E. [Epifanio] San Juan Jr. is a Marxist literary critic who has taught at many major universities in the United States and the Philippines. Born in 1938, he is the Harvard-educated author of about four dozen books in English and Tagalog on Marxist theory, criticism of American racism and imperialism, literary studies of Filipino, American and European, and national liberation. Additionally, his work includes poetry in English and Tagalog and English translations by Filipino poets such as Amado V. Hernandez. rice grainspublished by International Publishers in 1966.
San Juan’s collective scholarly life focuses on several major themes. Some are beyond the scope of this review. Yet two of them focus on the relationship between radical 20th-century literature in the Philippines and the same in the United States. In this vein, readers should study San Juan’s research and writings on Carlos Bulosan, the Filipino organizer-writer who was both a fellow CPUSA fellow and a militant organizer of West Coast industrial and agricultural workers in the 1930s until a serious illness forced him to change professions. Bulosan’s famous book America is in the heart sealed his reputation as the first Filipino writer in English. San Juan’s work on Bulosan is monumental and acclaimed.
Maelstrom above the killing fields explores another primary focus of San Juan’s work: the literary struggle to develop a popular Filipino national consciousness under the duress of American neocolonialism. It traces the historical development and important stages of this collective identity from the end of the 19th century to the end of the 20th century, focusing on the writings of key intellectuals such as Jose Rizal, Benigno Ramos, Salvador Lopez, Nick Joaquin and Lualhati. Bautista.
Among these writers, Rizal stands out. His novels Noli Me Tangere and obstructionism were important foundational markers for Filipino literature and what San Juan calls the Filipino national folk idea. Rizal can be classified with Jose Martí and Lu Xun, founders of radical literary nationalism and anti-imperialism in their respective countries.
After returning to the Philippines from his travels and studies in Europe, Rizal was angered and shocked by the misery and violence of Spanish imperialism. He formed La Liga Filipina to rally his milieu of intellectuals and social movement leaders to the nationalist cause. His novels, stories, plays and essays dramatize “the spectacles of misery” he encounters. He began to struggle not only with the question of how “literary artifice [might] serve as an effective tool to improve the lives of victims of miserable conditions” but also to imagine a collective national identity to resist imperialism. Rizal’s novels can be considered “the fundamental writing of the republic” and a “national allegory of our collective experience”, writes San Juan.
National identity is constructed in close relation to the way language is used to construct a shared imaginary of the meaning of collective experience. For Filipinos, this collective experience is full of contradictions and struggles to achieve national liberation and reject the comprador oligarchy. A goal yet to be achieved, writes San Juan, under the conditions of contemporary American neocolonialism, which imposes its ruthless military will on the islands in its enduring, albeit declining, struggle for global supremacy.
Using Marxist literary tools that contextualize literary readings with critical political events, worker and peasant struggles, and the fight against Spanish and American imperialism, San Juan traces this concept of national allegory through the writings of several important intellectuals. It should be noted that while his research emphasizes the role of Filipino literature and intelligentsia, it never places imaginative writing as the centerpiece of historical subjectivity or the intelligentsia as the vanguard of revolution. Instead, the study of the literature and consciousness of this class fraction is an opening to understand the social totality of the Philippines and its relation to imperialism. It is a way to understand the minds of the intellectuals who shaped the use of language to construct a national identity from this history.
The work of the Marxist literary scholar mirrors, in some crucial ways, the labor historian who might study a strike, technological developments in an industry, or the actions and cultures of workers in a particular place to gain new insight of class development. Wrestle. San Juan explores the relationship between literary production and national independence movements, the founding of the first labor organizations, the creation and roles of the Philippine Communist Party, the anti-imperialist Huk uprising after World War II, and much more .
In its opening and closing chapters, it details the connection between the human rights atrocities of the Duterte regime and the abuses of US imperialism, which continues to use the islands both as a dumping ground for cheap finished goods, super exploitable manpower, and as a means station for its continued attempts to assert military dominance in the South Pacific. Submission to the Washington Consensus by the various “democratic” regimes that have come to power since the overthrow of US-backed dictator Ferdinand Marcos has been a hallmark of Philippine politics.
Since that book was published, in the 2022 national election, the Marcos’ son was elected president and Duterte’s daughter, as a running partner, as vice president.
Adherence to the Washington Consensus and IMF structural adjustment programs has so impoverished the country’s working class and peasantry that the export of humans to become domestic servants, intensely exploited industrial workers and labor cheap agricultural labor in Korea, Japan and other countries in the region has become the dominant economic activity in the Philippines. Remittances from overseas contract workers are the largest source of foreign exchange for the islands. These conditions “enabled a few oligarchics to continue to live in luxury, and the rest of the 103 million people to submerge/sublimate their misery by spending the money sent by their parents, their children, their relatives, in mailings without end, the consumption of mass-produced commodities and the illusions fabricated by the global cultural industry.
San Juan estimates that several thousand people each year have been forced to leave their country of origin under these conditions over the past decades. Up to 12 million Filipinos live separated from their families and their homeland. With such a large population of its inhabitants in other countries, as far away as Africa and the Middle East, the United States and Mexico, the popular national idea has entered a diasporic phase, he writes. This loss of rootedness in the native land means “[we] are a neocolonial formation defined by the contradiction between the exploiting minority and the exploited majority. We suffer from catastrophic underdevelopment…and so we flee to foreign countries to work and even settle permanently. San Juan anticipates the reconstruction of this popular national idea, rooted in its anti-colonial origins in search of independence and workers’ power, through deliberate choices within the diaspora to rebuild kinship ties, to seek to repair the nation from the atrocities of its oligarchic leaders, and resist the neocolonial domination of the United States
Careful study of this theme in San Juan’s vast body of work will be a valuable opening to explore the history of American neocolonialism in the Philippines, a sometimes overlooked history of the relationship of Filipino radical movements with their counterparts in the United States, and the ongoing struggles. for the national liberation of this country.
A 2003 interview conducted by Michael Pozo with E. San Juan Jr. can be read here.
Maelstrom above the killing fields
by E. San Juan Jr.
Quezon City, Philippines: Pantas Edition, 2021