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FILIPINO WOMEN WRITERS IN ENGLISH, THEIR STORY: 1905-2002
by Edna Zapanta-Manlapaz
published by Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2003, paper, 258 pages, ISBN 971-550-451-5
Review by Susan Evangelista for Philippine Studies, Second Quarter 2004
COPYRIGHT 2004 Philippine Studies

Edna Zapanta Manlapaz’s Filipino Women Writers in English is really two books.  First it is an encyclopedic collection of biographical and critical data on major and minor Filipino women writers of fiction and poetry in English.  An extremely thorough researcher, Manlapaz has assembled an always valuable and sometimes fascinating collection of data on the lives, writings, and struggles of these women whose works cover nearly 100 years of writing in English. 

The second and perhaps more interesting book is an extended critical essay on these women and their writings, which starts with a consideration of why they wrote in English and goes on to explore the intersection of language, class, gender, and even history.  Historically, the group that Manlapaz calls the “literary matriarchs” (Paz Marquez Benitez, Loreto Paras, Paz Latorena, and Angela Manalang Gloria) reached university age fairly early in the American period, which meant first that universities were considerably more opened to women, and second that the medium of instruction employed in them was English.  Most of the early women writers were indeed, as Manlapaz observes, from privileged backgrounds.  A number studied in the University of the Philippines, finishing bachelor’s degrees and sometimes going on to do graduate work abroad.  Working in an atmosphere of new freedom for women and having perhaps a greater facility for language than some of their male classmates, they reached levels of excellence probably unimagined fifty years earlier. 

Yet language was still a—perhaps themajor issue.  The book starts with a Prologue featuring Trinidad Tarrosa-Subido’s poem “Muted Cry”:

 

                        They took away the language of my blood,

                        Giving me one “more widely understood”,

                        …………………………………………….

                        Ah, could I speak the language of my blood,

                        I, too, would free the poetry in me,

                        ………………………………………………

                        These words I speak are out of pitch with ME!

                        That other voice? . . . Cease longing to be free!

                        ……………………………………………….

                        Forever shalt thou cry, a muted god:

                        “Could I but speak the language of my blood!

 

                                                                                    (1–2)

 

The epilogue, perfectly rounding out the language theme, is Luisa A. Igloria’s “The Secret Language”: 

                                    I have learned your speech,

fair stranger; for you

………………………

………..I have covered

My breasts and hidden,

Among the folds of my surrendered

Inheritance, the beads

I have worn since girlhood.

………………………………

In the night,

When I am alone at last,

I lie uncorseted

Upon the iron bed,

Composing my lost beads

Over my chest, dreaming back

Each flecked and opalescent

Color, crooning their names,

Along with mine: 

Binaay, Binaay.

                               (212–213)

 

The class issue is raised as a critical, rather than a biographical, issue late in the book with a consideration of the limitations of women’s fiction, christened apparently by Kerima Polotan as “village fiction” (i.e., limited in scope to the interests of the women living in the exclusive villages of Makati and Manila).  Such a limitation was likely to be considered fatal during the very political years of the seventies and eighties when a “sense of the nation” was imperative.   Thus, asks Manlapaz, “Are Filipino women writers in English, belonging as they do to the middle class intellectual elite, perpetually doomed to write effectively only of their own privileged class?  The answer is a firm no” (209). 

She then goes on to name Estrella Alfon and Lina Espina-Moore as prime examples of women who have written beyond their own backgrounds.  She also gives credit to Ninotchka Rosca and Marianne Villanueva for the same virtue.  She does, however, suggest that in dealing with a theme that aims at “encompassing a nation,” women writers, like men, must work on the larger canvas of the novel.  She then gives very brief consideration to novels by Brainard, Holthe, Rosca, Hagedorn, Uranza, Chai, and Hidalgo. 

It is this second book, the critical essay, that is the more interesting of the two, although of course the essay is firmly based on all the background research that makes up the longer, encyclopedic book.  But chapter two, the heart of the biographical “story,” runs from page 11 to page 208 and is a bit difficult to read straight through.  It is probably meant, though, to be used more as a reference. 

The critical essay gives rather startling prominence to Filipino-American writers; they are considered immediately after the general profile of writers in English.  Distinctions of name and whether Carlos Bulosan and Jose Garcia Villa were Filipino-American writers or merely ex-pats hardly seem worth the effort, but when we look at the names of Filipinas writing abroad, we see immediately that this is indeed an important group:  Cecilia Brainard, Eileen Tabios, Lara Stapleton, Gina Apostol, Nadine Sarreal, Reine Melvin, Norma Miraflor, Arlene Chai, Linda Ty-Casper, Ninotchaka Rosca, Marianne Villanueva, Fatima Lim-Wilson.  

Perhaps the importance of these writers is not really surprising, for, first of all, they are all but forced to write in English if they wish to be understood in their own universities, or areas.  Then the displacement issue comes up, naturally, even more strongly than it does among writers in English at home—who, nevertheless, do experience this problem.  (Ah, the blessings of colonialism!)  And then of course the simple fact is that these writers are very good and are widely read in the Philippines. 

Manlapaz starts her book with a few caveats on her scope and limitations, one being that she has tried to present critical reception and evaluation of the writers covered while keeping her own evaluations merely implicit, except for the writers she has studied closely, and here she has sometimes made her own evaluation more explicit.  Those familiar with her earlier work know that these closely studied writers include the “literary matriarchs,” as well as Estrella Alfon and Trinidad Tarrosa-Subido.  It is also evident that the book draws on years of Manlapaz’s experience as the director of the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings and many personal acquaintances formed during those years.  It seems, then, a particularly fitting finale to a very rich academic career.

Manlapaz, however, still remains unstoppable.  

Review by
Susan Evangelista, Ph.D.
Department of Language and Literature
College of Education
Palawan  State University

 

 

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