Stamps of Subversions, Postcards of Protests:
The Poetics of Letters in Ruth Elynia Mabanglo’s “The Letters of Pinay”
It is now that we must create our own spaces of dissent. For in the constraints of epistemological battlefront, we must learn to fight with the fiercest of signs.
With this in mind, Ruth Elynia Mabanglo’s poems in “The Letters of Pinay” is reread and reshaped from mere confessional correspondences into the subtlest yet sharpest of symbolic subversions. The poems may be deemed as double-edged knife, playing between poetry and epistolary, and from personal narratives into national diasporic allegories.
Mabanglos’ “The Letters of Pinay” is a six-poem collection, which discusses the Filipina migrant experiences in various diasporic spaces: Kuwait, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and Brunei. These poems employed epistolaric devices that enable Mabanglo to draw the contours of complex migratory identities of women labor exports and to catalogue these indexes of experiences as sublimation of Filipinas’ discontent and negotiations in the border space created by transnational transformations.
These poems won the Manila Critics Circle 1990 National Book Award for Poetry and were included in Mabanglo’s later poetry collection Anyaya ng Imperyalista / Invitations of an Imperialist along with translations of Roderick Niro Labrador.
The poetry collection, moreover, is the author’s articulation of her experiences as a diasporic writer and exilic intellectual. Thus, her poems are her conveyance of her postcolonial situation, being an exilic writer and intellectual herself. After being one of the leading women poets writing in Filipino and earning various awards from writing institutions such as Carlos Palanca Awards, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas, Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino, National Commission for Culture and the Arts, she is now a professor at the University of Hawai at Manoa. Her writing fellowships had allowed Mabanglo to travel across United States, Singapore,… and her encounters exposed her to the various faces of Filipina migration inciting her to write and portray the Filipina migrant situation through Pinay as women’s multifaceted representation of repressions in the face of global labor setup.
… (T)he poem(s) can be interpreted as a personal account of a Filipina, woman, and writer in exile/diaspora. Using the invitation and the domestic space where struggle takes place as the dominant metaphorical backdrop, the writer of the poem recognizes her position as one of the numerous “wandering proletariat” (to borrow a term from San Juan) who flocked to the lands of their previous colonizer. (Labrador in Introduction of Invitations, Mabanglo, 1995)
Drawing the Empire:
The Contours of Filipina Migrant Experience
The global landscape had allowed women like Pinay in Mabanglo’s poems not only to enter the international scene through labor and intellectual export, but also to penetrate the complex situation of the diasporic borders of identity. This phenomenon had transformed and remapped the Filipina bodies and its role in the new transnational labor order.
In the early 1900s, the great Ilocano migration created the Manongs of the Filipino Californian farmers and American early industrial period proletariat fold reflected in the stories of Bienvinido Santos, Carlos Bulosan, etc. However, during 1970 to 1980, the formerly male-dominated migration rechanneled its efforts and lure into trapping the women into international labor.
Current statistics show that seven out of ten Filipino migrant workers are women. And the past and incumbent administration had been lionizing the women’s role in the global trade and employment despite increasing incidents of women’s oppression and harassment in workplaces in the foreign lands. Mythicizing the women’s labor, the government lauded the “modern heroics” of these women migrant workers sector by declaring that in 2000, the migrant workers contributed $6.7 billion in the government’s tax remittances. Moreover, the government had instituted centers for women’s skills training such as domestic work tutelage, cultural dancers training and nursing centers, establishing the Filipina warm body exportation.
In this feminization of globalization, the international market exposes women of the Third World, particularly Filipinas, into jobs stereotypically perceived as a woman’s domain of labor such as domestic helpers, nurses, entertainers, etc. The mythicized empowerment of woman collapses as the mother/whore dichotomies of woman (woman as a nurturing and sexual object) is only brought, repackaged, exported, subsumed and consumed in the global market.
Therefore, the invitation of the imperialist (to use Mabanglo’s rhetorics) bares the women’s bodies not just with sole opportunities but its entailing oppression, internationalizing and intensifying the formerly internalized and localized subjugations and commodification of women in the national labor arm.
By being circulated in the transnational space, the Filipina’s body becomes a symptom of these debates. On the one hand, the body becomes a tool for (limited) economic empowerment, placing the Filipina in the non-traditional role of “wage earner” or “head of the family.” On the other hand, the Filipina’s body becomes the very requisite for being positioned in this “new” economic situation. Her supposedly nimble fingers, perfect eyesight, her youth, and her unmarried status all add up to a stereotypical performative body in transnational circuits. Her traditional role as homemakers allows her body to perform similar work outside the home. The body is integrated into the circuits of multinationalisms and transnationalisms, generating a political economy marked by a highly sexualized division of labor. (Tolentino, 3)
Empire Writes Back:
The Epistolary Tradition of Literature, The Epistolary in the Postcolonial Poetics
In the retrospect of the political economy of the current post/neocolonial situation, intellectuals such as Mabanglo would inadvertently find their own spaces for articulation apt in the cataloguing and aestheticizing of their spatial and experiential literary utterance. In Mabanglo’s case, the use of epistolary in her poetry can be deemed not only as an emerging literary aesthetics but also a poetic form historically compounded both in the literary tradition and in the history of the colonizing and decolonizing schemes in the Third World literary scene.
Epistolary writings include letters, diaries and memoirs. Central to this form is the narrative of the personal, may be affective and emotional, tenuous and subjective, confessional and testimonial. The bulk of epistolary writings are in the form of letters and these attributes have allowed writers to employ such device in creating a nonconventional literary works.
Historically, letters have been dialectical tools of both colonization and decolonization projects. As the letter or the very activity of writing letters create spaces not only for correspondences of two people, but also in narrativising what may be interpreted as a personal experiential outline transgressing the historic national narratologies.
Even in the Spanish occupation in the Philippines, letters played a major role in colonizing the natives. One of the first to be considered as an epistolary literature Urbana at Feliza by Modesto De Castro, a Filipino friar, was used as a didactic reading material imposed by the Catholic Church to uphold and ingrain Christianity to the Filipino indios and urge the “people from boondocks” (in San Juan’s terminologies) to allow themselves to be “civilized” and live in the urban centers during the Spanish period.
According to Vicente Rafael in his book Contracting Colonialism, letters in Spanish occupation were also used to spread rumors on revolution and eventually inciting people to take arms against the Spanish regime. The form of open letter in poetry had also been used as a subversive literary pieces by Jose Rizal’s Ultimo Adios, Hermenegildo Flores’ Hibik ng Filipinas sa Inang España, Marcelo H. del Pilar’s Sagot sa España sa Hibik ng Filipinas, and Andres Bonifacio’s Katapusang Hibik ng Filipinas.
And in American period, according to Roland Tolentino in National/Transnational: Subject Formation and Media in and on the Philippines, letters and mailing letters have been very integral in the proliferation of information by the colonial and imperial power.
The United States would also embark on its colonial project with the Philippines as its first experiment in colony building. One of the initial communications institutions established upon conquest was the postal system. Dean C. Worcester, Secretary of Interior of the Philippine Islands (1901-1913) and Franklin’s counterpart as quintessential enlightened colonizer, took pains to report on the innovations undertaken in the Philippine postal system: the expansion of postal routes, pay increases to letter carriers, and the establishment of innovative deliver services.” (Tolentino, 13)
However, while operations of letters had been an oppressive colonial tool, according to Chinua Achebe, it could also be used to answer the colonizers. Achebe used the image of the small posting office in a remote African land as the springboard of dissent of African natives and to spur letters of protests against the colonial dominatrix.
Filipino poets and writers have been using the form of letters and their epistolaric qualities to
render their literary works: the likes of Julian Cruz Balmaceda, Jose Corazon de Jesus, Lope K. Santos, Iñigo Ed Regado, Amado V. Hernandez, Emilio A. Bunag, Florentino T. Collantes, Ildefonso Santos, Alejandro G. Abadilla, Manuel Principe Bautista and Alberto Segismundo Cruz. (Añonuevo, 274).
And within the international labor, letters are important narratives of migratory subjects. As one of the major means of communications of Overseas Contract Worker to their family, the letters provide outlet for Filipino workers to enunciate their diasporic situations and more importantly, their silenced encounters of oppression in their foreign workplace.
It is within this dialectical space and device of letters and letter writing that contemporary female poet Mabanglo would use to resound her resistance against the imperial invitation. Stamped by a subversive voice, posted with protests, “The Letters of Pinay” from six various workplaces of labor export would be the space of Pinay, the multiple authorial persona of the poems to articulate her experiences as a woman migrant worker.
Table of Content(ion)s and Discontents:
The Aesthetics, Content and the Dialectical Hybrid Poetics of the Epistolary in “The Pinay’s Letters”
It is important to analyze the form of epistolary in the poetics of Mabanglo and how such poetic device had allowed the author to expound on the multifarious catalougues of the multiple authorial roles of Pinay, the persona in all six poems.
Using Patricia Arinto’s framework, letters as one of testimonial and epistolary literature, the space of letters offers a counter-hegemonic literary form.
…(T)estimonial literature includes but is not subsumed under oral histories, diaries, letters, memoirs, eyewitness accounts and the like. Central to this narrative is the articulation by traditionally marginalized sectors of society – women, children, indigenous peoples, the poor – of a collective experience of poverty, repression, and subalternity. More importantly, in these narratives people bear witness to their struggle to live with dignity and tranform the power structures that enslave them. (Arinto, 380)
And unlike autobiographical writings which mostly and traditionally foregrounds a persona or an authorial power, a person of high regards and status in society (read: upper to upper middle classes with socio-political, economic and cultural-intellectual capital), these letters, as testimonial narratives focused on the “trash of history speaking.” In their testimonies, they claim for themselves the identity denied them not only as individuals but also as a community” (ibid).
In the six poems of “Letters of Pinay”, the persona take on the role of the “I,” speaking up her experiences in the different foreign workplaces, Kuwait, Japan, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong and Bruinei. Pinay, as a Filipina migrant worker, is a representative voice, a reference of the repressed working class women sector. The voice that looms from the borders is central in the six poems of Mabanglo. The silenced indexes of her encounters with different masters and their oppression and harassment in their workplaces.
These coming out and speaking out of Pinay offers a nonconventional record of event, “an alternative historiography, (that) attests to the strong desire of the marginalized objects of history to shatter the silence to which they have been relegated and thus become the subjects of history” (Arinto, 381).
Therefore, it is only but apt to analyze Mabanglo’s six poems of “Letters of Pinay” according to the light of a testimony, of epistolary and of poetry. It is but important to study the narratives of Pinay, the formal dynamics of a hybrid form of poetry and epistolary, and how this form had able to encapsulate the voice of Pinay speaking of herself as a Filipina migrant worker, and in the larger scale, a representative and an allegory of the struggles of the women overseas contract workers as a sector.
In “Pinay’s Letters from Kuwait,” Mabanglo portrayed a woman sexually victimized by her Arab master.
How many months ago, how many months,
When the Arabo keyed my womb.
My room is a white niche,
7 I am a skeleton without bones.
My heart hangs among the vines of fear,
Franklin’s face on the dollar, snapped.
How many months ago, how many months,
The Arabo usurped my future.
In these lines, Pinay voices out her experience in the hands of a foreign master. Her haplessness is evident in the fear of Pinay, and her vulnerability (“skeleton without bones”) at the face of oppression. And with economic entrapment of the woman, the image of resounding snap of dollar as a constant reminder of her economic disenfranchisement, Pinay was made to resign with her dreadful fate.
Moreover, the sexual victimization bore its fruit in Pinay’s womb (“From my womb a monument can be pulled/ A baby girl or boy,/ whose lips move silently…), which the persona regarded with derision and contempt (“Like Oedipus, I want to gouge my eyes. Like Judas, to sever my breath. It is the consummation of my sin/To escape the incomparable poverty.”).
It should also be noted that Pinay, here, is consigned to work in Kuwait because of poverty back home. In the lines:
How many months ago, how many months,
My dream set foot on the desert road.
5 A fish on a dry ground,
A plunging kite.
Am I to be blamed?
I intended to examine my opportunities
6 Similar to the rituals of washtubs and frying pans.
To mother, I guaranteed the repair of the crumbling walls,
To my siblings, I promised a bright tomorrow.
Such passages from Pinay only reflect the woman’s need to be a new breadwinner of the family, and her migration provides an urgency and a need to work abroad. This lines also demonstrates Pinay’s initial optimism on venturing to Kuwait and the mythicized promise of fulfillment. However, her experiences in Kuwait proved otherwise. (“Now I am pregnant woman persecuted/By foreign laws in foreign soil./ ‘Impure woman’ is my tattoo,/ Giving birth without a husband./ The prison doors await,/ Who will redeem my name?”)
In “Pinay’s Letter from Japan,” Pinay started out narrating her dreams to become a successful singer and entertainer, pursuing her dreams by joining local and national singing contests.
From there it grew in my heart
1 In this fondness I will earn my wages
I began with Eat Bulaga,
2 My cut of the prize too meager for a taxi.
My thoughts enveloped by my future fame
In the art of song and dance;
4 I want to reach the pot at the end of the rainbow,
I pray until the break of dawn.
These childish dreams eventually were translated into a need, an economic exigency for Pinay to go to Japan and earn for her family some yen money. However, she is not a “cultural performer” as she believed she would be in Japan, but as a prostitute in Japanese nightclub bars. She talks to her older sister who pushed her to go to Japan and asked the “absent” sister to forgive her from all her misfortunes (“Your sister neither sings nor dances/At the nightclub and disco of the bowlegged singkit./ The truth, the truth, I confess,/ …/ But I am a kalapating-siyudad./ Completely naked, I sit on a bottle./ Ate, I swallow tears and ejaculations,/ I can’t even complain, the guard is too cruel.”
Furthermore, Pinay as a sexual commodity is harassed by her customers (“There are men who prey on flesh, Their nails long when tenaciously buried;”). This is the providence of the persona, in the guise of decency of work in Japan – “cultural performer”, Pinay was fated, deceived and trapped in the international underground sexual economy.
Because of her humiliating experience, she is also desperate to confine this a secret with her sister (“I plead this a secret/ Now what will the neighbors say”). Pinay’s fate in Japan could be summarized in Mabanglo’s lines: “Now I realize the chrysanthemum oppresses/ Wilting your voice and dreams.”
“Pinay’s Letters from Singapore” describes the life of a domestic helper working in Singapore. Here, we can see how the poem illustrates her experiences and tasks in this Asian industrial landscape where First World women starts to abandon their domestic homes and leave it to the Third World women migrant workers.
So I embarked and here I arrived,
Now I mend my burnt wings.
To my foreign employer I surrendered my humanity
Completely yielded all my grief.
I have also experienced true hardship
In a twenty story building.
4 Maid, babysitter, cook and laundrywoman
I have occupied all these positions.
Sixteen hours respite
My whole day’s work,
Whose eyes will not fall?
Whose tongue will not flare?
Indeed it is good there is a bit of time to sleep
At the altar of dreams, there is something I can offer,.
In these lines, we can see how Pinay has been able to fit in all her domestic work in a day. The hardships of Pinay are also silenced when she sleeps, resigning to her unfair labor practices by her employer. In the proceeding lines, she would also claim herself to be a slave (“This is good enough, you tell me/ Even if a slave, there is something I can save.”), and deems it good enough because she can earn dollars to send back home.
The conflict of the home against the foreign workplace is seen and intensified in this poem. An amalgamation of familial nostalgia and economic pressure from home were Pinay’s souvenirs when she went to Singapore. In the lines: “When I left you, I had a wounded smile,/ Yesterday was gloomy and tomorrow is unclear/ But I need to risk/ Even your simple kisses and embraces... “I left with webs of fear/ Escorted by poverty and nameless weariness./ The pain penetrates my mask of courage/ But I need to be freed from the shackles of debts.”
The image of leaving home and the anxiety of departure felt by Filipina women manifest in the starting lines of the poems, as she explicitly illustrate her heavy heart in leaving her family behind. The struggle of Pinay can be seen in a larger scope as a affective and emotive conflict of women migrant sector in their exodus for work. In addition, it had encapsulated the women diasporic experience, the uprooted lower class transported into an alien city, negotiating their struggle of their economic necessities in the Philippines and the unfair labor practices at their foreign workplace.
At the end of the poem, we can see the unfailing spirit of Pinay, as she wishes to integrate herself in a foreign land and subvert her alienation in a city of dehumanized migrant domestic helpers: “I become strong like a city/ Before my mind numbs and my heart hardens.”
Meanwhile, in “Pinay’s Letter from Australia”, the persona is going back to her home after she mishap in Australia. Pinay’s narrative in the poem opens up with the persona nurturing her wounds and bruises she procured from her brutal employer.
I am hollow.
A wound that will leave the hospital.
3 An unattended wound left to pus.
Nameless and without a past, yet I will walk out.
Pinay, then, talks about the harassment she experienced in the workplace which also “happens to others”. (“Emerging from my memory:/ The shadow of cruelty and savagery,/ Bronze hands and frigid heart -- / My skin is badly bruised,/ My murdered sleep no longer comforts me…”)
However, she is restricted on dwelling and talking about this experience. She is resigned to burrow this in secrecy and oblivion. She is not allowed to even speak about it to her family and act as if nothing happen. She has to mask her past, the violence she encountered in Australia, and “apply a smile to (her) decrepit lips”. (“They gave me a new identity --/ Do not look for cut thread./ Nothing happened, nothing happened,/ Imagine that you are almost blind./ )
In the end, Pinay, bruised and wounded, would only have to “cloak (her) hopes” and “remove the bandages one by one.”
“Pinay’s Letter from Hong Kong” resound the theme of sexual harassment and exploitation of domestic helpers in Hong Kong. In the poem, Pinay risked coming to Hong Kong to alleviate her impoverished state. “From a luxuriant fantasy it all commenced,/ I emptied my pockets and gathered my experience.”
She encountered the duplicity of an imperial invitation, the “feigned kindness” of her employer, but “When the night is silent, he rapes (the persona).” This duplicity happens in most migrant women’s experience, where repression subsides within the operations of international labor trade. Such experiences also say that in the international domestic space, where Pinay works in Hong Kong, women are prone to these types of exploitation.
In the end, Pinay is only regretful of pursuing her dreams abroad: “Even the hip’s measure is deficient/ For the emotional pain I bear – listen to me:/ Because I rush to become wealthy, I am pregnant now, without a place to occupy.”
Finally, in the last poem in the collection, “Pinay’s Letters from Brunei, Mabanglo used a middle class persona: “I am a teacher, wife and mother./ A woman – kissed by perfume, powder and silk,/ Intimate with the washtubs, pots, and beds./ Seemingly weary and bored,/ I seek to go abroad.”
Unlike the other Pinay’s, in this poem, Pinay’s exodus to foreign land, is not motivated by her dreams of alleviating her life and her family from poverty, but because of a monotonous fate of domesticity.
I am a teacher, wife and mother.
A woman – weary of being a woman.
Designated by my genitalia
Assigned to the broom, he wash and lullaby
3 Even with a profession and salary.
Always the same routine –
The drudgery spread out in the length
Of the house and school
Of the kitchen and bed.
Her complaint and contemplation of leaving the man that was “always the same man sits at the head of the table”, is translated into a desire to go abroad and pursue her dreams. In the end, she ended her poem with: “This is the answer,/ Leave the man to wash the sheets”. With her social class and her access to the cultural matrix of the foreign workplace, the woman here is confident to leave the man on his own measures and try her fate abroad.
Creating Ruptures through Emergence
Rolando Tolentino, in studying the socio-economic and cultural dynamics of mail-order bride, expounded and established the role of letters in the profligating the commodification of women’s bodies in the transnational underground sexual labor economy. He said that:
“Letters mark exchanges and fulfillment of the promise. Letters conquer distance and at the same time maintain it. Letters (mis)introduce, (mis)inform, (in)formalize, (un)plan, accept and reject; they hail and interpellate. But most of all they promise.” (Tolentino, 11)
These characteristics of letters are present in the poems of “Letters of Pinay.” The promise and its fulfillment lurks is within the narratives of Pinay in all six letter-poems. Pinay is seen as having a mission in her migration, a mission to assuage poverty of her family and pursue economic fulfillment in working abroad. This promise also entails the assurance of well disposition of the persona to the family. Just like letters, the poems attempt to captivate this “promise,” to capture even the affective concern of the authorial persona.
The promise, however, dwells primarily in the persona’s need of fulfillment, ergo a presence of present grievances and discontent. Now that Pinay’s narratives assumed a confessional style of narrative, the poems became the authorial persona’s space of expressing her personal complaints, either in leaving an impoverished life in the Philippines or at the unfair labor practices of their employer in the foreign land. This expression of protests is embedded in the epistolaric attributes of Mabanglo’s poems. For as Pinay became more and more discontented with her stature as a women migrant worker, the “promise” of a good life, the promise of going back and leaving all of these mishaps, become more of an imperative for the still hopeful Filipina overseas worker.
Letters can be seen as a dialectical tool, while it gives a space for speaking out, it also silences the narratives, when the authorial power of the persona/writer of the letters can actually omit details in her indexing of experiences.
In the letter-poems, while Pinay chose to be confessional, most of the lines were bound to be kept in secrecy. These narratives should not be heard. Though the stories of oppression and harassment found their refuge in these poems that assumed a testimonial stance, Pinay warned the reader of the text not to let her close families and neighbor to discover her real situation in the workplace.
Letters are also dialectical in the issue of conquering the space. While it can actually surmount distances, connecting the sender to her family, friends and close relatives through these personal correspondences, it also maintains the distance because the authorial persona is conscious that her stories would be transgressing borders, the author is constantly reminded of the distance, and the implications of this distance (read: alienation as a migrant identity) in the very act of writing.
This is very evident in the poem, especially in “Pinay’s Letter from Singapore”. While the woman expresses her idea of conquest, by venturing to a new international labor scene, she is also conscious of that distance, of Pinay and her family, and that distance constantly prompts her to accept the fate of her “conquest” and transgression of transnational border space. In the same light, the consciousnee of distance is apparent in the authorial persona’s nostalgia of the home. Memories of family, intrinsically entrenched in the verses, prove to be the only impetus of the Filipina migrant workers to go back. Therefore, the dialectical space or distance only intensifies Pinay’s conflict of her home versus her foreign workplace.
Some of the poems have no addressee, the persona seems to have no particular person to send her letters to. This “openness,“ however, implies that the letter-poems need not to be addressed to anyone in particular, using the form of “open letters” as its springboard of confessions and testimonies.
What is also important in these poems is its form. Mabanglo used free verses in the collection, to provide spaces for the stories of women. Analyzing the language Mabanglo employed, even on the level of translations, the author used prosaic styles to maintain the attributes of letter writing. This also reflects Mabanglo’s conscious efforts to capture Pinay’s mostly lower class consciousness, especially, in aestheticizing her/their experiences as migrant workers.
Studying the formal dynamics of “Letters of Pinay”, Mabanglo employed a hybridity in form, where she used the language and device of the epistolary into the poems of Pinay. The letter-poems open up ruptures in the dominant literary standards. By using the epistolary devices of poetry, she had been able to challenge the current poetics and the epistemological balance in her collection.
Amid the landscape of the literary epistemologeme, the subversive subaltern spur disturbances within the constricts of form and create a violence of meanings, opening up ruptures for new space of dissent. Ruth Elynia Mabanglo’s letter-poems may be deemed not only as a hybrid form of epistolary and poetry, but also an entry point for new narratives and new poetics to emerge. And in the light of new themes of oppression and changing struggles of a post/neocolonial intellectual, the poet could only use novel weapons to sever the dictators of language.
Anonuevo, Roberto T., “Mga Saray ng Pananagisag sa Liham ni Pinay, Isang Pagbasa
sa Tula ni Elynia S. Mabanglo,” Hulagway (November 2000) Tomo 2, Blg. 1-4.
Tolentino, Rolando B., “Filipinas in Transnational Space.” National/Transnational:
Subject Formation and Media In and On the Philippines. Quezon City: Ateneo de
Manila University Press, 2001.
Mabanglo, Ruth Elynia S., Anyaya ng Imperyalista. Quezon City: University of the
Philippines Press, 1998.
Arinto, Patricia. “Contour and Content : Testimonial Writings from Women of National
Democratic Front of the Philippines“ Nationalist Literature: A Centennial Forum,
Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 1998.