By Karlo Antonio Galay David
Leoncio Deriada wrote about Mindanao, and he wrote about it a lot.
His large body of fiction and drama depicts the Davao region he explored as a young boy— Philippine eagles still hovering over the vast, virgins forests of towering Lawaan trees, squirrels still spiralling up Durian trunks before digging their teeth into the fruit’s tough shell, and downtown Davao still full of coconuts and carabao water holes—a Mindanao long gone, but which has been captured for all time in the vivid settings of his stories.
Although he migrated from Iloilo with his family to Davao after the Second World War, Deriada was a settler. He became the person he was in Mindanao, in the truest sense of the Cebuano term, he was “natawo” here. The place dominated his imagination all his life.
Deriada also depicted in his work human realities as diverse as Mindanao itself, and he did not hold back, often telling uncomfortable truths: horrors like incest and sleep-killing that settlers sometimes commit in their sheer rural isolation, the sense of hopeless wonder at this land people struggle to make sense of, the madness lingering from the War, the sometimes uncontrollable sexual undertones of Post-War optimism, the existential struggles unique to urban Mindanao, the depths of the urban-rural divide. His finest works were deeply psychological, often bordering on the macabre.
Deriada’s oeuvre not only captured the realities of post-War Mindanao, they scrutinized these realities, in the process articulating the local zeitgeist of that period—his stories are permeated with that sense of hope, fascination, fear, and disillusionment that defined the experience of Mindanao’s early settlers. Deriada is Mindanao’s Balzac, his works both important historical references and profoundly valuable objects of local introspection.
His stories, mostly autobiographical, also inadvertently captured what kind of person Deriada was— impressionable with a prodigious memory (making the vivid depictions of his works possible), clever more than smart (sometimes he knew it too much for his own good), studious, bookish, deeply observant but never too egg-headed as to miss the bigger picture, always seeing more than what was before him, a Romantic that wrote like a Realist. Those who knew him know that he remained so throughout his life.
I was a student in the Ateneo de Davao (Deriada’s alma mater) when I first read his fiction, and I came to know his work well enough to make my undergraduate thesis about his stories. I was even audacious enough to send him a copy.
To my shock he replied, and finally, on the year I graduated, I got the chance to meet him in Davao.
Of course I had heard rumurs about how savage a panellist this man was in writers workshops. But when we met, Sir Leo (as I came to call him) said my thesis was already good enough to be a doctorate dissertation. I was flattered not by the praise, but by the fact that a writer notorious for telling kids my age to “go back to their province and plant camote” had praised me.
During our conversations he once recounted how, while he was still teaching in Nabunturan, he sent a short story to Philippines Graphic, but it was rejected because the editor, Nick Joaquin, had no idea where Nabunturan was. When he sent the same story after he returned to Davao (he had been hired by Ateneo), Joaquin published it.
This was Sir Leo’s first brush with Manila Imperialism, and the beginning of his decades-long advocacy asserting the regional identities in Philippine nation-building.
His body of works about Mindanao always had a strong local character to it, but Deriada’s greatest legacy to the country and to the world has been his work birthing the literatures of Western Visayas.
After teaching for some years in Davao, Deriada moved to Dumaguete to teach in Silliman University, and from there to his motherland of Iloilo in the 1990s, becoming professor emeritus in UP Visayas. In Iloilo he spent the rest of his life encouraging and mentoring young writers in Panay to write in their mother tongues, radicalizing them into believing their languages not only had dignity, but also beauty.
“There is no such thing as a superior language,” he told young writers in Kinaray-a, a severely marginalized language. “No one can give power and dignity to your language except you.”
The result of his decades of work was the birth of literature in Kinaray-a and Akeanon. Deriada is perhaps the only person in history to singlehandedly stimulate the entire literatures of two languages into existence.
He will live on, as his Mindanao lives on, in the dozens of stories he had spent his life writing. He will live on in every letter that will be written in Kinaray-a and Akeanon, and in every word written by the entire generation of writers whose careers started with his prodding.
The epithet “Father of Western Visayan Literature” does not do justice to the scale of Deriada’s impact. While the literary gatekeepers in Manila were squabbling over whether the next National Artist should be a writer in English or Tagalog, he was busy birthing entire literatures in the Visayas while writing his stories set in Mindanao. He also had a lot to say about the National language. Sir Leo was an ardent believer in Filipino, but he rightly pointed out that it was still almost entirely Tagalog and grossly excluding of other Philippine languages. His emphasis was on the need to “nationalize” and “de-Tagalize” it, by encouraging the further permeation of regional languages into Tagalog (the resulting deliberate language contact I call “Deriadan Filipino”).
I originally followed this stance (I did my master’s thesis in Silliman on Davao Tagalog saying this. Sir Leo sat as part of the panel). But all literary disciples must outgrow their mentors, and I realized that Filipino will always be Tagalog. What Sir Leo’s project would accomplish was not the “nationalization” of Filipino, but the creation of localized Tagalog hybrids. I have since advocated instead for multilingualism and the legitimization of these hybrids.
I wish I found the time to share these thoughts—these improvements on his ideology—with him, perhaps even winning him over (as someone who wrote in six languages he might have agreed).
I had hoped, too, that he saw me come out with my own book, or that I fulfilled his wish of seeing “a Tagalog winning an award in a regional language.” I wish I could have personally congratulated him on what must have been his 20th Palanca (his first in Cebuano) last year. I wish I had the chance to talk to him about encouraging the Aetas to start writing, too.
I knew him well from his stories, but I wish I knew him more personally.
According to his daughter Dulce, among his last words had been to declare that he “would live to a hundred.”
He was wrong.
Because Leoncio Deriada will live on in the hearts of the many who knew him and held him dear. He will live on, as his Mindanao lives on, in the dozens of stories he had spent his life writing. He will live on in every letter that will be written in Kinaray-a and Akeanon, and in every word written by the entire generation of writers whose careers started with his prodding.
Leoncio Deriada was probably the only truly national writer we have had in living memory, and he will live on in this nation that he helped imagine.
The author, one of Leoncio Deriada’s literary protégées, is from Kidapawan, North Cotabato. He has a Palanca and a Nick Joaquin Literary Award, and writes in English and Davao Tagalog.