Monday, June 12, 2017

An Interview with Cecilia Manguerra Brainard by Dana Hubler, Poets & Writers Magazine

by Dana Hubler
Published in Poets & Writers Magazine, March/April 1997

At the time of our interview, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard is getting ready for her second trip to the Philippines in less than three months. We meet at her house in Santa Monica, California, where she lives with her husband, Lauren, and their youngest son, Drew. Furnished with a blend of Filipino antique furniture and folk art and more typically American trappings, the house is spacious and bright.

In the midst of a hectic whirl of packing and preparing for her upcoming trip, Brainard seems surprisingly calm. With her long black hair pulled back into a ponytail, she is wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and leggings, and looks, at 48, youthful and full of energy. A warm, vivacious woman with a generous laugh, Brainard talks easily about her childhood in the Philippines, her life in the United States, and her evolution as a writer.

She is going back to the Philippines now to celebrate her mother's 84th birthday, but she made the earlier trip for professional reasons. Sponsored by the U.S. Information Service, she went on a month-long book and lecture tour to promote her most recent book, Acapulco at Sunset and Other Stories (Anvil Publishing, 1995). The collection of stories spans across centuries of Filipino history, from Spanish colonial times to the present, and, like much of Brainard's work, documents the Filipino experience and perspecitve through characters and situations that are universally human.
Brainard's writing -- essays, short stories, and a novel -- has helped bring a literary presence to the Filipino community. The impact of her work in the Philippines was made apparent by the warm reception she received on the tour. Traveling to Manila, Cebu, Zamboanga, and Baguio, she gave readings and lectured on the Asian-American perspective on writing in the United States and her own process as a writer. She spoke to full houses, and, in the out-of-the-way cities of Zamboanga and Baguio, some people traveled as long as 18 hours by bus to attend her literary events.

"I was just astounded at the response. It meant a lot to them that I'm competing sort of on a mainstream level here. More than I thought," she says. "Because I'm just doing my thing. I'm alone in my office writing -- I don't know what it all means. Sometimes you take yourself or your work for granted and it actually means a lot to people. It kind of shakes me sometimes."

Since she began publishing over a decade ago, Brainard's work has found a supportive audience in the Philippines and among Filipino Americans. However, like many minority writers, she has had to struggle to gain acceptance and a measure of sucess in the American mainstream. In addition to Acapulco at Sunset, her published fiction includes Woman with Horns and Other Stories (New Day Publishers, 1987) and a novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept (Dutton, 1994). The novel, which tells the story of a family's struggle to survive the Japanese occupation of the Philippines during World War II, received national critical acclaim and helped carry her work to a much wider audience. Currently, she is working on her second novel.

In addition to writing, Brainard teaches writing classes at UCLA Extension, lectures, and gives readings, and, with her husband, manages a household and family of three sons. She maintains a strong presence in the Filipino-American writing community, and as part of her commitment ot make Filipino literature more widely available in the United States, she edited the anthology Fiction by Filipinos in America (New Day Publishers 1993).

In 1991, Brainard cofounded Philippine American Women Writers and Artists (PAWWA), a literary group that organizes readings and other events and helps sponsor scholarships for Filipina writers. The members of PAWWA have collaborated to write, edit, and publish two children's books -- Seven Stories from Seven Sisters (1992) and The Beginning and Other Asian Folktales (1995) -- and to compile a directory of Filipino-American women writers. With Susan Montepio, Brainard also runs a distributing house, Philippine American Literary House, established in 1994 to distribute -- and eventually to publish -- select Filipinianana titles.


Brainard grew up in Cebu City, on the island of Cebu in the Central Philippines. She describes her early childhood as "paradise." The youngest of four children, she lived with her family in a Spanish-style villa, tended by servants and surrounded by gardens of orchids, star apple trees, jasmine, and fragipani. Because her mother came from a powerful political family, Brainard's family enjoyed a special status in her community.

Part of the mystique of this "paradise" came from the folklore and superstitions of the people. Brainard recalls hearing "fanciful and charming" stories about the statue of the Santo Nino (Child Jesus) walking the streets at night and of enchanted beings living in old acacia trees. "Even now," she says, "you're not supposed to spit or throw things when the sun goes down because enchanted beings are out there. You might hit them -- and they can hurt you. When you want to throw something or you have to spit, you say, 'Excuse me,' in the dialect, to warn the enchanted being."

Mostly, Brainard attributes her memory of an idyllic childhood to her father, an engineer who was in his 50s when she was born and whom she remembers as calm, nurturing, and very supportive. "My father had always been the foundation, the stabilizing factor in the family," Brainard explains. "My mother, in a sense during that time of my life, was kind of like a spoiled-brat older sister. There was always a crisis with my mother. But while my father was around, it was no problem because he was there to set everything straight."

However, when Brainard was nine, her father died of a heart attack, and the sense of stability quickly evaporated. "Suddenly, this 47-year-old hysterical woman had four children to raise. 'Paradise" ended, just like that. It was a very traumatic time -- always an element of fear and always an element of disorder. Very different from how the household was when my father was alive. I think I escaped, just flitted off someplace where I was safe for a long time."

She escaped by reading books and writing in a diary given to her by her sister. The lock-and-key diary eventually evolved into a journal, and it was in these pages that she first stated her ambition to become a writer. Writing in these childhood journals helped her cope with the loss of her father and find some peace amid the chaos of her home life.

Although her work is not entirely autobiographical, Brainard draws on her childhood memories and pesonal experience for inspiration. The issue of her father's death comes up often as a theme, more poignantly, perhaps, in When the Rainbow Goddess Wept. The father, a quiet, loving man, disappears for weeks in the war zone and is given up for dead before miraculously returning to his wife and nine-year-old daughter.

Brainard immigrated to the United States in 1969 to study film at UCLA graduate school. Her emigration from the Philippines was part of a large emigration that occurred during the 1960s and '70s. The country experienced a "brain drain" as Filipino doctors, engineers, and other professionals fled the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Even so, when she arrived in the United States, there were so few Filipinos here that strangers went out of their way to greet each other in public. As she assimilated into the new culture, Brainard dealt with discrimination and, with her family halfway around the world, struggled with feelings of loss and alienation.

In California, she reestablished a friendship with Lauren Brainard, whom she had met in the Philippines when he was serving in the Peace Corps. They eventually married, and after living for a time in San Francisco while Lauren completed law school, they settled in Santa Monica. For years, Brainard worked as a fundraiser in a nonprofit organization, and when her youngest son was born and it became impossible to continue working full-time, she quit her job and began to focus on writing.
A bimonthly column, "Filipina American Perspective," for the Philippine American News (a now-defunct newspaper published in Los Angeles) gave her the stimulus of regular deadlines and a forum for exploring her ideas about growing up in the Philippines and living as a Filipina American in the United States. It also helped lay the groundwork for some of her later fiction. "It kind of jogged my memory," she says. "An idea would come alive in my head, and I found myself batting it around and making fiction out of it."

"Like the business of the Vietnam era and meeting the American soldiers in my hometown; I wrote an essay about that, but then it lingered in my head and I started to write 'The Blue-Green Chiffon Dress,'" she says, referring to a story in Woman With Horns and Other Stories about a brief encounter between a teenage girl and an American soldier. Another essay evolved into "Waiting for Papa's Return," a story in the same collection about a nine-year-old girl who goes through denial and numb disbelief when her father dies.

"Filipina American Perspective" ran from 1982 to 1988 and was later compiled into a book of essays, Philippine Woman in America (New Day, 1991). Over time, the challenge of writing essays diminished, and Brainard began to focus on fiction. "Most of the time I'll throw my energy into something that has an element of challenge. Once it gets too easy, I lose interest," she explains. "I enjoyed doing the column but it wasn't challenging enough. I could just outline a column, sit down and write it and charm readers -- fool them. Whereas fiction, even early on, was a struggle. It was not something you could outline. It was something mysterious, something different."

Enrolling in writing classes at UCLA Extension, she began writing short stories, but soon realized that developing her craft would involve more than just learning the technical aspects of the genre. When a fellow student criticized her word as sounding "very generic, like something that somebody from New York could have written," Brainard understood that to write the stories she wanted to write she would have to "struggle to find a Filipino voice."

"That student's criticism was very painful, but an eye opener," she recalls. "My sense then was I am not a writer from New York. I am something else, so why is it coming out like this?"
She answered this question by taking a long, hard look at her cultural identity. As she did, it came as something of a shock for her to realize that her perceptions and understanding of the world had been shaped largely by Western influences. From kindergarten on, she had been educated in English, not her native Cebuano, and taught from a mostly Eurocentric perspective. At the same time, she grew up surrounded by American culture -- watching Hollywood movies, reading American books and magazines, and following clothing styles and trends.

"When I was in school, we were actually taught from a Eurocentric point of view -- the books that we read were American books, Western books," she recalls. "As a kid, I was learning things like Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippines. Think about that for a moment. It took many, many years before I stopped and said, 'Waiti a minute, he didn't discover it, there were people already there.'"

Of course, foreign influence in the Philippines extends back for centuries -- from the Chinese and other Asian traders who came to exchange goods, to the Spaniards who colonized the islands after Magellan "discovered" them in 1521, and finally to the Americans who took over at the turn of the century. Outside influence has transformed and, at the same time, obfuscated the culture. Gradually, Brainard began to acknowledge the degree to which this influence, including her indoctrination in a Western worldview, had affected her own cultural identity and that of the Filipino people.

"At some point I realized that a number had been done on my head by that kind of history, by the constant reading of Look magazine, Life, Time magazine; that there was this other perspective that had been imprinted in my brain and really it was not my perspective. It's so amazing how much you absorb from what you read that is Eurocentric. When you look at it from another point of view, you see another world."

She began to catch sight of this other world as she immersed herself in reading Filipino history, literature, and folklore. Exploring the culture from a perspective cleared of Western influence helped her connect more deeply with her cultural identity and, ultimately, to develop her voice.

Through the process of exploration and tapping into the Filipino perspective, Brainard developed a distinct and lyric writing voice, but the struggle she went through to find it is not at all apparent in her work. She tells her stories with the ease of a natural storyteller, in a style that flows with a seemingly effortless simplicity. The themes she presents, which focus on the history and cultural complexity of the Filipino people, imbue the work with depth and meaning. Brainard writes in English, but the cadence of the Filipino languages and dialects resonates in the rhythm of the narrative and the dialogue of the characters.

Brainard further captures the essence of the Fiipino culture by weaving in folklore and epic songs whenever she can. The oral tradition of telling stories of the culture and hisotry through song goes back for centuries. Even now, Brainard says, in the remote areas of the Philippines, epic singers carry on the tradition.

Studying epic songs with a Filipino group at UCLA, Brainard began to take the dry transliterations recorded by anthropologists and rewrite them as children's stories. She blended the myths into her novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept. "The epic songs impart a sense of roots, a sense of respect, a sense of realization that these people have been there for centuries and centuries and centuries, long before the documented histories. This was their way of passing on their history and their culture. And it feels good -- especially coming from a place like the Philippines that has been colonized by the Spaniards and then followed by the Americans -- to realize that there were rich cultures that had been here centuries before."

When the Rainbow Goddess Wept was first published in the Philippines under the title Song of Yvonne (New Day Publishers, 1991) and released in paperback by Dutton in 1995. Brainard's motivation to write the book came from a need to document the horrible devastation that occurred in the Philippines during World War II, which, she believes, has been overshadowed by events in Europe and Japan. Growing up in the postwar years, the scars of war were all around her, in the rubble of bombed-out buildings and in the war stories she heard from her parents, grandparents, and their friends.

Younger generations, however, need to be reminded of the reality of the war and its impact. Few people realize, for example, that Manila suffered one of the worst losses of life and property during World War II, with a devastation that came close to that which occurred in Dresden. During a month of fighting in February 1945, the city was leveled and some 100,000 citizens were killed.

Brainard's own parents experienced the destruction of the war firsthand. During the Japanese occupation, they evacuated to Mindanao, in the southern Philippines, and after liberation, returned north to Manila to find their house in ruins, with rats scurrying through the rubble of flattened rooms, broken marble floors, and shattered chandeliers. In the backyard, they found the rotting corpse of a nun who had probably been caught in the crossfire of the dogfights.

Brainard incorporated this experience into her novel, along with many other episodes based on real events, drawn from the stories she heard growing up and from her research of historical documents. One of the more horrific incidents in the book relates to the capture of an American nurse by Japanese soldiers; before setting the nurse free, the soldiers raped and impregnanted her, blinded her, and then cut off her arms and her tongue.

Somehow Brainard manages to weave a vivid, brutal depiction of war into a beautiful and compelling story. The novel is told through the eyes of Yvonne, a nine-year-old girl who holds onot a sense of innocence and hope in spite of the hardship and horrors she and her family endure as they struggle to survive. Her narrative, interwoven with the epic myths told by the family cook, Laydan, serves to both soften and magnify the novel's harsh portrayal of the atrocities of the war. "I think there's kind of an understatement to what children can say about awful things," Brainard says. "The melodrama is cut on one level, but then the story is there, that these people are going through this terrible experience."

Brainard has lived in the United States for nearly three decades now, yet she maintains strong ties with the Philippines. She sees herself as a woman of two cultures, but an outsider in both. It is not always a comfortable position, she says, but her perspective provides her with an objectivity that has enhanced her understanding of both cultures and helped clarify her artistic vision. "In a way, I've become kind of like an observer, so I can see what is American and I can see what is Filipino a little bit more clearly than if I were really in that culture," she explains.

"The odd thing, of course, is that in the Philippines I don't really belong. They don't treat me like I'm one of them. They respect me, but I'm considered an outsider. At the same time, of course, here in the United States, I get that feeling quite a lot, although I just sort of march ahead."

This sense of being an outsider, however, has not affected Brainard's literary success in two cultures. Throughout her career, she has published in both the Philippines and the United States. After having several stories published in Filipino and American journals, she submitted, with a recommendation from Filipino writer Bienvenido Santos, her first collection to New Day Publishers, a literary and educational house in Quezon City, near Manila. New Day also published Brainard's book of essays and released her novel (Song of Yvonne) in the Philippines. For her second collection, Brainard went with Anvil Publishing, in Pasig City, because of its broader distribution in the Philippines. Thus far, the majority of her work has been published first in the Philippines; she considers it important to continue publishing there because American books are prohibitively expensive.

Soon after the release of Song of Yvonne, Brainard met her agent, Betsy Amster, at UCLA Extension where both were teaching. Amster, with the help of her New York Partner, Angela Miller, quickly sold the work to Dutton. "It was really fortunate that I met Betsy one-on-one and fortunate that she liked the material," Brainard says, "because a lot of ther agents had seen the work and some of them liked it but didin't feel committed to it. I just hit on the right people who felt enthusiastic about it -- including my editor (Rosemary Ahern)."

Still, getting her work published in the United States "has not been an easy trek." One of the larter obstacles she has encountered is the tendency among American publishers to marginalize and categorize minority writers. Many, she says, have preferred to publish work that focuses on the immigrant experience in the United States rather than on the native perspective and history.
"Maxine Hong Kingston was really the first Asian-American writer to break into the mainstream. She set a pattern, a mold, so to speak, in writing about her experience as a Chinese American growing up in San Francisco. Many people in the publishing world then expected all other minority writers to follow that mold because it was a winner.

"In the past five years or maybe six, however, the powers-that-be in the publishing world have kind of expanded their tolerance or their acceptance of other kinds of writing from minority writers. That's why there's been a boom -- never before in this country have there been many books published by minority writers."

Brainard hopes that Filipino Americans will be included in the boom and given more opportunities to publish in this country. Although they now comprise the second largest Asian-American community in the United States, after the Chinese, there is a dearth of Filipino-American ficition in this country. "It's important for editors and other people to realize that there are quite a lot of Filipino-Amerian writers, a lot of talent, and it would be really nice if they'd get more opportunities to be heard, be published."

Having just completed the first draft of her second novel, Brainard is superstitious about discussing the details of the book, fearing it may "kill" the work, but talks freely about her creative process. Writing, she says, especially a novel, involves an enormous amount of time -- a willingness to let the story unfold as the characters take shape and come alive The proces is "like walking in the drak" and she often lives with a strong element of uncertainty while immersed in a large writing project.
"I'm trying to just tell my stories in my own way, never knowing if they're good or bad -- and I really give my characters leeway. In a way it's really frustrating, but again, it's that element of mystery -- you don't know what in hell's going on but you can't leave it.
"I guess there's an element of gambling in writing a novel, too," she says, "Because with a short story, you only invest a month or two, or however long it takes, and if it's a lousy story, it's not the end of the world. Bt there's really an edge when you have devoted quite a lot of time and a lot of pages to something and you're not really sure what it is. It's a challenge, but that's what makes it fun."

Copyright 1997 by Dana Hubler and Poets and Writers Magazine. All rights reserved

Tags: Philippines, Filipino, World War II, war, Literature, writer, author, novel, novelist, books, #CeciliaBrainard #WhentheRainbowGoddessWept

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