Colonialism and decolonisation: An autobiography – Fellows’ Seminar by Charlie S Veric

26 October 2023

“My career is about surfacing hidden histories, radical remembrance, direct and indirect history, forgetting, silence and invisibility. I, myself, am a victim of historical forgetting. I try to see things differently – to write from a different perspective,” said Charlie Samuya Veric of the Department of English at Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines.

“Based on my book-in-progress titled Forging the Postcolony: Cultural Cold War and the Age of Filipino Decolonization, the presentation provides an overview of a historical project of reconstruction focusing on the putative end of American colonialism in the Pacific and the birth of the postcolonial Philippine Republic in 1946. How does one reckon with the founding of the first postcolony in the world? Using autobiography as an entry point, I narrate how the colonial past catches up with the postcolonial present. In so doing, I hope to demonstrate how the colonial and the postcolonial are not separate phenomena but, rather, are joined at the hip.”

STIAS Fellow Charlie S Veric during his seminar on 19 October 2023

The book will explore what Veric describes as the “strange and surprising convergence of American Cold War design and the rise of Filipino cultural institutions that openly stimulated decolonising dreams while covertly advancing neocolonial interests.”

It will study the making of an anti-communist film Huk in a New Life in 1953, the establishment of the first creative writing workshop in Asia in 1962, the production of the landmark anthology Brown Heritage in 1967, and the formation of an academic department devoted to Philippine Studies in 1970.

“How did a film, a workshop, an anthology, and a department promote decolonisation and steal its potential simultaneously?” asked Veric. “I argue that these forms of social organisations were crucial in advancing Filipino decolonisation while hiding US neocolonial interests in plain sight. I hope to show how the postcolonial condition that resulted from the US grant of independence was a peculiar effect of the covert American appropriation of the historical project of decolonisation.”

The Philippines became a Spanish colonial possession after 1521, up until 1898 when the US arrived and defeated Spain. The Jones Act of 1916 was seen as the first step towards Philippine independence. Independence, however, depended on the territory being able to show stability (a contentious term according to Veric in that “it entailed pacification – a more pacified colony meant a freer postcolony”). The Jones Act was eventually replaced by the passing of the Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934, which guaranteed full independence by 1946.

“It was a different kind of colonisation under the US where freedom and capture became synonymous,” said Veric.

Foregrounding the local

For his seminar, Veric read an excerpt from the book’s introduction recounting personal and academic experiences in Aklan Province on Panay Island where he grew up. “I don’t often talk about myself in my scholarly writing,” he said. “But I see my town, Ibajay, as the ground zero of historical forgetting. There’s no written account of my town’s history. Myths substitute for historical truth. The past is as foreign as it can get, shadowing the present.”

He described three monuments in the town – that of José Rizal – nationalist leader and martyr who was executed by the Spanish in 1896; Manuel L. Quezon who was the first Filipino President of the Commonwealth of the Philippines in 1935; and, Ramon Magsaysay – the seventh president after independence from 1953 who, with US help, ended the Hukbalahap or Huk Rebellion (1946–54), a Communist-led peasant uprising in Central Luzon.

“They stand like watchmen of history. A time capsule out in the open, but unremarked. A form of knowledge waiting to be found,” said Veric. ‘‘They are monuments built by Filipinos, but the American presence is not far behind. They form a triangle of supressed historical knowledge, producing and counterfeiting independence at the same time. They are visible reminders of the past, embodying its interrupted hopes and aspirations.”

“I write about the monuments to foreground an invisible place on the map.”

Institutional change

Veric also highlighted the 1968 student manifesto “Down from the Hill” which shifted the foundations of his own university. It denounced the American orientation of the university for failing to project the image of the Filipino people. Part of the resurgence of radical nationalism in the late 1960s, the manifesto enshrined the Filipino perspective and foregrounded Filipino knowledge. It became a platform for radical self-examination leading to the rector’s resignation and changes to the university structure. “Long before decolonisation became a trend in the United States and elsewhere, it took root on a Filipino campus atop a hill as early as 1968.”

Veric pointed out that the manifesto introduced Filipinisation as a radical project. However, key Filipino intellectuals who advanced it benefitted from American support which they did not openly acknowledge. He argued that US neocolonial interference, as well as the capture of knowledge and of the Filipino postcolonial mind, must be historicised.

He emphasised that Filipinisation is a huge topic whose history is not fully known. “I want to start with the foundations. It’s used widely as a term but its precise meaning is not understood. I’m trying to reconstruct the origins of the term, to begin with a precise understanding so that when we use it, we know what we mean.”

“Understanding our national history is an ongoing project,” he added.

He stressed the challenges including accessing verifiable information. “There is hardly anything on precolonial culture. Very little exists to help us to locate, understand and rewrite history.  It’s an almost impossible task. Locating documents, if they even exist, is hard.”

“I’m dealing with a short span in a long history. I hope others will pick up the rest. This is a collective undertaking with my colleagues and students.”

“I’ve been looking for materials for this new book project since 2018,” he continued. “The catalogues don’t contain everything and are often erroneous. The documents are mostly kept in foreign repositories. Where do you begin?”

None of which is helped by the fact that a major source – the American Historical Collection at the Ateneo – “is run like a US military base.”

“I have to begin with something solid. Words on a page give me some reassurance but written records are scarce. Dealing with the scarcity, the postcolonial scholar needs to be creative.”

During the open forum, he addressed the impact of his studies in the US where he completed his PhD at Yale. “US universities should admit more Filipino students as a form of reparation,” he said. “I was the first Filipino student in the American studies program. I went there intentionally to study the US. To sleep with the enemy, as it were. I’m aware of the contamination but I don’t see it as an obstruction but, rather, as a condition of possibility. There are many contradictions, but they are enabling, not disabling, for me. I’m exposing the contradictions of a largely unwritten history.”

“The US changed me,” he added, “but one could say that I also changed the institution by being there. Yale did not train me to write the history of my country. Presented with the problems of postcolonial historiography when I returned to my country, I had to create new methods. I continue to confound people, which is a source of delight for me.”

He also spoke of the influence of being in South Africa which he first visited in 2018. “South Africa made me see things differently,” he said. “I keep coming back because I’m interested in having a conversation with intellectuals from the Global South in the hope of reorienting scholarship. I see flashes of the future here.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu



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