LETTERS FROM THE OUTLANDS
BY LAKAMBINI A. SITOY
So, after a lapse of four years, I find myself writing a column again for The Manila Times. I’m greatly excited to be once more part of the life of this newspaper, with its long history and storied past, for which I anonymously wrote editorials for a span of time, and where my columnist colleagues and I sought to test the limits of free speech in certain ways, back in 2000 to 2001.
I am more cautious today, not just because I am older, but because greater responsibility is required in the internet age. These days, anything can be flashed around the world a second after it is completed: by the writer and, potentially, an army of supporters and detractors. (Though in reality, these would be one’s friends and un-friends with an internet connection and little to do on a weekday morning, half of whom the writer has never personally met). One does not really write commentaries nowadays. In place of “write” are a few new verbs: one links, forwards, “likes”, tweets.
In the past, we wrote to earn the kudos of our friends and relations. It was all we could hope for. Now the potential audience is limitless, a situation that demands greater precision in terms of language, and responsibility in the matter of content. An off-hand jab some columnist might have made in the 90s at some foreign nationality or socio-economic group might today be considered racist and unconscionable, cause for a host of letters demanding his/her removal.
When I started freelancing 15 years ago, I would have to make a run down to the magazine stand to buy as many copies as I could afford before they got sold out. Once an issue was sold, it was gone, just like the movies that came to town, played for three days at the local cinema, and were lost forever. Now nothing you ever write is lost. It stays in a corner of a hard drive somewhere, waiting to be dug up and released years later, for all the world to pick apart.
That is, if anyone cares enough for your humble little opinion. Because cyberspace offers everyone the opportunity of democratic expression, few people care all that much what you think, how you said it, and whether you said it first. Most everyone, it seems, are too concerned with how to present their own thoughts in as clever a way as they can. So there can be a paradoxical safety in today’s ocean of words.
Other things have changed. Due to the immediacy of today’s news, “scoops” are a thing of the past. Moreover, with columns immediately replicated on Facebook, in blogs, in other online newspapers—replicated and derived from—one has to rethink what is meant by ownership of ideas.
However, there has been an upside to this convivial intercourse of thoughts. The arrogance that marked the first voices coming out of the desktop-publishing 90s has largely vanished. As the neutral “link to” and “forward” have come to be the main methods of exposition, so have “rants” and “dissing” become pointless, obscure. Or so I hope.
So now one writes without the cozy sense of self-importance that marked many a journalist in my formative years: the notion that you could be welcomed anywhere as long as you flashed your press card, the knowledge that, in a gathering of strangers, at least one person would have seen your face in the paper and rejoice at having met such a distinguished writerly personage. Bloggers of all persuasions have shown that regular people can be as razor-sharp, witty and filled with inspiration as those who have been vetted by the editorial board of an ink-and-newsprint publication.
As one among the Times’ pool of writers I thought of myself as a faithful workhorse, endeavoring to produce an editorial in time for a deadline and, a day or so later, a column that would be printed beside the blandly smiling photograph that gave no hint of the ordeal of composing it. Thus I strove to put out uniformly high quality stuff not just for the sake of the newspaper but also for my own reputation—to build up a fanbase, so to speak. That goal is tough to reach nowadays. There is so much frenetic commentary out there, not all of it responsible—and in consequence, much of it rather exciting. How can anyone compete?
So here I find myself, essaying a task that in the span of little more than a decade has already become traditional. But I have been invited, and now feel motivated. I bring to my writing some of the insights (or baggage, if you like), acquired from living and studying in northern Europe: an awareness that I cannot really speak for all; a hesitance to judge; a desire to empathize; a habit of self-contradiction; and a dislike of rabble-rousing language. I try, self-consciously, to be broadminded, aware that in the worst case scenario, this could lead to paralysis. I’ll do my best, nonetheless.
Lakambini Sitoy is an award-winning Filipino author who currently lives in Denmark.
This column originally appeared in The Manila Times, print and internet editions, 14 September 2010.