Photos by Xtian Lozañes

‘Hapo’ and ‘Hapu’: Peter Solis Nery’s “Hiligaynon Revolution” to Making Ilonggo Cool Again

By joseph batcagan

Where do we start talking about Peter Solis Nery?

Should we start with the 20-plus books, the poems, the plays and the screenplays he wrote, many of which won Palancas (to be fair to him, he ain’t the only Ilonggo to win one, by the way) and other awards? How about his acting and directing roles in several local films that you didn’t even know were produced before? Or maybe we need to tackle about how he upstaged noted author Gilda Cordero-Fernandez with “an orange-fur jumpsuit, colored like a quek-quek” during a ceremony (and which I’m pretty sure she made in jest)?

The man already has a foundation named after him, for God’s sake. Last time I checked, only famous people in the West, corporations looking for tax breaks, and Donald Trump have foundations named after them. And of course, it also needs to be said that you have to have massive balls to even consider naming a foundation after you.

For people who may have a vague awareness of what Nery’s reputation is, I’m basically confirming it: yes, the guy just attracts attention wherever he goes. And talk about commanding a room; the entire café—that is, both the customers and servers—gradually went silent the longer we conducted the interview, letting Nery’s chatter overwhelm theirs by force and leaving them with no choice but to listen to every word he was spitting out.

Peter Solis Nery - Project Iloilo
Photos by Xtian Lozañes

Nery’s involvement in a few publicity-grabbing events—the (planned, but aborted) “naked protest” at the front of the Old Iloilo Provincial Capitol, his implication during the height of ‘Task Force: Adam’s Apple’—can be read as indictments on Iloilo’s conservatism, but we accept it because Iloilo City loves its intriga. However, what galls his critics more, at least according to him, is his self-appointed role as the “champion of Hiligaynon” (which the header on his website announces quite prominently).

“I try to revolutionize Hiligaynon. But since I am not an academician, indi nila ako pagpamatian [they won’t listen to me],” Nery lamented.
“They” refer to the local literary authorities that Nery’s been butting heads against ever since he started his writing career. And well, the criticism has basis, after all: in a Malaya profile published in 2012, it said, “The irony is that Peter Solis Nery had earned degrees and diplomas in various fields—biology, philosophy, nursing and education—but not one in writing.”

He was a layman missionary in Macau, a bar “comedian” who performed poetry, a US-registered nurse, a candidate who ran for a government position in the 2001 elections in his native Dumangas without ever aligning to a single party (spoiler alert: he lost); he seemed to have dabbled in everything. However, he learned writing—as did most of us who have experienced pondering about re-reading a status we would be posting if it “sounds right”—by instinct. He was never even awarded an honorary degree for literature despite his crap-load of Palancas.

Kagamay lang actually sang readership naton sa Hiligaynon. Tapos mga pasosyal man ini ang mga Ilonggos (nga) indi man sila magbasa sang Hiligaynon!

In a way, he’s like most young Ilonggos of this generation: he’s forced to wear many hats not just because he felt like it, but because it’s just praktikal.
Ti kay wala kuwarta mo [Because there’s no money],” he laughs when recalling the time he took up Nursing. “I mean, I enjoy my notoriety and thing, pero wala guid ya nadula sa ulo ko nga [it did not leave my mind that] I was just a bum.”

This, coming from a man who co-founded the influential Ilonggo tabloid The News Today and the short-lived Pierre magazine. Why would he do otherwise? We even have doctors and lawyers abandoning much more plum positions in the Philippines to migrate overseas. Ironically, even when Nery started working as a nurse, his artistic output was still getting recognized, as evidenced by his ‘Do More’ Awards nomination for Rappler in 2013.

His move to the US effectively cauterized the 2016 version Nery being interviewed for this piece; after marrying an American man in 2008, he reflects in one of his writings for the Iloilo Metropolitan Times: “I did not believe in gay marriage until my gay husband died. Sure, I married a gay man. And sure, we were in love, and such love was even extended to how much we cared for the world, and fought for causes that were almost considered lost… But when my husband died, I was grateful that America, and the states of California and Maryland especially, recognized our gay marriage.”

For perhaps the first time, he was aware of his political and social power as a gay man. Of course, it also helped that he attained some sort of “respectability” from his peers back home in the Philippines because of the fact that… well, he’s a married gay man.

He compares the experiences of the gay men he befriends in Iloilo to his own experiences: “Ang mga agi diri daan sa Pilipinas, ang mga target nila mga (snorts) ‘straight men’ supposedly having sex with gay people, ti amo na eh, guinabayaan permi! Daw masubo na nga sitwasyon,” he says.

[Gays here in the Philippines who often targeted ‘straight men’ supposedly having sex with gay people, they usually get left behind! It’s a sad situation.]

Ti kay ako ya, kay married na ako, daw wala na ako maghuya nga (magpabalo) nga I’m gay,” he stresses.

[As for me, since I’m already married, I have no qualms letting everyone know I’m gay.]

It bears mentioning that it’s ridiculously hard—not to mention dangerous—to be a gay rights activist in a Philippines that’s still influenced by conservative Christianity. On the other hand, he’s also waging another battle on a more aesthetic front: the Hiligaynon language.

Peter Solis Nery - Project Iloilo
Photos by Xtian Lozañes

Kagamay lang actually sang readership naton sa Hiligaynon. Tapos mga pasosyal man ini ang mga Ilonggos (nga) indi man sila magbasa sang Hiligaynon! Sin-o guid ini ang gabasa sang Hiligaynon kung gabakal ka libro?

[There’s a low readership in Hiligaynon. And then these Ilonggos who want to seem classy that they won’t even read Hiligaynon! Who else reads Hiligaynon when you buy a book?]

The most likely, and infinitely more depressing, answer: almost no one. If there was a sizable audience for Hiligaynon literature, calls-to-action like this one wouldn’t have been published in Project Iloilo in the first place. Winning a Palanca might be nice, but it’s just gravy without the meat; at the most, it would simply provide a good boost to a local author’s social reputation (and, I’d imagine, ego, too).

Considering that Nery counts legendary Hiligaynon author Leoncio Deriada as one of his influences, it makes total sense that he referred to himself as a “traditionalist”. However, he still chafes against the eternal disconnect between what most local writers aspire to write and what potential readers would like to read: “Kay ngaa magsulat ko ya para sa lima sa inyo? Maubra ako sang nami-nami nga libro, kag ipa-translate mo ina para makadaog ka sang Nobel Prize,” he exclaims.

[Why would I write for only the five of you? I will write a very good book, and then have it translated so you can win a Nobel Prize!]

That isn’t his only qualm with the local literary scene: his “Hiligaynon revolution” also includes updating the alphabet from 20 to 28 and eliminating the use of diacritics in written Hiligaynon words like ‘dirí’ or ‘sadtó’ (notice the fancy stresses?); amazingly, both are still observed by the literary cognoscenti. Imagine how many MS Word shortcuts you’d have to memorize with those.

Peter Solis Nery - Project Iloilo
Photos by Xtian Lozañes

Take, for instance, the Hiligaynon word gasp, “hapo”, which Nery used as a prime example for differentiating common words between noun and verb: “May spelling ako nga guina-advocate. Ang ‘o’ kag ang ‘e’, those are, like, Spanish influences. So ang ‘hapo’, do you spell that with the ‘o’ or the ‘u’ (at the end)? Para sa akon, mangin ‘u’ ina. Hapu!

[Here’s a spelling I advocate: ‘o’ and ‘e’, those are, like, Spanish influences. So, with ‘hapo’, do you spell that with the ‘o’ or the ‘u’ at the end? For me, it should be ‘u’. Hapu!]

All of these may sound heady for one who’s into the evolution of Hiligaynon, but for the rest who could care less about checking the correct spelling for words like ‘kaon’, it can be exhausting. With that said, how were we to know that a curriculum of local education is dependent on the vicious battles waged between Nery and the Ilonggo academe?

Kadako sang kontrahun [There’s a lot to go against], I’m telling you,” Nery says. “I’m studying videos, I’m trying to be a linguist because these people in the academe don’t want me to start the Hiligaynon revolution because the idea did not come from them! Kung indi sila ang promotor, kontrahun nila [If they didn’t promote it, they’ll go against it].”

It’s one person going against the establishment. An easily written romantic narrative. A very writerly struggle, even. Nery may be palaban, but drama has its limits, too.

Ngaa magpatyanay guid kita sang sugo sina nga makaintindihanay man kita [Why are we killing each other ordering what’s right when we can just understand each other]? Language is communication!”

I’m not here to please the veteran writers and to subscribe to their f**king 20-letter alphabet.

Nery really is a writer made for these times. He may not be reading the latest Koreanovela-inspired stories in Wattpad, but he’s in-deep studying flash fiction since he believes the form is the best way to encourage kids to write. His ‘Peter’s Prize’ literary contests, on the other hand, selects judges that aren’t composed of literary academicians; he explains, “Bisan chef (ang isa ka judge), pero consumer of literature siya, feeling ko may say siya kung what is worth and what is not worth to be called literature.”

[Even if a chef, who is a consumer of literature, will be chosen as a judge, I feel that person has a say in what is worth and what is not worth to be called literature.]

If it seems that he’s hell-bent on iconoclasm, what else would you expect from a writer who describes his position as that of “inclusion”?

Of course, he’s still got reservations: “I’m not here to please the veteran writers and to subscribe to their f**king 20-letter alphabet.”

The revolution continues for the meantime.

Update: The previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Nery ran for office in the 2010 elections. He ran during the 2001 elections. The article has been updated.

Joseph Batcagan is the editor and a writer for Project Iloilo.