LUGAR LANG| Finding My Place in Mindanao

THE INVITATION to write this weekly column comes at a most opportune time for me. This month I begin a new journey: my PhD in Creative Writing, with the goal of defining my place as a writer in Mindanao. While this unique program is offered by RMIT University in Melbourne, I will not be moving to Australia to do it. I am doing it IN Mindanao, which is the only way the project makes sense. By immersing myself in places in Mindanao beyond my comfort zone, I aim to discover a new aspect of my writing – when before it was more focused on the personal, I now want to challenge myself to see what lies beyond.

When I first moved to Davao in 2007, one of the things that struck me was that in public transport, passengers say “Lugar lang” when they want to get off, instead of the usual “Para,” which means “stop.” I later also noticed that sometimes, when I would say “para,” the driver would reply, “Ilugar lang,” which further confounded me. Eventually I learned that “lugar lang” means to get out “at the proper place.” One cannot simply yell, “Stop!” Because there are designated places for stopping.

Thus, “lugar lang” became a leitmotif in my Davao days: finding my place in each leg of the continuing journey. And finding as well that each stop is only one among many that I will make as a woman and as a writer.

Last week, I was invited to join a forum on “Writing to Sustain Our Home and Habitat” at the PEN Teaching Literature Workshop held at the Ateneo de Davao University. Instead of the ready connection of the topic to environmental issues, I proposed three points:

First, home is where I am and who I am. I live in Davao and I am a Davaoeno. It has given me a sense of place and source of material. Surely it can function as setting for my stories, but I have seen that it should have a greater significance in terms of the larger context. To be a Davaoeno is to have Mindanao as a context. Given this context, I must engage in the debate about what the peoples of Mindanao should be called: the linguistically prescribed “Mindanaoan” or the politically empowered “Mindanawon.” In 2000, a group of academics and social science practitioners led by Bro. Karl Gaspar and Fr. Albert Alejo formed the organization Mindanawon Initiatives for Cultural Dialogue, which is “unified by a MindanaWon consciousness that asserts and celebrates diverse identities and the integrity of creation.” Thus, to choose the term “Mindanawon” means to assert the right of indigenous peoples to self-determination. To sustain my home, I need to define what makes me a Mindanawon writer. Being a migrant to this island group and having lived in Davao City for nine years, I know that it takes more than physical presence to create an identity. How can my writing grow from what it is now, which is inward-focused, into something that can be identified as Mindanawon beyond the current function of Mindanao as setting for my personal development? Lumad, Muslim, Dayo assume a diversity of cultures and identities. There is not only one kind of Mindanawon. I write in order to find my place in this mosaic.

Second, home is whom I come home to. My identity as a writer is defined by my gender and sexuality. Having written Women Loving. Stories and a Play (2010), the first sole-authored book of lesbian-themed works in the Philippines, I aim to articulate the lesbian experience that has always been muted in Philippine literature.

Third, home is where I belong. Writing may be something we do alone, but it doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our individual efforts must converge into a collective effort to sustain our home. I belong to the Davao Writers Guild, which I have had the honor and privilege of being president of for the past six years. We sustain our home through our major projects, the annual Davao Writers Workshop and the Dagmay Literary Folio, which appears in print in Sun.Star Davao on Sundays and online at dagmay.kom.ph.

I will discuss my second and third points in greater detail in the next issues. Meantime, I am grateful to Mindanao Times, the oldest newspaper in Mindanao, for giving me this space (and responsibility) to further explore my place in the region. Lugar lang!

(Jhoanna M. Cruz is a Palanca award-winning writer who teaches linguistics, literature and creative writing at the Department of Humanities of the University of the Philippines Mindanao. She completed her Master of Arts in Language and Literature and Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing, both with high distinction at the De La Salle University. She is pursuing her PhD in Creative Writing at RMIT in Melbourne, Australia.)

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