FOR a region smack right in the ring of fire and the eye of the storm, Bicol, suggests poet Frank Peñones Jr., ought to harbor a constant need for writers. Because, as he explains, a future left to political leaders whose primary concern is to perpetuate themselves in power means that “no one will dig up and sing of those buried in the sands in the night of their sleep.”
Thankfully, literature as a soothing balm that comforts the afflicted in Bicol’s woeful landscape is again in a midst of a resurgence, fruit of the more than three decades of efforts by Bicolano writers themselves to revive the region’s literary tradition.
And while seasoned writers the likes of Peñones, Merlinda Bobis, Carlos Aureus, Carlo Arejola, Ruby Alano and Maria Lilia Realubit remain very much around, new blood is being infused by a generation of young writers who are expressing themselves not only in English or Filipino but in Bikol, their native language and that of five million people in the provinces of Albay, Camarines Norte, Camarines Sur, Catanduanes, Masbate and Sorsogon.
Peñones, however, is particularly pleased with one young, prolific writer to emerge in the literary scene — 24-year-old Kristian Cordero, whom the former credits for having “cleared a new space for Bikol literature.”
An A.B. Philosophy graduate from the Holy Rosary College Seminary in Naga City, Cordero is the youngest and most awarded creative writer in Bicol today. He is studying to become a priest.
Writing, shares Cordero, came to him in 1999, when he was still in high school, and which he says was later reinforced by his seminary training. He used to write in Filipino but has now shifted to Bikol, the region’s lingua franca, upon the insistence of Peñones, whom he considers among his mentors. Also instrumental to his growth as a writer, he says, are Alano, literary coordinator of the National Council for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), and Realubit, retired University of the Philippines professor who wrote the first book on Bikol history and literature: “Bikols of the Philippines.”
Cordero also writes in Rinconada, the dialect spoken in his native Iriga and other eastern parts of Camarines Sur.
He has two volumes of poetry to his name. The first, “Mga Tulang Tulala,” a collection of poems written in three languages (Filipino, Bikol and Rinconada), won the 2006 Madrigal-Gonzales Best First Book Award. It contains three of his prize-winning poems in the annual national poetry competition sponsored by HomeLife Magazine: “Paputok” (Firecrackers, 2nd Prize, 1999), “Isda” (Fish, Grand Prize, 2004), and “Agua de Mayo sa Seminaryo” (First Rain of May in the Seminary, 2nd Prize, 2005).
“Santigwar” is Cordero’s second Bikol and Filipino volume of rawitdawit, narrative poems that gained currency in the 1940s as a weapon of social and political criticism. “Santigwar” contains the young Bikolano poet’s collection Hali(y)a which won the first prize for poetry from the Premio Tomas Arejola Para sa Literaturang Bikolnon in 2004.
From the book’s title, Cordero returns to Bikol’s early writing tradition rooted in ancient folkways, santigwar (exorcism) being a traditional Bikol spiritual therapeutic practice. Only that the healing addresses what Cordero calls “sociological ills and ideological maladies” to make way for a “radical renewal and an exodus to our untainted past.”
Cordero has also won second prize in Filipino short fiction in last year’s Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature for “Langaw” (Fly), which narrates the miserable life of a poor, abused girl whose sufferings tragically end with her death in the hands of rapists along the railroad tracks.
Of the dominant themes of his writings, Cordero says he looks back to his childhood memories for their sense of innocence and lack of any biases, and more for introspection rather than lingering in the past.
“Memory is seeing the past and the connections to your present reality, with the future enlarged by imagination, not bound by formal structures,” he says.
Writing in Bikol is Cordero’s way of supporting the local culture and of “pagiging matapat sa sarili, sa wika ng aking mga panaginip (being true to myself, in the language of my dreams) because I don’t dream in English or Filipino.”
And even when he is writing in Filipino, Cordero says he is ever-conscious of summoning a Bikol sensibility, which has made him a distinct voice in the Bikol and national literary realms.
In this podcast supplement to i Report‘s current series on Literature and Literacy, Cordero reads four rawitdawit from “Mga Tulang Tulala” — “Utang na Boot” (Debt of Gratitude), “Sa Paropakinabang Kan mga Santos” (League of Saints), “Bakunawa” (moon-swallowing monster in Bikol mythology), and “Isda.”