Saturday, March 25, 2017

Women and My Writing by Cecilia Brainard #literature #Philippines #CebuLitFest

I wrote this in 2014 ~ Cecilia Brainard

Women and My Writing

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

I’ve been writing and publishing for many years now. It wasn’t easy navigating this road then as well as now. I was never sure if the difficulties were because I’m a woman and a “minority” working in California, but it’s always been a struggle. It’s a challenge to write a good story, it’s another hurdle to get that published, and still another to get good reviews. I’m not complaining because I’ve realized that I could not have done something else; writing is my gift. In fact I feel fortunate that I have this ability as well as the opportunities to get my work published. It’s also gratifying to have earned the respect of my communities.

I’ve been told that many of the characters I write about are women, and when I first heard this I got huffy, thinking I was being insulted. In fact, this is true, and I think it’s because women have influenced me in my life. Growing up I was surrounded by more women than men. Early on, I observed how women functioned at home, at work, as well as in the rest of society.

Women are interesting. Take this as an example. Soon after I got married, my mother sat down and had a woman-to-woman talk with me. She said, “Say ‘yes’ to your husband, but do what you want to do.”

My mother’s advice made me realize what Filipino and Filipino American women consciously or unconsciously (may) do to negotiate a male-dominated society. There’s a lot going on behind the smiling, good-looking Filipino woman.

This essay is about my writing and how it connects with “women.”
Influences by Women
I have two women ancestors who have influenced my writing.
First is my mother, Concepcion Cuenco Manguerra, with whom I had a love-hate relationship, but who had stamped my personality so much so that I find myself saying and doing things that she would have said and done. When I was young I found her domineering, opinionated, and temperamental. As I grew older, I saw other facets to her personality: she was hardworking, loyal to her family, charming; she had a sense of obligation to her community and had a very good head for business. Concepcion came from a political family in Cebu, but forged by World War II and early widowhood, she was never showy nor ostentatious. Her greatest gift to me was the notion that nothing is impossible. Early on I was taught that whatever I wanted to be was possible. It was she who told me soon after I got married, “Say yes to your husband, but do what you want do.”

My mother seemed fearless even when my father dropped dead of a heart attack; it was only when I was a grown woman myself when I realized that my mother may have learned how to navigate widowhood and the business world from her grandmother, Remedios Diosomito Lopez Cuenco, who was herself widowed young and who invested in real estate to support her family.

Remedios, my mother’s grandmother (my great-grandmother), is the other woman ancestor who influenced me even though I never met her. She became the Philippines’ first woman publisher after her husband, Mariano Albao Cuenco, a poet/teacher/publisher died in 1909. She was only thirty-nine. She managed and ran the Imprenta Rosario, her husband’s pet project, even while she invested in real estate to support her family. My great-grandmother, who did not finish her schooling but who read The Lives of Saints and other Spanish books to improve her education, published the periodicals El Precursor, El Boletin Catolico, Ang Maguuna, and later the Cebu Daily News, among others, with the help of her sons.

Remedios bore sixteen children although only four survived to adulthood. One of her sons became a senator, another a congressman, and a third an archbishop. All three sons were writers, and her only daughter was a storyteller.

Even though I only heard and read about Remedios, I feel as if I know her. I feel a bond with her. She was a woman who lived in an era of Filipino machismo, but who went ahead and tackled the publishing business.

Concepcion and Remedios have taught me about the power and strength of the Filipino woman. They were colorful too and did not compromise their femininity even as they did “man’s work.”
In fact, my women ancestors and the other women in Cebu where I was born and raised have grabbed my imagination. Some have made their way to my writings. They have influenced my women characters to be strong like Nida in When the Rainbow Goddess Wept); or wise like Laydan in the same novel and Alba in the short story with the same title. At times, my women characters are vulnerable like Magdalena and Estrella in my second novel, Magdalena. They can be manipulative and yet kind like the Virgins in my first novel. They can be a bit hysterical yet strong like Angelica in the first novel. And yes, they can be good looking, feminine, and flirtatious like Agustina from my short story “Woman with Horns.”

The character of Agustina came about because of a woman in Cebu who reportedly had horns. When we were children and saw her, the grownups would point out the two bumps on her forehead, which were covered by her elaborate hairdo, and which they said were her horns. This mysterious woman morphed into Agustina in my short story, “Woman With Horns,” set at the turn-of-the-century. (My first short story collection (New Day, 1988 is named, Woman with Horns and Other Stories.) Take a look at how this earthy widow teaches the American doctor, Gerald McAllister, how to live life once again:

When he later went to the verandah to drink his rice wine, he saw Agustina standing there, gazing at the stars. She looked different, not the frightened woman at the hospital, not the carefree girl at the park, but a proper Ubecan widow in black, with her hair done in a severe bun. Curiously, the starkness enhanced her grace and beauty, calling attention to the curves of her body.

            “You did not like the lechon?” she asked softly, with an amused twinkle in her eyes.

            “I beg your pardon?  Oh, the pig —?”  He shook his head, embarrassed that she had witnessed that charade. They were alone and he hoped that someone would join them.

            “What do Americans eat, Dr. McAllister?” She was studying him, eyes half-closed with a one-sided smile that was becoming.

            Gerald pushed his hair from his forehead. “Pies - cherry pies, boysenberry pies —I miss them all. Frankly, I have — “

            She drew closer to him and he caught a warm, musky scent coming from her body.

            “—I have lost ten pounds since I've been here.”

            “In kilos, how many?”

            “Around four and a half.”

            “Santa Clara! You must get rid of your cook. She must be an incompetent, starving you like that. It is a shame to the people of Ubec.”

            Gerald watched her, aware of his growing infatuation.

            “I like you,” she said suddenly. “You and I have a kinship. Come to my house and my daughter and I will feed you.” Pausing, she reached up to stroke his face with her fan. His cheeks burned. “Nothing exotic,” she continued, “just something good.” Her eyes flashed as she smiled. “You know where I live?”

            He hesitated then shook his head. His knees were shaking.

            “The house at the mouth of the river. I see you swimming during siesta time. I like to swim at night, when the moon is full.” She looked at him, closed her eyes languidly and walked away.” ~ excerpt from “Woman with Horns”

The Woman’s Body

An academic pointed out that many of my fictional characters are women. Although I did not intentionally set out to do so, it is true that the majority of the stories in my three short story collections (Women with Horns and Other Stories, New Day, 1988; Acapulco at Sunset and Other Stories, Anvil, 1995; Vigan and Other Stories, Anvil 2011) have women protagonists. My two novels (When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Penguin 1994 and University of Michigan 1999; Magdalena, Plain View Press 2002) also focus on women characters. My women characters come in all forms: some young, some old, some sensual, some brittle, some religious, some defiant, some beautiful, some plain.

When I write, I focus on creating complex characters. That is where the creative energy goes. But since my characters are set in a particular time and place, they respond to the pressures around them, including the history, politics, culture, and mores of my fictive world.

In my stories, even though I do not intellectually plan it, the Woman’s Body becomes a metaphor. In some cases, the Woman’s Body is like a commodity. For instance, in When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Nida slept with the Japanese solder to buy their freedom. In a short short, Tiya Octavia, a woman is raped by a Japanese soldier, echoing true stories of the Comfort Women in the Philippines.

Regarding sex in my writings, I’ve had to think about this, especially since I was raised in a very Catholic environment. In the end, I’ve had to leave my characters alone to say or do what they want to as part of their character development. In other words, I have not flinched in depicting the human body and sexual acts, although I choose my words carefully, realizing always the difference between pornography and art.

In my novel Magdalena, Magdalena, balks at her errant husband and she takes on a lover, an American captain. This is her act of defiance against her husband, Victor, and against the Filipino querida system.

Following is an excerpt from the novel, Magdalena:

Her scent used to arouse Victor; the rustling of her skirt made him cast lustful glances at her. He was always touching her, stroking her hair, massaging the back of her neck. His attention made her love him in the first place. He made her feel important, special, beautiful. In a way, his desire for her made her feel powerful. During supper at her parents’ home, he slipped his hand under her skirt and touched her, making her bite her lower lip and blush. Her mother, unaware of what was happening said, “Be careful of the shrimps, Magdalena, you look like you’re having an allergic reaction.” Victor was always suggesting new ways of lovemaking, different ways, ways the nuns at St. Catherine’s had not even warned her about. “That’s strange Victor,” she used to say. Well, Victor was gone and she was left with the monkey farm, this house, her life.

Alone in her bedroom, with doors locked, she stared at herself in the armoire mirror. How strange her body appeared. So pale, with curves she hardly knew. It had been a long time since she looked at herself. She never thought much of her body. She was always so busy; her body was just there. At school, the nuns gave her the idea that her body was sinful — if she ate too much, that was gluttony, if she enjoyed too much, that was excess. Breasts, buttocks, thighs, and legs had to be covered, must not be revealed. Sister Damiana had even taught her how to dress and undress without exposing her body. Victor was the exact opposite; he wanted her to show her body. He brought home ridiculous nightgowns; he wanted her to be someone she was not. He treated her body as if it were a plaything. And like a petulant child, he grew tired with this toy.

She touched her breasts, her stomach, her neck, her thighs, the back of her legs, the area between her legs. One day soon, this body will be old; and not too long afterwards, it will turn into dust. This thought frightened her, made her think how insignificant she was, made her realize that she alone gave her life significance.

It was almost sunset and from the verandah of the main house she watched Nathan Spencer strolling on the seashore. He was heading towards the end of the bay. Occasionally he bent over to pick a flat stone, which he threw into the water. He was making them skip; she had walked with him and watched him count the number of jumps the stones made. It amazed her to see a grown man behave like a child. Like a boy he talked to her about his father who used to sit in the dark living room, smoking cigarettes and drinking Scotch, and he wondering, wondering all the time what that meant. One evening as they watched the moon sailing over the tranquil bay, he told her about Vietnam, how green it was, and how sad. Earlier this afternoon, he stopped by to give her a conch shell that he had found on the other side of the island. “Have you ever seen one like this? This is perfect.”

He was a little bit in love with her, this man-boy. For weeks now he had been following her around, finding every excuse to see her, to talk to her. She thought that she could go to him one night, in the dark when the servants were asleep. No one would know as she slipped into the cabaña, into his room, and lay on the bed beside him. Then maybe she could get even with Victor — an act of infidelity against a thousand.

For all the times Victor called her Mother Superior, she would kiss this man with her mouth open; for all the times Victor said she was not free sexually, she would lick his body; for all the times Victor made love to other women, she would mount him, take him in, lead them both to destruction or salvation — she did not know which.

A memory came to her. She and Victor alone one afternoon. They had been swimming in the sea. It was April and hot, and the water cooled their bodies. She floated on her back, feeling the sea rock her to and fro, feeling contented. Victor dove under her and tickled her back. Startled, she lost her balance and sputtered about. Victor held her, pushed her hair back and began kissing her.
“Victor,” she said, in a reprimanding voice.

“Magdalena,” he countered, licking the salt water off her neck. He tried to slip off her bathing suit.

“Not here Victor.”

He stopped, grabbed her hand and pulled her ashore, toward the cabaña. “Come on, then. I’ve always wanted to do it in your parents’ room.”

He brought her to the bedroom and pushed her unto the bed.

“Victor, stop it.” Her heart was pounding, blood rushing to every part of her body.

He removed her bathing suit and began kissing her breasts. Later, he began kissing her stomach. His movements grew more frenetic, and when his mouth traveled downward, she knew what he had in mind. She quickly crossed her legs and tried to push him off. “No!”

“Why not?” he cajoled.


He resumed kissing her belly button until she relaxed, until the pit of her stomach quickened. She bit her lower lip, trying to maintain control. Then when he had kissed her in a way that made her arch her back, he quickly pushed her legs apart. He lowered his head and kissed her there, did things to her, so that her hand flew to the back of his head, and she held him down, guided him while she panted and gasped for air like one drowning. Very quickly, Victor changed his position so his thighs were near her head. She, following some primal instinct, reached, took Victor into her mouth, and like an echo, followed his lead. Even while this was happening, she thought of pulling away, but her mouth, strong yet soft, moved on its own. She struggled but it was hopeless. She found herself sliding, sliding into some dark swirling pool and her stomach quivered and relaxed and her soul exploded from that pool up to the stars. She was gone. For a fraction of time, she was nowhere. It was wonderful.

And frightening.

She hated the feeling of totally losing herself. She feared the sensation of losing touch with reality, of disappearing into the heavens, of being one with Victor.

It came to her that her body was some kind of machine. It could do things against her volition — that was what was frightening. It could respond to hunger, to fear, to anger, to sex, and she, Magdalena Sotelo, could not stop it, could not control it. It was frightening.

Standing there, staring at the dying sun, she realized that ever since that lovemaking incident with Victor, she never allowed herself to be as totally lost ever again. It was as if she’d locked a part of herself, locked it in a vault and flung it into the deepest part of the sea, and she would never lose control in that way again. Standing there, she thought that it was a good thing, a very wise thing that she held part of herself back from Victor. And it was just as well, she thought, because now Victor was gone.

Nathan Spencer returned to the cabaña. He opened the front door. She could see his gangly motions as he pulled a chair and sat by the doorway. He picked up a guitar and started strumming. He sang and the words of his folk songs drifted into the verandah — words of war and peace, of love and sadness, of life and death.

And as she watched and listened to him, the thought took shape in her head: Maybe tonight, I will go to him. ~ Excerpt from the novel, Magdalena
I always enjoyed writing and started writing letters to my dead father when I was nine. I turned to diary writing later on and have kept this journal writing up to now. No one ever prevented me from expressing myself. My parents, siblings, husband, children, have supported my literary work. But I think that if my writing had been “silenced,” I would have found some other form of expression, theater perhaps since I was somewhat drawn to it when I was young. Otherwise I might have gone stir-crazy because my diary was a repository for my youth’s angst, silly to consider now, but a serious matter (at least to me) when I was experiencing the drama.

English is my second language and the regular diary writing (in English, as taught by Belgian nuns) was good training for the literary writing I later embraced. Reading was and is important in my development. I learned and continue to learn from other writers. First I read for pleasure, and then I read it again to analyze the parts that impress me. What makes it work? What makes it interesting? How is the language used? What techniques are used?

When I started writing fiction, I focused on telling what happened to my fiction characters. Plot and conflict featured in my early attempts. Some of my early stories were published, which encouraged me, but instinctively I knew I could do better but needed help.

I therefore started taking writing classes at the Writers Program, UCLA Extension. At that time, there were few writing classes (Fiction I, Fiction II, Fiction III, some autobiography classes). Fiction I concentrated on giving students basic information with writing exercises. After completing Fiction I, I went on take Fiction II, which had a workshop format, meaning around fifteen students brought home full-length stories for critiquing. The next week, a good hour or so was spent discussing each story.

I wrote a first draft of a story for the class and expected praise. I was completely stunned to hear a woman said, “This has no redeeming value.” And she went on, “A graduate from Sacred Heart College in New York could have written this.”

Of all the comments said of that story draft, her comments stung the most. Interestingly those comments were also the most helpful. Once my battered ego recovered, I seriously considered what she meant.  It was this: the “voice” of my story was off. A graduate of Sacred Heart College in New York? While I did graduate from a Catholic school, that school was ten thousand miles away from New York. My setting and characters should have conveyed the Filipino “flavor.” I had written something generic. Clearly I was doing something wrong.

            I started reading novels and stories searching for the writer’s voice, asking how Dostoevsky’s works were distinctly Russian, even when I was reading English translations. It was the same case with the Latin American writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez — I was reading an English translation and yet I was experiencing another world that Garcia Marquez had created.

            I asked why novels by Hemingway were different from novels by E.M. Forster and others.
            Slowly I realized that through their writings, writers can convey their fictional worlds and characters, and more importantly, their own values and minds. Daniel Steele’s romances are of another caliber from Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and from Leo Toltoy’s Anna Karenina, even if the novels have similar themes.

            I started experimenting in my fiction, making sure I explored the world and culture I know best. I quickly fictionalized Cebu by creating Ubec since I made too many changes to the world and characters of my youth. Creating Ubec allowed me to “lie” freely as I told my stories.

            I looked at historical times and made up characters and stories to explain (at least to myself) what the Philippines and Filipinos may have been. I discovered that in my writing, character was important. I had to dig deep into my characters to make them unique and if I developed them well, my stories could be interesting.

            Eventually I gained confidence and did not confine my writing to Philippine and Philippine American themes and characters, but explored other characters and situations that fascinated me.

Here is a short short entitled “The Turkish Seamstress in Ubec” with a non-Filipino protagonist, which was included in Philippine Speculative Fiction VIII (eds Alfra and Alfar):

I’ve never experienced pain like this in my thirty-five years of life. I’m talking about this slash on my neck; I’m talking about the contact of the knife against my skin. It’s agony that doesn’t just smolder where the flesh and bones have separated; it courses through every part of my body from my toes all the way to the very tips of my long hair. The millisecond the serrated metal touched my neck, I heard my skin rip like satin and what followed were the worst sounds I’ve ever heard: neck bones crunching and snapping reminding me of the awful sounds made by a butcher hacking away at a dead cow. And now the knife lies next to me, cold and slippery from my own blood.

I smell something foul. Where does that stench come from? Am I near the wet market where heads of pigs hang on hooks, their fetid intestines displayed on wooden tables? A breeze shakes the nipa palms overhead and the sun slants through, hitting my face, making me feel its warmth. I remember now: I’m out in the field near the creek. It must be morning. What am I doing here? I should be in my shop, with a hot cup of chocolate sending tendrils of steam while I arrange the clothes on the mannequins, and oil the sewing machines, get ready for another day.

The smell of my own blood disgusts me — how could I have such foul-smelling blood? Isn’t this the same blood that turns my skin a faint coral when a man stares at me? Doesn’t this blood race through my veins when a man makes love to me? Love, love, love that makes me want to get up in the morning. Yes, love more important than stitchery.  The look of a man, his touch sends me far away, makes me forget the deaths of my parents and brothers, the hunger and lack with Achmed in that hovel in Constantinople, the humiliation Pierre inflicted on me in Paris. How did I survive those cruel men? How did that skinny frightened girl grow plump and voluptuous, someone envied by women, desired by men? What a long journey it’s been from the Sultanahment to St-Germain to Colon Street. Constant movement, like the salmon that swims upstream, except I’m running away from where I was spawned.

If I had learned my lessons, I would have been fine. I would have many more years of sewing and stitching, and sipping hot chocolates and aperitifs with my wealthy clients, but I could not. The men that catch my eye know how to weave nets with their soft words, piercing looks, trembling touches, fruitless promises; and always I find myself entangled, caught — in love again – spending sleepless nights, waiting for their visits, weeping buckets of tears, watching the clock on Sundays and holidays because no matter what their promises were, no matter how good at lovemaking they were, they always spent Sundays and holidays with their families. One lonely Christmas day in Paris, I understood what a mistress was all about.

            The worst one was the cruel man in Manila with the heavenly touch and golden words who made me suffocate, took my breath away. I had to pack, leave. If I wanted to survive, I had to flee.

That was how I ended up in Ubec. A backwater, some people call it, but I chose to be here, arriving with a bag and a handful of coins. I hid my shame behind my toothy smile and good figure, and in a year’s time I had my own dress shop on Colon Street. Here the women clamor for me to design their dresses. To have a dress made by me, Nurten, is something to brag about. The people here allow me to live the way I want to; that’s more than one can ask. This life is more than the ones I had in Constantinople and Paris. I’m not longer the underdog here; here I’m somebody.

I can sew; I can design clothes. Tuck folds here and there to slim down the fat ones, lengthen the short ones, make buxom those without breasts, turn frumpy women irresistible. I am a magician with cloth and pattern, needle and thread. I think of my dress, this dress that has turned red from my blood. I remember sitting by the window of my shop, embroidering this same dress, weaving in silk thread in fine and regular stitches, creating what looked like blue green peacock feathers. The embroidery was perfect, it was reversible — a difficult task. How happy I was creating this dress, dreaming of romance with still another young man.

I should have confined my life to stitching dresses. I tried to do that. When I moved to Ubec, I did my best. But the cruel man sought and found me. And the dance began all over again: last night I walked to the International Hotel, talked with some clients who glowed in their silks and satins. Look at me, several said, you have made me beautiful. I smiled and shrugged my shoulders. At 10 o’clock I slipped away and walked to the park where he waited in the shadows of the acacia tree near the grandstand. When some people walked by, we parted and hid our faces. When they were gone, he led me down Mabini Street toward the creek, which reflected a full moon. I looked at the sky and at the water, at the two moons, and I felt hope building inside me again. That is all I remember.

I feel my head wobble and I realize that my head is not completely severed.  Maybe I’ll survive. I’ll pick myself up from this riverbed and make my way through the dimly lit streets to my dress shop. After climbing the stairs to my apartment, I’ll scrub all this blood from myself and sleep off this nightmare. In the morning, the sun will burst through the milky glass panes and I’ll get ready and throw open my doors for my clients with their parcels of cloth and dress designs. Everything will be as it was.

But I’m dreaming, because here I am, body sprawled on the riverbank, head dangling by silky thread-like matter. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at my predicament. There’s no picking myself up from this muck I’m in. My body is riddled with slash wounds and drenched in blood. It looks like a bloody sack of something foul and ugly.  My dress with the exquisite embroidery might as well be a butcher’s rag.

In the midst of this reverie, I hear scratching near the clump of palm trees and I wonder if it’s a tree rat and if it’ll start chewing on me. Frightened, I try to remember prayers my mother taught me, but the words are not there. I can’t ask God for help, for consolation, for hope. The only thing I’m grateful for is that I’ll stop running now.
Motherhood and Writing
When I started to take writing classes, I was a mother of three young boys. The classes were a form of therapy, a respite from my housewifely and motherly duties. I had Wednesday night classes and I couldn’t wait for my husband to enter our front door so I could race off to UCLA for my creative writing workshops. I loved the mental stimulation, the discussions about character, character development, conflict, plot, and so on. Even though it was painful to get my writings critiqued, I was learning the craft and business too.

But for several years, I had the attitude that this was all for fun until my third son was old enough to go to kindergarten and I could resume full-time work. I had worked as a fund raiser before taking an extended leave to have my third child and take care of my family. It had become difficult to work fulltime and take care of the children, husband, and home.

But when the children were in school, I could return to work. I interviewed in a non-profit place and was offered a job on the spot. Suddenly I developed a splitting headache and I told the gentleman who interviewed me that I would discuss the matter with my husband and get back to him. What went on in my head was the realization that I could not work fulltime, take care of my family, and write at the same time. There weren’t enough hours in a day to accomplish all of that. My husband gave me a great gift when he said, “Do what makes you happy.” The next day I called the gentleman and explained why I could not work for them.

This was a turning point because ever since, I felt an obligation to account for my time. I had to produce. I set up self-imposed deadlines; I sent proposals to my then-publisher Mrs. Rodriquez at New Day, and aside from writing, I started editing books. I had to justify my time.

            Ever since I made that choice to forego the fulltime job for writing, I’ve been wife, mother, and writer. I’ve juggled my time, fought for the time and space to pursue my literary work even with family members who at some point thought my work didn’t count because I was working at home. I’ve never had the luxury of leaving home to go to a writer’s retreat for instance; I’ve developed a system where I join writing workshops so I have deadlines and I’m “forced” to carve out time to write.

            I have never looked down on “women’s work” because taking care of my family and home had always been important to me. I’ve never been too concerned either about what people thought about my doing “women’s work.”

            As far as writing is concerned, since the notion of “character change” or development has been important to me, and since through time there’s been a blurring between fiction and non-fiction (to me), I do not concern myself too much with what is or isn’t women’s writing. The question to me is always: Is it well done?
Politics and History and my Writing

Many of my stories could be called “historical fiction” although they’ve never been tagged as such. When the Rainbow Goddess Wept (or Song of Yvonne) was set during World War II. Magdalena looks at the lives of three women from different historical times — the Philippine American War, World War II, and the Vietnam War. I have stories set during the times the British, Spaniards, Americans, and Japanese were in the Philippines. I have stories that look at experiences of Filipinos in America.

      I like to explore the external and internal conflicts of my characters during a specific time period. The history and politics of that era play a part of the story. My characters are affected by what is going on historical, politically.

Part of what goes on in my head about fiction I’m working on is the question of the relevance or significance of the story. There are enough love stories or coming-of-age stories in the world, but what is it that is unique in the particular love story or coming-of-age story that I’m working on. What makes my story special? What will make it withstand time? Does it inform readers something about the Filipino and/or Filipino American cultures?

What also goes on in my head is this: I am Filipino and Filipino American, so how is my story related to my reality?  In other words, as a writer, I have chosen to write something that shares with the world experiences of my reality as Filipino and Filipino American. There are writers of color who have chosen otherwise, and they have chosen to write of white protagonists navigating a white world. That is not for me. I do have non-Filipino characters but in some way they are connected to the Filipino experience.

The question of language has gone through my head. How do I tell my story? First of all, I am a Cebuana, who learned Tagalog, Spanish, and English, writing about Ubecans, Tagalogs, and other peoples. What language do I use to tell my story effectively? Do I use Taglish? Do I use Cebuano? Do I use a combination of all these?  My other consideration was that I wanted to be understood by English readers. What I decided was to write in English in the most straightforward manner possible. I focus on character and other elements of my storytelling more than on language, not that it’s an easy task to hone my work down. I don’t want my readers stuck on the language; I don’t want to break the fictive dream. Oscar Campomanes in his introduction to my third short story collection, Vigan, talks of my being a “scenographer,” and there is some truth in that. I carried over what I learned in film making to my fiction writing, working in scenes, “showing” more than “telling,” allowing my characters-under-stress to move, talk, think, feel, reflect, and make decisions.

      In When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Nando learns that Filipinos had to determine their destinies and not rely on Americans. The history and politics of the time affect Nando:

I detected a change in my father. What pained him most went beyond the loss of Gil Alvarez, and the torture they endured as prisoners in Martin Lewis's camp. My father lost faith in Americans. He had lived with them; he had known them and loved them. But now he realized that a lot of what Gil Alvarez had said about Americans was true. And my father realized that Filipinos must shape their own destiny, that they were responsible for their future, that America (for all her professed good intentions) watched out for herself and her citizens first of all, even if this meant using other countries and peoples. And so he and other men continued with the guerrilla warfare with an intensity that had been lacking before. They had always held back, waiting for Mac­Arthur to return, waiting for the Americans to liberate the Philippines. But now no more. If they would have to fight the Japanese for the next decade, or even twenty, then that was how it would be. But they would continue fighting for Filipino freedom. ~ from When the Rainbow Goddess Wept

Navigating Publishing World
Getting published anywhere is difficult. I’ve learned that publishing is primarily a business and even the non-profit publishing houses of literary works still need money to pay for editing, production, marketing, and so on. The commercial publishers are aware that literary fiction and works of poetry rarely make money, and they avoid publishing a lot of these. The few publishers who do publish literary works receive a lot of submissions, and the situation of getting published gets highly competitive.

      I’d seen how writers of color wrote of commercial topics and got their works published more easily. I’m talking about Black Americans and Filipino Americans with white protagonists; one could never tell the ethnicity of the writers from their works. Somehow these writers had chosen protagonists with backgrounds different from them. In the beginning I used to mentally castigate these writers for “selling out,” although I’ve softened realizing anyone can write what they want to.

      For my part, I concluded I have an obligation to offer the world, not another white protagonist of which there many, but of little-known lives and worlds of fresh characters.

      I share the struggle to get published along with other writers of color. It seemed more difficult back in the 1980s and I’m grateful to Mrs. Gloria Rodriguez of New Day and Giraffe, and Karina Bolasco of Anvil for publishing my books.

      My novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept is a reprint of New Days’ Song of Yvonne, and I believe one of the reasons the mainstream publisher E.P. Dutton/Penguin published it was because of its commercial possibilities since it’s about World War II. When the book didn’t make the kind of money they were looking for, and in particular when Penguin was bought out by Pearson, they remaindered the novel. Fortunately the University of Michigan Press picked it up and this novel is still in print.

      I have also come to realize that Filipino Americans have difficulty getting published because Filipinos and Filipino Americans do not buy the books of their authors. Low sales figures discourage mainstream publishing from investing in our own writers. While it is true that some of our writers have published mainstream, there are many fine Filipino and Filipino American writers who haven’t, and it has little to do with the quality of their work as it does the business end of matters.

      Japanese Americans, on the other, buy, read, and promote their own writers, and consequently their writers seem to have an easier time getting published mainstream (this is my perception, in any case).

      I was in Barcelona during St. George’s day (April 23) where it is customary to give books to one another, in the same way we give gifts on Christmas day. It was incredible. People crowded the bookstores to buy their gift-books. I wished then that Filipinos and Filipino American had the same custom. Unfortunately, Filipinos and Filipino Americans have an oral tradition and are generally not readers.

      Once you understand some of these realities, you can make decisions on what genre of writing you should be doing.
A few years ago I visited Pompeii in Italy and noted that the amphitheater where the gladiators fought had a seating capacity of 20,000. On the other side of Pompeii were two theaters for plays and music, with seating capacities of 5,000 and 1,500 respectively. Then and now, literary/artistic events have never drawn the audience that popular/commercial activities do. The audience will prefer seeing gladiators killing each other rather than poetry reading. My point in bringing this up is that we writers shouldn’t sweat it if we are not “popular.”

Here’s my advice to young writers:

Do not be alarmed nor too concerned if your literary creations do not draw a large crowd, what you are expressing is a gift from God and needs to be written or told. It is as simple as that. You are a tool. And if the Creator wishes something to be said/written/told, it is for a purpose.

Concern yourself with improving your craft and art, with being as honest as you can be in your writing and in assessing your work. But mind you, it is not enough to “tell the truth.” You have to tell it as artfully as you can. You must master the language and form that you are using, whether you are poet, fiction writer, scriptwriter, playwright.

Don’t depend on others to get your work published. If need be, create your own opportunities.
Don’t be a victim. Don’t whine and complain because it’s difficult to write, because it’s difficult to get published, or because you are not famous. Explore all possibilities of getting your work out there, because there are very many.
Don’t buy into the idea that success is writing a best seller. I have known such writers who have written one or two books and have been heard no more.

Success is giving form to the story in your head and once the story is finally written, everything else is gravy.

Success is being happy with what you are doing.

tags: Filipino, Filipina, writer, novelist, book, research, literary, literature, paper, academic #Philippines #literature #CebuLitFest #Cebu

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