Thursday, February 23, 2012

job(lessness) in literature*

What are we doing and thinking? It was one broad question. Thoughts were running in my head. But when the same question was anchored as to how I see myself in relation to Jose Rizal and the nation, my focus settled on this assumption: I think the very germ of what we are currently doing and thinking is we are escaping.

We escape to possibilities. We find escape to find respite or simple entertainment. We become escapers as practicing writers.

And this is where I think the problem lies. We have escaped too much, too regularly, that we have distanced ourselves too far from reality.

What made Jose Rizal a force to reckon with was his ways of unmasking the troubles of this country. He reminded people through two novels about corruption of the government, the unjust treatment in the society, and a whole lot of other abuses. In other words, Jose Rizal showed truth. Or, rather, what was true and stirring in his time.

So, what truth could we show now? What could be our primary concern? Here is one truth that seems to be very palpable today: job and the absence of it. Not only in reality but also in fiction.

Hundreds of stories have been spun about love and other feelings. There are also abundant stories about trips to the outer space. Even the occasional rubbing of elbows with creatures of horror has its fair share in today’s literary scene (especially with the rising popularity of the so-called speculative fiction). But when it comes to human labor and its nature, we read very little about it.

As far as I can remember in local literature, we have the secretary Miss Mijares and the carpenter in Kerima Polotan Tuvera’s “The Virgin.” We have the real estate agent Divina in Rosario Cruz Lucero’s “Good Husbands and Obedient Wives.” There’s also the group of people who cope with getting fired in Ian Rosales Casocot’s “Yeah Baby Take It All In Bitch.” As for stories from foreign authors, we have the diagnosis analyst in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Interpreter of Maladies.” There’s also the baker in Raymond Carver’s “A Small Good Thing.”

On the surface, these may seem just another set of stories on relationships, lives bumping or stumbling on another, but the characters’ jobs here are crucial, figuring not only as cosmetic devices but also triggers of emotion, of psyches, shaping the general environment of the story.

Today, instead of something that bears considerable weight, work merely receives the wallpaper treatment. A job is often thrown in as just another detail, an extra, something as minor as the main character’s smooth skin or brand of shoes.

Whether the work is done behind the computer, behind the wheel, behind the sink, behind the chopping board or behind the planggana, it is under-represented, if not entirely missing. This is not much of an argument but an observation.

One would probably argue that life itself is work, but that is of course another story. What I am trying to bring up here is the very means of acquiring money for the food on our tables, the very means of living that strangely exists like a ghost in fiction. You don’t see anything, but you’d know it is there, somewhere.

With a little bit of Googling, I found out that the unemployment rate in the Philippines was reported at 6.4 percent in October 2011, a considerable drop from the previous month’s 7.1 percent. It sounds reassuring but not entirely.

Although this sounds like an economist’s report, it must not be denied that young professionals make up a good chunk of the workforce in the Philippines, especially in the BPO industry. And with the class of 2012 graduating soon, jobs would once again be at the center in many people’s lives. Therefore, the youth will always be involved.

As for the young writers, I guess they ought to be aware, just like how Rizal is aware of almost everything.

The essayist Alain De Botton said that people “rely on writers to help explain the world” to them. So, have writers explained the world of the daily toil sufficiently? Should there be a need to explain it? And why don’t we just leave both the working class struggle and the high society’s eternal discontent to men behind journalism?

Given its very subjective nature, it is no wonder work in literature tends to be sidelined as an accessory. But the answers to the questions mentioned earlier would all boil down to this fact: We are in hard times, affected in one way or another.

The overall weakening state of the world economy alone paints a picture that we are linked together by consequences. And it is strange a strong theme such as this is ignored. But why is it ignored? Young contemporary writers have reasons, of course. Work could be plainly boring. It could be inessential. It could be too distancing from pop culture. It could be anything.

But the novelist and journalist John Lanchester has a detailed idea in his article “Why Fiction Breaks Down.” He said that although fiction “can be fantastical, wild… incoherent, even mad,” it has “to feel true. It has to generate a world of its own and create a satisfying internal order within that world.”

“But there are limits, and one of them is to do with unlikeliness.” He said “Fiction copes badly with unlikeliness. The bizarre is fine. But sheer unlikeliness, improbability, things that simply shouldn’t have happened or feel as if they couldn’t have happened, even after you know they have—that is likely to break a fictional world.”

And because of this unlikeliness, along with his deduction that modern work is so complicated one can’t thoroughly explain in fiction the “complex realities of different working lives,” a story about work tends to collapse.

In other words, the nature of predictability of what we already know or seem to know (e.g. CEO, window washer) tends to be unbelievable compared to what we are unfamiliar with (e.g. Remedios the Beauty ascending to the heavens, Piscine Patel boating with a Bengal tiger). We can be appalled by the most ordinary of things.

But this is, of course, just another reason, and which, if tweaked a little further, could also be considered an excuse.

I asked a couple of young practicing writers (who are also taking full/part time jobs) on how they see the relevance of work in literature.

Marguerite Alcazaren De Leon, web writer, said, “Whether we like it or not, we live in a capitalist society, so making a living has become a primary concern that informs our decisions and actions.”

Glenn Diaz, freelance writer, also said that “As far as realist fiction is concerned, economics entraps and frees people and, therefore, the characters. In the Philippines especially, where the distribution of wealth is highly uneven, good literature should attest to it.”

Some had another outlook though. Copywriter Mo Francisco said, “I guess it’s not so important unless integral to the story. Citing a job is an easy way to help characterize a person, setting, etcetera, but things shouldn’t be dependent on it.”

From the side of the established writers, their takes are much more encompassing than particularizing. The fictionist and essayist Susan Lara said, “Anything could be a worthy subject of a literary piece, as long as you can make it interesting, and of course, resonate.”

The poet and critic J. Neil Garcia does not think that livelihood is any more worthy as a literary theme than other themes. He said, “Human experience is fair fame. The literary treatment of human experience deepens the understanding of it.”

Differing opinions, yes, just like the types of work we have. There’s the blue collar job and there’s the white collar job. Others don’t have a collar at all.

With this year’s Philippine Arts Festival theme, “Tradisyon at Inobasyon,” the concept of the daily toil could be as relevant as ever. With tradisyon, we could acknowledge again the fundamental hard-working Filipino. And with inobasyon, we could acknowledge the developments of how work shapes us and how we shape works. We could both face the past and the present.

It is not that stories about love or the mananggal aren’t enjoyable. It is not that there are no recognizable truths in those stories either. I simply think the time calls for it, to resurrect and highlight the real face of labor, warts and all, in literature.

Work may be a tedious matter, even daunting, but it would always be a part of the human condition. And with literature, we could grapple it down, tame it. This is the strength of the written word. I guess Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish poet who died last February 1, says it best with her poem “The Joy of Writing.”

Writing, to quote the last two lines of the poem, is “The power of preserving./ Revenge of the mortal hand.”


Presented last February 9 for the conference session “Under 35: Young Writers and Their Milieu” in the 2012 Taboan Philippine Writers Festival at Fontana Leisure Park, Clark Field, Pampanga.

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