A funny thing happened while I was at Clarion: On Filipinoness in writing

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Some Philippine mangoes. I wrote a story that made my classmates say, "I'll think of this story whenever I eat a mango." Photo from agritoursph.wordpress.com

Some Philippine mangoes. I wrote a story that made my classmates say, “I’ll think of this story whenever I eat a mango.” Photo from agritoursph.wordpress.com

 

So, one of the grandest adventures of my life ended a few days ago. I’m back home and my jet lag and letting everything soak in and reconsidering a lot of things. I may not have blogged during all my time there like I planned, but I think I’ll be posting a series of blogs processing the experience, instead.

This is one of them.

Just before I flew off to the US, I wrote a post about struggling to come to terms with a heritage I felt detached from. To sum up some parts of it, I was afraid of having to represent the Filipino people while also feeling like the Filipino people have never once represented me. This had much to do with language, familial upbringing, economic class, and what have you. I may have been just a teensy bit afraid that once I got to the workshop, others would expect me to write about being Filipino, just as local writers have expected me to do here (I need not have worried about that).

But something strange happened once I got there, and I guess everyone who leaves the motherland ends up experiencing what I did to some degree or another.

Ready? Here it is:

I never felt more Filipino than when I was living in San Diego.

I cannot count the many times I felt like a small-town girl occasionally muttering small-town phrases and wearing small-town clothes and missing small-town food–and I come from a freaking megalopolis!

And, for some reason, I could not stop writing about Filipinos. Even when I set my story in a secondary world, there was still something unmistakably Filipino about the characters and the world they lived in.

At Clarion, I wrote about two different writers calling to life their ideal mates via their writings (week 2, “The Politics of Ink: A Love Story”, 1319 words); a slave aspiring to be an epic chanter who relates how the mango came to be and ties it with her love of her brother, her hatred of her mistress, and the fall of a kingdom (week 3, “Song for My Brother”, 8062 words); two gay men dealing with the fallout of their relationship as one of them prepares to go to a distant planet to pursue a grant for the study of its creatures (week 4, “The Siren Call of the Rimefolk”, 4653 words); and a small family living in a tropical city stricken by a natural disaster (week 6, “Blushing Blue”, 3107 words).

(My week 5 story was a flash called “The Bride Who Would End the World”–the setting was mostly generic because I wanted to create a new myth tying an apocalypse to a cosmic wedding. Didn’t pan out as well as I hoped, but it’s a first draft written on a cellphone because my traitorous laptop broke down as I was writing the week 4 story).

Whether I stated it outright or not, these stories all had a Philippine base to the setting.

My one-on-one with Cat Valente really helped smooth this out. She explained to me that she herself never felt more like a California girl than when she was living as a Navy wife in Japan.

“Some writers have their own agendas and believe that you should only be writing what they themselves write–which shouldn’t be the case,” she told me. “You can choose to fight against writing about Filipinos. That’s a legitimate choice. But you should also go with whatever lights a fire beneath you.”

And I did. I don’t regret it. Will it extend toward my future work? Who knows?

Other friends of mine who understood my pre-Clarion angst have told me, “What makes your stories Filipino is that you are Filipino. You will carry that with you everywhere.” And they’re right, too.

A classmate of mine said during my final critique session for the whole workshop, “And, I’m sorry, but because you are a Filipino, I read this as an alternative Philippines.”

I should have told him, “Don’t be sorry. That’s really what it is and that’s really who I am.”

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2 responses »

  1. I creep on your blog from time to time, and this is one of the posts that I’ve gone back to more than once. During sophomore year (FA105 haha), I rebelled against the idea that works by a Filipino author automatically carry some Filipino-ness with them. I was still writing fantasy at the time, and since my influences come more from Western literature and media, I didn’t see why that had to apply to me.

    Now I realize that it’s not so much about the elements of your writing (character names, magical creatures, weapons, etc.) but about the handling of it. Things like the way you were raised by your family, the atmospheres of the schools you went to, the habits and values that you have–all of those affect your writing whether you’re conscious of it or not.

    When I took a writing workshop class while on JTA, my work wasn’t tackled as “Filipino,” but I definitely sensed the difference between my poems and the poems of my Singaporean and Malay classmates–because we grew up in different circumstances with different concerns. Reading their work was so refreshing and eye-opening, so much so that I’d recommend all serious students of creative writing to try taking a workshop class abroad. And identity-wise, I felt more Filipino in SG too–I kept finding myself lapsing into Taglish even when I was with non-Filipino friends.

    (Also, it still kind of blows my mind that you know Catherynne Valente. What she said about going with what lights a fire beneath you sums everything up pretty dang nicely.)

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    • Hey! 😀 I’m glad this post has that kind of resonance for you–I’m planning to write a follow-up essay soon. 🙂 You’re lucky you got to take a workshop abroad while still an undergrad–I didn’t know what I was talking about when I was a senior, definitely. I hope you were able to tackle this a little in your academic essay :))

      I kept lapsing into Tagalog when I was talking with my classmates, too. In fact, on the train to Comic Con, there were two Filipinos sitting behind me who were conversing in Tagalog. I did the most Filipino thing you could do in that siutation: I conversed with them in Tagalog. =))

      (Cat herself is even more mind-blowing in person. I hope she visits the PHL someday or something. She knows a thing or two about pushing against who you are…and then finding it again in a completely foreign country.)

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