally settled in the 1987 Constitution. Article XIV section 6 states that “the National language of the Philippines is Filipino. As it evolves, it shall be further developed and enriched on the basis of existing Philippine and other languages.” (https://ncca.gov.ph/about- ncca-3/subcommissions/subcommission-on-cultural-disseminationscd/ language-and- translation/development-of-filipino-the-national-language-of-the-philippines/) In actual usage, both in written and oral communication, Filipino is developing as a Tagalog-based lingua franca of the Philippines

In the Visayas and Mindanao, Cebu City is the oldest economic, cultural and political center. It was first named Villa de San Miguel by Spanish colonizer Miguel Lopez de Legazpi in 1565. It was the first capital of the archipelago appropriated by Spain as its colony in the Far East. The language name “Cebuano” is a Latinate calque formed from the island’s name “Cebu” + “ano”—signifying its Spanish colonial lineage. (https://www.britannica.com/place/Cebu-City). I was born in the town of Maríbojoc on the northwestern part of the island of Bohol, which is an hour and a half to the East of Cebu island by modern motorized ferryboats. (http://www.maribojoc.gov.ph/about/ history) Bohol island is smaller than Cebu and its capital city, Tagbilaran, is a humble relative to the rich and dazzling city of Cebu, which calls itself “the Queen City of the South.” However, the people of Bohol pride themselves as descendants of the brave men and women who resisted the Spanish colonizers, the most prominent of whom was Francisco Dagohoy, whose rebellion lasted for 85 years, the longest in the Philippines. (https://philippineculturaleducation.com.ph/dagohoy-francisco/) This is the reason that even now a Bol-anon, when asked where she is from, would say in jest—“the Republic of Bohol.”

This resistance to the dominant centers of power such as Manila and Cebu is found today among practicing literary writers of the Visayas, who consciously resist calling our indigenous language “Cebuano,”—the generic name commonly used—and insist on its proper nomenclature, “Bísayâ,” or “Binísayâ,” or the even more specifically, “Bísayang Bol-ánon.” When I began writing in my mother tongue in 1995 as a political choice of moving away from using and perpetuating the production of knowledge only in the colonial language of English, literary scholar Erlinda Alburo noted that many words in my mother tongue have already disappeared in the Cebuano language used in Cebu. That observation pleased me, as it indicated that my indigenous language was robust in its continued use by the people of Bohol. It may also be interesting to note that these words are still being used in many parts of Mindanao among Boholanos, whose ancestors had migrated in various waves as settlers on the big island, ever since the American colonial government issued the Homestead Act in 1903. (https:// www.dar.gov.ph/about-us/agrarian-reform-history/

Decolonizing Art Practice

My return to using my indigenous language for writing poetry began in 1991 when I was on a month’s writing residency in Hawthornden Castle in Midlothian, Scotland. With me were three British writers—Eva Tucker, Helen Dixon, and William Parks—and two American writers, namely, Douglas Skrieff and Joseph MacAleer, who was also Castle Administrator. In the postprandial gatherings in the evening, they would share what they had written for the day, and for two weeks I was just a listener. I began to wonder why writing seemed so easy for them while I labored over my writing, re- working my drafts, changing my versification and word choices. And it dawned on me that it was because they were born to English as their first language, while I had had to learn English from my family of teachers in early childhood, and in the schools I attended up to my doctorate that used English as the medium of instruction. I developed first as an avid reader of Anglo-American literature, including literary texts from other cultures translated into English. Reading segued into writing in English, and my poetry in English belongs to the Philippine literary tradition that began in 1908 with the sonnet

by Fernando Maramag titled “Moonlight on Manila Bay.” Literary critic and National Artist for Literature Gémino H. Abad historicizes the tradition of Philippine poetry in English from this poem on the basis of its mastery, not only of the English language but more so of the language of poetry. In his formulation, he calls this mastery “writing from English” rather than merely “writing in English.” During that writing residency in Hawthornden Castle, I decided to return to writing in my indigenous language. Aside from de-programming my mind from thinking and dreaming in English, I had to retrieve and relearn my mother tongue. My strategic first step was to read everything in the tradition of Cebuano Literature. I was lucky to be part of the research project of the Literature Department of De La Salle University called “Literary History of the Philippines” from 2000- 2003. Retrieving from the archives and learning the tradition of Cebuano Literature was my way of attending to what T.S. Eliot had posited as the critical relationship between an individual poet and the tradition into which she wants her works to be part of. My second strategy was literary translation. In 1998, my Ph.D. dissertation was titled “Poetry in Translation as Discourse: A Reconstructive Translation into Cebuano of Poetry in/from English by Contemporary Writers of the Central Visayas Region.” The postcolonial framework allowed me to find out how my contemporaries who hailed from the Central Visayas Region were writing in/from English as a translation of their specific social and cultural environment. This translation theorizing and praxis was significant to me as part of my act of reclaiming my mother tongue and a cultural heritage that had been overshadowed by the neo-colonial use of English. In 1999, it was time to translate my poetry into Binísayang Bol-anon. My second book, titled Ochre Tones: Poems in English and Cebuano, became my “book of changes.” Like my first book Dreamweavers, it also won a National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle. Other affirmations of the rightness of this path came, like the publication of “Bàbâ sa Kalayo,” in Bísayâ magazine, a weekly periodical which circulates in the Visayas and Mindanao. This magazine gave me more readers in my country than my poems published in English ever had. I reflected on this during my 2002 writing fellowship in the University Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP), saying that “to me, this was a first way-station of the difficult journey back home. It was an affirmation of the intrinsic rightness and intangible rewards of the pilgrimage. In the bosom of that place in poetry and language which I call home, I know I have my mother’s milk on my tongue at last!”

From then on, there was no turning back. I honed my poetry writing skills in my mother tongue, andeventually used English and Binísayâ in my academic writing and my art practice. In 2013, I was finally ready to write poetry directly in my mother tongue. This was the long narrative poem titled “Krutsay,” published in Agam: Filipino Narratives of Uncertainty and Climate Change by the Institute of Climate and Sustainable Cities (ICSC). The poem’s persona is a male fisherman of one of the coastal barrios of Mindanao, whose ancestors came from Bohol and settled there. From hindsight, writing the long narrative poem from a photograph as prompt, felt like I was effortlessly listening to the fisherman’s voice and taking his words down. The writing, as I remember it, was trancelike through all four parts of the poem. When the publisher asked me to record a reading of this poem, I asked Richel Dorotan, literary editor of Bísayâ magazine and a Bísayâ male poet to perform the poem. This is now available online on Agam Agenda’s climate podcast (https:// agamagenda.com/marjorie-evasco- and-richel-dorotan/). And because the publisher asked me for an English translation of “Krutsay,” I translated the poem from Binísayâ into English, for readers who could only navigate the literary waters in English, or who still choose to read in English and not in their indigenous languages. It has been a decade now since I mustered the courage to write poetry in my mother tongue. And I recall what I said in my introduction to Ochre Tones about my project of self-translation: “The road home proved to be long and circuitous. But whenever I tried my hand at writing in my mother language, my ears curled like a child’s fingers around the vowels of a tongue I know, but seemed to have forgotten how to dream in.” In 2019, the poem “Farol de Combate,” which I had also written first in Binísayâ was accepted for the Summer issue of World Literature Today, which was themed “A Rising Sea of Climate Change Lit.” (https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/ 2019/summer/two-poemsphilippines-marjorie-evasco) I was delightfully surprised when the editors asked me to record my reading of the poem in Binísayâ. (https:// soundcloud.com/worldlittoday/farol-de-combate-visayanby-marjorie-evasco) This was significant in my art practice since what the poem’s persona says in the first part of the poem is performative of the gesture of “coming home,” a returning not only to a place of origin, but more so a “going back” to her language: “sa akong pagbalik sa akong pinulongang naandan.” I’m celebrating this decade of journeying back to my indigenous language with a new poetry book titled “It is Time to Come Home: New and Collected Poems,” which will have poems in Binísaya, English, Filipino, and Spanish. My first teacher in poetry, Merlie Alunan, says about ‘Farol de Combate’ in her introduction to the forthcoming book:

In this poem, home has become more than a place. In this segment, she brings to life the old fables, telling them lovingly, despite her own sense of unbelief: the story of the lingganay ugis, the sunken bell that goes on tolling its soundless message in the depths of the legendary Abatan River; children fishing in the shallows still hoping to duel with cogtong, the elusive monster fish, as did their fathers and their fathers’ fathers before them; the tambaloslos still hulking perversely at the back of anyone’s mind, uneasy reminder of the human propensity for evil. These are stories drawn from the loam of her origins. Preparing this forthcoming collection for publication has enabled me to take a longitudinal view spanning almost 50 years of my work in poetry, from the time I made the serious and conscious decision in May 1976 to learn and serve this difficult “craft and sullen art.” I hope that when it gets published next year, it will invite the attentive reader to follow the layered paths of my writing life, from the time I literally left Bohol in 1973 to go Tacloban, Dumaguete, and Manila, only to return again and again, in the various magical and meandering ways of language to the welcoming kiss of poetry on my forehead

References Cited: Abad, Gémino H. “The Language of Our Blood.” A Native Clearing: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English since the ‘50s to the Present: Edith L. Tiempo to Cirilo F. Bautista. Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1993. Agam Agenda Podcast. “Krutsay.” https://agamagenda.com/marjorie-evasco-and-richel-dorotan/. Institute of Climate and Sustainable Cities. Accessed 08-16-22 Almario, Virgilio, Ed. “Dagohoy, Francisco,” Sagisag Kultura (Vol. 1). Manila:National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2015. Retrieved from https://philippineculturaleducation.com.ph/dagohoy-francisco/ Alunan, Merlie. “Feet in Water, Hands on Stone, And in the Heart, Wind and Light — The Poetry of Marjorie Evasco.” It is Time to Come Home: New and Collected Poems. Unpublished typescript dated July 26, 2022. Bevez, Paz M. “Development of Filipino: The National Language of the Philippines.” https://ncca.gov.ph/aboutncca-3/subcommissions/subcommission-on-cultural- disseminationscd/language-and-translation/developmentof-filipino-the- national-language-of-the-philippines/. Subcommission on Cultural Dissemination, National Commission for Culture and the Arts. Accessed 08-10-22

Colmenares, Serafin, Jr. “The Visayans in Hawaii.” http://www.hawaii.edu/cps/ visayans.html. Center for Philippine Studies, University of Hawaii, Manoa. Accessed 08-12-22. Department of Agriarian Reform. “Agrarian Reform History.” https://www.dar.gov.ph/about-us/agrarianreform-history/. Accessed 08-13-22. Eliot, T.S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Essay on Poetic Theory. https:// www.poetryfoundation.org/ articles/69400/tradition-and-the-individual-talent. Poetry Foundation. Accessed 8-14-22. Evasco, Marjorie. “Bàbâ sa Kaláyo.” Bisaya Magasin. March 31, 1993. _______. “Into the Grove: Writing in Two Tongues.” https://iwp.uiowa.edu/sites/iwp/files/IWP2002_EvascoPernia_marjorie.pdf. IWP, University of Iowa.Accessed 08-15-22. __________. “Krutsay.” Agam: Filipino Narratives on Uncertainty and Climate Change. Ed. Regina Abuyoan. Quezon City: Institute of Climate and Sustainable Cities, 2014. __________. “Into the Grove: Writing in Two Tongues.” Ochre Tones: Poems in English and Cebuano. Marikina: Salimbayan Books, 1999. __________. “Two Poems from the Philippines.” https://www.worldliteraturetoday.org/2019/summer/twopoems-philippines-marjorie-evasco .World Literature Today. Accessed 08-08-22. __________. “Farol de Combate.” https://soundcloud.com/worldlittoday/farol-de-combate-visayan-bymarjorie-evasco . World Literature Today. Accessed 08-08-22. Jabines, Mae Claire G. “The History of Maribojoc: Digging the Foundations of a Town.” http://www.maribojoc. gov.ph/about/history. The Municipality of Maribojoc. Republic of the Philippines. Accessed 08-11-22

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