By ANDREA JOYCE LUCAS
UP professor Bienvenido Lumbera pauses before we begin the interview, and his memory takes him back through the years, searching for the right place to start. He speaks to me with ease, as we sit beside each other in his living room, as if I were a student he has known for a long time.
My juvenile heart, however, could hardly contain my excitement. The professor is a National Artist for Literature and highly regarded in academia for writing pioneering books on literature and criticism with a historical perspective. The 83-year-old professor looks the part, with his large eyeglasses and gently creased face framed by white hair.
Yet there is more to him than meets the eye. Lumbera is also a Martial Law veteran, arrested and imprisoned by the Marcos regime for daring to fulfill the revolutionary promise of literature.
Days of Disquiet
Times were tough for Lumbera even as a child. He loved reading, but his poor family could not afford books. The only title in the house was an old dictionary thrown out from a school building raided by Japanese soldiers in the second World War.
The professor hails from Batangas, home to nationalist heroes and literary icons like Teodoro Kalaw and Claro M. Recto. His own nationalism, however, blossomed much late in his life. While he was growing up, he looked up to writers like Ernest Hemingway and William Faulkner, thinking that Philippine literature is minor in comparison to its Western counterparts in Europe and America.
It was then ironic that he realized he should be studying his own heritage only when he came to study in the United States. Upon meeting with fellow Filipinos at Indiana University in Bloomington, he was urged to change the topic of his dissertation at the last minute.
His thesis eventually birthed one of his major published works, Tagalog Poetry, 1570-1898: Tradition and Influences in its Development. Published in 1986, the book discussed literary practices and texts that were supposed to have been lost to colonization, thus reaffirming the vigor of our culture and literature.
Nights of Rage
When he returned home, Lumbera went to teach literature at the Ateneo de Manila University, advocating the strengthening of the identity of Philippine culture through literature. He also chaired the revolutionary writers’ organization Panulat para sa Kaunlaran ng Sambayanan (PAKSA), along with screenwriter and playwright Ricardo Lee and Professor Jose Ma. Sison. He also served as adviser to the progressive poets group Galian sa Arte at Tula. His involvement with PAKSA made him a hot target for political persecution by the Marcos regime, as the group published works that were critical of the dictatorship.
Professor Lumbera thought he was safe from the ire of the Marcos government, but he was, of course, proven wrong. “Preventive ang pang-aaresto ng gobyerno,” he says. At the time, an estimated number of 70,000 people were incarcerated. Most of them were detained even more before criminal cases were charged against them.
Following the arrests of many of their other friends, Lumbera hurried to Ricky Lee in his house in España to warn him. “Nang kumatok ako sa pinto, may kamay na lumabas sa pinto at hinagip ang kamay ko. Alam ko na kaagad na may nangyari na,” he said. Lumbera attempted to run away, but the men behind the door gave chase. “Nakaabot ako sa kanto ng Banawe [bago nila ako nahuli].”
His captors detained him in Fort Bonifacio, where other subversives like Roland Simbulan and Roger Mangahas were already jailed. Lumbera spent 11 months in prison, passing the time away by making crafts to generate income for the prisoners.
He claims he had an easy time of it, though he was aware of what happened to less fortunate friends and contemporaries. I asked him if he knew what happened to them and Lumbera fell into silence. Hesitantly, he recounts the time when one of his students was detained in the same jail. The young man was caught with subversive reading materials banned by the wardens. His student suffered brutal interrogation procedures, such as “water torture,” by which the prisoner was forced to fill his stomach with water, then his captor would proceed to hit him with a paddle or step on his stomach.
Did the professor ever regret imprisonment for the things he believed? His answer came swift and sure: “No. May saya ako sa pagkakakulong. I was with people of the same mind.”
The professor was eventually released from prison, though not by the benevolence of the government but due to furious negotiations and haggling by his friends. But life could never go back to its usual patterns.
Even today, Lumbera says the violence of fascism is far from over, claiming lives of workers, farmers, and indigenous peoples. The professor reaffirms what I myself believe: “Revolution can never be passé when you have an administration that is authoritarian.”
Lumbera walks the talk: He tries to adapt to the many ways in which ideas are now propagated. He manages a Facebook account and is easily reached via text. When asked about his current reading, he mentions a contemporary young adult book: “Janus Silang at ang Tiyanak ng Tabon” by Edgar Calabia Samar.
The professor, even at his old age, refuses to return to the ivory tower he has long forsaken. Students often see him in rallies, protesting the many forms of pork barrel that persist to this day, Noynoy Aquino’s criminal neglect and incompetence, and the recent spate killings of Lumads and the militarization of their communities. In a poem he wrote as tribute to activist Crispin Beltran, he says, “Ang masa, ang masa, ‘pag nabuksan ang isipan, uukit ng landas tungo sa kalayaan.”
Lumbera believes that writers need not only stay at their desks, especially if they are progressives. A writer must have a firm stance: “Mahalaga na matatag ang paninindigan ng isang aktibista, na hindi siya magpapatangay sa mga programang umaakit sa mga walang ideolohiya.” The professor believes academe, with its artists and scholars, must continue to support the mass movement and its national democratic goals.
He smiles at me, and I understand that it is a gentle reminder for hopeful writers like me.
There is a need “to motivate students, young people to serve the greater majority of Filipinos who have no way of retaliating and are effectively suppressed,” Lumbera tells me. I smile in return and make a silent promise. ●
Published in print in the Collegian’s October 23, 2015 issue, with the headline “The people’s scholar.”
Bienvenido Lumbera, born on April 11, 1932, was a Filipino critic and national artist. Upon his release from prison during Martial Law, at the urging of Cynthia Nograles, whom he would marry a few months later, he taught at UP Diliman. In 1977, he edited the Diliman Review, which was among the most critical publications of the Marcos regime. In the succeeding decades, Lumbera rose as one of the pillars of Philippine letters, having received various awards and accolades. Still, he remained affiliated with cultural and artists’ organizations that fought for people’s rights amid yet another growing current of authoritarianism in the country. In the morning of September 28, 2021, Lumbera died of “complications of stroke.”
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