Babaylan: An Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers, Co-edited by Nick Carbo and Eileen Tabios
(Aunt Lute Books, San Francisco, 2000)
The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Traditions in English, Third Edition, volume 2, Edited by Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar
(W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2007)
Footnotes to Gilbert and Gubar’s Norton Anthology of Literature by Women After Engaging Carbo and Tabios’ Anthology of Filipina and Filipina American Writers
“Perhaps because of the sense of cultural cataclysm inspired by the new technology, together with the widespread male anxiety about a female “takeover” that characterized the early years of the twentieth century, the images of women produced by modernist men (and even some produced by their female contemporaries) were often negative… by and large much literature of the period is notable for its obsession with what women should—and should not—be” (Gilbert and Gubar 2:16).
Nineteenth-century images of women include the virtuous, submissive “Angel in the House” as well as the ruthless femme fatale. These were replaced by the more liberated “New Woman” at the turn of the century. In the Philippines, as in the West, where women were largely seen through the male gaze, the writings of our foremothers are critical in our understanding of the underpinnings of the world they lived in and which we inherited.
In his introduction, Babaylan anthology co-editor Nick Carbo traces the tradition of women’s writing from precolonial and colonial to contemporary times. He cites the ancient priestess-poets (Babaylan/Catalonan) who “provided healing, wisdom, and direction for the inhabitants of their barangays (towns) with morality stories, myths, poems, prayers, and chants” (Carbo and Tabios vii). During the Spanish colonial era, much of the available literature was centered on religious and secular romantic traditions. Writing during this period was Leona Florentino, “the earliest Filipina woman of letters… and the first Filipino poet to achieve international acclaim” (Carbo and Tabios viii). A contemporary of the poets Christina Rossetti and Emily Dickinson, Florentino chose to pursue writing in a society that was fundamentally Roman Catholic and patriarchal. In her poem “To An Old Maid on Her Birthday”, translated from the Spanish by Norma Lua, she writes with obvious wit and irony: “Try to divert yourself especially when / the old women D and N become flirtatious, / for they are like the plant tigui that makes one itch. / If you follow my advice, have no doubt that you will get / to the seventh sacrament, which Don Domingo / (another old suitor of yours) has offered” (Carbo and Tabios ix).
Paz Marquez Benitez, writing in the romantic tradition during the American colonial period, deftly portrays societal norms and character flaws particularly in the area of courtship rituals and marriage in her short story “Dead Stars”: “She dropped the topic. Esperanza was not prone to indulge in unprovoked jealousies. She was a believer in the regenerative virtue of institutions, in their power to regulate feeling as well as conduct. If a man were married, why, of course, he loved his wife; if he were engaged, he could not possibly love another woman” (Carbo and Tabios 5).
Angela Manalang Gloria, writing in free verse at the beginning of the 20th century, offers bold, unorthodox lines that were deemed controversial for that time period: “To turn the face this way and that and feel / No kisses festering on it like sores, / To be alone at last, broken the seal / That marks the flesh no better than a whore’s!” (Carbo and Tabios 163).
“To be sure, the fictions and poems authored by [contemporary] women writers… were not by any means consistent in representing triumphant heroines… Still, even in dramatizing the conflicts—and defeats—endured by these fictional figures, their creators imply empowering alternatives that wouldn’t have been available to nineteenth-century heroines… In literary essays and experiments, the women writers who recorded and explored these complex dilemmas often meditated on the cultural situations that gave rise to such problems as well as on fundamental questions having to do with the nature of writing itself” (Gilbert and Gubar 2: 26-27).
Major cultural shifts in the West, such as the beat and civil rights movements, coincided with growing nationalist sentiments in the Philippines in the 1960s and 70s. This resulted in literature being produced in different Philippine languages and dialects, tackling various sociopolitical themes. At the same time, this period also saw a marked increase in migration primarily to the United States.
Contemporary Filipina American writers Linda Ty-Casper and Marianne Villanueva, in Babaylan, explore landscapes and relationships from an immigrant’s point of view. In the short story “Map for a Far Place”, we feel the isolation of Casper’s main character as she navigates place and identity: “When the cymbals rested, I turned in the direction of Prentiss Street where I lived. A Greenline trolley heading towards Government Center tempted me in town. The next day’s work, shelving books at Simmons, doused that temptation. I had not been to Chinatown for weeks though I had run out of sukang Iloco. My first year in Boston I rode those trolleys back and forth Jamaica Way and Copley, trying to get a feel of where I was” (Carbo and Tabios 146). Villanueva’s writing is elegant and spare as she tackles themes of despair, alienation and domestic violence: “After Teresa was married, her mother came from the Philippines at least once a year to visit her. During one of her mother’s yearly visits, her mother asked her to drive to Carmel. Teresa agreed. That morning, the morning they were to leave, Teresa cooked her husband bacon and eggs and rice, his favorite meal. Then she said, “Come and eat.” Her husband acted as though he hadn’t heard. She had to say it a couple more times before he finally stood up and came to the table” (Carbo and Tabios 154).
“[T]he issues [a woman writer] sometimes self-reflexively explored ranged from the kind of language [she] inherited to the kinds of aesthetic traditions and conventions that were passed down to her… [As] intellectuals in [developing] nations struggled to recover lost national traditions…, [w]ithin the United States… oppressed or subordinated peoples sought to claim lost cultural identities and win political power… the globalization of English and proliferating analyses of third world cultures, under the rubric of postcolonial studies, brought larger audiences to women situated in and writing about Ireland and India, as well as throughout the rest of Asia, Africa, and the Middle East… A search for the roots of selfhood was perhaps especially urgent for women writers in third world and Commonwealth countries, and for writers who inhabited racial, ethnic, and lesbian subcultures in England or America. Though all these authors had in common the medium of the English language, with its comparatively fixed grammatical and lexical conventions, they were influenced by distinctive traits and traditions to use English in very different ways and for notably different ends… By simultaneously defining or redefining both themselves and their worlds, such women indicated the general parameters of female writing in this period, for the motivating impulse behind the works of contemporary women of letters can often be located along a continuum that reaches from self-definition to social criticism” (Gilbert and Gubar 2: 27, 560-561, 577-578).
Babaylan co-editor Eileen Tabios, in her introduction, writes, “The rich variety of expressive styles can also be viewed as a latent response to the colonialist introduction of English to the Philippines. The contemporary women writers in this book challenge the reader to pay attention, not just to the stories themselves, but to how they wrote their stories… Though perhaps these methods are not any different from how writers generally seek to control their craft, it seems to me that a certain self-consciousness of language is appropriate for the English-language Filipino writer and, further, that any fragmentation of text… or reconsideration of syntax… can be considered inevitable” (Carbo and Tabios xiii-xiv). Somewhat reminiscent of Gertrude Stein who “sought to subvert… grammatical and narrative conventions… by putting words together in an entirely unprecedented (and often enigmatic) fashion” (Gilbert and Gubar 2: 27), Tabios writes the poem “Corolla” wherein she collaged and rewrote “fragments from the works of many of the Filipina writers represented in Babaylan: …I am called “Balikbayan” because the girl in me is a country of rope hammocks and waling-waling orchids—a land with irresistible gravity because, in it, I forget the world’s magnificent indifference” (Carbo and Tabios xviii, xxi).
In “Bulan A Naraniag / Radiant Moon”, poet Luisa A. Igloria demonstrates her facility with language and rhythm. This duality allows the reader to scrutinize not only the poem’s composition but also its nuances: “Agsubli a kasla angin, / Arasaas nga dumaldalan / idiay ayan ti bul-bulong / idiay roro-otan / ti manag-ayat / a puso (they return like the wind, / like whispers passing / through the leaves, / the wild grass that has grown / over the desirous / heart)” (Carbo and Tabios 300-301).
Catalina Cariaga, through discontinuous text and disembodied poetics, invites the reader to break down and re-assemble, interpret and re-interpret “His Civil Rights”: “as a boy, he loved baseball / the rules / the fairness / the teamwork / the law of averages / the green grass and blue sky / the white chalk neatly delineating / fair and foul / the umpire and his irreversible / decisions at home plate / Have you heard of a Carcass ni(c)e / for eating, (accuse) their dog” (Carbo and Tabios 198).
In the Babaylan anthology, we discover a lost history in our continuing stories. Within flowing and beautifully crafted lines, we find true Pinay grit, for there is no silencing of voices that were only ostensibly conquered but never subverted.
Aileen Ibardaloza is the author of TRAJE DE BODA: poems (Meritage Press, 2010) and a founding member of World Book Night. She and her husband will travel for food and books (but not for work!).