The Manila Review interviews Katrina Stuart Santiago

Caroline S. Hau and Miguel Syjuco

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Last April, literary critic and essayist Katrina Stuart Santiago wrote a controversial polemic about patronage and cliquishness in the Philippine writing establishment. MR editors Caroline S. Hau (CSH) and Miguel Syjuco (MS) probe deeper.

CSH: Your article, “Burn After Reading” (Rogue Magazine, April 13, 2012) is critical of the “us-vs-them” cliquishness of the Philippine writing establishment. You talk about “an unspoken/unconscious/unexplained set of rules” for gaining entry into the writing community, rules that you say have nothing to do with literary merit. What are these rules?

The rule of respecting your elders. Which is equated with refusing to question their scholarship, or critiquing their body of work. Seniority comes into play, big time, and you realize that articulating even in the most scholarly of ways, or in the kindest of ways, your disagreement will not be taken at face value, and will instead be taken as an affront to the elders’ sense of their place in the establishment. Criticism, even when it comes in the form of writing differently, doesn’t only paint you as disrespectful, it also makes you an enemy.

The rule of utang na loob. The poet who first gave you a writing gig, the teacher who gave you work as a student, the one who takes pride in having read your work first, the one who has no qualms about saying that he/she was the judge when you won a prize. These relationships are weightier than the task of writing and creativity.

The rule of knowing your place. You choose whose work you do critical assessments of, you demand little of your elders in the establishment. For me this place was also one that told me I wasn’t allowed to do the critical work I wanted to do within the academe, because that would mean risking career and friendships within it. It’s a place of silence, a rule of silence, too.


CSH: You identify a “shameless alaga system versus real mentorship” as one of the institutional hallmarks of a corrupt literary system. How do you distinguish between the two?

The alaga system shouldn’t be and isn’t a problem in and by itself – we all play favorites after all – it’s the manner in which the young and new writer is made into the elder, it’s when there’s a sense of crowns being handed down, of the elder anointing the younger ones, that it becomes suspicious if not problematic.

Mentorship on the other hand, and as I’ve seen it happen in these shores too, is a more professional relationship, where you seek the help of an elder, where you allow for a writer or critic you respect to look at your work and ask that they give honest comments. Mentorship is not about pleasing the mentor, but about the mentee being allowed to decide for herself the direction she might take given the criticism of her work. The mentor critiques the work of another without imposing her own ways of doing things, her own ideologies; nor would the mentor take it personally if and when the mentee refuses to revise as per her advice. In this sense, the mentor respects the independence of the mentee, values this as much as her own, and the mentee need not feel indebted to the mentor.

CSH: What kind of impact has this cliquishness had on Philippine literature in general, and on the careers of aspiring young writers in particular?

Cliquishness within any creative enterprise, we’d like to think, is default, it’s something that cannot be helped. But when this creative institution becomes a clique all its own, when one can look at a writing establishment and see the ties that bind each and everyone within it to each other, and how much of it is personal, what happens to creativity and the task of writing then?

As student of literature in the University of the Philippines, it meant becoming their student assistant, it meant dreaming of becoming part of the academe and maintain these relationships. It also meant toning down what I had to say, or being more careful about what I wrote, or keeping “secrets” of canon formation that I had become privy to. Without thinking, these personal relationships came into play as I sat down and tried to write an essay. When I was writing that essay that later won the Palanca Award, I took conscious effort to write the way creative non-fiction is written in Manila. My particular rebellion was my insistence on talking about activism, about the woman factory worker, but I knew, I consciously ended with, this task of reflecting about my difference from them, which is always always in the creative non-fiction that we publish.

I’d like to think that it is this exercise in keeping the establishment happy while flexing one’s creative muscles that might point to impact.

MS: Language, authenticity, relevance, and audience are issues regularly mentioned when examining Philippine literature. These often seem to be wielded as preferential or exclusionary tactics, meant to narrowly define what our literature should and shouldn’t be. Isn’t this tendency toward the monolithic just an extension of the us-versus-them mentality you criticize? Shouldn’t we (in our multi-lingual, multi-cultural country) want to see many writers, in different languages and dialects, from diverse backgrounds, working in different styles, with differing philosophies regarding art and social engagement?

That the literary scene might be informed by divisions in language, differences in audience and ideological leanings is to me secondary. Regionalism is already a crisis that the us-versus-them mentality doesn’t acknowledge to begin with, maybe something that’s seen as irresolvable, given geography. I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the writings from the regions to come to Manila, and become part of the institutions and literati here; it is Manila and the literati here that should engage with the regions, not just by selling their books elsewhere or doing workshops and such, but by looking at the writing from the regions and engaging with the audience these have. This would of course mean dealing with forms and writing that are totally different from what’s acceptable in Manila.


MS: You say that the literati don’t “care” about broader readers. However, if a writer were to adjust to the public’s reading tastes, she or he could also be accused of pandering. Should we ever be writing for anyone particular, or should we all perhaps just be writing, so that one will appeal to certain readers while others appeal to other readers, thus cultivating a polyphonous literature?

When I say that they don’t care, I mean that there is a tendency to look to a very limited set of people for readership: students for one, because they are held captive by the syllabi of their teachers (who are members of the literati, too); themselves for another, the small circle of writer friends, whose approval of their work is enough. I don’t know that this is a question of writing for a particular audience as it a question of whether we dare engage a bigger audience. It’s a question of whether or not we are willing to evolve in our writing, versus churning out the same things  book after book.

There are the literati and their writing, and there’s the rest of us outside of it. The diversity exists, but it is because of those who demand of themselves to evolve in their writing, and engage new readers in the process.


MS: When one criticizes another for not doing enough through their work (which is what your Rogue article seems to do), that seems to be a part of our shared frustration that our country (and its components, including literature) can’t escape its inertia. While that criticism may be understandable, is that really helpful or fair in regards to literature, given that we each have our roles? Or is it just another example (as seen repeatedly in politics) of us waiting for a messiah to revolutionize, represent, or inspire us forward?

The premise of a question like this is that no one is outside the literary and academic establishment. But “Burn After Reading” at its core, was saying that the messiahs are here, and they are not within the house that literature built. Certainly, there will be brilliant writers born into that house of literature, but anyone worth his or her creative salt will get to the point of self-reflexivity, when it becomes obvious that those who inhabit the institutions of literature are ultimately the same people, if not people who think the same way. “Burn” was about telling that person that it’s okay to step out of that zone and listen to people outside of it, the “them” that the powerful “us” ignores or lambasts in equal turns. There is life outside the literati and the academe, there is writing to be done elsewhere.

Was it helpful or fair to critique the systemic decay in the institutionalized but silent practices in literary production and writing? I would think so. It is no different from talking about what ails government, except that the latter is national, and the literati and academe are a very small world that keeps to itself.


MS: You criticize the inclination to want to be published in America. This seems to come from a postcolonial idea that is arguably becoming obsolete as the world is more globalized and Filipinos expand our diaspora. It implies there’s something wrong with a Filipino wanting to be read simultaneously at home and abroad. This, however, is curiously mostly a criticism in literature, because in business, sports, performing arts, and other fields we see both a reasonable pragmatism in succeeding in the wider world and a pride in those who do. Since the Filipino experience is now a global one, shouldn’t our literature be one that embraces the diaspora and the world beyond our shores?

Actually, it wasn’t the desire to be published in America per se, but the fact of pretending that we aren’t writing for America. And this isn’t a petty “why are you writing in English?” question. It is an inquiry into why exactly we would rather not take on the challenge of getting wider readership in the Philippines at the same time that we sustain whatever American/international dream there is. The premise is that there are more readers here than the literati and academe admit, but the decision is to look only at that classroom and each other and elsewhere. And the question is “why?”

This is obviously different from writing from/in the Filipino diaspora, from Fil-Am writing, from migrant literature à la Carlos Bulosan, and from OFW testimonials.

CSH: You talk about the penalties that writers pay for being critical of writers’ works. You wrote: “It doesn’t matter that you talk about the work and not the people; the work is the person who wrote it, and these writers have built this house.” Why do you think it is very difficult to separate the writer from his or her work or the critic from what she or he is criticizing?

Because the tendency – if not the rule – is to hold our works so close to our hearts that we never let it go, that we insist on explaining what our works mean, that we end up talking to each other about our work, and writing about each other’s works, too. By the time a work for example is published, or appears in an anthology or as a book, it might have gone through workshops, if not sessions with the writing elders. The tendency as such is to feel entitled to this place of being writer, the work as part of the canon, and any criticism (post-publication) of the work is seen as a critique of the validity of these italicized and highly questionable concepts.

The critic from what she is criticizing is an interesting animal in itself, because where the literary text one produces might allow for distance – you can say it’s a work of fiction, you can say it’s not about you – the critic is in her critical stance. Do I imagine a separation between the critic and what she is criticizing? Not at all. Any critic should know the text she’s criticizing like the back of her hand, or at least have a sense of the angles that she’s missed if only so she can respond when she is questioned or attacked for her opinion. When your textual output is opinion, when your literary work (so to speak) is the critical essay, you live off the lack of separation. And you admit that yes, everything is personal, in so far as you choose to write about the things you do, and you are affected by these texts whether positively or negatively, and you have no other way to explain how you feel but through words.

MS: The younger, marginalized, and unappreciated writers you refer to in your piece may likely one day get published, achieve tenure, have kids to support, lean on literary styles they try to perfect, and become part of the establishment. Isn’t what you criticize just part of a timeless cycle? Will rejecting the establishment now really open up writing and reading later?

Certainly, if this rejection of the establishment was all hot air. But the ideological underpinnings – at least for me – are clearly about the systemic dysfunction of this house’s existence. This question is also premised on the assumption of a lack of anything worthwhile to do that will be financially viable, outside of the house of literature and the academe– an assumption which is just not true. “Burn After Reading” was pointing out that there’s plenty to do elsewhere, so we will always have the choice not to go back to that house.

CSH:  You have been involved in some debates that have arisen in reaction to your essay, which was reprinted in Facebook. Some of your readers have recounted their first-hand encounters with the abuses of the system of literary barkada and alaga. Others have commented that, instead of writing about the maladies of the system, you are better off concentrating on the task of writing itself. Still others have commented on the tone—the “anger” and “bitterness”–of your essay. How do you respond to these comments?

With regard to the maladies of the system versus the task of writing itself, I do wonder why these are seen as mutually exclusive. The task of writing happens within|against|beyond this system, and as such it is responsibile to itself to speak of the system’s maladies. Every writing that happens in this country is a symptom of the system, with all the good and bad that’s there. To imagine that there is even the task of writing in itself, extraneous to the systemic ails of the writing establishment is to think words might happen in a vacuum, that books are published from out of nowhere, that we might be removed from context is to me problematic, if not altogether false.

In the interest of full disclosure, “Burn After Reading” was something that Rogue asked me write. And no, this request didn’t happen in a vacuum either: in November 2011 I attended the Manila International Literary Festival (yes, the MILF), and did a review of it for GMA News Online. Rogue’s editors read that, and asked me to write on the literary scene. It was of course a level-up, a challenge, one that I couldn’t refuse, but also something that I knew would be difficult: the patronage-alaga-academic-utang-na-loob-system is in my blood after all, and all those things came into play as I sat down to write what later became “Burn After Reading.”

This is crucial to the comment that I should write instead of critiquing the system: certainly the decision to say yes to Rogue was mine, but the idea was all theirs. Imagine me calling their bluff, or just taking on the challenge.

I thought here was something worth talking about, not to destroy anyone’s credibility (I don’t name names after all), but more than that to tell the universe of writers, aspiring and otherwise, to forge through and find that there are many ways to be writer in these shores. Many many other ways that are not the way of the mainstream, the establishment, or of patronage.

The anger and bitterness are readings that I accept. It was certainly not the intention, though intent as far as I’m concerned is irrelevant. I wrote that piece and let it go, as I do all the things I write. It is enough that to me it was a break-up letter long in coming, because I stayed in a bad relationship for far too long. That I stand by it goes without saying.

What I thought unfair was the condescension that came with these readings, pointing out how young and unknown I am, or presuming insecurity and my lack of a writing career. These reactions of course only proved “Burn After Reading” correct about that house and its inhabitants.

CSH: In follow-up posts, you identify alternative modes of publishing—independent presses, the internet—and criticism, mostly undertaken by young writers, that provide venues for debates and mentorship beyond the reach of the literary establishment. Do you think these alternative modes represent the future of Philippine creative writing, outside of the usual institutional settings for discussing and validating literature offered by workshops, literary contests, university and commercial presses, and academia?

I’m no expert on the independent publishing sphere, in fact more of a newbie swimming in all the locally and independently produced comics and books that in the early part of this year I began to be more exposed to. I like that when I read independently published work, I am forced to question my own notions of literature and writing and creativity. I like that I am surprised by the kind of writing that happens beyond the establishment. I like that I am forced to question my own limitations when it comes to reading poetry and fiction and the essay as I know them. I like that my notions of what is literary are challenged by comic books independently published.

Do these “alternative” independent modes of production spell the future of literature in this country? I certainly hope not, if only because I see “the future of literature” to still be controlled by the establishment that will write official literary histories and hold events that will exclude most of us. I’d like to think that the independent publisher and writer would rather not go the way of the mainstream anymore, but can imagine a peaceful co-existence, ideally one that means engaging in intelligent discourse, too. There is no romanticizing of the indie here, as there is the task of getting these works into the hands of more people, and getting more readers for them because the indie is – can be – a wonderful counterpoint to the mainstream.


MS: You’ve already discussed, here and elsewhere, various issues that you find problematic in Philippine literature and publishing. You’ve spoken about what you deem wrong. Can you now explain how you’d ideally like to see the culture of reading and writing? In other words, can you attempt to give us something of a manifesto?

In place of a manifesto, and versus talking about an ideal, maybe some of the things we can already do right now for Philippine writing and literature.

Read beyond what’s on those bookstore shelves and syllabi. There is local writing happening online and independently. Read beyond the forms we call “valid,” because there is a huge indie komiks industry in Manila, visual artists have taken to publishing zines, there’s chick lit, poetry chapbooks, young and new writing, old writers trying new things. Try and read beyond the language that is English, and find that there is Filipino that’s easy to read, that does not alienate.

Write what you want, be open to criticism, know to ignore white noise. If you win a prize, realize it isn’t license to settle for what works; if you don’t win a prize, know it is not a judgment as it is also a matter of luck. Draft your own rules about writing, be conscious of your taste, try and write differently from what you’re used to. Know how to explain yourself.

Demand that institutions of culture take cognizance of the changing landscape of writing and reading, where the publishing house-academe-literati might still have much power, but cannot be the only authority on literary production.

Be critical of people and institutions that tell you of this grand design for literature and writing, and insist on what you should read. Creativity and culture are not written in syllabi or history books or newspaper columns; creativity and culture happen. There is reason to at the very least know of these movements, distinct and separate from the institutional imagination of what should be considered as “culture” or what must be considered as “creative.” There is every reason to think that outside of these institutions is where you will be comfortable, in the things you read and in your writing, both.