published in the national daily newspaper Malaya, March 21 2002
What does it take for a book to be picked up amongst rows upon rows of confused (and confusing!) National Bookstore arrangements? A salesgirl who has the sense not to place a thin book tome-facing-the-customer on the shelf; a groovy cover that screams “different book! different book!” amidst conventional local book covers; and the word “bitch” in big colored letters.
Chinie Hidalgo’s TheBlair Bitch Project: A Book of Bitchy Poetry (2000) was apparently sooo successful (self-published as it was) that the author – or authors, as she’d make us believe – found the need and the market for a sequel, which was un-creatively titled The Blair Bitch Returns, Another Book of Bitchy Poetry (2001). Now, in a publishing industry where only Jullie Yap Daza and Margie Holmes are asked for sequels, and with a limited local reading and book-buying public that is wont to avoid poetry like the plague (think poetry, think Shakespearean sonnets or e.e. cummings – blame it on our educational curricula), Hidalgo’s achievement is hard to come by. I mean, when more than one student in a class of 20 submits Hidalgo’s book as a review topic, one knows that this is the closest anyone has ever gotten to this text generation’s “literary likes” after Jessica Zafra’s hayday. Hidalgo must have something going that others don’t. Or, like me, her book covers were just too hard to resist for the young Pinoy reader who rarely sets eyes on “bad words” in big bold letters – unless of course one has seen the walls of public bathrooms.
And relative to bathroom walls, Hidalgo’s poetry is only a tad bit better.
While I don’t agree with the kind of poetry that our educational system has subjected students to all these years since the Thomasites landed in Manila, I also don’t think that Generation X, Y, Z reading Hidalgo’s kind of poetry is any more promising. Given that this might be all of local poetry – if there’s any poetry at all – that this text generation might ever read, how terrible that what Hidalgo treats them to is poetry that’s stuck in the tradition of hickory-dickory-duck in bitch mode. This practically eradicates all the effort that Filipino writers in English, Filipina writers in English in particular, have worked so hard on all these years – poetry that has more than just rhyme and meter, but content that can change minds about and open eyes to this society’s nooks and crannies, dirty and grimy as they most often are.
Of course one might say that in fact, the bitchiness in these books is all about how this society is dirty and grimy. Because as we pretend that things are fine and dandy, we are stuck in familial ties that bind so tight it actually hurts and we are bound to societal rules of politeness that we have mouth sores from biting our tongues. One finds though, that as far as these books are concerned, this would be an over reading. As the introduction says, its bitchiness is really only about saying things that are usually left unsaid or, as far as I’m concerned, are said behind peoples’ backs. Why? Well, because these are mean things to say. And here lies the confusion. In a hypocritical Catholic country like ours, we are told to bite our tongues and say only good things about our neighbors, at the same time that we are taught that truthfulness and honesty are the virtues of a good person, and the pain that may be inflicted can only be for the better. But why the hell would you waste time in telling a mother who says that her baby’s the cutest little boy who has ever been born that she’s living in a dream? Kids will grow up and find out for themselves that they’re not as pretty or handsome as their playmates, and mothers are suppose to handle the insecurity at that point. To inflict pain on the mother’s ego by telling her that her son looks like a monkey (as the book puts it), is not only pointless, it’s also just downright mean.
And here lies one of these books’ biggest problems. It creates the stereotype of the bitch as a mean person, who is really only truthful and honest. Come on. The greatest bitches are those who don’t waste time griping about ugly children with proud mothers, or dates with bad English. Instead, they are women who have the capacity to be well-meaning and are well-grounded as they choose the words worth saying and the battles worth fighting. One doesn’t go about saying “hey, I’m a bitch, watch me roar about this terrible looking person with a huge zit on his face!” But one does go about living a life that’s truthful and fair, and that which has a point in critiquing (not lambasting) the way people live their lives and what those lives stand for in the context of a society that is impoverished. Those are the bitches that all Pinays can be proud of. Not the woman who’s really only, in common parlance, pintasera.
In the end, this is what Hidalgo reveals her concept of bitchiness to be. A person who is not critical of, just cynical about, people. A person who is so shallow she can’t go beyond a person’s looks, diction, or clothing as if that’s how the worth of a person is measured. A person who counts how much other people give her, and how much other people stand for. And a person who is just richer than everybody else that she can tell if what another person is wearing is fake, in the same way that she can tell if a person is a fake Fil-Am or not (as if that was the important thing to gripe about as far as Fil-Ams are concerned – but that’s another essay). And to say that the poems in both books were actually written by a lot of people who helped her with everything from topics to rhyming words, and pointing out that in fact she’s a nice person (even teaching religion!), just adds to the falsity with which this book treats its readers. A true bitch knows she is one, knows she has a point in being so, and won’t find the need to apologize for it – the way Hidalgo does in practically every other poem. So really, the poems can’t even pretend to be bitchy, as the writer (and apparently publisher) destroys the concept even before one starts reading.
What a lousy excuse for a book of poetry this fake bitchiness has turned out to be. And what a terrible way of revealing that one does not have a sense of Pinay history and literature of which any Pinay writer is inevitably part. Angela Manalang-Gloria must be turning in her grave.