When I clicked on the video of the online launch of Jhoanna Lynn Cruz’s memoir, Abi Nako, Or So I Thought, I was looking forward to learning more about her and her writings.
Prior to the launch, I had only read one of her works — “Sapay Koma” — which won third prize in the essay in English category of the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 2008.
I remember that essay because when the winners for that year were announced, I wondered if she was an Ilocano; the title of her essay being an Ilocano phrase meaning “sana” — an expression of hope. She isn’t I found out when I got to read her winning piece.
Around that time, I had just started to take my writing seriously and had just shifted from writing fiction in English to fiction in Ilocano. I had also started studying the winning works on the Palanca website, dreaming of one day mustering enough courage to submit my pieces and hopefully also win an award in the prestigious competition.
I was particularly interested in the essays because I thought I had better chances of winning in the essay category than in the short story category.
Five years later — with two Palanca wins in Ilocano short story under my belt — I got to not only meet Jhoanna but also share a panel with her.
Together with other writers, we spoke in the panel on gender in the 2013 Taboan Writers’ Festival in Dumaguete City. At the time, her first book, Women Loving, was just three years old. Unfortunately, I have yet to read it to this day.
Shortly after that writers’ conference, I became too busy with work, having just ventured into the development world, that I stopped doing creative writing altogether. I have yet to get back to it.
Sometime last year, I stumbled upon a picture of all of us in that panel on Instagram, posted by another writer who was also in that panel, so we got sort of reconnected. Jhoanna and I became friends on Facebook and we now follow each other on Instagram.
Through her posts on Facebook, I learned that Jhoanna now teaches creative writing at the University of the Philippines (UP) Mindanao and that she just earned her PhD from RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) University in Melbourne, Australia, and her memoir, consisting of 18 stand-alone essays, was published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2020.
I left congratulatory messages on her posts, extremely happy for her successes and amazed at what she has accomplished during the pandemic.
So when I was assigned to write about the launching of Jhoanna’s new book, I was so glad.
I thought it was my chance to know more about this kindred spirit, and more importantly, her writing and her style. Never did I suspect that listening to the readings of some excerpts of her work would lead me to take stock, not just at my work, but also at my life.
Poet, critic, and literary scholar J. Neil Garcia, director of the UP Press which published the memoir, spoke highly of Jhoanna’s book in his message, calling it “riveting” and “memorable,” during the launch on 13 February, organized by the Davao Writers’ Guild.
“It is my own reading that what the author is offering us in and through her creative non-fiction is the craft and the vocation of lesbian writing itself.
Her own brand of queer creativity has a kind of robust enchantment, a potent and hard-won myth-making practice through which one may live in full human dignity, finally, without regret or shame, without rancor or fear,” he said.
Garcia succeeded in getting me intrigued in the book, and though I tried to manage my expectations, they rose nonetheless.
But when excerpts of the book were read, I found myself agreeing with him, and even had my own positive adjectives to add to his.
Ria Valdez chose to read an excerpt from the piece, “Claiming our Inheritance,” which she said was her favorite. In this essay, Jhoanna talked about motherhood and her being a lesbian and a lesbian mother, and how she chose an abusive heterosexual relationship (not with her ex-husband) over a loving lesbian relationship because she thought being in the latter might not be good for her children.
She wrote: “I did not see myself raising my children in a rainbow family; I didn’t have the heart. It might ruin them or turn them gay.”
That surprised me, knowing how open she was with her sexuality, but I understood where she was coming from. We live in an oppressive society.
Then Jhoanna shared that years later, her daughter came out as lesbian. Talk about ironies.
Jhoanna ended her essay talking about how, despite being separated from her husband, she saw theirs as their own version of a complete family. She wrote: “The children’s wounds will not be healed by getting back together with their father; it will be healed by forgiveness… Like a rainbow mosaic, our pieces come together through our shared life.”
Jade Baylon, meanwhile, chose to read an excerpt from the essay, “Do Not Resuscitate.” Here, Jhoanna talked about her mother’s death and their strained relationship and Jhoanna bestowing upon her mother her forgiveness.
In her send-off letter to her mother, she wrote: “I send you off with love as much as I could muster on your final journey. Love did not come naturally between us… Forgiveness is our final gift to each other.”
I wondered what happened between Jhoanna and her mother, why their relationship was tumultuous. I thought I really needed to buy a copy of the book. And then I reflected on my own relationship with my own mother. There is love between my mother and me, of that I am sure. There is admiration, too. We have our own mother-daughter bonding moments, although there had also been times when I was the mother and she was the daughter.
But there are also other things I have yet to process. There are times I feel I don’t know my mother well enough. There was even a time that I suspected she had ceased being her own person. Not too long ago, I realized that for the longest time, I haven’t heard her say her very own opinion about anything. I had heard her parrot Dad’s. Mine. I heard her quote my brothers, but I hadn’t heard her own take on things.
I had thought I just did not understand her because we were very different from each other. I thought she was very much like Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind — strong-willed, but also very literal and practical. Like Scarlett, Mom’s conversations are about managing a shop and making money. She does not talk about the other essentials, like the meaning of life.
She inspired us to follow our dreams and made sure that she was there for us. She nearly single-handedly sent me and my brothers to the university because Dad had been sick but I never knew what it was that she dreamed of for herself, what it is that she still wants to achieve for herself. I never asked; she never volunteered to share. I cried when I realized this.
For someone for whom having a voice mattered so much, I was baffled realizing that my mother might have lost hers, and I don’t know if we had a role in it. Were we too opinionated that we drowned out her thoughts? Or was I (hopefully) just not listening? I thought I needed to know. This was one of the reasons I had planned on moving back to Nueva Vizcaya — to get to know my mother — because you cannot suspect something like this and not do something about it.
After watching the launch a few times, I Googled the memoir, and I got to read the title essay, “Abi Nako,” published in Griffith Review which detailed Jhoanna’s move to Davao, her other name, and the abusive relationship that she spoke about in her other essays.
After reading it, I reflected back on the essays that were read during the launch and on the question-and-answer session that followed the readings. I thought the interview was as good as the book. Jhoanna’s wit and authenticity shone through.
In the interview, she answered the nagging question I had as I listened to the readings of her works: Where did her courage come from? I thought you have to be exceptionally courageous to write what she has written, and extremely talented to write as well as she did.
“I was ready for myself to come to terms with the choices that I made in my life and the consequences of those choices,” she shared.
The interview was empowering, too, especially when she talked about not allowing yourself to be trapped in a certain responsibility, so much so that that is all that you do. In her case, lesbianism.
“We lesbian writers should write about our lesbian experiences, but I don’t think we should be trapped in that responsibility. You should not only be writing about lesbian experiences. My lesbian identity is in all that I do but it is not all that I am,” she said.
When the launch ended, I spent a few moments in awe of Jhoanna’s courage. Lakan Umali, who gave a review of the book and facilitated the question-and-answer session, said it so well: “The contents of the essays alone provide much to chew on… Johanna does not veer away from tragedy or from heartache… She confronts them head on.”
As I pondered on, I reflected on my own writing. I had long shied away from writing essays — so much so that I never got to submit an entry in the essay category in Palanca, which was the reason I got to know about Jhoanna in the first place. Writing personal essays made me feel exposed. Vulnerable. I did not like the feeling I always get after writing a personal piece and then posting it out there for people to see. It feels like I am allowing people to judge me — not the piece — because unlike short stories, you cannot dissociate yourself from your personal essay.
You cannot say it’s just fiction and leave it at that.
More than a decade ago, when I was an active blogger, I used to write short personal essays. I enjoyed writing those pieces. I loved reflecting about life and sharing my own reflections. But when I started getting comments like “I hope my daughter would grow just like you,” and “You’re such a kind person,” I felt scared. I wondered: Were they seeing the real me? Was I misrepresenting myself?
I stopped writing such pieces. Much as it warmed my heart that people seemed to like what I was putting out there, it was more important for me to be authentic. I knew I always endeavored to be.
But if the readers thought I was an angel, maybe I was not presenting the real me. Or could it be because I chose to write only about the things I was comfortable sharing? Or the people were just choosing to see the kindness in the things that I do?
Jhoanna’s book inspired me to try writing essays again. To regain the love I once had with the first-person point-of-view.
But more than opening my eyes to possibilities with regard to my writing, Jhoanna’s authenticity also invited me to be comfortable writing about me confronting my own realities head on, and to admitting my own doubts and weaknesses and shortcomings.
And to show I am ready for it, I started doing so in this piece.
Because though I may never write my own memoir, I’d also like to be able to look back at my life the way Garcia put it: Without shame, or fear, or rancor.