Being a person with lived experience of mental illness, Lina Sagaral Reyes is a mental health advocate. Her poetry has been anthologized in a dozen books: Versus: An Anthology of Protest Literature (Navarro-Salanga, AdMU Press: 1986), Kamalayan: Feminist Writings in the Philippines (Azarcon, Pilipina: 1987), Kamao: Katipunan ng mga Tulang Protesta (1970-86) (Aguila and Beltran, Cultural Center of the Philippines: 1987), Women and Spirituality (Mananzan, Babaylan Women’s Collective, 1989), Handurawan: Antolohiya ng mga Tula ng mga Tumanggap ng CCP Literature Grants 1988-89 (CCP: 1990) Kung Ibig Mo: Love Poetry by New Women (Evasco and Santos, Anvil Publishing:1993), Songs of Ourselves: Writings by Filipino Women in English (Zapanta-Manlapaz, AdMU Press:1994), Aseano: Contemporary Southeast Asian Poetry (Baquiran, ASEAN:1996), Palanca Awards: 1987, An Anthology of Prize-winning Poetry Collection of the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, Volume 5 (DCPAL: 1996), A Habit of Shores: 20th Century Contemporary Philippine Poetry in English (2000), Women Bodies, Women’s Lives: An Anthology of Philippine Poetry and Fiction on Women’s Health (Kintanar, UP Press: 2001), and Brown Child: The Best of Faigao Poetry and Fiction, 1984-2012 (Alburo and Sabanpan-Yu, Cebuano Studies Center: 2013). Her creative works also appeared in periodicals such as: Focus-Philippines Magazine, The Diliman Review, National MidWeek, Philippine Graphic, Sunday Inquirer, Sands and Coral, Forefront, Caracoa, Bomb (New York), and Malate. She published two collections of poetry, Honing Weapons (1987) and ‘Storya (1993).
She works as a journalist, contributing news stories to the local newspaper Mindanao Goldstar Daily in Cagayan de Oro City, and occasionally to the bi-weekly Mindanao Observer in Dipolog City. She is a correspondent at World Pulse, a digital women’s network. Her feature articles have appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Manila Times, Newsbreak, National Midweek, Mr. & Ms., and Women Features Service. Her reportage, on the other hand, has gained three Globe Media Excellence Awards-Mindanao (Reporter of the Year for Print and Online, 2017; and Best in Explanatory and Investigative Reporting, 2016). In 2016, she also received the Best Election Story in the Philippine Press Institute (PPI) Community Press Awards and was the lead writer of the story which won the Sustainable Construction Story of the Year Award given by PPI and Holcim-Phils., Inc. Previously, she has also won the second prize, feature category in the Mindanao Peace and Development Journalism Awards (2002); Grand Prize for Science and Technology Journalism Awards of PPI, National Power Corporation and Philippine Geothermal (1999), and the third prize in the Jaime V. Ongpin Investigative Journalism Awards (1996). She was a PPI journalist-fellow in 2016 (Covering the Elections) and in 2018 (Covering the Extractive Industries), and also a fellow of Probe Media Foundation’s Nagbabagang Kwento Program (Coverage of the Tobacco Industry and the Sin Tax) .
She has received the Lambago Art Awards for Literature twice, in 2015 and 2018. An interview, some of her poems and reportage are featured in Voices on the Waters: Conversation with Five Mindanao Writers (De Ungria, AdMU Press: 2018).
Sagaral Reyes studied mass communication, journalism and creative writing at Silliman University in Dumaguete City, from 1978-82 and 1989-1990. She was a fellow at the Asia-Pacific Women and Culture Program of the Institute of Women Studies, St. Scholastica’s College (1991) and at the International Media Studies Program of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley (1994).
Abigail C James: “At this point in your career, what inspires you to continue being creative— not just in creative writing but also pursuing both broadcast and print journalism?”
Lina Sagaral Reyes: I got lucky that all the psychiatrists and psychotherapists, despite their varying diagnoses, cheer-led me to a good prognosis, telling me repeatedly that even if there was no cure and the disease is perceived as a severe and disabling and that relapses are a given but still recovery is always a possibility, recent investigations have seen better outcomes, and that I can aspire to be functional, productive and enjoy a satisfying quality of life.
I was assured that I’ve got many of the features that contribute to a successful recovery from psychotic episodes. Research has shown that certain personal attributes and circumstances are factors towards a better outcome, including: being female, good insight, a high IQ, right attitude towards life experiences, the illness is of paranoid subtype, access to continuing care, having a supportive family, and minimal negative symptoms. The last feature is optimal compliance to drug treatment but for a time, I was not compliant to pharmacological treatment.
Nevertheless, it also helped that as soon as I realized I’d had an intense psychotic break lasting for almost a week in July 2012, I immediately went online and immersed myself in a vigorous research about mental health and illnesses. Through Google, I learned about treatments, symptoms, and side-effects of psychotropic drugs.
But the inspirational gems among my web findings are the links to The Icarus Project (TIP) and Elyn Saks.
The TIP is “a media and activist project”, a support network that offers educational materials. It also has a Facebook support group. Its main argument is that mental illness should be understood beyond the medical model approach that relies mainly on psychiatric pharmacology. Instead it views experiences called as mental ill-health “as an issue of social justice and that a person’s mental state can improve through greater social support and collective liberation.”
Elyn Saks provided me the real-life face of a highly functional person with lived experience of schizophrenia. She is a Distinguished Professor of Law at Gould School of Law and professor of law, psychiatry, psychology and behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California. At the time I accessed her June 2012 TED Talk in Edinburgh, Scotland, it was barely five days since its upload on YouTube.
On the ground, it helped that there are people in inclusive media organizations like the World Pulse, Philippine Press Institute, Probe Media Foundation, Mindanao Gold Star Daily, Mindanao Observer, and Manila Times who granted me with fellowships and assignments in spite of my disclosure of mental illness.
It mattered much that I reconciled with my siblings from whom I had been estranged for almost two decades after they banished me in August 1995, and they continue to support my writing, having embraced the perils that this vocation afflicts on their pockets.
It also helps that for now I have found safe and secure lodgings at the psychiatric facility House of Hope where the community deems my writing skills useful and I work unfettered by rules except for a night curfew.
But, hello, what career are we talking about here? After two major psychotic breaks in 2012 and 2013, and several minor relapses later, I had X-ed the idea of taking the career highway and is embracing taking the side-streets, marginal and obscure, grateful for each day when I wake up lucid and grateful yet when I wake up not-so-lucid but still aware I am not so lucid, hopscotching my way amidst the minutiae of quotidian creativity.
James: “Since your writing has continuously related to women and you have founded institutions such as the Center for Creative Women which are spaces for women artists, what do you think is the next step to further women’s place in the creative sphere?”
Sagaral Reyes: Harnessing visibility and productivity are interconnected ideals for women creatives, particularly women in order for us to expand the spaces and multiply our spheres of influence.
The Center for Creative Women was a concept that did not really fully flower in the 1990s. It was conceived while I was in the family residence in Villalimpia, Loay, Bohol a year after my mother died. Together with two friends working with me on a research project, I transformed the house into the village gathering place, especially for women. But it was short-lived as I left to study at University of California-Berkeley. I later formed the Mindanao Women Writers (Min-WoW) in mid-2000s but it was also short-lived. An online creative space I have been inhabiting for more than nine years now is at World Pulse, a global network based in Portland, Oregon. I consider World Pulse and its membership as a step in the right direction in providing inclusive online spaces for women creatives in different parts of the globe. The WP as a project is not about a place to represent the voiceless women; on the other hand, it is the space for a sisterhood of women having earned voices of their own, those who can declare: “No one speaks for me, I can speak for myself.”
#Everywoman and #BabaeAko are presently two all-women endeavors that provide specific space for women to affirm a sisterhood against the patriarchal (elements in) government.
I also see intersectionality as the next common grounds which allow women to align themselves with other sectors, working together among different gender identities and sexual orientations to achieve social change.
Alton Melvar Dapanas: “Identity in culture, as most literary theorists would assert, is mediated. The writing lives of many of us are built upon, grounded in, and shot through with cultural influences and beliefs that we place under ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and geopolitics. How has being a woman from the regions and now living in Mindanao influenced you current writing and your current politics?”
Sagaral Reyes: Immensely. It is the very stuff, the major compelling theme of my work.
My writings, both reportage and literary, since I arrived here in the mid-90s have always been rooted in the island, enfleshing the various Mindanaoan women experiences and lives and narratives. I subscribe to a journalism that is sensitive to Mindanao’s aspirations for lasting peace among its many peoples.
After having stayed in Manila for seven years, I left to return to the Visayas in 1989. It was not only about having to go home to the Silliman campus and to the barangay of Villalimpia, in Loay but also was about going home to a language—to Cebuano, Sinibuano, that language streams to and from the tributaries of the Binol-anon. It meant finally dreaming in that unique mother tongue.
My travel to Mindanao was intended to be simply a sojourn in search of journalistic stories, then, as I was banished away from family, it became a self-exile, and later it has become an on-going odyssey.
James: “Could you describe your frame of mind when you write in different languages? Is there a shift of consciousness when choosing a certain language to write in?”
Sagaral Reyes: My reflex is to think in Binisaya/Sinibuano even if I continue to write in English. Then, the mind habitually translates, shape-shifting into English. But I am aware that this particular English is a reconstruction, its malleability incorporates and assimilates the nuances of all other languages that inhabit my mind or in which I inhabit as I have written in three languages: English, Binisaya and (Tagalog-based) Filipino.
One of my literature teachers at Silliman University, Dr Edilberto K Tiempo admonished us his students that we must think and dream in good English in order to write well in that English. But then, my other languages impinge on this certain English now. This time I also dream in those languages interchangeably, and sometimes they jostle together in one idea, halo-halo, so my language is as impure as ever, and my thinking process perhaps a ‘flawed’ hybrid, a mestisa Kano/a-Binisaya .
Dapanas: “Some writers who want to hold a monovocal worldview and seek a more aesthetically oriented identity are not comfortable when ‘the political’ appears to trump or influence the ‘aesthetic.’ But historically, creative writers have claimed outsider status as rebels, innovators, experimenters, and minority members of the status quo. As someone who have often discussed about writers and their role in the on-going politics, where do you think the writer belongs in the current political climate?”
Sagaral Reyes: The writer belongs wherever she chooses to be present, to be visible. In the midst or in the margins. On the streets attending rallies in the rain with or without her umbrella or by the writing table in front of the laptop or in the kitchen making coffee with turmeric listening to the radio broadcast of the dictator’s latest speech. But right there inside within an earth-house gone too warm, not outside. Let there be no ‘outside’ for her.
My perspectives on writing and the writer’s role have been nourished by two schools: that of Silliman University and the University of the Philippines. From Silliman, I learned to hold dearly the craft, and from UP, I grew to uphold the writer’s role as conscience of the nation. In this time of language-deficient and language-depraved dictatorship, we need to side with the people’s resistance and we try to craft our writings boldly in the service of that resistance.
Dapanas: “Audre Lorde writes in one of her illness nonfiction narratives: ‘I have found that battling despair does not mean closing my eyes to the enormity of the tasks of effecting change nor ignoring the strength and the barbarity of the forces aligned against us. It means teaching, surviving, and fighting with the most important resource I have, myself, and taking joy in that battle. It means, for me, recognizing the enemy outside, and the enemy within, and knowing that my work is part of a continuum of women’s work, of reclaiming this earth and our power, and knowing that this work did not begin with my birth nor will it end with my death. And it means knowing that within this continuum, my life and my love and my work has particular work and meaning relative to others.’ Being clinically diagnosed with schizophrenia—the ‘enemy outside, and the enemy within’—how has this shaped your creative writing and cultural/journalistic work?
Sagaral Reyes: I first encountered Audre Lorde when I sat in a course on African-American Women Literature at De La Salle University-Manila in the late 80s. She’s a forerunner, together with Maya Angelou, of African-American women writers like Ntozake Shange, Nikki Givanni, and Sonia Sanchez who are also feminists and civil rights activists. Lorde is credited to have engaged in intersectionality, long before the word was coined.
When she mentioned in that excerpt from The Cancer Journals about ‘the enemy outside and enemy within,’ I don’t think she meant it to describe one single thing, and instead she meant here two entities. Instead, I think, that here she meant ‘the enemy without’ as oppression in its many forms including racism, sexism and structural violence; while her illness, ‘the enemy within’’ marked the struggle within her body with a disease.
Lorde was credited to have infused her writings with activism; for her, writing was a form of activism. Her poems are political, polemical and didactic banners of feminism and civil rights, long before these movements became fashionable. This stance is a variation of the-personal-is-political principle. Lorde connected her struggles with the enemy outside (oppression) to the enemy within (cancer), through the lens of activism.
This integrative quality in her activism is more evident in what she wrote in “A Burst of Light, Living with Cancer” that was used as epigraph to the introductory essay of “Wings of Gauze: Women of Color and the Experience of Health and Illness”.
“Most of all I think of how important it is for us to share with each other the powers buried within the breaking the silence about our bodies and our health, even though we have been schooled to be secret and stoical about pain and disease. But stoicism and silence does not serve us nor our communities, only the forces of things as they are.”
Lorde’s metaphor for illness as ‘the enemy within,’ notwithstanding, I am uncomfortable with calling the experience of schizophrenia as ‘the enemy within.’
As the novelist Sri Hustvedt explains:
“Every sickness has an alien quality, a feeling of invasion and loss of control that is evident in the language we use about it. No one says, “I am cancer” or even “I am cancerous,” despite the fact that there is no intruding virus or bacteria; it is body’s own cells that has run amok. One has cancer. Neurological and psychiatric illnesses are different, however, because they often attack the very source of what one imagines is one’s own self.”
Right after my recovery from my first major psychotic break (this is the politically correct term, I suppose, instead of nervous breakdown) in 2012, I found my voice as a mental health advocate, as an expert by experience. Experiencing a post-traumatic (re)growth, I wrote several pieces on mental health on World Pulse.
I found myself engaging in mental health journalism. In covering the local elections in 2016, I wrote about how all the contending three political parties in Cagayan de Oro agreed on mental health care as a major election issue of concern. The two-part story was later awarded as the Best Election Story during the Philippine Press Institute Civic Journalism Community Press Awards on the same year. Earlier, I wrote about the mental and emotional health of female journalists, a sub-theme in a project on Gender-sensitive Peace and Conflict Coverage, dubbed Women Making Airwaves for Peace.
Post-2013, I re-read my earlier poems and recognized that some of them were actually written while I was in an altered state of consciousness, or about altered state of consciousness like A Poverty of the Woman Who Turned Herself Into Stone, or Icarusa To Herself Speaks.
I also led a participatory action research on the mental health of Lumad women activists among populations dislocated by militarization and development aggression in Misamis Oriental and Bukidnon, though that work remains unfinished.
I am involved in several online support groups for those who share the experience of mental ill-health, where I continue to learn lessons from the experiences of fellow sufferers.
I would like to devote more time for mental health advocacy particularly in the wake of the passage of the country’s Mental Health Act of 2018 (RA 11036) last June.
I’d like to be part of campaigns to emphasize suicide prevention and first aid especially needed in this city where there are more suicides than extra-judicial killings.
I want to join campaigns that would stress the rights of mental health care users, conversations on the social determinants of mental illness, the political and economic dimensions of the mental affliction, debunking the myths and stereotypes, the overall need to focus on schizophrenia and personality disorders, which are more highly-stigmatized.
James: “You were the keynote speaker at the Davao Writers Workshop in 2012, which you presented four points to the fellows. One was ‘The writer is reader. The writer as reader’ where you gave a few selections which you admired at the time. What books are you reading now? And which of these books do you feel young woman-writers should read to further their craft and political consciousness?”
Sagaral Reyes: At present, I am savoring “The Quiet Ones” by Glenn Diaz. On weekends, I read some poems from “Cries of the Spirit: 300 Poems on Women and Spirituality” edited by Mary Sewell and Ruth Padel’s “52 Ways of Looking at a Poem: A Poem for Every Week of the Year”.
Last March, I read Clarissa Villasin Militante’s “We Who Cannot Be Daughters” and “Different Countries”, and Julia Alvarez’s “A Time of the Butterflies”. In April, I relished Jamica Kincaid’s “See Now Then”.
Doing fieldwork in Surigao del Norte in May, I brought along Ellen Meloy’s “The Anthropology of Turquoise: Meditations on Landscape, Art and Spirit”.
In the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, I spent hours deep at night leafing through cookbooks like “Classic Palestinian Cuisine” and “Sahtain”; “Wild, Wild East” and “Fresh Chinese”, as if they were comfort food.
I’ve read Mai Santillan’s “Gikan sa Babayeng Bilbilon: Mga Balak” and Christian S Baldomero’s “when the world offers you loneliness & other poems”, and the Bulawan Literary Journal of Northern Mindanao’s post-Sendong issue.
I look forward to reading “Libulan: Binisayang Antolohiya sa Katitikang Queer” by Alton Melvar Dapanas and R Joseph Dazo, Ton Daposala’s “Basâ-basa”, “Collected Schizophrenias” by Esme Weijun Wang, and “Psychiatric Hegemony: A Marxist Theory of Mental Illness” by Bruce Cohen.
I would not invite the young female writers-readers to read any or all of these books but I’d like them to read whatever they desire, whatever catches their attention, to develop their own tastes, try out a reading menu of their own.
My admonitions also include:
1. For everyone, women and men, to include in their reading fare works by women authors;
2. As in food, try to be a locavore, to read more of works in their mother’s tongue, in Binisaya, Sebuano, etc, those produced by independent and university presses;
3. To read the masters as well as the callow ones; the learned and the beginners; and
4. To read materials other than literature books, include philosophy, math, research, science, technology, agriculture; also magazines, cookbooks, comics, and ebooks.
Incidentally, a few days ago, I came across a Brain Pickings article quoting Rebecca Solnit on reading, and the quote ended:
“Before writers are writers they are readers, living in books, through books, in the lives of others that are also the heads of others, in that act that is so intimate and yet so alone.”
James: “At the 2018 Lambago Art Awards, you gave the awardees’ response and talked about using art to unify people and fight against dictatorship. How big of a role do you see art (and artists) playing during a time of divisive political turmoil?”
Sagaral Reyes: Did I really say that? I think I never talked about unity or using art for unity.
If my memory is right, it was Hobart Savior, the preeminent director of the Xavier Center for Culture and the Arts, whose brainchild is the Lambago Art Awards, who talked about the unifying power of art and true art’s criteria being its relevance to the times, in his closing remarks during the program.
I remember having talked only about resistance. I exhorted artists to resist the brute political power of dictatorship.
“Again to fellow artists, especially those whose practice necessitates a continuing relevant engagement with current affairs, we know that the difficult weathers that the writer Ursula Le Guin had forecasted years ago in the US, has come to descend on our islands. There is a gloaming, this particular chill that is felt deep down in the bones of those who use words and images to keep democracy alive even amidst the rise of dictatorship in our country. We sense the slow curtailment of the very freedoms from which springs our creativity. We are therefore challenged to exercise the highest degree of tolerance as well as risk-taking in our refusal to be silenced by brutal political power.”
I was referencing the division wracking Southern writers and writing professionals like journalists and some academics, in the wake of the Rappler debacle, when the Duterte government deliberately attacked the media organization in retaliation of its critical stance against government policies.
I was just one among the many, many writers who signed the statement published in Payag Habagatan. We’ve stood our ground. That, I think, is part of our responsibility as creatives in times like these.
James: “At an early part of your life, you were faced with the possibility of a terminal illness. This was said to push you in creating a multitude of works. Now that you’ve gone way beyond that expectancy, how do you look back on that time in relation to your creativity and motivations to write?”
Sagaral Reyes: It was a time not only of fierce and bright bereavement that stayed in the body, of abandonment turned wonderment, of altered states of consciousness. In hindsight, a somatic delusion made me madly prolific. It happened and I was having grandiose delusions of my literary legacy, and no, there wasn’t really a multitude of works. A few poems, and many diaries dutifully digested by termites. Later, still an anosognosiac, in the early 2000s, I was convinced for months that I was dying of AIDS because of the lesions with worms all over my body. The lesions were real, the worms were not. It was delusion of parasitosis, according to a skin physician.
Dapanas: “As revealed in mounting psychological and pedagogical studies, creative writers have been viewed as and have attested to being prone to mental illnesses. It is not surprising to read in author interviews and writings about writing that authors regularly attest to the craft’s therapeutic aspects—a self-analysis, a healing act for psychological distress, a harmonizing of inner discontinuities, a meditation, a spiritual investigation. Proof to these is the common subject-themes found in literary works that dealt with, transcended, and/or drawn upon childhood trauma, physical/sexual abuse, depression, alcoholism, etc. How has writing helped you process the past events and grapple with the continuing and developing affective challenges in your life?”
Sagaral Reyes: I find it difficult to accept the premise that writers are prone to mental illnesses. During the year I was confined at the House of Hope psychiatric facility for three months, there were 42 diagnosed with schizophrenia, out of 67 psychotic cases. I was the lone writer among the 42, and another creative who painted slippers. Most of the writers I know are mentally healthy and adaptive. I need to disabuse myself that indeed writers in comparison to non-writers are more prone to mental illnesses.
Here are my notes on my online research:
The debate about the vulnerability of creatives, especially writers and visual artists to mental illnesses is continuing.
In 2012, people in creative professions are treated more often for mental illness than the general population; the Karolinska Institute in Sweden had found out that there is a salient connection between writing and schizophrenia after tracking 1.2 million patients and their relatives down to second-cousin level. 25 percent of the creatives are more likely to carry genes that raise the risk of bipolar disorder.
Albert Rothenberg, professor of psychiatry at Harvard University says there is no good evidence for a link, it is a 19th century notion of the mad genius. Van Gogh just happened to be mentally ill. Creative people are not mentally ill. Creativity is highly adaptive and the actual processes involved are healthy.
2016: According to a report by Claudia Hammond in bbc.com, research does not really support the connection between mental illness and creativity. In a review of 29 studies before 1998, 15 found no links, nine found a link and five was unclear. Hardly a straightforward conclusion.
Hammond says that some are mere case studies rather than rigorous attempts to establish causal connections.
She mentioned the popular case studies done by Nancy Andreasen (30 writers at the Iowa Writers workshop) interviews in 15 years, and Kay Redfield Jamison, Touched by Fire, which included 47 British creatives including poets and novelists, both involved a very small sample and no scientific basis for causality.
Do you have to be ill in order to be creative? Must I credit the creative success to my illness rather than my own creative talent? You can have a mood disorder and be creative but those things are in no way dependent on one another.
Both the Andreasen and Jamison studies zoom in on bipolars, those living with mood disorders and unipolar depression, none of the subjects were living with schizophrenia.
2017: Redfield Jamison of John Hopkins University: there is a boost of creativity recovering from depression or into the manic state.
There are several studies probing connections, these aren’t definitive.
Jamison seems to be saying that there’s some positive aspect to mood disorder, and the major one is creativity
2018: In The British Journal of Psychiatry, creative people are more vulnerable to mental illness it is the first large study involving four million (4,000,000,000) Swedes. It finds that more people who are relatively creative compared to the general populations are more likely to develop mental health problems such as bipolars and severe depression. People with extraordinary artistic activity could be many times more likely to be hospitalized for mental ill-health.
While the link between creativity (including the impulse to write) and mental illness is not clear, writing is considered among the expressive therapies for mental anguish.
The periods between my first major psychotic break in 2012 and the second in 2013 were the most productive, I guess I experienced what is called positive post-traumatic re-growth. In the first half of 2013, I wrote pieces in response to writing prompts at World Pulse.
Writing poetry and reportage is actually my anchorage; this creative act grounds me to reality. Writing is work and, like Elyn Saks, for me work is helpful; work provides the single non-drug treatment for mental distress.
While I did not experience any of these, it is worthwhile to mention that there are other uses of writing and literature in dealing with mental illness, and mental health in general. Mental health professionals have developed courses on using literature to confront stigma of mental illnesses, teach empathy and break stereotypes. Futurelearn has a course in Reading for Mental Health and Wellbeing.
Other structured writing strategies are: restorative journaling for people who need to build resilience while facing limitations developed by Esme Wang, a person living with schizoaffective disorder, and narrative medicine, which has been developed by Rita Charon at Columbia University.
Dapanas: “Edna Zapanta-Manlapaz in ‘Our Mothers, Our Selves: A Literary Genealogy of Filipino Women Poets Writing in English, 1905-1950’ names you and several others like Grace Monte de Ramos, Marjorie Evasco, Fe Remotigue, Lilia Lopez-Chua, Dinah Roma, and Christine Godinez-Ortega as a group of writers who continue to write in English and ‘managing somehow to live with the anxiety and even drawing from it a tension that charges their creative powers.’ Tell us about writing without the impulse to translate the vernacular for an audience that may read only in English, what Zapanta-Manlapaz calls ‘poetry… written not in English but from English.’”
Sagaral Reyes: In the 70s, I was dodging the bullies calling me uling and igorot at Loay Central Elementary School and Holy Trinity Academy in Loay, Bohol, hiding my copy of Eric Fromm’s “The Art of Loving” or Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” under the desk while the teacher was dishing out chemistry lessons. The only form of writing I did then was two-page compositions entitled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation on the Farm” and “My First Plane Ride When I was 5 Years Old”.
While Emmanuel F Lacaba was an underground cadre in Davao, I was a sophomore high schooler having nosebleeds, copious menstruation and fainting spells, and my last Girl Scout encampment. I belonged, on the other hand, more to the 80s and 90s.
Frankly, ignorante jud ko ani. I did not know what Manlapaz was writing about because I have not read her article, which also stresses my disconnect from the academic discourse as by this time I had already downshifted to Bohol.
I’ve read to learn that in that critical essay, Manlapaz channels the feminist literary critics Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar who posited in “The Madwoman in the Attic” that women poets suffer from the “anxiety of authorship”. Theorizing the feminist model of literary genealogy, Gilbert and Gubar says female poets are gripped by the “radical fear that she cannot create, that because she can never become a precursor, the act of writing will isolate or destroy her. To overcome this fear the woman poet actively seeks a female precursor who far from representing a threatening force to be denied and killed, proves by example that a revolt against patriarchal literary authority is possible.”
Manlapaz said further that the female women poets of that early generation and of present generation (then the early 1990s) were not afflicted by this anxiety and instead suffers from the anxiety that she calls (rather awkwardly) “alien-nation”. She credited the poet Trinidad Tarrosa-Subido to have foreshadowed this anxiety in the poem, “The Muted Cry”:
“Could I speak the language of my blood
I, too, would free the poetry in me.”
Manlapaz claims that there were women who escaped from the anxiety by writing poetry only in the vernacular. Others, lay claim to their bi-cultural heritage, and write in English and the mother tongue.
Manlapaz grouped me together with Evasco, Monte de Ramos, Roma, Godinez Ortega, and many others “who continued to write in English, and drew from it a tension that charges their creative powers.”
We probably did not characterize Gilbert and Gubar’s feminist “anxiety of authorship”, not because as Manlapaz claimed we Pinay poets, of past and recent generations, viewed English as an instrument of personal liberation and were political ingénues whose naiveté prevented us from realizing that English was also an instrument of the colonization of our consciousness.
My choices were acutely informed by postcoloniality and post-colonial feminism. I acknowledged “mothers” and “sisters” or “mothers-sisters” among white activists poets like Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, and Carolyn Forche; and “the othered” in pockets of the third world in North America. And not only are these literary mothers-sisters white but also included the Blacks, the Chicanas and Latinas, and the Native Americans who were claiming the colonialist language and made it malleable enough to be imbued with their own sensibilities.
These included works by Audre Lorde, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Gloria Anzaldua, Cherrie Moraga, Julia Alvarez, Wendry Rose, Joy Harjo, Anita Endrezze, Naomi Shihab Nye,Louise Erdrich.
For after all, this was already at the end of the 80s and the beginning of the 90s, and a few years had gone by since Salman Rushdie’s article, “The Empire Writes Back” was published in London Times, and discourses on the postcolonial literatures had fettered among the activists-writers in Philippine universities.
That was also a period of feminist awakenings, and we were in the forefront of asserting the need to confront the patriarchal underpinnings of English. So we called for the hastening of the use of gender-fair and gender-sensitive use of English in media and the academe.
There were also formal and informal discussions on claiming English as our own. Popular reading was Adrienne Rich’s poetry collection “Dream of a Common Language,” in particular the famous assertion in “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children”:
“….This is the oppressor’s language
and yet I need it to talk you”
People suffer highly in poverty and it takes dignity and intelligence to overcome this suffering. Some of the suffering are: a child did not had dinner last night: a child steal because he did not have money to buy it: to hear a mother say she do not have money to buy food for her children and to see a child without cloth it will make tears in your eyes.
See, Rich was adept in showing how a deliberately “dis-abled” English exposes class and racial disparities and dispossession.
The Latina writers were honing the language into their own veritable weapons, as Maria Hinojola says in the preface to “Daughters of the Fifth Sun: A Collection of Latin American Poetry and Fiction”:
“These fabulous winding, multi-layered sentences of (Ana) Castillo’s remind me of so many similar one by Latina American authors. They are sentences like ones I used to write as a student, which came back from my teachers with big, red marks saying,” Run-on sentences!! Please re-write! And with each rewrite, I would have silently convince myself that the teachers were right. That these kinds of sentences were wrong and bad. That I could not write in English. That this was not my language and never would be. But it is not so. English is the language of these writers. They own it now.”
I felt that neither was Tagalog/Filipino my tongue, and the task at hand was to go home to the province and write from there. I harbored the guilt of having betrayed my ethnic-cultural heritage as Bisaya and Boholana. As someone living at the center of culture that was Manila, I felt unwarrantedly privileged as promdi, spatially speaking/by proximity, the one who conveniently represented the regional and the provincial in literary forums and gatherings needing token regional representation.
So that in 1989, I managed to fly the Manila coop. The break(through)s came in two– an offer to be a writer-in-residence under the Creative Writing Program at Silliman University and a writing grant from the Cultural Center of the Philipines. Then, an oral history project and reportage for Women Features Service. These enabled me to come full circle into becoming a truly regional writer,staying right in Bohol.There, it was easier to defy Dr Ed Tiempo’s dictum to dream in English in order to write well. By that time I was dreaming and thinking in Binisaya, waking to the cling-clang-clang of the nearby blacksmith.
It was also during this the stage when I employed a scattering of Filipino/Binisaya words (such as balangsi, gising-gising, storya, parol de kombate, matas’ adlaw), bringing these indigenous words into my English (text), and I did not care about explaining it to “an English-only” audience because I did not think they ever existed, because I felt on the contrary that my audiences were “mostly English-also”.
My own literary anxiety included the worry about writing about my village folks in English and these very people who are subject of my poetry were unable to read my works because they did not know English. That’s why when I was writing for the CCP grant for poetry in English, I requested Hermie Beltran, the head at the literary department, if those works can be translated into Binisaya so I can share these with villagers. Beltran agreed, and in fact, in the publication “Handurawan: Works by CCP Grantees”, the grantees’ works written originally in Ilocano and Cebuano were translated into English and Filipino, and mine into Cebuano and Filipino.
Dapanas: “You had been featured in Ricardo M de Ungria’s ‘Voices on the Waters: Conversations with Five Mindanao Writers’. As one of the five Mindanaoan writers, you were interviewed in person, and some of your poems and reportage are included in the volume. Prior to the release of the book, you expressed grave anxieties especially after having seen the proofs. At a certain point you wanted out of the project, to jump ship. You told people close to you that it felt as you anticipated its publication. You told me, morag naghabwa kos akong tinai, atay, ug batikulon (like heaving out one’s entrails, liver and gizzard). Now that the book is out, how do you feel?”
Sagaral Reyes: In the wake of Anthony Bourdain’s suicide, a news report said that days before, Bourdain bought an artwork by John Lurie entitled, “The sky is falling, I am learning to live with it.” I remember that detail, because now that the book is inevitably out, and people are probably reading through the volume, in the aftermath, the image in my mind is that of “the sky having fallen, and I am constrained to live with it.”
De Ungria’s interviews were for him part of cut-and-dried literary scholarship but for me, it became part of my psychotherapy, conducted a year after my second major psychotic break, probing into my psyche where no psychotherapist had ever reached (out) because none of them were inclined to literature, about the single theme that ever mattered meaningfully to me which is writing, and I was never wary of “his tote bag of endless questions”, without heed of the fact that the process was being recorded and that the transcription will become public, becoming text(ual).
When I saw the proofs, I froze with fear. Naghabwa man kos akong tinae, atay, ug batikulon! One thing worried me so much I had nightmares about it: my last statements on defying pharmacological treatment. I felt it was such a terribly irresponsible act to declare it was all right to get off psychiatric drugs without mentioning that it was an experimental process and the context was that anything approaching mental illness is socially constructed and therefore, healing resides in the social realm. I was imagining how readers who might be mentally ill will also turn down medical treatment because they have read that someone had gotten away with it. But in October 2015, three months after the interview, I had a relapse. And had since returned to taking a low-dosage anti-psychotic daily. I tried to put that relapse on the record by appending a sentence about it after the transcription so that readers will place my words in context but de Ungria felt it was unnecessary and deleted it.
I still believe that there are people who are able to heal themselves with psycho-social strategies alone, or who endow their experience with spiritual significance and recover through prayers, through other means other than psychotropics but I am not yet one of them. It is an ideal that I hope to accomplish in time but as of now, I am lucid and my thoughts are organized, and I have to admit that this is partly due to sustained and effective medication.
Secondly, I complained to de Ungria about my extensive garrulity, but where I pointed out garrulous pronouncements, he called it intensity, which he said was also present in the other interviews.
I also felt that my responses were uneven, at times plain almost-stupid, if not uncalled-for and authentically inept, but at times eloquent. For example, the way I described the women in Mindanao as brave. Mao ra to? Unsa man diay dili brave ang taga-Visayas? And my vacillation between Islam and Christianity that I had hinted to have been due to borderline personality disorder (BPD) traits. At times, I was so digressive and circuitous, accentuating/revealing a schizotypal trait—the inability to filter irrelevant material. The interview convinced me that I am better read than heard. And so, I should be grateful to de Ungria still. And so thanks to you, too, Abigail C James and Alton Melvar Dapanas, for allowing me time to mull over these questions. Somehow, it is an act of pagpahiuli sa nahabwang tinae, atay, ug batikulon.
I worried that I was the only migrant among the writers, the four were native-born, and readers will notice and grumble. I worried that none of the poems were written in or about Mindanao, and the literary journalism were polvoronic.
Suddenly, I was also queasy over pointing out the genetic origins of my mental illness on my mother’s family tree. I was uncertain how relatives would take in such specific public revelations. I thought then that it would be easier to acknowledge the roots of depression and anxiety in these times when celebrities are open about their mood disorders but the more serious and highly-stigmatized personality disorders and schizophrenia that were my diagnoses would still be difficult to swallow for some of my most sensitive family members. But at this moment though, having broken the taboo feels right again. I think in time, the clan will understand that raising awareness about this common genetic link will prevent vulnerabilities to implode into full-blown mental illness in the next generations.
But surprisingly, I felt it was positive to be talking about my homophobia and homophilia altogether; to realize these for what they are, how these mirror my own ambiguous sexuality and sexual orientation. About time I should be writing about it. About time I do, hooyah.
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