Saturday, September 18, 2021

Tabada: Mothers and others

STOP calling them mothers.

In the 1980s, I worked with a multicultural team assisting self-help organizations in the countryside. Among the groups that were first assisted but continued to struggle with myriad setbacks was an organization of upland women making clay pots.

It did not bode well that, aside from the pots being ignored at the weekly “tabo (market),” community workers had to settle many of the group’s vexations, from personal hiccups between mothers to glitches in the mothers’ bookkeeping.

During a meeting for troubleshooting, the senior German adviser suggested that we stop referring to our partners as a mothers’ class and relate to them as an association of potters.

To name is to call the named into existence. Yet a name can also become a frame contrived for convenience, delineating a reality that may not be the only one that exists.

Culture affixes women into a matrix of roles, identities, and even destinies. It took an outsider to spot how mothers drag around like a carapace the weight of traditional expectations defining not just mothers but women attempting to explore areas ventured into by few others.

More than a frisson jolted me while reading the Nov. 17 Facebook post of Nancy Cudis, award-winning blogger behind The Memowriter Writing Service.

An interest in postwar women writers egged Nancy to buy Virginia Benitez Licuanan’s “Paz Marquez Benitez: One Woman’s Life, Letters, and Writings” through Shopee.

She ended up penciling so many notes in her copy, a habit she shares with Benitez, who wrote by hand in pencil and in ink two hardbound volumes of journals documenting her journey as a writer of short stories, particularly of “Dead Stars,” widely acclaimed as the first modern short story written by a Filipino in English.

After graduating as a member of the first freshman class of the University of the Philippines (UP), Benitez became an excellent and much-loved mentor in her alma mater. According to her profile posted by the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings, National Artist Francisco Arcellana, her student, once gushed: “She was the mother of us all!”

Benitez’s letters and journals reach across time and defy death to stir ever younger writers. As Nancy writes, “(The book) shows how the life of a Filipino woman writer is not a linear journey, but a daily adventure interspersed with choices and projects that demand an optimistic perspective and joyful hard work.”

I see women as still being emplotted. Instead of remaining fixed, many negotiate roles, recreating narratives and journeys that embrace mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and the other selves women become or not become. I see constellations.


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