Why I Write in My Native Tongue: Ilokano

It was almost an accident. I went back to my home province after college graduation. Then I met a friend of mine. He is older than I and he used to be a pastor. But he encouraged me to attend a meeting of writers in our province. I tagged along and attended a couple of meetings.

I didn’t really expect that anything would come out of it. They had self-published books containing poetry and short stories in our native tongue–Ilokano.

I could read my Ilokano Bible well enough and speak the language well enough but I did not have the skills needed to craft beautiful sentences in Ilokano. My education was thoroughly national–with Tagalog and English really dominating my communication skills.

Back in College, I took several English classes as my cognates. I took 3 units of Introductory Poetry and 3 more units of Business English. These weren’t really enough to bring my English writing skills through the roof. But I compensated by reading a lot, writing a bit, and joining our college newsletter as a contributor.

I have written some poetry that may or may not have shown some promise. At least it was included in the Literary Folio of our college.

But writing in Ilokano? Man, the prospect of doing it scared me!

After joining the meetings of the group several times, I finally gathered enough courage to write poetry again–but not in Ilokano, at least not right away. I would write a poem in English first, then translate it to Ilokano. It was slow going.

Writing in Ilokano, I found out, helped me connect with my roots.

I was born in the North, I spoke Ilokano when I was a kid. I listened to Ilokano radio drama and listened to the stories of my grandparents in this language. There’s a certain musical rhythm that grounds you in place when you reconnect with your native tongue.

After writing several poems and asking the help of my friends in editing and refining my pieces, I finally felt like I could submit one poem to Bannawag, the long-running Ilokano magazine in the country. My first two or so submissions probably didn’t get published.

Meanwhile, I tried searching for jobs in my home town–jobs that could sustain me and the life I wanted in the province. Too bad, it didn’t work. So by mid-2006, I found myself going back to Manila, swallowing my pride and applying for call center jobs. (But that’s another story, if you want to read that story, click here).

The first Ilokano poem I ever published was in 2006. Thankfully, one of their younger editors connected with me online and encouraged me to write more and submit more works to the
magazine.

Writing poetry in Ilokano provided me a creative outlet.

I was so full of angst at work because of the stress. Then, add to that my quarterlife crisis–I didn’t know what I really wanted to do and I was seeking desperately for that sense of mission. Without poetry, I would have found other, probably more destructive, ways of expression my angst.

Bannawag magazine is probably the longest running vernacular magazine in the Philippines. It is published in the Ilokano language.

Writing Ilokano poetry, and then later short stories, helped me locate myself in our society.

I was the young Ilokano lost in the city, an Ilokano millennial caught in the riptides of a global culture eroding local cultures, the restless heart that didn’t quite know what home was and where my cultural identity lie. I was probably one of the youngest Ilokano poets then. And I explored themes of alienation, identity, culture. It sounds more deep and profound than it really was.

What I really did was explore my emotions, my experiences, and how I was making sense of my world. Writing in Ilokano gave shape to that vague stirring of a writer within me.

Since that first poem in 2006, I have published many more poems and short stories all in Ilokano. I don’t have formal training and right now, as an Ilokano/Filipino living in the USA, I haven’t been writing as much as I want to. Maybe I have exhausted that first burst of creativity.

Maybe I need to publish a poetry collection soon and then explore other topics and themes. I counted the number of poems I have written and published–it’s more than 50 now. I have noticed that my topics and themes have started to appear again in different poems.

So I decided to be silent for a while. Most of my writings since 2013 has been focused on nonfiction and faith-related writing. I have published 3 nonfiction books and I keep 2 blogs right now. I still write for Bannawag magazine but I have rarely published poems in the past two years.

It’s probably time to refocus and start writing poetry and fiction again.

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