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Culture Spotlight

Between consenting adults? What really happened at the Iligan writers workshop

Tiny Diapana said she was sexually taken advantage of by a panelist during a national writers workshop last May. The workshop director’s retort: Where are the bruises? ANCX spoke to the characters involved—to paint a picture beyond the status posts
Jam Pascual | Aug 12 2019

Last August 2, Tiny Diapana, a young writer who according to her Facebook account resides in Cebu, posted a social media status that hinted at sexual misconduct within the esteemed circles of national writing workshops.

“This ‘culture’ where some established writers take sexual advantage of young writers during national writing workshops (or any workshop for that matter) is absolutely disgusting,” she began. “What's even more disgusting is that there are workshop organizers and directors who tolerate this kind of behavior and wash their hands clean of these incidents so they can keep the prestige of the workshop's name.”

Naming no person or institution, the post sparked curiosity among Diapana’s friends, including a number of comments that somehow suggested they know just who and which workshop the writer is alluding to.

 

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What happens in workshops

There are quite a few established writer’s workshops in the country, mostly connected to revered academic institutions. Typically, for most of these workshops, young writers apply by submitting their works to become “fellows.” As fellows, they gain the privilege of having their work read and critiqued by the more seasoned writers who act as their panelists and mentors. For a number of days, or for as long as a couple of weeks, these writers share the same lodgings and quarters in a venue out of town. Fellows come into these workshops expecting an artistically fulfilling experience that allows them to hone their craft.

In Diapana’s case, however, whatever learning experience she got during the workshop sessions has been overwhelmed by what she claims happened to her and one of the workshop panelists.

On the afternoon of August 3, Twitter user Angely Chi posted the following blind item tweet, shortly before explicitly naming alleged sexual offenders in a follow-up tweet: writer TJ Dimacali, writer Darsi Rubino, and filmmaker Jamir Mallari. 

Through a series of Telegram voice notes, Chi tells ANCX that she was informed of these alleged incidents while acting as a director for a film camp. And while she does not consider herself a part of the literary community, she tells me her sources are, and personally know the victim.

“A week after that film camp, these things were just sitting in the back of my head,” Chi says. Then she read Diapana’s Facebook status. “At the end of the day, after I had dinner, I had this realization: I don’t want to tiptoe around these issues anymore,” she says. “These cases are very widespread but they’re not talked about in the open. And that’s also what’s causing the suffering of these victims. I know of several cases already, and I just want to stir up a conversation around this.”

Numerous Twitter users shared and responded to Chi’s tweets condemning the actions of the workshop and the alleged sexual offenses, some even sharing anecdotes of established writers exhibiting inappropriate behavior.

Timothy James Dimacali is a science fiction writer and was once Science and Technology editor of GMA News Online. According to his Amazon.com profile, he took up Creative Writing in UP Diliman and in 2009 was himself a writing fellow at the Iligan National Writers Workshop. Three years later, he attended the National Writers Workshop in Silliman University.

 

A denial from the speaker

On August 4, 11:00 p.m., Dimacali released a statement via Facebook in response to the allegations of sexual harassment going the rounds of online sites. He wrote: “I vehemently deny all of the recent statements made against me, accusing me of sexually assaulting someone during an event where I was a speaker.” Dimacali has not responded to our request for an interview.

On August 5, three days after her first post on the subject, Diapana was ready to tell her story. She released a Facebook note detailing correspondences, how her lawyer sent the workshop affidavits of her witnesses, and her misgivings regarding the panelist who allegedly raped her, and the workshop who invited the panelist as a keynote speaker. “To get to the heart of the matter: I was sexually taken advantage of by a panelist during a national writers workshop that I had attended this year.” Nowhere in her note does she mention her assailant, the workshop, or the director of the workshop by name.

In the same note, she states that she had reached out to the workshop director regarding the incident, and asked her lawyer to send the affidavits of her witnesses. She asked the workshop to blacklist the panelist from attending the workshop in the future. In response, Diapana says, the workshop director wrote her a letter stating that the incident was a private matter between her and her alleged assaulter, that the incident took place “behind closed doors and nobody heard anyone screaming, being dragged down the stairs, or trashing about,” and that blacklisting the panelist was impossible because doing so would be “already BE beyond the mandate of both [the workshop’s] implementing organizations, these organizations being the Mindanao Creative Writers Group Inc. (MCWG), and the Mindanao Creative Writers Group-Multimedia Arm (MCWG-MMA).”

She elaborates on other details of the alleged assault. According to her, last May 31, 2019, a Friday, the fellows were celebrating the closing ceremony of the workshop. Over the course of the evening, she blacks out a number of times and awakens to various happenings. “ I black out again, but vaguely remember a few of the sexual things that happen (like my mouth being on [the panelist’s] person, his skin fully bared). When I wake up, it’s 6 in the morning, and I am naked and alone in my room. The first thought that comes to my head is whether what I remember was real. Everything seemed so hazy.”

“I don’t remember giving consent,” she writes in the note. She emphasizes: “Intoxicated individuals CANNOT give consent. That’s in the law.”  Under Republic Act No. 8353, rape is committed under a number of conditions, including “when the offended party is deprived of reason or otherwise unconscious.”

Speaking to ANCX, Diapana states that the affidavits of her witnesses were “to help clear the narrative, because I had blacked out thrice during the incident. I needed help from other individuals to piece together what had happened.”

The investigation

According to Diapana, the investigation proceeds in the following manner: “In the letter, the workshop director also mentioned that they had investigated but named only two individuals, one, my roommate who was also very inebriated during the time, and two, the secretariat who told me he didn't know anything when I was doing my own investigation.”

A statement posted on August 4 by the director of the INWW, Christine Godinez Ortega, and made by the MCWG, states that the workshop “does not condone rape or any form of sexual harassment. It abhors suchs acts, and would actively cooperate in securing justice for any of its writing fellows who may have been victimized.” The statement was posted as a Facebook status, but can no longer be viewed.

The statement also says that the fellow reported the incident ten days after it happened, and that the INWW conducted an investigation by interviewing writing fellows and members of staff present on the date and venue of the incident. To quote the statement: “The investigation pointed towards the incident being a private matter between two consenting adults.”

The workshop is sponsored by the National Commission for Culture and Arts, and managed by Mindanao State University - Iligan Institute of Technology.

In a phone interview, Ortega gave her recollection of the supposed time of the incident and details of the investigation. “It was 2 A.M., I was already in my room, and everyone else already went back to their room,” she says. “The following morning, nobody reported to me anything. I said goodbye to the fellows, and went to another meeting.”

Ortega states that she received a letter from the alleged victim’s lawyer on July 7, interviewed some of the staff, and reiterated that the case was “a private matter between two consenting adults,” as stated in her letter to the lawyer.

Regarding whether or not it is beyond the mandate of the INWW or any of its implementing organizations to ban a panelist, Ortega states that according to her lawyer, “You cannot just ban him, because if you ban him, you are convicting him of a crime you’re not sure he committed.”

Where are the bruises?

On the accusations made by the alleged victim, Ortega says, “You cannot just go around town announcing that you’ve been raped. Where are the bruises?” She continues, “I couldn’t believe that letter. It was nebulous. It was more of [the alleged victim] asking herself if she made the right decision.”

One might wonder why Diapana decided to make her accusations public instead of coursing her concerns through the institution itself, or the proper legal channels. “The only reason why I decided to take this case publicly was because I didn't find any sort of justice from the workshop after filing the administrative complaint,” Diapana states in our interview. “I was frustrated that I had nowhere to turn to, because even the establishment was failing me.”

Ortega vouches for the safety and security inside the Iligan workshop. “Since we were inside the campus, the place is secure because of the guards. They would go around every hour and they didn't hear anyone struggling or screaming. In a way we provided security." To Ortega’s knowledge, no incidents of rape, or sexual assault or harrassment of any kind have occured in the INWW during her time as director. Ortega has been director of the INWW for 24 years.

Ortega also states that the incident happened after the events of the workshop. The incident took place May 31, after the closing ceremony. Departure from the workshop is shown in the workshop schedule to have taken place June 1.

 

Fair game? 

Organizations such as  GABRIELA Network of Professionals  and the local independent feminist press  Gantala Press  have come out in support of the alleged victim, lamented the dismissive nature of the response of INWW and its director, and called to an end of the culture that allows abuse to happen in workshops.

In an email interview with Faye Cura and Rae Rival of Gantala Press, they elaborate on the nature of the culture in question. “It's a culture in which women or students are treated as fair game, conquests, for men's sexual pursuits and adventurism.”

Cura and Rival also mention a recent harassment case involving contemporary  artist Gaston Damag , and the way some artists and curators defended the artist while suspecting the motives of the accuser. “[It] is another example of how the patriarchal-feudal culture coddles the often, male perpetrator at the expense of the often, female victim.”

Currently circulating around social media is an open letter entitled  “Open Letter to the NCCA Regarding the Incident of Sexual Assault at INWW,” signed by former fellows and panelists of the INWW, and others in solidarity. The open letter states that the following measures be taken: that the NCCA conduct “a thorough inquiry” into the incident along with the Commission on Human Rights, the Philippine Commission on Women, and MSU-IIT; that “the Ombudsman investigate the unjust and improper handling of the survivor’s complaint by the workshop organizers, who are also professors of a state university;” that the results of the investigation made by the NCCA lead to a review of policies to ensure that workshops will be “safe spaces” for everyone; that the government extend psychosocial support services to the survivor; that the MCWG acknowledge the director’s “dismissive reply” to the situation and the alleged victim’s concerns; and that “the NCCA foster a climate of open critique and discussion by discouraging the workshop institution and/or officials from filing legal charges against sympathizers of the aggrieved for speaking out in view of her interest.”

“Why don't people take victims of assault  —  women  —  at their word?” Gantala asserts, regarding the response of INWW and the statements of Diapana. “We also need to emphasize that the institution’s handling of the complaint, their dismissive response to the victim, who had to first painfully recognize and accept that she was raped before she could bravely speak about her experience, adds trauma to the already violent aftermath of rape.”

For Gantala, this is  not  a private matter between two adults. “Sexual abuse of others is never a private matter. It's a cultural, sociopolitical, and economic problem that kills women and destroys lives; it's a problem that the whole community should put a stop to.”