Filipino Women’s Writings

Filipino Women’s Writings

by Edna Zapanta Manlapaz

(A speech presented in the launching seminar of Tulikärpänen – Firefly in Helsinki, 24.4.2001.)
Sivun on päivittänyt 2.1.2007 Riitta Vartti, riitta.vartti @

Let me begin at the end.

Literary historians like myself tend to begin at the beginning, describing the emergence of a type of writing and then tracking its evolution through time.

Unfortunately, limitations of time will not allow me to follow this traditional mode of tracking. To use metaphors appropriate to this electronic age, I shall – instead of pressing the “PLAY” button, press the “FAST FORWARD” button to the present day. Unless and until you raise questions about the past – in which case I shall press the “REWIND” button – let me offer you a panoramic view of the present state of literature written by Filipino Women.

But before I do, let me warn you that I can offer you only generalizations and even then, generalizations that hold for the most part true only of literature written by Filipino women in the English language. Why this is the case I may have another opportunity to explain later.

As I announced earlier, I will begin at the end. I will begin with a conclusion: An steadily increasing number of Filipino women are writing more than ever before. More significantly, their works are being published as never before.

This is undeniably good news – even great news! – considering how in the past the voices of Filipino women (like their counterparts elsewhere in the world) have either been silent or silenced.

But today, women’s voices, individually and collectively, can be heard all over the Philippines. These voices constitute a chorus so strong that they can no longer be ignored. Not even by the men who continue to dominate the world of academic and commercial publishing.

Take for example, two recently-published, widely-distributed and highly influential anthologies, all two compiled and edited by males.

Gemino Abad, an eminent poet-critic, recently completed the trilogy of volumes constituting a retrospective anthology of Filipino poetry in English over the last century. The first volume, covering the years from 1905 to the mid 50’s, includes only six women among a total of eighty; the second, five among fourty nine; the third, thirty of ninety six.

As Abad elsewhere states: “One remarkable thing about our poetry today is the number of women poets who recreate so to speak their sensibility, carving from language a reality that is truer to their “inner promptings”?

An identical claim can be made regarding Filipino fiction. Playwright-critic Isagani Cruz recently edited an anthology which he boldly entitled The Best Philippine Stories of The Century (Tahanan Books, 2001). Of the fifty stories he chose, exactly twenty five were by men, twenty five by women. Not surprisingly, this overt act of political correctness angered many male writers who apparently believed that their work had been unfairly edged out of the anthology. But Cruz had anticipated such a reaction and in his preface to the anthology, defended his stories: “I should explain, however, that I have tried very hard to make the collection at least non-exclusive, or to use the more popular term, politically correct. I have tried to include an equal number of stories by male and female authors, for instance, as well as a fair number of stories by authors living outside the national capital region. I have tried to distribute the stories through the decades, thus avoiding tempocentrism or the blind belief that we always do better than our predecessors.”

Both Abad’s trilogy and Cruz’s single volume anthology are major publications that are assured of shelf space in all libraries. But likely to be even more effective in disseminating women’s writings are textbooks because they have the powerful potential to create a wider readership among the present generation of Filipino readers.

Let me cite two influential textbooks now in circulation. The first, Philippine Literature: A Heritage and Anthology (Anvil,1982;1997), edited by the husband and wife team of Bienvenido Lumbera and Cynthia Nograles Lumbera, first appeared in 1982. When the second edition of the book was published in 1997, the editors identified as a major change the inclusion of more selections by women, “an offshoot of the remarkable assertion in the last decade of gender as a major element of contemporary critical discourse.”

The second textbook, intended for the nation-wide system of the state-owned University of the Philippines, is titled Likhaan (U.P. Press, 1998), published in 1998. The book is divided into four sections (poetry, fiction, essay and drama), each edited by a different scholar. Whether by design or chance, two of the editors are men, the other two women. More significantly, the selections made by the four editors reveal a ratio approximating 1:2 that is, one work by a woman for every two works by a man. This ratio is a dramatic increase from figures in previously-published anthologies which, some decades ago, was as low as 1:12.

The inclusion of works by women in these textbooks has implications that, in the long term, can have only positive impact on the production of women?s writings. For one thing, these selections cannot but encourage young women to write and to write more confidently. It is these future women writers who will help ensure that the present ratio of 1:2 will steadily move, however slowly, to a 1:1 ratio.

For another, these selections by women will enable students to acquire a better balanced view of the world. After all, if as Chairman Mao correctly observed, women hold up half the sky, is it not only fitting that literature studied inside the classroom give witness of this demographic fact?

What do all these figures tell us? First of all, they tell us that Filipino women, in ever greater numbers, are writing more. As Isagani Cruz is quoted to have once said, those who ignore this fact are like ostriches burying their heads in the sand. Unless they mean to suffocate, these ostriches will need to raise their heads and open their ears!

Perhaps because of this warning, there is increasing evidence that the powers-that-be (mostly men) who sit in the editorial boards of journals, who sit in the selection committees of writing workshops, who are members of the board of judges in literary contests are paying more attention to the works of women writers.

Though accurate figures are not available, it is a common observation that increasingly more grants, fellowships and prizes are being awarded to women. Are these given only as a concession to political correctness? The answer is no. Political correctness can go only so far; it is intrinsic merit that gets any writer to the finish line.

Moreover, in several cases, these awards are tacitly offered in belated recognition of intrinsic merit. This is certainly the case when, in 2000, the Philippines named – for the first time ever – a woman as National Artist for Literature. The award, conferred on Edith Tiempo, now eighty years old – was loudly applauded by men and women writers alike, a tacit admission that it was an honor long deserved by Tiempo who had, in the course of over half century, made valuable contributions in the genres of poetry, fiction and essay.

Given the current climate so conducive to women?s writings, young women writers of today should not need to wait as long as Tiempo for public recognition. Whether or not men chose to bury their heads like ostriches, women will spread their wings, and fly high! They will do this, helped by other Filipino women.

Although at present there is only one feminist press in the Philippines: (Babaylan, founded in ____) hopefully there will be more in the future. But in the meantime, there are many women editors and publishers who are only too happy to help their sisters disseminate their works in print. Of the dozens of books devoted to women’s writings that have recently been published, there are a few deserving of mention here.

In 1992, Tina Cuyugan as editor and Karina Bolasco as publisher fearlessly teamed to publish the first ever collection of erotic writings by Filipino women, a volume appropriately titled Forbidden Fruit (Anvil, 1992).

That same year, a colleague Soledad Reyes and I published companion volumes, both anthologies of women’s writings: Songs of Ourselves: Writings by Filipino Women in English (Anvil, 1994) and Ang Silid na Mahiwaga: Katipunan ng Kuwento?t Tula ng mga Babaeng Manunulat (Anvil, 1994).

Since their publications, these two anthologies have served as handy sourcebooks for many teachers who wished to introduce into their literature classrooms more works by women but had, until now, been hampered by a dearth of available materials.

Discussion of these literary work by women in turn pointed to the need for books that would help teachers guide students in their discussions. Two books promptly met that need: Feminist Perspectives in Philippine Literary Texts, edited by Thelma B. Kintanar (U.P. Press, 1992 and University Center for Women’s Studies, 1992), and Feminist Readings of Philippine Fiction, Critique and Anthology by Sylvia Ventura (U.P. Press, 1994).

Recently, just this past year, a feminist press in the United States published Babaylan: An Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers, co-edited by Nick Carbo and Eileen Tabios (Aunt Lute Books, 2000), an anthology of writings by Filipino women based not only in the Philippines but also in the United States.

Not only are Filipina women writers receiving both moral and material support from their sisters in the Philippines, they are receiving similar support from Filipina sisters across the Pacific.

And, to their delighted surprise, Filipina women are receiving support from foreign sisters across the Atlantic. Witness today’s launching of Firefly, the “first ever collection of fiction by Filipino women translated into Finnish.”

On behalf of Filipino women writers, let me thank Riitta Vartti for the time and trouble she has taken to compile and edit the book. Let me also thank Kääntöpiiri, the publisher.

This gesture of universal sisterhood is cause indeed for celebration both in the Philippines and in Finland.