Writing to Live, Living to Write: The Self in Philippine Martial Law Autobiographies


Mary Grace R. Concepcion

PhD defended at: 

National University of Singapore


By the 40th year anniversary of the declaration of Martial Law in 2012, attitudes towards the Ferdinand Marcos presidency from 1965 to 1986 are multiple and contradictory. From the year 2000 onwards, numerous autobiographical narratives about the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines were published. Mostly written by those who opposed the dictatorship, these autobiographies also express myriad and conflicting views. Their authors have diverse backgrounds and they were involved in various ways in the anti-Marcos struggle. Moreover, these texts reveal sensitive and highly contested topics not only about the dictatorship, but also about the splintered Left, which was revitalized and led the opposition during this period.

Most studies about Martial Law literature focus on textual content, images and symbolism of poetry, short stories, novels, drama and songs. In contrast, I take autobiography as a subject of study and focus on its production. Through textual analysis supplemented, when possible, with interviews with the authors, I examine how writers perceive and produce autobiographies. This dissertation explores the conceptions, processes and motivations of writing autobiographies set during Martial Law written both during and after that period. Moreover, this study analyzes what happens to the self that writes and how the self is written. One’s life story circulates in a highly contested discursive field, which affects how the self is projected in autobiography.

One published a first person narrative to counter character assassination and create the identity of the Martial Law survivor, the political detainee, or the good revolutionary among other identities. Writing also allowed one to internally process one’s feelings and emotions. Militarization and censorship also informed the choice of writing in the various subgenres of autobiography (letters, diaries, memoirs, interviews, autobiographical novel etc.). The chapters highlight the various aspects of the genre. Chapter 1 situates this study amidst the current discourse of remembering and forgetting Martial Law, and positions autobiography as an intervention from official State history. Chapter 2 describes the material conditions of writing as a tension between the creation and destruction of the self and the written word. Chapter 3 maps the narrative of self-transformation, and the writing and rewriting of the self in two separate autobiographies. Chapter 4 locates the self within the spaces and institutions controlled during the dictatorship. Chapter 5 examines how labeling the genre raises expectations about the truthfulness of lived experience. Finally, Chapter 6 demonstrates how working class narratives subvert the highly individualistic notions of autobiography.

Through texts that are situated during Martial Law, I examine how political repression complicates and shapes Philippine autobiography. I also interrogate not only the self in/and autobiography, but how the past is viewed and rewritten from the vantage point of the present, which is marred by multiple and contested narratives.