LUGAR LANG| Finding My Place in Mindanao 3: Writing Lesbian

IN MY first piece for this column, which appeared on August 30, 2016, I wrote that I define home as three things: where I am, whom I come home to, and where I belong.

I realize I haven’t been able to discuss the second aspect after thirty issues! It may be symptomatic of the concern once expressed by the marketing manager of my first book’s publisher, who rejected my proposed title “Women Loving Women,” saying that it would be detrimental to my book sales because the lesbian market is too small.

True enough. Despite the final truncated title, Women Loving, it took five years for my book to sell out its print run of 1,000. Worse, when I announced a call in 2016 for submissions to an anthology of fiction and nonfiction by Philippine lesbians, I only received nineteen entries. And most were only confessions, not literary pieces. Thus, I was forced to shelve the project. Contrast this to the (male) gay counterpart, Ladlad. An Anthology of Philippine Gay Writing, edited by J. Neil Garcia and Danton Remoto, which was first published in 1994, and now has three volumes plus a “best of” edition published in 2014. Why the muted voices?

I believe that my own advocacy to write as a lesbian and of lesbian experience, whether explicitly so or tangentially, is relevant to encourage younger writers who are only selectively out, to continue in their individual efforts to articulate what Adrienne Rich long ago identified as unspeakable. When I started publishing my stories, I wanted to position myself as a “lesbian writer” as a political choice and as a way of occupying what I thought was a niche that no one else was able to fill. Surely there were Philippine women writers who lived as lesbians, but they did not come out as lesbian writers. For instance, in the 19th century, the first feminist writer in the Philippines, Leona Florentino from Vigan, Ilocos Sur, wrote love poems addressed to women, but literary historians justified this as only a business endeavor for her—she was paid by lovelorn men to write the poems for them. Who knows now? She was married to a man, and had five children. (Surely she couldn’t have been a lesbian.)

Even when I was married to a man, I never stopped defining myself as a lesbian writer. I wrote the stories in order to articulate my lesbian desire and thus legitimate it. Philippine readers had to acknowledge that such experiences exist and must be seen. Adrienne Rich says, “the word lesbian must be affirmed because to discard it is to collaborate with silence and lying about our very existence; with the closet-game, the creation of the unspeakable.” Thus, for me, writing the lesbian text is a political act that aims to combat the invisibility of the lesbian in Philippine literature.

My book is the first single-author anthology of lesbian-themed stories in the Philippines, and while it was published in 2010, I had actually written them many years before, a project I completed in 2001 as my thesis of seven stories for my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, which I earned with High Distinction from De La Salle University-Manila. In my critical preface, I theorized that my Muse was my desire to find the ideal mother; that because my biological mother had failed me, I wrote stories about how I wanted to have been loved by my mother through the love of women (each one of whom failed as well, of course.)

While I completed my thesis in 2001, the book was published only in 2010. Perhaps the delay in its publication is a symptom of the marginalization of lesbian desire in the Philippines, as well as my own internalized homophobia. I admit I didn’t submit it to any publishers because I was afraid—of being rejected, surely—but even more so of how its publication at that time would affect my heterosexual marriage and his devoutly Catholic family. I also worried about how to explain the book to my children.

After I decided to give up my marriage and move to Davao City in 2007, trying to write again was like finally gathering the courage to ride a giant roller coaster, screaming on the drop, and realizing that there is no sound. What happened to my voice? I learned I had to stop being frightened of the ride in order to find it. I wrote poems first, small projects to make sense of the past. It formed my collection Heartwood, a chapbook of fifteen poems that was published in the iconic Road Map Series edited by Tita Lacambra-Ayala in 2011. The print run was only 100 copies, and I was glad because Tita had changed some of my titles without my approval, and I felt that it was bit of a calamity. Still, the chapbook marked my entry into the community as a “Davao writer.”

From then on, I continued to vocalize through writing (lesbian) nonfiction. Meeting young lesbian writers also writing from regions outside of Manila suggests that my concern of merging my issues of dissident sexuality with my decision to write from the boondocks of Mindanao may have ramifications beyond my personal development as a writer. Every day I am learning how my writing is not just about my issues and me. It has an obligation to a community.

(My stories are now available as an e-book entitled “Women on Fire.”)

Follow or message me on Twitter @jhoannalynncruz

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