Editor’s note: This is a first in a series of features on our selections of our Best Books of 2021.
This year witnessed a richness of publications. We have not one, but two groundbreaking anthologies centered on women-loving-women, as well as the second short story collection of one of the country’s premier fiction writers. “Tingle: An Anthology of Pinay Lesbian Writing” (Anvil Press), “Wildfire: Filipina Lesbian Writings” (Gantala Press), and “Pics or It Didn’t Happen and Actual Stories” (UP Press) are all testaments to the notable skill of Filipino writers and their capacity to distill lifetimes of experiences and emotions in a few, glittering pages.
“What makes you tingle as a lesbian?”
Jhoanna Lynn Cruz, the anthology’s editor, introduces the book by recognizing how long-overdue the book is. “Ladlad,” the pioneering anthology of Philippine gay writing, has already produced three volumes and a “best-of” anthology. Meanwhile, the first publication to center lesbians, “Tibok: Heartbeat of the Filipino Lesbian” edited by Anna Leah Sarabia, came out in 1998 and received only one review in an academic publication. Cruz talks about how “it was a collective effort to become visible in literature, but the literary system refused to look at the women who had laid themselves out for the cause of visibility.”
Cruz and an assortment of writers have tried to remedy the lack of visibility with this wonderful anthology. “Tingle” presents a delicious diversity of literary pieces on women-loving-women, encompassing everything from the carnal to the sublime. The collection is arranged in seven sections, each section handling a particular aspect of lesbian life. “How It Begins” shows the first tentative, potent pulses of female desire, while “Unrequited” deals with the perpetual problem of loving someone who does not love you back. The collection skillfully transitions from hot-and-heavy scenes of burgeoning love, to the more somber, bittersweet conclusion of a life-changing romance.
And what a wealth of works we have. The collection opens with Rayji de Guia’s “Here Come the Women,” a sly and subversive feminist retelling of Nick Joaquin’s “The Summer Solstice.” “Ocean Ghost” by Nina Matalam Alvarez celebrates the liberating force of a woman’s first time with her lover: “As limbs moved upon limbs, tongues danced in salty skin and hands slipped into secret places, I felt free.” Roselle Pineda uses primal, elemental language to convey the intensity of her longing for the beloved, so that even the reader is swept away by her desire: “She, who comes to me like wildfire, burning incense within me. She, who comes to me like strange rain, cold, trickling beautifully against my parched body, quenching every crevice, every secret of it.”
"The collection also reminds the reader that being a lesbian is more than desire and romance; it also means struggling and defying a world that tries to erase one’s existence."
The collection also reminds the reader that being a lesbian is more than desire and romance; it also means struggling and defying a world that tries to erase one’s existence. Germaine Leonin’s “Daughter” shows a grown woman’s complicated relationship with her mother, who now needs assisted living to survive. The rebels in Kei Valmoria Bughaw’s “Rebirth” face both the sweet possibility of love and the brutal misogyny of state forces, sanctioned and emboldened by the current president. Andyleen Feje’s “Stereotypes 101: How to Write a Pseudo-Lesbian Story” is a clever metafictional piece that lambasts societal standards and expectations of what lesbians and lesbian stories should be. One of the anthology’s standouts is the prize-winning “Welts (Latay sa Laman) written by Melinda Babaran and translated by Jhoanna Lynn Cruz, about a young lesbian choosing the life of an OFW to escape her violent household.
“Wildfire” is a multilingual anthology, with works in English, Filipino, and Hiligaynon. Like “Tingle,” it effectively expresses the rich variety of lesbian life in the Philippines. The first work in the anthology is a poem “Oo, Tibo Ako” by Melinda Babaran, that also doubles as an attack against close-minded, deadbeat dads and boyfriends: “Oo, tibo ako, pero heto ako ngayon, / Tumatayong magulang sa anak na iniwan mo noon.” The persona also addresses the girlfriend abandoned by the boyfriend: “Kaya kahit ang sakit mong mahalin, andito pa rin ako, / Araw-araw kang pinipili, minamahal nang totoo.” Kert Tandog’s “Siya” is an insightful and illuminating essay about what it’s like to grow up non-binary, not falling into the prescribed gender categories of male and female. Libay Cantor’s “June” is a lovely letter from a mother to her daughter, who has two mothers and no lack of love.
In addition to written pieces, “Wildfire” has several worthwhile works of visual art. Shinnen Cahandig’s “My Amaryllis” shows a tender, pastoral image of two girls cuddling amongst the flowers, while Carla Francisco’s “On Secret Identities and the Power of Pride” puts a queer twist to the superhero and their one weakness. The collection concludes with a comic from GALANG Philippines, about an indomitable lesbian who works as an organizer and mediator in a Metro Manila community.
A book doesn’t need multiple writers to convey the variety of life. A singular, skilled writer can craft a collection of meaningful experiences that linger in the reader’s mind, and Anna Felicia Sanchez accomplishes this task beautifully. As we face new variants of COVID that make the possibility of normal life even more remote, it would be easy to fall into nostalgia, to remember the past as a perfect place free of pain and confusion. But “Pics or It Didn’t Happen” channels a force more powerful than nostalgia; in Sanchez’s stories, the past is a different country, full of happiness but full of heartbreak as well. The stories are filled with teenagers and young adults making the kind of embarrassing mistakes we’d like to forget: spilling a drink on a stranger, messing up a class activity, pining over someone unattainable. And Sanchez’s gaze doesn’t flinch when it comes to discussing even heavier topics. A flighty woman returns home to say goodbye to her ailing father; three college students discuss mental illness and suicide. But Sanchez imbibes every success and tragedy with warm humanity. Each character, no matter how grave their mistakes, becomes a living person with dreams and motivations not much different from our own. Her characters are the distillations of our triumphs and failures, rendered even more real and lifelike in her limpid, gorgeous prose.
“It’s beautiful here. That’s why it can hurt,” says Reese, the main character in the collection’s stunning opening story, “Lucky.” Reese is a second-year student at the state university, who befriends two classmates in a literature class. Sanchez paints their daily lives with palpable detail: they eat fish-balls, read books, play pusoy dos, tambay in library steps. She powerfully evokes meaningful, mundane joys of student life before the pandemic, the long, idle hours just wandering around the campus with friends, blissfully unaware that such moments won’t be available forever. But Sanchez avoids easy nostalgia. She delicately but directly confronts the tangled web of mental, economic, and social constraints that infests college life. Reese, Jerome, and Lexy fight depression, unfair expectations, an uncaring educational system. In the closing moments of the story, they talk about their previous suicide attempts. It’s a raw, harrowing scene. But in the end, what remains is friendship — these three people having found each other. Their friendship is not a cure-all for all the suffering they’ve undergone, but it does ferry them to a better place than where they were before. The friendship could lead to beauty and to pain, but Reese recognizes that there could be no beauty without the risk of pain, particularly the pain of losing the beauty over time.
“Tingle,” “Wildfire,” and “Pics or It Didn’t Happen” are all transformative books. Reading them is an immersive opportunity to live the lives of others and to experience the tang and sting of such vivid, ordinary lives. They show the magnitude of the skill of Filipino writers, and the treasury of stories that readers can still discover.