It’s been interesting, blogging and posting about teaching Pinay Lit, what materials we’re reading and discussing, what difficult subject matter we’re discussing.
What is interesting is the interest out there, many people vocalizing their admiration for the existence of such a course in the first place. Not sure where else in this country such a class is taught. As I’d stated in my first Poetry Foundation blog post this month, “I’m still in disbelief. All Pinay Literature. I always think, wow, where was this class when I was young, and when I needed it most. It seems a lot of people have been asking this question too, as I have been asked by more people than I can count, for my syllabus and reading lists.”
The answer to my own question is this: I did take a Filipina Literature class at university of the Philippines back in the early 1990′s, Filipina Literature in English, in Love, War, and Exile, with my memories of this class serving as a blueprint for my own curriculum development. Some of the readings from that class are essential to my own syllabus, for example, Gilda Cordero-Fernando’s “The Dust Monster,” and Estrella Alfon’s “Magnificence,” with which I began the semester. These are such finely, delicately worded stories, such lovely language, which open up the dialogue on gender and domestic roles in so many ways. The plight of our heroines, authorial intent (what is the author saying about gender expectations and patriarchy), the dissonance of that lovely language and seemingly light tone against such disturbing content.
I remember though, in that U.P. Diliman class, coming into contemporary literature, finding the places of disconnect when it came to expatriate and immigrant literature, the grit and street language of Hagedorn’s essays from Danger and Beauty, what it means to form Third World communities in our American cities, what it means to be a person of color in the USA, that our blue passports don’t protect us from physical and spiritual harm, xenophobia, from institutional racism. That we don’t really live the American Dream. It was then that my feeling of being an alien among my Filipina classmates was confirmed, that Filipinas and Filipina Americans are two different animals, though evolved from the same DNA, socialized in two different contexts.
Would it have been different to take this class as an undergrad in this country, surrounded by Filipina Americans like myself, and taught by a Filipina American professor? I want to say yes, it would have been.
I know for myself as a teacher, I am interested in finding readings that tease out complexities, push the discussions and comfort level, about body, about violence and violations, about coming into sexuality. We just read M. Evelina Galang’s “Deflowering the Sampaguita” and had the best discussion ever about the absence of dialogue, the silences and denial in our own families, from our own mothers and other Filipino/a elders, when it comes to growing up, dating, sexuality; the mixed messages (mass media as well as from our own elders who still manage to ask “do you have a boyfriend yet,” and “when are you getting married,” even when our parents try their best to lock us away); societal double standards — young women with brothers can attest to their brothers getting more casual treatment from their parents. I realize now, as a grown up, married woman, that the silence with which I grew up, the circumventing of (the dancing around) the central issue, and the volatile, emotional not saying the thing but still managing to be accusatory, was a totally dangerous combination of stuff that could have left me quite prone as an insecure young woman, susceptible to others’ expectations, definitions, and actions. These are the things I believe Galang is getting at in this piece; if knowledge is power, then we as Pinays are disempowered by our own parents’/elders’ shame, silence, and denial.
Complementary to this piece is Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” in which Lorde advocates for wholeness, not fracture, and the opposite of self-denial, in order to come to our full potential, empowered and not defined by external forces, aspiring to great things, of which we are confident and capable:
When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our work, our lives.
Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. And this is a grave responsibility, projected from within each of us, not to settle for the convenient, the shoddy, the conventionally expected, nor the merely safe.
We also just discussed Reine Arcache Melvin’s story, “The Birth,” which is complex and disturbing. We can view this narrative through the lens of both post-partum depression (a new mother finds her post-birth body grotesque, and thinks of ways of killing her newborn, which she describes as an “animality,” as a “way out”) and the limited social options for women. This narrative surely upsets our ideas of all mothers being automatically and unconditionally nurturing. My most optimistic reading of this story is as a new mother’s process of acceptance of her daughter, that she must work to arrive at that acceptance, rather than have it just be. Also, realistically and bleakly, it’s about the baby as a “weapon,” or insurance (that she and her daughter will always be provided for), against the wealthy, high status, desirable, philandering husband with whom our heroine is in a loveless marriage.
I should also add that the diverse demographics of this Pinay Lit class has added another layer to the discussion. What do others from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds find resonant? What do women of any background find resonant in these readings and discussions? What valuable things do others reading from different disciplines (i.e., nursing students on post-partum depression, or psychology majors) contribute to the discussion?
So it’s not all just feelgood session here; that would be cheap and easy, as Lorde would say, “the conventionally expected.” Still, we can and should be celebratory, but in celebrating Pinay voices, we cannot ignore what difficult things they are struggling to say.