JUSTINE VILLANUEVA Reviews
We Are No Longer Babaylan: Essays & Stories by Elsa Valmidiano
(New Rivers Press, Minneapolis, 2020)
Before my review, a confession: I was afraid to read We Are No Longer Babaylan by Elsa Valmidiano.
I personally know Elsa. I have had interactions with her, in person and via social media. Elsa has encouraged and supported me in my creative writings. Like me, she knows the struggle of working as an attorney when one’s passion lies somewhere else. She lives in a neighborhood close to where I used to live. She’s roughly my age (I think), 5’0”, 100ish pounds, with brown skin and straight black hair.
I was afraid to read the words of somebody who feels familiar.
When this fear first came up, I asked myself why. Don’t we long to read works that reflect to us parts of our reality? Isn’t this what we want, to be seen and feel that we matter? Isn’t this one of the major reasons why I write--to shed light on my experiences and, in the process, become visible?
So then why be afraid of reading the experiences of someone who looks like me?
It was as if Elsa already anticipated my fear. Her piece, "Be, Not Be," answered my conundrum.
“Being… five feet tall, one hundred pounds, size zero frame, brown skin, with long straight black hair, lean arms, lean legs, small breasts, almond-shaped eyes, black eyes, long straight lashes, carved cheekbones, button nose, small hands, small feet—
tired of it
could use a little bit more of it
would like to put it away sometime
This is exactly how I feel about being in this body that I have. I want to be but sometimes I also don’t want to be. I see value in reading about the beautiful experiences of someone who looks like me but I also sometimes don’t care to because it’s too real, too upsetting, too triggering.
Elsa talks about the female body in all its glory, brokenness, and beauty. I want to look away because the brown petite body she describes is like mine. In "Mommy’s Two Belly Buttons," for example, she tells us a story about tubal ligations, abortions, giving birth, c-sections, contraception, periods, breast lumps and cysts, and even yeast and urinary tract infections. I feel vulnerable. These are things about my body that I, and we as a society, don’t usually talk about so openly.
I feel just as vulnerable reading "Blighted." I remember my own personal moments of invasion by speculums and not-so-magical wands. In my act of remembering these unhappy spaces, I push back: I get that our stories matter but what is the point of telling another story of abuse, rape, violence against bodies like mine? A part of me wants to refuse to tell any more stories like this, to be seen in this light. Why remember and then tell of these times?
And, again, it seems Elsa has anticipated my questions. “I surrender my memories as if they mean something, when they simply could be triggers for a time we both want to forget…. I make myself remember to forgive the girl I used to be.”
And it’s in this last line I find the best reason to not be afraid of and instead celebrate this collection of stories and essays that make me both want to stop but also keep on reading. When I read this collection, I remember so much of my own youthful bodily joys and traumas. And, as in "Postcard," I am reminded to forgive myself for those times when I was complicit in the oppression of my own body, to be kind to myself, and allow myself to just be… or not.
Justine Villanueva traces her ancestral roots to the Bukidnon tribe of Kalasungay, Bukidnon. Her creative work focuses on decolonization, social justice, and reconnecting with the living Earth. She writes children's books and is the founder of Sawaga River Press, a nonprofit press that publishes children's books featuring Filipino children in the diaspora and their experiences. She lives in the Patwin-Wintun territory in Davis, California with her husband and two sons. Find her at JustineVillanueva.com.