How to give a balanced and purposeful review? 

Erwin Cabucos’ response to Karlo David’s ‘Lost on the Road to North Cotabato’ 

The Filipino version of this article translated by Christian Jil R Benitez appeared in ‘Katipunan’ on 15 December 2021.

Dear Mr David: 

Thank you for taking the time to read four of my fiction, sharing them with your friends and soliciting their feedback to produce an academic paper and conclude that the works are not worthy of reading despite your claim as ‘arguably canons of Cotabato literature’! What an astounding effort from an executive director of a private company dealing with creative and cultural workers of Mindanao, aiming to promote Mindanaoan literature (Yadu Karu Blog, 2019). I can only surmise that you have plenty of time and a rare opportunity to review Mindanaoan works of fiction, indicating your avid interest in producing this sort of writing. However, may I question your article’s purposefulness, balance and underpinning understanding of what fiction is.  

To begin with, I am dubious about your intention to scrutinise the texts and their ‘significance as literature of Mindanao and place in local discourse’ because the discussion is narrow, and the arguments are not well-reasoned. Examples of which include berating unrelated or undeveloped titles of the stories which ignore the literary uses of irony, oxymorons, satire, allusion, and other language features in them. The ‘Bleached Hills’, for example, is alluding to a non-white mentality of privileging the white culture and silencing their own. This is explored in the context of racial intolerance within the post-structuralist and post-colonial traditions. The tone from the use of emotive language in ‘Give Us This Day’ goes past your critics’ brains as they narrowly box their understanding of the phrase’s biblical origin, insufficiently reading the bildungsroman, psychological and ecological themes of the story. Even the word ‘chant’ to mean simultaneous recital and singing of people is labelled obscure, simply because the signification of the word escapes from their anthropological or unrecognised understandings. Moreover, there are other countless and pitiful accusations of an untruthful depiction of situations when in fact, they know, and you know that the materials of study are works of fiction, not historical and anthropological per se. Fiction is dynamic and multilayered, but the general consensus of your piece, is criticism in its draconian, dismissive and destructive natures, disparagingly missing the opportunity to include other areas of understanding through which readers could be encouraged to see a multiplicity of readings and interpretations. Again, they are literary works of fiction. Do you critique for the purpose of criticising, or do you critique to offer readers multiple considerations and perspectives? This leads me to my second question – how much impetus do you put on balance in your critical analyses and evaluations? 

To assess whether a literary work sits within the discourse of a place is to also look at the representations in characters, the traits they imbue, the beliefs they hold, the tradition they take part in, the historical event or significant people they mock. What about the aesthetics of the work such as its uses of allusions, irony, satire, imagery or metaphor? Does the work promote heritage? Does the work provoke a philosophical understanding or perspective? Does the work poke fun at an environmental endeavour that affects locally or internationally? Does the work critique a religious stance? Does the work have psychological underpinnings and explorations? I don’t need to list the salient points of literary criticism theories and topics that you could have attempted for a more balanced and intelligent review. It is easy to fall trapped in the pompousness of our achievements and in the one-sidedness of our perspectives before we realise the ramifications of our review to the audience, the author and to the society that consumes, processes and uses the usefulness of your writing if there is any. Thankfully, you are only one of the many reviewers out there. I think you have yet many years ahead of you in the true sense of cultural sensibility and literary maturity locally and globally. 

Have we forgotten that writing fiction is to imaginatively create and sometimes (also somehow) distort realities? Of course, we must maintain verisimilitude to be convincing, but we do not have to construe what’s stereotypical and ordinary. Fiction is fiction. As I said, literature differs from history or anthropology. For the most part, literature is imagination, and if there are distortions, so be it. The places could be vaguely described, re-created or distorted, yet rooted in a recognizable idea – all in the quest to evoke a particular emotion, entertain an audience or represent a particular view of the world. Could there really have been peculiar communities along Joseph Conrad’s Congo River in the ‘Heart of Darkness’? Could there really be convicts hiding in the marshes of Kent in ‘Charles Dicken’s ‘Great Expectations’? Would it be possible that a King is murdered in Dunsinane Castle in Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’? Or would it be likely that someone can ignore a brother due to a cumbersome experience in Manila in Paulino Lim’s ‘Homecoming’? Not to mention the distorted animal farm in George Orwell’s ‘Animal Farm’. There are huge possibilities for all of them in our effort to re-create a divergent reality from an experienced reality. Could children use coconuts as soccer balls in Cabucos’ ‘Drinking Rio Grande de Mindanao? Yes, it’s possible, and, not improbable. It’s fiction. Again, all for the game of telling a story, a character, an idea, a perspective, for the enjoyment of the readers, to teach, depict, challenge, connect, reminisce, etc. Readers should be given accurate details – that’s true, however, it is not far-fetched that a writer’s concern is not realism per se even though he writes something that can be literally checked. 

In fiction, authors give readers the chance to connect dots in the process of engaging with the narrative. Your teacher, photographer and beauty queen readers seem to expect that all details should have been given to them to satisfactorily understand the plot. They comment that there’s a failure to properly map the geographical movements of the characters as I have skipped some places in the narratives. Should I remind them that reading sometimes requires filling in gaps to fully appreciate the complexity of ideas and unpredictability of characters? Oh, by the way, thank you that they are annoyed (how cute) using saliva as a motif – another literary technique to symbolise the intensity and peculiarity of emotions and situations they have missed. Please tune up to what fiction is again before embarking on the work of review, and please in doing so, be purposeful and balanced. 

You wanted to see ‘how the stories can be part of the local discourse’; it’s like asking how part of music a song can be. Placing a demographic demarcation on a cultural product, such as a narrative, to assess its discursive merit would simply violate its cultural verisimilitude as argued by Saussure’s theory of sign, signification, symbol and meaning, its origin and ramifications of mythmaking and stereotypes as purported by Lacan, its role in creating structures of cultural power as discussed by Foucault, and its role in privileging, marginalising and providing biases in perspectives and cultural assumptions as argued by Derrida. Can you ask if an atom belongs to the atmosphere? Can you really ask if Cabucos’ stories can be part of the linguistic, cultural, and social milieu of Cotabato Province, Mindanao, the Philippines, or of the world for that matter? Does a crumb belong to a world of bread? It’s difficult to unsee the question’s apparent absurdity. 

Finally, do you really mean it when you said, in your interview with Yadu Karu Blog on January 31, 2019, that to become a successful writer, ‘you have to have the right friends and sleep with the right people?’ It is difficult not to see inconsistencies in words, intentions, and actions in your role as executive director for Mindanao creative and cultural workers, especially when it comes to citing your merit as a worthy cultural proponent of the Mindanao literary scene, at least for now. 

In the meantime, please help us quench our thirst for good reviews of Mindanao literature by showing us balance, purposefulness, and morale. 

Kind regards, 

Erwin Cabucos 

Author of ‘The Long Road to Asik-Asik’, ISBN 978-0646848945,, 2021.