Saturday, June 10, 2017

Women and My Writing (And Advice to Young Writers) by Cecilia Brainard

Women and My Writing
(And Advice to Young Writers)

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

[This is a redacted version of the author’s blog post in

This short version was published in Positively Filipino last April 26, 2017]

I’ve been told that many of the characters I’ve created are women, and when I first heard this I got huffy, thinking I was being insulted. In fact, this is true, and I’d like to now look at my writing and see how it connects with women. I also want to share other thoughts about writing as well as advice to writers.
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, but 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: I could be whatever I wanted to be. Like a women’s libber, she had advised 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 she 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. During this era of Filipino machismo, she managed and ran the Imprenta Rosario, her husband’s pet project, even while she invested in real estate to support her family. Remedios, 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.
Concepcion and Remedios have taught me about the power and strength of the Filipino woman. They were colorful too and never compromised their femininity even as they did “man’s work.”
These women ancestors and the other women in Cebu where I come from have grabbed my imagination. Some have even 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” – a character who sprang from the memory of a Cebuana who had two bumps on her forehead, covered by an elaborate hairdo and who was rumored to have had horns!

The Woman’s Body
Indeed women characters dominate my three short story collections (Woman with Horns and Other Stories, New Day, 1988; Acapulco at Sunset and Other Stories, Anvil, 1995; Vigan and Other Stories, Anvil 2011). My three novels (When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Penguin 1994 & University of Michigan 1999; Magdalena, Plain View Press 2002 & UST Publishing House 2016; The Newspaper Widow (UST Publishing House 2017) 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 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, for instance, the protagonist balks at her errant husband and she takes on a lover, an American captain. This is Magdalena’s act of defiance against her husband, Victor, and against the Filipino querida system.

I started writing letters to my dead father when I was nine. I later turned to diary writing and have kept this journal writing up to now. 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? These are some of the questions that go through my head.
When I started writing fiction, I focused on telling what happened to my fictional 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.
In one of those classes, I wrote a story and expected praise. I was completely stunned when 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 feedback I got, 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 fictionalized Cebu by creating Ubec, which allowed me to “lie” freely as I told my stories.
            I looked at historical times and created characters and stories to explain (at least to myself) what the Philippines and Filipinos may have been. I discovered that character was important, and that I had to dig deep into my characters to make them unique. I learned that 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.
Motherhood and Writing
When I was taking writing classes at the Writers’ Program at UCLA Extension, I was a mother of three young boys. The classes were a form of therapy, a respite from my housewifely and motherly duties. 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 fulltime work. I interviewed at 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 had to discuss the matter with my husband. 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 commitment to writing, I’ve juggled being wife, mother, and writer. I’ve fought for the time and space to pursue my literary work, arguing at times with family members who 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’ve 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, 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.

Navigating Publishing World
Getting published anywhere is difficult. It may be doubly-difficult if you’re a woman and a “minority” working in the US. Here are some ideas I’ve picked up after years of writing and publishing. 
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. Some wrote of white protagonists with backgrounds different from themselves. 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, a choice that limits the commercial possibilities of my work.
      My novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, which was published by a mainstream publisher (Dutton/Penguin), was probably picked up because the book is about World War II. The New York publisher had expected a larger audience for the book. When the book didn’t make the kind of money they were hoping, Dutton/Penguin remaindered (discontinued) the book. Fortunately the University of Michigan Press reissued it and this novel remains in print.
      I believe that Filipino American writers have difficulty getting published in large part 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 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 than it does the business end of matters.
      Japanese Americans, who buy, read, and promote their own writers, have writers who have an easier time getting published mainstream (this is my perception, in any case).
Advice to Young Writers
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/poetry, 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: #Philippines #literature #women Cebu, Philippine, writing, advice
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