Celebrating the Regions through performative literature

By Ted Aldwin Ong

The 6th iteration of the Iloilo Mega Book Fair will take place from April 27 to 30. I’m planning to set foot at this popular fair for the first time. I only breezed through the previous events considering that I still have titles left untouched on my little bookshelf, comprised of non-fiction, learning materials, and instructional essays on differentiated topics.

My reading list for the past few years has been mostly work-related. Boring topics for a literature buff and a bit distant from the literary genre that is abundant in the Iloilo Mega Book Fair.

The programming at this year’s book fair, however, has an interesting dimension. The organizers announced that ‘performative literature’ will be integrated, which is aligned with the theme “Celebrating the Regions”. Simply put, there will be a live performance based on a literary work or works on top of the usual release of new titles.

Noel Galon de Leon of Kasingkasing Press, one of the institutions that pioneered the Iloilo Mega Book Fair, revealed that they will have the Panay Bukidnon indigenous peoples as the first presentation of performative literature. He explained in an earlier report in this paper that “history will tell us that local literature came from oral traditions that are being listened to because they are long narratives, like epics, and a bit difficult to read.”

Since its inception in November 2018, the Iloilo Mega Book Fair has featured a facet of performative literature in the form of poetry readings, art talks, book discussions, and fora with a panel of speakers. As such, I’m using performative literature and performance art interchangeably to mean a performance as an interpretation of a literary work. Essentially, performative literature is not a new inclusion, but it will emerge as a prominent component of the book fair.

Much of the artistic performance that we have encountered or experienced, like a stage play or dance, somehow has roots in a fiction or non-fiction work and was developed from various literary compositions like a poem, a sonnet, a fable, or folklore.

In the case of the Panay Bukidnon, it is a long narrative called sugidanon, an epic, that is handed down from one generation to the next through oral tradition using archaic Kinaray-a. The spoken words are memorized by leaders or the chief and performed with combined humming and chanting.

The sugidanon is a literary tradition of the Panay Bukidnon indigenous group that reveals their literacy and artistic character. Oral traditions like the sugidanon are described by Ugandan linguist and literary theorist Pio Zirimu as oral literature, coining the term oratures, in his attempt to bring oral literature on the same level as written literature.

Performative literature has become a popular feature in the programming of book fairs in many parts of the globe, making it a social and cultural event. It opens the opportunity for written and oral literature to be developed into a new art form by another set of artists, say, through a theatrical or musical performance.

Earlier this year, performance art was a topic in the talk of Vanini Belarmino at the Iloilo Museum of Contemporary Art. A writer, producer, and independent curator, Belarmino shared her experience of how she mobilized networks to organize various art events in different parts of the world. There were two realizations from her talk. First, performance art can bring together multi-disciplinary artists—writers, painters, musicians, and dancers. It creates a playful artistic collaboration between literature and performance, and their coming together into a singular whole can effectively convey messages or meanings to people from different walks of life.

Second, a live performance is a powerful approach, for it gives imagery to what was written in the books, offering visual cues that appeal to individual experience and sensibilities, even those of passersby.

In the age of social media, images, or visuals, are the queen. Emoticons, hashtags, and social media acronyms are now the lingua franca of the present generation. This is the reason why every printed book is begging for readers and why readers of printed copies are rapidly shrinking. Printed books are competing for attention and screen time as readers shift to digital copies and Facebook.

Arguably, visuals are now the prime locus of today’s sociability, and integrating performance art gives the Iloilo Mega Book Fair greater relevance. There are only two reasons for these conclusions: first, performative literature or performance art serves as a powerful tool that can translate the implied movement expressed in literature into actual motion and visuals; second, performative literature takes on the potent function of visual communication, the most important communication method being used today.

The organizers of the Iloilo Mega Book Fair may have found an antidote to diminishing readers of books in performative literature, and I believe that making it a prominent feature in the programming could further popularize local literature, gather more support in the future, and develop a community of readers.