Contributed photo of Dr Anthony Tan. 

By Eunice Baliong

“What is the relevance of say, Shakespeare, to an engineering student who is trying to build a bridge?” asked two-time Palanca awardee (for essay and poetry) Dr Anthony Tan as he began his talk in “Why Literature Matters: A Literary Forum.”

His talk formed part of Xavier Ateneo’s celebration of National Literature Month which culminated in events spearheaded by the Department of English Language and Literature (DELL), namely, “Why Literature Matters: A Literary Forum” and “Balaki Ko: Poetry Reading.” Both events were slated on Friday, April 28 at the XU Little Theater.

And who better to grace the occasion than one of Mindanao’s most prolific writers and poets?

Tan earned his MA in Creative Writing and PhD in English from Siliiman University, where he also taught for more than a decade. He also chaired the English Department of Mindanao State University - Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT) and was a regular panelist in several writing workshops, such as the Silliman National Summer Writers Workshop, Iligan National Writers Workshop, and Dumaguete National Writers Workshop.

Many of Tan’s works have been widely published both locally and abroad such as the prestigious Atlanta Preview and Manoa, the literary journal of the University of Hawai’i. He was also listed in the Encyclopedia of Philippine Arts and Artists for his significant contribution to the Philippine literary scene, as he has authored two book poems, “The Badjao Cemetery and Other Poems” and “Poems for Muddas.”

Tan also won two Focus Philippines Awards in Poetry from HomeLife magazine and the most coveted Palanca Awards in essay and poetry.

To answer the question he posed at the start of his talk, the master poet cited five major points:

(1) Literature matters because it is timeless. He mentioned the Epic of Gilgamesh, considered to be the first epic poem as an example. It is astounding that a literary piece dating way back to 2,500 BCE, a period when literature appeared in the form of clay tablets, managed to transcend time as the Epic of Gilgamesh is still readily available today in hardbounds and paperbacks for readers’ consumption.

(2) Literature matters because it is universal. Here, Tan cited the Bible as “one of the most significant pieces of literature that has influenced and shaped Western civilization, the tragedies of the Greeks, and the philosophical premises of the great philosophers.” He argued that though the Bible was written about the Jews, by the Jews, and for the Jews, its appeal, however, is not limited to the Jews alone. He mentioned Ruth’s tale in the Old Testament, a story of love and fidelity — themes which are definitely relatable to all people regardless of culture and race. Not one who hesitates to make a joke or two, Tan humorously added that Ruth’s famous lines to her mother-in-law, Naomi, were the first “hugot lines” of the Bible.

(3) Literature matters because it is transcendent. “Literature goes beyond boundaries, crosses over to other disciplines,” Tan shared. He argued that though literature was originally intended as art and a form of entertainment, people read it as religion, philosophy, politics, linguistics, psychology, and pedagogy. Calling on the many different perspectives and slants on literary criticism such as Marxism, Feminism, and Structuralism, among other theories, Tan showed the many areas by which literature could be read and interpreted.

Tan also highlighted that transcendence may also mean that a truly significant literature, though it may be written in one country, will cross-over to other people. “Underneath the color of our skin, the fiber of our hair, and the slant of our eyes, we are all human beings and we belong to one human race,” he said.

(4) Literature matters because it teaches and entertains. Tan quoted Horace in Ars Poetica, to prove his point: “Literature has a dual function: to instruct and to delight. Next to food, shelter, and sex, these are the two activities all men want to do — to know and to entertain or be entertained.”

(5) Lastly, for Tan, literature matters because it is a friend to man. The writer became more personal in this part of the talk. He mentioned many friends and literary journeys he took, none of which would be possible without the common love for literature that he shared with his circle of publishers and authors. He also cited the experiences of the writer Ernest Hemingway, and of the many relationships and friendships that the writer formed through literary interactions.

LITERATURE MATTERS. From left to right: Xavier Ateneo English faculty members Ann-Catherine Acenas and Christine Faith Gumalal; forum speaker Dr Anthony Tan; literary scholars Dr Maria Luisa Saministrado and Aimee Faunillan-Abella; and XU English Department chairman Dr Ferdinand Cantular. Contributed photo.

Alongside Tan, literary scholars of Xavier University also presented their literary works and criticisms.

Aimee Faunillan-Abella presented her masters’ thesis, “Counter Memory Strategies in Arlene Chai’s Historiographic Metafiction,” which showed the connections between Chai’s novel and the Marcos years.

Dr Maria Luisa Saministrado also read “The Female Archetype in 19th Century Fiction,” a criticism on Kate Chopin’s novel, “The Awakening,” in which she stressed the 19th century women’s plight for individuality and equality.

When asked how he encourages his students to read more, Tan jested that he just presents them with his reading list and tells them that once they manage to read at least one of his recommendations, they’ll “feel more superior” than their peers. ∎