Reclaiming the narrative, Filipina writers champion stories of womanhood.

The legacies of womanhood do not go unshared. Their stories live on and are immortalized through words weaved by Filipina writers.

With a slash of the pen or the press of a key, writers can create distant worlds for any audience; the creativity embedded within the minds of writers knows no bounds. But a recurring theme among popular, well-loved tales are the cliches depicted in the form of gender stereotypes. For a long time, novels only depicted male heroes who defied the odds and fought for honor; gallantry was a man. But soon enough, female novelists began writing of heroines like Jane Eyre and Jo March, allowing female audiences to feel that even their smallest, mundane experiences are valid.

The female archetype in literature has often been overlooked in favor of their male contemporaries, or even characterized as mere plot devices to steer the male protagonist. However, many female authors continue to prove that their prowess deserves just as much renown and recognition. Today, Creative Writing professor of the University of the Philippines – Mindanao Dr. Jhoanna Lynn Cruz and independent writer Beverly Wico-Siy’s stories continue to prove that femininity is by no means a hindrance in establishing exemplary stories and how their influence on the domestic literary scene serves to construct a legacy worthy of praise.

Strengthening foundations

“In Tagalog, [abi nako] would translate [to] “akala ko“…it refers to the things that I thought I knew about myself, about Davao, about having a new life, about starting over, all those things that I thought and what actually happened,” Dr. Cruz shares emphatically. Her bestselling book, Abi Nako, or So I Thought, offers a grounded view of her life’s ups and downs through a cascade of memories and experiences collected throughout her life.  

By coming to terms with her effeminacy as a lesbian as well as raising her two children,  she encapsulates her own sense of being minus the false expectations she once thought herself to be. “I’m a woman who had great expectations about her life and who was shocked by what life had to offer…that’s the general picture,” she recalls.

On the other hand, Wico-Siy started her dive into the world of writing as an avid fan of rags-to-riches stories, which translated into ghostwriting radio dramas for non-governmental organizations (NGO) that advocate for women’s rights. “I got paid P3,000 for every radio drama that I wrote. I decided to write more because I did not have any difficulty in writing the script. The NGO took notice and they eventually hired me as their writer [and] researcher,” she elaborates. 

A career in writing is by no means simple, but dedication and motivation hold the key to success. With inspiration evocative of filial piety, Wico-Siy recalls her troubles balancing both her work and personal life as she raised her son.  “Hindi naman kami laging may kasambahay. Nakaikot sa [schedule] ng anak ko ang [schedule] ko. Makakaharap lang ako sa computer kapag tulog na si EJ.” she explains.

(We didn’t always have help around the house. My work schedule revolved around my son’s schedule; I could only be in front of the computer when EJ was asleep.)

As she continues to brandish her own identity in the field, cases of gender preferences in the literary industry continue to evince and etch themselves into her career. Recalling instances of male preference, she expresses both dejection and concern. “There are definitely many writing workshops that hire more men than women, or [have] zero women as panelists and speakers. There is no balance in terms of insights about creative writing because most or all of those that were given the chance to speak are men,” she laments.

The female gaze

Difficult as it is to break into the industry, an even more momentous challenge awaits every female writer: reconstructing the identity of the Filipino woman in literature. 

Dr. Cruz was hardly aware of literary works by women writers while growing up. It wasn’t until she attended college in the University and enrolled in the elective Women in Literature under Dr. Marjorie Evasco that she was introduced to female-authored stories that perfectly captured the essence of being a woman. “At the time, I was discovering my lesbian identity. I was having my first lesbian relationship,” she reminisces fondly. “And it was so important to be in a class in which distinctive female experiences were discussed as a means to liberate oneself from the structures of patriarchal society.”

After years of being an openly lesbian writer, Dr. Cruz writes about the first decade of her new life in Davao City in Abi Nako. Writing the memoir offered her a new perspective of the female gaze in literature. “Now you’re looking at yourself, and you’re articulating your own experience of what it means to be a woman [in the Philippines],” she conveys. 

Female writers are often confronted with recontextualizing the life they’ve led as a woman that digs deep into common everyday experiences that turn out to hold so much value. This was what Wico-Siy underwent as she created It’s a Mens World. Starting as a thesis project, the author scoured her journals, blog posts, and emails with friends for personal anecdotes of her childhood. The result was a funny, heart-warming collection of essays documenting the particularities of girlhood, hence the title including “mens”, short for menstruation.

Whether in writing or in reading women’s stories, the Filipina finds power in rediscovering their gender identity through literature—and this is only the beginning. “Our understanding of ourselves as women, as lesbians, is always, always evolving,” Dr. Cruz declares.

Holding up half the sky

The stories people grow up with eventually shape the person they become. Sometimes, it could simply be accounts of a teenage girl’s menstrual struggles or touching essays of a single mother starting her life anew. But these stories guide the readers to understand the nuances of womanhood and question the way it is poorly perceived in society. 

Giving female writers the voice to share their stories moves us further away from the patriarchal conditions that Filipinos were born into. “Be ready to get insulted, gaslighted, offended, unnoticed, among other things. Be ready but don’t accept it,” Wico-Siy advises women authors. In the same light, Dr. Cruz hopes that the Filipino community, one day, turns into a safe place for every woman to “come out with their particular narratives of who they are and who they are becoming.”

But this necessity to let the authentic and critical voices of writers be heard is not only a challenge for women’s stories. Now, writers across all fields find themselves in a crucial position to write about looming national issues. Dr. Cruz recalls being a columnist in Davao during the time of former President Rodrigo Duterte. “It was an important turning point for me to realize that I wasn’t just writing for myself, or for my lesbian community,” she asserts. And as threats to the progressive voices of people continue, she urges writers to reassess their role in society. 

Thus, the Filipina writer must never stop speaking of the truth in their experiences and from the margins of society. “Live your truth and then write about it,” Dr. Cruz concludes.

Aaron Gomez

By Aaron Gomez

Lizelle Villaflor

By Lizelle Villaflor

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