EMOTIONAL WEATHER REPORT By Jessica Zafra
Updated December 12, 2008 12:00 AM
Several weeks ago I got an e-mail from my former professor, Dr. Elmer Ordonez of the University of the Philippines. As one of the conveners of the annual conference of the Philippine PEN, he was inviting me to be a panelist in the second session, “Gender Issues in Literature.”
I approach literary conferences with some trepidation: I am ignorant of the critical jargon, plus I’m not entirely sure what a gender issue is and whether I have one. However, this was an invitation I could not refuse. It is an honor to be asked to speak at a PEN conference, and it would be churlish to decline a summons from my thesis adviser.
In my senior year, when I had to decide on a topic for my thesis in Comparative Literature, I picked my favorite writer, J.D. Salinger. It was the post-EDSA I era, and The Catcher In The Rye and Franny and Zooey were not generally considered socially-relevant nationalist material. To my great surprise, Dr. Ordonez evinced no surprise at my choice. I was allowed to write about Holden Caulfield, a literary character whose voice I literally heard in my head and sometimes confused with my own. I actually enjoyed writing my 100-page thesis, and I submitted it ahead of time, which is unheard of.
I am an object of horror at literary conferences: I am a bestselling author. No, Oprah is not aware of my existence. Let’s define our terms. In the Philippines, population 90 million, a book that sells 2,000 copies is considered a bestseller. That makes my books bestsellers, technically, because the minuscule percentage of Filipinos who regularly buy books, have the leisure to read them, and can afford them in the first place, buy the Twisted series. I know these readers so well, I could give you their phone numbers.
As far as I can tell, my audience is composed largely of women and gay readers. In fact, the first readers to take my work seriously were gay men, so one might argue that the Twisted books fall under Gay Writing.
I know I have heterosexual male readers because they post the longest ruminations on my blog (Jessica Rules The Universe), but when a guy asks for my autograph, it is usually “for his girlfriend/wife/sister.”
For my talk, Dr. Ordonez suggested the topic, “The Dominatrix as Literary Icon.” “Icon” of course is a huge stretch, but “dominatrix” meant I could appear in character. I would not have to do research or produce references. Happy happy, joy joy.
I will begin by quoting an influential 20th century philosopher. “I wouldn’t want to belong to a club that would have a guy like me for a member.” This sums up my world-view, so I guess this makes me a Marxist. A Groucho Marxist. I don’t identify with any group in particular, nor do I feel I belong anywhere. I’m certainly not a “serious writer,” not only because my work is viewed as comic (which is tragic, if you think about it), but because I write for the general reader. I actually make a living off my writing, which makes me an aberration.
I obviously don’t belong in the academe. I’ve never taught, I have no patience, there would be a body count in the classroom. Also I am very attached to the Dead White Male-Dominated Literary Canon which shaped the way I think, and which has been largely repudiated by today’s scholars. I’ll cite two Living White Males who are huge influences — J.D. Salinger and Woody Allen; and one Dead White Male author who was probably a woman — “J”, the unknown author of the major thread of the Old Testament. One might argue that I was raised Jewish.
Recently I found a Wapedia entry on me that quoted an academic study. This study reached the conclusion that I hate men. It somehow failed to note the primary element in my work: irony. If I’m ironic and I frequently say I hate men, what could it possibly mean? Also, the study stopped at Twisted Volume 1. The academe really ought to keep up with publishing developments: there is a tool called Google, which by the way is now a verb.
Although I was born and raised in the Philippines, I can’t say I identify with the nationalist struggle. I prefer to think of myself as a citizen of the Internet, a borderless, chaotic, wonderfully anarchic multiverse. When I write about Philippine events, it is usually for their absurdity value rather that their Philippine-ness. I don’t think of myself as a feminist. I grew up assuming that I was as good as, and probably better than, any boy. I cannot claim to have been oppressed, victimized, or repressed — at least not to my knowledge. Cash-flow problems, sure; underemployment and romantic disappointment, yeah; but nothing worthy of a Lino Brocka movie.
The only group I feel a kinship with are the geeks, the hoarders of information, the walking repositories of film quotes, literary trivia, Monty Python sketches, Dune genealogies, and scientific theories — the people to whom Middle Earth and Star Trek are not fiction but the parallel dimensions from which we have been unjustly exiled.
If I have a reputation as a literary “dominatrix,” it’s less for the things I’ve said than how I said them. I’ll say whatever the hell I want and I don’t particularly care whether the reader agrees with me.
I have been fortunate to have the kind of upbringing and education that encouraged independent self-expression. Despite being a child of martial law, I have never been shushed. Then again, only the socially-relevant have the privilege of being shushed. Comics, being “irrelevant,” have always had more space to shoot their mouths off.
What exactly am I, then? How should I be classified? Where do you put me? I am Nothing in Particular. This makes me free to be Whatever. And there are many of us, we just don’t want to be labeled and forced into categories. Take a good look at this aberration. This is what the 21st century looks like.