A Filipina Writer's Story

by Lakambini A. Sitoy
(A speech presented in the launching seminar of Tulikärpänen - Firefly in Helsinki, 24.4.2001.)



As a child, I had a hyperactive imagination. I painted pictures and told stories, even before I could read. In our house we spoke two languages, English and Cebuano. I grew up in the part of the Philippines known as the Visayas. In Luzon, Tagalog is the native language; in the Visayas it is Cebuano. In Mindanao, which was settled by people from around the country who succeeded in marginalizing the Muslim tribes, the languages are English, Tagalog, Cebuano, and others.

English was the language that shaped my world. I learned to read in it and to write, at age six. I used Cebuano to express the gut-level sensations, like hunger or being tired.

I think I speak and write English better than the average middle-class Filipino. This was one of the factors which determined my career path -- I am currently a writer who works as a newspaper editor to earn a living. I can attribute my English proficiency to my parents' careers -- they were both educators. The average middle-class Filipino from our part of the world probably expresses herself in Cebuano first, before English and then perhaps Tagalog. For the masses -- those living below the poverty line -- English is a totally alien language. And yet 70 percent of Filipinos do fall below the poverty line. To a large extent Filipinos who write in English and learned the language through reading American or British books, are removed in terms of world view and culture from a large part of the populace. But we are as Filipino, in our superstitions and gut-level values, as the farmers or fisherfolk.

I write in English not for political reasons, not to make a statement, but because this is the only language that I am really good at. Because I grew up in the Visayas, my other language was Cebuano. However, because the central government in Luzon dictated that "Filipino", the national language, be based on Luzon's Tagalog, "Filipino" was always an alien language to me. I learned it through my grammar books in grade school but it was never a valid way to express the way I felt. I only learned Tagalog -- conversational Tagalog -- at age 22, when I moved to Manila. Up to now I cannot speak nor write in formal Tagalog: our educational system puts a premium on English, which was always a ready fall-back. And as for Cebuano, it is invisible, virtually expunged, from the educational system. Quite unfair, since more Filipinos speak it than any other indigenous language. I can speak it, but was never taught the formal rules of spelling, syntax, grammar -- nor were we exposed to exemplary writing in Cebuano while in school.

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My background

Let me tell you more about the family I was born into. My father was a university professor -- a church historian and an ordained minister. My mother was a grade school science teacher.

We were never rich. We were never poor either. Our family put a premium on excellence. The religion in our home was Protestant. We grew up on a university campus in one of the provinces. Not cosmopolitan, but provincial. My story in the book Armani is about a woman from a province who goes to the big city, and the problems she encounters upon return, not the least of which is a husband who can scarcely understand the way she has sought to distance herself from her origins, in justifiable pursuit of a better life.

I mention all these because these are part of my identity as a woman and as a writer. These facts and family myths have made me unique from the vast majority of Filipinos, and yet undeniably anchored in the matrix of Filipino culture -- for no matter what class Filipinos are born into, no matter what language we speak or what community we live and die in eventually, we are religious, superstitious, tradition-bound, family-oriented, fantasy-needing and repressed ... but also an exceedingly status-seeking, sensual, ambitious, worldly and colonized people.

You are aware that the country I represent is Third World and developing. Seventy percent of Filipinos live below the poverty line, publishing and literary writing in this country involves a very tiny fraction of the other 30 percent. It's perhaps due to our colonial past, and the pervading influence of American culture, that most middle- and upper-middle class Filipinos prefer foreign literature to our own. Filipino writers are constrained by a lack of popular readership. While majority of the people do not think in, much less read, English, and cannot even afford a book, the minority that could well have enough disposable income to support our efforts tend to think of Filipino literature as boring, hyper-serious, overly politicized and academic. There has been no "popular" English-language writer to date. The Tagalog fiction writers, arguably, enjoy a larger following, but that is also because their works translate easily into screenplays. The movies are always an excellent way of connecting with Filipinos, masses as well as middle class.

Up until a decade or so ago, the publishing industry in the Philippines was virtually limited to textbooks or inspirational tracts. The universities had their own presses, but with a limited distribution system and no readership base outside the academe, books of fiction and poetry were doomed to founder. The Marcos government, with the terrible depredations it wrought on the economy and on freedom of speech, curtailed the development of the publishing industry even further.

But the situation has improved within the last decade . A kind of mini-explosion in publishing took place in the 1990s, as computer software made it easier to print, lay out and edit reader-friendly books. For a few years Filipinos also had relative confidence in the economy. In the late 1990s the Internet made publishing very easy, all of a sudden -- neither space nor financial constraints stood in the way of the possibility of recognition, especially for very young, untested writers fresh from college.

I wish to stress, though, that it was not the sudden availability of forums thanks to technology that caused a flowering in Filipino writing. The best Filipino writing, I think, has been strung out over several decades in the 20th century. The technological explosion of the 1990s encouraged very young writers, some still in their teens, to speak up, and many Internet magazines and new publications style themselves as revisionist, trendy, hip, cool.

As to the issue of language - Filipinos do not speak the same language all the time, but we certainly understand each other despite this. A genuine Filipino literature would take into consideration the different tongues in which the entirety of the Filipino experience is expressed. It would not perpetuate the fallacy that we are a homogeneous race. In the last 20 years, Filipinos have traveled to the four corners of the world: many have intermarried or otherwise soaked up the local cultures. The inputs that these people will bring to the culture - at home or in the diaspora -- are very important. Someone must speak for the sons and daughters of mixed-race marriages - Amerasians, Eurasians, AfroAsians. Someone must overturn stereotypes about their mothers and fathers. If maids and so-called mail order brides, seamen and laborers in Saudi Arabia, do not have the exposure, the education or the opportunity to write and publish their stories, then I believe it is the writers themselves who should break down those pernicious socio-economic barriers and approach these people. Listen to their stories without judging. Have the grace and humility to write fiction about their fellow Filipinos, fiction that is not self-indulgent - that is not just about angst, the club scene, the status symbol that leisure drugging has become, run-ins with strict parents and maids - but about the lives of those who middle-class prejudices would make invisible.

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Learning to write

Creative writing was not held in esteem among middle-class Filipinos for a long time. A dead-end vocation - who will read you anyway? That was the reasoning.

There is no state support for writers, except for a handful of very senior National Artists. So, a few years after graduation, I figured that writers had two approaches to survival in the real world. One was to choose a career that had nothing to do with their creative ambitions, like accounting. The other was to choose a related career, like journalism or the academe, provided it would be relatively undemanding, giving them plenty of inner space and time to write.

Some artistic types labor under the notion that their talent is sacred and must be protected from the "real world." They take it lovingly out for a couple of hours on the weekend, long enough to produce a few scintillating phrases that should see them through another philistine week in the financial district of Makati. But I totally disagree. Talent is there to be used. It's in the exploitation of your talent that you fully understand the difference between artist and hack, between inspiration and technique, between discipline and experiment. Working with words every day, as I do as an editor and column-writer, keeps my skills in shape.

Summer is when most young writers pack up and go off to the mountains or the seashore to go to "workshops," generally supported by universities, like Silliman and the University of the Philippines.

Writer's workshops, although they can be traumatic, are useful, especially to those who aren't sure whether they can commit to a writing/academic career, with its politics and personal scrutiny. They're also good for middle-age types who are returning to the fold, so to speak, and have a couple of pieces, written over a 10-year period perhaps, that they need to have assessed.

They seem to be a necessary rite of passage for the novice writer. They typically run seven days to three weeks, and are essentially social events. The workshop fellows eat together, get drunk together, weep together and go off on long, diffident hikes over sand or through pines. Each day, everyone sits down for the morning and afternoon sessions with the panelists, senior writers of much repute, to grill (or praise) someone's poem, story or play. The criticism is done anonymously but everyone more or less has an idea of who is up for skewering on a given day. There are tears, there are fights. It is in workshops that fierce alliances - and feuds - are forged that might last a lifetime.

I remember being 20 years old and trying to weigh my options, which were either to be a lawyer and go it alone, or to enroll in a writing course, submitting to what I perceived to be a super-politicized and nationalistic academic tradition. There were certain risks that I fearfully considered, before enrolling in the creative writing programs, first of Silliman University, then of UP-Diliman. Every young writer is faced with these options. We grow up steeped in movies, MTV and Counterstrike (the nerdier kids also read books.) But we learn, sooner or later, that, as Asians and Filipinos, to achieve some sort of literary prominence, we must not be proficient in mere storytelling, but must keep in mind that our literary production must contribute in part to the grand epic of the Filipino people, whatever that may be.

To a young person who has been writing quietly for five or 10 years, supported by friends and drawing inspiration from Neil Gaiman or Tom Clancy, gravitating to the workshop/academic writing culture will be a calculated risk. Naturally there will be benefits - The academe is a jump-off point for a writing-related career; young writers can meet people who might then pull strings in the corporate world. The academe puts young people directly in the writing scene, with its politics and favorites. It exposes writers to styles and themes that are currently of academic interest (some would say "fashionable").

But these are the risks: 1. That novice writers may lose their individuality, by molding their writing to what is in fashion, in order to earn A grades and praise. 2. That they may be discouraged and quit altogether. 3. That new influences will cast them adrift, making them lose sight of their original project.

Probe beneath the prickliness and the quest for plaudits, cast aside the "Dawson's Creek"-like dialogue, and you will find that many young writers—willing to take the risks above - are bound by a common project: to try to make some sense of their crazy, contradictory Filipino-ness. They too want to tell "Our Story." They bring to the project their own lives.

My issues

In the days of my childhood, I wrote primarily for the escape that story-telling provided. Like many writers, I started very early, in grade school, composing long, fantastic tales in secret notebooks, well into adolescence. There wasn't a time, between age 8 and 20, that I was not involved in some imaginary world or other. I never wrote for the sheer beauty of language, as many do who eventually become poets. I was conscious of my femaleness, but never knew it would someday define my writing. I was not aware of any need to sympathize with, or side with, any feminist cause.

While the adult men in my life were either indulgent or indifferent, the adult women -- my mother and her sisters -- were fussy. They imposed too many constraints on young girls. We could not sit with our legs apart, even in our long checkered uniform skirts. We could not take walks through banana groves or sugarcane fields or by the river alone. We were expected to be able to cook and clean early on. It was unfeminine not to know how to keep house. We could not walk alone through the plaza, little girls of eight, past where adolescent boys hung out sucking on avocado ice candies and calling out to passersby. We could not ride motorcycles in skirts. We could not laugh wildly. We could not let a boy know that we liked him. We could not walk shoulder to shoulder with a high school boy, in the early evening, around the plaza. We could not go into a boy's room, nor a boy enter ours.

That was what it was like, growing up young and Filipina. The life of a girl was divided into what was proper and what was naturally obscene; moreover, the obscene part did not necessarily come directly from her. It was enough to be perceived as "loose" by the community in order to BE loose.

This culture ran counter to the principles of my education, which was frank, naive and guilt-free. It seemed to contradict the principles of biology, the history of the earth, the logic of gravity. Science was explained most beautifully and systematically in my books. By contrast, the thousand and one taboos of female behavior were senseless and case-to-case, aggravated by the fact that my mother and aunts never cared to explain why -- why men were dirty and the women they sullied even dirtier, why it was so important to behave a certain way or why such a premium was put on appearances. I suppose they had thought it sufficient to indoctrinate us in proper behavior and hope that a natural docility would see us through, unquestioning and virginal, all the way to marriage. We were thus not prepared for the possibility of violence coming from men. If we were victims of violence, it would seem to be our fault.

And yet this near-medieval matrix existed beneath a liberal humanist veneer. I suppose many educated Filipinos have that contradiction within themselves.

There is a different kind of "liberality," a "liberal feminism" Filipino-style, at work in our culture as well. This is the notion, half-jocular, that women are stronger and smarter than their men. Our matrons pamper their men, yet sigh about their childishness. You will often hear Filipinos referring to our culture as matriarchal, and proudly boasting that of all the women in Asia, ours enjoy the greatest freedoms. Filipinos proudly declare that long before the women of America and England were liberated, we had our lady lawyers, lady doctors, lady engineers.

There is a contradiction between this middle-class mindset and the many injunctions I mentioned earlier. But somehow everything manages to proceed in superficially smooth fashion.

For a woman to be worth her salt, she must be successful in her career, even a traditional male one like engineering. Cheesecake jobs like stewardessing and public relations were reserved for the dumb girls, the college sluts. Sensuality was discouraged, alright, but a young woman was told to pretty herself up so as to be the envy of the whole town. Our world, it seemed to the confused adolescent I was, revolved around whether we were good daughters, good enough for some ideal man some day. Our degrees and careers heightened our worth.

In a way I fought these assumptions as a child. I'm still fighting them to this day. My fiction frequently addresses them.

Today, my writing is directed at both male and female readers. I rarely have a homogeneous readership in mind. I construct female characters who are complex and do their own share of power-tripping, or who are fallible and willingly cling to painful relationships. I create male characters who are capable of pain, if not sensitivity to the women around them, who are well-intentioned, if gently ignorant. I cannot see women entirely as victims, possibly because the women in my life were so strong. Often my anti-heroines are female. When I write, I address the culture I grew up in, which to a great reflects the general Filipino culture - its repression of sexuality, its denial of family secrets, its condemnation and simultaneous embrace of material pleasures, its separation of the male and female worlds, its conformity, the way it discourages introspection and the expression of feelings. I am aware that this is a culture that can be exceedingly judgmental of women working abroad as dancers or maids, or who are married to foreigners. An important conflict for me is that between the individual and the constraints of her social class. I try to explore topics hitherto taboo, even to many empowered women writers - lesbian attraction, masturbation, incest, rivalry between women. I aim to pierce the veil that keeps women from truly seeing each other, my pen being the slow blade.


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