Jhoanna Lynn B Cruz is an award-winning writer who teaches literature and creative writing at the University of the Philippines Mindanao. Her first book, Women Loving: Stories and a Play (2010), is the first sole-author anthology of lesbian-themed stories in the Philippines. She completed a master of arts in language and literature and a master of fine arts in creative writing, both with high distinction, from De La Salle University-Manila. Cruz is president of the Davao Writers Guild and is regional coordinator for Southern Mindanao in the National Committee on Literary Arts.
Here she connects with Peril Editor in Chief, Eleanor Jackson to discuss her upcoming visit to Australia as a part of the WrICE exchange.
In addition to being an award-winning writer in your own right, you also teach literature and creative writing at the University of Philippines Mindanao – what is the most important thing about writing that you hope to impart to your students as a teacher?
That writing is work: it’s not just about inspiration; it’s about committing to the daily practice of setting words down, no matter what. Writing is a process of readiness to deal with your material then writing drafts and revising. Then the necessary letting go, when you decide you have revised enough. It sounds boring, but that is the only way it gets done.
Your first book, “Women Loving”, is described as the first, sole-author anthology of lesbian fiction published in the Philippines. While the LGBT community in the Philippines has gained greater acceptance in recent times, the Philippines remains a majority Catholic country – what kinds of reactions have you received to your book inside and outside of the Philippines in this regard?
It actually took me ten years before I had the courage to publish my book, mainly due to my internalized homophobia. It was one thing to publish the stories individually in journals and anthologies; having them in one book of lesbian-themed works—the first one in the Philippines— was quite daunting. I was afraid of the possible repercussions so I let it languish in obscurity. I was out, but my book was in the closet. When it finally came out, none of my fears came to pass, but it didn’t become the huge hit it could have been either. It was a quiet book, one that reached the audience it intended without much fanfare. Soon, I began meeting young lesbian writers who told me that finding my book changed their lives and made them want to tell their own stories. If that isn’t a happy ending, I don’t know what is!
You have travelled to Australia before, to present at conferences and to share your work – how do you find your work is received or interpreted by Australian audiences, even as you may be using English as a shared language?
I am fortunate to have had the opportunity to share my work with an Australian audience in 2011, albeit a small one, which received it warmly, particularly at the Women’s Library in Newtown. I had the impression that my stories, which had Philippine settings and concerns, resonated with their own issues as women and as lesbians. But being part of the WrICE project has given me a larger audience at the Melbourne Writers Festival and other readings, so we’ll see how that works! In addition, I have an essay in the Griffith Review New Asia Now e-Book, which will further expand my reach as a writer.
You are now based in Davao, Mindanao, an area of the Philippines renowned for its cultural diversity, and – less positively – its protracted civil conflict. What impact does this sense of place have in your writing?
When I wrote my book Women Loving, I was based in Baguio City and was travelling often to Northern Luzon. As it turned out, my stories were set in those places, and my English was peppered with Ilocano words, the lingua franca of the area. Today, having lived in Davao for the past eight years, I know that I have changed irrevocably. For how can I turn a blind eye to the peace and conflict issues plaguing the region? While I have not written directly about the political situation in Mindanao, I am now in the process of writing a memoir in which I explore the process of rebuilding my life after my failed marriage. I am seeing how Davao has provided a fertile ground for my writing, as well as necessary impetus for facing the need to restore peace in my own family. I do hope though, that I will have more opportunities to immerse myself in various communities (like the indigenous peoples) in order to deepen my understanding of Mindanao.