Thank you to Maria Vallarta for curating this fantastic panel of Pinay/Pilipinx writers and artists for the National Association for Ethnic Studies Conference at SFSU.
My co-panelists were Angela Peñaredondo, Melissa Sipin, and Karen Villa, and all of us discussed our processes of critical thinking, about practice and praxis in our respective genres. There is so much here, so rather than rehash the amazing and important work each of us is doing, I wanted to talk about a question from Professor Valerie Francisco-Menchavez, about the burden of representation, the reticence and difficulty in telling stories of Pinays — lives and bodies — that have endured trauma, some that have not survived. If you look closely at Valerie’s photo above, you will see in the bottom panel, a list of names that I wrote on the white board:
Norife Herrera Jones
Mary Jane Veloso
I told the attendees/audience to Google these names. And I said a few things about each of them. These are some of the Pinays who inhabit the pages of Invocation to Daughters.
Some background: when I was in college in the 1990s, the names were Flor Contemplacion, and Sarah Balabagan. Filipino women who had fought back against their abusive employers and suffered the consequences of doing so. I told the attendees that when I was an aspiring writer, there were so few Pinays publishing; a full length book authored by a single author who was Pinay was so rare, and so when Jessica Hagedorn became known to me, her very existence made my career as a Pinay author possible. And then some years later, Catalina Cariaga’s book Cultural Evidence was published. Her poem, “Excerpts from Bahala Na!” had Flor Contemplacion at the center, as the speaker sifted through media sound bytes, advertising, emails, and ethnographic text, for any tiny bit of information about Flor’s fate.
I am part of this continuity of Pinay authors, artists, and scholars, working to sift through both the noise of mass media, and its sensationalized and biased reporting of these Pinay lives and/or deaths. If they are reported at all.
To the list of the Pinays I provided, we may add the two Pinays who were central to Karen Villa’s work:
The challenge is always going to be in the telling. There will probably always be disagreement about how. But it is always necessary that telling happens. This is a point I will not negotiate.
Valerie’s question ultimately came down to how we tell these stories without perpetuating the victim narrative, the suffering Pinay stereotype. In response, Angela talked about complexity and nuance, we all agreed it was about honoring their humanity in our work. I discussed the stereotype being that of erasure, silence, and invisibility. Are these Pinays’ stories ever even told in the first place? I said also it becomes about perspective, and direct address. Asking, addressing. Placing these Pinays in the center of the narrative not as objects to be examined and spoken about, but as people to be asked, to be spoken to as humans are spoken to.
I think this is something we can “get away with” in creative work. We can speak to our “subjects,” cast them as heroines, open space for them to speak.
I am thinking of Valerie’s question some more, and am troubled by the assumptions of thesis and dissertation advisors to caution our Pinay scholars about perpetuating victim narrative, especially when there’s so much erasure and invisibility, and young scholars really trying to figure out how to do right by these Pinays. There’s the horrible truth of their experiences that must be spoken, and we must get past our fear of, aversion to unpleasantness — here, I would like to add the discussion of the ugliness that was a common thread in all our presentations. And as we hone our skills as writers, as we become much more adept at craft, we can better handle this terribleness with compassion and sensitivity — otherwise the work becomes suffering porn and cliché.
Do we own these stories? I don’t think I do. Their stories don’t belong to anyone but them. We are all just doing our part in their telling.