An attempt to make sense of things in a random universe, one Friday at a time.

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Leaving my footsteps for you to find and follow, my love.

16 February 2006

Lost ground

I will never be able to write seriously in the Bikol language. I tried, five years ago, and came up with three poems, already published, one of them even anthologized (see Kasama sa Paroy). And then there was nothing more. I have used up my entire Bikol vocabulary in roughly sixty short lines.

I did try again a couple of years ago, with a short story, but nothing had come out of it. Not only did I not have the vocabulary for it, but the images and scenes and details I kept seeing in my mind were in English, and after struggling for some time with the translations, I threw up my hands and gave up. I wasn’t writing in Bikol; I was translating myself into writing in Bikol. I kept crossing between two languages like the poor farmer who had to take a fox, a chicken, and a sack of grain in a boat across a river one by one, and in the process, only succeeded in distorting the Bikol language into what it was not. I fell off the boat and almost drowned. Bikol deserves better than a writer who could not make a distinction between one river bank and the other, much less swim in its verbose richness without drowning.

I grew up in a barrio deep in the heart of Camarines Sur, in the Partido area, where the Bikol was old and deep and rich with double meanings and multi-layered metaphors. I never read in Bikol, but the spoken Bikol that wafted around me when I was in a crowd was fascinating. It was brisk, loud, and had an intonation distinct to residents of the area. The best speakers of Bikol were the older common folk. To punctuate the sentences or stress certain words, they would raise their voices, already rendered gravelly by decades of smoking, several notches higher upon the last syllable of the word, and would sometimes clack broken, tobacco-colored teeth after a sibilant to express either indignation or awe. My own elders, however, spoke a different kind of Bikol. Their voices were louder but somehow their tones were softer, their consonants blended smoothly into the vowels – b’s would sometimes sound like m’s and sh’s would sound like th’s -- a habit borne out of a Spanish ancestry. Their vocabulary was also a bit different, and our houses would reverberate with words like periodico, calzeten, descalzo, empieza, este, saludar, bien, porque, otra vez, cuidado, dormido, comedo, sentences like vamos a comer, de donde a vienes, que hora es, vaya con dios, quiero mas, and interjections like dios mio, madre mia, jesus maria y jose (not susmaryosep). This kind of Bikol was uttered in rich and robust tones that sounded so smooth to the ears, and they were spoken by tall, large-boned people with sandy-colored hair and pale, freckled skin, the women in brocade dresses and the men in their daily wear -- impeccably-pressed khaki outfits and leather shoes with matching belts and a hat, like in this photograph of my great-grandfather, Sebastian Moll. Its sound and effect was quite the opposite of the rougher Bikol of the smaller, darker, barefoot and unperfumed farmers, which is a Bikol seemingly rife with hard and abrupt consonants. Yet both kinds of spoken Bikol held a magic for me that had grown to the level of myth.

Strangely enough, I never thought about the possibility of writing in Bikol. My earliest attempts at writing were in English, and I upped and left Bicolandia, literally dropped the life that I used to have, and transferred to Metro Manila to study and practice writing in English together with people who write in English. It felt like the most natural thing for me to do, and the only thing that remained for me to do. It was not that the Bikol language was not in my heart. I just felt that my relationship with the language was too deep and ancient to ever be deconstructed, not like my relationship with English, which is a language I can deconstruct and rework and reinvent all I want, bending it to the rules that I want, taking it wherever I want. Perhaps it was a kind of fear. After all, Bikol is the language of my forefathers, of my childhood, and of my earliest instincts, now bathed in the color sepia, and these things are sacrosanct. And like all things sacrosanct, the language and all that it entails has embedded itself into my soul so perfectly, so impeccably, so dogmatically, that it has disappeared into the deep and murky waters of my being, never to surface again.

Bikol writer Zaldy Manrique once told me that perhaps my sensibility was naturally in English. Perhaps it’s true, since I even dream in English most of the time. Award-winning Bikol writer Frank Penones said I should not be bothered with issues of language as it is not really the writer who chooses her language but the language that chooses the writer. Perhaps this is true, too, since I don’t feel as if I have any more choice in the matter. In an attempt to make sense of this, I could just say that the Bikol language has lived on in my writings as their psyche, in the form of Bikol metaphors, symbols, legends, and myths, but even in this indirect form, I cannot grapple with the nitty-gritties of taking them apart and making conclusions from there.

Yes, it is fear. I have no power over this fear, as I have no power over the Bikol language. I have taken Bikol with me all this time, but only as a remnant of my origins, a reminder of my birthright, a faint and dying throbbing of what I can never handle. Now I am no more a Bicolana than Exie Abola is a non-Atenean, non-English-speaking Muslim. I have left a vast, deep, fearsome richness behind in order to freely roam another language that I can have power over. I am a prodigal Bicolana, a wayward daughter of Bikol. I am not ready to go back. I might never go back.


Blogger Makuapo said...

please add me too in your blog links. thanks! this is vic from naga.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Maryanne Moll said...

Already did. Thanks, Vic.

1:34 PM  
Blogger isea said...

i feel the same way when attempting to write in tagalog, which is pitifully sad.

and i just wanted to say that i enjoy reading your stories as well as your blog entries.

~ den

2:33 PM  
Blogger Maryanne Moll said...

thanks, isea.

4:20 PM  
Blogger Sidney said...

This is something that puzzled me when I was looking at the shelves of a bookstore lately. A lot of Filipino writers are choosing English over their mother tongue. You are really not an exception.
To be honest I can't find the explanation in your post. Shouldn't we look at the way literature/language as a whole is teached in college & universities. I guess you can learn "English" but not "Bikol" in the universities.

By the way, my wife is from Bikol (Barcelona, Sorsogon). From what I understand there are many forms (dialects) of Bikol. The Bikol in Daet or Naga seems to be different from the one spoken in Sorsogon.
I guess this doesn't help writing in that language.

Balut, I don't know...maybe I should give it a try. It seems to be very healthy...

5:21 PM  
Blogger Maryanne Moll said...

true, writing in the dialects is generally not taught in universities. writing as taught in universities is either in english or in filipino. however, just because one is taught these in universities should be no excuse for one not to write in one's regional language. in fact, one should make it a point to at least try. the most i could do, however, is to set my stories in bicol, and to make my characters bicolanos, so as to imbibe them with a "bicolano spirit, psyche, and sensibility." that way, bicol still figures in my writing.

as for the language, i'm hopeless writing in it.

but bikol has a thriving contemporary literature. (in my links, see "santigwar," "sentimental," "mga nirukitdukit," "my bikol express," "makuapo ni handiong," and "anima sola.") i have great respect for people who write in bikol, as it is a constant struggle to publish.

bikol is really a very rich language. there are so many different kinds, and no bikolano can speak only one kind of bikol. i'm sure your wife can speak more than the sorsogueno bikol.

there are workshops in the dialects, and the ncca helps in promoting creative writing in the dialects. the palanca awards also gives honor to those who write in the dialects.

in an increasingly regionalistic country like the philippines, and with a language that constantly transforms and changes because of the proliferation of international media and pop culture, writing in the dialects helps to anchor people to their roots.

*sigh* if only i could do that too.

11:53 PM  
Blogger Makuapo said...

Reading this thread of comments on the passion for writing in the native tongue, I tried looking back, tracing the origin, perhaps, of my Bikol works. Then I realized that was when I tried translating some contemporary poems from English to Bikol. That was then when I discovered how rich and deep the language is.

From then on, I've always loved writing in Bikol and reading Bikol works.

Last April, it was surprising how some co-fellows at the UP Workshop went into really "kilig" after listening to Neruda's Sonnet XVII in Bikol. They said and still say that Bikol language has its own music, its own--shall we say--charm :) haha

It's nice, if not a bit weird, when foreign factors make us appreciate more and more our own richness.

2:57 PM  
Blogger Makuapo said...

Anyway, one thing, I teach "Writing for Bikol" in Ateneo de Naga, a subject I inherited from Bikol Lit Master :) Rudy Alano. Though the focus is writing for media actually, making young students learn the language alone (syntax, grammar, vocabulary, and other ohmigods) is already extremely tedious for me. It's actually easier to teach English subjects.

3:02 PM  
Blogger Maryanne Moll said...

That's right, Vic. For me, perhaps Bikol is like "the other," the underlying logic that shapes my writings in English, the lens with which I see details.

Now you have got to send me that Neruda translation!

5:11 PM  
Blogger wanggo said...

Hi Maryanne! I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez's writing myself. I'm savouring the book. I'll be reading Michael Chabon next "The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay." Excited about that.

Yes, please, I'd be honoured if you'd link my site with yours and can I link yours to mine? :)

7:49 PM  
Blogger Maryanne Moll said...

sure, wanggo. thanks. :)

2:26 AM  
Blogger Makuapo said...

since, it's not only you who looks for my Bikol tranlation of Neruda's Sonnet XVII. I've reposted it on my blog. :)

12:59 PM  
Blogger Maryanne Moll said...

read it just now. :)

1:19 PM  
Blogger The Public Thing said...

The old ones from my town, in a public forum, really wonder (mga pahapyaw) on why I should have to insist writing english in a group where most members, if not all, converse in bicol dialect.

Clearly and politely, I've throw some pros, that in my view, accepted by them but bit beyond seclusion. At any rate, I just thought am all alone...

5:28 PM  
Blogger Maryanne Moll said...

well, we can only explain so much. after all the rationalizing and the explaining and the constant agonizing over the choices that we've made, at the end of the day, if we write in english then we write in english and that's all there is to it.

i've linked you, by the way. thanks for visiting again.

9:30 PM  
Blogger Sebastian Moll said...

hi my name is sebastian moll. no kidding, are we related?

12:46 PM  
Blogger Maryanne Moll said...

hmm. let's see. who is your father?

12:58 PM  

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