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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Friday, June 01, 2007

entry arrow12:04 PM | Filipino Women and Literary Silence

This is the first part of the paper I gave in India a few days ago...

A few weeks ago, a Fulbright researcher from the University of California in Berkeley came to visit me in Dumaguete City, where I live and teach, hoping to pick my brains for information to jumpstart her work on making an oral history of contemporary female writers in the Philippines. She wanted an informed rundown of the best (or perhaps celebrated) contemporary women writers in the Philippines, and was intent on improving on existing scholarship that has already canonized the likes of Edith Lopez Tiempo, Paz Marquez Benitez, Angela Manalang Gloria, Kerima Polotan Tuvera and the heralded generation of women writers that came next: among them, Marjorie Evasco, Susan Lara, Merlie Alunan, Elsie Martinez Coscolluela, Ophelia Dimalanta, and others who have become contemporary matriarchs, or if barring that, “the big sisters.” The questions she wanted to answer were: Is there a new generation of female writing in the Philippines? And if there is, is it a considerable number? Who are they? What do they write about?

I felt that I had much to share, and in my inchoate thoughts on the matter, I readily felt I had a long list of female writers whom I admired that I could share with her. One afternoon, we sat down for coffee in one of those beachside cafes in my city, and proceeded to share with her my mental list of young, female, working writers* (Katrina Tuvera, Nikki Alfar, Rica Bolipata-Santos, Kit Kwe, Conchitina Cruz, Ricci Guevara, Naya Valdellon, Mookie Katigbak, Lani Montreal, Migs Villanueva, Janet Villa, Lakambini Sitoy, Anna Felicia Sanchez-Ishikawa, Tara FT Sering, Cel Flores, Jessica Zafra...) -- which turned out to be quite meager, too short for comfort, much to my surprise.

I was surprised because when I do my usual haphazard estimation of Philippine literature as it exists now, I always find myself including a significant number of women writers in my “most admired” list and I have become convinced of an unproved thesis that the future of my country’s literature lies surely in female hands. Which was why it surprised me greatly not to be able to come up with a list that would constitute a veritable river of female writing.

Truth be told, when one searches for female representation in the entirety of modern Philippine literature, one does find significant names here and there, but in the overall, one may have to resort to a kind of grasping for bubbles. For the most part, Filipino women’s writings -- most especially those texts that give voice to the experience of these writers as women -- come far and between. Edna Zapanta-Manlapaz, in her pathbreaking anthology titled Songs of Ourselves: Writings by Filipino Women in English, said as much when she wrote: “The relative absence of women’s writings in Philippine literature in English has not gone unnoticed nor unlamented.”

In an earlier work, Manlapaz has called the problem as a “feminist challenge” to the canon. The poet Marjorie Evasco has also called the sprinkling of women writers in the Philippines as a “subversion of the silence.”

We must take note then that there is this “silence” that seems to describe, in good part, women’s literature in the Philippines. That if we have to tackle any issues of gender as it exists in the Philippines, then a good way to start would be to look into the silence.

But we must take note that silence has not always been the state of things in the literary firmament.

If we go back to the earliest oral literature of my country’s pre-colonial period -- before the Spaniards and the Americans came to our shores in the name of Christianity, colonization, and imperialism -- the chanters of our early tales had no regard for gender. Indeed, many of our singers then were women, some of them babaylanes, or animist priestesses, who acted as conduit between gods and mortals.

Many of the stories they tell are of male mythic heroes -- Lam-ang, Bantugan, Humadapnon -- who go on grand adventures, conquering myriad challenges as well as women with magic, machismo, and exquisite brawn. But that is not always the case.

Two of my favorite pre-colonial tales are the mythical accounts of creation of the Bagobo tribe. First, they tell the story of Tuglibong, the female leader of the mythical beings who first inhabited the earth before the coming of humans. In those olden days, the sky and the sun hovered so low to the ground that the earth was often scorched and could not produce much in terms of harvest and bounty. The mythical beings, too, had to hide in the dark caves and recesses of the earth in order to cool themselves. One day, Tuglibong came out to pound rice with her pestle, and while she went about her task, she scolded the sun and the sky with such eloquent vehemence -- so much so that the sun and the sky had to fly up and up to escape her beautiful nagging. According to the writer Rosario Cruz Lucero, one aspect we can gain from this myth is how “the inhabitable world was created by much scolding and chiding to the rhythm of pestle pounding on mortar.” Oral literature by a woman, in so many words, invented the universe.

The second part of the Bagobo’s creation myth has something to do with Tuglibong’s son Lumabat and her daughter Mebuyan. According to the tale, Lumabat decided that it was time for him and his sister to ascend to the heavens, but Mebuyan -- headstrong from the start -- declined, preferring instead to go to the underworld called Gimokudan. The siblings quarreled, and Mebuyan filled a mortar with rice and then sat on it. It started spinning fast into the ground. Mebuyan sat on the spinning mortar, and started strewing rice grains onto the earth, claiming that each one represents a human life that will go down into Gimokudan with her. In the underworld, a majestic lemon tree stands. Every time Mebuyan shakes this lemon tree, she fulfills her earlier prophecy and somebody on earth dies, and joins her in Gimokudan. Mebuyan’s whole body is soon covered with nipples, on which the spirits of the stillborn and other dead babies suckle until they are old enough to eat rice and also move on to Gimokudan where they can finally join the spirits of dead relatives.

Lucero writes of these Bagobo tales: “With these two creation myths -- Tuglibong’s and Mebuyan’s -- we have an explanation for how the upperworld, the earth, and the underworld came to be. All three layers of the cosmos came about because these two powerful and caring women stood up for themselves and consequently for us, their children, and they stood their ground against whoever would oppress them and us.”

In the very beginning then, women in indigenous Philippine literature had had a significant place: they were the very bearers of creation, and their outspokenness -- which is the very opposite of silence -- was the catalyst with which their world changed, for the better, and for our -- their children’s -- salvation.

*excluding those who write children's fiction and those in the regional languages

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