Reading Carlos P. Romulo as National Artist and Filipino

National Artist for Literature Carlos P. Romulo. / Photograph courtesy of fb/@romulocarlosp

The University of the Philippines (UP) Baguio recently hosted an online event, “Baguio Reads Carlos P. Romulo,” in celebration of the school’s 60th founding anniversary and of National Literature Month.

“Baguio Reads Carlos P. Romulo” is part of the Reading the National Artists series, a project of the National Committee on Literary Arts (NCLA) of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (NCCA).

During the event, which was streamed live on the YouTube account of the UP Baguio Systems and Network Office, two new books were launched: Departures, a collection of essays by Dr. Priscilla Supnet-Macansantos, a newly retired former chancellor of UP Baguio; and Ubod, a compilation of writings from the different regions, edited by NCLA head Dr. Juliet Mallari from Pampanga.

There were also readings of literary pieces. Professor Rachel Pitlongay read the poems Sagada by Allan Carino and Minak by Scott M. Saboy while professor Junley Lazaga read Shifting the Center by Scott M. Saboy and his own poem, Lullaby.

The main event was the lecture of multi-awarded writer Jose “Butch” Dalisay, Jr., professor emeritus at UP Diliman, titled “Re-reading Carlos P. Romulo: The Art of Autobiography.”

Multi-awarded writer Jose ‘Butch’ Dalisay, Jr. discusses the life and works of Carlos P. Romulo. / Screenshot from the event

Standing at 5’4”, Carlos Peña Romulo or CPR (1899-1985) is widely known as the diminutive Filipino statesman whose accomplishments made him look exceedingly tall. He was the first Asian president of the United Nations General Assembly and was also a diplomat, soldier, journalist, and author whose rise to success began at an early age. At 16 years old, he was already a reporter, a newspaper editor at 20, and a publisher at 32. He was also the president of UP from 1962 to 1968 — the role he is said to cherish the most.

CPR was also a National Artist for literature, which Dalisay pointed out, is not known to many, even among Filipino writers. He was given the honor together with director Gerardo de Leon (for Film) by virtue of Presidential Proclamation 2201 series of 1982.

The proclamation reads: “Whereas, the works of Gerardo de Leon and Carlos P. Romulo are reflective of this pre-eminent excellence, and of that national genius that contributes to the artistic heritage of the Philippines and of the world.”

“Now, therefore, I, Ferdinand E. Marcos, President of the Philippines, by virtue of the powers vested in me by law, and upon recommendation of the National Artist Awards Committee and pursuant to Proclamation 1001, as amended, do hereby declare Gerardo de Leon and Carlos P. Romulo as National Artists.”

Admitting that he himself wondered what made CPR worthy of the award, Dalisay said that during the time of CPR, the selection process was not as stringent as it is now which requires peer nomination and peer deliberation, overseen by two national cultural bodies: the NCCA and the Cultural Center of the Philippines.

“There arose therefore the suspicion that CPR was summarily given the National Artist award by Marcos whom he served as foreign minister from 1978 to 1984 as a political favor or reward. And given the way some succeeding presidents — Ramos, Estrada, Macapagal-Arroyo — used presidential prerogatives to reward certain favorites, this may not have been entirely speculative,” Dalisay said.

He then asked: “What exactly should CPR be recognized as a National Artist for Literature for? What can he teach contemporary Filipino writers?”

CPR published 22 books, including one novel (Reunited in 1951) and a book of plays, but they consisted mostly of creative nonfiction— autobiography, biography, and historical reportage — and not fiction. Dalisay said he doubted it was the novel or the book of plays that earned CPR the National Artist award. He proposed it was CPR’s nonfiction reportage which “distinguishes him most strongly as a writer of and about his time, and one of the most articulate chroniclers and propagandists of the Philippine mid-century.”

PARTICIPANTS in the ‘Baguio Reads Carlos P. Romulo’ webinar. / Screenshot from the event

Speaking of CPR’s 1961 biography, I Walked with Heroes, Dalisay said the book “best displays (CPR) as a master of the autobiography,” calling the book a “pleasurable, engaging, and instructive read, written by someone who has a story to tell and knows how to tell it.” He added that while it presents a polished version of himself and his contemporaries, it also allows the reader to “follow a nation in progress, emerging from colonialism to a fragile postwar independence.”

For Dalisay, Romulo’s strongest claim to literary fame is “his ability to interweave the personal with the public — not on the tiny frame of selective memoir but on the wall-sized tapestry of comprehensive autobiography, a diminishing art” in this age of Facebook and Twitter where short is better.

“We are not a nation of novelists, but of short story writers — very good short story writers — but wanting in the vision, the stamina and the discipline to pursue the novel. Those of us in the unusual position of being close to the centers of power and privy to its secrets lack either the literary articulation or moral courage to share what we know,” Dalisay said.

He added: “(CPR) is a master of narrative, and as fastidious as he was about his suits and uniforms, he clearly sought to portray a positive image of himself as the avatar of his people — ‘a small man from a small country’ — for which no autobiographer in his position can be faulted for attempting.”

Having discussed at length CPR’s autobiography and the man’s “dualities — writer and public official, military and civilian, patriotic Filipino and American admirer, academic and activist — which accompany and define Romulo throughout his life,” Dalisay asked: “Are all of these enough to award CPR as National Artist? Did we actually award the work or the man?”

He concluded: “Thankfully for me today, the question has been rendered moot. I would say there is no doubt in my mind that he was a great Filipino which maybe even harder to achieve than becoming a National Artist.”

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