A toast to the queens and queers who refuse to kiss your grown man’s ass.
There are a few questionable things about the local literary scene. Quite a bit of it has to do with long-revered literary patriarchs looking down upon women writers tattling about chores and changing diapers, or reprimanding poets for not, as one BLTX speaker put it, “just keeping the sex between the legs.”
BLTX or Better Living through Xeroxography doesn’t exactly aim for something so radical or romantic as to change the system, but simply to provide a space beyond it. Having been around since 2009, the brainchild of literary duo Adam David and Chingbee Cruz, BLTX has been offering independently produced works from poetry and political satire, to comics, stickers, and postcards by a roster of local artists. It returned last May 26 and 27 at The Other Room along Malingap street, the very first focused on women and queer identities.
“When we decided on the gender-queer theme, hindi naman dahil mas madali ‘yon,” says David, “pero definitely mas matunog nowadays, especially with Duterte’s jokes.”
A forum was held on the first day, led by the likes of It’s a Mens World author Bebang Siy, LGBTQ writer and academic Det Neri, writer and academic Glenn Diaz, Batis AWARE representative Cecille Montenegro-Florentino, comic artists Hulyen and Austere Rex Gumao, and poet Wina Puangco. Talking points included why there was only one female National Artist for Literature, the apparent bias of the Palanca Awards, the lack of local gay comic book writers, some male writers’ distaste for personal, domestic stories, and their rather deep fixation for so-called “bigger things.”
“Sobrang male-dominated ng comic books scene,” adds rising comic book artist Hulyen whose passive-aggressive Ugh girl has drawn much hype on social media. “I started self-publishing three years ago. Naisip ko mag-self-publish after ko mag-attend ng isang BLTX. Alam ko lang dati Kikomachine.”
Possibly the greatest contribution of the expo is how it encourages makers to pursue and sell their craft, leading a growing tribe of enthusiasts to discover talent outside the mainstream.
The highlight of this year’s BLTX was the all-female comic book anthology Kabuwanan, done by artists like Hulyen, Trizha Ko, and Mich Cervantes among others, illustrating everything from witches to monthly periods. Other groups like Batis Aware and Mariposa XVI have churned out zines with poetry and essays highlighting the groups they represent — the former, migrant women, and the latter, the LGBTQ.
There’s also Austere Rex Gumao, a young comic artist from Bacolod, illustrating the life of a gay persona (or his cartoon incarnation). Part comic and part vague melancholic sojourn, you don’t know what to feel leafing obsessively through the pages. “In Bacolod, everyone around me didn’t like gay people,” he says. “I hid myself and wrote straight things. Now, we’re still underground, gay stories are still different, they’re still not normal experiences.” It’s explicit, sad, and sweet — some mix of angst and urgent longing. It’s the stuff that would go viral if, that is, the people on our feeds weren’t so easily homophobic.
Works of women like Wina Puangco and Ayana Tolentino zeroed in on more personal matters. Tolentino’s work (in collaboration with photographer Arielle Acosta) dealt with everything from childhood to motherhood and travels. Puangco’s prose on the other hand cut deep, verging on the political.
Photographer Yuri Tan and illustrator Anna Marcelo meanwhile picked at a recent Supreme Court decision. Their zine Infertility shows their struggles with Polycystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS). “Birth control is something needed to control and regulate what we go through physically,” says Tan — that was until the court gave the TRO on contraceptives.
The first story shows illustrations made by Anna (going by the moniker “Anasshole” for the zine) and the latter features scans of Yuri’s body. “This is the first time I’ve gotten out there. This is the first time I’ve confronted the whole PCOS thing in my art,” says Tan. “When I look at my own body, I scan myself on a mirror. The work is related to the whole birth control thing. Why is it that a lot of men in the senate and in the congress feel like they have the right to say this over us, over our own bodies?”
When BLTX started, it was a way to shake up traditional modes of production, a friendly f***-you to mainstream institutions — first publishing, and now spilling to politics and patriarchy’s toxic, invasive grip on our lives.
The point of the expo though, is not to usher independent publishers and women’s writing into the mainstream, or to make queerness the new norm. Through the works, it’s merely meant to celebrate diversity — what has long been, after all, the starting point that breeds acceptance.
For participants like Gumao, the point is simple: “If my work can inspire gay kids to love themselves more or to accept themselves sooner, then I’m good.”