A Critical Response to Genevieve Asenjo’s Lumbay ng Dila

On a personal note, I bought a signed copy of Genevieve L. Asenjo’s Lumbay ng Dila on a discounted price from the author herself during last April’s National Congress of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP) in Mambukal Mountain Resort, Murcia, Negros. [1] I will remember Lumbay ng Dila as my travel companion on my interconnecting flights through Singapore, Narita, Frankfurt, and Sao Paulo on the way to Biblioteca de Santiago, Chile for the Global Voices Citizen Media Summit 2010 last May 6-9 which was my first trip outside of the country.

One of the first things I noticed about Lumbay ng Dila are the praises from Cirilo F. Bautista, Isagani R. Cruz, and Jun Cruz Reyes – three prominent figures in the contemporary Philippine literary world – in the book’s front and back covers. [2] The next is the mention of the literature program in the University of the Philippines Visayas Miagao, Iloilo – where I am presently studying the same program and where the author did the same a decade ago – a few pages into the novel. [3]

But apart from those circumstantial details, Lumbay ng Dila itself definitely has its merits which I will go over in a while.

* * *

Lumbay ng Dila tells us the story of Sadyah Zapanta Lopez as she searches for the truth about her roots and its interconnections with the country’s political history and socio-cultural specificities of Panay: from events such as the First Quarter Storm, the three EDSAs, everyday rural life realities in Antique, cultural curiosities like the Babaylans and the Binukots, to myths like “Tungkung Langit and Alunsina.”

Sadyah’s grandfather is a traditional politician aligned with the Marcos dictatorship who was suspected to have masterminded the death of an opposition figure in Antique. Her two parents are said to be armed guerrillas based in the mountains of Central Panay.

The act of writing, the novel being partly autobiographical with Sadyah standing in for the author in many ways, features much in the novel through the quotation of her own poetry within the main narrative and the many references to other literary texts. I remember noticing Cirilo F. Bautista’s Sunlight on Broken Stones in Sadyah’s rented room where she had sex with Stephen. I find the insertion of an illustration of her family tree in the body of the text instead of its usual placement in the flyleaf quite ingenious.

At the novel’s outset, Sadyah is greeted by the news of the acquittal of her grandfather, a figure who along with her mother she have not met since her early childhood – a context that conditions the trajectory of her life. This search for the past and identity will also frame Sadyah’s love affairs to three men: a wealthy Filipino-Chinese law student (Stephen Chua), a poor Filipino-Muslim laborer (Ishmael Onos), and an Indian corporate professional working in the country’s burgeoning business district (Priya Iyer). Until she finally talks with her grandfather, Marcelo, and mother, Teresa, and learn more of the truth about herself, bits of her life’s story are revealed to the readers as she tells them to her lovers. Along with the novel’s multilingualism particularly in its use of a Visayan-Filipino that is also based on the Panay-based languages of Hiligaynon and Kinaray-a, the choice of Sadyah’s lovers reflects the author’s concern with issues of Otherness that confronts every citizen of this culturally diverse nation:

Ang totoo, kinabahan siya at may pagkapahiya na naramdaman para sa sarili. Hindi lamang dahil lalaki ito, kundi dahil din at higit sa lahat, isang Muslim. Hindi siya sanay. Nakikita niya lamang ang mga ito. Wala pa siyang naging kaibigan. (106)

Popular culture and new social mediums like the cellphone, text messaging, email, chat, and Friendster also gets its share of attention in the novel. And it’s interesting how all these literary and cultural markers become indicators of class and social categorization in the novel.

It is the interweaving of all these contexts with the lives of Sadyah and her loved ones and the contradictions that such entails that move the narrative forward.

* * *

But despite the wealth of critical commentary of gender, ethnicity, culture, and socio-political realities in the novel, I cannot help but feel unease at how this is somehow advanced from an individualist vantage point that imagines for itself the privilege of being above the contradictions that enmesh society.

In Lumbay ng Dila, the ruling system and its ills (state violence, religious and racial Othering, social injustices, etc.) are opposed to the emancipatory project of the underground revolutionary movement but these two are balanced against each other in such a way as to reject both. In a confrontation with Stephen that ended their relationship, Sadyah expresses not only a rightful outburst against the dick or a long-seated frustration with her parent’s unclarified absence but also the level of her political consciousness as well:

Hindi ko siya iiwan sa kamag-anak tulad ng ginawa ng aking mga magulang. Mga selfish sila. Bayan muna bago sarili at ano’ng napala nila? Ng mga tulad nila? Pinapatay ng sarili niyang gobyerno, kinokondena ng kapwa nila Pilipino. Punyetang gobyerno, punyetang simbahan, punyeta kayong lahat! (94)

In a way, Lumbay ng Dila presents an unconscious defense of the comfortable academic career pursued by Sadyah and dresses up the self-interestedness of such a choice by highlighting the little spaces such provides for the pursuit of so-called change.

Sadyah, like Asenjo in real life, is also a literary writer and an academic. [4] Because of Sadyah’s privileged position in the social hierarchy on account of her wealth in cultural capital, she has the luxury of pursuing middle class aspirations that eschew the revolutionary politics of her parents. In the end, we even discover that her mother, Teresa, has “evolved” into reformist NGO work that trumpeted the State’s Medium-Term Philippine Development Plan. Even as it portrays realities of oppression and exploitation, the novel’s message as a whole seems to be that of a warning against an over-identification with totalizing collective struggles for emancipation in favor of small personal contributions.

It has now become a commonplace to point out the link between societies and literary works and the latter’s role in constructing the former. Books are not only written in a certain society, they also intensifiy the realities found in the society that wrote it. Literary works legitimize the foundations of the prevailing order, deconstruct its naturalized assumptions, or ultimately subvert it.

Lumbay ng Dila’s insistence on the narrative of the aspiration and search for truth in a World that has practically disowned truth is comendable. The idea of Sadyah’s Balay Sugidanon–a storytelling house complete with books and internet–that she had built with her own finances in her impoverished hometown, although not novel [5], is also reflective of the author’s optimism.

However, even as Lumbay ng Dila portrays realities of oppression and exploitation, the novel’s message as a whole seems to be that of a subtle warning against an over-identification with totalizing collective struggles for universal emancipation in favor of small personal contributions. The question, however, is: are these little enthusiastic acts of charity enough to overturn social structures that are at the core of the hardships afflicting the Filipino toiling masses?

Lumbay ng Dila’s conclusion (Sadyah gets her Priya while Teresa gets her Noel and all ends well with them) suggests that ultimately, all you need is love, thus contributing to the ever-expanding discourse of domestic closure. The naïve myth that love conquers all effectively glosses over the fundamental problems of the present. ■

Notes

1. I also remember how I and a colleague from Baguio were not very happy with Ms. Asenjo’s lecture during the CEGP Congress because we were expecting something about contemporary writing in general – which was what was printed in the program, but were instead presented a discussion of the novel.

2. Another good review of the Lumbay ng Dila can be read online in Edgar Calabia Samar’s Blog on the Filipino Novels. Samar is also the author of the novelWalong Diwata ng Pagkahulog.

3. Although it’s a bit amusing to read a later description of Sadyah’s father as having taken History in UPV Miagao in 1969 since the Miagao campus did not yet exist at that time. A little jab at the novel’s verisimilitude. Then again, it’s fiction.

4. Sadyah is also Asenjo’s title for her Friendster blog. Sadyah was writing a novel telling a love story between Jose Rizal and the Hiligaynon writer Magdalena Jalandoni. Lumbay ng Dila is the title of her own book of poetry in Kiniray-a as well as one of her own poems that’s embedded in the actual novel by Asenjo.

5. This is evocative of the real Balay Turun-an in Calinog, Iloilo by another academic, Dr. Alice Magos, which teaches the Binanog Dance and seeks to preserve other declining cultural practices. But unlike Sadyah’s Balay Sugidanon, the Balay Turun-anis a project supported by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

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