Kaibigan, Personal

Sacred simplicity

Once upon a time, in a land beloved by the sun, there lived a girl with the scar of fire on her cheek. One day she met a girl with eyes like sea and storm, who said to her, “Come away with me, and we shall know joy like you never imagined, and the sun will shine for you always even in the deepest of winters or the darkest of nights.”

My partner asked me to marry her a little over seven years ago, in the most ordinary of rooms, in the most extraordinary of ways. I said yes, with the same kind of certainty with which I told her when she asked me “will you be mine,” my love, I’m already yours. Even then we knew it likely wouldn’t happen for decades, if at all; even then my certainty bewildered me, because there is a word, isn’t there, for someone who believes she will climb to the stars; it is not reasonable, or realistic, or sane.

This year the government of the country in which I live ratified marriage equality. It is now legal for me to marry my partner. We’ve been engaged for so long, have been wanting for so long, that having this beautiful, much longed-for thing suddenly possible — it feels like a blow to the chest, suddenly snapping one awake. Oh. So it’s like that.

I told myself that for this post I would write how much it means to me, being able to marry my partner. Now that I am at my keyboard I find myself at a loss for words, my throat closing up with deep emotion and long, long memories of pain. I’m sure I’ll be able to write more eventually. Bits and pieces of words, random phrases, questions: is this what it feels like? to simply be able to reach out and have it?

It’s okay. I’ll give myself time. I’ll learn: to be able to say it without almost-crying, as if it’s the most normal thing in the world.

We’re getting married. We have a date. October 10, 2020.

When the marriage equality bill passed, getting married for us was an “of course” — we’d only been waiting for it for seven years, after all! The date was a bit less sure (honestly, to me and my partner, the really important thing is the Getting Married bit, everything else is icing) and since my partner’s sister is getting married in 2018, that year was out of the question. (There’s a Filipino superstition that one shouldn’t get married the same year as one’s sibling, otherwise disaster will follow. I’m not generally a superstitious person, but… Well! There’s always that “but”, when you have grown up in the Philippines. That “just in case” thing.) So the earliest would be 2019, and my partner were talking about scheduling around Worldcon 2019, since we were planning to go there. The problem of course was that one major thing a year is more than enough for me; I wasn’t sure I could handle Worldcon and wedding in the same year.

And then we had the brilliant idea of getting married in 2020 — an easy year to remember (my beloved is not very great with dates). Even better, I said, wouldn’t it be fun to get married 10 10 2020? I checked the calendar, and it was on a Saturday. Aha! Of course. Clearly it was Meant To Be.

That same night I started emailing prospective wedding planners and reception venues. I’ve only been researching weddings for the past three years, after all.

(I have saved so many tutorials for DIY wedding centrepieces. From 2014.)

It’s funny, because when I was thinking of doing a year-end post there was going to be a lot more introspection on it, and talking about the major things this year, like moving to Warragul, Uppsala, the Hugos, everything in Helsinki, meeting so many people I’ve loved and admired from afar…

But there’s nothing in my brain for those things, honestly, and I can’t even bring myself to be sorry. Instead there are only golden blossom-bursts of joy: we’re going to get married!

(It doesn’t matter that we’re waiting until 2020. That way we can save up as much as we need for the wedding we want, and really, when you’ve waited this long — a few more years won’t kill you. At least now we know it’s actually happening. It’s such a huge difference.)

Look: Cy and I have the song for our first dance picked. It was chosen in… oh, 2010, 2011, I think? It’s Eric’s Song, by Vienna Teng.

I have a Slack group I call my “siscousinfriends” chat, because it’s predominantly women I feel very sisterly/cousinly to; I wanted an older sister for forever and now it’s like I have ALL THE SISTERS YAYYYYY 😀

I started a channel in the Slack for #yaywedding. Right now the channel tagline is: “if you’re going to do it, overdo it”. My friends say it is very me.

Overdoing isn’t always my thing, it really isn’t, but in this case —

Did I tell you, I’m going to paint my wedding dress?

Part of me is like: well, of course I’m going to paint my wedding dress, this is me and I want my wedding dress to have all the fire and flowers and flight and sheer unrepentant colour in the world.

Another part of me is like: oh no, Mia, what are you getting myself into.

Still another part of me is like: oh, but it will be so beautiful, and we will have time, we will have time. (This is the part, I think, that unreservedly said “yes” to Cy, all those years ago. It has never been proven wrong.)

The design will be: flowers — lily-of-the-valley, marigold, waling-waling, sampaguita, santan — all with great significance to me (and the lily-of-the-valley and marigold hold special meaning for me and my partner), in red and magenta and violet and orange and yellow. Firebirds, gold and red. Butterflies, in gold and deep purple. Swirls of gold-dusted air. The colours of fire, the colours of blooming.

A little guilty or embarrassed, that I’m using such an important thing as a year-end post to talk to you about, of all things, my wedding dress. But maybe I have nothing to feel ashamed of, really; maybe I am only victorious, because loving this woman, resisting all the forces that wanted to break us apart, surviving our separation and me being kicked out by parents due to this love, coming to Australia and enduring the thousand cuts of immigration — isn’t it a victory, isn’t it to be celebrated?

So let me tell you about the dress: I have spent years researching what dress I wanted to wear for my wedding, and when my partner and I settled on a date, I told her, “I know what kind of dress I want to wear,” and I showed her the site of Wai Ching, an amazing bridal designer, and we spent a lot of time cooing over the dresses. They had everything I loved: beautiful fabric, rich colours, intricate attention to detail and texture.

It felt that I was quite sure I was going to wear a Wai Ching dress — the only question, really, was which one? — but then I wandered over to used-dress sites, and I thought, well, maybe I could buy a much cheaper dress, and paint it myself, and then spend more money on feeding our guests?

I started with a large-ish budget, then kept whittling it down. And then, finally, I narrowed it down to a pair of dresses. I scheduled fittings for both dresses last Saturday: a big day for me and Cy, since we were also doing some shopping at IKEA (for my year-old giftcard!) and doing a site tour for our prospective wedding + reception venue. It surprised me a little, how nervous I was about the whole thing; it wasn’t so much “omg this is finally real” as “here are the tests I must pass to prove myself worthy of getting married”. (I still have that feeling, from time to time: prove you are worthy of a wedding, prove you are worthy of marrying Cy.)

But then! But then, I tried on the first wedding dress.

(First: imagine me and Cy — I’m rubbing my eyes painfully, but she’s quite cheerful as she drives us through the green hills of Gippsland towards Melbourne. After an hour and a half we find ourselves in a leafy Melbourne suburb, very close to the sea, with lots of trendy cafes about: “what a Nice Place,” I exclaim to Cy, and we consider living here for around 30 seconds before we both say there are too many people around. We finally find a place to park and hesitantly walk down a lovely shady lane to a door surrounded by potted plants and stone statues. We knock.

Second: here is the inevitable bracing. You never know how people will react when they learn you are two women who want to get married. We’ve been harassed in public places so many times. How does one deal with discrimination from the prospective seller of one’s wedding dress? Well. One prepares. Breathes in. Wears clothes that are nice enough, respectable enough; grits one’s teeth, prepares to say all the acceptable — the all-too-defensive — lines.)

And, look: I was transformed. I always used to think wedding dress posts were a bit too rapturous for my taste: you remain the same person, don’t you, you don’t suddenly become this inhumanly beautiful supermodel unicorn sparkleprincess? And yet I did feel like a princess; I felt crowned by it, by the clear-eyed regard of that dress, by the way it framed me and said: you have a story, I am here to help you tell it. I felt– surrounded by light, at least in an aesthetic sense. It was that kind of dress; I don’t know how to describe it, but it was so much better than I thought it would be. And it would be such a joy to paint.

Needless to say, after a bit of talk — Cy and I went to have breakfast, because I thought it would be silly to try on just the one dress and make a decision then; Cy though it would be silly to go to another fitting given that we knew that dress was The One — we went and got that dress.

(As for the seller: she was lovely, over the moon for Cy and me — she got shivers when we told her we’d been engaged for over seven years. I’ve promised to send her pics of the dress at the wedding.)

The dress is raw silk; it is by Melbourne designer Jean Fox; it is a very beautiful colour, the kind of colour that many people are probably thinking of — are probably aspiring to — when they say champagne, but fail because what they produce is a little too approachable and simple, too close to salmon or stone, for it to be rightly champagne. This dress, though: its colour is like gold remembering silver behind fog or glass, and the raw silk is beautiful to touch — there’s so much light in it, so much texture.

I’m so excited to paint it. I’m also terrified, but I’ve come to realise that when it comes to art that is a good sign (albeit not a comfortable one): being afraid means that I’m doing something large and beautiful and ambitious. That I’m pushing myself. That I’m here, leaping up.

I would like to do something amazing.

But more than that: I would like to do something that is me. For me.

I’ve begun sketching and colour planning. There’s so much more that will have to happen before I paint: the dress needs to be altered, so that means more fittings and dressmaker visits and maybe needing to get shoes.

But I’m so excited.

I doodled a little example yesterday, just to get what was in my head onto paper. I am thinking of flowers crowding each other — an excess of blooms — out of which twist spirals of air and fire, butterflies and birds. It will be a design focused on the vertical, which the dress aids — it drapes along beautiful vertical lines — and I think that’s the way to go, since going for a scene or image that holds together all throughout the skirt will not be as striking or effective.

I’ve also set up a Pinterest board, which you’re welcome to follow, if you like! I started it when I was also considering a dress that already had embroidery on it (this dress was actually, before I tried it on, only second on my list; of the first, I remember thinking, if you were $200 I’d buy you in a heartbeat) so there are a fair few textile art pins featuring lavish embroidery there. And so much brilliant art.

And, um. Thank you for listening to my story. For listening to my joy, and my weirdly specific process notes, and all my nattering about dresses and weddings and–

Thank you for being here to witness that I love my partner and that I’m so happy, so happy, that we have something to work towards, that we’re no longer just trying to get out of the abyss, or just struggling to survive. Instead we’re looking forward to this wonderful celebration of our love — really, it’s our victory party, isn’t it? — and just holding on to each other with so much staggering joy. We made it. We made it.

You know, as I write this, I’m in the room that was formerly my studio (I need to talk about that later), with a massive poster-size thing saying “You Amaze Me” surrounded by potted plants and a blooming peace lily, and bright pink cushions and a fluffy purple blanket on the floor to nest in, and my partner behind me playing The Shrouded Isle on her computer, and our beloved dogs — both of whom are quite old (14 and 16!), and whose continued presence in our lives we regard as a gift — nestled, snoring, at her feet. In the living room, our cat is curled up on a towel-draped chair, purring and dreaming dreams of sitting on even more art in the year to come. I feel that, hard as life can be, it also overflows with such grace that I can hardly find it in myself to express it. How full of light and quiet joy one can be. How (against all reason, against all darkness and despair and fear) one can be content. And still believe that it is all worth it.

This is how I’ll begin the new year. With great love; by faith; in hope.

Exclusive Content, Personal

Slices of a thousand flowers

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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.


Thursday confessional

This was originally meant to be a Patreon-only post, but I’ve thought about it and decided it might do me good to have it public, for now. This post isn’t about art; it’s meant to be part of a process wherein I’m trying to remove the roadblocks getting in the way of me doing art this month. It’s going to be a pretty personal post, too, with some heavy stuff, so please do skip it if you like.

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