Friday, September 11, 2015


Nick Carbó introduces BABAYLAN: An Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers edited by Nick Carbó and Eileen R. Tabios
(Aunt Lute Press, San Francisco, 2000)


            In the Philippine Literary Constellation, most of the brightest stars (whose names are repeated by the lips of every Filipino high school student) are those of men: Jose Rizal, Francisco Balagtas, Jose Garcia Villa, Bienvenido N. Santos, N.V.M. Gonzalez, F. Sionil Jose, and Nick Joaquin. But there is another half of the sky—pacificblue, pearlwhite, alizarin sunset red, a keeper of secrets at night, a mysterious kiss, a music box of precious scents, a shelf of sounds, a comfortable womb, a rainbow of silk, a sudden storm—a place that is eternally feminine.  This is an area of the sky that male literary cartographers have rarely paid attention to with their sextants, compasses, telescopes, and slide rulers.  Though there is little mention of Filipina women writers like Leona Florentino, Magdalena Jalandoni, Paz Marquez Benitez, Estrella Alfon, Angela Manalang Gloria, or Paz M. Latorena, these women—poets, short story writers, and novelists—contributed much to Philippine literature during the last part of the 19th century and well into the first half of the twentieth  century.  Without them Philippine literature would be only half as rich.  The scholar and critic Thelma B. Kintanar notes: “A bibliography of the Philippine novel from its beginnings to 1975 shows that of 352 novelists listed, 33 were women who wrote 167 of the some 1,200 novels in the list—roughly 10 per cent” (Emergent Voices 1994) 

            The tradition of women's writing in the Philippines can be traced back to the pre-hispanic era of the archipelago when, in certain communities, priestess-poets called babaylan (Bisayan) and catalonan (Tagalog) held sway in the spiritual and ritualistic lives of the people.  These women provided healing, wisdom, and direction for the inhabitants of their barangays (towns) with morality stories, myths, poems, prayers, and chants.  When the Spanish colonizers arrived with Ferdinand Magellan in 1521, they called these women pintadas (painted ones) because of the decorative tattoos on their arms.  During the subsequent 300 years of Spanish colonization under the Catholic Church these priestess-poets gradually lost their positions of privilege and much of that early oral tradition has been erased. 

            The earliest Filipina woman of letters is a poet, Leona Florentino (1849-1884).  She was born in Vigan, Ilokos Sur to a rich landed family and began to write youthful verses in Spanish at the age of ten.  Her parents, following the feudal/patriarchal tradition of the time, married her off to Elias de los Reyes, the son of another landed family in the area.  Together they had five children but their marriage was full of strife.  Her husband forbade her from writing and threatened to ban her from his house.  Leona considered the threat and came to the conclusion that her writing was more important than her marriage to an abusive husband.  So she left her children in care of her sister and went into self-exile to live alone in a place called An-annam, Bantay.  Considering the strong patriarchal and religious codes of the time, this was a very brave act, even braver when one realizes that the husband Leona dared to defy was then the Alcalde (Mayor) of the town she lived in.  Living in relative isolation, she was free to express her creativity in verses and plays she now wrote in Iloko, her native tongue.  She wrote mostly for herself, not intending to have her work published. At the age of thirty-five, she died of tuberculosis.  It was only after her death that she became the first Filipino poet, man or woman, to achieve international acclaim.  In 1887 her son, Isabelo de los Reyes, of the Ilustrado generation living in Spain, managed to have a selection of her poems exhibited in the Exposition Filipina in Madrid.  Her poems were also exhibited in the 1889 Exposition Internationale in Paris and were subsequently selected by Madame Andzia Wolska for inclusion in the book Bibliotheque Internationale des Ourves des Femmes (1889).  Leona was a contemporary of the poets Christina Rossetti in England and Emily Dickinson in America, and her uncompromising poems record a rich imagination that only a Filipina could have captured.  Here is a poem of hers translated from the Spanish by Norma Lua (another appears at the end of this volume to close out the poetry section):


A maiden who turns twenty-eight years old
is like a wilted jasmine, and she should indeed worry
that her merchandise does not become consumo.

Because even if all possible efforts are exerted
to sustain a jasmine past its bloom, when it bends
toward the earth, it always has to fall, for its vitality

has been spent. As early as possible, therefore, you must avoid
terrible old age; always show vitality and cheerfulness
although your old age is already approaching.

If you measure well the wine that you sell
(she addresses a beverage vendor),
many will like you, especially the old men S and B.

Check your bad temper because it is one
of the reasons for the hastening of age,
especially when G  the flirt puts one over you.

Try to divert yourself especially when
the old women D and N become flirtatious,
for they are like the plant tigui that makes one itch.

If you follow my advice, have no doubt that you will get
to the seventh sacrament, which Don Domingo
(another old suitor of yours) has offered.

            Another matriarch of Filipina writing is Magdalena Jalandoni (1891-1978), who wrote twenty-five novels and seventy volumes of corridos in Hiligaynon, a Philippine dialect.  She was born in Iloilo, on the island of Panay, and from a young age was considered a “rebellious” child.  When her mother discovered that Magdalena was writing poems and stories, she discouraged this activity by beating her daughter; Magdalena’s brother, Luis, on the other hand, was encouraged when he showed some talent in writing.  The beatings, however, did not stop Magdalena from expressing her rich imagination; by the age of 16, she had written her first novel Ang Mga Tunok Sang Isa Ka Bulak (A Flower’s Thorns) behind her mother’s back and had it published under a pseudonym.  Magdalena is known as the first full-time Filipina woman of letters.  Devoting all of her energies to the life of the imagination, she stipulated that if she were to ever marry, her husband would have to be “a man with the soul of an artist . . . and as a first test, the man must first write a good novel.”  She stayed single her whole life.

            The arrival of another colonizer, the United States, to the Philippines in 1898 brought a new language which the natives used to express themselves. 1902 to 1940 marks the period in which Philippine literature in English begins to “emerge” from the shackles of American colonization.  During this period of literary “apprenticeship” (in English—as noted above, Filipinas had already well established literary traditions in the vernacular as well as in Spanish) several Filipina women took the front stage in the development of English as a Philippine literary tradition.  The first published short story in English that attained superior praise from American and Filipino critics was “Dead Stars” (1927) by Paz Marquez Benitez (1894-1983).  Other master short story writers of this period included Loreto Paras Sulit, Paz Latorena, and Estrella Alfon.  Angela Manalang Gloria was the first woman to publish a book of poetry in English in the Philippines.  Her collection Poems (1940) was entered in the competition for the Commonwealth Prize but did not win because a number of the judges (all male) objected to three controversial poems: “Revolt From Hymen,” “Querida,” and “Heloise to Abelard.”  She had to revise the book, changing the word “whore” to “bore” in one of her poems, so it could be used in schools.

            The closing decade of this century has brought change, a new horizon, and new stars to the Philippine literary constellation.  Patterns of migration have brought Filipinos to the United States as immigrants and sojourners.  Among these pioneer writers is Felicidad V. Ocampo, who authored The Lonesome Cabin (1932) and The Brown Maiden (1933), both published in the United States.  The first Filipina poet to achieve a measure of success in the U.S. was Edith Tiempo when her poem "Lament for the Littlest Fellow" was published in the February 1952 issue of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse and her book of poetry The Tracks of Babylon and Other Poems was published in 1966.  In 1975 Jessica Hagedorn published Dangerous Music, a ground-breaking book of poetry, and followed it with a book of short fiction, Pet Food and Tropical Apparitions (1981).  Hagedorn's star began to glow brighter in 1990 when her first novel Dogeaters was published by Pantheon and was nominated for a National Book Award.  She followed this success with a book of poetry and short fiction Danger and Beauty (1993) and a second novel The Gangster of Love (1996).  Another Filipina novelist whose star is also illuminating the night sky is Ninotchka Rosca.  Her two novels State of War (1988) and Twice Blessed (1992) are watershed marks in Filipino and Filipino American literature. 

            Other Filipina writers have gained acclaim in this part of the world as well, including  Marianne Villanueva’s acclaimed book of short stories Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (1991), Cecilia Manguerra-Brainard’s first novel to be published in the U.S., When the Rainbow Goddess Wept (1992) and first time novelist Sophia Romero’s Always Hiding (1998). Filipina poets’ collections are also making their mark in the U.S., such as Mila D. Aguilar’s A Comrade is as Precious as a Rice Seedling (1984), Virginia Cerenio’s influential Trespassing Innocence (1989), and Maria Luisa Aguilar-Carino’s In the Garden of the Three Islands (1995). In 1995, Fatima Lim-Wilson won a Pushcart Prize and the Journal Award/Ohio State University Prize for her book Crossing the Snow Bridge (1995). All of these prominent Filipina poets and writers have had two or more books (written in English) published in the Philippines. 

            The Filipina American literature written in this country is inextricably linked to the tradition of Filipina literature back in the islands.  The appearance of this anthology dedicated solely to the writing of Filipinas and Filipina Americans is an historic first in the United States.  There have been anthologies of women’s writing published in the Philippines within the last twenty years such as Edna Zapanta Manlapaz’s watershed collection Song of Ourselves (1994), Tina Cuyugan’s Forbidden Fruit (1992), Mila Astorga Garcia, Marra PL. Lanot, and Lilia Quindoza-Santiago’s Filipina I (1984), but until now, none have been published on this side of the Pacific Ocean.  Babaylan does not attempt to be a comprehensive collection of all the important women writers of Filipino heritage. What Eileen Tabios and I have assembled here is just a glimpse of the varied contemporary talent of women writing today.  We begin each section with the work of a woman writer (Paz Marquez-Benitez’s “Dead Stars” in Prose and Angela Manalang-Gloria’s three poems in Poetry) who is no longer alive but is considered as a literary matriarch of her field.  Then we present the writers and poets in alphabetical order to let the stories, poems, and plays speak for themselves in their natural grandeur.  We have created a sub-section, “Poetry in Translation,” which includes poems written in Tagalog, Ilokano, Cebuano, and Kinaray-a with English translations.  Some of the poems were written originally in the vernacular language like those of Luisa A. Igloria, Elynia S. Ruth Mabanglo, and Milagros Lachica. Marjorie Evasco, by contrast, “transcreates” into her native Cebuano poems written originally in English.  We hope that this section helps to elucidate the multilingual aspect of Filipino culture in which a writer is comfortable expressing herself not only in her native dialect but also in the national language (Pilipino/Tagalog) and in English.  The transnational component of Filipina writing is represented by women who have productive creative lives in cities as glamorous as Paris, Madrid, London, Sydney, and Singapore. These Filipinas, like the formidable short story writer Reine Arcache Melvin in Paris and the multi-awarded poet/fictionist/playwright Merlinda Bobis in Australia have made their careers in their respective countries as Filipina identified writers.

            There are also many younger Filipina Americans emerging as points of light on the horizon who are now establishing publishing careers in the United States, like M. Evelina Galang, author of the influential collection of short stories Her Wild American Self (1996); and Lara Stapleton, author of a critically acclaimed short story collection The Lowest Blue Flame Before Nothing (1998). In the genre of poetry Catalina Cariaga announces the presence of a powerful Filipina voice in the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E movement of American poetry with her first book Cultural Evidence (1999), while Marisa de los Santos’ prize-winning first book From the Bones Out (2000) provides us a glimpse of a future star in American poetry.  The Filipinas in this anthology will continue the rich tradition of Philippine literature in English and they will contribute much to the ever-expanding vista of the American and global literary sky.

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