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My cousin from Manila visited recently. Over a bottle of wine, we talked about the well-known writers in the Philippines. Nick Joaquin, she said, is still up there. Aren't there younger writers? I asked. The post-war generation of Filipinos, I said, ought to be more adept with the English language. Well, she replied, they write like Virginia Wolf.
Her comment stuck in my head because I have been struggling with themes and topics that I think are true to my identity as a Filipino in America.
In real life, when I converse with Filipinos, I slip either into Tagalog, Cebuano, or Taglish. When I write, I tend to use the English I learned at school or picked up from the American/European books and magazines that I have read. From grade school on, I read Western literature from Dick and Jane to works by Homer, Huxley, Cather, Emerson, and others. We just didn't get a lot of Filipino-written material when I was growing up. I assume that this was due to the fact that the Philippines was a Spanish colony and later a U.S. possession before gaining independence. Because of this Western orientation, my instinct is to use Dick-and-Jane themes. My heroes, the situations I create, and the dialogue I use tend to have a Western flavor.
As a California-based writer, I find it necessary to decide before writing who my readers will be. There are things I can assume a Filipino to know and an American not to know. (Try mentioning T.N.T. to an American and he'll think you mean explosives.) I don't have to give a great deal of explanation to Filipino readers about Filipino matters. We're using the same frame of reference; we're starting from the same point.
It's a schizophrenic feeling and one that American writers do not have to deal with. When they write, they assume Western readership.
Recently I attended a writers' workshop at UCLA. I was the only minority writer in a group of fifteen. Because I take my writing seriously and I try to give my readers something honest, something that comes from the soul, I experimented by submitting manuscripts based on personal experiences. I figured this was the real thing, that my writing would be as Filipino as I am. Wrong. My American companions comments included:
-There is nothing Filipino here. This could have been written by a New Yorker attending Sacred Heart College. Gives no flavor of the Philippines.
I looked at my work and realized that, yes, someone unfamiliar with the Filipino setting would miss the underlying Filipino-ness of the manuscripts. I assumed too many things. I figured my companions would know what Manila life's all about; what the city's like, that it rains half the year, that the traffic is truly terrible and noisy, and the pot-holed streets dusty. Very stupidly I had assumed they'd understand that while Filipinos speak English, they speak other dialects; that while Filipinos seem Americanized, we are indeed our own people. I thought they'd get the cultural nuances that the Filipino reader would pick up without red- flagging.
I wondered if my American companions wanted a stereotype of the Philippines-swaying coconut trees, little brown girls traipsing on the seashore; or, better yet, Igorota running around barefoot and bare- breasted on the rice terraces.
The workshop was a painful experience but it was an eye-opener. Now I am more conscious of my role as a minority writer. It is a challenge to me because I have to find a balance between Western orientation and the stereotype Igorota.
Writing is not easy. For a minority writer in the U.S., it is more difficult.