Some battles are fought with nothing but pen and paper—waged by those hungry for justice, headed by minds filled with visions of a better society. Literature has been, and still is, a vital part of culture and community. It unmasks the realities of the world, encouraging its readers to become more involved with what’s happening around them. Nowadays, it has taken a bolder turn, delving into topics that focus on the deeper sociopolitical aspects of the nation; these are the types of literature referred to as “progressive”.
But there is no specific criteria as to what can be considered as progressive literature. Vijae Alquisola, assistant prof. lecturer from the Department of Literature, emphasizes that any kind of genre has the potential to be progressive, so long as it is “aligned to an aspiration of challenging and changing anything that tarnishes human dignity, especially those who are oppressed by the prevailing social structures.”
However, the radicality of some of its themes have caused a ripple of discomfort among those who refute the ideologies that these pieces drive home. And thus, the fray began. On one side are those who wish to raise their voices, and on the other are those who wish to silence them.
Censorship is an issue that no writer is unfamiliar with. It is the act of suppressing content that contains ideas and information which are disagreeable with the authority that encounters it. Philippine literature in itself has undergone multiple eras of censorship; from the onset of Spanish colonization, to the time of Jose Rizal and his novels, and up until the present day—where it manifests in methods ranging from subtle to brazen.
One very prominent age of censorship in our country’s history is Martial Law. It allowed the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. to gain complete control over the media; countless journalists, writers, and artists who opposed his regime faced dire and fatal consequences. Geraldine Po, manager of Popular Bookstore and a survivor of Martial Law, describes it as a period of blanket censorship. Works such as The Conjugal Dictatorship of Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos, Prometheus Unbound, and The Praying Man were ultimately banned for their blatant criticisms of the dictatorship. Even after the Martial Law Era, “There is always censorship because if the written material is against the ruling political and economic system, it will not be circulated widely or not circulated at all,” she explains.
Indeed, these became large obstacles for many progressive writers, for the literature that proliferated either fell under the realms of safe and uncensorable topics, or catered to the propaganda of the administration back then. “Censorship exists because those in power are always in the business of preserving their position and image,” Alquisola explains. Oppressive governments convince the general public of their gleaming reputations because the literature they allow to be published are only those that focus on enhancing their influence. In this vein, Carlo Bautista (I, LIM-CW) notes that suppression is not the only form that censorship takes; “Artists [are also] being censored…in a way that would only feed the regimes they were part of.”
On a cool morning last March 22, Po had turned up at Popular Bookstore to open its doors to the public, as was her daily work routine. However, someone had maliciously red-tagged the shop by means of aggressive graffiti, with the words “NPA Terorista” sprayed all over the shop’s metal gate and outside signage that day. Later that day, Solidaridad Bookshop in Ermita, Manila, also had the same treatment.
“My initial reaction [was of] disbelief, dismay, [and] exasperation—the act itself is harassment, [and] we all know that red-tagging is a precedent to violence,” Po divulges of the incident. She elaborates further that the gravity of this malign incidence is only worsened by the unfortunate truth that “bookselling is a struggling enterprise.” As for why the culprits decided to red-tag a bookshop out of all establishments, Po is under the impression that it was done to curtail the spread of knowledge that goes against the current political rule.
“These materials present programs and solutions contradictory to the current [political-economic] system. But if [they think] present order works, why should they be afraid of alternatives?” she raises succinctly.
Bautista is of the same mind regarding the harmful consequences brought about by this incident. In fact, he asserts that when bookshops are red-tagged, knowledge goes along with it. The very act of red-tagging doesn’t bode well for the younger, more impressionable generations, and may even discourage them from voicing their dissent from the popular view. “[I believe that] writing is the first thing that calls to attention the things it perceives to be wrong,” he elaborates. “If you allow literature to be censored, you remove that ability for literature to point out the wrongs that it can see.”
The red-tagging of bookshops whose purpose is to spread essential information for a well-informed citizenry is quite alarming. Alquisola recalls an instance prior to the red-tagging of the bookshops when the Commission on Higher Education in the CAR region encouraged the ban and removal of “subversive materials” from their libraries. “Let the students and readers decide what books they want to read because an imposed perspective with curated information is tyranny, not education,” he declares.
Indeed, literature plays a big role in pushing back against oppressive ideologies that trump forms of what are considered progressive media. Bookstores may house a plethora of progressive works right on their shelves, but with the accessibility and interconnectedness of the internet, writers can also easily disseminate their work to a broader audience. Alquisola notes that “because of the technology we have today, the expressions are circulated easily such as the memes, graphic novels, podcasts, vlogs, free online resources, etc.”
And when Popular Bookstore was red-tagged, it did not go unnoticed by the public because the issue circulated online. Several netizens, as well as literary organizations like The Philippine PEN and The Unyon ng mga Manunulat Sa Pilipinas, condemned the atrocity faced by the bookstore on social media. Po recalls, “The expressions of support from industry-related entities, patrons, book lovers, and friends are inspiring.” She sees this collective condemnation of the bookstore’s red-tagging as encouragement for the masses to confront the challenges radical literature faces; by providing patrons with progressive tomes and novels, they simultaneously support the channels where progressive literature thrives and aid in the fight against censorship.
Write or flight
Despite the hardships experienced by progressive writers due to red-tagging and censorship, they remain persistent in exposing the darker corners of the country and its oppressive government, while also standing up for the marginalized and alienated. “When there is more censorship, there is more suppression; [thus], people become more radical,” Bautista posits. “That’s why I believe that you can never stop radical literature because the more you try to suppress it, the more people will try to fight against being suppressed.”
Government intimidation won’t stop young writers like Bautista from popping society’s blemishes. As a writer of LGBTQ+ and youth narratives in the country, he wants to be a guiding light to protect and amplify the voices of the radical youth. “Sometimes words are the most powerful weapon that you can wield as someone as young as we are,” he imparts. Similarly, Po adds assertively, “We need [radical and progressive literature] to fully understand what we, as a nation, [has] gone through, where we are now, and what we need to do to improve [the lives] of our people.”
Serving as a weapon to combat the looming threat of censorship, radical literature will always remain perpetual. “When you remove the narratives, you remove the power of literature to criticize,” Bautista adds. For as long as people in power continue to shun the oppressed, progressive literature will serve as a driving force to abolish censorship. A world without radical literature results in the masses living cookie cutter lives, where oppressive voices overpower the ones that need to be heard. As such, Alquisola reminds writers, readers, and anyone who aims to protect literature, “We look censorship in the eye and do whatever we can to defeat it.”