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HISTORICAL INJUSTICE FICTION | A critical review of Mga Lumadnong Sugilanong Mahinuklogon by Melchor M. Morante

(Part 1 of 2)

A GENRE of its own emerges from Melchor M. Morante’s latest book Mga Lumadnong Sugilanong Mahinuklogon, a collection of short stories in Cebuano Bisaya.

Written by an author with decades of experience working with Mindanao’s marginalized communities, these roman-a-clef stories are to date the largest collection of works of what I will hitherto call Historical Injustice Fiction.

The literature these stories end up becoming serves to help address many of Mindanao’s historical injustices: Landgrabbing, historical and cultural erasure, extrajudicial killings, socioeconomic inequality, and linguistic hegemony all touched in stories casually told as reflective recollections.

Using fiction as a means of documenting and bringing historical injustices into wider public awareness is not new, but with Mga Lumadnong Sugilanong Mahinuklogon, a new direction is emerging: specific incidents of atrocities or injustices in Mindanao, specially those not widely known or remaining unrecorded, are portrayed and tackled with the sobriety of literary detachment, such that human insight may be distilled from them, specially for Mindanawon readers.

As I have said on different occasions, the culmination of literary form is impact, and in order to achieve that impact, that form must be scrutinized. Taking a look at how Morante’s stories succeed, and see where they can improve, would also serve to take this emerging genre forward.

We note, first of all, the language, and with just this the stories in this collection already have much impact.

For the longest time, Mindanao’s Fiction in Cebuano Bisaya has been largely monolingual, a result of Bhabhan hybridity of Mindanao’s writers from the ‘standard’ Cebu tradition of the language’s literature, but also a cause by which Mindanao’s own tradition remains so, producing this endless cycle of uprootedness. This is an often ignored dimension to the reality of contemporary Mindanao literature’s long-standing failure to reflect Mindanao’s linguistic realities. With the more recent works of writers like Jondy Arpilleda (who blurs the lines between Bisaya and Tandagnon) and Macario Tiu (who proudly uses the Tagalog-laced Bisaya of Davao), this remove between literary medium and linguistic reality is slowly being addressed.

But Mga Lumadnong Sugilanong Mahinuklogon takes this one step further, with the author making it his express aim in the collection’s introduction to show more of Cebuano Bisaya’s increasing hybridization with other languages in Mindanao. With Tagalog, English, and Hiligaynon mixing with Monuvu, Blaan, Subanen, and Dulangan in the Cebuano narrative, this collection’s medium is, to date, the closest any book has come to what Mindanao actually sounds like.

We want more, of course, and in many accounts that demand is addressed not to the text, but to the community. Mindanao’s indigenous languages (this collection shows) is not being heard enough in Mindanao, a result of their slow erasure in the wake of policies of linguistic hegemony (the premium put on English, the imposition of Tagalog as a national language, and the emergence of Cebuano as Settler lingua franca resulting from unmediated resettlement).

Morante’s stories also succeed by showing how Mindanao’s languages have become subaltern even in Mindanao. We are compelled to do something about it.

Where, perhaps, the collection can improve on the matter of language is with the following of emerging standards of orthography and in being representative of the picture of diversity.
I cannot speak for the other Lumad languages, but for Obo Monuvu (which I am learning), I can point out that it would be ideal if the author follow the orthography for the language developed by tribal leaders in partnership with the Summer Institute of Linguistics. Greetings such as ‘moppiyon sollom’ (which are used in the stories) are increasingly being spelled by the language’s writers following this orthography, which the tribe themselves designed to better reflect their phonology.

The discourse on what orthography to follow is also deeply intertwined with discursive power, and it would be consistent with this collection’s aim – and for Historical Injustice Fiction in general – to spell words in the language the way the language community itself would like them to be spelled.

Although it is not really the problem of the collection (which is already considerably diverse), it must also be pointed out that the book is still far from representing the sheer multiplicity of tongues in Mindanao, one of the world’s linguistic diversity hotspots. Not featured in the book are the Moro languages, many Lumad languages, and Settler languages endemic to Mindanao like Chavacano and the Mindanao Tagalogs. But that only means that we hope more works will come out featuring those languages’ confluence with Bisaya.

In terms of form, the stories in the collection often fall short of narrative development. Each story is rich in ethnographical and historical material, with much of those having their own conflicts. But the stories suffer from overreliance on them, and perhaps the author’s own general sense of detachment from the events unfolding. Although it must be quickly pointed out that the author is in no way apathetic, on the contrary there is much sympathy for the conflicts unfolding in each piece from the narrator. Only that it seems that the narrator is too often merely the bystander, and being another level removed from the human experience, the reader can only really eavesdrop into what that bystander is hearing.

The emotional gravity of such situations as the death of the grandson in ‘Lakewood’ and the evacuations recounted in ‘Buklog’ do not come out, in the first case because the narrator (and consequently the reader) has not been shown to have developed any deeper attachment to the dead child, and in the latter case because the reader is not given the opportunity to be in the narrative present of the incident being recounted.

The same is true of the character development of the eponymous ‘Kampo,’ whose change of personality the reader (like the narrator) can only speculate about but do not really have full experience.

Balancing the volume of historical and ethnographic material to discuss on the one hand and creating a human conflict at the heart of the story on the other will be a central and recurring challenge to any future writer of Historical Injustice Fiction.

Where I think writers like Morante can move forward on that count is to find a conflict through which the author can add their take on the discourse of the subject matter, the insight they draw from the issue, or perhaps their idea how it could be resolved.

The wealth of material to discuss also makes it very tempting for the writer of Historical Injustice Fiction to dump information that, while of great interest, may be unnecessary to the story and may in fact drag the story down and lose the reader’s interest. This the case in ‘Kampo,’ where the discussions on the religious characters’ work gets more attention than Kampo’s own sudden change in personality.

(To be continued)

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