October 3, 2011
A woman writes about war
Pacita Pestaño-Jacinto, author
Unlike most graduating students, I loved writing my thesis. I pursued my interest in literary history when we were given the freedom to choose our subject, and I chose to write about the literary sources and influences of a remarkable woman writer during the 1930s.
Pacita Pestaño-Jacinto wrote a diary of the Japanese occupation entitled Living with the Enemy. It was published in 1999, over 50 years after she wrote it, and it won the Manila Critics Circle National Book Award for Biography in the same year. The diary upheld a formality and the entries were written in such a poetic manner that I immediately knew I'd be scouring her literary milieu just to learn how anyone can romanticize a war in writing.
Her writing style is best realized when her journal entries are compared to other records of the Japanese occupation. For instance, in Dear Mother Putnam, lawyer-diplomat Marcial P. Lichauco chose to report the fall of Bataan and Corregidor to the Japanese imperial army as thus:
"The bottom dropped out of our hopes tonight. After nearly a week of continuous day and night bombardment of Bataan by the Japanese, the "Voice of Freedom" from Corregidor announced that Bataan has fallen from sheer exhaustion and lack of supplies. Corregidor still stands—but for how long? The island is only two square miles in area and less than five miles from the shores of Bataan. It will be subjected to terrifying pounding from that direction. The fall of Bataan will be a great blow to our people…"
And on the midnight of May 7:
"Corregidor has fallen! At seven o'clock tonight the local radio station announced that Lt. General Wainwright who had been left by MacArthur in command of the American armed forces in the Philippines would make an important announcement! It was evident that he was laboring under great mental stress and emotion for several times he had to pause and pull himself together. "To put a stop to further useless sacrifice of human lives," he said, "I tendered yesterday to Lt. General Homma… surrender of the four harbor defense forts."
Simultaneously documenting the same event is Pacita Pestaño-Jacinto, and she chose to illustrate the unfortunate events as thus:
"Tonight is like no other night we have passed. The silence is like a pall. No one will break it, no one dares. If I did, tears would fall. My mother-in-law shut herself in her room. My father-in-law, inscrutable, reads the Spanish paper. I sit here, writing, trying to tell of what has happened. Of sitting by the radio and hearing a voice demand the attention of all. It was such a powerful, victorious voice. What it said was like a knife piercing the heart. Bataan has surrendered. This once, the Japanese radio has told the truth. Bataan has fallen. What else is there to say?"
And when Corregidor surrendered on May 5, she wrote:
"Another bitter pill for us today. Corregidor has fallen. Huge streamers adorn the city streets, screaming the news. Downtown, a band in a truck toured the crowded streets. The irony of it was that the band blared forth American music while the streamers wrapped around the truck described American defeat. We cannot deny this now, truly, the last vestige of American power is gone."
There is a notable difference between the two excerpts, and it is not without reason that I referred to Lichauco's entry as a record of the Bataan and Corregidor downfall, and labeled Pestaño-Jacinto's as an illustration, despite their solitary subject. While Lichauco chose to characterize the surrender of Corregidor through Wainwright's proclamation, Pestaño used an ironic imagery of Japanese streamers amidst American music; whereas Lichauco described the unfortunate defeat of Bataan as "a great blow to our people," it was "a knife piercing the heart" for Pestaño.
I wanted the core of my study to dwell on the relationship of the Filipina writer and her literary history, and learning about Pacita Pestaño-Jacinto form of writing was like finding a gem in a hay stack. She was the perfect subject. The graceful tone upheld in her diary entries led me to articulate this manner of writing in terms of theme, language and word choices, and relating it to her literary-historical background. The revelations I ended up with turned out to be most interesting.
The incorporation of nature, crafted identifiers in place of names, and a sustained formality of language were three of her trademarks in writing, and necessarily overshadowing these aesthetic distinctions were the literary influences during the Commonwealth period.
As a Filipina belonging to the second generation of writers in English, Pacita Pestaño-Jacinto's writing style may be deeply embedded in the Western techniques that the United States inculcated in our literary culture in the late 1930s, as well as the influences from the first wave of Filipino writers who were really the pioneers of Philippine Literature in English.
In a nutshell, I found that the inclusion of nature and natural elements in her stories can be traced back to the dominance of Anglo-American Romanticism during her time because a huge part of the movement dwelt on the belief that nature is an extension of the human soul, as opposed to the Neoclassicists' lack of appreciation for the individuality of human beings. The works of both American and English Romantics comprised the primary reading materials in the early instruction of English and continued to be widely available even when the Realists began to permeate the country. The rest of her writing characteristics seem to branch from this premise as well, because the crafted identifiers were an allusion to Dorothy Parker's style of writing, and the formal language can be related to her journalistic forte.
To be progressive readers, we have often been taught to instinctively plunge into the text at hand and engage in the immeasurable means of interpretation it offers. Literary scholarship has been likewise engrossed in literary criticism and cultural studies which still essentially moves within the walls of the text. This concern with content, meaning and interpretation has been rather exclusive and constrained, which was why the shift in perspective necessitated by source studies was more than welcome. While literary criticism builds a relationship between the text and the reader, source and influence studies bridges the writer to his respective models, his contemporaries and more importantly, his historical milieu.
Locating the Sunday Times pseudonym "Fe Esguerra Perez" in Pacita Pestaño-Jacinto herself and finally unraveling the formation of this writer within her is a rewarding feat indeed. But beyond yielding substantial results, it was in this process of delineating the works of a remarkable woman writer that made me recognize the inevitability of source studies in Philippine literature. I have long understood the momentous role of literary history in producing national literature, but a closer concentration on specificities surrounding Pacita Pestaño-Jacinto made me realize that perhaps the real reason for the qualitative and quantitative improvement of our literature in this foreign tongue in such a short period of time is the writers' skill in persistently honing themselves from the very beginning and ultimately, the will to continue writing. By making the necessary connections between then writer/journalist Pacita Pestaño-Jacinto and her milieu, the strong role of literary history in producing national literature is upheld.