may isang MA student na nag-interview sa akin noong summer. paksa niya ang mingaw saka raw iyong something na tungkol sa akin. hmmm...lahat ng tanong niya, sinagot ko in a very "generous" fashion. at heto naman ang resulta:
Bebang and her Rhetorics of Self-Making
The Self in a Time of War
Elinor May Cruz
From the idea that the self is not given to us, I think that there is only one practical consequence:
we have to create ourselves as a work of art.
This essay is a reflection on my conversation with a young Filipina writer named Bebang Siy. It does not aim to stand in for the lives of young women or Filipina writers, on the contrary, it is meant to bear witness to a self emergent in a time of war. In discerning Bebang’s selfhood, this essay draws upon Deborah Battaglia’s rhetorics of self-making. This war, unravelled in the poetry of Joi Barrios in “Ang Pagiging Babae ay Pamumuhay sa Panahon ng Digma,” can be observed as we set our eyes on the entanglements within the Philippine society Bebang lives in, and it is through her pragmatic and purposeful words and actions – her agentive self-actions – in the face of tensions and contradictions which become the source of her rhetorics of self-making, and as a result, her selfhood.
Therefore, my purpose in writing this essay is to discern Bebang’s rhetorics of self-making, how her selfhood emerges in a space and time reconstituted as war. But what does selfhood mean? In self-making, where rhetoric is taken as “a provisional social project...there is no selfhood apart from the collaborative practice of its figuration” (Battaglia, 1995). In line with this, we can define selfhood in the words of Battaglia (1995) as “a chronically unstable productivity brought situationally – not invariably – to some form of imaginary order, to some purpose, as realized in the course of culturally patterned interactions.”
This definition is also outlined in the works of Irving Hallowell, where the self is culturally-constituted (Csordas, 2002); and Robert Desjarlais, where senses of selfhood “are not pre-given in any situation; founded on complex webs of political, social and linguistic forces, they can be echoed, agreed upon, contested, denied, reworked, or invoked for rhetorical purposes...keeping mind the dominant imageries cultivated by others” (Desjarlais, 2000).
Like Desjarlais, George Mead makes the role of rhetoric explicit in self-making when he says that the “self is a social structure arising in social experience originating in social activity such as language” (Csordas, 1994). However, amidst all these definitions, an encompassing definition of selfhood maybe that of Jeannette Mageo’s.
Self we take to be an encompassing domain term that it includes within in it virtually all aspects of personhood and subjectivity. The self is constituted by acts of identification with internal elements of experience and with persons, groups, representations in the cultural world. As such, it is irrevocably implicated in power relations (Mageo, 2005).
Battaglia’s rejection of an essentialist notion of the self, her contention that the self is emergent, and in use of rhetorics bring about the notion of the “self as a representational economy;” as entrenched in modes of production. In this notion, there is a “reification continually defeated by mutable entanglements with other subjects’ histories, experiences, self-representations; with their texts, conduct, gestures, objectifications; with their argument of images” (Battaglia, 1995). The entanglements in Bebang’s life, as I thematically narrate, show how her relational self, as opposed to the individuated self; as someone who is developing an art of living, someone who is in a constant state of struggle, someone who is engaged in self-making. And so I pose the question, “what forces constrain and enable her self-making?” I begin my essay with unpacking the entanglements of Bebang’s life which consist of her childhood, her family, the time when she was a working student, her profession as a writer, and finally, her gender as a woman; elaborated on with the use of narratives acquired through my conversation with her. The first part of this essay points to her entanglements as embedded in culture, society, space and time; in other words, social arrangements in the context of war.
Correspondingly, the above-mentioned social arrangements, which can be also understood as structures or institutions, are prevailed over by language where meaning-making is inherent. Thomas Csordas’s notion of the “self as language” places the Bebang’s self at the “interpretive center of culture and broad notions of...discourse as modalities of self-construction (Csordas, 1994). Bebang’s craft as a writer places her at the helm of meaning-making, and when there is meaning-making, there is the implication of power. The notion of power here has Foucauldian reverberations in that power maybe repressive but it is also productive (Lorentzen, 2008). The potent combination of being a writer and being a Filipina, is what struck me the most about Bebang; and I think this is where she draws her rhetoric’s originative force: through her experiential knowledge and written works. This is highlighted in the second part of my discussion of her agentive self-actions whereby as a Filipina writer, as she actively participates in the rhetorics of her own self-making.
Finally, I will conclude this essay with a contention of tentativity, wherein the rhetorics of self-making is deemed as both mutable and provisional; and the cultural given of inherited relationships are incessantly opened to redefinition in Bebang’s creative struggle for the self.
Entanglements of War
Kay tagal kong pinag-aralan
ang puno’t dulo ng digmaan.
sa huli’y naunawaan,
na ang pagiging babae
ay walang katapusang pakikibaka
para mabuhay at maging malaya.
(How long have I studied
the depths and extent of this war.
In the end, I understand
that to be a woman
is a never ceasing struggle
to live and be free).
“Ang Pagiging Babae ay Pamumuhay sa Panahon ng Digma”
When I contacted Bebang for an interview through a common friend, she invited me to their house in Quezon City. Before seeing her in person, we were already corresponding through SMS and email and it is through this correspondence that showed me her warmth, openness and humility. The interview lasted for over two hours, and in my opinion, it felt more like spending quality time with a friend. What follows is a chronological narrative of our conversation.
In her childhood, Bebang remembered growing up in different places. She has lived in Pandacan, Paco, Pasay, Ermita, Las Pinas and she said this was a result of her parents’ separation when she was just nine years old.
“Parang siopao. Tigdalawa sila. Take out ba. Nagkastepfather ako. Nagkastepmother ako. At lahat iyon, tinanggap ko lang. Hindi ko naa-assess kasi masyado pa akong bata. Hindi ko alam kapag hindi mo na-aassess, naiipon pala sa loob mo. At sasabog na parang bulkan balang araw.”
“Just like siopao. They took two each. Like take out. I had a stepfather. A stepmother. And I took it all in, I didn’t think about it because I was still too little. I didn’t know that if you didn’t assess it, it’ll pile up inside you. And it’ll erupt like a volcano one day (my translation).”
Growing up, she recalled she didn’t have a lot of confidence; she didn’t find herself as pretty and was the class clown in school.
“Lahat na ng kaklase ko, kahit pa iyong mukhang siko, ay naliligawan, samantalang ako, hindi. Wala kasing sumeseryoso sa akin. Patawa lang ako nang patawa. Pero ayaw kong ipakita ang pagkainsecure ko. Tipong sinasabi ko sa sarili ko, kaya walang lumiligaw sa akin, hindi dahil pangit ako kundi dahil ako ay clown.”
“All of my classmates, even those who look like elbows, have been courted except for me. Nobody took me seriously. I just made them laugh. I didn’t want to show them I was insecure. I just told myself, ‘the reason why nobody’s courting me is not because I was ugly but because I was a clown’ (my translation).”
She also had suicidal tendencies growing up. She told me she would suddenly feel terribly lonely and even attempted suicide at the age of 13. She would write suicide notes and place them in the newspaper linings of her cabinet. One time, she took Biogesic and vitamin tablets and slept but ended up waking up. Up until now she said she would suddenly find herself extremely lonely but she overcomes this by surrounding herself with people or by being busy.
“...Parang, 'oy lungkot, hindi mo ako masosolo. Bukod sa marami akong ginagawa marami rin akong kasama kaya wala akong panahon at espasyo para sa 'yo.' I guess, naging mas wais ako pagdating sa pag-handle ng misteryoso kong bisita na kung tawagin ay lungkot.”
“Like, hey loneliness, you won’t get me alone. Aside from being busy doing a lot of things, I also have a lot of people around me so I don’t have the time and space for you. I guess I got wiser when it comes to dealing with my mysterious visitor called loneliness (my translation).”
Her childhood dream then, aside from wanting to be a doctor like the contestants in the “Little Miss Philippines” pageant in “Eat Bulaga,” was for her family to be complete. During the conversation, she brought up the Jollibee commercial where viewers can see the father, the mother and the child eating happily. But then she realized it was impossible as she was growing up.
When I asked her to describe herself, Bebang said she is someone who values her friends over her family; but during our conversation, it was undeniable that her parents, especially her mother “Tisay,” have a significant importance in her life. She says her mother is a very strong woman. Someone who knows what she wants. A fighter and will defend her family, especially her children, even if one had a child out of wedlock (Bebang) and one was an addict (one of her siblings). But this was not originally the case with her mother. When her father, “Bobby” was still alive, she used to side with him. She looked down on her mother for having some boyfriend. But she said now that she’s grown up, she is able to understand and accept her mother and attributes her stepfathers to her mother’s bad luck with men.
Even though Bebang’s father was an alcoholic, didn’t have stable jobs and was a womanizer when he was still alive, she did not deny him the love of a daughter. She said he had his own ways of showing love to his children. She gave me an example of a time when he brought home a new family computer even without them asking. And when she became an adult, she found out that he used to borrow money from his siblings so they can study in a private school.
During college, Bebang became a working student with menial jobs. She became a saleslady in “Blowing Bubbles,” a clerk in a pawnshop in Baclaran, a sales agent in “Hyundai,” in “Sara Lee,” in “Avon,” a waitress, a data gatherer. Taking it from experience, she said she makes it a point to give big tips in restaurants, taxis, etc. “Dito nabuhay ang pamilya ko, dito nabuhay ang anak ko, dito ako nakapag-aral, sa tip (This is where my family survived, this is where my son survived, this is where I survived in college, on tips).” She graduated Cum Laude in the University of the Philippines with a bachelor’s degree on “Malikhaing Pagsulat” (B.A. Creative Writing in Filipino).
As a writer for almost seven years, Bebang already has an established body of literary works to her name, ranging from children’s stories, poetry, essays, horror stories, to an erotica novel. She feels strongly about her craft and her written works are manifest of her experiential knowledge and it is through this that she finds a source of recognition of her selfhood.
“Para sa akin, napakaimportanteng magsulat ako ng kahit ano. Ang pagsusulat ay isang paraan ng pagsasabing importante ako, importante ang ginagawa ko, importante ang karanasan ko...”
“For me, it’s very important to write anything. Writing is my way of saying I matter, what I do matters, my experiences matter... (my translation).”
When I asked her how she views herself as a woman, she related the overwhelming demands and expectations that came with menstruation in her autobiographical essay called “Regla Baby.” She expressed her apprehension, especially when she got pregnant and started to work at an early age.
“...Noong nabuntis ako, I really prayed hard na maging lalaki ang anak ko. Kasi mahirap maging babae sa klase ng mundo natin ngayon. Saka na, kako, God, saka mo na ako bigyan ng anak na babae kapag maganda-ganda na ang mundo.
Mahirap maging babae sa Pilipinas pero tanggap ko na iyan... Naranasan ko na ang ma-verbal harass...Naranasan ko na rin noong waitress pa ako ay bugahan ako ng usok ng sigarilyo ng isang customer sa mukha. Taiwanese na lasing siya. Alam mo, hindi ako nakapagreklamo. Hindi rin ako naka-react. Basta lang pumasok ako sa quarter namin. Noon ko naramdaman ang pagiging mahirap na bansa natin. Mahirap lang ako at babae na nagtatrabaho sa isang mahirap na bansa. Wala akong masyadong magawa. Naisip ko na lang, putangina niya kapag nagkakotse ako at nakita ko siya sa kalsada, babanggain ko sya at sasagasaan pabalik-balik hanggang sa magmukha na lang siyang hump sa lansangan.”
“...When I got pregnant, I really prayed hard for a baby boy. Because it’s hard to be a woman in the kind of world that we have now. Maybe some other time, God, grant me a daughter when the world is better. It’s hard to be a woman in the Philippines but I have already learned to accept that...I’ve experienced verbal harassment...I also experienced, when I was a waitress, being blown cigarette smoke in the face by a customer. He’s a drunken Taiwanese. You know, I didn’t get to complain. I also didn’t get to react. I just went inside our quarter. That’s when I felt the poverty of our country. I’m poor and I am a woman working in a poor country. I couldn’t do anything. I thought, that son of a bitch, someday when I get to have my own car and I see him on the street, I’ll run him over and over. Until he looks like a hump on the road (my translation).”
The narratives obtained from my correspondence and conversation with Bebang provide an insight in the forces that enable and constrain her self-making. Barrios (in Tadiar, 2002) said “Filipinas are living in a time of war...and it is inextricable from the condition of the country that bears the same name as its women: Filipinas.” Neferti Xina Tadiar (2002) describes this war as gendered, sexual, racial and national...Filipina women have not only borne the costs...but have literally become the bodily price paid for it.”
Agency in War
Joi Barrios’s subjective reconstitution of reality as war enables a new role for women that makes them warriors of and for life, where living is a creative struggle for freedom.
Neferti Xina Tadiar
Grace Harris (in Desjarlais, 2000) avers that personhood “can be bestowed or removed, confirmed or disconfirmed, declared or denied,” and it is in this apparent tug-of-war that Bebang as a Filipina writer fights the looming battles of self-making in the face of patriarchy and capitalism. Through writing, she summons autonomy in generating the power of her rhetorics and the rhetorical device she makes use of is agentive action not just in self-making but, as we would learn, in world-making as well.
One of the pressing questions that I wanted to ask Bebang was her use of the pen name ‘Frida Mujer’ in her erotic novel “Mingaw” (Visayan for “nangungulila” or loneliness). It turned out it was the publisher who asked her to use a pen name that would sound titillating to prop up the sales of her erotic novel. Instead of seeing it as a disadvantage, she saw it as a window of opportunity; using a pen name that has a significant meaning for her. “FREE THE (Frida) WOMAN (Mujer) Spanish for woman.” According to her, a writer’s influence doesn’t have to stop with the byline, she would agree to use a pen name if it means being able to give people an alternative to porn, which perpetuates the subordination of women - an erotic novel.
She said she writes mainly for popular literature because in this way her written works can be read by many. This stems from her desire to help uplift the consciousness of Filipino readers.
“As a writer, mas makiling ako sa pop... mas gusto ko, hindi lang ako sa paaralan babasahin. Mas maraming makabasa sa akda ko, mas okey...Gusto ko na makatulong na maiangat ang kamalayan ng mga mambabasa sa pamamagitan ng pagsusulat for pop lit. Pero ayoko rin 'yung maging katulad ng Eat Bulaga. They’ve been here for what? Almost 30 years? Pero may nagawa ba sila para iangat ang kamalayan ng viewers nila? Wala. Sila, ang yayaman na. Ang mga viewers nila, ganon pa rin, mahirap. O yumaman man, mababaw pa rin...Kaya magtapon ka man ng intellectual jokes sa mga viewers tulad ng viewers ng Eat Bulaga, hindi pa rin nila maiintindihan kasi ang Eat Bulaga hindi nila sinubukang mag-introduce ng ganyan. Kuntento na sila sa cheap jokes dahil wala sa agenda nilang baguhin ang paraan ng pag-iisip ng viewers nilang Pinoy. Hindi ganyan mag-isip ang team namin. Hindi ako ganyan mag-isip. Lagi kaming nagpapakilala ng bago. Bagong form, bagong mensahe, bagong paraan ng pagkukuwento.”
“As a writer, I’m more inclined towards pop...I like to be read not just in schools. The more readers for my written works, the better...I want to uplift the consciousness of readers through pop lit. But I don’t want to be like Eat Bulaga. They’ve been here for what? Almost 30 years? But have they done anything to uplift the consciousness of their viewers? None. The hosts are richer. Their viewers are still poor. Or if they ever become rich, they’re still shallow...That’s why if you throw at them intellectual jokes like the viewers of Eat Bulaga, they won’t understand because Eat Bulaga never attempted to do so. They’re content with cheap jokes because it’s not in their agenda to change the way their Pinoy viewers think. That’s not how our team thinks. That’s not how I think. We always introduce something new. New form, new message, new kind of storytelling (my translation).”
In one of her blog posts that she sent me, she talked about her experience of sexual harassment and how she started to stand her ground, not just for herself but for other women as well.
“Maraming beses na rin akong nahipuan, natsansingan. Dati, wala lang akong ginagawa titingnan ko lang nang matalim (kung alam ko kung sino) ang maysala. Pero hindi ko siya ipinapahiya. Ngayon, namamahiya na ako ng mga manyak. Isinisigaw ko sa mundo: manyak ka, hayop ka! Kasi naisip ko, kung hindi ako magsasalita, uulit-ulitin ito ng mga manyak sa mga kapwa ko babae... So I think when I scream, I scream for other women not just for myself...”
“There have been a lot of times that I’ve been sexually harassed. Before, I didn’t do anything except glare (that is if I knew who it was) at the culprit. But I didn’t humiliate him. Now, I humiliate those maniacs. I shout to the world: maniac! Monster! Because I thought, if I don’t speak up, they’ll continue doing what they do to other women... So I think when I scream, I scream for other women not just for myself... (my translation).”
Contrary to the traditional notion that mothers, as products of patriarchy, pass on this patriarchal tradition to their children, i.e. pink for girls, blue for boys (Fernandez in Ocampo, 2000); Bebang makes use of her role as a mother in giving her son, EJ, a new perspective outside the confines of patriarchy.
“...Mga pangalan ng bahagi ng katawan... di dapat ikinahihiya. Dapat malayang pinag-uusapan maski ng mga bata at lalo na ng matanda... Kapag nasanay kang tawagin ang bahagi ng katawan mo sa pangalan nito, magiging mas komportable kang pag-usapan ito, tukuyin ito etc. At naniniwala ako na kapag komportable kang napag-uusapan ang mga bahagi ng katawan sa pangalan nito, mas madali mo itong maaalagaan at mapoproteksyunan. Dapat nga itinuturo rin ito sa bata. At dapat walang malisya...Hindi flower 'yan, puke 'yan. Kapag may humawak diyan bukod sa 'yo o kay Mommy, sasabihin mo agad. Mommy, hinawakan po ni Kuya ang puke ko. Di ba mas madali? E, normal sa mga bata ang mahiya di ba lalong lalo na kapag “flower” ang tinutukoy nila o bird or what…so kapag sinabi ng bata, Mommy may humawak sa…tapos mahihiya na siya kasi nakakahiya ang flower, hindi na niya iyan itutuloy. Ano 'yon, anak? Sa ano po…may ano po sa ano…Wala po, Mommy...I tried this with my son. So isang araw sabi niya, Ma, masakit ang bayag ko. Walang alinlangan niyang sinabi iyan. Nalalaman ko agad at naaaksiyonan agad. Hindi katulad ng ibang bata, naiilang, nahihiya... Ma, masakit ang ulo ko. Di ba pareho lang iyan? Mabibigyan mo pa agad ng gamot ang anak mo. At matatapos ang kirot.”
“...The names of body parts...shouldn’t be embarrassing. It should be freely talked about even by children and more so by adults...If you get used to calling your body parts by their names, you’ll be more comfortable talking about them...And I believe that when you’re comfortable talking about your body, it’ll be easier to take care of and protect it. This should be taught to children and without malice. That’s not a flower, that’s the vagina. If someone touches it aside from you or Mommy, tell me immediately. Mommy my brother touched my vagina. Easier right? It’s been normal for children to be embarrassed when they talk about flower or bird or what...so when a child says, Mommy, someone touched my...then she’ll be embarrassed because talking about the flower is embarrassing, she’ll stop talking about it. What’s that? In my...in the...nothing, Mommy...I tried this with my son. One day he said, Ma, my balls hurt. No reservations whatsoever. I know about it immediately and I act on it. Unlike other children, they get embarrassed...Ma, my head hurts, isn’t it the same? You’ll get to give your child medicine. And the pain stops (my translation).”
Looking at the entanglements that Bebang, as a Filipina writer, is implicated within the Philippine society that she lives in, we see traces of Sherry Ortner’s practice theory. Ortner was concerned with how “social reproduction becomes social transformation...agency is the key although not synonymous to free will but that is socially, culturally, and linguistically constrained” (Ahearn, 2000). Furthermore, Mageo accurately depicts the form of agency utilized by Bebang in her self-making, “agency...intimately bound-up with the human capacity to innovate upon if not to reimagine existing schemata; these innovations and reimaginings are integral to the activity of self-making (Mageo, 2000).” Bebang makes use of counter-identities in her dividuated selves. To quote cultural Marxist Raymond Williams, “human beings make society even as society makes them” (Ahearn, 2000), and in the case of Bebang her rhetorics is her social action.
When I asked Bebang about how she sees her future unfolding, she remarked that it might as well be the most difficult question I asked her in our correspondence. She said her life’s lack of sense of permanence, influenced by her mother, maybe passed onto EJ; and this is her greatest fear. This is her primary reason for not pursuing her masteral degree’s completion. She is supposed to finish her masteral degree in “Panitikang Filipino” (Philippine Literature) this year to prevent losing her tenure in University of Santo Tomas (UST) where she currently teaches; but she professes avoiding the opportunity to study because that would mean focusing her attention to her studies, leaving less room for EJ. She fears she might have to end up leaving him with her mom which is comparable to what she went through in her childhood.
In addition, she said she would like to have a family so EJ can have a father figure in his life. But she doesn’t see this as her only option. She also envisions a future living with her mother and EJ but she sometimes gets jealous of her friends getting married. She also wants to be financially successful, so that in this way, she will be able to write as much as she wants.
At present, Bebang teaches Filipino in UST. She makes her Business students read “Sa Kagubatan ng Isang Lungsod” by Abdon Balde, a Filipino novel exposing the corruption in government and private company dealings. Writing has now become a part-time venture for her, she writes for call for papers in the form of submissions and contributions.
The Self in a Time of War
“...if truth is created by texts from individuals within particular contexts, then it is in the hands of writers to create a new truth. Moreover, if subjectivity is not a permanent quality of individuals but a changing trait dictated by texts, it means that the struggle of creating new thinking, texts and discourse is the same struggle in creating a new personhood.”
Barrios clearly capture, at this moment in time, the essence of Bebang’s rhetorics of self-making. Battaglia’s (1995) alternative to an essentialist exposition: “the historical circumstances, the poetics, and the power relations that define a selfhood emergent in sociality,” a self influx, leads me to advocate a sense of tentativity in this regard. I argue that Bebang’s selfhood may reflect self-making in a time of war but inevitably, this war will make manifest its evolution into something only the future possesses knowledge of. However, what I have tried to show here is that just as self-making is always in the business of producing self-action or agency, and that selfhood “not simply culturally and historically constituted but intensely pragmatic and political in its makings” (Desjarlais, 2000), identities and counter-identities will emerge. Millet (in Deabanico, 2003) states that the “representation of women is another tool in promoting inequality and discrimination,” in the same vein Shapiro (in Kleinman and Kleinman, 1996) states that “representation is the absence of presence.” Bebang, in her rhetorics of self-making, shatters this convention. Reproducing Foucault’s notion of power-knowledge, realized through discourse where “the relationship between symbol and symbolised is not only referential, does not simply describe, but is productive, that is creates” (Weeks in DelVecchio Good, Brodwin, Good, Kleinman, 1994) empowers Bebang’s selfhood during, and will do so even in the aftermath of, this war.
Finally, Tadiar (2002) said that “the Filipina identity is the creative strategies of living against this war...we should probe into the historical experiences out of which dominant images of Filipina have been produced...to break the world of semblances in which people have become things...to dereify our forms of regard and to discover new ways of relating to one another...” she further emphasizes cultural production, like that of Bebang’s written works, as “a form of mediation that activates and intervenes in prevailing structures of society. It thus has the capacity to alter the dominant forms of looking that support oppressive and exploitative social conditions.” She, therefore, sets the stage that calls on cultural products to initiate and sustain the change in the status quo. She outlines the task of feminist writers and artists and critics, “to reinvent experiential strategies for recreating the realities women inherit and take as ‘givens’...the reconstitution of reality often means the proposition of new myths, new dreams, as well as the recuperation and revitalization of dreams that are already at work in the making of the world” (Tadiar, 2002).
In her rhetorics of self-making in a time of war, Bebang is in the front-line; and as her selfhood is continually fashioned by the indeterminacy of rhetorical action, she will continue to define herself against herself, whereby the cultural given of inherited relationships are incessantly opened to redefinition in the creative struggle for the self.
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