Why should I write about labor unions and their struggle? Because a writer is also a worker. He writes stories, for example, and sells them or tries to sell them. They are products of his brain. They are commodities. Then again, a writer is also a citizen; and as citizen he must safeguard his civil rights and liberties. Life is a collective work and also a social reality. Therefore the writer must participate with his fellow man in the struggle to protect, to brighten, to fulfill life. Otherwise he has no meaning – a nothing.
Now culture being a social product, I firmly believe that any work of art should have a social function – to beautify, to glorify, to dignify man. This assertion has always been true, and it applies to all social systems. But always art is in the hands of the dominant class – which wields its power to perpetuate its supremacy and existence. Since any social system is forced to change to another by concrete economic forces, its art changes also to be recharged, reshaped, and revitalized by the new conditions. Thus, if the writer has any significance, it should write about the world in which he lives: interpret his time and envision the future through his knowledge of historical reality.
And these are times that demand of the writer to declare his positive stand – his supreme sacrifice – on the question of war or peace, life or death. The writer who sides with and gives his voice to democracy and progress is a real writer, because he writes to protect man and restore his dignity. He writes so that this will be a world of mutual cooperation, mutual protection, mutual love; so that darkness, ignorance, brutality, exploitation of man by another, and deceit will be purged from the face of the earth.
A writer should be political also. Government or states are always in the hands of the ruling classes, and so long as there are states, there are also tyrannies. In a bourgeois state, under capitalism or imperialism, the tyranny is against the working class, against the majority…
Filipino writers in the Philippines have a great task ahead of them, but also a great future. The field is wide and open. They should rewrite everything written about the Philippines and the Filipino people from the materialist, dialectical point of view – this being the only
The making of a genuine artist or writer is not mysterious. It is not the work of Divine Providence. Social conditions, history, and the people’s struggle are the factors behind it. My making as a writer and poet is not mysterious, neither was I gifted by an unknown power. It was hard work and hard living. Suffering, loneliness, pain, hunger, hate, joy, happiness, pity, compassion – all these factors made me a writer. Plus, of course, my tenderness, my affection toward everything that lives. Plus, again, my participation in the people’s fight for peace and democracy.
I did not know any writer until I had three books published. Some writers are reluctant to [reveal] which writers influenced them. I probably read most of the greatest novels, plays, short stories, poetry of many nations, but those who influenced me most are Americans, French, and Russians. In particular, Balzac, Jack London, and Maxim Gorky. But mostly Gorky in the novel and the drama. Nicolas Guillen and Pablo Neruda in poetry, and the Marxists in literary criticism. If you have ever lived in one of the slums of the U.S., I know you would also be influenced by it. I lived in the slums of Los Angeles, and I never escaped its terrors, its soul-sickening atmosphere…
I don’t care what some writers in the Philippines think of me. That is their privilege. But I care what they write, for or against war, for or against life.
Originally published in Midweek (July 27, 1988): 30-31 [From a letter dated January 17, 1955]. Transcribed from On Becoming Filipino (Edited by E. San Juan Jr.) (April 1995): 115-123.