Bien Lumbera: Activist, National Artist for Literature


Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera, literary scholar, social commentator, librettist, and poet has been chosen as 2006 National Artist for Literature. He fully deserves the award, and more so than many of those who had received it ahead of him.

It is now official. Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera, known as Ka Bien to friends, comrades and colleagues, literary scholar, social commentator, librettist, and poet has been chosen as 2006 National Artist for Literature.

It had been an uphill battle. Last year was not his first time to be nominated for the title, which was first given in 1973 to poets Amado V. Hernandez and Jose Garcia Villa. Insiders at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA), which screens nominees and gives the award, say he had been passed over several times for the honor in favor of the likes of Edith Tiempo and Dr. Virgilio Almario.

He fully deserves the award, and more so than many of those who had received it ahead of him. As the poets’ group Kilometer 64 declared in a statement it issued in support of his nomination last year, not only has Lumbera made a significant impact on Philippine culture: he has contributed to the strengthening of what is Filipino in Filipino culture.

The removal of identity from consciousness was invariably among the devices resorted to by the Spanish, American, and Japanese colonizers in their bid to subjugate the Philippines. The effects of this on the Filipino psyche have stood in the way of genuine national development.

Lumbera contributed to the Filipinos’ self-awareness by unearthing, through painstaking research, the achievements of our nation in the field of culture for the past several hundred years

Aside from this, Lumbera has directly contributed to the further development of an authentically Filipino culture by creating poetry and drama reflecting the continuing Filipino quest for full independence, and by promoting through his critical studies the works of other artists who work along this line.

Lumbera has not only significantly affected Philippine culture. He has contributed immensely to the formation of a truly Filipino culture.

This, by the way, is not the first award to be conferred upon him. In 1991 the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) gave him an award for cultural research. Two years later, he received the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalist, Literature and Creative Communication Arts. In 1999 the CCP honored him as one of the Philippines’ 100 outstanding artists of the 20th century. In 2000, the Ateneo de Manila University, where he used to teach gave him the Gawad Tanglaw ng Lahi (Light of the Race Award).

Besides being a writer, Lumbera is also known as an activist. From his involvement in the Filipinization movement as a professor at the Ateneo in the 1960s serving as chairman of the Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan (PAKSA or Writers for People’s Development) in 1971-1972, to working as adviser to the progressive poets group Galian sa Arte at Tula (GAT or Celebration in Art and Poetry) in the martial law period and all the way to his present activities. Lumbera has always been one who believes that the writer should not stay in the ivory tower but touch the ground with the people and those seeking to bring about a better society.

And he is everywhere, as is often said of him. Aside from being a national council member of the multi-sectoral Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan or New Patriotic Alliance), Lumbera chairs the following groups: Concerned Artists of the Philippines (CAP); Board of Directors, Kodao Productions; and Board of Directors, Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG).

That he still finds time, with all that, to write and to teach at the University of the Philippines (UP) as professor emeritus is simply amazing considering his age of 74 years. Why, workloads that heavy have been known to stop far younger men.

Let us hear from the man himself as he shares his thoughts on receiving the National Artist Award for Literature and other issues relevant to his field of work in this interview with Bulatlat.

First of all, how do you feel about receiving the National Artist Award for Literature?

Well, it’s a great honor. People have been introducing me for some time now as a National Artist for Literature even when I had yet to receive such honor. So at least I now have no more need to correct such wrong introduction.

You are the first activist writer to receive the National Artist Award since Amado V. Hernandez, and you are also the first activist to receive the award while still alive. What can you say about that?

It’s a rather unusual situation, because the title National Artist brings with it a certain power: your name becomes more prominent, and people will listen more closely to what you have to say because it gains the weight of authority.

But it also brings in a sense of responsibility. You feel that the position has given you responsibility, that you should begin to remember when you exercise the power I am talking about.

So this is an instance which creates a problem for one who is an activist. Before you had a great deal of freedom to express views against institutions, but now you have to think rather carefully about your positions on issues, that’s what I mean by responsibility…

So I think that’s how the position makes me feel at present.

But do you think it could unfavorably affect the advocacy of nationalism and social justice for which you have become known?

It should not. There’s no question about that. I’m thinking more of views expressed as regards specific issues. You have to think more seriously, more carefully, more circumspectly.

Hernandez was given the National Artist Award albeit posthumously at a time of open state repression, and you are being given the award also at a time of open state repression. What challenges do you see the Filipino literary writer having to confront in such a political climate?

A Filipino artist who is involved in a movement to counter the views of those who are in power needs to recognize the power I’m talking about, and use that power to advance the cause that he’s advocating.

Now those Filipino artists who are not in the movement might ask themselves, Did I tend to be overcautious in taking up a position on national issues? If he has been overcautious then perhaps he should begin to consider his position.

If you want to gain a national honor, you don’t have to be overcautious about your political views. Because the National Artist Award is not given by the president of the Philippines: it is not she who picked you out to be given the title National Artist, it is fellow artists and academics who pick out nominees for the title. That gesture by artists and academics is in a way representative of the general public’s feel.

During the martial law period, you were jailed for some time and so were a good number of other writers. Those writers who were not jailed experienced censorship of some sort or another. Do you see a similar scenario coming at present?

Martial law under Ferdinand Marcos set very clear parameters for artists, so that the artist then knew what he can do and what he cannot do.

Under the present quasi-martial law condition, the parameters are not clear. In such a situation, the artist has theoretically the freedom to express himself but the parameters are not certain and therefore, it makes an artist apprehensive on how far he can go.

So can we say that the circumstances right now are more difficult for artists, in a way?

Yes, I think so. Then everything was in black and white. But now it is not the case because what we have is an undeclared martial law.

Much of your work, especially the critical essays, is about the definition of the Filipino identity. How would you in a nutshell define what is meant by Filipino identity?

In the case of the Philippines, when we talk about national identity, I believe the artist must be aware of the history of his country; specifically the revolutionary history of the Philippines, about what those who fought against Spanish and American colonialism went through. That consciousness is a weight that the Filipino artist at present should recognize. What we call the Filipino identity, therefore, is working in one’s field to assert the freedom of the Filipino people.

About culture, the artist should recognize what comes from the past that damages the unity and awareness of the country. If an artist has cultural awareness, if he is aware of history and the culture that came here, it is important for him to be able to weigh what the natives already had and what reached the country from outside and what the Filipinos were able to achieve in terms of molding the old and the new to form an identity that is genuinely Filipino.

And that does not lose its relevance, does not become passe, even in this so-called global age, when national boundaries are said to be disappearing?

Ah, no. It’s all the more necessary that the artist be so aware of the identity of his people because that’s the only way to be authentic. You have to be faithful to the culture you’re part of. If you’re faithful to that, you would assert the identity of your country. And it’s not even consciously resisting globalization: you simply have a duty as an artist to be true to what your country has done, to what the culture of your country has become, and you’re going to come up with works that are truly nationalist in a time of globalization.

Could you share some of your thoughts about postmodernism which appears to be the trend in intellectual circles all over the world these days?

Postmodernism should not be regarded as a philosophy of the individual. Postmodernism to me is a manifestation of the temper of a world which is undergoing rapid change. So when we speak of what is postmodern, we are aware that there is no fixed way of looking at things. Given all the changes that the world is going through, everything is tentative; everything has not yet reached its fixed form. So postmodern means you are no longer going by rules that were promulgated by the academe, the standard way of doing things. The postmodern simply tells us that nothing is permanent, everything is in flux, and the artist does his best to draw from the flux of things, stuff that he believes in, stuff that he thinks should be preserved.

Given postmodernism’s seeming emphasis on the momentary, would you agree that there are still things that remain timeless in the sense of not losing relevance, like the struggle against oppression?

I agree. The individual artist always is trying to hold on to what is useful, what is important, and that means he is always struggling to keep what he believes in alive. So there’s no stopping the efforts of a writer to keep his commitment to a particular issue burning.

As one who has seen Philippine literature go through various phases in the last 50 years and more, what do you wish Filipino writers would achieve in the coming years?

The only thing I can ask for is that there be more writers with consciousness of our country’s history and culture, and that such consciousness paves the way for them to create works that would link with the people’s conditions. (

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