The editors of Ulirát on creating an anthology of Philippine literature that captures the “multilingual aspect of living in these islands”
As a Filipino myself, I was quite elated about the publication of Ulirát: Best Contemporary Stories in Translation from the Philippines in March 2021 and grateful to its publisher, Jee Leong Koh of Gaudy Boy Press. I am very thankful for this transpacific dissemination of Filipino voices that are otherwise unheard, not nationally celebrated back in the Philippine archipelago.
The publication of Ulirát is a moment to experience how dignified, how communicative, and how diverse spoken and living languages are in the Philippines. Readers will encounter stories translated from Akeanon, Cebuano, Filipino, Hiligaynon, Ilocano, Kinaray-a, and Waray. Carving out a space for authors of regional languages—and not just Filipinos who write in English—in the context of postcolonial Philippines is difficult and rare. Questions around the legitimacy of languages persist, frozen in internal debates between language and dialect and the challenges of resisting classist and colonialist ideas of language put forth in creative writing classrooms. These ideas are residues of imperialism that render our voices endangered by neoliberal commerce, myopic state-designed mechanisms to promote art and literature, and the limited support writers receive from institutions supposedly built to protect all voices and not just some. The publication of Ulirát is a feat many of us will remember for a long time—a collection of writing that upholds writing as a creative practice not an event, and that shows the human condition of the Filipino as plural and widespread.
With diverse stories from twenty-nine authors and translators and a foreword by Gina Apostol, the anthology is poised to challenge some stereotypes about Filipinos and to compound Filipino identities within and out of the country. The anthology gives the world another way to witness that the Filipino all have a language of their own.
I am absolutely thankful to the editors of Ulirát for giving me this chance to ask questions shortly after the anthology’s publication about the processes involved in its making as well as their aspirations for and with it.
The Philippines—a country with an estimated population of 110 million people in 2021, all sharing in various degrees a long complicated history of violence, sexual prejudice, and migration—definitely has so many stories to tell. I wonder what makes Ulirát the “best” contemporary stories in translation. This is not to say that the stories in this anthology are not of high quality, but because of the attached othering of this very political term “best.” I wonder about the intention: Why is Ulirát the best contemporary stories in translation from the Philippines?
The term “best” indeed makes the anthology explicitly ambitious, to say the least. If anything, we are trying to “other” the already familiar Philippine fiction in English and Filipino, in order to provide literal spaces for othered Philippine languages. Hence, the decision to punctuate the anthology with the piece from Allan Derain’s The Next Great Tagalog Novel as an invitation to interrogate anything that claims to be “best” or “great.” Even our very own offering to Anglophone readers who are interested in reading works in translation.
How do you locate the publication of this anthology in the context of recent Philippine literature?
Books that have recently been published in the Philippines include works in translation. Meanwhile, the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (Commission on the Filipino Language) has been translating works by Tolstoy, Kafka, Chekhov, and other writers in the public domain into Filipino. Ulirát brings some of our many languages into one anthology and makes them accessible through translation to readers in the country and abroad. It happens that there is now a growing demand for works in translation. Nevertheless, we hope that more anthologies of verse or prose back home would attempt to publish writing translated from our many languages.
What’s very interesting about this publication is its transnational dimension. Ulirát is authored and translated by Filipinos not all living in the Philippines and published by Gaudy Boy Press, an emerging Southeast Asian presence in the United States that has a strong intention to honor works of Asian heritage. What is the story of Ulirát’s transnational journey?
Kristine Ong Muslim
Because there are at least 150 languages in the Philippines, I knew I could not create a comprehensive anthology of translations alone. When I approached John Bengan—who I already know for his fine translations of short fiction from Cebuano—and Tilde Acuña, that’s when the vision, the guiding principles for the anthology, developed a more cohesive and more practical shape. And by “practical” I mean something that addresses a present need that can be realized in book form. Something that is grounded not just by the desire to see the ways of the old being done up in new or interesting ways. The book has to be something that has never been tried before because of the difficulty involved in creating it. It has to be a book that dreams big.
When Daryll Delgado and Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III agreed to coedit, we were able to adequately cover more ground. Eventually, it became less about what we want and more about how we can strike a balance between where we are being led by the materials available to us and what is achievable at the moment with our individual skills, network, and resources.
In making the anthology, what did you consider in selecting the texts to be translated? What were the choices and decisions involved in your creative process regarding the selection of translators and subject matter? What kind of book did you try to form during Ulirát’s conception, and what kind of book did you want the rest of the world to hold?
Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III
Translation is always an act that presupposes and interrogates existing structures and establishments of power. The most fundamental question in considering which works to include was that of availability of the material and its compatibility with the anthology’s core vision. As mentioned by Kristine, while all of the editors had the freedom to pitch a text for translation, at the end of the day, it’s all about striking a balance between the materials available to us and our individual skill, network, and resources. The latter is particularly true in our case since Ulirát—while greeted warmly by a number of writers in the Philippines—was and still is a project that can ruffle a lot of feathers. As mentioned in the book’s introduction, we wanted to come up with an anthology that will not only carry with it the force of the “best” (though this epithet and aesthetic category is also questionable in most occasions) stories in translation from the Philippines, but also change the ways Philippine literature is produced and presented outside the country. And while I think there’s a long way to go before major changes in Philippine literature can be felt, we can at least say that we started the ball rolling.
While language was our priority, we tried to come up with a book that could be as inclusive as possible, although yearning for such is bound to fail. We wanted to offer readers outside of the Philippines an anthology that would give them a better idea of the multilingual aspect of living in these islands. Paradoxically, translation serves as a conduit of sorts, funneling these different languages into one dominant language. However, since the editors and translators in this book are aware of the kind of translation we were going for—one that always refers back to the source, a translation that never presents itself as if it were an “original” but rather carries traces of its transformations—we are able to cover a gamut of experiences that have been described first in local languages. In the context of the Philippines, there are still deeper layers of marginalization not represented in this book. However, in the context of literature translated into English, the likes of Firie Jill T. Ramos of Tacloban, Leyte, and Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano of Matanao, Davao del Sur, have been given a chance to be heard.
Airport, traffic, the experience of transforming houses and cities, the drastic changes in Filipino mobility—these images and themes are quite succinctly presented in the anthology. With these literary devices, we get to stare at the questions: Who needs to leave the Philippines? And who cannot go back home? When we think of Ulirát, how important is it that we think of labor issues and the entangled histories of different forms of poverty? How can we use Ulirát to understand the relationship between Filipinos and the industry of cheap service? What does Ulirát say about powerlessness and the powers that sustain it?
I think it is always important to think of labor issues all the time anyway, not just when thinking about books and literary production. What does it mean for an anthology of Philippine works in various Philippine languages to come out of the Philippines, a place better known as a major source of cheap labor for the rest of the world? I guess we can only hope that it also serves the purpose of countering the homogenizing impulse of labor capital to reduce human beings into units of production capacity. Will it change the way migrant Filipino workers are perceived and treated? Not by a long shot. But it might provide a more diverse context for understanding what drives people to leave the country, what they risk and what they stubbornly bring with them, and what insults and injuries their bodies are subjected to once they become part of a foreign labor force.
The politics of survival is an important context to Ulirát, as is how keenly aware Filipinos in general always are of how to navigate and negotiate their relationship to power (and powerlessness). This is also apparent in how we have to speak multiple languages, use different official languages for convenience or for power, while nurturing a mother tongue for a different kind of survival.
After putting all these stories together and publishing the anthology, what do you remember long after putting the book down?
Kristine Ong Muslim
One of the recurring themes in the stories in Ulirát is precarity. Manifestations of economic precarity, to be specific. And these manifestations are not talked about as mere philosophical abstractions. Rogelio Braga’s “Fungi” had us smelling a mountain of garbage. Doms Pagliawan, in his story “Manila-bound,” looks into an elderly couple’s adjustments as they move from their quiet life in Samar to the country’s capital of Manila with its associated third-world dystopic conditions. Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano’s “Can’t Go Out” captures the precarious circumstances of village life in southern Philippines. Additionally, microcosms of this “precarity” are represented, as in the case of Allan N. Derain’s story, which reveals the dynamics of working within and without literary institutions, for and against which aspiring writers define and contrast themselves—negotiations between agents and structures that shift from time to time. Ulirát, even its stories that rattle with absurdist and mythical takes, can also be used as lines of inquiry into how Filipinos can begin to imagine the post-human/trans-human era, even a post-capitalist Philippines (as some of the stories can aid in understanding the past and present state of Filipino workers).
Also reflective of popular concerns are Timothy Montes’s “The Fishmonger’s Love Story” and John Iremil Teodoro’s “Why Berting Agî Never Smiles,” which share the theme of a beloved’s return that turned bitter. Interestingly, both stories are situated in rural poor communities, where the characters look forward to reuniting with former friends and acquaintances—be it at a town dance (in Montes) or a wake (in Teodoro). Such a theme is reversed in Pagliawan’s “Manila-bound,” which begins with a high regard and awe for the promises of the capital and ends with such a delusion being somewhat thwarted. Another theme common with these three, and possibly other stories in the collection, is a fatalist worldview that merits necessary wagers. In third-world “developing” countries stunted by first-world “developed” ones (imperialists), one needs no less than to dare to struggle and dare to win, whether in re-establishing connections with loved ones in the past or constructing a better society for future generations.