Writing Women's Wor(l)ds
Today, there was plenty of time for contemplating the connections between women and the word. For starters, in the morning, I sat in a thesis defense panel consisting of three women two of my colleagues in my department who are fiction writers, and myself; in the same room were two other women: one of them, the candidate, recent grandmother and sometime entrepreneur (she runs a mail order tea business on the side) who was submitting a collection of nine stories worked over a period of five years (as a part-time student) so she could graduate in a few months with the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree; and the other, her best friend, herself a student of literature and writing. It was an efficient meeting, clocked faithfully to the end of the hour and a half by the thesis adviser; together we discussed the framework, structure, approaches and devices of craft and language in each of the stories. Criticism and suggestions were givenplenty of it complex and daunting, but given and received without rancor (hmm, I thought, is it because there's no testosterone in the room?), and there was time to clarify and ponder both what was brought to the table, as well as options that could have but were not taken, the different drafts and versions each story took before they got to the point at which we were seeing them, the choices in point of view and framing. At one point, Paula (the candidate) reiterated that in her stories she had chosen mostly to dwell on narratives and situations involving women and their relationships within familiesas daughters, sisters, wives, ex-wives, lovers, granddaughters, aunts, siblings, because these were strongest in her own awareness and perception of her own development against the context of family. I understood completely; I felt she did not have to make a defense on this point, at least not to me.
This reminded me of my own experience of coming to narrative, coming to a consciousness of writing, which is also marked similarly in a very female way. By way of exposition, there are parts of everyone's childhood (or perhaps I could be wrong?) that might perhaps be equivalent to "gothic" momentsmoments of high drama, that sturm und drang born of volatile soap-opera style conflicts, secrets, and confessions. In mine, some of the elements involve episodes of early sexual molestation, and an inability to name and confess until much later in adulthood, coupled with other I suppose mundane tensions of family life (paternal grandmother not liking her daughter-in-law, tears and entreaties, sometimes the sight of silverware flying through the air, etc.). One of the things that saved me, I think, was reading; and ultimately, writing, for these paths lead into each other like a nipple aimed at a mouth ready to suck.
I have memories of having difficulties falling asleep, and of my mother making up stories and whispering them into my ear. She would make them up on the spot, one thing leading to another, mingling everyday and homely details with the fanciful, bizarre and supernatural. Perhaps she grew weary of the demand for so much invention. I learned to read early, at age threeand on my sixth birthday she gave methe audacity of it still astounds mea paperback, newsprint copy of Estrella Alfon's Magnificence and Other Stories. I have this dog-eared book with me in the home I now make in Norfolk, Virginiaone of the books I took care to carry with me when I relocated here in 1998. I remember the day when my mother picked out the book for me (for me! it still has the capacity to astound mewhat was she thinking, giving a child this book?) at The Ato bookshop on Session Road, which was at that time on the right-hand side of the basement level of the same building housing the local office of Philippine Airlines (PAL). Picking it up from where it stood out on a rack, a stylized geometric figure of a reclining woman on the bottom of its mustard yellow cover, she said simply: This is a great writer. Perhaps you will also learn to write like her someday.It is many years later from that moment, and from the many moments when I sat on my parents' crocheted bedspread that left patterns of peacocks and daisy chains on my thighs, reading about Compostela street, about a day that cannot be written about; about the lonely laundrywoman who sprains her ankle, of her drunken mistress, the would-be cochero-in-shining-armor, and of course, in the title story, the little girl who learns about the presence of evil in the world and the magnificent mother who without pause slap, slap, slaps the embodiment of depravity down a flight of stairs and out into the dark.
The journey I've since taken into the life of words has been lit by figures like Estrella Alfonwomen whose words and lives I know because of what they've written; and also now by figures of women who have become my friends and fellow sojourners on this same path. Now we know more about the early babaylanes, mambunongs or catalonans, those wise keepers of the flame that presided over ritual, poetry, and tribal life; we are perhaps more indebted to them than we know for our histories (herstories). We know about Gabriela Silang whose heroic life is a narrative we strive to embody in our work and practice. We know about the prodigious and prolific Magdalena Jalandoni, and the rebellious and lyric spirit of the Ilokano poet Leona Florentino. We know that the first modern short story published in English in the Philippines was written by a womanPaz Marquez Benitez. We recite the names of Angela Manalang Gloria, Trinidad Tarrosa-Subido, Edith Tiempo, Virginia Moreno, Kerima Polotan Tuvera, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Linda Ty-Casper, Marra Pl. Lanot, Marjorie Evasco, Michelle Skinner, Rowena Tiempo-Torrevillas, Merlinda Bobis, Rosario Lucero, Reine Arcache Melvin, Reme Grefalda, Nadine Sarreal, Jessica Hagedorn, Sabina Murray, Ninotchka Rosca, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Angela Narciso Torres, Marianne Villanueva, Rebecca Anonuevo, Lara Stapleton, Gina Apostol, Fatima Lim Wilson, and countless others, knowing that this list grows everyday, and that Filipina writing in the diaspora is alive and well.
For the Filipina writer at home or abroad (wherever these points of reference might be), as well as for other women writers (ha! someone once asked me in an interview when I became a woman writer, and I had to say, I have always been a woman, but about coming to writing, well, there is where we might be able to say a thing or two about chronology)necessity is a shared constant, and writing is (at least in my opinion) not a rarefied and privileged undertaking which can be performed in absentia of other demands on and from life. That proverbial room of one's own, according to our sister Virginia, does indeed feel physically like a single room, but one which is in our experience simultaneously occupied by overlapping and multiple tenants: professional duties, domestic duties, maternal and familial obligations, sometimes the sheer hard tack of making one day meet the next. The miracle is that art grows, words arise, even in the wildness, chaos and desolation of all of these worlds.
13 October 2004