Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano:
Born, raised, and educated in Mindanao, I do not think of Mindanao as stationary. In my stories, I see Mindanao as a concept, I write the stories of the people of Mindanao from my associations, dialogues, interviews, and life with them. Mindanao is so diverse; Davao del Sur cannot claim Mindanao or represent the whole of Mindanao, nor any city represent the totality of Mindanao. I write only a portion of Mindanao, which is why I am very conscious when I represent my cultural community, the Blaan. I specify that I am a Blaan from Davao del Sur to respect the diversity among the Blaans in other provinces such as South Cotabato, Sarangani, Davao Occidental, and General Santos City. Mindanao is multifaceted, dynamic, and very mobile—like a melting pot of the many cultures, including settlers. My mother’s parents were Ibalois from La Trinidad, Benguet who migrated to Davao del Sur in the 1950s. Thus, growing up with my diverse roots, I am aware of the picture of Mindanao in my mind. We (the indigenous people) share Mindanao with our Muslim brothers and sisters, as well as settlers from Luzon and Visayas.
According to the founders of the research center Mindanawon Initiatives for Cultural Dialogue, a Mindanawon consciousness “asserts and celebrates diverse identities and the integrity of creation,” and thus, is a partner of the indigenous peoples in creating a real picture of Mindanao. They are advocates who share the same passion in promoting and protecting our right to self-determination. Data from the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples (NCIP) in 2012 show that sixty per cent of the Filipino IPs live in Mindanao, a Mindanawon represents what other Filipinos should also stand for, that is, to protect the rights of Mindanaoans, the people who live in Mindanao. Since Mindanao has been portrayed negatively in the media, a Mindanawon knows better. More than an advocate or ally of Mindanaoans, Mindanawons are also fellow Filipinos who believe in the many potentials of Mindanao–culture, arts, tourism, history, people, etc.
On the Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) required by the NCIP, some of my fellow indigenous researchers and cultural workers believe that IPs going through the process of securing FPIC is plain irrational. The indigenous writers and researchers must not be treated like outsiders who need to go through the pains and filters of the backbreaking process of the NCIP for researchers and writers. As there are few IP researchers and writers, it would not hurt the Commission to give privileges to IP researchers especially in researching or writing for their own cultural communities. If the FPIC is a safeguard of the indigenous cultural communities, do we need to safeguard our ICCs from ourselves? Perhaps the solution to that is consultation and evaluation/review of the FPIC as a process. Funny that the Commission has given so much attention in red tagging the term “lumad” without even acting on the more pressing issues, including the FPIC, abuses and loopholes in the ownership of ancestral domains, killings of IP leaders, IP education, and promotion of the use of mother tongue. To add, Mother Tongue – Based Multilingual Education (MTB-MLE) is problematic because the IP learners do not have materials written in their mother tongue. In Matanao, Davao del Sur, the materials provided by the Department of Education are all in Sinugbuanong Binisaya. These issues are only few of the real concerns that we call on the NCIP and our Mindanawon allies to act and stand for what is best for Mindanao and its people.
There are promising stories of indigenous people that must be written and read. As a Blaan writer, I am humbled and overwhelmed by the support that I received when I started writing. Today, I give back to my cultural community by helping and empowering the IP youth through conducting workshops and sharing what I have. They say that writing is a privilege and a challenge, especially if you’re a woman and a mother, especially an indigenous woman. I use my little privileges to encourage my fellow indigenous people to stand firm and fight for our rights during this time of misrepresentation and disinformation. We need to represent Mindanao and its stories and faces.
Jade Mark Capiñanes:
Do I consider myself Mindanawon?
The short answer: yes, of course. I’ve lived in Mindanao all my life.
But it’s not that straightforward, is it? So, I also have a long answer.
Take my flash fiction collection How to Grieve. One may say the work isn’t Mindanawon because they don’t heavily feature people and events and things one often associates with Mindanao. Instead of, say, the life of the Lumad or life in Davao under Duterte—which Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano and John Bengan, respectively, deftly depict and deconstruct in their works—my stories revolve around, among others, riding a taxi and counting hotdogs in your Jolly Spaghetti. There’s even only one mention of any geographical marker in the book—Davao City—and it’s in the final story at that. How is that Mindanawon?
There’s no doubt that Serrano-Quijano’s and Bengan’s work are admirable and important, but I’ve always felt there’s something restrictive, even oppressive, in the idea that as a Mindanawon writer I must only write about people and events and things one—usually one not living here—often associates with Mindanao. But I can’t write like Serrano-Quijano and Bengan. Why? Simply because I’m not them. What I’m trying to say is that living as a Blaan or living in constant fear of the Davao Death Squad are Mindanawon, but Mindanawons can also have emotional breakdowns in the taxi or in front of their spaghetti.
I’d also like to think that my being Mindanawon reveals itself not in the content but in the form of my writings. Isn’t the way a writer structures their stories a direct result or manifestation of the kind of language or reality they’re living in?
My mother has Mandaya and Kagan blood. My father’s Ilonggo. I can’t speak my mother’s language, and I learned my father’s only when I was a teenager. As a Catholic child raised in a Tausug community in Davao City, I expressed myself in Binisaya and Tausug. Today I still speak all the languages I mentioned, but I write and think mostly in English or Filipino or a peculiar mixture of both. And if you live in Mindanao, you’ll know this linguistic and cultural diversity and hybridity aren’t uncommon.
Thus, instead of thinking of Mindanawon identity as something pure or singular, I think of mine as something provisional and improvisational. When I was at a family reunion on my father’s side a few years ago, for example, my brain automatically went Hiligaynon mode. On the other hand, when I’m talking to my students, who are Gen Z and Davao “conyos,” I also catch myself speaking their language, which I can only describe as like honey flowing on sandpaper.
Similarly, when I wrote the stories in How to Grieve, my primary consideration was the form each story must take on: in what “language” can I best express the story? That’s why, if you read my book—please do—you’ll find a few traditionally constructed narratives, but you’ll also come across a how-to article, a list, a letter, a questionnaire, an advice column, a koan, a lyric, or an academic passage or a combination of both, etc.
This kind of fluidity—this sort of constant transformation or translation—is what defines my identity and what’s at the heart of my work. And this is what makes me Mindanawon.
The stories in Armor are based on my own experiences of living in Davao City from the mid ’90s to the 2000s. I am also queer, and so many of the characters in the stories are queer, trying to navigate a specifically local queer experience or being a “bayot” in a place like Davao. A small-time drug dealer wants to compete in another Miss Gay pageant, even if he might get assassinated. A high school boy discovers mIRC and commits what these days is called “catfishing.” A young man in the university begins a relationship with someone he meets at the men’s dorm; meanwhile his father, who has been missing for years, may have been executed. While they have personal troubles, they also live in a strange environment: they find themselves in a supposedly peaceful place where violence occurs every day. I’m referring to the summary killings that happened in those two decades.
While writing, I was quite aware of the fact that I was setting the stories in Davao. The place in the stories is not exactly Davao City, of course, because it is fictive, imagined. But at the same time, the stories are informed by an insight into a real place. I was not born here; my family moved to Davao when I was very young. In the first three stories in Armor—“Higher Orders,” “At the River,” “Slaughter Story”—I was trying to reconcile how I’m adapting to a new home with how I’m seeing the place from this position of having just arrived, the shock of encounter between a landscape and myself.
It took me seventeen years to write this book, and so when I was writing the rest of the stories, I already had an understanding of what it means to write about Mindanao. The histories of Mindanao, its growth, its continuing struggles, I would see, influence our literature. I’d become aware that these conflicts don’t happen in isolation; they are connected. History doesn’t really pass. It’s not really in the past. I had this in mind when I worked on the stories. For instance, I wrote a story about kids rapping about the killings as a solution to crime. This is actually true. I met these kids a few years ago while eating kebab somewhere downtown. I tried to consider what kind of behavior a character would have, what decisions they would make in particular scenarios if they were exposed to this reality.
Later, I was able to read stories by authors from Davao and other places in Mindanao. At the beginning, I didn’t really see a link with other writers. It was only later, when I got to read their work, that I recognized the resemblance; they turned their attention to how political volatility clashes with quotidian lives. I’m thinking of Macario D. Tiu’s young guerrillas in his book Sky Rose, Aida Rivera-Ford’s stories about settler girls and women, or stories like Anthony Tan’s “The Cargo,” which is about a man who sees that the cost of survival in their village is revenge. I’d like to imagine that my fiction responds to these works. I would agree if someone said that what I write is “Mindanao fiction.” The stories do reference a part of Davao’s history.
The time Armor covers was some time ago, but I feel that little has changed. Maybe there are signs of change, or “progress,” in the form of new buildings here, road constructions there—Davao was less dusty then, definitely less congested—but the killings never stopped. What happened in the last six years grabbed the nation’s attention and put Davao in everyone’s frequency for a different reason. What I saw then was that people here had been inured to the violence. We’ve now seen an entire country getting desensitized. There is outrage, but there’s plenty of condoning.
However, if there is a fiction about Mindanao that I want to write against, it’s the one about people here being blind followers. This book is my way of bearing witness to the things that have confounded, horrified, or saddened me about living here, but also the moments that made me cautiously hopeful, because when you read the stories, you’ll see that the characters have a lot of drive and attitude, even when they are facing great danger.
Under the auspices of the independent publisher Everything’s Fine, the Davao Writers Guild participated in the Mindanao Book Fair held in Abreeza Mall on March 17-19, 2023. On March 19, we held a panel entitled “Mindanao Fictions” featuring John Bengan (Armor, 2022, Ateneo de Manila University Press), Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano (Dili Pwede Mogawas ug ubang mga Sugilanon, 2022, Ateneo de Davao University), and Jade Mark Capiñanes (How to Grieve, 2022, Everything’s Fine). Moderated by DWG President Jhoanna Lynn Cruz, the authors discussed how they engage with Mindanao as the site of their creativity and vision. Watch the video archive here: https://youtu.be/GGKRbg9tGeY