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Listen to the bamboo whispers

Posted on May 5, 2018 at 1:00 AM

By: Neni Sta. Romana Cruz - @inquirerdotnet Philippine Daily Inquirer / 05:06 AM May 05, 2018

My own personal celebration of National Literature Month was my rather belated discovery of the ambahan, Hanunuo Mangyan poetry, thanks to a coffee table book, “Bamboo Whispers: Poetry of the Mangyans,” published by the Mangyan Heritage Center (MHC) and The Bookmark, Inc. last year.

It is an extraordinary book in many ways. The cover and the title do not carry any authors’ name not because of any oversight. Lolita Delgado Fansler, MHC president and chief book editor, explains that individual authorship is not important to the Mangyans who want their ambahans read and enjoyed by all. So to them the issues of authorship, copyright and plagiarism are irrelevant. They never recorded them on paper but rather inscribed them on the bark of bamboo trees using bolos or knives in their ancient script. The ambahan can run anywhere from three to a hundred lines, but every line is restricted to seven syllables.

The title of the book is beyond being merely lyrical. In her preface, Fansler wrote that the Mangyans were merely responding back in poetry to the bamboo trees whispering in the mountainous area of Mindoro where they lived. Thus, the aptness of the title.

The poems are in two scripts, their original Mangyan script with Filipino, English, and Spanish translations.

It was a foreigner, Dutch SVD missionary Antoon Postma, who was first drawn to the ancient Mangyan script and poetry in the 1960s and lived with them until his death in 2016. After being granted dispensation from priesthood, he married a Mangyan. He and his researchers are credited with recording over 20,000 chanted ambahans, the English translation of over 200 of his favorites published in “Mangyan Treasures.”

Another book, “Nagmamagandang-Loob Po!” by Resti Reyes Pitogo contained ambahans in Filipino, directly translated from the original Hanunuo Mangyan language, and deemed to capture best the Mangyan spirit. This would be the basis for the English translations by Sylvia Mayuga and Marne Kilates for the ambahans in the book.

By a stroke of good luck, Sol Laviña, Spanish poet and wife of then Spanish ambassador Luis Arias, volunteered to translate into Spanish the poetry which charmed her. Her work assiduously continued even from their foreign postings after Manila. Little wonder the book took eight years and many more creative and impassioned individuals to complete.

One cannot but feel special pride about the ancient culture and literacy that have always been a part of Mangyan lives—long before any colonizers came to “tame” the natives. It is pointed out that comparable early types of writing, like that of the American Indians, used pictograms, knots and smoke signals to communicate. Marvel at the Mangyans’ 48 letters in their script. That is Mangyan script that we have seen but not understood on those souvenir bamboo letter openers.

The coffee table book is a handsome though pricey edition encased in a box wrapped in Mangyan weave. A softbound edition is in the works. Meanwhile, Lolita Fansler cannot stop talking Mangyan and ambahan, especially since she discovered the richness of Mangyan culture through her son, Quint Delgado Fansler, then a college graduate assigned to Mindoro as a Jesuit volunteer. Along with Antoon Postma and Fr. Ewald Dinter, another SVD missionary who continues to live with the Mangyans today, they established the MHC. Lolita Fansler is determined to awaken in the next generation of Mangyans interest in continuing the ambahan tradition—the writing, chanting, and reading of it.

It is timely that April is National Poetry Month in the US and poet laureate Tracy K. Smith reminds us why we need poetry in these times: “[for] the meditative state of mind a poem induces…the kind of silence that yields clarity… the way our voices sound when we dip below the decibel level of politics.” Listen then to the bamboos whisper.

Final call for Write Things’ Summer Workshop, a six-day creative writing workshop, is scheduled at Fully Booked BGC on May 7, 9, 11, 14, 16 and 18 (1:30-3:30 p.m. for 8-12 years old and 4-6 p.m. for 13-17 years old). Facilitators are award-winning authors Russell Molina, Mikael de Lara Co, Weng Cahiles, and mainstay facilitator, writer and educator Roel Cruz. The workshop is now on its 5th year. For inquiries and registration, 0945-2273216 /writethingsph@gmail.com.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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