From dreams to words

Photograph courtesy of Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano

Have you ever wondered how a simple desire to see your name in print can lead to a lifelong love affair with words? Elizabeth Joy Serrano-Quijano certainly did. Her writing journey began with a humble wish to get published, a dream that sparked a passion for storytelling and self-expression.

From filling school paper pages with English poems in fifth grade to immersing herself in the works of literary giants like English playwright William Shakespeare and American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Quijano’s path to becoming a writer was paved with pages of inspiration.

The colorful chapters of her life story converge with dreams, determination, and a love for literature in a story worth telling.

Quijano emerged victorious in the arts and culture category at the Women of the Future Awards (Southeast Asia) in Singapore in 2022, besting other talented nominees from across the region like Singapore’s Si En Tan (managing director, film and TV producer, Momo Film Co.), Malaysia’s Lee Ching Ho (creative producer of Theatre for Young People, The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Center), Vietnam’s Anh Khong (singer and songwriter, Khong Anh Music), and Malaysia’s Cheyenne Tan (filmmaker, Meralta Films).

Her book “Dili Pwede Mogawas ug Uban mga Sugilanon” (Can’t Go Out and Other Stories) was honored as the Best Book of Short Fiction in Binisaya at the 41st National Book Awards in 2023 — a remarkable achievement for the Blaan-Ibaloy author from Davao del Sur.

Inspired by one of Quijano’s short stories previously featured in “In Our Own Words: Writing from the Philippines, the award-winning book was translated into English by Carlos Palanca awardee John Bengan, with illustrations by Noi Narciso.

Also proud of her Igorot and Kapampangan roots, Quijano’s writing is her advocacy for the indigenous people of Davao del Sur.

She said she views this accomplishment as a collective victory for the Blaan community, as it signifies the first publication by a Blaan author. She also aims to write in the Blaan language one day.

“Mahilig akong magbasa, yung mga textbook, inuubos kong basahin yung mga kwento, sa bahay marami kaming libro kasi teacher ang mama ko tapos mahilig siyang mangutang at bumili ng mga libro na inilalako ng mga ahente sa school nila (I like to read, I use up the textbooks to read stories. At home we have a lot of books because my mom is a teacher and she likes to borrow and buy books sold by the agents in their school),” she shared.

She entertained herself not through television or the Internet but by reading the works of Shakespeare and Longfellow.

“Nagbabasa ako ng mga sonnet ni Shakespeare at Longfellow kaya sa tula sa wikang Ingles ako nagsimula, hanggang hayskul naging writer din ako sa school paper (I read Shakespeare’s and Longfellow’s sonnets so I started with poetry in English until high school and I also became a writer for our school paper),” she added.

Finding her truth

After earning her Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication degree at the Holy Cross of Davao College in Davao City in 2009 — a course closer to creative writing — Quijano wanted another pursuit — journalism.

“Noong college na, dahil mass communication ang kinuha ko, gusto ko nang magsulat para isulat kung ano ang totoo. Kung ano ang dapat malaman ng tao. Na ganito ang nangyayari sa ibaba, na may gantong kwento (Because I took a mass communication course, I wanted to write what is true. What people should know. That there are stories like this),” she said.

“When I started writing fiction, it was based on what was really happening around me. That’s where my awareness and advocacy for my fellow indigenous people, women, and nature began.”

Representation matters

Quijano said she hopes her success will inspire others, particularly the younger generation of indigenous people, to write and share their stories.

“Mahalaga ang representasyon. Mahalaga rin na kaming mga katutubo ay marunong magsulat at magsalita para sa aming mga sarili (Representation is really important. It is also important that we indigenous people know how to write and speak for ourselves).”

She reminisced about her curiosity as to why the textbooks she read were predominantly authored by writers from Luzon, sparking her interest in the representation of Visayans and Mindanaoans in the literary landscape.

Quijano was also taken aback by the realization that she might be the only Blaan woman writing short stories, or if there are others, perhaps their works have yet to be published.

“Masaya pero nakakalungkot din na hindi pa rin ganap na nairerepresenta ang mga Lumad, ang mga babaeng taga-Mindanao o taga-Davao, o marami pa ring mga indigenous people ang wala pang oportunidad na kagaya nung sa akin (It’s happy but it’s also sad that the indigenous people are still not fully represented, the women from Mindanao or Davao, or there are still many IPs who don’t have the same opportunities that I have),” she added.

Most memorable award

“Winning an award in one’s own country holds greater significance, she said, noting that the standards are perceived to be higher in the Philippines, making it more challenging to achieve recognition.”

“It’s also historic as being the first Blaan to win it, the intersections like gender, member of the minority.”

Reading as a privilege

As a child, she was a voracious reader of encyclopedias, dictionaries, National Geographic magazines and novels. She believes that reading remains a privilege in the Philippines.

She laments that while many children desire to read, they face challenges accessing books or finding free time due to responsibilities like caring for siblings or assisting on the farm.

“Many children are unable to read due to hunger-induced stomach cramps. I hope that the basic needs of children can be met, enabling those with the ability, time, and resources to engage in reading.”

While expressing hopes that children also explore the works of Filipino authors and write about contemporary issues, she encourages regional writers to be more assertive in sharing narratives about their culture, history, civics, and stories that the world needs to hear.

Currently serving as a teacher at the Southern Philippines Agribusiness and Marine and Aquatic School of Technology (SPAMAST) in Malita, Davao Occidental, her compelling narratives have been showcased in esteemed publications such as World Literature Today, Words Without Borders, UP Mindanao Banwa Journal, LIT, Anomaly, Shenandoah and Barzakh Literary Magazine.

For the 35-year-old Quijano, who became a mother at 19 and thought her world had come to an end, God works mysteriously and creates a path where there seems to be none.

She will continue writing that path of capturing and preserving her culture, ensuring that indigenous people and their stories are not only seen but also cherished and valued.