Writing Femme

I wrote this piece for the 2008 Femme Conference that happened in Chicago, where I was invited to make a presentation. I recently found it on Dropbox while looking for old plays that I hope to revisit. It’s really interesting because I feel I have always had to justify or explain why I see myself as queer femme despite being happily married to a man with whom I have been raising two beautiful children. In fact, “queer” is a term I have lovingly embraced, having always wondered where I and many of my dear friends fit in the gender binary that have been imposed upon us from childhood. Hope you’ll enjoy reading it.

The other day while making peanut butter and maple syrup for a six-year old daredevil, I got a call that made the hairs on the back of neck stand.

“Charie? Charie M?” I asked, incredulous. I almost wanted to say, “Is this Charie? The bad mofo who broke my heart in junior high? The short cherry-cheeked soft butch with a swagger that roused my 16-year-old libido?” I felt the heat rise up my face– a much welcomed hot flash, believe me.

When I think of femme I think of butch. Butches make a femme different from a dyke or a lesbian. In the Philippines we used to call them “mars”– the antithesis of “pars” or butch.

Charie’s call made me smile, secure in my femme sexuality. See, I had been doubting myself for awhile, or more like I feel people have been doubting me. Four years ago (18 years now actually) I fell in love with a man. After being with butches for most of my serially monogamous life, I ended up marrying a man, to the delight of my born-again Christian mother and the conundrum of friends and acquaintances. Not just A man, he likes to qualify — The Man– a hard man with the heart of a soft butch. (Sounds like a teaser for a cheesy action flick.) I didn’t think I should give back the toaster, but sometimes I wonder.

Not.

I identify mainly as a queer femme. I will never feel at home in a straight bar where I could never do as a femme does in a dyke bar, moving hips and arms like I’m discovering my body for the first time, eyes closed, sweat swirling in the disco lights. When I write my plays, my heroines are hard femmes. They raise their fists to injustices here and everywhere. They cross borders to be with lovers, defying patrol guards and homophobic immigration laws. They fix broken door hinges, make a mean mac and cheese from scratch, turn into superheroes (or supervillains), and rescue butches from their internalized Gomorrahs.

In my writings it is the femme that makes hard decisions. They move in a straight world that makes oppressive assumptions about who they are. They pass to survive. They pass to win hearts and minds in the battle against small-mindedness and ignorance.

They pass because there is no other way.

In most of my works, being femme is not the central focus. Most of the time, their femme identity is incidental, implied not stated, but it still is at the core of their pain and underscores the decisions they make. In one of my favorite (and most toured) plays titled “Sister OutLaw,” the title character Marina has an expiring visa, but she can’t go back home because her family is relying on her to send money for an ailing mother and to help her sister provide for her son, so she does not have to go back to an abusive husband. But she also wants to stay in America because she is secretly in love with her best friend from high school, Joey. Unbeknownst to Marina, her best friend also has feelings for her (classic best friend-turn lover romantic comedy plot). Marina ends up having to marry Joey’s brother for papers, but in the end, pars and mars get together, and all three of them live happily forever in an overpriced West-Loop condo.

Let me clarify one thing though. My femmes, hard as they come, do fall in love with other femmes, lesbians, men, and trans-folk. Because really, in the end, to a hardcore femme it is all just degrees of butch-ness.

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Noemi

Why do we love knowing the pain that comes?I pondered this as I listened and felt the ache of a broken-hearted friend.

I remember pondering this in middle school. Twelve and besotted. A girl with curls and a mean spike. One that parts jerseys on the other side of the net.

Noemi.

She had a kernel dimple on the corner of her mouth. I loved her. Wrote her poems and letters that she returned to me in a pile tied with twine. Letters I wrote in my best English, having absorbed Harlequin language. Might have plagiarized from my mom’s dog-eared collection. How could she just return them, careless, like an overdue library book? I did not comprehend. She never said why. Just left me crying in the hallway. My friends rushing around like a curtain.

We’d all been suckered by seventh graders.

Then in high school a few times more. Hash tags on my arms still visible. (I love too much I love too much)

It’s like a high on a rollercoaster. You scream and scream with your gut in your mouth; then, get back in line. Can I fix how I feel? Is there a pill to stem chest pains caused by an unknown biological agent. It’s like a drug I didn’t have to take.

I tell my friend that everything is going to be alright, but that it’ll get worse before it gets better. The stakes are higher when you’re older. Sell the house? Split the kids? Which friends should who take? How about health insurance?

Much messier than a pile of unwanted love letters.

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Reading tonight!! August 8, 7pm CST

Please click on the link below! Please be mindful of your time zone 😜❤️

https://youtube.com/channel/UCjPamgCSAffKyPVUIPxUVhg

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Bus Ride

Bus ride

When I was little, members of my family would take me on these endless bus rides. Mostly my grandpa, or apo, as strangers and family alike called him. I remember how comforting, as if I am being cradled and rocked gently, sweetly by invisible arms. I’m not the kid who asked if we were there yet. I never did want to get there, wherever “there” may be. I only wanted to stay where I was, seated on the cushioned bench, leaning against a hard wooden back slatted tightly together, the uneven edges pushing against flesh. I loved it! Watching the sun slowly paint the sky red from behind the mountains, the rice fields glowing, the vendors at every stop hawking food and souvenirs – a keychain, a toy with moving parts… Some too young yet faces already weathered, smiling a jaded smile, skin burnt dark by the unforgiving tropical sun.

I remember my sweet grandfather, so full of love for me and I for him. His face beamed whenever he saw me and all the other cousins were resigned to the thought that I am the favorite. So much unconditional love…

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Midnight Rumination

The promise of rain makes my body ache. Barometric drop. Barometric rise. Humidity that seeps into my skin and wraps my joints in a pin-studded elastic. It’s like a punishment each time. Trapped in a storybook nightmare with no one to nudge me out of my comic frame. Have you had those dreams? When you wake up before your body does and you can’t move a limb, not even a finger? You see the light from the street lamp peering through the curtains, the vague outline of the clock above the door. You can hear the sound of the fan whirring, your husband snoring like the night before. You are in the room with these sights and sounds, and yet you are not there. I remember sitting on a wheelbarrow as a child, watching my friends play, but my old people joints wouldn’t let me. Juvenile arthritis, the doctor said. Well, even diseases grow up, it seems. I’m old but the pain is new each time.

Some days I can’t fake it. This living like I want it. Can’t access my sane brain neath the pain. All you can do is distract yourself. Breath and play scrabble on your phone. Check on IG posts by your family and friends. Summon that smile. But then another kind of pain rises. The kind you can’t really feel.

Sirens sound like ululating ghosts. These troubles in my head are open wounds, throbbing needlessly, swallowing sleep, decapitating time.

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Dog Food

Sometimes I want to mix in dog food with your food

saute it in garlic and onion

pour in eggs beaten in milk and cream cheese and voila!

Gourmet dish fit for kings and queens who send cake thieves to the gallows

Just a little, just a bit

to teach you a lesson that

mother does not mean maid,

meal preparer,

or mindless machine

She can’t always be the cheerleader cuz

Guess what?

Happy pills wear off

Mother is tired of looking for things that she’s missing,

feeling guilty for getting sick,

that second cocktail,

buying sad coasters that bow their heads in failure

Even now as you read this you think what?!? No!!! Dog food?!? Are you trying to kill me!?

Who do you think you are???

A person????

You are

ATM,

chauffeur,

nurse,

valet,

believer of bullshit

buffer of blame,

smeller of stinky underwear,

rememberer of things forgotten,

fixer of fractured walls and furniture

beholder of cliche body art, torn shirts, ripped jeans, the rift between time and space continuum

But nooooooo

Mother is also

artist, teacher,

stickfighter,

gardener,

meanderer,

human;

she cannot always fix what’s broken

Mother is sick of this paradigm we’ve mimed for centuries, her body mimicking mothers before her who grew calloused egos, displaced ids, wallowed in drink and self annihilation thinking

this,

this?

This is okay.

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Please take a day off and call your senators

This just cannot go on

Can’t keep apologizing for my meekness

I want to stop looking over my Asian shoulders when I walk at night

I can’t keep worrying about my friend when she’s a few minutes late from putting coins in the parking meter

My Asian father who doesn’t like being called Asian

He is Chinese

He is Korean

He is Filipino

He is American

Why should he be called names he doesn’t even have in his lexicon?

My mother should not have to worry that she’ll be bashed on the head when she’s buying fish at fresh farms

Call your senators please!!!

Why must I worry about my Asian ass being kicked?

I know more Spanish than Japanese

My palate may be Asian but I cook Mac and cheese for my kids

I take them to Great America

I walk my dogs at Horner Park

Please call your senators right now

This just can’t keep going on

We are not the virus

It’s the hate we need to stop from spreading.

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Happy International Women’s Day!

On this day of reckoning, when women all over the world should be celebrated and uplifted, when we commemorate the sacrifices of the women who came and fought injustice before us, I just want to sleep!

I’ve been alternating between studying and working and this entails, well, mostly reading. When I encounter text-heavy material with academic research, I want to sleep. When I am grading unimaginative, deathly boring essays, I want to sleep. I don’t even mind the stomach-turning grammar. I just want some imagination, some creative language, por favor. But napping doesn’t seem to be in my DNA. Not since I was in kindergarten waiting for the brush of tassels to rouse me from pretend sleep. This aversion toward napping most certainly came from my mother whom I never saw take a nap growing up. I mean, not that i can remember.

Tell me, have you ever seen your mother take a nap? It seems they are constantly moving under the radar, and if we, for a moment, stop to observe, we will see them in action doing something, like the stars in the nightsky that twinkle and fall unobserved by most folks.

Today, I took my daughter to a medical appointment and after that, we had our little IWD brunch. It was sweet. And the day was usually warm and sunny! A bonus indeed. We talked about how important this day is, looked at some fun tiktoks, then the day passed like it always did, with studying, grading, cooking, streaming, feeding and walking pets melding with loving, laughing, kissing, and hugging my loves. All this, and still no napping. Can’t complain though.

IWD brunch with my baby girl.
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If I die tomorrow (Day 6)

Please make a fucking fuss

I traveled halfway around the world to be something

You will not not cry as if my dying means nothing

Once I thought I was

Nothing

I thought I could disappear and no one would even know

Or care

I liked disappearing

I made a career out of running away

when I first discovered the power of flight.

If I die tomorrow I hope it will be easy

I denounce difficulty

Hard work is too hard

Yet I did wash dishes 10 hours a day

I did walk in below zero temperature to get to work

clutching my lungs as if they were going to fall out

I did wait tables and dealt with messy eaters

Filled up empty condiment bottles with ketchup, soy sauce and vinegar

Smiled until my face hurt for an extra dollar tip

I did take care of children who colored their sky pink and their monsters, purple

When first I crossed the border and my savings ran out

I wanted to go back home

There, where people thought I could be something

I wanted to stay a teenager on my friend’s porch

Drink gin and seven up at dusk

Play mahjong all night

Smoke stolen marlboros until my lungs hurt and my throat, torn to shreds

Pray I do not wake choking in puke and blood-tainted phlegm.

Sometimes the things that keep us alive are the things that kill us

Remember the white guy in Kung Fu found dead in a closet?

Amy Winehouse, Whitney Houston?

The water was still warm in the tub when they found her

And what about that pretty young thing who inched her way to the brink to catch that perfect selfie?

Did she even get to post it?

If I die tomorrow, sure, say some prayers, although I prefer poetry

Toasts and tales and yes, a little karaoke

My dog would lay on my side of the bed waiting for me to pet her

I know at least my daughter would cry

She always cried when sending me off at the airport

I know my husband would tell jokes

And my son would smoke weed all day and hide his grief in the fog.

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Paradigm Shift (Days 4 & 5)

Spent most of the day attending training for a federal grant that my school received from the Office of Violence Against Women. Paradigm shift: I have not heard this term used so much in one training conference! But it is true. We have been so used to doing things a certain way that we have forgotten to reflect and question how it’s working or if it is at all.

The issue of violence against women is a very important one for me. I grew up in a culture where women are told “to lay back and enjoy it if rape is inevitable”. Where men are told it’s okay to “put their women in their place” as long as they “don’t leave any visible marks.” Domestic violence is a thing that happens behind closed doors and it is none of anybody’s business but the family involved.

I myself am a survivor of child molestation, sexual harassment, stalking, and rape at different times in my life. I remember the first time I acknowledged that none of it was my fault. I attended a Violence Against Women conference in Montreal organized by Filipino-Canadian organizations, and a young woman spoke about the sexual abuse she experienced in the hands of a family member she had trusted. A dam broke inside me that day and released all that pent-up guilt and shame. As a teen, they manifested in hash marks on my arms and in self-destructive behavior that continued on to adulthood. That conference woke me. I felt empowered to be an agent of change myself through my writing and by doing advocacy.

At the OVW training today, we talked about the need to find different ways of engaging the community and I totally agree. In the early ‘90s when I attended that conference in Montreal, I was moved to action by the sight and sound of brave women in my community speaking out against violence against women. I think a lot of it has to do with having struggled with the issue myself. However, for many, this issue is not seen as a priority. Just the other day, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez responded to the non-apology of Republican rep Ted Yoho for calling her a “fucking bitch”. He denies saying this — he claims he referred to her comments about the rise of crime being the direct result of growing poverty as “freaking bs”. Sounds very similar indeed. He mentioned being a husband and a father to girls as if these things make him “a decent man”. AOC politely berated him by saying it’s “treating people with respect that makes a decent man.” But she also ably lambasted a misogynistic culture that has allowed for this kind of behavior to persist. This is no different from getting harassed as a waitstaff or a commuter on the train, which AOC and a lot of women have experienced.

And so how do we begin to do a paradigm shift to more actively involve our campus community in eliminating gender violence? Well, we need to be more proactive than reactive. We need to move from simply raising awareness to providing skills to students, faculty, and staff to recognize and immediately address it when it’s happening. To be honest, I am getting compassion fatigued at the numbers being thrown at me. Yes, I know, 1 out of 3 women have experienced gender violence in some shape or form, some more violent than others, but let’s do something about it already! Let’s stop being and feeling like helpless bystanders.

What should we do when we see someone being harassed for being a woman or a girl? Or what if it’s a more subtle form of abuse — like a micro-aggression in the workplace? How do we make sure our guests feel and are safe in our homes when we have crazy parties? In our classrooms, what do we do when students write about their experiences of sexual assault or domestic violence? And so on and so forth.

I also learned about the idea of intrinsic motivation and why it’s important to activate this among our community members. We don’t get buy-ins from mandating things, but if we are able to tap into their sense of justice and humanity, then we would be more successful. We do this by including their voices in creating a culture that will counter the rape culture we are living in.

Well, day has turned to night and then day again. I’ve not stopped writing and, in between, I’ve walked the dogs, taken loved-ones to get their covid shots (my school has made it possible for us and two members of our families to get the vaccine—yay), gone to Seafood City, had Luis’s delicious mostaciolli, watched 90-Day Fiancé with my daughter (some of these people need serious therapy and I hope they’re getting it), and oh, my daughter told me her class got bombed by someone with porn while they were watching a serious play about slavery! WTF!!!! Fortunately, she was in the bathroom at the time. I slept at midnight, but now it’s day again and I’m still not done with my homework.

And by the way, I got this email and it made my heart sing. Thank you.
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