Nov. 6, 2008
International writer from the Philippines has many talents, many facets
A variety of descriptors are required to introduce Gutierrez "Teng" Mangansakan II, the first University of Iowa International Writing Program representative from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao: essayist, screenwriter, fiction writer, poet, photographer, filmmaker, journalist, heritage conservationist, relief worker, editor, blogger (http://www.morofilm.blogspot.com/), Muslim, gay.
A native of Pagalungan in Maguindanao Province, Mangansakan has written for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the Manila Times, the Philippine Star, the Manila Standard, the Manila Bulletin, and Malaya, and he provides the column "This Blessed House," for a Mindanao-based news service. His poems, essays and short stories have appeared in the publications ANI 33, Banaag Diwa and Dagmay.
He has been particularly noted for his advocacy for the Moro culture of Mindanao. The label for the Moslems of Mindanao is Moro, a word derived from the Moors of Spain. "House Under the Crescent Moon" and his other documentary films about the struggles of Mindanao's population in the midst of war have been screened at international film festivals to wide acclaim, and he edited "Children of the Ever-Changing Moon," an anthology of essays by young Moro writers.
He was honored as Defender of Cultural Heritage by the 2005 edition of the Fookien Times Philippines Yearbook for his efforts in nurturing the rich tradition of his Maguindanaon ancestry.
Teng explains that Mindanao was annexed to the Territory of the Philippines through the 1898 Treaty of Paris between the United States and Spain. At that time, Moslems were the majority of the island's population, but that changed dramatically during the 20th century.
"In the early 1900s there was a policy in which people from the north were enticed to go to Mindanao, and were given homesteads," he says. "So, for the past hundred years the balance has been tilted, so the Muslims have become a minority, accounting for only 18-20 percent of the population. By the 1960s, there was a feeling that the policies of the national government ignored and excluded the Moslems."
The result was a series of armed uprisings. In 1968 Teng's maternal grandfather, Datu Udtog Matalam, founded the Moslem Independence Movement. That group faltered and was replaced by the Moro National Liberation Front. An ideological power struggle caused that organization to split in the 1980s, and one faction signed an agreement with the Manila government in 1996.
When an agreement with the other faction -- the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which has been accused of ties with the militant Jemaah Islamiyah -- was declared unconstitutional earlier this year by the Philippine Supreme Court, fighting broke out again. "Before I came here I was involved in relief distribution," he says. "Trying to collect food, money, blankets and other things to help the people."
For Teng, the relief work was just an extension of his commitments of the past decade: "Since I started making films and getting into serious writing, the issue and images of refugees and displacement have always been a consistent element."
He initially studied medicine after a sheltered upbringing -- he belongs to Moro royalty, in a family that can trace its genetic heritage back to the Prophet through the sharif who first brought Islam to Mindanao -- but in college he underwent both political and artistic awakenings. The artistic awakening happened through a film festival in Manila, where he was exposed to the work of artists including Truffaut, Fellini and Ozu. "That really opened my eyes," he says. "So I shifted to communications, read everything I could find about films, and started writing."
He attempted to break into the film industry -- apprenticing with studios, working on ads, music videos and even a sex film -- but that was in the midst of the 1998 Asian economic crisis, so opportunities were few.
"I got frustrated and decided to head back to Mindanao," he says. "I wanted to rediscover my roots after living more than 16 years in the city. I lived a very sheltered life. In my childhood, my interaction was limited to family members. For me, like Siddhartha, injustice, poverty and repression were alien concepts.
"When I returned in the summer of 2000 a war broke out, and since I had a camera with me I shot footage of the war." The Manila government's "all-out-war" against MILF displaced nearly a million people from their homes.
"The refugees took shelter in my grandfather's house, so I talked to these refugees and shot footage of them," he says. "After the war, I put that tape in my closet. I didn't know what to do with it. But in Manila I met this very good poet, Danton Remoto, who said, 'Show me some of the footage and maybe I can come up with something.' He wrote a script for me, and said, 'Rewrite the parts that you think are not you.' I wrote it, found an editors and by December of 2000 I did my first film."
Teng has written of that film, "'House Under the Crescent Moon' is a personal reflection on the Moro people's struggle for their homeland, using my grandfather's house as metaphor. I juxtaposed my personal experience in the house with historical events to weave a lyrical portrait of our collective dream for lasting peace. Made in a very crude fashion, the film contrasted my childhood memories in the house with its state as an evacuation center."
The following year the film won the grand prize for video documentary from the Cultural Center of the Philippines Prize for Independent Film and Video. Additional films have followed, focusing on the particular plights of women and children. "In the end, I hope that my films become the bittersweet pill that will heal the unreasonable hatred, fear and prejudice against my people," he has written. "If I can achieve this, my filmmaking will cease to become a product of accident. I will become the healer that I once dreamt of in my childhood."
Teng's work becomes attractive and accessible to his audiences because he does not write polemics, but rather blends personal stories with stories of history of culture. "My family has been in politics from time immemorial, so the story of my family is the story of politics in Mindinao," he says. "If I wrote straight politics no one would read my writing. I make it accessible by making myself a central character."
And he strives for brave honesty, often characterizing his family and its privileged history in ways that some of his relatives find awkward. Which brings us to that final descriptor. Yes, he is also openly gay, a rarity among Islamic artists -- although some in his family hold out hope that he is going to marry a nice girl some day. "Some have accepted it, but some are in denial," he says.
"When I started doing serious writing, I started to incorporate my queerness slowly," he explains. "The first few years were very straight. But then I wrote a coming out story. A former Supreme Court justice wrote a very disparaging article on gays, and I just couldn't keep silent. Some readers got turned off and stopped reading my stuff."
He is now attempting to organize an anthology of queer Muslim writing. "There are a lot of stories to be told about our lives," he says, but he realizes that, particularly at a time of rising fundamentalism in Islam, he may need to allow the writers to contribute under pen names. And he recognizes that participation might be especially dangerous for lesbian writers.
"Being a female is difficult in Islam," he says. "Being a lesbian Muslim is going to be even harder."
But he does not think of himself as a gay-rights activist in any formal sense. "If there is a gay rights angle to it, it's just that I'm openly gay and I'm also a Muslim," he explains. "There are gay Muslims and you cannot silence them. By being a gay Muslim writer I will encourage people who are also queer and Muslim to speak out."
Mangansakan is in residence at the IWP through the support of the U.S. embassy in Manilla.
Biographies of the writers in residence this fall at the IWP are accessible at http://iwp.uiowa.edu/writers/index.html.
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STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500