Q & A with Noralyn Mustafa, 2017: “I have always been a maverick. For me, my religion is not in my cigarette. It’s between me and God”

Noralyn Mustafa on her 80th birthday on November 19, 2020. Photo by Rachel Garcia, courtesy of Noralyn’s family

(“There are no known sources for a biography of Noralyn Mustafa, except perhaps for what she shared here,” poet Ricardo M. de Ungria wrote in his intro to the interview with the Tausug writer on October 24 and 25, 2017 in a nursing home in Zamboanga City.  Noralyn had been staying there since 2016 due to dementia but the nursing home assured she was lucid most of the time. Noralyn, through her daughter Selena, gave her consent to be interviewed by de Ungria. A copy of the interview was then sent to the family who went over it and gave their approval for publication. It was reprinted in the Xavier University’s Kinaadman Journal in 2019 after the publication of de Ungria’s 2019 book, Songs Sprung from Native Soils: More Conversations with Eight Mindanao Writers. De Ungria chose the excerpts for this piece in honor of Noralyn who passed away on Saturday, March 27 in a hospital in Zamboanga City due to complications from aspiration pneumonia. She was 80).

RMU: You are probably the first creative writer na Muslim—Tausug—who broke into print in Manila after Jubaira.

NM: Yes. Woman writer.

RMU: How did that come about?

NM: Nothing. It just came out naturally.

RMU: What age did you start to write?

NM: Oh,I think I was still in elementary school, then [I continued to write in] high school.

RMU: In Jolo?

NM: Jolo. Yes. When I graduated, I had three awards.

RMU: In high school?

NM: Writer of the Year, Essayist of the Year,and, of course, my academic honors, First Honorable Mention. I expected to be valedictorian, but I was not. I didn’t take Physics, so I didn’t qualify.

RMU: Teka, ano date ng birthday mo?

NM: November 19, 1940.

RMU: I see. Who taught you how to write?

NM: Nobody.

RMU: Were you reading books and stories when you were young?

NM: Oh yes, of course. Yes.

RMU: Where did you get them?

NM: It was my mother’s. My mother was a bookworm. She’s gone now. She was a bookworm

RMU: Did you get to meet Jubaira?

NM: Oh, yes, when I was a little girl.

RMU: How was he?

NM: He was one who told mymother, “She’ll be a writer someday, like me.” And I said, “I don’t think so, because I’m going to be a nurse.”

RMU: How old were you at that time?

NM: I was about ten years old.

RMU: Where did you meet him?

NM: In Jolo.

RMU: He was a friend of your family?

NM: Yes.

RMU: He was already writing at that time?

NM: Oh, yes. Published in the Philippines Free Press.

RMU: But did you read any of his works later?

NM: Yes, after we met na. This is a secret. I told myself, my God, I can write better than this [laughs].

RMU: What made you think that way?

NM: Well, because for one thing, I saw many things from his writings. Repetitive, very limited vocabulary, although he had good grammar. Still I told myself, when I get to be as old as he is, I can do much much better than this [laughs].That’s what I told my mother. And my mother said, “Be grateful that you have met him.”

RMU: He was famous already at that time?

NM: Oh yes. Very famous. He was adjudged the best Muslim writer. And I told myself I will be adjudged the best Muslim woman writer.

RMU: That was your ambition?

NM: Yes, of course.

RMU: When you were still in high school?

NM: Yes. In my elementary. It’s pronounced e-le-MEN-tri.

RMU: Did you have American teachers?

NM: No. I had Tausug teachers and Christian teachers.

RMU: By the way, when you were younger, were you ever exposed to the Tausug oral literature?

NM: Yes. “Lugo.”*It’s a type of oral literature. And my mother’s favorite was “Mallul’ Habun.”

RMU: Is it a folktale?

NM: No. It’s a “lugo.”

RMU: Is it a poetic literary form?

NM: Yes. Yes. It tells about Mallul, a flower very much like the sampaguita. And it tells about this flower on the mountain. It smells very, very sweet. Later, I was able to look for it. It really smells [good]. It belongs to the jasmine family. So, mallulah, my mother’s favorite.

RMU: Why was your mother a wide reader? Was she a teacher?

NM: Yes. She was a teacher. She graduated from this school here in Zamboanga. Brent School. They had English teachers. That’s why they had a very funny way of pronouncing words, like, e-le-MEN-tri.

RMU: What about your father? What was his job?

NM: He was a Tausug tobacco farmer.

RMU: What was your relationship with him?

NM: Oh, very nice, because he gave me my allowance every month, and he also asked somebody to fetch me to spend weekends with him.

RMU: He was living elsewhere?

NM: Yes, in Talipao.

RMU: Where were you and your mother living?

NM: In the town of Jolo. I could see him only once a month, because there were no motor vehicles that time.

RMU: How did you learn how to publish your stories?

NM: I just mailed it. May instructions naman. I just mailed my manuscript and kept one copy for myself. I remember [sending it with] a self-addressed brown envelope, ganoon. Typewritten lang ‘yun, wala pang computer.

RMU: And did you get the honoraria for them?

NM: The checks? Yes.

RMU: Really

NM: Yes.It was mailed to me in Jolo.

RMU: Free Press ba ito, or Graphic?

NM: Lahat na.So, walang na-reject. All of my stories were published. Ten of them.

RMU: Did you get to meet the other writers? The women writers?

NM: Well, there was Ninotchka. Actually, she was my classmate. We were seated next to each other, and I covered for her on some occasions.

RMU: You covered for her? What do you mean?

NM: Para hindi siya ma-mark na absent. Oo. She was always wearing black. Black maternity dress. That was after she attended the Silliman Writers Workshop. She was the one who gave me the idea of going to Silliman.

RMU: Did you go?

NM: No, it was much later. I didn’t apply because I was not sure I would make it.

RMU: Why?

NM: But I was so unsure of myself.

RMU: But you were published already.

NM: Yes. So, it was here in Zamboanga when I received a letter from the Tiempos. They invited me to attend the Silliman Writers Workshop. Yes. I did. But they were very… and I loved them.

RMU: How did you find the workshop?

NM: Very nice.

RMU: What happened to your story? Was it “butchered” or praised?

NM: Not really.

RMU: The criticisms were helpful?

NM: Dr. Tiempo, the wife, really liked my [work], both of them [actually].

RMU: Which story was this? Was it published na?

NM: Oh yes. Published na. “And the Smell of Many Flowers,” “Termites,” “A Day in the Life of Dr. Karim.” Tatlo lang naman ang required.

RMU: So you didn’t revise them anymore?

NM: They were redeemed by the class, critiqued by the class. And I was so proud of myself, yes.

RMU: You met other writers there?

NM: Oh, yes, of course.

RMU: Nick Joaquin?

NM: No. I met Nick Joaquin sa Davao.

RMU: Ah, in Davao?

NM: Yes. During the tertulia hosted by…

RMU: Aida?

NM: Yes. Yes. And, I didn’t like him.

RMU: Why? Boisterous?

NM: Boisterous and a drunkard. He took beer as his water. He vomited all over the place. Yes. When he was drunk, parang nawawala sa sarili. So I had no respect for him. I think he didn’t like me either.

RMU: But in Silliman, who else were there?

NM: Sino-sino pa ba? Very good writers.

RMU: Did the workshop have an effect on your writing?

NM: Yes, yes.

RMU: How?

NM: Because [with] the comments Dr. and Mrs. Tiempo gave on the works of other writers, I jotted down everything. So, nagkaroon ako ng very valuable tips.

RMU: Insights into writing?

NM: Yes.

RMU: Which you never had before?

NM: Which I never had before.

RMU: But you were already studying.

NM: [To be] a writer. I was a geek. Ah, ganito pala ang writer. I was doing things correctly. Because, sa akin, from the inside na. Yes. So, I really enjoyed the workshop.

RMU: And you used what you’ve learned in your other stories?

NM: Yes.

RMU: Did you experience any discrimination both as MuslimTausug and as a woman writer?

NM: Ay, thank God, never! In U.P., I never suffered any discrimination. At work, no, never. Among my friends, never. And I felt so lucky. You know, I was once invited by PEN, for a conference in the U.S.

RMU: When was this?

NM: When was that? Never mind, but I’ll just recall the date later on. And, I was chosen specifically by the board of PEN. All expenses paid ‘yan ha. We would be billeted [somewhere], kasi this is a biennial conference of writers, essayists, etc. etc. At first, I felt so flattered to be chosen — me, an obscure columnist of the Philippine Daily Inquirer — to be chosen by the International PEN. And then, I thought about it: why am I being chosen? Because I’m Muslim. Why shouldn’t I be chosen because I’m just a good writer — period? Which is what I think of myself. So, nag-ano ako, nagpanggap ako [na] I had a very important engagement and I couldn’t make it. May ticket na. All I had to do was pick it up at the international airport. I was in Manila then. So I said, I’ll just take my chance next time. Anyway, this is a biennial. In U.P., I was not discriminated against. At school, nowhere in my work. Why PEN, of all organizations? So, I turned it down. But they said, they would keep my name in the waiting list, and anytime I’m ready, I’ll just communicate with them. But I have a reservation. So, you see?

RMU: But was that discrimination? It’s probably because you’re a Muslim writer, a good Muslim woman writer. Didn’t you think of it that way?

NM: No. I just wanted — I wanted to be just as a writer, and an essayist, and a novelist. Period. That’s all. Why do I have to be a woman and a Muslim, etc. etc.? Di ba? Maybe that was false pride, but that was what I felt at that time. [We pause briefly as she snacks on the chicken I brought her.]

RMU: Were your stories based on real persons and real events?

NM: Some [of them, and] some were just [products of] my imagination. “A Day in the Life of Dr. Karim” was based on a real person, Dr. Farouk Hussein, who became ARMM [Governor]. He was still taking his special studies under Dr. [Juan] Flavier at U.P.in Manila. He just related to me every time he visited me at Zobel-Roxas where I was staying, That was the time when I quit school in U.P.

RMU: As an undergrad?

NM: Mm. Because I was so discouraged. That was when I parted with my first husband. So I just wanted to have time [for myself], you know? There was Pet Cleto, she would come around — remember Pet Cleto?

RMU: Yes, I think at some point we were classmates in grad school.

NM: Who else? That’s how I wrote, “To Pet, Who Saw Me through November.” Yes. She was my buddy at that time. So personal experience din ‘yun. That’s why I love that story. And, I was born in November, so we went to Gray Nov[ember]. Remember Gray Nov[ember]?

RMU: Yes. Kay Ishmael [Bernal]. I went there too, with friends from PWU-CMFA and La Salle

[Multi-awarded poet Ricardo M. de Ungria moved to Davao City in 1999 as the first dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences of the then newly-established University of the Philippines Mindanao. He served as chancellor from 2001 to 2007] 

*This is already a correction of the originally printed “luho” I made here for the MindaNews excerpt. A lugo, according to Gerard Rixhon, is an unaccompanied plaintive song.

** The full text of this interview can be accessed  at Kinaadman Journal, Vol.41. https://www.xu.edu.ph/kinaadman-journal