I am writing this introduction in Hong Kong – a place beyond the geographic, linguistic, and cultural landscape of the Philippine South. The distance however is beyond a matter of literal and cultural distance. When I was asked by the editors to write a short critical preamble for this groundbreaking anthology of Binisayang queer writing, I was initially hesitant to do so because I am in many ways removed from the landscapes the featured writers here tread.
Unlike most of the writers in this volume, I write primarily in English. And while there are works here that have been translated from its original medium of choice, my literary education in English is in itself entangled in the politics that the editors of the volume seek to address: While I grew up in Davao, my intellectual formation initially happed in the Ateneo de Manila University, surrounded and trained primarily by the intelligentsia that make up the center of literary canon. It was only in the later writers workshops in Silliman and, more notably, Iyas, that I got to meet and delve into the literary realms of the writers beyond Luzon’s metropolitan center. Thus, my hesitation to proceed with the writing of this introduction comes from an admitted acknowledgment that I am indeed an outsider.
One of the things that prompted me to accept this generous invitation was the assurance from the editor that I may write this piece in English because someone will translate it to Binisaya instead. And so I write this introduction now with the knowledge that you, the readers of this volume, will not read this in its original form. Whatever critical meditations I have done as these were articulated in English come to you now in a new form, worked on by the caring hands of a translator.As in any works of translation, something was lost and something was gained as my words passed through the linguistic gates of the translator’s pen.
This introduction is both mine and not mine and perhaps in many ways, it is this same experience of liminality that informs the politics of queering. The practice of queer writing involves this same acknowledged positionality of distance and the politics that comes with the necessary negotiation of translatability or, the scholar of French and Comparative Literature Emily Apter posits, untranslatability.
There is that sense of distance and alienation in queer lives. Our lives as queer folk in fact begin with some experience of differentiation: the “hard on” one feels as we undress in the locker room after PE class, along with our other male classmates, the fact that we cannot seem to look away at another female classmate’s wrists as she drums the desk while solving the exam, when we stare into a mirror and say “this is not the body for me.” It is thus a distance that is both physical, social, and metaphysical. Art, in its various media, translates and gives form to such meditations – the syllables that time and pace a lover’s breath, stories that plot the fictions of desire, the performativities that give face to absence.
For this anthology, however, the distance and alienation do not only refer to the artist’s creative interrogation of heteronormative desires. As a body of works that constitutes writings from the Philippine South – seas and syntaxes outside of the metropolitan center – these works also seek to open new spaces and articulations of identities. The project builds on the groundwork laid down by the generation of J. Neil Garcia and Danton Remoto who have curated the Ladlad series.Here, one does not find grand narratives of emancipation. The focus of the varied works in this anthology is the everyday – the classroom, the boarding house, the domestic. These editorial decisions themselves render a political statement for it is in the everyday, in the routinary, the clockwork cadence of life that narratives of what is right and proper are encrypted. But what these works ultimately show is that it is in the solid sediments of the everyday that fissures of resistance can crack open.
It is also important to note that the body of works here are referred to as Binisaya and not Cebuano. Binisaya I would like to think does not just refer to the anthology’s language of choice. When one thinks of the word “Visayan,” one unscrolls in his/her head the more archipelagic makeup and how it differs from the primarily large body of land mass of Luzon. One can travel around most parts of Luzon by bus. For the Visayas and Mindanao one has to hop from one island to the next by air or by sea.
The island as a topological and geographic unit is central to the way we imagine and mis-imagine the Visayas. Our history and destiny as a people of Visayas and Mindanao were and are shaped precisely by our identities as island people. Our first contact with European powers came by way of docking, our first victory happened on a beach in Mactan. We were integrated into the circuit of the colonial marketplace by way of the galleon trade and to this day much our tourism depends on our working relationship with the seas.
While most of these stories do not take place in the beach, and its poems are not songs by the shoreline, I would like to think that the works presented in this anthology are an archipelago of new narratives – each one linked by the seas of common experiences of desire and alienation, yet unique in their own histories. From the large mass of a neatly defined metropolitan defined kind of queer identity as articulated by our brethren in Luzon, we offer a new pluralism of eroticism, play, and in some cases, melancholia. Even the translated works here, written originally in English or in Filipino, published elsewhere transition into a new kind of form as they are expressed in a different tongue.
The turn towards a more Visayan character is exemplified best in the title of the anthology itself: Libulan – the Visayan deity of the moon who had his/her own cultic following cross-dressing men known for their affinity with magic and thus their spiritual link to the divine. Moreover, the moon is the realm of the Muse, the celestial body of the arts, the source of that necessary lunacy that drives one to speak, in artful brushstrokes truths, about the human condition. Finally, the pull of the moon also determines the ebb and return of the tides, the crashing of the waves, the temporal stripping of the shoreline that reveals shoreline’s sandy flesh. The fate of the islands indeed are dependent on the calendrical mercy of Libulan’s charge.
While set in more contemporary times and milieu, the works here nonetheless consolidate Libulan’s divine energies and powers towards a cumulative radical thrust. As in the waves that arc and flow, the works hope to reveal new islands of identities. As in the fundamental madness that energizes the writer’s spirit, the works present a variety of performative transgressions essential to any queer project.
For after all, the first question one usually asks from any body of queer works is “how do you define queer?” There are no easy, definitive answers because to provide an all-encompassing definition of “queer” is to negate the point of queering in the first place. Queer eludes final definitions because the point of queering is precisely to disrupt fixed categorization through the erotic and body politics of performance and play. To queer is both to expose the farce of a world ordered by the rules of heteropatriarchy and to continuous disrupt these in order to open new spaces for emancipation.
At the core of queer theory therefore is a politics of transformation. This for me is what one should look out for when one seeks to do queer writings. Some texts fail because however loud and proud supposedly they may be, come the final period or at the closing applause, they still reify the heteropatriarchy they seek to interrogate. One need not be gay or lesbian to participate in the act of queering, as exemplified by the works of a few writers here who are straight. What matters is the willingness to undo the constrictive genderings and sexualizations that have produced oppressive forms of inequality in our lives.
This volume is our first attempt in such an endeavor. Here, finally one finds the transgressive voices – some of established writers, others emerging, others still from our straight allies – seeking to open new spaces. We do not claim for this work to be the definitive or to be the perfect representation of queer voices in the south. As seen in the fewer contributions from our lesbian brethren, more work still has to be done in reaching out to accommodate more voices in future collections. We hope that this will be a start.
For now, we hope that this collection is amusing as much as it is political, playful as it is transgressive, sinfully divine in the most human, carnal ways.