Edel Garcellano, poet, critic, novelist, teacher, passed away on April 23, at the age of 73.
I first met Edel in 1990, right after I graduated from the University of the Philippines at Diliman and applied for a job as an Instructor at the Department of English and Comparative Literature.
As an undergraduate, I had many excellent, inspiring teachers—Franz Arcellana, Amelia Bonifacio, NVM Gonzalez, Nieves Epistola, Winifred Evangelista, Wilhelmina Ramos, Pacita Fernandez, Sylvia Ventura, Yolanda Tomeldan, among others—who trained me in the art of reading, writing, and research.
In those days, literary studies was largely New Critical, formalist in spirit, orientation, and method. English majors studied the classics and engaged in “close reading” of literary works. My concentration was “Imaginative Writing,” not “Creative Writing” (don’t ask me what’s the difference). We read novels, plays, and poems, not “texts.” We worked on “analyses”, not “critiques.”
The education was not entirely (neo-)colonial. Our solid grounding in English and American literature (no problem acing the GRE Literature in English test when the time came to apply for graduate school in America) was complemented by language-training in Spanish, French, and Chinese and by coursework in Philippine, European, and Asian literature. Few of the courses at UP were being taught in Filipino, though, and there were no courses specifically devoted to Southeast Asian, Latin American, and African literature.
Encountering Edel came as a shock, intellectually and otherwise. With his leonine features, polemical style of talking and writing, and unfailing sense of humor, Edel was charismatic, funny, and provocative. Unflinching and unrelenting in his pursuit of a point of fact or argument, he embodied a critical stance that I had only come across in the pages of La Solidaridad and the Philippine Collegian, in the loose-leafed Xerox copies of essays, pamphlets, and little red books that our Social Science II instructors surreptitiously circulated among select students, and in the mimeographed manifestos and statements issued at rallies and demonstrations.
I entered UP in the heady aftermath of the People’s Power Revolution in 1986. Over the next six years, the euphoria of toppling the Marcos dictatorship slowly bled out as dynastic names dominated the election rosters, activists like Lean Alejandro and Rolando Olalia were killed and protesting farmers massacred in Mendiola, members of the Armed Forces repeatedly plotted and staged coups d’etat, poverty remained prevalent, the government elected not to repudiate the gargantuan foreign debt and instead cut social spending, agrarian reform ran aground, business was crippled by power outages, and natural disasters (typhoons and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo) took their heavy toll on communities and livelihoods.
Edel helped me make sense of these unfolding crises. Some of the English department’s junior faculty began gravitating toward Edel and gathering at his office at the Faculty Center to form a kapatiran of sorts. The office, room 1027, was meant for all of the department lecturers, but for us junior faculty, it was quickly known as “Edel’s office” or, simply, “FC 1027.”
I was part of a group that included people like Felicidad “Bliss” Cua Lim, poet and film critic and scholar now based in the University of California at Irvine; Antonio “Tonchi” Tinio, activist and former national chairperson of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers who has represented the ACT Teachers Partylist at the 15th, 16th, and 17th Kongreso ng Pilipinas; Patricia “Pat” Arinto, former Dean of the Faculty of Education of the UP Open University and now Dean of the University of the Philippines-Visayas’ Tacloban College; Lila Ramos-Shahani, former Secretary-General of UNESCO National Commission of the Philippines; Anne Marie “Nana” Mabilangan (Ozaeta), Editor-in-Chief of FOOD Magazine; and Maria Theresa “Tess” Dizon (De Vega), currently Philippine Ambassador to Germany.
Through Edel, I was introduced to Neferti Tadiar (one of the Philippines’ foremost literary critics, now at Barnard College), Luisa Mallari (Hall) (before she went to the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia to conduct her now-classic comparative study of Tagalog and Malaysian novels; a plane crash cut short the life of one of our country’s pioneering Southeast Asianists), and soft-spoken but redoubtable revolutionary Monico Atienza.
We were joined by the Filipino-American scholar John “Jody” Blanco, and would in turn link up with Jaime “Bing” Biron Polo, who was then with the Department of Anthropology, and Patrick Flores of the Department of Art Studies to form the Critical Forum.
Edel “was the real heart and soul” (as Jody puts it) of the Critical Forum’s project of “bringing together scholars, artists (in literature, film, and the performing arts), journalists, and cultural workers to engage in dialogues over social and cultural issues.”
We met to discuss books and ideas, debate the issues of the day, hang out between and after classes, and dream up ways to criticize, perhaps even disrupt, what we saw as the reactionary complacency of our field and the institutional practices of reading, writing, teaching, and working in academia more generally that underpinned it. We read Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Etienne Balibar, Marx and Engels, Jacques Lacan, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Julia Kristeva, and Helene Cixous with the same appreciative but critical eye as Edel did. My M.A. teachers Preachy Legasto, Helen Lopez, and Jing Hidalgo expanded my reading list by recommending books on feminism, ethnic studies, and postcolonial studies.
People remember Edel for many things.
There was Edel’s coruscating wit, for one. Of classes at UP, he once complained that “There should be paper reading every week dito pero wala kang maapuhap. Ang paper lang dito yung panglinis ng puwet.” (“Isang Panayam”*). In one giyera patani, he said of his adversary that “He has not lost mind, really, only–alas–his teeth” (“Part One: If Dumbo Could Write, He Would Have Written Thus”*).
Edel, too, was known for his trenchant analyses of, and principled interventions in, issues ranging from the EDSA “Drama” (as Edel calls it) to the Second Great Rectification Movement of 1992 within the Communist Party of the Philippines; from the possibilities and limits of Filipino feminist and progressive writing to the reigning cult of the author, the literary award, and literary barkada; from the nativist and anti-theory turn in Philippine scholarship to the importance, but also pitfalls, of academic konfrontasi between progressive intellectuals, on the one hand, and writers, artists, academics and media practitioners, on the other hand, who, as Edel put it, “have arrogated upon themselves this privileged slot in the so-called ‘command post’ of civil society” (“The Silence of the Lambs”*).
To me, however, Edel was the consummate listener. I have a clear image still of Edel sitting quietly, head slightly bent down and forward, listening intently, intervening very infrequently to ask brief but pointed questions that forced the speaker to clarify her ill-conceived thoughts, reconsider the ideological position that grounds her thinking and action, and attend to the gaps and silences that riddle her own agenda.
Edel defied the basic assumptions that inform our commonsensical ideas of the critic as teacher, ideas of the teacher as an unchallenged authority, fountain of truth and wisdom, and source of one-way learning and transmission of knowledge.
Edel’s idea of pedagogical practice–or more accurately, anti-pedagogy–is revealing for its resolute modesty.
In a 1994 interview with the Philippine Collegian, he said: “Hindi naman ako nakikibaka sa classroom. It’s just that I say what I want to say, according to the logic of my discourse. Pero yung messianic spirit that I will change the kids, wala. In fact, they’re the ones changing me” (“Isang Panayam”*).
He went on to joke that “Ako nga tamad ngayon, kasi tamad ang mga estudyante ko,” but his main point was that he was teaching himself: “So ang nangyayari I do things on my own. Basa na lang ako ng basa.”
Although I didn’t have the privilege of being Edel’s student, the way he talked about what he did in his classes suggests to me that the value of coming into contact with an inspiring teacher like Edel, who changes your way of thinking, perhaps even your way of life, has more to do with the critical stance Edel encouraged his most gifted students to develop on their own, rather than any distinct style or method of teaching, let alone transfer of ideas.
Edel was of a generation that had been radicalized by the political and intellectual ferment of the 1960s and early 1970s, the generation that experienced martial law and was fully aware of the brutality beneath the mask of what Imelda Marcos, shamelessly stealing from the Latin Americans, called the “smiling dictatorship.”
Edel once told me that getting a failing grade of “singko” in class was a badge of honor in the fight against reactionary teachers, the irrelevance of the subject being taught to students, and the bureaucratism, careerism, and self-promotion of academics and artists (including creative writers) who engaged in vicious infighting over the crumbs that the state and private sector deigned to brush off the table.
He was also of that generation of writers, like Nick Joaquin, Gregorio Brillantes, and Kerima Polotan, who, whatever their ideological stripes, honed their skills in journalism and had first-hand experience of the world outside the cloisters of academia. In his time, as he would say in his “Letter to Young Poets,” “[t]he idea of a Ph.D. or master’s in whatever was somewhat preposterous.”
More than critic and writer, Edel was a complex, brilliant man. He was my imagined and real-life interlocutor, the person whose voice echoed in my head whenever I took up book to read and pen to write. Who are we working, writing for? What are the intellectual and political stakes of our research? Who benefits?
There’s much more that I can say about how Edel shaped my thinking, and that of several generations of students, researchers, and activists at UP and the Polytechnic University of the Philippines (where he later taught), how unstinting he remained in his emotional and intellectual support all these years.
But it’s Edel’s voice I keep hearing these past few days, his voice over a cup of coffee at the Katag in the basement of the Faculty Center, sadly burned down in 2016; over iced tea at The Chocolate Kiss on campus; over pasta at the Jorge Vargas Museum. Edel, food, and thought: sustenance.
And his words resonate still, incisive and plangent as ever, in his poems, his masterful novels Ficcion (1978) and Maikling Imbestigasyon ng Isang Mahabang Pangungulila (1990), and his essays.
*”The Silence of the Lambs,” “Isang Panayam,” and “Part One: If Dumbo Could Write, He Would Have Written Thus” appear in Edel Garcellano’s essay collection Interventions: Essays (Quezon City: Polytechnic University of the Philippines, 1998). “Letter to Young Poets” (2016) is from The Works of Edel Garcellano, https://theworksofedelgarcellano.wordpress.com