Bright threads in the tapestry: on the 2016 Tiptree Fellowship

Two days ago, I was stunned to receive an email informing me that I’d been chosen as one of two Fellows for the 2016 Tiptree Fellowship, which is awarded to creators of work “that uses speculative narrative to expand or explore our understanding of gender, especially in its intersections with race, nationality, class, disability, sexuality, age, and other categories of identification and structures of power.”

It still hasn’t fully sunk in — November was a very hard month — but it is an understatement to say I’m amazed, and humbled, and will do my absolute best to create work worthy of this award. It’s very easy, as someone who works in the margins, whose work does not have institutional support, to feel that one is shouting into the wilderness; that one is unseen and unheard, that one’s voice does not matter and no help will come to amplify one’s song. This Fellowship is a clarion counter to that: it says, yes, keep singing, we want to hear you.

I want to share with you the personal statement I submitted as part of my application, answering the question of how I work with speculative narrative to expand or explore our understanding of gender. I wrote this at the eleventh hour before submissions for the Fellowship application closed; I was quite sure I wouldn’t get the fellowship anyway, but I felt I had to speak, to say why I was doing my work — even if it came out broken and incoherent and raw.

I’m glad the selection committee saw something in my words that resonated. I’m glad they felt my work deserved supporting — that there is something in it that bears developing, some form of brightness to be seen. I’m so honored to be a Tiptree Fellow.

How do I work with speculative narrative to expand or explore our understanding of gender?

Through my art, I explore the weight of my heritage as a queer Filipina, heir to a history of struggle and revolution, colonization and war; descendant of women who spoke and fought, built and taught, and were as unflinching in their pursuit of their goals as they were wholehearted in their love. My understanding of being a woman is different from the dominant narratives I see in the white West: from childhood, we were always the brave ones, the bright ones, the ones who gave the impossible because we were strong enough to shoulder unbearable cost, the ones who did what was needful when it was too difficult for men, the ones who stood as the last line of defense against annihilation and the dark.

The colonizers who came to the Philippines centuries ago sought to remove power from women and people outside the gender binary. They eradicated the systems whereby babaylan held vital roles in the community and women could lead, own property, do business, craft highly prized objects, and act with agency and strength. They imposed gender on our language where before all people were defined only by their referents: my mother tongue, Tagalog, has no “he” or “she”, but “siya”. Those women who resisted their colonial rule and the societal changes it wrought were shut up into convents, branded lunatics or witches or aswang, beaten down with loss upon loss. Colonizers turned the women of my country, who were used to wielding power in their homes and in their communities, into monsters — and named these monsters creatures who must be destroyed, inhabitants of a night that was now branded dangerous to prevent people from coming together in secret to re-form the bonds of community. In the Philippines we rub elbows with the supernatural; it’s a co-existence that the teachings of the Catholic Church, which the colonizers brought, continually seeks to disrupt.

This is where my work arises: the point where women and monsters wear the same face, where we must be feared not because we are destroyers but because we are too strong to be controlled. In my art I take the destructive portrayals of the mangkukulam, the entrail-eating manananggal, the shape-shifting aswang — and I paint over them with gold and glory. In my art I show women who are unapologetic in their power and unashamed of their monstrous limbs, their scales and sharp teeth. I strive to shatter centuries of saying: “this woman does not conform to what the colonizers want, she does not go to church, she has no husband; she is damned and must be cast out, hunted down, destroyed” and instead say: “this woman is who she is, and draws strength from that; let us celebrate her”. In my art I show beauty that defies Western standards and goes against centuries of colonial mentality to say: our brown skin and battle scars are glorious, and we do not need colonial masters to approve of what we look like, what we do, or who we are. We are magnificent whatever we do: in our love and anger, in our grief and our dance; in our domestic labor, our leadership, our academic work, our engineering and building and teaching and the multitudes of other vocations we may choose for ourselves.

I want to celebrate through my art the act of throwing off conceptions of women and femininity that were imposed on us by colonizers — insidious standards that centuries of colonialism and war have hammered into our psyches — to go further than that and grow into a joyful strength. It’s my hope that my art is, for the viewer, an experience of finding that our so-called monstrosity is instead our unashamed radiance, our command over our beautiful bodies: the tapestry we have woven out of each day of survival and defiance, the power and the glory of our song.

Thank you for reading; thank you to the Tiptree Motherboard, the selection committee, and everyone involved in continuing the Tiptree mission; thank you, dear friends and patrons, for supporting me and helping me keep pushing forward. I will do you proud.


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