Southern Authors No. 13 — Cecilia Manguerra Brainard on the Woman-Novelist and the Filipino-American Literature

Featured Authors by Alton Melvar Dapanas |

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard is the award-winning author and editor of twenty books, including the novels: When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, The Newspaper Widow, Magdalena; and short story collections: Vigan and Other Stories, Acapulco at Sunset and Other Stories, Woman With Horns and Other Stories.

Cecilia co-edited six other books and she co-authored a novel, Angelica’s Daughters, a Dugtungan Novel. Her work has been translated into Finnish and Turkish; and many of her stories and articles have been widely anthologized.

Cecilia has received a California Arts Council Fellowship in Fiction, a Brody Arts Fund Award, a Special Recognition Award for her work dealing with Asian American youths, as well as a Certificate of Recognition from the California State Senate, 21st District. She received the prestigious Filipinas Magazine Arts Award,and the Outstanding Individual Award from her birth city, Cebu, Philippines. She has received several travel grants in the Philippines, from the USIS (United States Information Service).

She has lectured and performed in worldwide literary arts organizations and universities, including UCLA, USC, University of Connecticut, University of the Philippines, PEN, Beyond Baroque, Shakespeare & Company in Paris, and many others.

Aside from writing and editing, Cecilia publishes fine literature under the imprint of Philippine American Literary House (Palhbooks.com). Her official website is http://www.ceciliabrainard.com. She also manages a blog at http://cbrainard.blogspot.com.

Alton Melvar Dapanas: “In the 1982 Modern Language Association (MLA) survey of Three American Literatures, the Asian-American section only dealt with Japanese and Chinese authors. The canon at that time ignored or failed to mention any Filipino contribution. The same was repeated in the 1990 MLA guide Redefining American Literary History. There was no mention of Jose Garcia Villa or Carlos Bulosan. Scholar E San Juan calls this treatment of Philippine literature produced in the United States as ‘a routinized ethnic phenomenon, normalized and taken for granted.’ But given that Filipino-American writinghas presence in the US throughNinotchkaRosca, Mia Alvar, Luis H Francia, Jessica Hagedorn, Eric Gamalinda, Bino Realuyo, Eileen Tabios, Barbara Jane Reyes, Luisa A Igloria, and Patrick Rosal and platforms like the Philippine-American Women Writers and Artists (PAWWA) and the Asian American Writers Workshop, has the literary landscape changed since 20 years ago? Do they now talk about us in America?”

Cecilia Manguerra Brainard: “In the late 1960s, the so-called ‘Asian American movement’ came about, resulting in the creation of the sub-group ‘Asian American’ which allowed the group some political clout. For instance, the Asian American movement resulted in the creation of Asian American Studies Centers in some universities and colleges. The Asian American subgroup was dominated by Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, who were (and are) generally more organized and united. This explains why Filipino writers were not mentioned in the early Asian American anthologies. It took a while for the Asian American movement to go out of their way to include Filipino Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and others in the Asian American subgroup.

“By the 1990s, Filipino Americans were included in the Asian American categories, but ironically, since Asian American groups were ran by Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans were treated as something like second-class citizens in this subgroup.  Asian American groups were including ‘token’ Filipino Americans and other Asian subgroups to validate their groups.

“The situation is better now, although Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans continue to be better organized and get the avid support of their communities more than Filipino Americans do.  In the literary field, for instance, Japanese American and Chinese American writers can count on their communities to buy their books, which makes mainstream publishers open to publishing their works. In other words, books by Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans sell, whereas books by Filipino Americans do not do as well and eventually get remaindered (discontinued).  There are Fil-Am writers who have published mainstream, but the commercial aspect of their works is always weighed carefully by the publishers, especially now when the publishing business has become difficult.

“In my case, my first novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, a coming-of-age story of a young girl during World War II in the Philippines, was published by a big publishing house, E.P. Dutton/Penguin, but because of mergers of publishers, this novel was remaindered by Dutton/Penguin.  Fortunately, the University of Michigan Press picked it up and remains in print.  University and small presses have less pressure selling a lot of books, and they rarely remainder titles, which ultimately is good for authors and the books.  A Philippine press is currently considering a Philippine edition of When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, which is good because Filipinos have a difficult time acquiring the US edition.

“My second novel, Magdalena, was published by a small literary press in the US, and it was recently published in the Philippines by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. The University of Santo Tomas Publishing House has also published my third novel, The Newspaper Widow. I welcome these Philippine editions of my works, because these novels are part of Philippine literature.”

 

Dapanas: “Speaking of platforms, you founded the Philippine American Women Writers and Artists (PAWWA) and the Philippine American Literary House. What was the impetus behind the founding of these two?”

Brainard: “I cofounded Philippine American Women Writers and Artists (PAWWA) with six other women in 1991 as a support group not only for ourselves but for other Filipina writers and artists, and to provide community service. We received California Arts Council grants for six years and used the money wisely to publish a newsletter and several books. Working with Loyola Marymount University’s Asian American Pacific Student Services, we held a one-day conference for writers and academics on the topic “Journey of 100 Years,” referring to the centennial celebration of Philippine Independence. PAWWA also encouraged the creation of PAWWA-North, now called PAWA, which had been headed by Ceres Alabado.

“The cofounders of PAWWA were just good friends, and we enjoyed socializing and these projects. When the group started to grow and original members had other commitments, the group’s energy changed, and the co-founders decided to discontinue PAWWA.

“Philippine American Literary House of PALH was an offshoot of PAWWA. When PAWWA considered publishing and selling books, it was more convenient for two members to handle these activities, and thus PALH was born.  When PAWWA broke up, PALH continued, and eventually I bought out my partner. I’m the sole owner of PALH, which has recently restarted publishing literary books, including Linda Ty-Casper’s A River, One-Woman Deep: Stories, Veronica Montes’ Benedicta Takes Wing and Other Stories, and two books of novellas that are forthcoming.

“The real impetus behind PAWWA and PALH was that I—or more aptly, we—saw gaps or the need to get some things done here in the US. There was a need for Filipina Americans to help one another, so we founded the PAWWA. There was a need to give some kind of literary voice to Philippine American writers, thus we published and sold books, and did the other activities.

“Even though I’m the sole proprietor of PALH, I try to maintain the same spirit of ‘doing what needs to be done.’ Now, it is particularly difficult (especially for Philippine American writers) to get non-commercial books published, so PALH has embraced the work of being a small literary press. Rather than complaining about how dire the situation is, as the owner of PALH, I’ll do what I can.”

When The Rainbow Goddess Wept (Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1999)

 

Dapanas: “Philippine folklore and mythology foreground and permeate your works of fiction most especially in your novel When The Rainbow Goddess Wept. As Filipino writer writing in the United States and coming from a nondominant and immigrant culture, must there always be a regrounding of one’s own cultural heritage and a quest for ethnic and familial roots?’”

Brainard: “Writers come in different forms. I know ethnic writers who have chosen to write commercial books that are populated with characters who are WASPs (White Anglo-Saxon Protestants).  I know two bestselling Filipina writers whose protagonists are White; the protagonist of one has green eyes. You wouldn’t know the writers were non-White from their works.

“I am not that kind of writer.

When I started writing, I considered kicking out a commercial romance novel every year, but when I actually started writing realized this was a lot of work, and if I had to do that kind of work, preferred writing of topics that were important or dear to me.  This was why I struggled to work on my voice, my craft, my stories, and why I turned to my Filipino background, to my memories, to the history, culture, and people of Cebu – renamed as Ubec in my literary world.

“I also studied ancient Philippine epics with a study group at UCLA. By immersing myself in these ancient stories, I learned about Filipino culture in a very deep way.  Take for instance the Goddess Meybuyan, who is said to have breasts all over her body and who guarded the river of the dead. Meybuyan nursed dead babies as they came to her.  What this detail from our Philippine epic taught me is that in the past, there must have been very many infants who died so much so that the kind goddess was created to take care of these dead babies.

“Further, I felt a sense of empowerment to learn that ancient Filipinos believed in a river that the dead had to cross, just like the Greeks believed in the River Styx that separated Earth from the Underworld.

“And, years after studying Meybuyan, I was thrilled to see a statue in a European museum of a goddess with breasts all over her body! I am not sure that my curiosity in Philippine history, culture, epics, only developed because I was in the US.  I suspect that I would have felt the urgings to explore my background wherever I lived.”

 

Dapanas: “The feminist’s role is to restore the precolonial image of the woman which was tarnished by the European colonizers. Generally, woman-characters in novels written by women as Simone du Beavoir would assert go beyond being ‘totamulier in utero’ (or woman is a womb), unapologetically showing suppressed desires and pent up feelings and owning up to their bodies and sexualities. In the postcolonial setting, there is still an interesting dynamics between tradition and progress in terms of the woman’s ‘societal role’. How does a woman-novelist like you create a specific feminist mode of writing?”

Brainard: “Many of my women characters are inspired by the women who surrounded me at home, in the schools I attended, in my communities in Cebu, Manila, and the Filipino American world. Even my women relatives whom I never met inspired me, such as my great-grandmother Remedios who reportedly was the First Women Publisher in the Philippines and who morphed into Ines Maceda in my third novel, The Newspaper Widow.

“Angeling Macaraig, the mother in When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, is something like my mother, feisty but also hysterical. And the women characters in my second novel, Magdalena, many of whom experienced #metoo moments, reflect countless Filipinas in Cebu, Manila, and elsewhere – and not just Filipina women but women from other cultures.

“Ultimately, my writing about women boils down to the fact that I find them very complex and highly interesting, and the conflicts they’ve had to deal are very challenging.”

Magdalena (UST Publishing House, 2016)

 

The Newspaper Widow (UST Publishing House, 2016)

Dapanas: “In a previous interview, you likened writing a novel to ‘walking in the dark’ and said that there is an element of gambling. Can you explain your writing process for your latest novels Magdalena and The Newspaper Widow?”

Brainard: Magdalena was first published in the US in 2002; its Philippine edition was published in 2016. I wrote this after writing my first novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, which followed a linear timeline (from the beginning of World War II to the end). The early drafts of Magdalena tried to follow a linear timeline but the work refused to cooperate with me. I would follow a character at a particular time and setting, but then some other character from another time and setting would present itself, and I felt compelled to write about that second character, and so on.  My work was getting cluttered with numerous characters and from all sorts of time frame. I kept trying to reign the book in, to no avail.  I added narrative to try and connects the parts better, but that only made the work slow and boring. I would literally get sleepy as I worked.

“After dealing with this ‘mess’ for several years, I gave up and declared I did not have a novel.  Since I had quite a lot of pages, I tried to convert what I could into short stories. I worked chapter by chapter, throwing out parts that were boring, that didn’t work, honing each section down.  When I had several ‘clean’ parts, I had an epiphany and realized that in fact I could string those good parts together and they would tell a bigger story—my novel.

“That’s when I realized that the novel wanted to be in a particular way. I had to pay attention to what it wanted to be rather than for me to impose what I thought it ought to be.  That was an important lesson to me.

“For my third novel, I set out to write a murder-mystery ‘for fun.’  I started imposing a kind of formula to my work, but again, the work balked, and I had to conform to its demands. The first title of my third novel was Dead Priest in the Creek until I realized that the story wasn’t really about the murdered priest, but about the widow, Ines Maceda, who had to fight to get her son out of jail, and whose relationships with people-new and people-from-her-past are all precious parts of the novel. In other words, The Newspaper Widow chose to be a literary novel more than a murder-mystery. I was very proud when Foreword Reviews said the ‘novel is full and complex, overflowing with textured, fully realized characters who drive the story on every page.’ That’s really the kind of novel I want to produce more than a formulaic-whodunit.”

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Alton Melvar Dapanas

Alton Melvar Dapanas is the associate editor of Mindanao Odysseys: A Collection of Travel Essays, general editor of Bukambibig, a multilingual journal of spoken word and performance poetry, co-editor of Libulan: Binisaya Anthology of Queer Literature, and editor for essay & nonfiction of Bulawan Literary Journal of Northern Mindanao. He is the author of two forthcoming books—The Cartographies of Our Skin: Lyric Essays (2018) and An Archipelago of Napes and Other Prose Poems (2019). Writing, translating, and editing in Binisaya and in English, his poems, nonfiction memoirs, travel writings, and lyric essays have been published in online and print magazines, journals, and anthologies in 7 countries on 3 continents. He is affiliated with the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators, and spearheads writers collective Nagkahiusang Magsusulat sa Cagayan de Oro. Currently, he is writing for the European Union’s Mindanao Interfaith Institute on Lumad Studies and has weekly segment at the Mindanao Gold Star Daily, and is working on a fiction and nonfiction anthology about conflict/postconflict Lumad and Moro areas in Mindanao and his third book, a micro-essay collection, to be titled The Rain Displaces The River.

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