by Thelma E. Arambulo
Undoubtedly, Estrella D. Alfon holds center stage when one talks of Cebu women writers. From her first published story in the Graphic in 1935 to the numerous literary prizes she won, she asserted herself in a field where even the finest of women writers (e.g., Edith Tiempo, Aida Rivera-Ford, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Kerima Polotan, Linda Ty-Casper, Ninotchka Rosca) tend to be underrated and simply outnumbered. CCP’s Ani magazine’s feminist issue (Vol. II, No. 1, 1988 (is dedicated to her as “writer, mother, sister, friend.” Why, then, have there been very few anthologies of her works? Magnificence and Other Stories, published in 1960, is about all that comes to mind when one thinks of Alfon. How many of the existing critical works, as well as mixed anthologies on Philippine literature in English, actually failed to include her?
Alfon makes the task of the critic less difficult because she is primarily a storyteller who doesn’t allow considerations of craft to stand in the way of her narration. There is a simple, guileless quality in her fiction. This is in contrast to Gilda Cordero-Fernando, who is the more craft-conscious, sophisticated writer. Alfon’s characters, mostly drawn from the lower middle class, have fewer masks. They are simple, common folk observed as they go through their day-to-day struggles to keep heart and soul and body together. The sense of community is very strong in an Alfon story. This gives a special warmth to the stories. It is largely absent in the Cordero-Fernando stories, where the characters tend to be isolated individuals living in urban settings. The strongly autobiographical elements in Alfon’s works, especially in the Espeleta stories, produce “straight from the heart” effects which make her fiction that much more personal and intimate, especially to the female reader.
The Alfon fictional world is defined by family relationships: between parents (especially the mother) and children, women and lovers, wife and husband, women and their female friends. Where Alfon explores the mother-child relationship, her stories become most powerful and intriguing. “Magnificence” is unmatched for its quiet intensity, its ability to stop short of spelling out its potential horrors. The mother grows larger than life. “Anguish” explores the notion of contamination, and not just of leprosy, as do a number of other stories dwelling on children paying for their father’s sins. Perhaps because Alfon lived in Compostela, where the leprosarium used to be situated, the common fear of contamination frequently surfaces in her stories. But it is not just leprosy. It is, at times, licentious men infecting their wives’ and children’s lives; war conceived and fought by men infecting domestic life, separating wives from husbands, fathers from children, sisters from brothers, mothers from sons; small-town moral values alienating young people.
An added dimension is provided by her use of Espeleta as a community which functions not just as place setting but as character, too. The Espeleta neighbors become a Greek chorus in the life unfolding before the eyes of Alfon, who grew up in that recognizable San Nicolas/Pasil district of Cebu City.
Alfon was one writer who unashamedly drew from her own real-life experiences. In some stories, the first-person narrator is “Estrella” or “Esther.” She is not just a writer, but one who consciously refers to her act of writing the stories. In other stories, Alfon is still easily identifiable in her first-person reminiscences of the past: evacuation during the Japanese occupation; estrangement from a husband; life after the war. In the Espeleta stories, Alfon uses the editorial “we” to indicate that as a member of that community, she shares their feelings and responses towards the inidents in the story. But she sometimes slips back to being a first-person narrator. The impression is that although she shares the sentiments of her neighbors, she is still a distinct personality who detaches her self from the scene in order to understand it better. This device of separating herself as narrator from the other characters is contained within the larger strategy of distantiation?that of the writer from her strongly autobiographical material.
Alfon’s fictional world is largely a world of women and children, elements traditionally marginalized by literary criticism. The female protagonists in Alfon’s stories range from the madwoman on the steeple who blames God for her stillborn baby, to the ignorant servant girl who clings to her romantic notions of an ideal man; from the magnificent mother who saves her daughter from a sexual pervert to an Espeleta woman on whom the gods choose to pour down one misfortune after the other.
All of these women have one thing in common?they can be perceived as victims in that they are treated more as objects rather than as subjects. In many stories, this perception comes from the women themselves. The cultural tradition of male domination has fostered the distinction between male as subject (superior, active agent) and female as object (inferior, passive object of man’s action and intention), a distinction which has been accepted as part of the natural, even divine, order by most men and women. Consequently women tend to measure themselves in terms of their acceptability to men. Overtly, women do not question the validity of such notions. They take comfort in the notion of women and men complementing each other; it is seen as a form of equality.
Alfon offers the reader women characters: some strong, some weak, most stoic; many victims, a few overcoming initial disadvantages bequeathed to them by nature and nurture. Understandably, she narrates these women’s lives with minimal authorial intervention. Her narrators are sympathetic, but just as reconciled to these women’s lot. Because her characters do not question, do not protest (except the madwoman on the steeple), neither does the narrator. She can only weep for them and tell their stories with quiet understanding.
But a rereading of the Alfon stories can ferret out the more intricate questions underlying the dilemmas of her women characters. The questions lurk within the stories, but the narrators never allow them to surface. Could the motives behind their attitudes and their responses to life situations perhaps be found in a psychological order reinforced by a Spanish-Christian feudalistic tradition? If the Filipino has been a colonial subject for generations, how much more so the Filipino woman? What dichotomies between male and female are at play in these stories? Are these dichotomies real or artificial? Does one require the other for distinction, even definition?
Such a re-reading of Alfon’s stories reveals certain insights that tend to be glossed over in more traditional interpretations. Her female protagonists are examples of woman as a “damaged culture.” Maring in “The Gentle Rain” suffers the loss of a mother, the betrayal of a lover, the ostracism of the neighborhood, but the narrator sees her story as “not the story of a girl who was not moral. It is the story of a girl who was not happy.” In “Mill of the Gods” Martha offers a prayer of thanksgiving when her father, a habitual womanizer, dies. She prefers the role of a mistress to that of wife, seeing as how her mother had suffered all her life. In “Water From the Well,” Tinang exchanges an independent life for the security of marriage; this elicits an ambivalent response from the narrator. In “Compostela,” while the narrator’s soldier-husband assumed the supposedly nobler task of defending the motherland, she is left with the perceived to be less glorious task of ensuring her family’s survival. But she draws strength from being both mother and father to her son. War, a traditionally male preoccupation, is seen as senseless and brutal. It disrupts, even destroys family and community life, as well as devastates the physical landscape, reducing cities to rubble and the towns to evacuation centers.
“Magnificence,” Alfon’s most popularly anthologized story, is a finely woven text which provides excellent insights into the primacy of the mother-daughter bond as well as into the psychological oppression of women and children, especially daughters, which emerges into the light of consciousness once the mask of false chivalry is wrenched away.
For centuries, women have been lulled into a false sense of security by a chivalric code (the origin of which can be traced back to feudal periods in history), which claims to protect the helpless woman even as it deepens her psychological, political and economic dependence on the man. The subservience of woman is the price she willingly and even happily pays for the attention and protection of man.
A similar deception takes place in “Magnificence.” The man’s quiet, gentle, sincere, benevolent manner masks his sexual perversion. He exploits the children’s fondness for pencils, as well as the family’s limited means, in order to successfully win their trust. The deception is so clever and complete (perhaps even to himself, since he could very well have genuinely liked them and turned to them, having no family of his own) that even the mother is initially fooled. Only the father feels irritated by the man’s gestures, not because the suspects the latter of being ill-motivated, but perhaps because the father is made more painfully conscious that he cannot afford to buy those things for his children. His male ego is twice threatened: his wife approves of this other man and even initially defends him against her husband’s suspicions; and his role as chief provider of his family’s needs is undermined, no matter the fact that only pencils are involved here. Both his wife and his children enjoy this man’s visits.
That the man is a sexual pervert makes the incident even more significant. The sexual relationship between male and female has been seen as the basic ground for the physical and psychological domination of the male over the female. Freud’s theories on sexuality and gender-formation are essential to his larger theory on the development of personality. Feminists have always seen in the phenomena of sexual abuse (e.g., rape, prostitution, pornography) open manifestations of the oppression of women and children in a patriarchal social order. The extent of the man’s sexual perversion in the story is not made explicit; it is not his story to begin with. But the implications of pedophiliac tendencies are sufficient proof.
The magnificence of the mother, who protects her daughter from not only a premature but also a perverted initiation into the sexual dimension of the male/ female dynamics, is that which is permanently impressed on the daughter’s mind. It can only serve to deepen the mother-daughter bond which starts in the warm, safe, secure womb, continues with life-sustaining milk from the mother’s breast which nourishes the baby, and permanently sustains her with the consciousness of women bound by a world of shared experiences. The traditional chivalric motif of a knight in shining armor saving the damsel in distress is discarded; the father is not only a peripheral figure in the story, but he is also rendered as one who is incapable of protecting his daughter because he has misread the other man, blinded as he is by his own concern with protecting his image as male/head of the family.
Certain stories can be read in terms of Estrella Alfon’s reflections on her position as a woman writer in a Philippine literary scene largely dominated by male writers. “Man with a Camera” and “The Photographed Beggar” revolve around the same story of a photographer who wins a prize for his photo of a beggar, with the first story told from the photographer’s point of view, and the second, from the beggar’s point of view. The fact that Alfon repeated exactly the same story in two separate texts is more interest to me than the stories themselves that tend to deteriorate into sentimental and melodramatic effects. One gets the impression that perhaps this woman writer is at pains, not just to improve her craft (i.e. experimenting on different narrative voices), but to prove herself just as technically adept as her male counterparts.
Alfon’s fond portrayal in “English” of a laborer who struggles to learn English which, to him, is the doorway to success, can perhaps be read as her unconscious justification of her choice of English over her native Cebuano in most of her own fiction. (She wrote some fiction in Cebuano, too.) During her time especially, literature in English was the mark of distinction. Alfon could not just have turned to writing in English because of its snob appeal. She must have truly believed in the language, in much the same way the laborer in her story did.
In “O Perfect Day” the narrator nostalgically recalls a perfect summer day spent with friends in Cebu when she was young. Her friend Bebe admonishes her for writing stories with unhappy endings. This story becomes her attempt to prove Bebe wrong. But in the end, she has to admit her failure?she says she can’t write about this perfect day because the experiences are just too personal and intimate. But in fact she does; we have this story. Alfon is not really playing coy with her readers. The subtext reveals, not a fear of writing stories about personal experiences, but a fear of not being able to write the “heavier” stuff. Did Alfon perhaps occasionally wonder whether or not her stories suffered in comparison to those of the literary “giants” of Philippine fiction in English?
What Alfon unfortunately did not live to see was the development of feminist literary criticism that finds in stories such as hers dramatic examples of women’s various strategies for survival within, and subversion of, an oppressive patriarchal order. Alfon would have appreciated how feminist literary criticism privileges the shared experiences of women; the distinct marks of the woman writer’s craft; the celebration of the achievements of women writers (both the recognized and the neglected ones), made more remarkable given the context of a predominantly male literary tradition.
From “The Filipina As Writer: Against All Odds,” critical essay by Prof. Thelma E. Arambulo. Published in its entirety in Women Reading… Feminist Perspectives on Philippine Literary Texts.” Ed. Thelma B. Kintanar. Quezon City: UP Press & University Center for Women’s Studies, 1992, 170-175.