Last March 3, many Filipino writers remembered the 122nd birth anniversary of Paz Marquez Benitez, one of the founders of Philippine Women’s University who’s best known for writing the short story “Dead Stars.” Since its publication in the Philippines Herald newspaper in 1925, this much-anthologized love story has been considered by creative writers and scholars as the first modern Philippine short story in English.
It’s easy to understand why “Dead Stars”—about a man who, despite being engaged to one woman, falls for another, and the sharp, sad epiphany he undergoes in the end—is recognized as such. Benitez’s choice of a thirtysomething bachelor, whose looks “betokened little of exuberant masculinity,” as the protagonist; her handling of the third-person limited point of view and of the dialogue; the introspection—these were fresh at the time and, more important, remain effective today. Creative writers today owe a lot to her and her achievements.
The anniversary came as the country celebrates March as National Women’s Month, and five days before the world marks International Women’s Day. With these in mind, it’s quite astonishing how much Benitez’s spiritual children, particularly her daughters—the generations of female fictionists who have pursued their craft, no matter how heavy their personal and professional responsibilities are, and who have drawn vivid portraits of Filipino women in different roles in their works—have built on what she has accomplished.
You can see this on the bookstore shelves reserved for Filipino authors. Books by female writers are almost as numerous as those by their male counterparts. You may recognize their names or have read a few of their stories in college, like Estrella Alfon, whose “Magnificence” focuses on a protective mother confronting the man who’s taking advantage of her young daughter, to put it mildly. Or Kerima Polotan, whose “The Virgin” has, as its title character, an educated and unmarried job-placement office employee who becomes attracted to a carpenter.
Or Aida Rivera-Ford, whose “The Chieftest Mourner” presents a very sympathetic picture of the loyal mistress of the observer-narrator’s poet-uncle. Or Edith Tiempo, whose “The Corral” centers on a schoolteacher who could be a spiritual cousin to Polotan’s Miss Mijares. Or Gilda Cordero-Fernando, whose “People in the War” (this story can be read here: parts 1, 2 and 3—Ed.) and “A Wilderness of Sweets” show the senselessness of World War II through a female perspective.
Then there are those who, if not already part of the literary canon, deserves a spot in it in the future. There’s Ninotchka Rosca, the author of the award-winning novels State of War and Twice Blessed, whose short story “Generations” has a teenage girl resorting to violence during an oppressive and unjust period in our history; and Rosario Cruz-Lucero—whose stories are collected in Herstory, Feast and Famine: Stories of Negros and La India, or Island of the Disappeared—whose metafictive “Doreen’s Story”—my favorite of all her exceptional stories—boasts of a landowner’s daughter who has written “72 novels, 122 short stories, 7 novelettes, 5 corridos, 8 narrative poems of 100 to 1,000 stanzas each, 231 short lyrics, 7 long plays, 24 short plays and dialogos in verse, 7 volumes of essays, and 2 autobiographies.”
Of course, other women have contributed to the enrichment of our country’s English-language fiction: Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, author of Recuerdo and A Book of Dreams, as well as the illuminating Six Sketches of Filipino Women Writers, which I highly recommend; Susan S. Lara, author of the National Book Award-winning Letting Go and Other Stories; Linda Ty-Casper, whose novels include Awaiting Trespass and DreamEden; Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, who wrote When the Rainbow Goddess Wept; and Lina Espina-Moore, author of Heart of the Lotus and A Lion in the House, among many other writers.
The younger generation of female fictionists have also made their presence felt, particularly in bookstores. Menchu Aquino Sarmiento, author of Daisy Nueve: Stories Weird, Wonderful, Whatever and Ukay-Ukay: Cuentos & Diskuwentos. Merlinda Bobis, who wrote Banana Heart Summer and Fish-Hair Woman. Ma. Romina M. Gonzalez, whose stories—collected in Welostit and Other Stories—Palanca Hall of Fame inductee Jose Y. Dalisay Jr. once described as “excursions into backyard fantasies.” Katrina P. Tuvera, author of Testament and Other Stories and The Jupiter Effect, who’s acclaimed by many as one of the finest writers of her generation.
Lakambini Sitoy, who recently launched her first novel Sweet Haven in the country and whose fiction—collected in Mens Rea and Other Stories and Jungle Planet and Other Stories—Dalisay had described as “skillfully argued feminist tracts.” F.H. Batacan and Marivi Soliven, whose Palanca award-winning novels Smaller and Smaller Circles and The Mango Bride, respectively, have been published in the United States. Maria L.M. Fres-Felix, who wrote Making Straight Circles: Short Story Collection and Boy in the Platinum Palace and Other Stories.
Caroline S. Hau, a formidable critic and scholar who released her first short-story collection Recuerdos de Patay and Other Stories not too long ago. Maryanne Moll, whose Married Women: Short Stories was published by Ateneo de Naga University Press. Nikki Alfar and Eliza Victoria, whose collection Wanderlust and novel Dwellers, respectively, won prizes at the National Book Awards last year.
And we haven’t even talked about the writers who are yet to publish their first book, like Socorro A. Villanueva, who has given up fiction for painting, but whose short story “We Won’t Cry About This” remains a favorite among her peers and even a few of her mentors.
Their names, their works—these prove that the seeds Benitez planted a century ago have grown and borne fruit, and that, unlike the stars in her short story, they remain very much alive and luminous. Through their works, readers are acquainted with Filipino women who are rendered in so many different ways and, yet, remain recognizable, at times uncomfortably so.
In their best works, Filipino women—and men—are shown as remarkably complicated, who deserve to be understood and accepted on their own terms, who could illuminate us about our own condition. That is the power of the written word, which they wield, and that is something we should always thank for and think about, and not only in this month for women.