I may have said something about my father, a simplistic generalization of the roles he played in my life, because one day he took me to my parents’ bedroom and pulled out a briefcase from his desk drawer. I remember staring at the handle as he opened the briefcase, for it had been gnawed at, exposing the sticky rubber underneath its plastic coating. (We purchased almost everything we owned from yard sales, and this was probably one of my father’s new acquisitions.) Inside the briefcase were two rolled certificates. He undid the ribbon that held the first one, and said, “Back in our home country, I was recognized as a writer. Here is the highest award a writer can win in the Philippines.” It was a Palanca Award he had won for a collection of poetry in English in 1989, two years after I was born and a year before we left for America. He unrolled another certificate, on which his name was printed; it was another Palanca Award, a second prize for a collection of poems. “It’s been a struggle for me to make a name for myself here, but I just wanted you to know that I was able to do that back home,” he said, allowing me to spread the certificates on my lap. As I handed them back to him, I asked myself why we had to come to America, why my father had to leave behind all those people who knew who he really was, who gave him prizes for all those hours spent laboring quietly over words.
I had vague memories of the Philippines, having been brought to America at the age of three. But my parents constantly reminded me, as I grew up, that the Philippines was our home, and that we’d someday return. You had playmates there, my father said, and if you meet them again they’ll speak to you in Tagalog, a language you were beginning to learn before we moved away. In the Philippines, we have a female President, a kind and brave woman who helped us win back our freedoms from an evil man named Marcos. It’s a better place now, unlike before, and we’ll be back, soon as your mother finishes what she has to do. The more my father spoke about the Philippines, the more it represented the promised land, a place where I could escape from the cruelties of grownups in America. In the Philippines, I wouldn’t be placed in detention by my teachers without a proper explanation, and I wouldn’t be a primary suspect when a desk was vandalized or a ruler was snapped in two. I saw myself playing the lead part in a school play in the Philippines, not just a supporting role like a villain’s minion or a tree. If the Philippines were a place where my father won prizes for his poems, surely it was also a place where I wouldn’t be treated as if I didn’t belong.
Our time to return finally arrived when my mother defended her dissertation and earned her PhD in Mathematics from the University of Delaware. My optimism nearly matched my father’s sense of relief as we sold our belongings, packed the possessions we wouldn’t part with in balikbayan boxes to send home, and bade farewell to my parents’ friends, many of whom were Filipino. At farewell parties, I’d hear them ask my parents, in worried tones, if they thought I’d be able to adjust once we returned. Did one ever have to adjust to one’s home, I asked myself. But my father was insistent. This isn’t our home. We don’t belong here.
We landed in Manila in November 1995, three days before Super Typhoon Rosing made landfall in Manila Bay and nearly blew away the bay window in my aunt’s living room. The air was as thick as water when we landed, and my head swam in the heat we walked down the tarmac. The ground I walked on, as I held onto my mother’s hand, didn’t feel solid enough; we had flown over the waters of the Pacific for what felt like eternity, and even if I was now walking on solid ground, it didn’t quite seem like we had landed. The inside of the airport was dingy and run-down, and brown men with dark hair like mine barked orders at each other in a harsh, alien tongue as they hauled luggage onto wooden platforms for us to claim. My aunt and cousin met us outside the airport, and everything seemed damp: the hot, thick air, my cousin’s sweat-stained T-shirt, the palm trees that dotted the center islands of streets gleaming with wetness. A man with a soothing American drawl spoke on the radio when we arrived at my aunt’s apartment in Malate, and I learned from my aunt that the voice on the radio belonged to my uncle. As another cousin of mine handed me a Hershey’s candy bar, my uncle announced on-air that his wife’s sister and husband, as well as their daughter Monica, had just landed in the country. He then put on the song, “Welcome Back”. When my uncle later returned from his shift at the radio station, I couldn’t believe that this small, brown, gray-haired man was the same person who spoke in a perfect American accent on the airwaves. But when he opened his mouth, the familiar sounds of America tumbled forth from his lips, reassuring me that America wasn’t too far away, and that this wasn’t such a dangerous, unfamiliar place. I immediately warmed up to him because he spoke like me and told jokes that I could understand. I learned later on that he had received elocution lessons from the Maryknoll nuns who taught at the exclusive Catholic school he attended as a boy in Baguio. The more I think about him these days, the more I see him as a person who reminded me of America, the land where I spent my formative years, and whose company allowed me somehow to acknowledge the uneasiness I felt in the land my parents called home.
My parents did not warn me about the poverty I’d see on the streets of Manila when we departed, four days later, for the city of Baguio. Instead of apologizing for the frantic crowds fighting for space in rickety jeeps and buses, my father chose to point out the rice paddies that surrounded us as soon as we escaped the capital in a van our aunt rented for us. I was told that our hometown was in the mountains, and as we drove up the two-lane highway that snaked its way through the Cordillera mountain range, the air in our van grew thinner, and a comfortable chill set in. Pine trees with scraggly branches replaced the squat leafy trees of the lowlands. In the days that followed our arrival, I accompanied my parents as they revisited to their familiar haunts. We weren’t on the move anymore, and they couldn’t afford to reject what they saw. Like them, I had to take the Philippines for what it was. If someone blocked the sidewalk with their potted plants or sari-sari store, we had to walk on the narrow street and risk being sideswiped by a car; there was nothing we could do, for this was our country.
Things only got worse when I started going to school. It was hard enough that my classmates bullied me in a language I couldn’t understand. Nothing was explained to us; lessons were meant to be memorized, not understood. Our teachers tested us for our ability to remember certain terms they chose from chapters in textbooks, and didn’t seem to care whether we understood the chapter or not. I struggled academically and my grades plummeted. My grades only began to rise again in fourth grade when I taught myself to learn by rote. It didn’t matter whether I understood Charlotte’s Web or not, and it was better if I didn’t waste my time trying to dwell on what the book was saying to me. As long as I remembered exactly what the gander told Wilbur the pig when Wilbur tried to spin a web with a piece of string, I’d pass the course. My teacher wasn’t interested in what I thought about the scene, and she never asked.
Although I did make it back into the honor roll, I remained unhappy in school. My teachers considered me smart, but only because I muted my thoughts and repeated everything they said. I retreated to literature because books encouraged me to think, to respond to scenes described to me on the page with my own emotions, my own thoughts, my own passions. Books asked me questions, solicited my opinions, and surrounded me with sensory details that encouraged me to touch, to feel, to explore. I felt invisible in school, but when I retreated into the pages of a book, I could reclaim my selfhood.
I started writing poetry the summer after third grade, a few months after we resettled in the Philippines. That summer, writers from Manila traveled to Baguio in groups to conduct their yearly Writers’ Workshops for emerging writers. It was a yearly tradition among writers from Manila, many of whom taught at major universities, to flee the humid, mind-numbing heat of the lowlands, hiding away in the resort town of Baguio for a week or two to talk about craft with young, aspiring writers. Many of these writers were my father’s friends, and he often took me with him when visiting them at hotels overlooking pine tree reserves envisioned by the American colonial government nearly a century before. What initially struck me, when I met these writers, was the freedom of their movements: the women dressed differently, the men made inappropriate jokes about literary titles, and they never seemed to withhold their own opinions about books, writing, and life. When my father met a good friend from long ago, there would be an easy, forgiving comradeship in their banter. This was the freedom I craved, especially when I returned to school after the summer break and grudgingly succumbed to its rules from which I had briefly escaped.
My father showed a poem I wrote about a cat to the poet and novelist Krip Yuson, who at that time was editor of the literary section of The Evening Paper, and he soon published the poem in a special section featuring child poets. My father showed a copy of my published poem to all his friends, and although his enthusiasm embarrassed me a little, it also helped restore my self-esteem. I had the capacity to leave my own imprint on the page, and even if my teachers would never know about my published poem, it was out there, which meant, somehow, that my voice mattered.
Every summer, my father and I would make the annual pilgrimage to the Visayan college town of Dumaguete, where he was invited by his former mentor, Edith L. Tiempo, one of the first Filipino graduates of the Iowa Writers Workshop, to panel at the Silliman University Writers Workshop. After these trips, my father complained to my mother about the fellows of these workshops, usually students from Manila universities who had professors in the panel, who listened with rapt attention to everything their Manila professors would say in workshop sessions while ignoring the advice of panelists from the regions. He complained about how some fellows chattered away in the session hall while he was talking, and how these fellows would treat panelists from Manila with utmost respect, agreeing with everything they said, laughing at all their jokes. I saw how these writers from the regions worked painstakingly on these students’ manuscripts, some of them even locking themselves up in their hotel rooms to go over a story or poem more than once, while their colleagues from Manila went out at night to grab drinks with their students. Perhaps the opinions of these panelists from the regions would’ve carried more currency in the workshop hall if they spent more time schmoozing with their students and gaining their favor. It could also be that Manila writers didn’t have to work as hard to gain their students’ respect. After all, they were the editors of major anthologies, and some of them had columns in major broadsheets where they could mention the name of a students whose work had impressed them. My father, and many other writers from the regions, could only offer advice, and I was to learn later on, as I embarked on my own literary career, that writing advice can only do so much for you in the Philippine literary scene.
I’ve heard many say that one hasn’t made it as a writer in the Philippines until one has won a Palanca Award. It’s easy to put one’s faith in the Carlos Palanca Awards since entries are judged blind, but as I struggled to build my own reputation as a writer in the Philippines, I learned that I’d have an edge over other contestants if I was lucky enough to have a former mentor sitting on the panel of judges whom I hadn’t antagonized, and who liked my work. When my father was invited to sit on the panel of judges for the poetry in English category, one of his fellow judges was able to identify the entry of a former student because he had read the poems in one of his workshops, and became the entry’s strongest advocate when he found that one of the poems in the collection was dedicated to him. Years after this took place, a friend of mine, who was a poet in Filipino, was told by one of the judges after he lost the Palanca, “You should’ve told me that you entered so that I could’ve made sure that you won a prize.”
My father also admitted to me that when he joined the Palanca competition in the 1980s, there those who sat on the panel of judges who believed in his work, and were perhaps instrumental in helping him win some of his awards. These writers weren’t necessarily his mentors, but had seen his work in magazines and believed that his career was worth championing. One of them was a leading literary critic who taught at the University of the Philippines, and edited anthologies that were often referenced by academics across the country. As a writer from Zamboanga in the southern island in Mindanao, my father needed all the help he could get from editors in Manila. So when my father had a falling out with this leading critic and anthologist who had previously championed his work, things began to happen that were beyond my father’s control.
Strange things started to happen to him: the managing editor of a leading commercial literary press in the Philippines stopped speaking to him for unexplained reasons, which puzzled him because she approached him at a conference just a few months before and told him how much she admired his work. Many of his friends who held positions in publishing houses were giving him the cold shoulder. His name, which used to appear in anthologies, disappeared, and his work wasn’t included at all in textbooks on Philippine Literature released by the University of the Philippines Press. He was slowly and silently being edged out of the writing community, and because the community maintained a code of silence, he didn’t know how to fight back.
I somehow knew that it would be difficult for me begin a writing career without having contacts in Manila. Perhaps I felt a nagging sense of inferiority, an awareness that all the good schools were in Manila, that everything was happening in Manila while us hillbillies were being left behind. Throughout my time in Baguio, I had gone to terrible schools where learning by rote was the rule, and as I grew tired of memorizing instead of learning, my grades bombed. I withdrew to myself, waiting for high school to end so that I could leave my hometown and go to college at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, where I heard that professors cared about your ideas, rather than your ability to remember every term mentioned in a textbook. Because my grades in other subjects were terrible, I felt that writing was the only field in which I could actually prove myself. It was a skill I could develop outside the regimentation of school, and it was my key to freedom. Books allowed me to contemplate uncomfortable truths that weren’t dished out to us in our Values Education classes and weren’t easily reduced to simple, easily digestible terms. There was freedom in thinking, in guessing, in getting things wrong, in disagreeing.
The University of the Philippines is a large public university, and when my freshman year barkada dispersed after we moved to different dormitories for our second year, I soon felt lost amidst the sea of faces flowing in and out of campus on a daily basis. I remembered how at home I felt with writers when my father took me to writers’ workshops and conferences as a little girl. There were two student organizations for writers in English at UP: UP Quill, and the UP Writers Club. I was looking for friends who were writers, friends who knew exactly how hard it was to be a writer and sympathized instead of judged.
“Do you smoke? Do you drink?” were the first questions I was asked when I approached the bench where UP Quill officially gathered on campus. The girl who asked me these questions had dyed blonde hair and tapped away the ashes of her cigarette as she spoke. She then asked me what my name was, and gave me a bored, nonchalant look when I said my name. She was an official member of UP Quill, and if I wanted to gain entry into the club, I wasn’t allowed to complain about her behavior, or the behavior of other members. As an applicant, I had to tolerate their private jokes, act cool when I asked a question and was ignored, pretend it was fine when I said hello to the group and didn’t get a response, and grin and bear it when they gave me a nickname I didn’t like. I found out from a fellow neophyte who completed the application process that for their final rite, they were blindfolded, driven to Los Baños, and piled with alcohol until they passed out. She laughed as she told me about it and said, “We make newbies do it too.”
The esteemed UP Writers Club, which had been founded a quarter of a century before and had eight National Artists for Literature among its alumni, reopened for applications in my sophomore year. An administrator of the UP Likhaan Institute for Creative Writing told me that anyone who’d been published in a major magazine was considered a full-fledged member. Since some of my poems had been published in The Sunday Inquirer Magazine, I told the president of the UP Writers Club about my publications so that I could gain membership without going through initiation rites. After allowing me to sit as a member for two weeks, he informed me that I couldn’t be considered a full-fledged member unless I went through the regular process of applying for membership, which included a final three-day rite in the province of Batangas. “It isn’t fair if you don’t go through what we went through,” he told me.
Connections are made in these clubs, important alliances are forged, and young writers gain exposure in the literary folios they produce such as The Literary Apprentice. Alumni of these organizations become professors, editors, critics, and cultural workers who possess enough power to make or break one’s career. Perhaps it’s for this reason that members of these clubs imposed demeaning requirements on those who sought membership in their elite circles. They knew they were powerful, and they knew they could enact their childish fantasies and get away with it. Because I was unwilling to go through initiation rites that had nothing to do with writing, I was shut out of the writing community at the University of the Philippines.
But I was writing well, and this enabled me to win fellowships at several summer Writers Workshops. I had a few amazing mentors, like Edith Tiempo, Krip Yuson, Marjorie Evasco, and Cesar Aquino of the Silliman Writers Workshop who were thorough readers and dedicated teachers. These were mentors who sought to understand what a writer was trying to do in his or her manuscript, and tried to find solutions to problems. There were those, on the other hand, who had a set idea of what good writing was, and approached a manuscript with their deep-seated prejudices, unwilling to exert the effort to appreciate different aesthetics and approaches to craft. Most of the panelists I encountered at workshops fell under this category, giving out prescriptive advice, or else favoring a work that was poorly written just because it contained Communist Party slogans. One panelist would read a my poem aloud in workshop, and then read his altered version of my poem to the cheers and praises of panelists and fellows alike. Not surprisingly, these were the panelists who, because of the confidence they exuded whenever they proclaimed their beliefs on craft and vehemently condemned what they perceived as failings in a fellow’s manuscript, inspired the most respect. And then there were those in the panel who had students among the fellows, or who had friends who had students among the fellows, and dominated the conversation whenever their student’s manuscripts were being discussed. You’d see the panelist’s name on the covers of anthologies in the months afterward, and the names of his mentees in the table of contents.
Despite becoming more extroverted in college, I remained an introvert, and it was often difficult for me to speak the lingo of my peers at workshops, to understand their private jokes, to penetrate the alliances that were forming. I didn’t smoke, I was a light drinker, I hadn’t gone to private school in Manila and often didn’t know the people or places they spoke about, and I had difficulty keeping up with the fellows’ late night drinking sessions in which many of the panelists took part. At the Silliman Writers Workshop, I made the mistake of criticizing the work of an older fellow, an ex-model who was the editor of a glossy magazine that’s famous for its sex tips. (I was seventeen years old, and didn’t know any better.) Soon afterwards the entire cohort had aligned itself against me, refusing to invite me to their parties, pretending I wasn’t in the room when I was around, shooting down my comments in workshop, saying that a poem I submitted for workshop “wasn’t a poem.” Shut out from the after-hours sessions of the workshop, it became a struggle for me to navigate the workshop itself. I wondered whether the panelists who hung out with the fellows on a regular basis knew what was going on, and why they weren’t doing anything to defend me. A few years later, a panelist confessed to me that he knew what happened, and that “he had taken their side” because I didn’t know how to deal with writers.
But no amount of bullying from fellow writers could ever prepare me for what I was about to experience at the MSU-IIT National Writers Workshop in Iligan City, in the southern island of Mindanao. I had started writing fiction in my junior year, and the piece I turned in for my workshop in Iligan was my third short story. The panelist who was assigned to lead the discussion of my work, a respected academic from the University of the Philippines, was probably the only panelist at the workshop who was based in Manila—it was a workshop that prided itself in championing writing from the regions, and most of its panelists that year were academics from the Visayas and Mindanao (she herself was originally from the Visayas). She prefaced her discussion of my work by telling the entire group that “the writer of this short story will walk away from this workshop weeping,” and that “five years from now, the writer will read her story again and cringe.” Then she began tearing up the entire piece, reading aloud a paragraph before saying that “elegant writing is out of fashion,” declaring that my language was too florid, and that people had stopped writing like Gregorio Brillantes in the 1980s. She then criticized the subject of the story for being “too Filipino-American,” arguing that hyphenated literature was weak in content because it told the same story repeatedly. She spent the rest of the workshop session pointing out every single detail of the piece that was wrong for her, from a line that was “quotable” but “had no meaning” to the section breaks between scenes, which she insisted were “a sign of laziness.” Some panelists who had initially pointed out the strengths of the piece started agreeing with her, while other panelists fell silent as she continued her rant. One of the fellows, who later became a close friend, remembers a hush falling upon the session hall when the panelist got up, walked up to the wooden stage, and waved her arms around and swayed her hips in a strange, awkward dance. I don’t remember this happening, perhaps because I was too overwhelmed by her criticisms to notice what was going on. What I do remember was that she came up to me afterwards, embraced me, and then said, “You have no sense of literary language whatsoever. Face it, you’re sophomoric.”
As the week progressed and more manuscripts were discussed, I wondered why the other panelists weren’t stepping in to censure her for her behavior. She’d bring up my work in the middle of another fellow’s workshop to point out the shortcomings of my work, or else she’d compare the work of another fellow to my work to shed light on my story’s failings. This went on throughout the entire week of the workshop. She also tore apart another fellow’s work, and after the fellow broke down in tears, she told the panelist that she wanted to enroll in one of her classes at U.P. because she had a lot to learn from her. The panelist embraced her, and spoke no further about the fellow’s work in any of the sessions that followed.
I returned to U.P. for my senior year a few weeks after the workshop, wanting to put my memories of the summer behind me as I immersed myself in my studies. I had planned to write a collection of poems for my undergraduate thesis, but after my experience at the MSU-IIT Writers Workshop, I knew that if I stopped writing fiction for even just a few months, I would never write fiction again. And so I decided to write a collection of short stories for my thesis, switching over to fiction as my genre of concentration. For my critical introduction, I had to name my influences as a fiction writer, and I struggled with this requirement because I hadn’t been reading fiction with the intent of finding models for my work. But then I loved reading novels even before I started writing stories, and I could sense that what I enjoyed reading influenced the way I wrote stories in subtle ways. Kawabata, James, Brillantes, Joaquin, Akutagawa, Tanizaki: they had been teaching me how to write when I was least aware of it. By drawing connections between works of fiction that appealed to me, and what I wanted my work to be, I was claiming an identity that was rightly mine, and which one woman sought to take away from me. Embracing the identity of a fiction writer gave me power, which perhaps explained why this woman sought to undermine my newfound identity at a national writers’ workshop. As others told me later on, she perceived me as a threat.
As I was writing my thesis, I grew disillusioned with my coursework, and with the education I was receiving at U.P. We were trained to depend heavily on literary theory when analyzing literary texts, and I oftentimes felt constricted by the theoretical frameworks I was forced to adopt. Writing literary criticism, in my theory and literature classes, meant finding a theoretical framework, which was either a school of theory or the ideas of a particular theorist, to use in our reading of a literary text. You were basically asking Foucault or Derrida to do your homework for you, and you weren’t supposed to assist them in their work by sharing your ideas with them, because there was no such thing as an original idea, according to my professors: everything was borrowed, they said, even our very thoughts. It was better to be honest about our thoughts, to admit that they originated from somewhere else, and it would be an act of plagiarism to even attempt to think on your own, because that was simply impossible. I was beginning to feel as if I hadn’t really gone too far from the schools in Baguio from which I fled. Our learning methods essentially mirrored the methods of my teachers in my hometown, except that what we were committing to memory weren’t mere terms, but entire chunks of ideas.