Soledad Reyes
Philippine Literature Since 1972: A Discourse in Disorder

Martial Law was imposed on September 21, 1972, presumably to contain the widening gyre of violence and chaos in the body politic. After twelve years, violence is still a part of life. Literature as an institution has remained a site for power struggle, even as it has opened itself to the shaping principle of discordance and disorder which manifests itself in its content and form. Collectively taken, literature published between 1972 and 1984 seems to constitute a discourse on disorder and violence.

In this paper, I propose to do the following: First, to examine a number of illustrative texts written in the realist mode, insofar as these works have been conditioned or shaped by a number of interrelated socio-historical forces. Secondly, to prove that various texts exhibit not unity or coherence, but discordance and disharmony, from which emerges a cacophony of voices. Whether originating from above ground or the underground, these voices form a powerful discourse which can no longer be denied.


The following are this paper’s presuppositions:

1. Texts are historically determined, and various socio-historical forces interact with each other to condition the production of the texts. A proper understanding of the texts should go beyond a formalistic perspective and should invariably draw on categories derived from such disciplines as history, sociology, and even linguistics and semiotics.

2. The relationship between history and literature is not causal and unidimensional. The text cannot be an absolute reflection or mirror of life. A series of mediations interpose themselves between history and the texts. These mediations include socio-economic, political, aesthetic and linguistic factors.

3. The writer cannot escape from history and consciousness. Like the texts that they produce, writers are rooted in a specific time and place. They are producers and not geniuses who create from nothing.

4. Literature as a discursive practice is institutionalized and is a site for power struggle. As a discursive practice, it has to be seen as part of a greater system, which includes politics and government, the law and education, family, and Church.

5. Philippine literature, therefore, has to be viewed primarily as a collection of texts which at this point in time has become a site for power struggle, a discourse that does not merely reflect the ongoing struggle and collision of forces, but perhaps more importantly, constitutes various realities which as constructs function variously—to affirm, to negate, or to subvert the existing order.

By discursive practice is meant a particular repertoire of concepts, a group of statements that combine and coexist under determinate historical conditions. This concept of discourse emphasizes the specificity of power relations within, a definite practice such as literature.


This paper is limited to a small number of texts that illustrate the pervasive influence of realism as the perspective canonized in Philippine literary criticism, and thus as a source of normative values. There have been other modes of writing, but at the moment, it is realism which has proved to be the most influential among a large number of Filipino writers and critics.


It is not quite correct to argue that it was only in 1972 that Filipino writers started to use their writings to explore socio-political realities. The tradition of protest has always been a potent force in the production of socially committed writings, as a number of critics such as Bienvenido Lumbera, and Epifanio San Juan Jr. have argued. The 1970s, for example, witnessed the proliferation of poems, short stories, and novels which grappled with the burning issues of the times. In a large number of magazines and journals, writers in both English and Pilipino faced the problems of exploitation and injustice, and appropriated these realities as the only relevant materials for their fiction. In effect, writers such as Ricardo Lee, Virgilio Almario, Efren Abueg, Ave Perez Jacob, and Dominador Mirasol produced a large number of texts that were profoundly disturbing, even as these works zeroed in on the various forms of repression and violence,

But when Martial Law was declared, the writers found themselves silenced. The literature rooted in commitment that had flowered earlier could no longer be written. Only a few could dare incur the ire of the powerful voice which pronounced that literature ought to deal with the true, the good, and the beautiful It was assumed that dominant literature during the period of activism was not good, not true, and certainly not beautiful, obsessed as the texts were with the nightmarish situations spawned by institutionalized violence, where Messiah-like figures were rendered impotent, where Mary-like characters were being turned away by agents of law and justice, and where characters were witnesses to the widespread pillage and destruction committed by the likes of Tio Samuel. It was not fitting literature for the Society.

But the voice that spoke so eloquently could not be stilled forever. Gradually, the writers found their voice. The composition of the group of writers whose works have already built a name for themselves include Bienvenido Santos, F. Sionil Jose, Gregorio Brillantes, and Nick Joaquin. The list also includes Carlos Bulosan, the Filipino expatriate, who now speaks to the present in two compilations of his writings.

This period has also been an eventful one for literature in Pilipino. In poetry, Jose Lacaba, Virgilio Almario, Lamberto Antonio, Epifanio San Juan Jr., and Teo Antonio have each published their own volumes of work. In the novel, Dominador Mirasol and Edel Garcellano had their works published. Galian, on the other hand, gathered together essays, poems, stories and plays. Jun Cruz Reyes and liwayway Arceo both had their works published.

In retrospect, writings produced between 1972 and early 1983 seem to have trodden the path of realism. These works are realistic in the sense that the texts have been shaped by the view that literature has the power to approximate quantifiable, verifiable realities in their materiality. Thus, the texts vie with each other in depicting various aspects of socio-political realities which are meant to dovetail with the events and processes characterizing lived life.

In most of these works, there is also a veering away from traditional ways of examining realities and framing experience. New realities, new perceptions demand new ways of seeing which popular literature cannot hope to employ. Indeed, works produced within the realist/modernist perspective display a repudiation of much that has been deemed escapist—the romance that has plagued traditional writings. The more realistic and objective the treatment of the material, the better the text becomes, according to realistic, canons.

The subtitle of Galian—Panitikan sa Panabon ng Krisis (1983)—aptly describes not only the political but also the literary situation in the contemporary period. When the assassination of Aquino took place on August 21, 1983, the tremendous implications of the phrase could no longer be dismissed. Within the last year, a new type of discourse has emerged and proliferated in time and space. I am not only referring to Aquino’s writings and writings about Aquino; I am referring more specifically to the literature that has emerged from the underground. They have come out in various forms—the novel Hulagpos (1980), the poems in Mga Tula ng Rebolusyong Pilipino (1982), the short stories in Magsasaka (1984).

What for the last decade or so had been deemed unnameable has finally surfaced with such force, defining with insistence the kind of literature that has been produced by The Other—the threat to the nation’s stability, as imaged by the voice of authority. The Other—the scourge and the evil Outsider—has come out in order to join the more “legitimate” texts in constituting varied realities, in enunciating various perceptions, in exploring various worlds.

Collectively taken, these works should be perceived as various strands that form the complex system of literature shaped by politics.


As suggested earlier, the dominant mode which has shaped a large number of texts appears to be realistic/critical/rational. Our writers seem to have positioned themselves strategically vis-a-vis their materials in order to probe, dissect, analyze the multifarious problems and issues that exist in the body politic. The literature of pure escape, the stuff of which romantic works are made, does not, make its appearance in these works. Nor is the literature one of affirmation, such as that found in commercial and popular works, and that which predictably ends up with all contradictions smoothed away. Nor does this discourse exhibit the gesture of containment—the attempt to deploy literature in order to control what in real life is unbearably problematic and incomprehensible. This was the strategy resorted to in much fantasy and Gothic literature.

Assuming that realism has been the operative mode, we ask the fundamental question: How have the writers constructed their fictional realities? In other words, how has their discourse been framed by their own perceptions and understanding of the relationship between literature and society?

A cursory review of published works will reveal that the writers have hewed closely to the notion that it is the writer’s duty to critically reflect the convulsions and terrors wracking his society. In this view, the writer is given the privileged position as an individual who knows his society well, who has the power to present various images of that society. In many ways, the realist writer is conceived of as a person who understands the complex movements in his time; he is a sociologist, a political scientist a historian and perceptive commentator who knows the point of it all.

Thus, a cursory study of illustrative texts will reveal the pervasiveness of the aforementioned ideas—the power of the text to reflect reality, and the privileged position of the writer as the creator of works that can deepen the reader’s insights into his/her own position in ideology.

Reality, in the majority of these texts, is indeed chaotic, formless, constantly shifting and generally wracked by different forms of violence and disorder. Society is fragmented, at times threatening to be blown into smithereens. People are caught up in a deadly conspiracy perpetrated by the powers that be. The Philippines, so argues this discourse, is certainly not a country for the good, the true, and the beautiful. At any moment, it could explode into pure anarchy. The beast is crawling toward it, and its center, to quote Yeats, “can no longer hold.”

Cirilo Bautista’s Telex Moon (1981), the second in his trilogy, exemplifies this nightmarish vision of contemporary life. Recurring as a central metaphor is the journey undertaken by the spirit of Rizal not as the hero who lived in history, but as a symbol of the trans-individual genius who observes and images the various experiences that the country is undergoing. Whereas Gémino Abad’s In Another Light seeks to objectify the poet’s personal vision of his private universe, Bautista’s work tries to expose the evil that lurks beneath, not only in men’s hearts but in the institutions, that constitute society.

For more explicitly critical works, we must look at the poems written in Pilipino. In his Doktrinang Anak Pawis (1979), Rio Alma presents a searing indictment of what he considers a conspiracy participated in by insidious forces in the guise of imperialists, politicians, and other tools of vested interests. The lines reverberate with much passion, controlled and rationally fleshed out. The whole poetic enterprise constitutes a poet’s highly critical perceptions of Philippine society, before and after the declaration of Martial Law.

Lamberto Antonio’s Hagkis ng Talabib (1980) invariably follows the tradition of protest. Painting a dark and brooding picture of contemporary life, Antonio excoriates all those who exploited the likes of Mariang Beha, the farmer in Kabyaw, and the construction worker. Unlike Alma who maintains an ironic tone even in his most passionate denunciation of neo-colonialism, Antonio unleashes his anger in a more direct manner, hitting the visceral region in an unmediated style.

Jose Lacaba’s Mga Kagilagilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran (1979), on the other hand, betrays the poet’s indebtedness to the rich tradition of satire crystallized most vividly in the works of Propagandists. Suffused with a collage of violently clashing images, Lacaba’s poetry manifests a writer’s almost despairing attitude towards the possibility of change in a society that lives in fear even of its own shadow.

Teo Antonio, Rogelio Mangahas, and Jesus Santiago are only some of the other poets who have taken the whole of Philippine society as the object of study. The voices emanating from the texts are those of discord and disharmony, of anger and frustration, and seldom of joy and peace. The lines constitute a whole discourse that threatens to break down into incoherence, creating a sense of dislocation among the readers. In many ways, these works propose to present themselves as subversive because they disturb and disconcert the reader who is used to the mellifluous verses of traditional poetry

In general, these poems have been conditioned by the pervasive ideological struggles in the country. More specifically, these writings have been mediated by the poet’s decisive encounters with Marxism and Modernism as ideological frameworks. Questions revolving around the relationship between aesthetics and politics, technique and contents, art for art’s sake and committed literature continue to be asked. At the moment, the problem has not been settled satisfactorily, as evidenced by the varied types of poetry being written in Pilipino.

The same problem has cropped up in poetry in English. In general, though, modernism and modernist techniques have been allowed to shape the works of leading poets in English. Five poets—Gémino Abad, Cirilo Bautista, Alfrredo Navarro Salanga, Ricardo de Ungria, and Alfred Yuson—marshalled the techniques of Modernism to voice out their responses to the assassination of Aquino. A man’s death has provided the impetus to unleash so much creative energy directed at a very political event.

In a sense, the publication of In Memoriam (1983) signals the political stand taken by poets in English. This development is seen not only in this volume but in other poems published in the so-called alternative press. The violence at the tarmac has precipitated a new and probably profound questioning into the nature and ultimate function of poetry in the scheme of things.

Violence and protest do not limit their appearance to contemporary poetry. They structure a number of fictional works written by such writers as F. Sionil Jose, Gregorio Brillantes, and Carlos Bulosan. As correctly pointed out by critic Epifanio San Juan Jr., Bulosan’s texts, produced within a different set of historical conditions, display their affinities with the engaged literature of the present.

Writers in Pilipino have also shown their indebtedness to the protest tradition. Jun Cruz Reyes’ Utos ng Hari at Iba Pang Kuwento (1981) ingeniously juxtaposes socio-political realities against the characters’ own consciousness, constantly absorbing and reacting to the dizzying whirlpool of events characterizing the late sixties and early seventies. The work’s novelty consists in its pioneering effort to simulate reality through a deft exploration of language, its idioms and nuances.

But the most graphic manifestation of the triumph of the realistic perspective can be seen in the contemporary novel. Because of its nature, the novel appears to be the most appropriate vehicle to launch a sustained and probing exposition of societal realities. In four novels to be discussed, aspects of social reality appear as solid bodies, as actual presences that dominate the fictional universe. Historically specific, all four texts allude to the personalities and events that occupied center stage in the tumultuous seventies.

Bienvenido Santos’ The Praying Man (1982) is an exposition, among other things, of the innate decadence and corruption of the likes of Crisanto Magat, a businessman from Sulucan and lately of Forbes Park and San Francisco. Echoing the themes of an earlier novel, Villa Magdalena, Santos chronicles the pervasiveness of corruption—moral and political—from the-lowest rung to the highest seat of power. The climb to the top has been swift for the hero, but his descent is also fast and uncontrollable. His flight as the novel is about to end is a necessary condition for him to understand the widespread evil that surrounds him and that is in him.

Three novels—one in English and two in Pilipino—go several steps further than Santos’ novel. In these works, the reality that has been silenced, and that which has been considered absent because it is exorcised by the dominant ideological system but which nevertheless constitutes a system of traces, is allowed to surface through the texts. The method and fictional strategies vary, but together these novels form a powerful collection where the presence lies side by side with the absence, where texts generate so much power that what has been merely hinted at or subtly imaged in earlier works asserts itself with force and violence.

F. Sionil Jose’s Mass (1979) features Jose Samson, the illegitimate son of Antonio Samson, the intellectual hero of The Pretenders, Jose’s earlier novel. Rendered ineffectual by a massive array of forces against him, Tony Samson commits suicide as the earlier novel ends. Mass shows the development in the young Samson’s life and his deepening awareness of his role in society. This takes place as he interacts with various types—the activist priest, the ruthless ilustrado, the brazen rich, the university intellectual. The young Samson, who as the novel begins has nothing but hatred for his father, ends up understanding him and the meaning of his book. He witnesses all forms of duplicity, greed and opportunism, and as the novel ends, he realizes that nothing can be done in the city. He will go back and wage his own struggle in his hometown

Lualhati Bautista’s Dekada ’70 (1983), on the other hand, is told from the point of view of a mother who witnesses in anguish the fate of her sons—one a victim of salvaging, another a victim of neo-colonial mentality, and another a willing member of the underground movement Realities of political and social life which in life do exist also abound in this novel; they include military torture, mysterious disappearances and deaths, and brutal repressions. With much verve and passion, Bautista renders terrifying episodes that assault the senses. What has been banished from official pages of military and government reports returns with a vengeance in this text whose rootedness in history makes it significant.

Dominador Mirasol’s Ginto ang Kayumangging Lupa (1976) features Moises Dimasupil, the uncommitted farmer who eventually realizes the need to protest actively against all forms of repression. What he refused to do in the 1950s—join a band of freedom fighters—is done by a son who, together with a fiercely dedicated group of men, fights against all forms of man-made evil in a community deep in the heart of the mountains.

In these illustrative novels, violence as generative principle plays a pivotal role. There is much violence in society; it is appropriate that this tension be mirrored in various guises in the tem. In this confrontation between the writer and history, he has deliberately chosen to frame political realities. In the process, the likes of F. Sionil Jose, Lualhati Bautista, and Dominador Mirasol have produced a discourse which disturbs for two reasons:

First, by virtue of their portrayal of realities which correspond with those we are familiar with as being the results of institutionalized processes, these texts become mirror-images of reality. By electing to write within the realistic mode, the Filipino writer has taken on the responsibility of using his work to reflect various historical moments, and the collision of forces generated during these moments.

Secondly, these works disturb because they explode habitual ways of rendering reality through literature. The violence which constitutes the contents seems to have spilled over to shape the texts’ form, even as the writers seek to dismantle traditional conventions of narrating, describing, imaging, and other tested ways of constructing reality.

F. Sionil Jose has created a novel where the hero no longer occupies the central position in the narrative. Edel Garcellano’s Ficcion (1980) deftly combines various modes of writing. A number of poets have produced works exhibiting tremendous tension and agitation in their external form. What results is a kind of defamiliarization wherein the reader is forced to adjust his/her position vis-a-vis the text. Expectations are shattered, which leads to a modification of the initial response and a more direct involvement of the reader in the production of meaning.


In texts written and published by individual writers who affix their names to the works, we see the effort to mirror disparate socio-political realities. Occupying a crucial position in the discourse are realities that point to the presence of The Other. The texts deal with it by making statements about it, describing it, unveiling it, showing it as palpable and real. The Other is revealed but paradoxically enough, it remains enveloped in its own mystery. Dissent and dissenters move in and out of this discourse, but emerge as traces instead of complete substances. In this literature, which is sanctioned by the authorities, protest is allowed as a matter of course, but downright subversion is disallowed as a shaping principle. At most, the writers only hint at its reality and its growing power and influence.

Within the last two years, however, what has recurred almost fleetingly—the gaps and interstices framing the literature of protest—has assumed a more pervasive presence. What for a long time was considered “illicit” literature has finally surfaced as texts for distribution among those who are interested. Unlike the more “legitimate” works which address themselves primarily to intellectuals and members of the middle class, these works have the masses as the desired audience. Thus, more than any of the other texts, these “underground” texts are meant to have a more direct impact on the people’s consciousness.

What legitimate literature has sought to contain at the level of discourse—by treating the dissident movement as a shadow, as the mysterious Other—no longer desires to stay within this limited space. The force is so strong that it has to emerge from where it has lain for so long in order to join the many voices of protest that have proliferated in time and space. In the process, the site or arena of struggle has become more sharply defined; literature is a discursive practice with its own methods and strategies pitted against those employed by the government and by other institutions. The purpose is to gain possession of the people’s minds.

This discourse is not merely a collection of texts about the dissident movement. It is a distribution of political awareness into various texts; it is an elaboration of a whole series of interests. It not merely expresses but is actually a will to power. It is both a cultural and political fact which can no longer be denied.

Four works form an important aspect of this system. The world constructed in them is no longer the familiar universe so graphically drawn in other texts. This world is populated by politicized farmers, laborers, armed dissidents, and their host of sympathizers. Written in Pilipino, Ilocano, Waray, English, and other languages, they project a common message—the need to achieve genuine freedom.

Jose Maria Sison’s Prison and Beyond (1984) reflects the different stages of his nightmare as a political prisoner. The poems in Mga Tula ng Rebolusyong Pilipino zero in on the various forms of reaction to repression and violence; invariably, in the tradition of tendentious literature, the masses are seen as triumphant against all destructive forces. The selections in Magsasaka, including the comic strips and short stories, examine the plight of the farmer from various critical perspectives. Hulagpos, on the other hand, presents itself as a novel without a central hero. In some ways, Hulagpos is an attempt to free itself from traditional norms of novel writing, for in this work, many characters articulate the many voices of protest opposing the present regime. Formal patterns are dissolved into discontinuities and dissonances.

In effect, therefore, these works form a discourse which is the site of a real struggle. No longer does this discourse end in ambivalence and ambiguity; the thrust at the end of each text is towards an ideal permeated by a new political ideology. The individual identity of the writers is no longer important; they are now merely functions of the text. Indeed, these works signal the death of the author as the source of truth. To take the place of the author is the collective mind shaped by a particular ideology. More than the texts which merely seek to reflect or mirror, underground literature seeks to translate into actual practice what language enunciates. In this sense, underground literature is indeed a discourse that manifests a tremendous will to power.


In this paper, I have discussed illustrative texts insofar as they constitute a particular discourse that in general manifests a critical view of contemporary Philippine society. I have also tried to show that violence and disharmony have manifested themselves thematically and formally. Collectively, the texts point to the dissonance and contradictions that stricture the body politic. It is clear that the writers in Pilipino and English share a basic belief—that literature can and should construct images of societal realities. Although the texts offer a fictive treatment of history, they are nonetheless profoundly historical, having been determined by both the text’s and the writer’s being products of particular historical moments.

Moreover, the discussion has introduced the idea that the texts are not merely passive reflections of or commentaries on existing conditions of injustice and repression, but are themselves constitutive of various realities that may or may not correspond with empirical realities. In the final analysis, Philippine literature and the turbulence that characterizes it indicates literature’s complex interrelationship as an institution with the other institutions that make up Philippine society.