On Mentorship and Patronage in the Philippine Literary Scene

I don’t know if the other Philippine MFA creative writing programs do this, but the one I’m enrolled in has a few daunting requirements for its students. High GPA requirement aside, before I can take the comprehensive exams and do my thesis, I have to be published in an inter/national refereed literary journal, and become a fellow in a national writing workshop (and maybe win a writing award, while I’m at it).

Oh, and it would be really nice if I accomplish all these within my first two years in the program.

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No wonder I’ve started to have (mild) cold sweats every time writing workshops, publishers/editors, and contest admins issue calls for submissions. Even then, I let all those recent deadlines pass by because I thought my work was still raw.

But I finally caved last month. Partly because of the aforementioned school requirements and partly out of genuine curiosity and desire, I sent in my creative nonfiction material for the UST National Writers’ Workshop, and a short story for Likhaan‘s 11th edition, which is doing popular science writing and speculative fiction this year. My fingers are crossed; but I’m also realistic about my chances. I know full well that I might not get into both. If that’s the case, I can always try again next year, or with other workshops and publications.

For the UST workshop (and I guess this also goes for other national workshops as well), all applicants were asked to supply the screening panel with a recommendation letter from their literary mentors. I asked (rather, bugged) my own mentor for the same thing for my grad school application, so it was natural for me to do the same thing here. She’s also gone through the whole stressful workshop-application process, so she knew it was only a matter of time before I asked again.

But then a classmate and friend asked me who did my recommendation letter, and said he didn’t know who to ask for his. It reminded me that not all good writers have mentors that already belong to the PH literati or are recognized by them, or will choose to take the same path as they did. Anyone can be a great writer and not play the sino-kilala-mo game, or have a long list of workshops attended or awards won, or a creative writing degree, to boot. We submit our work for validation, but we all need to remember that that’s not the only way to get it.

It also reminded me of the patronage that’s long been in place in our literary scene (and, everywhere else, to be honest) — the kind that Adam David railed against on his blog back in the late ’00s, and Katrina Stuart Santiago on Rogue in the early ’10s.

(Here’s another great essay on PH lit patronage and politics: Monica Macansantos’ 2015 work “Becoming a Writer: The Silences we Write Against”, published in TAYO Literary Magazine.)

One could argue that since I’m in an MFA program, I indirectly contribute to the system, too. But over the past year, I found that being enrolled in a program really helps me in terms of deadlines, progression and accountability — things I’ve always had problems with when I was still working on my own. I still choose what to write about and to what extent; and while grades are important, I’ve never written anything solely to please my fellow MFA candidates or anyone in the faculty center.

Having a mentor (and excellent professors) means I have people who can fully vouch for my work, work ethic, and worth as a writer. They can tell me if my writing is good, and exactly where and how it needs to improve. Not that other people can’t do the same thing for me and vice versa, but the input from casual readers will be very different from that of other authors. With writing being mostly solitary work, this type of support is invaluable.

It also means I don’t have to go through the entire process alone and clueless. Through a mentor (or mentors), I can meet other writers, publishers and editors at different career levels. I get to see what it’s like from where they are, and learn from them, too. The actual writing is important, but it’s just one aspect; these days we all need to see the business or PR side of it, and know how to adjust to industry developments and market demands.

But I also agree with David and Santiago in their sentiment that the patronage system should be abolished or burned — a.k.a. “literary patricide”.  The times, they definitely are a-changin’. Talent can be found beyond national workshops, classrooms and literature departments; nor are writing prizes and contracts with university presses and major publishing houses the only measures of a writer’s capability. The exclusivity and self-importance that seem to mark our literary scene discourage others from going through the existing channels. Or, as in David and Chingbee Cruz’s BLTX, writers turn to self-publishing, using their own money and time and effort to write and do as they please — a much more fulfilling way of doing things, if you ask me.

The patronage style of local lit also involves trying to meet the standards of the big-time folk, which can be unyielding. That was never my jam, and I don’t think that’ll change in this lifetime. I’m also more well-versed in foreign literature than our own (shameful, I know), so I’d rather be honest and tell you I haven’t read anything by the “legends” than lie and pretend to worship the ground they walk(ed) on. That would be even more disrespectful, in my opinion. Besides, I have other, better things to do than try to kiss literary ass.

Hell, I’m pretty bad with faces and names, so I won’t even know who to watch out for. I’m reminded of this every time someone points out an acclaimed writer in the crowd, and I wouldn’t know who they’re talking about and what they look like. Like that time I had no idea I was talking to Edgar Calabia Samar just before the start of the stage adaptation of his first Janus Silang novel until a classmate had to tell me up front. And that was right after I was ushered into my VIP seat, generously alloted by the author to me and said classmate. (I read that first Janus Silang book, BTW. Just saying I’m not that clueless.)

Moreover, having an old-school mentor or patron will mark you as someone’s “bata” instead of you being recognized by merit alone. I remember one classmate’s reaction when he found out I have a so-called backer: the look on his face silently told me I wasn’t playing fair, that I would have it easy compared to them.

(That’s so not true, by the way. I may call her my mentor, but in reality we are friends and colleagues. She calls me out on the bullshit in my writing and my life in general, and I clap right back. And she still thinks my work needs a lot more work.)

Being a “bata” sucks on its own, but it also means you are expected to follow in your mentor’s trodden path and continue said mentor’s traditions. What if that’s not what you want to do, or see yourself doing in the future? Well, too bad, you ungrateful young’un. Respect for elders doesn’t call for mindless compliance, but good luck telling anyone that.

It also leads to more questions about Philippine literature and the evolution of the publishing industry as a whole. With self-publishing gaining traction and becoming more accepted locally, and with talented writers experimenting with everything from form to genre, distribution (including serialization) and even crowdfunding, do we really need literary gatekeepers today and in the future? Are writing workshops, refereed journals, and mentorships still the most “legit” ways to find, hone and recognize new talent?

Lastly, if a writer applies for admission to workshops or creative writing programs but doesn’t have a literary mentor… does that mean he/she isn’t worth considering at all, that he/she doesn’t belong to and will never belong to this exclusive “real writers” club? Well, if you said yes to this particular question…

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