Cadence, coherence and complicity
Let me begin by saying I refuse to write a poem about this—which isn’t to say this is where the story begins. In fact, it is intellectually dishonest to claim to know exactly when it began. Was it a few months ago at a national writers’ workshop when an alleged sexual assault happened? Was it 10 days after when it was reported to the workshop director? Was it in 1994 when a poet was raped at another workshop 25 years before her story reached the surface?
What is certain is today, two years after we lamented the many faces of sexual assault within institutional frameworks, the Philippine literary community still falters at any attempt toward meaningful dialogue.
This comes in the aftermath of an alleged sexual assault incident that happened at the Iligan National Writers’ Workshop last May, and eventually brought to public attention when Angely Chi, a figure in the art circuit, posted a series of tweets naming the accused.
What soon followed was a crossfire of opinions surrounding the incident, with one particular standout statement made by the workshop director, Christine Godinez Ortega, that has since been removed from her Facebook wall. In the post, Ortega claims that the incident was a private matter and does not involve the workshop or its affiliates.
What’s worth interrogating is—perhaps these spaces that discuss matters of humanity and feminism on a pedagogical level were never really interested in confronting these things beyond theory? Or maybe, the better question to ask is: Are we just blindly pandering to the structural forces we all benefit from?
To argue the disinvolvement of institutional powers in a sexual contact that was supposedly privately negotiated between “two consenting adults” is to be uncritical of those powers. It is to undermine the social forces that influence, even manufacture, whatever consent was given—and by extension, whatever consent was withheld.
I do not seek to discredit the merit of national writing workshops. I was a poetry fellow in two of them, and have learned immensely from the experience. But to valorize one for its contributions to literary production as a way to justify acts of complicity is to betray the humanity we have long enshrined upon the craft.
Worst is, to use the facility of writing to justify assault, and even go as far as suggesting that pleasure can be derived from what was not willingly and consciously given.
In the words of poet and literary critic Conchitina Cruz, “literature is not, by default, a site of resistance.” I find that these words ring truer now when the very instrument of literature is being used to posit disingenuous claims that cast doubt on the assault survivor’s credibility, ignoring the fact that trauma often precludes awareness of one’s own assault experience, and that even by acknowledging it, there is absolutely no moral victory to be drawn.
And, of course, we all know how the conversation unravels. How supposedly enlightened, cerebral beings sputter rhetorical sound bytes like “innocent until proven guilty,” which is really just a lofty way of deflecting institutional accountability, and as a means to dismiss the role of public discourse in the situation.
I do not claim to know the facts. All I know is this is not an isolated case, and there must be some structural blueprint we can navigate through to better criticize the role prestige plays in allowing these things to happen.
More importantly, as writers, we need to better negotiate our positions in the grander discourse, and the very language we use to write about these narratives—as storytellers who ultimately shape opinions in the larger world.
The situation calls for attention beyond legality. To confront the truth that these things have been happening in our backyard. To acknowledge that they may have even been legitimized by institutional protection—in environments often deemed safe for young, budding talent.
To paraphrase poet and cultural critic J. Neil Garcia during one of our conversations, “poetry arrives in the tension [between the beauty of the form and the ugliness of the subject].” There is nothing poetic about this. Just plain old ugly truth.
Alfonso Manalastas (@not_alfonso) is a poet and a spoken word artist. His poems have appeared in Likhaan: The Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature (UP Press).
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