Philippine LGBTQ Writers Workshops:
A Concept Paper
by J. Neil Garcia
The Philippine component of Project GlobalGRACE features verbal expressivity and forms of textual performances by young Filipino LGBTQ individuals who are either beginning or aspiring writers.
To my mind, there may be no better way to address the challenge being posed by this international arts and research consortium—about celebrating and supporting gendered and sexual cultures of equality around the world, intuitions and practices of resistance and justice, especially in the Global South—than the championing of creative communities.
Writing is especially crucial to the question of equality—in the Philippines and I suspect elsewhere—because as an ideal equality presupposes the incumbency and viability of a literate and comparative imagination: one that is able to moderate and confound the situational predisposition of the oral mind, and abstract out of the specificities of lived experience, and think in categorical terms.
After only a century of public education, the Philippines remains enduringly oral, by and large. Many of its national problems may be traced to the unevenness of its population’s literacy, which must exceed the merely functional, and become archival or profound, if it should leave the clannish and regional mentality of its archipelagic origin and truly cohere as a nation on one hand, and commit itself to the scriptural stability of democratic aspirations, on the other.
The Creative Writing Workshop has doubtless been a major moving force in the development of Philippine scripturalities and literatures, chiefly in the dominant languages of Filipino and English.
From the 1950s onward, as initiated by Iowa-trained professors at the Silliman University in the southern Philippine city of Dumaguete, and as picked up by and institutionalized in other major universities, it has served as a rite of passage for amateur writers from all across the archipelago, who are granted fellowships that entitle them to short-term residencies, during which their manuscripts receive critical feedback and critique from senior writers.
As a pedagogical paradigm, and drawing from the New Critical perspective that occasioned it in the West, the Creative Writing Workshop claims to be “ideology-free,” focusing strictly as its scrutiny supposedly does on the formal and structural elements of the given text, and bracketing out of the literary analysis biographical and other “extrinsic” concerns like the author’s—as well as the reader’s— gender, class, sexual, religious, ethnic, etc. positionalities.
This “immanentist” approach has of course long been discredited and supplanted in the history of literary theory and criticism, but strangely enough, in the Creative Writing establishment, it has stubbornly persisted, where it has been left generally unquestioned and intact.
The Philippine LGBTQ Creative Writing Workshops seek to interrogate and rectify this practice, which has most certainly not succeeded in suspending value judgments in the selection, appraisal, and mentorship of creative manuscripts, particularly where they are about—and rooted in—ex-centric, dissident, and extra-normative experiences.
It’s clear that even or especially in a predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, heteronormativity informs many if not all of the liberal humanist assumptions that operate in so-called strictly “formalist” readings, animating such commonsense ideas as Desire, Relationships, Domesticity, Happiness, and of course, Nature and even Life itself.
How often has it happened in the Philippine classroom that, in the face of a love story whose characters are not legibly gendered, the default interpretive perspective adopted to make sense of it is heterosexual?
Not only is this presumption discriminatory against confessional or autobiographical LGBTQ writers; it also subjects their texts to a ruinous reading and its supposedly inevitable formal “consequences”—for instance, questions pertaining to character motivation, plot, and verisimilitude.
While it’s true that all art aspires to universality, it’s truer that in art most crucially—whose statements are not propositional, but are rather embodied and evocative—the path to the universal necessarily happens through the particular.
Ultimately, it’s this denial of gender and sexual particularity, rationalized by New Criticism’s falsely—or prematurely—humanist ideology, and enshrined at the heart of the Creative Writing paradigm, that proves most injurious of all.
Unchallenged, this aesthetic ideology—as well as the practice it legitimates—privileges heterosexuality as the only position that has the right to dream of becoming universal, on one hand; on the other, this universalizing imperative conveniently subsumes the difference of LGBTQ suffering into the anguished sameness of the human condition, in the process neglecting the critique that’s implicit in all antiheteronormative texts.
Needless to say, the liberal humanist consensus that functions as the pedagogical “common sense” in the Philippine classroom is nothing if not heteronormative.
The Philippine Project for GlobalGRACE seeks to realize and enact the ideal of cultures of gender and sexual equality through the nurturing and promotion of Filipino LGBTQ literature.
Specifically, through a series of creative writing workshops—a national one, that will be competitive and genre-based, as well as a local one, which will be community-based and geared toward the eliciting and artful realization of performative life-stories from underprivileged LGBTQs living outside the national center—the Project will seek to provide institutional and pedagogical support to help discover and enable LGBTQ voices and hone the creative writing skills of aspiring LGBTQ writers and Spoken Word performers, whose consciousness and identity their respective stories, poems, essays, and plays will not only express and disseminate, but also enact, deepen, and expand.
The promotion and deepening of literacy and the instatement of intuitions of a democratic life go hand in hand, and in a culture where gender and sexual inequality is not so much juridically encoded as customarily enforced and internalized, they represent a crucial step to LGBTQ self-realization and empowerment.
These workshops will be occasions in which imaginative literacy can be openly cultivated among young Filipino LGBTQs, along with the empathy that it cannot help but awaken and promote.
We need to remember that shame remains a powerful affect that many of these individuals must grapple with on an everyday basis, especially given the heteronormativity that holds sway in both the private and public spheres, including the national cultural and educational systems. Shame will have no place in these workshops, which will function as safe and sacred creative spaces, first and foremost.
There will be no room in these workshops for the dismissiveness that’s all too commonly heard from Creative Writing teachers and panelists, who are being asked to consider an LGBTQ work—for instance, if it’s a gay work, it’s all about penises.
This is a homophobic misreading that’s meant to flatten and stereotype, to be sure, although we do also need to register the demurral: so what’s wrong if a poem or story is all about penises, come to think of it? In these sacred spaces, desire in all its capaciousness, power, and human plurality will be fully reclaimed and allowed articulation.
After all is said and done, the most important site of human agency must persist and thrive in the inner life—that of fantasy and imaginative production.
Rather than relegating to the backdrop the experiential life-ground of art-making and writing, the Workshops will allow it to inform and enrich the holistic (as opposed to strictly formalist) appreciation of the creative texts being considered, all in the interest of providing the right kind of healthy and nurturing artistic environment for aspiring LGBTQ writers.
Needless to say, it makes a huge pedagogical difference to affirm the value of LGBTQ lives right from the get go, on the level of “the real,” from which the artistic journey toward “the true” must necessarily begin.
The Workshops will be held annually for four consecutive years in July and August, beginning in 2018. The genres to be covered in the national workshop will be, in chronological order, the following: Poetry, Short Fiction, Essays, and Plays.
The local workshops, on the other hand, will mainly be about the “Spoken Word,” the formal definition of which is more provisional and protean, with the performative being its defining character. These local workshops will therefore seek to hone compositional as well as enunciative and theatrical skills among their participants.
The panelists for the both workshops will be established Filipino LGBTQ writers and performance artists. There will therefore be a community-building aspect to this project, occasioning the sharing and “handing down” of counsel, support, and fellowship across the generations.
And because the revised manuscripts and performances generated in these workshops will be published in an online and open-access site—as texts and as videos—this Project will be providing both literary and cultural researchers as well as general and global readers an archive of new and emergent LGBTQ writings from the Philippines.
The Early Career Researcher who will be appointed for this Project will be involved in the actual organizing of the workshops on one hand, and in the documentation, recording, and organizing of their outputs on the other. Because the online archive is meant to be globally intelligible, he or she will also be tasked to oversee if not actually inscribe the translations into English of all the Filipino manuscripts, right before they are published.
A qualified literary and cultural studies scholar, he or she will also be expected to participate in the planning of the lectures on Philippine LGBTQ aesthetics—featuring, for each year, a “craft talk” to be given by an established Filipino LGBTQ writer—that will take place at the beginning of each national workshop.
Possible topics of such lectures will be the question of an LGBTQ canon, LGBTQ as a perspective or subject-position rather than as a topic, and the politics—as well as the ethics—of LGBTQ autobiographical writing. On the other hand, each of the local workshops will also feature an inspirational talk right at the start, to be given by a practicing spoken word artist. Finally, he or she will need to be performing all the other duties expected of all researchers working for the GlobalGrace Consortium.
The question of the specificity of LGBTQ literary and artistic practices as well as the relationship between ethics and creative writing will be among the themes that the workshop panelists will be asked to reflect on, as they lead and facilitate the discussion of the manuscripts.
However, each of them will also be given free rein to emphasize issues that they feel particularly close to or strongly about. Aesthetic, stylistic, and thematic diversity even or precisely under the LGBTQ description should be one of the most important lessons that these workshops will ponder and impart, right at the beginning of things.
Finally, I wish to repeat the point I made earlier on: the journey of art is the journey from the real to the true.
The limit of what is real is what can be experienced; the limit of what is true is what can be imagined.
Writing, art, is about the business of what’s possible, which can be anything, as far as the imagination is concerned.
Both reality and truth need to exist—need to be performed—in the text.
In between the origin (reality) and the destination (truth) are decisions that the writer will need to make.
The task of everyone participating in a workshop is to thoughtfully consider these decisions, in light of both the experience being represented in the given text, and the illumination of it that’s being proposed.
An important objective of our LGBTQ National and Local Writers Workhops will be to affirm the experience of the young writers who will take part in them, and to guide them in transfiguring it into truth.
Such a truth, in the end, can only be paradoxical—and therefore, complex—being grounded in both what is real and what is imagined.
As Marianne Moore once put it, “[Poetry is]… imaginary gardens, with real toads in them.”
That a truth can be two different (sometimes, opposite) things at once is, of course, a realization—a paradox, a mystery—that poets and other artists encounter and embrace, all the time.