Commentary

Celebrating women writers on women’s month

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It is deliberate that “NunSense: The Spiritual Journey of a Feminist Activist Nun” by Sr. Mary John Mananzan, OSB was launched on March 8, International Women’s Day. It celebrates the extraordinary paths that the author has taken, leading her to a lifetime commitment to justice, truth, social transformation and, yes, true womanhood. And living life “dancing with the playful consciousness of God.”

The book that grew from her earlier book, “Woman, Religion and Spirituality in Asia,” has a casual, personal tone that makes for interesting reading. Sister Mary John, who is winding up her second term as mother prioress of the Missionary Benedictine Sisters of the Manila Priory, made sure this would not be a serious and heavily annotated autobiography, confessing that much of it was written in stream of consciousness fashion during long hours of waiting in airports all over the world.

Endearing are the childhood anecdotes Sister Mary John narrates—growing up in Bayambang, Pangasinan, where she was suspended for eating tamarind in arithmetic class; experimenting with smoking different cigarette brands and getting nauseated in the process; and failing the entrance exam at St. Scholastica’s College because, following newfound friend Kathy’s advice, she rushed through the questions, did not answer the essay question, and instead went off to enjoy the school swing. Yes, the same college of which she would be president years later.

As a young Benedictine sent to study theology in Meunster, Germany, after a mandatory crash course in German, Sister Mary John wryly asked herself: “If Rizal needed six months to learn German, why was I only being given two months?” She was to meet Karl Rahner, the most famous and revered theologian of the 20th century, who was adviser to the Second Vatican Council and wrote brilliant books in German that were so difficult to understand because of the depth of ideas and his typical longwinded sentences.

She developed a close friendship with Rahner, practically learning at his feet, through many conversations and restaurant meals. In one of their informal conversations, he teasingly suggested that a red veil would suit her better than the black one she was wearing. What she treasures aside from the autographed books Rahner had given her is a quote from their exchange of letters: “If I were Pope, I would ordain you priest.”

Years after Rahner’s death in 1984, she realized that many of the ideas she was espousing and statements she was making were not totally hers, but shaped by this giant of a theologian, her mentor.

Returning to Manila in 1973, a year after the declaration of martial law, Sister Mary John was immediately initiated into the parliament of the streets after responding to a call from fellow religious for support of the La Tondeña workers who were on strike. The involvement with other striking workers led to a solidarity with the oppressed. It was inevitable that the focus on political atrocities and injustice would lead to denouncing the often unspoken domestic violence—and the commitment to the empowerment of women.

The story of Sister Mary John inspires women of all ages not only because of her accomplishments as a religious and as a woman leader—her latest being her own TV talk show, “Nun-sense Makes Sense”—but also because she continues to prove that “genuine spirituality transcends dichotomies and dualisms.” Yes, it is possible to reconcile being head of the feminist organization Gabriela and being a religious.

Another woman author to celebrate is a recent Manila visitor, London-based Candy Gourlay, a former Mr & Ms journalist and acclaimed today for her young adult novel, “Tall Story,” published by the highly discriminating David Fickling Books, and Cacho Publishing for the Philippine edition. The story incorporates elements of the Bernardo Carpio folk tale into a realistic fiction story that begins at the Heathrow airport: “So many armpits, so little deodorant….”

After a few unsuccessful initial novels, Gourlay finally realized the wisdom of a literary agent’s counsel. (“Write what you know. Write about the Philippine experience.”)

Her book was on the Times of London summer reading list, selected one of 100 best books in the UK for 2011, and awarded the 2011 Crystal Kite Award for Europe. Her latest coup: “Tall Story” was one of the top bestsellers of Waterstone in a recent poll of the large UK bookstore chain, even outselling “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and—gasp—even Roald Dahl.

In the United States, children’s book writer and Rutgers University doctoral student Lara Saguisag will lecture on how early 20th century American comic strips that featured child protagonists reveal the nature of the child in that era. The event is scheduled at noon on March 29 at the Library of Congress in Washington.

Saguisag is the author of such children’s books as “There’s a Duwende in My Brother’s Soup,” “Cat Eyes,” “Ninoy Aquino: A Courageous Homecoming,” and a collection of poems, “Children of Two Seasons.”

Celebrate Filipino womanhood through these titles which beckon to readers of all ages in March or the summer ahead!

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrc@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board,  a trustee of the Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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