Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Why English?

I've had some interesting feedback, not only about Elmer, but about my work in general, about why I chose to write in English as opposed to Tagalog. It's something I had been thinking of writing about for a long time. In fact, I remember writing about it years ago, but it's a pain going through the archives, specially upon realizing I've been doing this online journal thing since 1997.

Those familiar with me know that I normally converse in Tagalog, and in fact I have difficulty speaking English fluently. I can write it well enough though, and it's cause for some interesting reactions when I meet people for the first time after I had been corresponding with them via letters and emails beforehand. One such person actually couldn't help but comment and said something like, "Why is it when you write you seem so smart, but when you talk...". Probably realizing where his statement was going, he stopped himself, smiled and offered me coffee. I also get my pronunciations corrected once in a while, but that's OK, except this one time when this guy corrected every wrong pronunciation I made rather condescendingly and it really got my goat.

I try not to speak English if I can help it, except when I talk to a non-Filipino. In that case, I would have no choice.

But when I write and create stories, I do it in English. To me, language is simply a form of communication. As a storyteller, it's only natural that I would want to share my stories with as many people as I can. To use a language that only a certain section of a potential audience can understand would be unproductive, and would defeat my wish to propagate my story widely. As a small time publisher, I cannot afford to publish different translations of my work. I can afford to publish only one version, so I decide on publishing in the language that I know that most people would understand, both here and abroad.

In the Philippines, that would be English, and not Tagalog, unfortunately. The decision to write in Tagalog for the sake of nationality or patriotism is somewhat misguided. Because not all Filipinos speak Tagalog. Reading through a Cebu-based message board, I saw some posters bewail the fact that a local graphic novel was written in Tagalog because they would not be able to understand it. Remember, these are Filipinos. I remember going to Bohol a couple of years ago, trying to buy something in a local mall. My questions in Tagalog were greeted with confusion and shakes of the head, but when I spoke in English, they immediately knew what I was talking about.

Comparisons to Japan is inevitable, but one must also remember that nearly all Japanese people speak one language, unlike in the Philippines where people speak more than a hundred different dialects, and not all of them can understand each other. If you release a comic book in Japanese in Japan, everybody there would understand it. Not so when you release a Tagalog comic book in the Philippines.

Japan has a gargantuan comics industry, probably the largest in the world. It would only be natural for western publishers take note of it and wonder what makes their comics tick. Once they do, they would go and do English translations. But what of the Philippines? The local comics industry is all but dead, with only Liwayway as the remaining solitary remnant of a once great industry. There are few small companies and self publishers and although this audience is growing, the readership is still very limited. I'm not about to sit and wait until an American company gets interested in my Tagalog comic book with a few hundred print run for them to translate into English. I don't presume that they would be of an opinion that my comic book is good enough for them to translate anyway. It's very unlikely for that to happen. Not right now. Probably in the future perhaps, if and when our industry grows and more notable comics are made and our industry gets some international attention. But like I said, I'm not going to sit around and wait for that to happen. I'm not that young anymore and I've only got a relatively small amount of time to do all the work I want to do.

Language is only a tool by which our stories are understood. It's all about communication. Communication, if it is to be efficient, clear and concise, should be beyond such things as nationality and patriotism, no matter how noble those things may be. If a Filipino writer feels the need to bring something "Filipino" to his story, then let it be in the story itself, and not in the language it is written. Let's see it in the art, in the subject matter, in how people are portrayed, in the story's very substance. It's the Filipino writer's option to do so.

But further, a Filipino shouldn't be limited by that as well. He can write about many things, and not all of them could be Filipino-themed. Not all American writers write about being American, and not all British writers write about being British. And we can do that too. And to me that would be just allright, as long as we bring something original to the table, and not something derivative of the work of others.

That said, Elmer does not strive to be an overtly "Filipino"-themed comic book. If I can go so far as to say, Elmer is almost generic. I try not to be specific about where all this is happening, if it's happening in the Philippines at all. Humanis Rex!, Timawa and the Lake Legends are all very specific in terms of place, and as such I can really consider them as my attempts at overtly Filipino-themed comics.

I do none of that with Elmer because I hope to make it a story that's universal and not specific to any particular culture. I slip here and there of course, with some names, and with some designs, but I do try and make Elmer as generic as I can make it.