Reclaiming Narratives: EliBarra Fix-it Fanfiction as a Queer Reparative Reading of Noli Me Tangere

In 2012, the first fanfiction work entitled The Truth (Ang Katotohanan) dedicated to the pair of Jose Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere characters Elias and Crisostomo Ibarra—known as “EliBarra” by their supporters, derived from the combination of both names—was uploaded to Archive of Our Own (AO3), an online non-profit platform for fan works. Ever since then, the pairing has accumulated a total of 102 works. A close reading of select EliBarra fanfiction divulges the means through which fans deepen their resonance with the source material by rectifying heteronormativity, embedding their lived experiences in the text, and challenging other forms of marginalization entrenched in narratives marred by oppressive conceptions. Disclosed, too, are insights on how these works impinge on the reading of the historicity lodged in the novel.  

Rizal’s influence pervades much of Philippine literature that emerged after his writings, with his ghost coming “not only as a spectral vision or mere revenant of him, but one who stands ready to face the nation’s many social ills that he himself had begun to address” (Chavez 126). Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, first published in 1887, is considered to be one of the most significant literary works in the Philippines, having depicted the Filipino people’s subjugation under the colonial Spanish regime. Underscoring the tension between the colonized subjects and the institution of the church heralding Spain’s oppressive apparatuses, the novel portrayed the latter’s actions through its characterization of friars. It is a work animated by contentions of power, recognizing that an essential aspect of maintaining an imposed order is the cultivation of subservience. In that acknowledgment stems the problematization of education as a tool wielded by the powerful and a potential weapon by the downtrodden to transgress the situation they were trapped in. Spotlighting this question of resistance, one of the key features of the novel is the strain between the ideals of Crisostomo Ibarra and Elias. While the former’s reformist stance espouses a peaceful resolution to societal ills, the latter embodies a revolutionary consciousness that acknowledges the necessity of a violent uprising (Hagimoto 25). 

The two characters’ relationship was deeply explored in the 61st chapter where Ibarra’s resolve to fight for the country was invigorated, serving as a turning point in the narrative as the novel nears its end. While Elias was piloting the boat where the two of them were on, he suggested hiding Ibarra at a friend’s house to keep him safe as Elias will venture to retrieve Ibarra’s hidden treasures. Amid their exchange of viewpoints with regard to exacting social transformation, a boat manned by members of the Guardia Civil chased them. Elias sacrificed himself by jumping off the boat to detract the civil guards while Ibarra concealed himself. 

Much of the EliBarra fanfiction on AO3 dedicated their storylines to altering aspects of this chapter, fusing the original scene’s descriptions with the fanfiction authors’ reinterpretation of how it unfolded from the perspective of the characters. Elias and Ibarra’s relationship, consistent with the prevailing norms at the time the novel was written, may be seen in a manner that Garcia described to be “homosocial” where:

 

individuals were expected to develop bonds within each of the two genders, bonds that could be expressed in several ways. Some of the ways, for example, in which men bonded with one another were through exclusive friendships, “discipleships” and cliques, or memberships in fraternities and clubs. (Garcia, “Was Rizal gay?”)

 

To understand this dynamic, it is necessary to locate how “relations between the male and female genders of the ilustrado class in nineteenth-century Philippines” (Garcia, “Was Rizal gay?”) were underpinned by societal structures. According to Garcia, in describing the environment in which Rizal lived, the dichotomy of the homo-hetero dualism of the present times cannot be used. This is to say that the current conceptions of homosexuality and heterosexuality cannot be rigidly deployed to make sense of the gender constructions, expressions, and relationships that used to prevail during their times. Back then, middle-class males and females were socialized separately. During that period, various forms of relationships among men existed in a spectrum, permitting the potential of transitioning from one form of attachment to another. For one, as Garcia explained, it was possible for a connection to gravitate from fraternal to romantic love.

These relations are predicated on an overarching colonial structure that marginalizes queer expressions of identity and sexuality which came as a result of the supplantation of precolonial cultures. Prior to the Spanish occupation, there were already records of men who were perceived to be effeminate, taking up the roles commonly associated with women, and engaging in sexual relations with men. They were referred to as the “asug,” “asog,” “bayog,” “bayoguin,” and “binabayi,” depending on the part of the archipelago. While the colonizers’ description of these identities was embroiled with conflation and stigmatization, each label’s expression of identity is still nuanced in the particular region and culture they were situated. Eventually, the arrival of Europeans would take over the indigenous culture. As Quintos noted: “Whereas several illuminations on the native meanings of life and culture could be found in the native experience, the colonizers erased these for supposedly being immoral, barbaric and inspired by the devil” (159).

For one, as Garcia (“Was Rizal gay?”) explained, the discourse of sodomy was introduced upon the arrival of the Spaniards. Instead of a singular category that exclusively refers to what is now understood as homosexuality, the conception of sodomy functioned as a tool for stigmatization that was also often charged with xenophobia. Its ambiguity served as a convenient instrument to target disenfranchised minorities, the word characterized by weakness and unnatural acts. Garcia argued that Rizal also held such a view:

 

While Rizal sees the unbridled sexual activities between native men and women—which were much remarked about and bewailed in the early Spanish accounts—as constitutive of a kind of natural innocence or “naturalism,” he cannot imagine that such an innocence could have allowed the same people to “wander through [sodomy’s] mistaken paths.” In other words, Rizal criticizes Morga by “denaturalizing” his moralistic account of sexuality, yet stops his argument short when it begins to dangerously wander into the “unnatural” (yes, Rizal unblinkingly accepts this adjective!) terrain of sodomy. (Garcia, “Was Rizal Gay?”)  

 

In an attempt to come to his countrymen’s defense, Rizal unwittingly regurgitated some of the prejudiced accounts of sodomy which, as earlier stated, does not necessarily refer to fixed identities and actions that fall within the present concepts of sexualities and their expressions. It can be argued, then, that the development of his novel characters’ bonds was laden with these tensions he was caught in. 

However, the American occupation period facilitated the proliferation of contemporary concepts of sexuality and gender through the widespread encroachment of the United States to the country’s cultural institutions. This discursive management within and via the incursion of American culture developed a previously unfamiliar sexological cognizance in the nation (Garcia, “The City in Philippine Gay Literature” 165).

In the present times, albeit spaces for recognition have widened as a response to the growing consciousness of sexological distinctions, the specter of queer identities continues to haunt the national consciousness. Quintos expressed: “Debauched, violent, amusing, a metaphor and distinct”—this is the image of the homosexual in modern times. There is a sustained effort to imprison the so-called asog, bayoguin and binabayi into boxed-in views of society” (178).

The changing landscape of gender relations, thus, impels reimagined interpretations of texts written in the past such as Rizal’s groundbreaking novels. With the advent of globalization and the pervasion of sexological conceptions of queerness, people sought to be reflected in the content they consume to deepen the way they relate to these materials and repair constructions of identities encumbered by prejudices reflective of the time these works were developed. Beyond homosociality, the imperative for the recognition of explicit queer romantic relationships grew. In a sense, it is to channel the same objectives that propelled Rizal in treading the course of writing—to lay bare the ills that befall the nation and chart alternative courses towards an enduring cure.

It is to this end that a particular category of fanfiction works developed, with its proliferation on the internet likewise brought by the thrust of globalized networks such as AO3. An appropriative type of writing can take various forms. Fanfiction, coined in the 1960s to characterize stories published in homemade fanzines, is just the most recent manifestation of the urge to participate concretely with an already existing narrative (Leavenworth 42). 

Bronwen Thomas (2) traced the development of fanfiction studies and identified three waves. The first one was said to be largely guided by Marxism in its determination of the struggle between the supposedly powerless fans and the dominant corporations that claim sole ownership over the content that fans appropriate. In tracing the rise of participative culture among fan communities, Henry Jenkins remarked that “Fans construct their cultural and social identity through borrowing and inflecting mass culture images, articulating concerns which often go unvoiced within the dominant media” (23). Fans, dissatisfied with institutional power and knowledge, demand their right to develop interpretations, provide judgments, and generate cultural canons (Jenkins 18). 

Due to the inclination of the first wave to conflate all fans into a singular unit, the second and third waves sought to sift through the intricacies of power relations. Upon the penetration “of fans into the mainstream, second-wave theory sees fans not so much operating outside of social hierarchies as themselves participating in the construction and maintenance of the uneven distribution of power” (Thomas 4). The succeeding wave, then, took a poststructuralist turn, characterized by increasing reflexivity questioning the theorist’s individual motives and perspectives, as well as a change in focus toward investigating fans’ contributions to current culture (Thomas 4). 

This paper, by deploying the frameworks of reparative reading and affective history-making in fix-it fics, will uncover how authors and readers of EliBarra fanfiction negotiate their interpretations of Noli Me Tangere and appropriate it in certain situations to repair heteronormative standards implicitly inculcated in the novel. Applying a postcolonial reading in the sense that studying Noli Me Tangere is an “indirect description of the colonial period in the perspective of modern times” (Tugano 12), I will evaluate how fanfiction works draw from historical narratives and reconstruct these accounts to rectify representations deemed damaging in the present times.   

It is crucial to note that the select fanfiction works will not be able to fully capture the diversity of more than a hundred works in the EliBarra tag of AO3. However, a close reading of these works will offer insights into how fans reconstruct narratives as a form of emancipatory praxis. It will also provide an examination of how these works are developed to better relate with the original material in a way that is representative of their current experiences while not completely detaching from historical realities. 

 

Queer reparative rectifications

Queer interpretations subvert conventional themes that uphold heteronormativity—the view that holds heterosexuality as the normative orientation. These readings unmask and create a room within the text for cases where the boundaries between heterosexual and queer expressions of identity are obscured in ambiguity. Instead of explicit narratives, it investigates latent ones (Hazra 109). 

One of the types of queer reading identified by Sedgwick is paranoid reading. Based on the “paranoid-schizoid position” coined by Melanie Klein, Sedgwick used this to describe the “terrible alertness” that investigates a text via its elements skeptically (278). Those who adopt a paranoid attitude to a story situate themselves at a certain distance to keep their grip on the narrative. They can extract precisely “valid” portions of stories from their settings of origins and reinscribe them into their claims by removing themselves from the narrative. 

Sedgwick disputes this paranoid disposition for being too strict, as it provides merely a way of pursuing, locating, and structuring knowledge. As an alternative, a reparative reading as Sedgwick posits is a type of reading that places the reader within the narrative  “to reattach every detached aspect into something cohesive” (Hazra 111). Simply put, reparative reading is an active position that counters the passivity and detachment of a paranoid standpoint. By deliberately orienting oneself in the narrative, the story can be understood in its entirety. Taking the reparative route does not mean solely nitpicking parts of a narrative for the sake of forging completely different ones, but instead entails piecing together components to form a concerted picture that may run contrary to what the writer of the source text originally aimed at  (Hazra 111).

Foregrounding this in the Philippine context, the framework will engage with queer readings through the lens of postcoloniality that recognizes historical reality as the repercussion of colonialism while also having the capacity to advance what Garcia referred to as an anti-colonial signification that has the “ability to move beyond, critique, or “post” the colonialism that made it possible, to begin with” (“The City in Philippine Gay Literature” 172). With similarities to the formulation of Martin Joseph Ponce in his queer reading of diasporic Filipino literature, I will also flesh out the heteronormativity embedded in the practices of the prevailing culture while exploring not necessarily just identities of queerness but also “alternative relationalities, intimacies, and solidarities forged outside of state-sanctioned heterosexuality and its ideological enforcement through familial discipline” (2).

A coalescence of queer and reparative reading can be gleaned from fix-it fics, which Hazra (108) characterized as a type of ground-up queer praxis emanating from an individual. It reclaims an original text by deliberately including or altering parts of the story to better suit the satisfaction of the author and reader alike. In reading historical narratives inscribed in works such as Noli Me Tangere, this reparative approach bridges the seeming disconnect between the past and present conditions—being cognizant of past conditions, relating to the current dispositions, and constructing prospective fixes to the situation.

The attempt to go further into the canon text with an understanding that it can be harmful and discovering value regardless is at the core of reparative readings (Hazra 117). For authors of fix-it fics, this value is derived from reimagining endings in a manner that remains consistent with the source text character’s motivations. This can be observed in EliBarra fanfiction, specifically alluding to the way that the 61st chapter of Noli Me Tangere ended with the demise of Elias after sacrificing himself for the sake of Ibarra’s safety. In The Promise in the Lake by alezander, the work started with the same scene of Elias rowing the boat and telling Ibarra about his plans. By magnifying the thoughts of Elias, his point of view evoked the interpretation of his attraction to Ibarra: 

 

And Elias, deep within his calloused soul, felt his body shake because what he saw in the other unconditionally lured him in. Crisostomo Ibarra, just being who he is, was dangerously attractive. (alezander)

 

The description that typifies queer readings created the avenues for a more varied outlook to “human subjectivity” and “human relationality” (Young 127), no longer constrained to the domain of heteronormative notions. The writers remained faithful in immersing in the features of the characters and the world in the original text while posing a critique of the narrative by challenging the platonic interpretation of Elias and Ibarra’s relationship and making their romantic ties explicit.  The arcs of the characters and their principles were maintained in the story, as seen in the discord between the two regarding the issue of leaving the country.

The repaired ending came after. It departed from the source text when the two were no longer chased by the civil guards by devising an excuse to get themselves out of the situation. Instead of being separated from each other, Elias and Ibarra came to terms with leaving the country together and returning someday to advance their pursuit of liberation. 

Hazra (120) also opines that fix-it fics do not just address singular identity constructs, but cut through different issues in an intersectional manner. A broader examination of fanfiction offers a glimpse at how people dispel toxic standards in favor of more nurturing alternatives. This can be grasped in Balang-araw by threefouram that used the forbidden love trope by focusing on the class divide between Elias and Ibarra in the modern setting. By unfolding these layers of disenfranchisement intersecting with one’s queerness, it also challenged some of the dominant cultures in the Philippines which privilege compulsory conformity at the expense of reasoned deliberation and progressive ideals:

 

That is, our culture is rooted in respecting elders and being family-oriented. That is, we are slaves to the concept of utang na loob — leave ourselves indebted to those that have raised us, leave ourselves to fulfill supposed obligations to supposed family. It is blood, though, that seeps out of the scraped knees of children, and it is in turn water that makes the harsh red fade into jagged pink lines. (threefouram)

 

In the fanfiction, Ibarra defied his family’s dictations and deliberately went out of his way to be with Elias. Although there is a massive disparity between their social classes, they have managed to forge a relationship of equals—one that counters the current heteronormative dynamics founded on the dichotomy between the man and the woman, the perceived dominant and dominated.

 

They had met their equal — always neck and neck in a battle of brains and wit, uncertain as to who had the upper hand at any given moment. They had constantly pushed each other to grow, to become better. The transition between rivalry and friendship had been simple, and the transition to more had been slow but steady. (threefouram)

 

It also reflected the barriers to coming out as a queer individual that are fostered by the culture of conservatism in the Philippines as a result of the country having a predominantly Roman Catholic population (Manalastas & Torre 60). After laying this criticism, the text ended with a line that challenged that belief and advocated for a relationship that goes beyond blind reverence on the sole basis of kinship. It was a tale of breaking a generational cycle of feud that represented not only the end of the rift between the two, but also signified a new beginning for the expression of relationships that were no longer constrained to the hegemonic clutches of heteronormativity.

 

Affective history-making

Despite the disruptive character of fanfiction, some scholars contend that it is not always subversive as works may still unconsciously amplify themes that are detrimental to others (de Montrouge 25). While I concur with this, I also point out that an affective historical reading of fix-it fanfiction may remedy these gaps. According to Calise, fanfiction as affective history-making may assist in the formation of identity, the development of political and social consciousness, and the maintenance of interest in knowledge of the past.

This affective hermeneutics is still part of Sedgwick’s postulation on reparative reading. As Wilson (par 2.4) wrote, affective hermeneutics steers attention to times of intense emotion in a work of literature that elicits similarly powerful sentiments in the reader. As allusive literature, fanfiction exhibits a robust understanding of the canon and likewise offers readers a comparable degree of knowledge. 

In using the power of the affect, or by evoking emotions, to impinge knowledge of the past while centering EliBarra’s relationship, works featuring different historical epochs in the Philippine context can be seen in the pairing’s fanfiction. With fanfiction’s transgressive feature, stories that locate characters in an alternate universe allow authors and readers to breach the temporal and spatial planes. In we rise and we fall and we break by placidings, the narrative was set in the 70s Martial Law era under the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos Sr. The short story magnified the trepidation and agony of Ibarra over the enforced disappearance of Elias, with the narrations focusing on the description of his feelings. True to their source text’s characterization, Elias’ activism made him a target of the state, alluding to Martial Law’s repressive crackdown on dissent that led to tens of thousands of human rights violations (Amnesty International). By attempting to inflict feelings of anxiety on the reader through the vivid illustration of Ibarra’s dreads, the audience is invited to engross in the experience of the victims’ loved ones under the regime:

 

There are things they don’t talk about; things that linger behind small talk that neither one of them want to acknowledge: like the way their drivers make it a point to avoid Mendiola at all costs; the way Crisostomo’s jaw clenches every time radio broadcasters mention his father’s name; the damn near palpable tension every time their teachers call out a name for the roll call without an answering present; the vacant chairs in the classroom. It’s as though everyone who can want to preserve this pathetic semblance of peace, even though they all knew the proclamation was the beginning of something big, something sinister, something devastating. (placidings, “we rise and we fall and we break”)

 

As Robles found in her study: “These forms of activism don’t just happen on a massive scale; they happen on a smaller, more personal level as well. LGBTQ fanworks can also be a form of education that can expose people to new identities and that can help people both within and outside of the community better understand identities that are not their own” (62). Being located at a time of a dictatorial reign entails subjectivities and experiences disparate to the current encounters shaping constructions of queer identities and relationships. Grounded in these historical experiences, fanfiction works such as this one illustrates the potential of fanworks to bridge eras with varying circumstances.  In this context, not only did this explore queer identities, but also queer identities as situated during a turbulent time in the nation’s history where different layers of oppression enmesh.

Delubyo by placidings was also set during the time of the dictator Marcos Sr., with the story focusing on the day before the advent of the First Quarter Storm, a time of societal tumult that saw massive demonstrations from January to March 1970. Focusing on the emotion of fear amid uncertainties again, the story heavily drew on the dialogues between Ibarra and Elias as they try to console each other, bracing for the bleak possibilities once Elias already commits to the struggle. Invoking authorial authority to invigorate the call to action, the end note by the author reads:

 

The January 30 Insurrection was a protest held by students and student leaders following the violent dispersal of protesters on January 26th. As it turns out, the 26th was just a taste of what was to come–this protest ended more violently, a war that raged on until the morning of the 31st in the streets of Mendiola. It is only one date in a series of movements collectively known as the First Quarter Storm; which took place at the height of civic unrest during the Marcos administration. A firsthand account written by activist/journalist Pete Lacaba can be read here. #NeverForget, especially since this government is a massive shitshow at the moment. (placidings, “delubyo”).

 

Bounds between the readers and authors are infringed in online spaces where interactions between the two can take place regularly. In this instance, the communal function was directed towards encouraging readers to further delve into the historical accounts on which these works are based, and steer their knowledge toward a political praxis.

Though open-ended, both stories depict a reparation from the source text by appropriating the subtexts on the homosocial bond between Elias and Ibarra, and pairing them romantically in the fanfiction. These characters’ queering at the backdrop of these historical moments can also be regarded as part of the “embodied experience and emotional knowledge” (Rymsza-Pawlowska 118) in affective history building.

 

Conclusion

Fanfiction dedicated to Elias and Ibarra from Noli Me Tangere exhibits the capacity of queer reparative reading and affective historical appeal to equip fans with the tools to engage in an emancipatory praxis on an individual and communal level. This participatory fan culture is predicated on deconstructing subtexts from the source material and appropriating them in new works to deepen one’s understanding of their identity and the historical context that mediates it. Both readers and authors have to reckon with the challenge of disrupting the heteronormative status quo by constantly reclaiming their spaces and narratives through an intimate engagement with any text that could be loaded with representations that reproduce ideologies of subjugation. Similar to Rizal’s purpose for writing his novels, EliBarra fanfiction works have the capacity to serve as avenues for the conscientization of readers on the pressing societal ills that hound both the past and present. 

This study contributes to an underexplored facet of fan studies in the Philippines and seeks to extend discussion regarding queer readings of historical canons. By employing the framework of reparative reading in one of the most significant historical literary pieces in the Philippines, this work hopes to spur further discourse on topics concerning how queer folks negotiate identities and interact with their fan communities in making it possible. 

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