Gantala Press and Small Press Activism in the Philippines

Good afternoon, everyone, thank you for having me here.

In the Philippines, I work in a private, corporate-owned library in Makati City, the central business district of Metro Manila. My job is handling the research and display of our collections which are composed of books, manuscripts, photos, music, films, and other archival materials on the Philippines. Actually, that is the main reason why I am in the United States for six months: I have been given the opportunity by the Asian Cultural Council to undergo “professional development” by observing how American libraries and archives set up exhibitions and how such exhibitions contribute to the shaping of public history. I am specifically interested in the idea of expanding public history to include “the little people,” the voiceless ones, those you won’t often see in museums – or when you do see them in museums, are portrayed as nameless, naked barbarians with zero subjectivity. As I have often experienced in my job, it is always the privileged who have the capacity to tell their history and have their version of history remembered. Who can afford to set up a commemorative exhibition in a private museum? More often than not, it is the rich political families, those who are able to keep their mementos in good condition, those who have the time and inclination to collect books and documents and photographs, stamps and letters and maps.

But I am honored to be here in Madison today to talk about feminist publishing, which actually has its own strong potential for “shaping public history.” After all, to publish is, first and foremost, to make things public. With feminist publishing, as with exhibition making, we try to widen what we call spaces of representation, to create new subjectivities or empower them. We do this through direct participation rather than through mediation, which are both processes or approaches in creating art. Mediation will bring about statements like, “I will speak for the oppressed” or, “I am the voice of my generation.” We at Gantala Press try to directly engage with issues and not simply mediate. Mediators usually determine the language and system of knowledge to be used in the act of mediation or narration. But with direct participation, with letting the subject speak for herself, with speaking with the subject as a subject yourself, knowledge becomes more dynamic, because the narrative is not being controlled or told by only one person or group. So when dynamic narratives manage to create or empower subjectivities, all the participants benefit from this change, not just the artist.

In short, we want to strengthen women’s participation in public memory-keeping and meaning-making, because the history that is still being told and remembered is one that is largely shaped by men and is thus beneficial to men, often at the expense of women.

I have been working in the library for 10 years now. I appreciate my job; my work both as a poet and a publisher is deeply informed by everything I have learned about Philippine history and culture at the library, and my energy in doing these three different disciplines all at the same time is harnessed by the practical advantages (and disadvantages) of being employed. Anyway, in 2015, on my seventh year of employment, I had finished writing a new collection of poems on women in history, myth, and literature. I searched for a feminist publishing house in the Philippines that could publish my work, something like Zubaan Books or Virago or The Feminist Press. I didn’t find any. There were a lot of women’s groups that focused on various causes, but strangely, none that called itself feminist. If these groups published, it was mostly brochures or reports related to their advocacy. They wouldn’t publish literary works like poetry; besides, what was poetry? No one ever reads poetry anymore.

There were several women’s writing collectives in the late 1980s to the 1990s, but all had folded after publishing one or two anthologies. These collectives included WOMEN or Women in Media Now, Pilipina, and Women Involved in Creating Cultural Alternatives or WICCA. Through the Babaylan Women’s Publishing Collective, the Institute of Women’s Studies of St Scholastica’s College has published canonic literary works by women such as Rosario Cruz Lucero’s Herstory, a series of autobiographical essays; and Joi Barrios’ collection of poetry, Ang Pagiging Babae ay Pamumuhay sa Panahon ng Digma (To be a woman is to live in a time of war). However, it seems that the Institute has been less active in publishing in recent years.

There are still the women studies programs in universities and colleges, but the most they could do was to include a few poems in their academic journals. I didn’t even consider submitting to the large publishing houses, because it takes them years to produce a book IF it gets accepted. More importantly, who was I to even dream of being published? I’m nobody in the so-called Philippine literary scene, which revolves around literary and book awards; literary cliques and societies; writing conferences, seminars, or workshops; graduate degrees and PhDs (foreign ones preferred); and of course, being published by the big publishers.

So I thought, what if I just set up my own women’s press? I could probably do it, since I had a regular job, was single, and childless. In my quest for a local women’s press I had discovered that there were very few such presses in Southeast Asia or Asia. In fact, I couldn’t name one off the top of my head except for Zubaan Books, which was founded by Urvashi Butalia. Butalia also set up the first feminist press in India in 1984, the year I was born. I had been reading a lot on India in those days and I was truly inspired and enamored by Butalia. I thought that if she could open a feminist press in India, perhaps I could, too, in the Philippines.

I posted a half-serious call for collaborators on Facebook, and was pleasantly surprised when a lot of female and male friends expressed their interest and encouragement. Which is not to say that we did (do) not have detractors. Some of the first questions we were often asked were: why won’t you accept male members or publish feminist works by men? Why are you being exclusive to women? Aren’t you just being reverse sexists? (Which is the funniest.) Anyway, our answer to those was something like this:

Men who want to be feminists do not need to be given a space in feminism.

They need 2 take the space they have in society & make it feminist. (Kelley Temple)

This means organizing literary or writing workshops and seminars that have a gender-balanced panel (although we are suspicious of the very existence of “workshops,” which depend on specific people’s “mastery” and “expertise”); actively seeking to include more women’s works in academic journals or literary anthologies; or simply refraining from producing macho texts and, in their everyday dealings with women, from harassing them. As in many countries, sexual harassment and abuse are problems that are not being talked about in the Philippines, even within the art, writing, and academic circles which all overlap. But the women do write about the abuse they experience. They just need to let their stories be known.

We had to facilitate small writing and art seminars in order to afford printing our first literary anthology and providing a small fee to our contributors, because we believe in putting value to any creative work, more so to women’s work. Many publishers in the Philippines, including the big ones, do not pay their contributors properly, not even a complimentary copy of the book at times. The mindset is that an author should be grateful for even being published. We want to change that, even if we could only provide a token contributor’s fee. (More often than not, though, our contributors waive their fees as a gesture of support and solidarity.) We have just gotten our feet wet in the royalties system in our latest komix project and we have yet to see how we can sustain it.

On Women’s Month in 2017, we formally launched Gantala Press and our first multilingual, multi-genre literary anthology, Danas (or Experience). Apart from some technical problems on printing, we were proud of how the book turned out, of how we were able to include works on rarely discussed or anthologized topics such as lesbian romance, the rape of indigenous children, being biracial in the Philippines, female friendship, or political imprisonment. Filipinas from all over the Philippines and the United States submitted their work, demonstrating a kind of hunger for this kind of publication. An important part of the book is our interview with the poet Ruth Elynia Mabanglo, where she recounts how she was asked or advised by male poets to “leave the sex between the legs” when she tried to discuss eroticism and poetics in a public lecture in the 1990s. It was as if, as a female writer, she was expected to just write about “female” or “feminine” topics. Mabanglo was once described by a male writer as “the female poet with balls.”

The introduction of Danas also outlines a history of women’s writing in the Philippines, mentioning figures like Leona Florentino of the Ilocos region. Florentino was a true poet of the people – her neighbors often commissioned her to write poems for birthdays or weddings. Because her poems were usually just given away, and because publishing wasn’t really a concern for woman writers in the 19th century, her works were never published during her lifetime. It took her progressive son, the labor leader Isabelo de los Reyes, to have her poems exhibited in the 1899 Paris Exposition and included in the International Library of the Works of Women. De los Reyes estimated that Florentino’s works would have completed 10 volumes if it were compiled.

Aside from Florentino, there was also Magdalena Jalandoni in the Visayas, who never finished high school but who has produced hundreds of writings. She started writing corridos or ballads at age 10, selling her works in the market so she could buy dolls for her diorama theater plays. She wrote her first novel at age 15 and never stopped writing until her death. She remains to be one of the most prolific writers in the Philippines, having written 24 (some say 36) complete novels which were published serially in magazines.

The scholar Dolores Feria wrote of Jalandoni: “Her death [at 87] did not elicit much comment outside of Iloilo for she belonged to no school of letters, she was unknown to readers of English or Pilipino, organizations did not interest her, and as for writer’s workshops, the concept behind such ventures would have puzzled her, and she had no literary barkada [or clique] to fall back on.” And yet, Jalandoni was one of the few Filipinas who truly lived as a full-time writer.

As we delved deeper into the history of women’s writing in the Philippines, we discovered that women have always been publishing, self-publishing, and writing. During the Spanish colonization of the country, Pampanga was briefly the administrative capital; it was also a vibrant center of culture perhaps up until the eruption of Mt Pinatubo in 1991 when lahar buried the province’s history and way of life. Actually, Pampanga, also the main base of the Hukbong Bayan Laban sa Hapon in World War II, is unique because up to now, it continues the tradition of having their own poets laureate. Now, the first Pampanga native to ever produce a book was a woman, Luisa Gonzaga de Leon, in 1844. And in the mid-20th century, a writer named Rosario Tuazon-Baluyut, herself a poet laureate, would take the bus to Manila to have her romance stories printed there, before returning to her province to sell her books in town fiestas.

Towards the end of the last century, many big publishers have begun to hire women as directors, editors, and writers, so that in the 1990s to the early 2000s there was a surge of anthologies of women’s writings. Among these were In the name of the mother: 100 years of Philippine feminist poetry; Forbidden Fruit: women write the erotic; and Songs of ourselves: Writings by Filipino women in English (which also has a counterpart for writers in Filipino). Women have also served as directors of national writing workshops, where many aspiring writers first come to know of the traditional literary world. Women teach the language subjects in elementary and high school, and literature courses in college.

This network among the academe and the literary and publishing industries owe a lot to the Americans’ introduction of the public education system to the country in the early 1900s. Previously, only men had the privilege of entering formal schools, where the classes were conducted in Spanish. English served as an equalizing measure among the sexes. With the introduction of English, both men and women had to learn a new language and a new world together, at the same time. And as soon as the women learned the language, they really used it for their own purposes. Angela Manalang-Gloria collected her poems into a book and managed to publish it before the war; Paz Marquez-Benitez’ short story, “Dead Stars,” is often anthologized in textbooks and taught in classes in literature and English; women also self-published magazines like Woman’s Outlook and Woman’s Home Journal where they advocated for various causes, including independence from the United States. The National Federation of Women’s Clubs has widely utilized the media in successfully campaigning for woman suffrage beginning in the 1910s up to 1937, when the law was finally signed.

However, one century later, we are still left to wonder: Why are there only a handful of women my age who have come up with their own book of poems in the vernacular? Why is there only one woman, a writer in English, in the roster of National Artists for Literature? (Why are there still National Artists anyway?) Why are writing workshops and literary seminars continuously dominated by male panelists, even if a lot of the times, majority of the participants are female?

In an attempt to respond to those questions, we helped organize a Women & Queer edition of Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX), a small press expo initiated seven years ago by another independent small press, the Youth and Beauty Brigade. There was a forum on gender and small press publishing; and the selling of independently produced books, zines, comics, and stickers, stuff that you wouldn’t find in a mainstream bookstore. In the Philippines, the consignment fee in small bookstores is 30%. The big stores will sell your product at 40% consignment fee or more. That is why alternative venues like small press expos or pop-up fairs that are organized by artists and creators themselves are truly important spaces for small publishers and independent creators, because majority or all of their earnings will go directly to them.

BLTX Women & Queer was held in May, 2017. Later that month, the Marawi Siege escalated, when the government declared Martial Law in the southern island of Mindanao and implemented bombings and airstrikes to capture so-called ISIS-inspired homegrown terrorists in the Islamic City of Marawi. Friends began calling for donations for the thousands of evacuees. My best friend specifically called for toys and diapers for babies. She tried organizing a donation drive for milk, but discovered that the government strongly encourages breastfeeding and has strict laws about donating formula milk. In short, we were beginning to realize that women IDPs or internally displaced persons, particularly Meranaw women, had specific needs that were being ignored or that the general public knew nothing about.

One of the contributors to our first anthology was a Meranaw author named Almayrah Tiburon, whose essay in Danas is an anthropological description of a traditional Meranaw wedding. The essay shows that in Meranaw culture, it is not two individuals who get married, but two clans or families. That is why, the conflict in Marawi should also be understood in terms of clan relationship. A UNICEF study shows that membership in insurgent groups in Mindanao largely depend on the influence of family members and the nature of indoctrination.

With Almayrah Tiburon, we actually knew someone, we had a sister in the struggle, who was caught in the conflict. So we started to think of what we could do as a press aside from simply donating relief goods or money. Thus, we organized an information and fundraising drive that gathered women to talk about the situation in Mindanao. We titled this project after Laoanen, the princess in the Meranaw epic Darangen. People would know of the Darangen hero, Bantogen, but not of his sister, who is called the Princess of Two Kingdoms. We also showed a documentary film by Adjani Arumpac which traces the religious conflict in Mindanao to the historical problem of those in power seizing land from Muslims and the indigenous peoples. We released short videos (edited by Ms Arumpac) as a way of spreading information and promoting awareness on how the conflict was truly affecting the people.

We were able to raise around Php 100,000.00 (about USD 1,800) that went to several feeding programs for evacuees. We also put together an anthology of essays on the Marawi situation, as a way of documenting and understanding this upheaval from the perspective of women. Likewise, the Laoanen project gave way to the publication of a cookbook featuring Meranaw recipes and memories of Marawi. The author is a Meranaw whose home was among those that were bombed in the siege. Connected to all these was a project entitled “Food for Peace,” initiated by Me & My Veg Mouth and Good Food Community, two groups that are also led by women. Food for Peace presented a solidarity meal featuring Meranaw cuisine. The meal was accompanied by a forum on culture, conflict, and community.

Our involvement in the Marawi situation has truly politicized the press. Previously, we only wanted to publish literary works by women and were even hesitant to call Gantala a feminist press. Even among us, there were members who were uncomfortable with the word feminist. They thought that feminism was about women trying to dominate men or their loving husbands, or that women were really strong and did not need such a fancy, scary word for what they were doing. There were also those who were intimidated by the term. What did it mean to be a feminist? What did it mean to be a feminist press? For months, we played safe by calling Gantala Press a “women’s press.” We did not want to alienate our non-feminist members, especially since we were a small group, we were all volunteers, and we couldn’t afford to lose anyone’s support.

But Marawi happened, as did the government’s so-called war on drugs, which has killed thousands of poor folk, including women and children. The image of wives sweeping their husbands’ blood towards the street gutter has become common. Likewise, the president has increasingly mocked, insulted, and made fun of women in public. Rape jokes from the president were becoming as normal as fake news. And he just wouldn’t stop. In short, the times were strongly pushing us towards politicization and militancy. And we felt that the least we could do was to call ourselves feminist.

Anyway, we at Gantala Press – because some of our members have been activists since they were students and because of the others’ increasing political awareness – understand and believe that women’s struggle is tightly intertwined with class struggle. Feminism is necessary as long as class struggle is necessary. As Anne McClintock has so wonderfully articulated, “Women who are not empowered to organize during the struggle will not be empowered to organize after the struggle. If nationalism is not transformed by an analysis of gender power, the nation-state will be a repository of male hopes, male aspirations, and male privilege.”

That is why we are also aware that writing or publishing can only do so much; that we shouldn’t be writing or publishing only for the sake of writing and publishing. Increasingly, our publications are becoming mere instruments of protest and camaraderie with other marginalized women, rather than simply creative products or commodities. A substantial percentage of our sales always goes to various causes, such as contributing to the needs of internally-displaced persons, children of peasants, or women peasant groups. We have recently published an anthology of lesbian komix, and a considerable part of the earnings will be donated to a couple of causes and pay for royalties of the artist-contributors. The rest that we’ll earn will help print our next books, which include the following: 1) another set of writings on the Marawi Siege, written mostly by Meranaw or Mindanawon women (or women of Mindanao); 2) the second volume of a collection of writings by former migrant women; and 3) a new anthology on women and violence in all its forms. We are currently looking to publish more poetry and more history-oriented works, such as the stories of peasant women.

As with any passion project, our work is not without difficulty. A big challenge is really the lack of a physical space where we can meet and discuss, hold forums and workshops, store and sell our books. Likewise, we are a purely voluntary group of individuals who could only commit so much time, money, and energy to our various activities. All of us have full-time jobs and most of the active members have families of their own. Our activities involve a lot of selling in pop-up stores or small press fairs across Metro Manila. Many times, our sales for the day do not even match what we have spent for transportation. Because we do not have any official staff, we also find it hard to keep a proper account of our books and sales.

But again, as with any passion project, on the other side of the coin are advantages and opportunities. Our lack of physical space has made us more mobile. Because we are constantly looking for places to sell our merchandise, we get to meet a lot of groups and communities. For instance, on Pride Month, we shared a selling booth with an organization that is helping oppressed factory workers. In August, we will be selling our lesbian komiks in a Romance Convention, then in an indie fair, then in a Japanese otaku convention, with the help of a Yuri group (Yuri is the girl-love genre of Japanese manga). But we also constantly struggle with having to sell in major fairs or conventions that are held in buildings owned by abusive corporations. We are forever grateful to the small independent bookstores that barely survive in this economic and cultural climate, and have to work twice or thrice as hard in selling local publications.

All our publications, zine-making workshops and talks, or political statements which we release in response to certain issues, have been attracting students to come to us as a resource on independent publishing and feminism. We take these opportunities very seriously. Aside from being opportunities to expand discourse, we are also able to constantly reflect about our own practice and rationale for doing things.

The other half of Gantala Press is really the solidarity we are forging with other groups and women and the spaces and communities that are created or enlarged as a result of this. In March, we organized the first all-women small press expo at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, where a lot of young and first-time creators participated for free. It was a space where we felt that it was okay to be feminine and feminist; where women’s works were central and did not have to compete with merchandise that were produced by male friends and allies. Since early this year we have also expanded Food for Peace into a series of discussions on food and sustainable agriculture, covering topics such as indigenous farming and the rice crisis. Farmers make up 75% of the Philippine population, but they suffer the direst conditions: a backward agricultural industry; the landlord-comprador system which embroils the tillers deeper and deeper into debt as well as makes them poorer and poorer; the lack of a genuine agrarian reform program that should give the farmers the land that they deserve; the aggressive use of the police and military by large corporations that want to convert agricultural land to commercial land. There are many other issues. If you’re a woman farmer, you experience all of these problems on top of the other common problems of being a woman: the expectation that you have to take care of the house and the family, for example; or domestic abuse, marital rape, or incest.

The more books we produce, the more our network of creative women grows. We fervently hope that this will increase the number of women working on books, whether as writers, illustrators, or designers. But more importantly, we hope that this will encourage more women to express themselves creatively, whether or not they have had formal training in the arts. We believe that anyone can write or draw; that there is no one or best way of saying things. Thus, when we ask certain women to write for us, we do so not on the basis of their skill as creative writers, but on their wisdom as women who have gone through specific experiences and can share things in a way that only they can. For instance, in Danas there is a poem which we are sure will never be considered even in a writing workshop. (By the way, writing workshops in the Philippines are increasingly catering to the serious or professional writers rather than the amateur ones.) From a (western) literary point of view, the poem commits a lot of sins a poem could: having vague metaphors or weird enjambments, or lacking “organic unity.” But we included it in our anthology because it was written by a young student whose life was interrupted when she was arrested and jailed as a political prisoner, on trumped-up charges.

I am not sure how to describe the chaos and misery that are currently engulfing the motherland. Militarization is displacing hundreds of indigenous peoples, farmers, and poor Filipinos. Activists and community leaders are being jailed and killed, such as 27-year-old indigenous peasant activist Beverly Geronimo, who was gunned by the military in broad daylight along with her daughter. The government wields both the justice system and media in silencing and disempowering their opposition, most of whom are women, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the Social Welfare Secretary, Senator Leila De Lima who has been very vocal against Duterte’s War on Drugs. As each day passes, it becomes increasingly difficult for Filipinos both in the urban and rural areas to lead a normal life or earn a decent living, either because the military has occupied their schools and community spaces or because the prices of basic services and commodities have sharply increased. The working conditions in farms and factories are deplorable. Recent workers’ protests against large food-related corporations have again exposed the 12-hour work week at below minimum wage, and on a contractual basis. The government is blatantly revising history by openly supporting the son of the former dictator in his quest to become the next president of the Philippines. The government is also making a lot of business deals with the Chinese in, for example, rebuilding and rehabilitating Marawi without consulting the local people. Just a few months ago, the government removed the Comfort Woman statue from its public space in the middle of the night, without any explanations. And patriarchy is still very much entrenched in Filipino culture that when the president was criticized for asking for a kiss from a woman in South Korea, women were among his most rabid defenders, blaming the victim for supposedly wanting it or for not protesting.

Again, there is only so much that literature and publishing can do. As the poet Conchitina Cruz insists, “More urgently, we need to put our bodies out on the streets, in protest actions that in no uncertain terms protect the facts of our history from erasure.” She recognizes that while writing poetry is a form of resistance to the status quo and that protest poetry in particular can be a tool for consciousness-raising and mobilization, writing poetry is still “unequal to marching on the streets.” We believe that this too applies to publishing. The truth is that we are only able to publish quite regularly because half the time, we also organize cookouts and fundraisers and attend protest rallies with sisters from other groups. With each event where we are physically present, we realize more and more that there is so much to tell, so much that needs to be made public. Protest is the fuel of our press.

My book of poems did not end up being published by Gantala Press but by another independent poetry collective, High Chair. I would like to think of this as a way for male writers of my generation to help expand social spaces and make them feminist. Thank you; maraming salamat po.

Edited version of a talk delivered by Faye Cura at the Southeast Asian Studies Summer Institute, University of Wisconsin-Madison, July 16, 2018

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.