Four stellar Fil-American and Filipino women writers went under the spotlight in a panel discussion live streamed and hosted for the first time by the Philippine Embassy in the United States. In a virtual shining moment, Luisa A. Igloria, Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Migs Bravo Dutt, and Gayle Romasanta read excerpts from their published works and gave voice to their narratives about how being Filipino or Filipino-American played a role in their writing as they navigated social issues Filipino diaspora has faced over the years.
“We have been more familiar with foreign authors, foreign books, writings, and literature for far too long, especially in a foreign country where knowledge and access about the works of Filipino authors are neither popular nor accessible. Fortunately, we have been seeing an increasing number of Filipinos who are making a name for themselves in the global publishing scene and making their mark on the printed page around the world,” said Deputy Chief of Mission Renato Pedro O. Villa in his opening remarks for the online program that marked International Women’s Day on March 8.
In July, Dr. Luisa A. Igloria was appointed as the Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia (2020-2022) and is one of two co-winners of the 2019 Crab Orchard Poetry Prize for Maps for Migrants and Ghosts (Southern Illinois University Press, Fall 2020). Originally from Baguio, she authored 16 books and has 30 years of experience in teaching literature and creative writing.
When asked by the event’s moderator, Aileen Cassinetto, the poet laureate of San Mateo County, California, to define home in the diaspora, Igloria replied, “Some years ago I had an opportunity to put together an anthology called Not Home but Here, published by Anvil in Manila. These were essays by Filipino writers from different parts of the world. Many ideas were shared, but one thing in common has something to do with the simultaneous experience of a certain kind of freedom to reinvent one’s self, one’s circumstances, to reinvent notions of family and community, alongside with the experience of nostalgia, defined as the inability to return to a time, a place, or condition of one occupied before. The conclusion that most of us arrived at is mostly there are multiple ways to define home, as many as there as multiple ways to define being Filipino.”
Gayle Romansanta, who co-authored the first book about Filipino labor leader Larry Itliong entitled, Journey for Justice: The Life of Larry Itliong, with the late and great historian Dr. Dawn Mabalon, discussed at length how the topic of race and ethnicity shaped her own writing. Romasanta also shared her personal journey of letting go of the classism typically embraced by previous generations of Filipino-Americans and advocating for racial equity and justice.
“He [Larry Itliong] said that the downfall of the Filipino is the tribalism…. The only way that we can actually unify in the United States is to come together…to fight together.
We’re united because of the violent racism and those class issues. We’re kind of in the same boat because of the anti-Asian sentiment right now. There’s no hiding, they will see you where they see you. It’s hard to do away with colonialism, but I think that is one way that we can come together as color and race here in the US,” said Romasanta.
Migs Bravo Dutt, author of the contemporary novel, The Rosales House, has likewise contributed poetry to various anthologies and journals in Asia, Croatia, and the United States. She talked about her writing process as an exercise in consistency. “So I think one of the things I tried to establish is to write daily….But whenever I’m going to write for a couple of hours, I prepare a playlist and so on that day that I write longer. I also get inspired by nature so whenever I go out for a walk, I try to be present. I try to observe what is happening around me, tiny things, tiny flowers, what’s the color of the bird, what kind of trees, just basically I try to be present and observe those details.”
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, a fiction writer and author of three novels—When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Magdalena, and The Newspaper Widow, finds it important for newbie writers “to read the kind of work you want to produce.” She also advised them to “take a good writing workshop and learn the fundamentals,” and to write in a journal to “keep things flowing.”
Dr. Igloria revealed that she has been able to practice writing for the last ten years, and has written at least one poem every single day. “I came to this I guess out of the same need as all artists do; to find that time to cultivate what feeds them deeply. I do have at least a half hour to 45 minutes in a day. No matter how small is something I can take and I don’t set expectations, so whatever what my being is feeling mostly at the moment, or whatever has crossed my path, be it in a form of literature I’ve read, something interesting in the news, or even art; everything is fuel for the creative process.”
When asked about the future of multicultural books in the US, Romansanta said, ”the numbers are so low. Out of all the children’s books created in the United States, only seven percent are of people of color and out of that seven percent are Asians and out of that are Filipino Americans. We have a long way to go.” But she also added, “it is really encouraging out there,” and showed some of the titles in her family’s collection, such as the Hello, Universe by Erin Entrada Kelly, Lakas and the Makibaka Hotel by Anthony Robles, and Kalipay and the Tiniest Tiktik: A Cebuano Tale by Christina Newhard, as testament to the growing number of Filipino literature available.
To fellow writers, Romansanta encourages them to shoulder on and create opportunities. “So many times I heard that there is no audience, Filipinos don’t read and they’re not gonna buy, and it is not true. Filipinos have that genius, and we can overcome. You do it yourself. You do not wait and you don’t need someone to give you permission to tell your story. Even in the mainstream, you will be surprised that no one has that kind of avenues. And if it is not there, as people of color, as Filipinos, you have to make it yourself unfortunately.”
Image credits: PHL Embassy/US