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




(Part 2 of 2)

THE introduction of the collection gives full disclosure that the stories are all Roman a Clef, with the names of characters and places changed to respect the privacies of people.

But the author is actually inconsistent on this account, as in some stories he renames entire towns (‘Malpet’ for ‘Magpet’ in North Cotabato in ‘Natik Ansaban’ to name one) but in others he even uses the town’s real name, (‘Lakewood,’ for instance).


Altering the names would, I think, only cause unnecessary frustration, especially as many of the incidents being described are in fact publicly verifiable. The subject of the first story in the collection, ‘Natik Ansaban,’ was particularly easy to identify, specially for a reader like me doing research into Kidapawan history.

The Katindu Dispute, which started in the 1960s and was only resolved in the 1990s, involved the Monuvu Ansabu clan, lead by Datu Amasing and Datu Mambiling Ansabu, and the land-grabber Augusto Gana, who became mayor of Kidapawan from 1971 to 1992 (in the story his caricature, Hulyo Alegre, became governor, but in real life his wife Mila Ocampo Gana became a provincial board member, and together they were influential in the province).

‘Satur Neri’ is inspired by the martyred priest Fr Nerilito Satur, who fought a long crusade against logging in Bukidnon. The displacement of the Subanen resulting from the insurgency in Mt Malindang portrayed in ‘Buklog,’ as well as the exploitation of the burial jars in Sultan Kudarat are all well documented.

But the others whose real details I and other readers are not privy to only cause frustration, as there is a desire built up to learn more about these real incidents, especially considering the author – who has spent decades working with communities – offers a historically important perspective never before heard. This was particularly the case with ‘Kampo,’ whose real location I could not ascertain.

I find that changing the names, especially of places and public figures, would be counterproductive to the project of raising awareness about historical injustices, as for such an endeavour you want to be as informative as you can for all of posterity. There is a sense in this collection that the author understood this in many of the stories, which did not really hide any names.

Outside of form, writers who would attempt to write works of Historical Injustice Fiction must be conscious of the complexities of discourse in Mindanao, and the dynamics of representation and the subaltern. Which is why there is a need to properly translate this book’s title to English.

‘Lumadnong Sugilanon’ would be simply translated to ‘Lumad Stories’ by less aware editors. But such a translation would create the false impression that these stories are by the Lumad and articulate Lumad worldviews. This, for the Settler author, would be tantamount to Settlerjacking .

This danger is especially true if these stories were handled by anthology editors and literature teachers without nuance (and there are many), and it would only add to the pervading problem of cultural misrepresentation if this collection were not curated properly.

And proper curation is what this collection deserves, as they are very insightful stories about the Lumad (a much better translation of the title!), ones told from a very empowering perspective.

Mga Lumadnong Sugilanong Mahinuklogon is a triumph of Settler fiction, because few Settler stories ever portray the Lumad with the same level of respect, admiration, and empathy as much as these stories do. In these stories you see most of all that the Lumad are people, with very human struggles that any reader can relate to.

Even the ignorance of the Lumad is cause for the Settler’s respectful amusement. In ‘Kampo,’ the narrator shares the eponymous Dulangan Manobo character’s excitement to see the sea (which he had never seen up close before). When Kampo wonders if he can use sea water to cook Sinigang, the narrator delights at this fresh way of looking at something he had always taken for granted. Charming moments like these remind us, both of our shared humanity and the many differences we can celebrate.

What make these stories particularly special is how much it reveals – and exemplifies – about the Settler perspective. The narrator is conscious of his Settlerhood, and has the wisdom to be wary of the perils of projecting his own aspirations on the communities he is working with.

In these stories, most of the talking actually comes from the perspective of the Lumad characters (either as dialogue or as recounted by the narrator), and the narrator rarely adds his own perspective into the details. The author being a seasoned community worker, this comes as no surprise. And this is an attitude every Settler, specially the well meaning ones who will endeavour to take up the challenge of writing Historical Injustice Fiction, will need to assume.

It is of course de rigueur for anyone writing about cultural communities to be judicious in the ethnography they depict, because fiction has a way of distorting public understanding of anthropology. This is especially true for works of Historical Injustice Fiction, as cultural distortions are themselves acts of historical injustice (an injustice I think such fictionists as Erwin Cabucos, Jude Ortega, and the late Antonio Enriquez were often guilty of).

The author behind the nom de plume Melchor M. Morante is a seasoned anthropologist, so that rarely poses a problem for this collection.  The Settler author is also rightly candid about the devastating effects of Settlerhood and the poor environmental and economic policies of the colonial Philippine nation-state imagined from Manila on the indigenous cultures of Mindanao. In one story, poorly thought out land titling policies are shown to have led to landgrabbing.

In another, the coming of public health institutions are shown to be killing ancient healing traditions (very timely as the national government is now considering recognizing indigenous healers as Preservers of Intangible Cultural Heritage). And yet in another, the Manila-centric and Urban-centric nature of cultural institutions are shown to be the cause of looting of historical and archaeological artefacts.

One of the most poignant scenes in the whole collection is in the story ‘Lakewood,’ when the Manilenya nun casually makes a feminist commentary on the Subanen legend being recounted. Not only is this a demonstration of typical Manilenyo naivety and unwitting cultural imposition, the narrator’s response – that cultures are to be respected if they are to be understood – is wisdom every Mindanawon should aspire to.

But particularly fascinating is how, in these stories, the author offers a glimpse into Mindanawon Catholic attitudes towards the Lumad and their indigenous spirituality. The early days of Christianity in Lumad Mindanao were characterized by coerced conversions and systematic discrimination.

In this collection, we see how the Catholic church and its institutions have actually taken a complete u-turn in dealing with indigenous spirituality, one for the better. Instead of dismissing the Lumad spiritual traditions as ‘paganism’ or ‘witchcraft,’ there is often an awed fascination on the part of the narrator, a member of a religious order.

This already goes beyond mere tolerance, the author is showing how Mindanao’s Christian Settlers (specially its more mature Catholics) are starting to celebrate the many ways of being human and aspiring towards the Infinite here in Mindanao. This collection, I think, argues quite eloquently how Mindanao should be developed as an important center for theology.

Just the last word in the book’s title, Mahinuklogon, opens up so many possibilities. ‘Paghinuklog’ is conventionally translated to ‘contemplation,’ with a note of ‘repentance,’ and in Settler Bisaya is a term invariably belonging to the semantic field of Kwaresma (the Lenten Season), in other words of religious reflection.

And yet it is tantalizingly similar to the Subanen ritual of the Buklog (the title of one of the collection’s stories), and if not a cognate, is certainly evocative of that grand indigenous ceremony. By just that one word, the book’s title serves to subtly remind Mindanawons how much we actually share with one another despite our ethnic and religious differences, and how much we would discover if we only overcome prejudices and try to understand one another.

Mga Lumadnong Sugilanong Mahinuklogon is the first literary book to come out from Mindanao since the coming of the global Coronavirus Pandemic (part of the ongoing Cultural boom in Mindanao).

And rightly so: in a time when we are dealing with many deaths and are compelled to stay at home to read and reflect, literature that is lived – like these works of Historical Injustice Fiction – becomes more relevant. Because when you talk about historical injustice, you cannot help but usher in the coming of healing.

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