Commentary

Women writers romancing the Word

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Was it because the women speakers before him had already said a mouthful that Ateneo University president Fr. Jett Villarin, SJ, chose to be brief as he delivered the closing remarks at the recent launch of the exhibit of the Women Writers in Media Now (Women) at the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings (Aliww)? In accepting the collection of works of 18 writers spanning a period of 30 years, it was more than adequate for him to acknowledge that “creativity and courage are feminine virtues.”

It was an interesting challenge for the panelists of the 18th Paz Marquez Benitez Memorial Lecture to address an audience of students who were not even born yet when these speakers were just beginning to have published bylines. Yes, they were talking history. But how Ceres P. Doyo, Jo-Ann Q. Maglipon, and Marites Danguilan-Vitug regaled and inspired the audience with their experiences in the world of journalism—on the years of writing dangerously, the crazy business of show biz reporting, and navigating lawsuits, respectively.

It was, indeed, a challenge, even if one student asked about a speaker, Is that Paz Marquez Benitez? The student did not realize that pioneer Filipino short story writer Benitez lived from 1894 to 1983 and was represented at the occasion by her granddaughter, Patricia Benitez Licuanan, who chairs the Commission on Higher Education.  Paz Marquez Benitez has in effect become our literary matriarch, having created a room of her own, carving a path for us, and making our journey a little easier. Move over, Virginia Woolf.

For the women writers whose works are on exhibit until April 30, the most important message they wish to convey, especially to today’s students, is their passion for and romance with words. So what drives them to write? Listen to the voices of a few Women members currently featured in Aliww:

Sheila Coronel:  A journalist asks questions for a living. I write because I have found some answers, no matter how tentative. I write because a story deserves to be told. I write because I hope things will change for the better. I write even when there is no such hope. Writing is an act of faith. I believe that putting words down can make a difference. In that sense, writing is an act of conceit or maybe self-delusion. I write because one day I will die and I hope my words will outlive me. Writing is a hedge against mortality.

Gemma Nemenzo: When I moved to the States to reinvent my life—and take on all the vicissitudes of being a single parent, a sole breadwinner and housekeeper—I had to write to keep my sanity.

Lilia Quindoza Santiago:  I write in the wee hours of the morning, when no one is looking and when all the world seems to be mine and I can scribble and edit and scribble again and edit again….I take delight in it. I have no complaints of losing precious sleep because it is at three o’clock in the morning, when all the world is asleep, that I can claim, as Virginia Woolf did, a room of my own…. I have a world in silence, a compassionate fresh air that breathes magic into my aging brain and then, hope because sunrise means another day and I am awake to meet its challenges. So, yes, to writing in the morning. So, there goes my writing life, limited but I take delight in it.

Arlene Babst-Vokey: When I was a child and a teenager, I wrote because I thought I had something exciting and imaginative to share with others. From my late 20s to my 40s, I wrote because I was angry with and frustrated by corrupt Filipino politicians and business people and by ignorant, hypocritical religious (mainly Catholic) priests who thought they had a hotline to their preferred god. Now in my 60s, I write to leave my son some evidence that his mother was not just a bumbling amateur gardener, an occasionally obsessive-compulsive housekeeper who wandered around the house with her cleaning rag muttering “Dust, dust, dust, always dust!” and a failed cook who greeted her visitors with a cheery, “Oh, ignore the bodies buried in my backyard; those are just last week’s dinner guests. Appetizers, anyone?”

Sylvia L. Mayuga: Are you kidding? I write to breathe and so, to live.

Always a well-received teaching strategy at reading-writing workshops for teachers is the use of timeless quotations which offer gems of wisdom and insight, giving the reader reason to pause, ponder and raise questions. Just as teachers are inspired and reinvigorated, so are the students for whom the conciseness of language and the well-chosen words need to be pointed out by the teachers lest the beauty of form and content be lost on the young.

In the past, it was difficult to access quotes from Filipinos. Not because of a dearth of great thinkers but because we just have not been conscientious about compiling them. Let this be a promising initial step, especially as a tribute to women on Women’s Month.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@gmail.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board,  a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.

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