Ruth Elynia S. Mabanglo

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Swimming the Darkness: Subversion in Elynia Mabanglo's Puta

Pia Arboleda, D.A.L.L.

It is not easy to be Elynia Mabanglo. In a world that primarily celebrates what is male, white and wealthy, a Southeast Asian female poet like her has no place. Elynia has dwelt in the darkness, in spaces most people refuse to inhabit. Always, her territory has been that other domain, the world of the displaced. Because her mother died when Elynia was very young, she grew up abandoned, penniless and maltreated.

But Elynia had fight in her. In the early 1970s, when almost all Filipino writers were male, she broke tradition by being the first female poet writing in Filipino to gain national recognition. In a predominantly Catholic society, she dares to defy literary and social conventions by writing about controversial subjects like abortion, menstruation, and female desire, among others. In Mga Liham ni Pinay (Letters from Pinay/Filipina), she narrates the stories of women whose voices have been silenced by poverty, lack of education and displacement.

When I first met her, she was teaching at a private university in the Philippines and I was a new recruit barely out of college. She had a quiet and simple way about her, something I did not expect from someone of her stature. We occupied a small corner of the faculty room where we shared our life story, and where I listened to her reflections about teaching and writing. We shed many a tear, but we also laughed. I recall that Elynia had a laugh that tinkled and echoed through the hallways. Although it was not unexpected, little did I know then that she would become the most celebrated Filipino female poet of her time.

This success, however, did not come easy for Elynia. As she was making waves as a poet, some male poets would trivialize her success and say, "But Elynia, you aren't really a woman, you are one of the boys, right?" The male-centered literary circle did not really accept her as a writer, and pushed her back into the margins. Through her own experience, she knew the plight of women in similar situations. Perhaps it was this other-ness that made it easy for her to articulate the silenced voice of the sex worker in her poem Puta (Whore).

In Philippine literature, sex workers are often portrayed as flat and stereotypical characters-either as evil women who "steal" husbands from their wives, or as misguided women with golden hearts who meet a tragic end. While some literature are sympathetic to the plight of sex workers, as in the popular Filipino song Magdalena, their tone is somewhat condescending, expressing merely pity and hopelessness.

Only Elynia Mabanglo uses the first-person point-of-view to express the sex worker's pains, fears and aspirations. She paints a more realistic and a more complete picture that begins with a description of the puta's workplace-"the dark, hidden corners that are filthy and rank with the smell of beer and cigarette ash;" or the street corner, "the other side."

The poem, however, does not end in a hopeless note. Within it, there are spaces that articulate subversion, a resistance to the situation. Sex workers are usually treated as objects of desire, and the male gaze is always upon them. But in the poem, the puta says, "pinanonood ko lamang sila" (I merely watch them). Here, the gaze is shifted and the positions are reversed. Elynia also shows different aspects of the sex worker. In the poem, the puta is not merely a hawker and provider of sexual fulfillment, she is also a sister, lover, mother and friend. The puta says that her job entails "pakikinig, maraming pakikinig" (listening, much listening). This statement recognizes the puta's different role. She performs a significant function, that of personal adviser/pseudo-therapist. This verse is a defiance of social conventions, an articulation of something people do not want to hear. Elynia recognizes the puta's special ability, her patience and strength of character.

Even her use of the curse word "puta" in literature is defiant. Elynia refuses to envelop the sex worker in euphemisms that mask the real situation. Instead, she unflinchingly tells it like it is, jolting the reader from complacency. The reader is thus forced to face the whore.

Elynia creates hope in the most desperate places. She recognizes the puta's fertility and potential. From her dank and gloomy corner, the puta finds her way in the dark, uses the darkness to her advantage and gains power over it. Swimming the darkness constitutes resistance and subversion. Perhaps this is the same resistance and struggle that Elynia has known in her own life. She did not rest on hope because she has been to a place that knows no hope. Rather, she confronts this despair and rises above it. From the margins, Elynia has dwelt in the darkness, embraced it and gained the power to move away from poverty and ignorance. In swimming the darkness, she has developed a voice that enlightens and inspires.

Works Cited

Arboleda, Pia. "Swimming in the Darkness." Kyoto Journal. 64 (2006): 50-51.