BOOK REVIEW: FILIPINO WOMAN WRITING – Home and Exile in the Autobiographical Narratives of Ten Writers

by Rose Churma

This March, we celebrate Women’s History Month, and it is therefore appropriate to review a book by a woman on women.

Although published close to three decades ago, the book offers a glimpse of how “these writers handled common concerns of women such as selfhood and identity, marriage, career, and motherhood.”

In 1987, The US Congress expanded the commemoration from a week to a month and has passed a resolution designating March as Women’s History Month.

The theme for Women’s History Month changes annually but the foremost goal of the month remains the same: to show how women shaped the nation.

The 2022 theme is “Women Providing Healing, Promoting Hope” which honors the tireless work of caregivers and frontline workers during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also women of all backgrounds and ethnicities – including Filipinas, who have provided compassionate healing and hope for the betterment of patients, friends, and family.

This publication is an analysis of autobiographical narratives also known as memoirs (although the word is not mentioned at all in this book) of ten Filipina writers in English, but one of them, Paula Carolina Malay, has also published books in Filipino.

To some extent, I believe that writing these autobiographical narratives provide some self-healing for the authors, and to readers who can be empathetic to the issues discussed.

This book was based on the author’s dissertation on autobiographical writing. She was always interested in this genre and was delighted with the “immense richness and variety of autobiographical works by women, and their new significance for cultural studies in the societies which had produced them, a significance emphasized by feminists everywhere.”

The author provides critiques on the writings of the women writers, and although key phrases of their works are included in the book, it is assumed that the reader has read the writings being analyzed. The reader is at a great disadvantage if one is not familiar with the subjects’ works.

Of the ten women writers, the youngest (a baby boomer) is Cecilia Manguerra-Brainard. Unlike the other nine writers, she writes as an expatriate and is “triply marginalized as a Filipino writer writing in English, as a woman in a man’s world, and as an ethnic minority person in a First World country.”

The author observes that Manguerra-Brainard projects an idyllic quality at her childhood home in the Philippines (in this case, Cebu), and writes with nostalgia at past events with her family, and describes these as “sentimentalizing of what is obviously the author’s links with the home left behind…” a trait I find in fellow expats when they talk of the homeland they left behind.

The author also notes the “gaps” provided in the narratives, and an evasiveness or perhaps an unwillingness to confront issues but in the most superficial manner. The author opines that it is in gaps and silences that women’s real texts lie and contain volumes.

As aging baby boomers (and those older) scramble to get their memoirs done, this book provides food for thought in how to structure one’s autobiographical narrative – what to include and what to delete.

Should it be a rewriting of the past to suit our present needs? Should it be perceived as a way of affirming our identity and experience – rescuing our past from oblivion?

In the last chapter, the author summarizes her observations and notes about the “large areas left out” such as on sex and sexuality (in contrast with the contemporary Western women’s explicitness in dealing with the subject) – which certainly invites further analysis.

The author’s final paragraph states that there are the unpublished works of Filipino women in all classes who have refused “the graceful obligation of silence.”

It is time for them to be heard. It is time for them to be read.

ROSE CHURMA established a career in architecture 40 years ago, specializing in judicial facilities planning. As a retired architect, she now has the time to do the things she always wanted to do: read books and write about them, as well as encourage others to write.

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