Writing from the Context of my culture

The Influence of Words

Long ago, someone said this in defense of my work: “She is writing from the context of her culture and from her own experience.”

I had gone to my first ever meeting with real writers. The woman who said those words was a professor from the University of the Philippines and she said those words in response to criticism that said my work would never be good enough for a US audience.

It’s funny that I should think of those words at this time when the words that chased after me for so many years were the words that told me I would never be good enough. I wonder how I could have forgotten those words when they are so relevant and so important to me as a writer of color.

What prompted me to chase after excellence was to prove the negative words wrong, and once I’d proven that I could write at that level, I found myself wondering what comes next.

Recalling the statement above reminded me that at some point in my pursuit to become better than my yesterday self I had determined to be true to the culture I came from. Remembering this and holding fast onto this gives me fresh enthusiasm and determination.

Culture, Heritage and the SF&F field

Growing up among an indigenous people was a privilege. History books tell me that the Mountain Province was one of the few places the Spanish could not colonize because of the fierceness of its warriors. Even after American missionaries had made their entry into the mountains, even after “the conversion of the natives”, the original culture still remains intact.

It makes me happy to hear of how the young people from the town I grew up in are still proud of their heritage. It’s not been easy for other indigenous groups as the struggle to protect indigenous rights is one that’s often fought against people in power.

On my last visit home, I attended a lecture given by Antoon Postma and the Mangyan Heritage Center. This lecture was one of many that Antoon was giving at several universities. Antoon had lived among the Mangyan tribe for more than fifty years and his lecture had specifically to do with the written tradition of the Mangyan. He was one of those rare people who truly loved the culture and embraced it instead of wanting to change it.

The teacher beside me listened just as attentively as I, and afterwards she said to me: What a shame that we should need a foreigner to teach us pride in our culture.

That a lot of Filipinos believe in the superiority of what’s foreign is a sad truth. It’s just like how Filipinos insist on bleaching their beautiful brown skin because they believe white is a superior color.

But I love the Filipino color. I love our beautiful brown skin and I don’t see why we need to be whiter. It’s just in this way that I love our beautiful Filipino culture. It is bright and colorful and filled with so many nuances. We are not just the color of earth, we are not just the beating of gongs, what we are includes the interweaving with other cultures. We are indigenous and multicultural at the same time.

Sometime ago, a Filipino poet told me that we should be multi-genre’d because we are multicultural. I still think on those words and I think it’s an exciting time to be a Filipino Speculative fiction writer.

As I write this, I am reminded of what it is about science fiction and fantasy that excites me. Where realist literature concerns itself with this now and this one person’s reality, Science Fiction and Fantasy invites us to explore beyond the boundaries of what we perceive to be real. I love this genre, I love the way in which imagination and creativity are given free reign, and I love how there is always room for a culture other than that of the West.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a Filipina writer living in The Netherlands. A graduate of the Clarion West Writing Workshop and recipient of the Octavia Butler Scholarship for 2009, her work has appeared in a variety of online and print publications including Weird Tales Magazine, Fantasy Magazine, Apex, The Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology, and the Ruins and Resolve Anthology. Visit her online at: http://rcloenen-ruiz.livejournal.com

Comments

  1. says

    As a Serbian national who has grown up in Malta, the idea of cultural identity has always been on my mind, largely because I felt that any coherent sense of it was missing in me. So it’s always interesting to hear writers talk about the relation to their culture. Being a medium that uses words, I’m often intrigued to observe decisions – formal or otherwise – that an author dogged with this question makes… do you feel that writing in English will always feel lacking somehow? Or does the detachment from the language make it easier to mold?

  2. says

    This was really inspiring to read.

    My mother is filipino while my dad is caucasion, so as a person coming from both ‘cultures’ it’s been a real adventure to see life through both perspectives. I wouldn’t have it any other way though. I too play back the many negative things I’ve heard over the years about my own writing & hope to prove people wrong.

    Thank you for the inspiring words & I wish you the best.

  3. says

    Rochita,

    Great article. This makes me think a lot about a question that was raised first by (I think) K. Tempest Bradford, in this and other discussions about PoC in SF/F — in paraphrase, I think she asked whether it was possible for an author of color to write from her cultural context and get the same acceptance from critics, etc. as white men writing from their respective contexts. (In particular this came up regarding Nisi Shawl’s anthology Filter House, which initially got a negative review from reviewer Matthew Cheney — which he later retracted, after seeing many of his contemporaries praise the book. Bradford raised the point that Cheney was critiquing a book written by a black woman — a book specifically privileging the black female identity — through the lens of a white male, and that the bad review was colored by his inability to step outside of his identity.)

    And it’s a problem. PoC are used to stepping outside our own identities to read and enjoy fiction, since so little of it is written from our context, but it can’t be denied that the “establishment” and probably the bulk of the readership in this field is white. And the nature of privilege is such that white readers don’t have to step outside their own cultural context, unless they choose to. So it’s possible that your critic who said you’d never be good enough for a US audience was speaking from that kind of privileged position — “good enough” being code for “white enough” and “US audience” being code for “white readers”. The critic may not have even realized that the reason she failed to grok your work might be cultural.

    Then again, the critic may have had a legitimate beef with the quality of your work. I’ve found that it’s very tough, as an author of color, to separate criticism-rooted-in-culture from criticism-in-itself. Honestly I’m not sure criticism can ever really be divorced from cultural context. You just have to learn to listen for that code language, and interpret as best you can. And ideally, get your critique from people you know and trust to self-examine for these kinds of privilege issues.

  4. says

    Hi Nora, Thanks for sharing the link to the discussion as well as for your thoughts. Thinking back, her criticque was based on 1) my use of the english language as a medium to tell story 2) the element of tribal fantasy in the story 3) the fact that she’d also been told countless times by American writers that Filipinos would never write fiction in English in a way that would satisfy American readers.

    I wonder now what she really thought of the story by itself. A part of me wishes I could go back and ask those questions. I was still pretty wet behind the ears back then. All starry-eyed and believing that real writers were privy to secrets a wannabe like me was not privy to. Looking back, the story I presented wasn’t brilliant. It had its flaws but it had a definite flavor of the place I grew up in.

    I loved the discussion about poc in sf&f. Thanks for posting the link here. My head is filled with lots of thoughts on the subject of culture, and diversity in fiction. It’s a subject I never get tired of :)

    Teodor: Because of where I grew up, English was one of the first languages I spoke. It was there alongside with Ifugao and Ilocano. I didn’t speak Filipino because at that time, there was a strong resistance to speaking it where I grew up. I also grew up reading books in English. Lots of Filipino writers wrote either in Filipino or English, and English became the default for me because there was more literature available in English than in Filipino or Ifugao. There was only one publication in Ilocano that I remember reading and it was quite a racy mag that my Mom disapproved of. lol.

    I decided that writing in English was my best way to go, and I like too how it’s possible for a person like me to appropriate this language and bend it to my own purposes. I do want to see more cultures represented in a genuine way in fiction.

    Realmcovet: Thank you. I’m glad you liked the article. Keep on writing.

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