Interrogating unity through literature at the 49th UMPIL National Writers Congress

Unity is one of the noble values that guides Filipinos in building the nation for all citizens. How will literature as a soft power foster unity? What are the roles of Filipino writers and their works in forging unity especially during these times of disinformation and distortion of history that sow divisions in the present Philippine society? These were the questions tackled during an annual gathering of Filipino writers, the 49th Unyon ng mga Manunulat sa Pilipinas National Writers’ Congress, on 29 April at the Escaler Hall at the Science Education Complex of Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City.

UMPIL or Writers Union of the Philippines is the largest group of creative writers in the country. The Congress was part of the celebration of the National Literature Month in April, led by the NCCA, which carried the theme “Kultura ng Pagkakaisa: Pagsisiyasat ng Pagkakaisa sa Pamamagitan ng Panitikan” or “Culture of Unity: Interrogating Unity Through Literature.”

Dr. Jonathan O. Chua, dean of the School of Humanities of ADMU, officially welcomed the congress delegates to the university, while Dr. Michael Coroza, chair of UMPIL, delivered his message, which mentioned the events and activities of UMPIL during the previous year. He also underscored the importance of unity among writers in the country.

“Nasa pangalan at pagkakilanlan ng UMPIL ang pagkakaisa. Patuloy na magbuklod po tayo bilang isang mahalagang sektor ng lipunang Filipino. Mapagkaisa po nawa natin ang sambayanang mambabasa sa mga malikhain at kritikal na pagsaalang-alang sa pagbuo at pagpapatatag ng isang bansang higit na langit panahanan para sa ating lahat (Unity is in the name and identity of UMPIL. Let’s continue to be united as an important sector of Filipino society. We hope to unite the reading public on creative and critical concerns for the development and strengthening of the nation for all of us),” he said.

The keynote lecture of the Congress was delivered, through a recorded video, by poet and University of the Philippines Visayas Tacloban College professor emeritus Merlie Alunan of Tacloban City, Leyte. Alunan is multi-awarded poet in English and editor of important and award-winning anthologies of literatures of the Visayas. Being multi-lingual, she speaks almost all the Visayan languages. I call her even “the Visayan Spiderwoman,” for inspiring many young writers in the Visayas.

Merlie Alunan delivers her keynote address.

In her lecture, she noted the present political situation in the country, and underscored the meaning of unity and the roles of Filipino writers: “Unity founded on falsehood can only be sustained by fear. More than ever, we need storytellers and poets to sift through the lies and safeguard the truth.”

Alunan also paid tribute to her comrades in what she calls “a quiet revolution” in the writing of regional literatures especially in the Visayas. These are National Artist Resil Mojares and Erlinda Alburo of the Cebuano Studies Center at the University of San Carlos in Cebu; Leoncio P. Deriada of the University of the Philippines Visayas in Iloilo; and Jaime An Lim and Christine Godinez Ortega of the Iligan National Writers Workshop of the Mindanao State
University-Iligan Institute of Technology.

Deriada was my first writing mentor and was a teacher to many award-winning writers in Panay Island today. I also learned my Cebuano from Alburo when we were panelists in the now defunct Cornelio Faigao Writers Workshop, organized by Hope Yu, the current director of the Cebuano Studies Center. The Iligan workshop is my only national workshop as a young writer, and for several years I sat in the panel and at the same time learned from Alunan, Alburo and Ortega.

The first part of the Congress featured the UMPILAN Writers’ Forum. The first forum was “Pagkakaisa at Katotohanan” (Unity and Truth) featuring broadcast journalists Kara David and Christian Esguerra, and filmmaker Ida del Mundo, and moderated by UMPIL board member Joey Tabula. The second forum was “Pagkakaisa at Kinabukasan” (Unity and Future), featuring vlogger and autism rights advocate Mona Magno-Velus, award-winning writer Edgar Calabia Samar, and bestselling comic book artist Manix Abrera, and moderated by UMPIL auditor Aldrin Pentero.

The highlight of the Congress is the awarding ceremonies for the 2023 Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas, a lifetime achievement award for Filipino writers; the 2023 Gawad Paz Marquez Benitez, a lifetime achievement award for teachers of Philippine literature; and the 2023 Gawad Pedro Bukaneg, an award given to a cultural group with significant contribution in promoting Philippine literature and culture.

The 36th Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas awardees are international novelist Gina Apostol; Cebuano poet Vicente Bandillo; screenwriter Clodualdo del Mundo Jr.; poet D.M. Reyes; Hiligaynon fictionist and poet Romeo Roullo; documentarist Howie Severino; and critic and playwright Nicanor G. Tiongson. Gawad Balagtas awardees are writers who have dedicated their lives and talents to the development, propagation, and promotion of any Philippine literature; who are accepted and recognized by peers or by their leaders for their significant pioneering work or their contribution to the enrichment of their particular literary form; and were nominated by respected literary groups or institutions, or by at least two members or the UMPIL Gawad Search Committee. The Committee is composed of three former Gawad Balagtas awardees.

For her innovative and tireless work as a teacher of literature, university administrator, and literary mover, Mallari of the University of the Philippines, Pampanga, is 2023 Gawad Paz Marquez Benitez awardee. She is a cultural worker advocating for the preservation and propagation of Pampangan literature, and she also served as chair of the National Committee on Literary Arts of the NCCA.

Artista Rita, a theater group in Pampanga, was given the 2023 Gawad Pedro Bucaneg. The group advocates for the preservation and promotion of Pampangan intangible heritage. During the awarding ceremonies, the group gave an intermission performance of traditional Pampangan songs which was highly applauded.

A Performance by the award-winning Artista Rita of Santa Rita, Pampanga.

What I cannot forget as a writer, as a literature professor, and as an official of UMPIL about the recent National Congress is the definition of Alunan of unity in the context of Philippine literature that is varied and somewhat scattered in the archipelago. She spoke of Silliman University in Dumaguete City, and the founders of the national writers’ workshop, Edilberto Tiempo and National Artist Edith Tiempo, who brought it to the Visayas and would invite writers from Metro Manila to sit as panelists, not because they all thought about and believed in the same things about literature but because they respected each other’s practice of the art of writing.

According to Alunan, “Unity is not achieved by denying or suppressing the other, the opposite, the contrary, but finding ways to
co-exist, to harmonize, and to even find strength in each other.” Deep in my heart, I pray that someday I will be humble and brave enough to embrace this kind of unity and be a better writer and human being.

The 49th UMPIL National Writers’ Congress was supported by the NCCA, the School of Humanities of ADMU, Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Inc., and the Philippine Soong Ching Ling Foundation. The Gawad Balagtas trophies were designed and donated by artist Manuel D. Baldemor.