There is a romance that we like to imagine about writing, and especially the writing of a book. And while my rebellious self would like to tell you that this was not the case for Of Love and Other Lemons, that would be a lie. Certainly it came from a personal history of love and loss and sadness, complete with the high – if not OA – drama of buckets of tears. But the writing of this book didn’t happen while I was going through all those things.
Instead the writing happened when I was at the point of reckoning with the cards life had dealt me (naks high drama), and particularly when I was away from Manila. Distance allowed me to think of freedom, where Manila – the Philippines – felt oppressive, too small that I couldn’t even stretch.
For about five years, I wrote this book in different places before it became a task comfortable enough to do at home. I wrote Of Love and Other Lemons in my Tito Butch’s house in Baguio and my Kuya’s neighborhood coffee shops in The Hague, it happened while spending time alone with strangers in Amsterdam and when an old friend let me crash in his pad in Geneva Switzerland. It happened in Tiaong Quezon, where my great grandmother had left behind an ancestral home, and an Uncle had a room I could disappear into.
So yes, there was the romance of being away, of writing elsewhere. But more than that, the distance forced on me the realizations I needed to conclude, to close these chapters, that I speak of in the book. Consider it me doing an accounting with the Universe, and saying: ok mamser, quits quits na tayo ha. Puwede na ‘ko mag-reboot?
I think this aspect of the making of this book is important because of the way in which the personal essay, creative non-fiction, has been written and taught and read in this country in the past decade or so. This is to say that creative non-fiction shouldn’t just be work that screams “look at me! look at me!” but one that, well, is more creative than talking about how you found love, lost love, cried a lot, and got better.
Creative non-fiction allows us to think beyond that structure, and this was a task that I thought was worth pursuing.
As it turns out it was the form that what my imagined content needed. I was coming from an academic background in feminist thought, one that I could only be critical about, given Angela, my mother, whose 60’s self was on post-feminism long before it was even coined. But also I was critical of it because it seemed it didn’t quite apply to real life, in the Philippines, of the Pinay.
But love ain’t a fad, and its contradictions with notion(s) of feminist power and independence might be the more impossible one to pin down. It’s not that we lose all sense when it comes to love, or that theory fails tremendously at explaining it. It’s that we must know this to be true: while we might have things to explain love by, these don’t always hold or stand up to its inexplicability. Because there is theory, and there is the lack of explanation for a man who is suddenly unable to speak; there is common sense, and there is utter lack of reason for love coming and sweeping you off your feet, or for it ending in utter confusion. We like to be able to explain the world, and this is what theories are for, but there are also some things one finds we should concede to because there are no words. Not for love. Or loss. Other than the clichés, of course, and yes, we have the excuse to fall into them sometimes. (from No Escape, 65.)
There was also the fact that I had won second place in the Palanca Awards in 2008 for an essay entitled “Mirrors,” which to me was really a test of the contest, than it was of me. I had submitted the same piece once before it won, I was writing with a very clear sense of what a board of judges — any combination of them — would think to be “good essay writing” at that point in time. My basis for this presumption was a sense of what it is that mainstream literary publishing liked to call an essay, and to some extent, for the essay in English, it would always be about an amount of middle class guilt, medyo may pagka-alta-sociedad, or a version of it.
IT BRED DISCONTENT.
A big ancient dresser, owned by the great grandmother who knew me as a baby, but whose life I missed out on. What would’ve been old antique wood was slathered with a bright yellow-cream color, but the mirror was as vintage as what was hidden by that garish paint. I imagined many lives having passed through that mirror – women who are but names on the family tree yet to be written, many of whom have been forgotten. All of them remain part of a collective family memory.
Lola kept telling me, this is a good thing. It’s an heirloom. You have something of ours. (from Mirrors, 51)
As an aside, I’m not saying you shouldn’t join the Palanca, as it is to say we should see it as an exercise in having our writing judged by a panel of writers who will base their decisions on taste and the predominant forms of the genre you’re writing in. Suffice it to say that I wanted to get away from that Palanca essay, and almost didn’t include it in the book. Angela insisted it had to be there, and so it makes up all of one section.
Which is also telling not just of the form of the essay that I wanted to work with given the kawomenan — a Pinay feminism, I’d like to think – that I wanted to speak of in the book. Where the Palanca and most any other local publication require a minimum of 30 pages for an essay, I knew it would be unwieldy and inappropriate for what I wanted to do.
Thirty pages of personal angst is easy. A page of something tight and concise about, say, sisterhood’s failures, the words that judge the Pinay, the myth of woman power, required revision upon revision because I needed them to happen as in quick and easy, i.e., short essays, a disconnected series as I knew this would be. It is not unlike how we navigate living in this country every day, and finding that there is no explanation for contradiction, or just no words for what we happen upon, or go through.
What they don’t tell you about
Woman power is that it comes with the question but is she happy? Which is connected to the question what, no plans to have a family? And the judgment, Ah no man will want her – too independent for her own good, because you know men like to feel needed, doesn’t she know that? And the conclusion, she just hasn’t found someone who can break her, yes? She needs to be broken, like when a dog needs to be house trained? Someday, hopefully soon, a man will come to do exactly that, in the meantime, what a pity. (26)
What they don’t tell you about
Words is that we use them against each other everyday. The moment we call a woman by a stereotype: pokpok, malandi, maingay, parang lalaki. The moment we ask Bakit tumaba ka? instead of Kumusta ka na? The assessment of no breeding and ill-bred, of mal-educada, of mahadera. When we assert that some women ask for it because of what they wear, or that others just plain deserve what they get from men because they’re a particular kind of woman. When we say we are what we wear even as what needs to be said is that these bodies demand respect regardless of what hangs on it, or how it looks. When without thinking we talk about the good woman who waits | stays | is silent, and the bad woman who is opinionated | intelligent | independent, and say that they deserve what they get. When we fail to acknowledge the woman who is beyond words. (16)
These short short essays are also called fast essays, ala fast fiction, yet there was nothing fast about my writing of them. I was working with this form of the square paragraph in writing these pieces, and I would revise and redo until it looked right on the page, at the same time that it was obviously part of this anti-series of thoughts about being Pinay. The inspiration for this length was easily the conversations I’d have with other women, if not men, about the things that weigh us down everyday, which are quick assessments really, ones that we don’t need a lot of words for, but which we need to realize should not mean being silent about them.
These short essays would be perfect as well for the section that talks about love, romance, and sex. It would be in this section too, that I would find that some things can be said as mere statements, and nothing else.
What they don’t tell you about
Losing your virginity is that in the right conditions of love (or something like it), a boy you trust, and pure unadulterated lust, you won’t think you’re losing anything. As you might in fact find that you’ve broken through to a version of self that only you know about, where you can claim your body as all yours – every crevice nook cranny of it. As you might in fact be getting your body back from the clutches of words: save it for your husband, it’s your gift, it’s the essence of your womanhood.
Once you’ve got nothing to lose, you might finally find words for your self. (84)
man = / < woman
What they don’t tell you about infidelity is that you can commit it yourself.
Just like a man. Worse than a man. (78)
I realize now that for a book that talks about the words we use to describe ourselves with, I thought there needed to be less words here.
I’d like to imagine that Of Love and Other Lemons is a melding of form and content. I am not one to imagine it experimental or fantastic or original. Instead I’d like to think of it as a mere effort at pointing out the possibility of doing things differently, and saying things we don’t like to hear.
Ultimately, if one reader tried to write about a personal crises without badmouthing her ex-boyfriend or husband, or without blaming her mother for her issues, or without pointing a finger at her girlfriends for her insecurities, then this book might have functioned a something. And if readers, men and women, boys and girls, and gays, actually find themselves rethinking the words they use to describe other women, if there are women and girls who gain an amount of confidence in themselves despite whatever landscape of despair they navigate, then right there, this effort at kawomenan would have been worth it.
And no this is not to push for a sorority, as it is to insist that we acknowledge the silence that surrounds our existence in this context. This is not to say we hate men, for seriously we – I – love them. It is to say that we must know to take words and make them ours; it’s to say that we must speak, louder and louder, because there are enough of us who will listen, and understand, if not argue with us, too. It is to say, we begin with, and end, with words.
I began this book by saying that at the very least the hope is for us to have words – more than we started with – for our precariousness and perspicacity, for our being Pinay in these times. I end it with the wish that you would speak your own words too, find your own desires, and know it is your right to run with these. I end with the task of freedom, one that we work towards, and hope for, one that this book, along with all of the love and lemons that are here, has allowed me to capture in some form or other.
I end by starting again, with a shot of tequila, a little swish of the hips, a head throw to mess my hair up a little more. I put on some rock music, crack my fingers, and get back to work. There is much to do still. (Love is an I.S.A., 116)
*this is the short essay i read (with minor revisions) for an author’s talk at Mt. Cloud Bookshop in Baguio, January 29 2013. that was, this is, the first time that i try to make sense of the making of the book. :) photos from the talk are here.