Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

Nov 2010

(Plays) The Lovely Bienvenido N. Santos by: Isagani R. Cruz

(Reaction) We Are All Bienvenido N. Santos by: Ms. Pickles

Isagani R. Cruz's book The Lovely Bienvenido N. Santos is comprised of two "creative nonfictional biographical" plays: the first one bears the same title as the book, while the other is entitled "Bienvenido, My Brother." The first play showcases six different male "pseudonymous characters" who, according to the dramatist himself, are "obviously meant . . . to represent the writer." These characters, aside from playing only their independent roles in this play, also assume the different roles Santos has created in his various stories. Through these multiple characterizations, they exhibit many voices that, in their respective words and roles, objectively characterize the very same person who has given life to them in his memory and imagination. Meanwhile, the second play "Bienvenido, My Brother" is a soliloquy by Santos himself and provides insight into his personal thoughts and memories. Cruz weaves various materials from Santos's many works to come up with the dialogue, monologue and revelations in both plays.

The varied use of deictic reference to Santos is what differentiates each play from the other. In the first one, the different characters either assume knowledge of Santos's life as if he is their friend, or directly take on his identity in order to narrate anecdotes and biographical information about him. Throughout the first play the third person pronoun "he" is used in order to objectively characterize and identify Santos. Meanwhile, "I" is used in the second play as Santos, the character-subject, delivers an autobiographical monologue, most of the material of which Cruz culled from Santos's own Memory's Fictions. This difference in person deixis enables the reader to have either an objective or personal insight into Santos's life and the compilation of both of these perspectives into one collection offers the reader both a cursory and penetrating biography of the writer.

What remains common to both plays, however, are the themes that typify and pervade Santos's works and life. The effects of American colonialism on Filipinos not only gave him material to write about, but they also shaped his identity, individuality, and position as a Filipino American writer both in the actual and literary/fictive worlds.

Santos, having grown up during the pre-World War II years in the Philippines, was directly affected by American colonialism, which flourished after the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Filipino-American War that occurred from 1899 to 1902. American colonialism had both positive and negative effects on him as a writer. The anecdote in "Bienvenido, My Brother" about his high school composition teacher Mrs. Sage portrays a classic case of racial discrimination inherent in any sort of imperialism. Mrs. Sage typifies the oppressive colonialist who remains completely self-absorbed and entirely blase to the lives and plight of the colonized: "She had nothing good to say, no word of encouragement, no interest" in the works of her students. She embodies that sense of superiority accompanied with self-righteousness, which serves as the driving force behind any imperialist power. That sense of superiority enables colonizers to impose their presence on foreign lands with the intent of "civilizing" those who are "undeveloped." With this comes the inclination to derogate the abilities of the colonized and this is what Mrs. Sage exemplifies in her treatment of Santos's story entitled "A King in Hollywood," which undoubtedly caught her attention, but in order to maintain that sense of ascendancy over the colonized people, she dismisses as something "[n]o Filipino can write."

Indeed, the "Americans got away with practically anything. They were the colonizers and succeeded well in appearing and acting as our masters, playing God" - this is exactly what Santos experienced with Mrs. Sage. It was a piteous situation he faced when he was young; teachers, often touted as second parents, have so much power and influence over their students' lives and it is a disgrace that this role was debased by his imperialist teacher. Her actions only underscore the inherently injurious effects of colonialism. People like her unveil the truly deleterious, self-centered nature of colonialism, which America then called "benevolent assimilation."

Santos, however, saw through Mrs. Sage's derogation and proved his mettle as a highly competent Filipino writer. An excerpt from The Volcano is included in his monologue: "One day, he resolved silently, he was going to recite something beautiful which he had written himself." He admits that the character who thinks these lines, Badong, is really him, and that "[p]arts of [him] that constitute [his] life and values are already there in [his] fiction and... poetry." If it were not for his resilient nature, he would have been defeated by Mrs. Sage's vilification. Instead, he saw the challenge in her dismissal and opted to make her as an inspiration if only "to prove that . . . Filipinos . . . can write English well enough to excel in the use of the language."

Indeed, Santos succeeded in his desire to excel, but his self-doubt is revealed when Cruz makes the dramatic Santos address Mrs. Sage in his soliloquy as if to childishly taunt her with his literary accomplishments and prove once and for all that he, in fact, as a Filipino, is capable of writing well. Such self-doubt is borne of the derogation and discrimination immanent in colonialism and it pervades the consciousness of the colonized. For Santos, that self-doubt engenders his anxiety about critics and breeds his essential desire to be understood, yet most importantly this self-doubt does not debilitate him-it only serves to fuel his desire to write more in order to express his talent and "exorcise the pain within." For some colonized Filipinos, self-doubt breeds a heightened inferiority complex that incapacitates. Some withdraw into the pain such that they are weakened not only by colonial oppression, but also by their unwillingness to face the challenges intrinsic in imperial subjugation.

Santos does not experience discrimination alone. He is also alienated to the extent that "[h]e was never comfortable with the term Filipino American"-he "was not quite a Filipino... and [was not] quite an American." His identity crisis was rooted in his inability to forget the flaws in both of his countries and perhaps even in the conflicting attitudes of both countries towards his writing. The Philippines, the very land where he was born, was hostile to the ideas in his works, whereas the United States, being the nation that colonized his motherland, nurtured his love for literature. Such post- and neo-colonial alienation and confusion is present in the immigrants of his time; the same problems continue to confront Filipinos at present. Leaving one's troubled nation, whether as voluntary or involuntary exiles, does not guarantee an uncomplicated apolitical separation. For Filipinos like Santos the situation is merely complicated by issues of political and identical allegiance.

Despite all these issues and implications, Bienvenido N. Santos was able to create his very own identity as a writer in the midst of two conflicting nations. He found success despite being discriminated against and alienated because of colonialism and exile. He confronted the challenges dealt by imperialist derogation and succeeded in proving that Filipinos are just as worthy as whites to wear the crown bestowed upon writers who weave words that are beautifully imbued with frustrations and verities. His words tell the real "tensions, . . . griefs, . . . [and] humanity" of Filipinos because they are influenced by real emotions and experiences, those that are his own. His writing does not only "exorcise . . . [his] pain," but also enables him to be understood. He need not tell the world what they are all about because those who, like him, are willing to confront the challenges inherent in adversity will not be defeated by disparagement, but will strive to find the meaning behind words. The understanding he seeks for lies in a fellow Filipino's comprehension of his words, and this cognizance effects his ultimate discovery of his true identity in this empathic tie with his reader. His audience's discovery of their parallel selves and shared experiences in his stories and life is the ultimate understanding Santos could ever come across because such understanding is attained only as a single entity composed of the reader-of-Santos and Santos-the-writer since "all of us,... characters and readers, are really Bienvenido Nuqui Santos."


Still mulling it over.

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