Things have been pretty quiet around here. Bear with me while I adjust to some life changes, including a new job and a rowdy litter of puppies.
But I’ve also been writing a novella at the same time. It’s kept me sane since January, for which I am grateful considering some of the really shitty things I’ve been through of late. This story is the big revision on my Week 3 Clarion story. I’ve titled it “The Witch and the Mango Tree,” at least until a better title comes along.
Earlier today, I got to share over at Where Ghost Words Dwell a scrap that I may or may not reinstate at a later date titled “Apologies Eaten.” Do check it out! And if it makes you want to read my other works, all the better. 🙂
Before the actual post starts, let’s be clear here: Week Four Syndrome is a thing. But one will never be prepared for it no matter how many Clarion blogs one reads. I know I certainly wasn’t. In general, it’s usually the week when all the physical, mental, emotional, and psychological exhaustion comes to a head in this pressure cooker of a writing workshop.
Considering how this week was probably the Peak of All Intensity at Clarion and due to the personal nature of much of what I’m about to post, I’ve had to sit back and re-review why exactly I am writing these posts, and for whom (just like when writing a story). I do this for the following reasons:
To process. The week before, I experienced a rather rude awakening, which became key to discovering that I have become frighteningly good at repressing my feelings when I need to let them out the most (more on this later). In the interest of unlocking my emotions and allowing myself to recover from Clarion and from that major issue plaguing me, I will try not to back down from writing about the hard stuff.
To back up. As you will see further down, there will be a point where I will lose almost all my data. As of this writing, I have taken my hard drive to two specialists and the common verdict is that the data can no longer be read. Should all of the things I wrote down be lost some day, I have one “back up” at least.
To remember. I’ve made a lot of memory maps for myself with myriad things over the course of 6 weeks; now it’s time to make one giant map I can rely on in the future.
To help future Clarionites. Especially the ones who, like me, read blog posts obsessively. I also noted that I never really read a post that was “a little bit of everything,” so I am writing the type of posts I would have wanted to read.
P.S. Padding this with some unrelated photos because I did not take enough photos of this week.
SAN DIEGO ZOO! After breakfast with Nora, Sarena drove me, Leena, Tamara, and Marian there just as it opened. We bought sandwiches and water bottles at Ralph’s first, which turned out to be a good idea.I stared at Sarena’s car’s carpets most of the way to SDZ in order to contain my excitement. I was finally gonna get to see a giraffe up close and in person!
I wonder what coming in the evening would have been like; when we got there, it was as if most of the animals partied hard the night before and were nursing hangovers in their dens. The giraffes were wide awake and enjoying a 15-minute-long line of people who wanted to feed them, though (the others kindly chose a cafe where I’d have a good view of them walking around and joked after I returned from the bathroom that they were probably going to skip the giraffes). I settled for taking their photos just outside their fence. Saw the two baby giraffes! And the one who is my age came up to the hollowed-out stump of a feeding trough near where I was standing and so graciously posed for me.
Some other highlights: coming face-to-face with a red panda and not knowing if it was real or stuffed (it was real; it scampered back into the tree just when we took out our cameras); world-famous baby panda Xiao Liwu turning in its sleep; seeing a baby Visayan warthog try to clamber over a sleeping adult and fall off; watching a grizzly bear eat a hare (accidentally dropping it over its pool’s edge, flinging back into the pool, all that jazz); a glimpse of a sleeping polar bear with its pink ball very close; coming up to the completely zoned out and drooling Bactrian camel’s den (one of its humps was deflated); that sign that said that the llamas were probably out walking with their keepers; accidentally finding out that rhino penises can reach the ground; buying Harry a stuffed toy sloth and Marian a stuffed toy unicorn for their birthdays; and getting lost in the zoo with the others at around 2 p.m.
When we returned to campus, Nora had put up her prompt: create a culture completely unlike anything on Earth. I could have easily given into hyperventilating, but surprisingly, the prompt was helpful in rejiggering my plot for this week’s story, which would turn out to be the first science fiction story I’d ever write. It seemed to make more sense to me, at least. I invented a race on Pluto that would later be called “ice-dragon-narwhals-from-space.”
Luckily, we had only two stories to tackle for Monday. Went out onto the cliffs with a few of the others. Amanda, Nino, and I talked about that green flash sunset that occurred for a fraction of a moment sometime last week (I managed to see it, luckily, without even knowing beforehand that they existed).
At around 11 p.m., just as I had decided to shower, Amanda and I were disturbed by some persistent knocking on our front door. They turned out to be a raucous group of teenage boys with thick European (Scandinavian?) accents. I dealt with them on the other side of the window; they looked surprised to see Amanda and I.
“Oh, we’re sorry,” said one that looked like Skandar Keynes. “But have you seen anyone our age?”
My mouth: “Try downstairs.”
My brain: “WHAT DO YOU MEAN, OUR AGE? HOW OLD DO I LOOK TO YOU?”
Rotten kids. *grumble grumble*
Saw that I hadn’t used some brown flats I’d specifically bought for this trip, so I thought while I was rushing out, hey, why not, my black ones were full of sand from the cliffs anyway. By the time I got to the cafeteria, I was limping on one foot and figured I’d have no time to have breakfast if I’m walking this slow. By the time I got to the classroom, I was being asked, “What happened to you?” because I was limping and the backs of my feet were raw and bleeding. It was suggested to me that I walk barefoot for the rest of the day, like Cat did last week–I will never wish I could walk barefoot around any outdoorsy place again.
The workshop rules were changed once again. I think we kept to the usual amount of speaking time, but Nora introduced the concept of “Ditto/Anti-Ditto” in which the group agrees or disagrees with the speaker’s critique. She also said that she’d only read one submission story each from us, but opened up extra hours to anyone who wanted a discussion about that particular story. Like Geoff from Week 2, Nora also had some discussions ready–but unlike Geoff, these were not to be MFA-type line-by-line discussions of texts; they had more to do with the political aspects of writing.
In the case of Monday, Nora and the 2014 class built a world together–a completely secondary world where some of the scientific theories, tectonic shifts, and equatorial lines governing the planet were shit, but would do for the time being.
“The key to worldbuilding is plausibility, not science,” Nora said. “Science can be the chocolate coating on the pill you’re trying to sell.”
More on plausibility:
“Depending on how good a writer you are, you can sell any size of a whopper to an audience–but you have to have dollops of plausibility.”
“Small details help establish that this world is not our own, but it is close. You can only put stuff in dollops, you can’t overdo it.”
“Worldbuilding is nothing but plausibility.”
She had other gems for us too:
“You’re trying to sell the inculcation of thought in worldbuilding.”
“You need to understand how the world works even when the readers do not.”
“A lot of what we do in worldbuilding is informed by misinformation on how the real world works.”
“To be a good SFF writer, you need to be informed by reality.”
“Class struggle is not a hierarchy–it’s all over the place.”
“There is no fix for a system that eats/consumes its citizens; it should just be burnt down and the citizens should start over.”
We constructed a history in which the Tropical Forest People of the Western Side of the Pangaea-like Continent were on top for a long while due to having all the resources and thus, a faster technological development. But then, over the mountains bisecting the Continent lay the Desert and its Desert People and the Nomadic Tribes to the far East. Both the Eastern and Western Peoples weather constant raids from the small but hardy group of Vikings living on a Frozen Northern Island. The Desert People’s kingdoms and the Nomadic Tribes are united by Princess Priscilla the Wrestler, daughter of a conquering king, who chooses her husbands (yes, plural) according to whosoever can beat her at wrestling. At the point of the worldbuilding in which we stopped, Priscilla had three husbands, one of them in charge of a large navy that can circle the continent and head for the Tropical Forest People, whom they’d been unable to assail up until that point due to the mountain range. The navy encounters an archipelago to the South, which isn’t really their goal, but they’ve discovered that those islands have spices…
Nora stopped us there and told us that she just wanted to show us the kind of thought that should go into worldbuilding. And then we went for lunch. Amin and I accompanied Nora to the bike rental shop, as she was used to biking around in New York. Amin came away with a bike himself, though the two of them walked their bikes because:
I don’t fit on either of their bikes, tiny as I am,
I don’t know how to ride a bike, and
I was walking without shoes.
We parted with Nora on her floor, and then Amin and I spent 10 hilariously confusing minutes trying to figure out how to park the bike on one of the handle-thingies outside the elevator leading to our floor. I don’t know about Amin, but I have never seen any of those things anywhere in Manila. Noah looked pretty confused himself when I finally showed up at his door and the first words out of my mouth were, “Do you know how to park a bike?” And when we got to Amin, he’d finally figured out what that hook thing was for. Hay.
Found out that a storm had hit the country yet again and my hometown (or rather, my home city) was right in the storm path.
In the afternoon, I decided to do my critiques in the Common Room because I realized that we were already halfway through Clarion and Greg did advise us during Week 1 that when faced with the choice of writing more or partying more for the duration of this workshop, we should choose to party. These were bonds that were going to last us a lifetime. Six weeks is not enough to get to know 18 people, let alone one, and I only had three left. I felt the quality of my writing was going to dip for this, but I brushed that aside as I joined Noah and Marian in the first of our Wine-and-Popcorn nights.
Decided that the two main characters in my story for this week would be two men in a loving relationship. That was a first for me.
In the afternoon, my friends back home were typing in our group chat that they were scared because the wind was so loud and the windows had been blown open and some were afraid that their roofs might fly off. Using the internet on his phone, my dad told me that the storm knocked out the electricity at my house–at most people’s houses, really. Heard that my niece was inconsolable, as she’s developed a phobia related to the sound of rain.
Had a good, much-needed discussion about writing the other in class, during which Nora recommended reading Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward’s Writing the Other: A Practical Approach. Luckily, I got my copy in the mail the week before and told the others I’d leave it on the Common Room table for the rest of the workshop if they wanted to read it. Something to keep in mind from Nora that day: “You’re not stuck writing your own culture, but you have to recognize the power differential.”
After lunch today, Kiik talked to me about considering the MFA program at UCSD. He walked me to the cafe behind the bookstore, where I was going for the first time and had no idea existed. It’s a nice, quiet place to work (and feel the desperation creeping in with regard to where your story’s going)–and what’s more, they had a Doge drawing on their cafe board. I found a table where Marty was sitting and reminded him that I was still up for beta reading his story for this week, as he asked me to do the week before.
On the story front, I was having trouble making the plot gel together, as it was also the first time I was writing a story following an emotional arc. I told Cat during our one-on-one the week before when she asked me what I had the most trouble with was putting emotions into a story. What I said was, “I have a hard time putting emotion into my stories…I write and write and write…until I crack.” I’d pushed the worry into the back of my mind, to be dealt with when I was more desperate.
Marty and I ran into Ryan sitting at one table, as he’s supposed with Shelley, like I was. She offered to read any story we like every week and talk about it for maybe half an hour. I was only able to meet with her this week because the story I wanted to send (my Week 3 piece) was completed only the week before.
After talking about my story and bringing up important points that confused me some more (in a good way), she asked me how I was doing, how the class was doing, how I’m liking the workshop and everything. Up until this point, Shelley and the instructors have been repeating what a good class we are–not just in quality, but also in how we interact with each other. Sure, there are ruffled feathers every now and then, but things could have been way worse.
This is something Nora reiterated during her Empathy lecture after dinner, but the point would not be driven home until later in the week. Meanwhile, the Empathy lecture was pretty eye-opening: she started off by telling us that different people of different cultures have very specific delusions when they have psychotic breaks. She also defined empathy for us:
Empathy: Seeing another’s differences, sympathizing and feeling for them.
Bigotry: The breakdown of empathy.
Nora stated that “Empathy failures are compounded by intersections of hierarchies (called kyriarchies), the tops of which are continually aggrandized by the lower ones.”
“When writing the other, any other at all, you need to understand them to the degree that you can, even if you feel contempt for them,” Nora explained. “You have to regard them with the same love and respect you hold yourself to.”
Well, who knew I’d be able to connect my religion lessons as a Catholic schoolgirl here?
Nora continued, “You need to address all your empathy gaps to be a very good writer; this will help stop you from falling back on cliched ways of depicting people different from you. As artists, we must engage that which is ugly and fucked up.”
Nora also opened up about her troubles with death and rape threats the previous year due to Vox Day and his compatriots. Then she gave us an exercise in which we had to imagine a person or group each of us felt contempt for and imagine extending empathy toward them. It was really hard for a lot of us. She also challenged us to try writing an empathetic story about a group we feel contempt for. I don’t know if any of us took on that challenge, but it is definitely more difficult than many of the challenges we were issued before.
Then we all went off to karaoke, which Nora took a crack at even though she had bronchitis. As usual, we brought our manuscripts to the pub and read while waiting for our turns, not forgetting to clap and cheer once the singer was done. I took a break from the pop-rock songs for a bit and sang Katy Perry’s “Thinking of You.” Not long after, Kayla asked me to duet with her on Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep.” I didn’t know a lot of the lyrics, but Kayla took care of that and we belted the choruses together.
Before breakfast, I went into Harry’s room to greet him happy birthday and present him with the sloth that the girls and I bought him at San Diego Zoo. He was ecstatic. I wish I took a photo.
Dad said that my grandmother got her power back and that they’re going there for a while to charge their cell phones and laptops. He sent me pictures of our dogs and of felled so many trees by Commonwealth Avenue, the main road we go down every day. He also sent me a photo of my best friend, whom they met by chance at the McDonald’s near my old university. She had the poor timing to come home from Hong Kong in between resigning from her old job and starting her new one.
Marian got her stuffed toy unicorn and a bouquet of roses from her husband for her birthday before class began. Sweetest thing ever ❤
Class is really starting to feel the strain of having been cooped together for four weeks without being able to see our families, friends, and lovers. Or do anything that isn’t connected to writing, really–I know that I have to force myself to go out and have fun on the weekends. Admittedly, there was even a moment after I woke up on Sunday morning wherein I almost decided foregoing the zoo in favor of writing. Argh. But I asked for this and I got exactly what I signed up for–boot camp pressure cooker blues. After class, I asked Nora if I could talk to her about one of my submission stories tomorrow and she agreed.
Marty passed me his story for the afternoon. He did warn me that it’d be pretty long and also reminded me that I opened the floodgates with my 8K whopper last week. Between writing, we ended up talking about what we think we write about and why we write what we write and all that. I enjoyed that discussion, but I was also using it as an excuse to avoid writing the scene(s) that I’d have to dig really deep down for.
Nora’s reading! I felt a little guilty for being one of the people who entreated her to our (fun) karaoke night as her bronchitis hadn’t gotten any better. Was also really excited for her to read something from the upcoming Inheritance trilogy novella, The Awakened Kingdom, but as a lot of people in the audience hadn’t read it yet and the very fact of the novella’s protagonist is a major series spoiler, she read from her upcoming novel The Fifth Seasoninstead.
Also bought some McDonald’s fare because I’d forgotten to eat dinner on account of griping over my story, as I didn’t even know if I’d hit the halfway point and my session was on Friday and holy god, how did everyone else manage? Was I the only one flailing in my unintentional procrastination? But anyway, I was shocked to discover that I could not finish the pack of McDonald’s fries. I’d also managed to hold off on the softdrinks until that very night–I’d forgotten to buy a water bottle.
A few more people joined Marian, Noah, and I at the Common Room afterward, but it eventually dwindled to just the three of us again. Noah fell asleep while Marian and I ranted to each other over garlic-flavored popcorn (mostly me) and wine (mostly her).
Parents still don’t have power. I count myself lucky to have heard from them at all. Can’t imagine what I’d feel if none of them had data plans on their phones. No yoga class today, as even Sarena was feeling kinda fizzled out.
Nora told us in class that people have been randomly coming to her room and talking out a problem or two with her. She said that that was normal and that apparently, at this camp thing for teenagers that she helps run in her day job, the same thing is happening (only much worse because teenagers don’t yet have the adult restraint needed). She repeated that we were actually a pretty good group, as we were letting off steam in little hisses and pops instead of in one giant explosion.
After class, Marty and I walk together and I talk to him about his story. We almost missed lunch, sitting under a tree near Canyon Vista and chatting about what I perceived were possible revision points. At some point, he introduced me to PuppyCat and we somehow created our own version of Chekhov’s Gun (or Chekhov’s Chupacabra, in my class’s case): “Use the sword, PuppyCat!” Grabbed a cheeseburger at the cafeteria–that was my first time doing so, and I have to say, it wasn’t all that bad.
We wrote in the cafe again for a while, but I eventually went back to the apartments for my first one-on-one with Nora. She talked to me about the issue of translation in my story “A Cha-Cha with Insanity,” which was written as a lifestyle article about Philippine mythological creatures staging a play at the Cultural Center of the Philippines, to the chagrin of most humans (this story was re-titled to “First play for and by Tikbalang triggers uproar on opening night” and has been published in Philippine Speculative Fiction 9). She told me that even something as simple as translation could be pandering to a wider-known culture, as I’d put an English translation next to the deeper Tagalog dialogue–language is political, in short. This led to questions of whom do I think my audience is, and I surprised myself when I said, “It depends on the story.” She referred me to Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, who has talked about the use of dialects and native languages.
I returned to the apartment and ate a combination of Creams peanut butter cookies and lemon-laced Animal Crackers on my bed and worked until my laptop conked out. Luckily, my story’s file was still open, but I was completely unable to access the other files. Tried restarting and a bunch of other things–hardware tries to install, but fails miserably. I saved the file in a completely different drive, unable to process for now what just happened. Kept writing until I hit breaking point and tears were welling up in my eyes when it should have been ideas in my head. I had no more time to back away from what was most tender to me.
I went to Amanda’s room, asking if I could stay here a while. When she let me, I went over to a free bed of hers and just cried. The story I was writing was about two artists in a loving relationship (they’re both men; a first for me)–until one gets a grant to study the subject matter of his art (the created culture) on another planet. This was one of the hardest things I’d ever had to write because I somehow managed to transpose the angst that’d crop up whenever my boyfriend and I talk about me pursuing my passions in another country (MFA, Clarion, what have you). We’d been together since we were college sophomores–in fact, our fourth anniversary fell upon my second day ever at Clarion–and my six weeks there was the longest we’d ever spent apart. Somehow, while writing this story, I ended up recalling many of our conversations about this, and about how lucky we seemed to think we were for having each other. The line that made it into my story (which also happened to be the line that broke me) was “How did I ever snag somebody like him?”
But in the end, I pulled myself together, finished the story–knowing that I had several loose ends by going with that happy ending–and submitted it.
Hung out at the Common Room and got very cold yet again. Manish told me he was going to a class reunion in Las Vegas and would be happy to send me my critique next week, when he gets back. We also agreed that by Sunday or Monday, he’d let me know if I can have his Wednesday slot because a few weeks ago, I stupidly believed that I could handle writing a story between Friday and Monday.
Decided to sit next to Nora for my session, as it’d been a while since I sat next to an instructor. I wore my purple dress and brought Toothless with me–and I will never forget the way Nora’s eyes bugged out as she squee’d (yes, squee’d) over Toothless when I set him down on the table.
“Do you wanna borrow him for a while?” I asked, smiling.
“No,” Nora said. She held him like an evil villain does his fluffy pet cat and stroked his back. “If I do, you’ll never get him back.” And she set him down next to me again.
My session went relatively well. I know that I rushed the ending because I just wanted it to be over and it didn’t quite resolve a lot of loose ends–however, that’s not why I started crying like nobody’s business. I am very sorry to everyone whom I made uncomfortable. I explained when it was my turn to talk that the writing had taken a lot out of me and I don’t even know why I’m crying myself. I also said that I made the ending happy because it seemed like everyone needed something to cheer up over this week (and, really, I am a firm believer in hopeful endings if not happy ones). Also, Nino had the cutest drawing of her interpretation of my “ice-dragon-narwhals-from-space” on my critique.
In the afternoon, Nora and I discussed the story I put forward in class. She said it was extremely close to publication but I might want to look into fixing the ending and a minor point about colonization that was easily fixable. She also asked me if my boyfriend and I had been separated before (I said that this was the longest period in our relationship so far) and how was my family doing (I explained about the storm). She noted that I was under a lot of stress and that maybe I should try writing flash next week to relax–and considering how many days I accidentally gave myself to write, that was probably a good idea.
In the evening, Nora gave us her final lecture, which was about life as a professional writer after Clarion. There were 7 main points overall, with lots of tips in between:
Get business cards made
Work on your 30-seconds-or-less elevator pitch
Get on the slate at your local readings or start your own reading series
Begin developing multiple lines of income
Tax–file for anything that helps your business as a writer
Join writers’ groups
Get an agent as soon as you finish your first novel
“Celebrate every milestone and victory,” Nora said. And with that, she stepped out of the Common Room, put on her shades, and stepped back inside with a loaded water gun. There was a box full of unloaded ones at her feet. “You guys must have forgotten that you have these. You have 60 seconds to load ’em up and meet me downstairs.”
And thus, the great Clarion Water Gun Fight of 2014 began. There was much jumping over bushes and hiding behind pillars and sending down empty elevators and throwing water balloons.
SAN DIEGO PRIDE PARADE! Ryan took Harry, Amanda, Nino, and I. I was really excited, as I’d never been to a Pride Parade before. Ryan warned me that there may be naked people there and I braced myself to have my Victorian sensibilities scandalized, but nothing of the sort happened. Also, why did no one tell me there would be a surplus of cute dogs?!
What I liked about the parade was how interactive it was with the crowd–that is to say, people walking up to you and giving you free stuff. Plus, quite a number of cute guys and near-naked buff guys and cute, buff, near-naked guys–and for some strange reason, PUGS IN STROLLERS. I got a photo with what I like to call a Rainbow Stormtrooper of Love.
We had a light breakfast before going around the shops (where I ended up buying the jelly fruits my mom had been bugging me to get and a second hand book of Sharon Shinn’s The Thirteenth House); Nino and Amanda were nicely dressed up. Somehow, Nino let me have the salmon on her sandwich, which she didn’t like, prompting Ryan to suggest we go to a sushi place for lunch. Then I got really excited–I thought I would have to stave off the sushi for six weeks because I heard how expensive it was, so I pigged out with my officemates the day before I left Manila.
If you’d like a quick education in culture, I highly recommend eating sushi with people from different countries. Ryan and Nino were very surprised when I took the lemon slice from my glass of water and squeezed it over the soy sauce (“I’ve never seen anybody do that,” Ryan remarked), as the resto probably didn’t have calamansi (I explained the concept of calamansi to them, but sadly had no visual aids). Meanwhile, since we had a plate full of different kinds of rolls, I was surprised at how much Californians liked putting avocado in stuff. It was nice to know that Ryan liked uni, too.
We went back after lunch and…I don’t know how I managed to lounge around that afternoon, but I did. When I came up, Nora was making gumbo with Nino’s help and Nino’s thumb had a humongous bandage with a smiley face on it. Ann and Jeff VanderMeer had already arrived, too, but they turned in early after some gumbo because they were tired from the trip.
Thus ended Week 4. I don’t know if I’ve said it before elsewhere, but Nora was the perfect teacher for Week 4 (and she told us too that she was originally for Week 2). I’m really thankful for having her be with us at the right time and right place…and I’m also a little sorry that we kinda blew in “little hisses and fizzles,” as she put it, but that was better than how it could have gone down, like I heard it had in several Clarions past.
Things have been quiet around here lately, mainly because of my day job and some troubles I’ve been having with it. But on the plus side, my writing life is as vibrant as ever. 🙂
Out within a handful of days of each other, two anthologies where my stories have found a home were released.
The first is “How the Jungle Got Its Spirit Guardian,” found in Phantazein, which is published by FableCroft Publishing. This one is about two outcasts trying to keep up a ruse that would make both sets of their parents and their tribe happy, while simultaneously dealing with what lies within the forest outside their village. Includes forest gods and outlandish dishes.
The second is “First play for and by tikbalang triggers uproar on opening night,” found in Philippine Speculative Fiction 9.In this news article-type tale, a young journalist reports on the turbulent history, protests, and opening night of a tikbalang epic-turned-stage play by an artistic madman who is also pioneering new techniques in how drama is done in the Philippine art and literature scene–including casting mythical creatures as actors.
If any of these pique your interest, please consider buying either or both books. The anthology titles link out to their Amazon pages. 😀
Doesn’t that wonderful title just give you a sense of quiet devastation? But I’ll get back to that in a bit.
When reading an author’s work for the first time, I usually prefer getting my hands on a short story collection of theirs, if they have any. That way, I’ll have the option of looking at the rest of their work without having to leave for another webpage or something like that (and because I just really love print books). And if I perceive that their stories just aren’t my thing, well, there’s no loss or shame in having a book I didn’t like/finish. I know so many people whom the book might fit better with.
This book was my first foray into Rachel Swirsky’s writing, of which I’d heard so much about. I have to admit that I was a little hesitant because I couldn’t recall where I’d seen or heard her name before and no story of hers had come to mind.
I was still a little hesitant as I read through the first story in How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present, and Future, which was the Nebula-winning “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers Beneath the Queen’s Window.” In it, a murdered sorceress’s spirit is doomed to be summoned again and again over the centuries, until the ending of the world. It was gorgeous and detailed, but the scale of it completely surprised me and I couldn’t quite stop frowning at the text. But there was sharp insight in there and an entrancing melding of searing loneliness and hope beyond hope–I think that’s what kept me reading.
I wasn’t all too into “A Memory of Wind” either, although my guess is because I have reached my saturation point with Greek myths.
The story that finally made me feel glad about reading on was “Monstrous Embrace,” the third tale in this collection. Swirsky’s point of view character is–get this–the spirit of ugliness present in various aspects of a rather generic fairy tale prince’s life.
How the World Became Quiet is divided into four parts: Past, Present, Future, and The End. Most of the fantasy stories are in the Past and Present, the science fictional ones are squarely in the Future, and science fiction and fantasy are side by side in The End.
I usually lean toward fantasy in my reading, but I think I enjoyed Swirsky’s science fiction more. I think it helped–although it wasn’t that big of a reason–that Swirsky’s science fiction stories were shorter than the fantasy ones. I definitely breezed right through that section, whereas it took me the better part of August just getting through the Past and the Present. Those two sections have their fair share of novelettes, whereas the Future and the End have some very short ones less than a handful of pages long. The only story that I didn’t read in the whole collection was “The Adventures of Captain Blackheart Wentworth: A Nautical Tail,” mostly because the problem lay with me (I had trouble relating to rats, even ones with human feelings, and despite the initial comedic tone).
In her science fiction, she does not use jargon to a dizzying degree, nor does she spend too much time on exposition–and best of all, she doesn’t sacrifice the complexity of human (or post-human or sub-human, or even anthropomorphic animal and spirit) life in favor of a richer setting. Rather, the complexity I mentioned serves to enrich her settings. My favorite story has to be “Eros, Philia, Agape” which is about a human-looking android leaving his wife and adopted daughter in favor of figuring out what it means to possess and to love. I closed the book for a while and wallowed in the feelings that story gave me.
But that is not to say that the fantasy stories don’t have that kind of depth either. “Fields of Gold” was by turns funny, sad, horrifying, repulsive–and yet altogether illuminating. It examines the life and death of the protagonist Dennis, his marriage to antagonist Karen, his relationships with select family members, and what the afterlife might be like for each person (a sort of Five People You Meet in Heaven, although not exactly). It is interspersed with amusing bucket list items from Dennis’s life.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that Rachel Swirsky has incredible range of length, voice, character, and ideas. But more than that, she has the gifts of weaving insight into humanity into incredibly poignant moments, of pushing what is harsh and ugly and dark to the fore and humanizing it, of seeing the stories in the margins, to quote “Scenes from a Dystopia” (which is completely surprising in how metafictional it is). She loves writing about the breakdown of human relationships and yet–and yet–within each story, she always puts a tiny glimmer of hope. Maybe not a hope of things getting better, but finding hope elsewhere.
I went through a stage in my own writing wherein I thought of crazy ways to tell a story and then dismissed them as silly later on. I feel like Swirsky went through this stage also, but embraced those ideas and turned each of them into a gem whose brilliance is enhanced by the very simplicity of the container. Her stories are quietly devastating–but also quietly uplifting. Read them when you want to have your heart broken.
Every day this week, I’m going to blog about a week in Clarion (which honestly feels like a semester each).
I took the least amount of pictures during Week 2 (also, my phone malfunctioned before all of the pictures it lost could sync to my Facebook account), so I’m just going to pepper the post with photos from 3 or 4 days. I thought I also did the least amount of extracurricular activities, but apparently, this isn’t true. It’s just that the whole class was really busting our chops the whole week, what with juggling writing, reading, critiquing, and extra readings and lectures. In some ways, I remember the stories more than I remember what actually happened.
We had one last breakfast with Greg at 7 a.m., then gathered down by the grounds of the apartments when he came down with his luggage for one last hug all around.
Some of my relatives drove down from LA to pick me up and take me around San Diego. They were a little late, so I went back to help Harry and Amanda sort out the laundry we did before I got ready. Dressed up in my Steampunk dress, tights, and boots because I figured that it’ll be time for the Steampunk Tea when I got back. My relatives shocked me by hooking up a smartphone to the car stereo and choosing YouTube videos for karaoke.
We settled for a restaurant with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and South East Asian buffets. I made a beeline for the Japanese stuff, but nothing quite beats Filipino desserts (leche flan and gulaman). Then they brought me to the Gaslamp Quarter real quick to buy boots for my mom; what made Gaslamp exciting was seeing all those Comic Con posters strung up under the gaslamps, as well as some 20-30s style buildings and one awesome piece of street/graffiti art of kids supposedly climbing down the window of a parking lot all the way to the ground.
Sure enough, when I got back to campus, I saw Amanda, Harry, Leena, Marian, and Nino walking across the parking lot and heading for the library, where the Tea was gonna be held. I was about to walk with them the whole way and to just forego the rest of my costume, but Amanda and Nino dressing really snazzy (pocket watches, vests, pageboy caps, bow ties) made me envious. I had to put down the bags and the little cakes my relatives told me to give my roommates anyway.
After a 20-minute walk full of pedestrians and summer groups staring at the tiny girl in tattered fingerless gloves and a corset, I made it to the library, where a Steampunk orchestra of sorts was well underway. Audience members were holding different doohickeys and sounding them whenever the host pointed to them. Geoff ran around trying the instruments, just like an excited little boy. 😀 There was also an exhibit of Steampunky paraphernalia, featuring an assortment of bowler hats, statuettes, and paper half masks that were designed with illustrations of eyes. My favorite was the paper theaters. These had candles and paper dolls of Victorian women, but I don’t think those were for demonstration, sadly (or I missed it entirely).
The host acknowledged our class and Steampunk pins were handed out to us. Then Anastasia, the head of the Steampunk Society, gave a talk on the society’s history and background, and possibly why Steampunk is so popular. When the talk ended, we broke up into little groups. A few of us met and spoke with science fiction author David Brin without knowing whom we were speaking to, and Anastasia gave us a few tips about how to run conventions and how to make them last for years–and which ones to avoid.
David Brin called us “Athletes of the Imagination” and told us, “You’re training to be industrial-grade magicians. Remember that what you do is the only form of true magic left in the world today.” I don’t know if I believe that, but I’ll take Athletes of the Imagination and Industrial-Grade Magicians any day.
Later, Ryan introduces me to Trader Joe’s Butter Waffle cookies and I end up asking him what sorcery those things were. They’re gone in two days (and it wasn’t just me, I swear!).
In the evening, Geoff gave us his instructor’s introduction, handed us reading packets per apartment, and asked everyone to sign up for one-on-ones separate from our actual conferences. He wanted to interview us all pre-session. I decided to drop by that very night. Geoff asked me how old I was, what I did for a living, what did I write, what did I want to accomplish writing-wise, why was I at the workshop–the last few very deep questions that everybody should think about but probably don’t on a conscious level.
We ended up talking about telling (as in, the telling part of show vs. tell) and how he thinks that you can judge how good a writer is by the way they tell, how much authority their voice has. He noticed that a bunch of people–me included–did not submit something last week and so makes me promise to submit something this week. Not feeling very confident about that, I promise anyway.
No karaoke this week, as Geoff wasn’t into it and we were all busy anyway. 😦 It’s the first time Harry lets me take the extra bed in his room, as my clothes were still damp even with time in the dryer. Maybe we shouldn’t lump our clothes together too much. Harry offers me earplugs because he says he snores loudly and I tell him it’s okay because my own dad snores really loud, but I put the plugs on anyway. Sure enough, when I wake up, one of them is on the floor.
Geoff laid down more rigorous guidelines for the workshop, including holding one-on-one conferences on the same day as the author’s session and a time limit per critique. We experimented with…about 2 minutes and 45 seconds? This time will eventually get whittled down throughout the next few weeks. Sent the boyfriend what I had on my story so far; in the evening, he got back to me and said it wasn’t really his thing. This rattled me a bit because, since he’s not as voracious a reader as I am, he was my gauge as to whether something worked or not.
We were told that there was gonna be an ice cream social at the LGBT Center. Excited to get away from Canyon Vista food, some of us go with Geoff to check, only to learn that it isn’t until tomorrow. That’s 30 minutes of lunchtime gone, but hey, at least we knew where the center was and the walk back to Canyon Vista was scenic.
Geoff had his first lecture at 7 p.m., after everyone returned from dinner. His style was to have us read first, then we analyze what we just read together, with Geoff leading the analysis and asking questions.
Our first piece was Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” that famously dialogue-heavy story about abortion, the one that got bandied about in freshman lit classes in college. I never did take this story up, but I read it in a World Literature book at a secondhand bookstore, already knowing it was about abortion–but even then, I still didn’t get how any of it pertained to abortion. Or how anybody could come to that solid a conclusion without Hemingway outright stating it. I concluded back then that my teenage brain was too stupid to get it and that Hemingway is brilliant but pretentious.
But I liked the way Geoff taught this story. We went over it line by line, and he’d have some of us volunteer to read them aloud. We learned about subtext that night, something that watching plays taught me better than any lit classes ever could, up until that night, when I realized that subtext was being taught all wrong where I came from. “Hills Like White Elephants” is the kind of story where the reader is their own theater crew, where they have to work really hard in order to understand what is going on while also bringing their own interpretations to the text. The dialogue is the plot and is probably a masterclass in plot movement.
I also learned the term “gaslighting,” which is a form of abuse in which one person makes the other think they’re crazy, and that dialogue is not about what a character says–it’s what they do while they say it.
We also discussed Litfic vs. Genre. Genre’s progression over time is this: the first, original subject –> then as a marketing tool –> then devolves into tropes. A mature genre provides a set of reading protocols, according to Samuel Delany. Genre is characterized by sparkling verbs, a strong point of view, thoughts and names, sensory details, and an emphasis on setting and worldbuilding for to make things more real. Meanwhile, Litfic demands a certain kind of distance all the time. It values subtlety, ambiguity, clarity and flow, and a very bland surface.
If I didn’t believe Clarion was an MFA squeezed into 6 weeks the week before, I did now.
I was late to class because I experimented with a shortcut (and ran into Geoff, who was also running late) and took a wrong turn somewhere. When I get to the classroom, everyone is helping lay down rigorous guidelines for the workshop: submission guidelines, scheduling which days you’d like to get critiqued on, delineating the 5,000-word mark and giving the others a choice whether to go on or not, Instructor Reading Wednesdays as 3-story days in order to lighten the load. I wondered if this discussion was my fault; I asked Geoff’s permission the day before if I could already put my name down for Friday even if my story wasn’t ready yet. He obliged. In class, he told us that it was good that we could set our own deadlines.
Stories today were awesome–honestly, they were always going to be awesome, even if they weren’t The Best Thing The Author Could Come Up With. That’s just a testament to brilliant my classmates are; talent leaking out of their ears no matter what they write.
Before Tuesday, I knew that Noah and I were the last ones to submit anything, and somehow, not being alone in this made me feel more comfortable. I jokingly told him before this day, “If you submit something before I do, I will cry.” But that’s not what happened during the 15 minute break in the middle of the session; Noah finally said that he had a story now, he just needed to edit it. Instead of feeling sorry for myself, I put out an offer to beta read. Didn’t know if he’d take it, but it’d be fine either way.
The ice cream social we’d all been hearing about finally happened today. Apparently, our class saved the social, as very few other people showed up.
Up until this point, I’d been questioning the structural integrity of the cafeteria bananas, which were some of my closest links to home–every time I got to the last bite, it would fall off and roll away. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they had mango-flavored popsicles at the Center; this was great, because mangoes figured prominently in the story I wanted to submit, and I’d all but forgotten how they tasted like (mango popsicles were no substitute, but it was enough to jolt my sensory memory and make me just a little bit homesick). We also had a group picture, though I still don’t know whose camera it was on.
Marty, Kayla, Amin, Tamara, and I buy lunch at a coffee stand nearby. Geoff joined us for a bit, and we admired all the dogs (whose photos were erased from my malfunctioning phone), some of whom would rather sit next to us and smell our food than go with their owners. I decided to go with Marty to the library and work some more. He managed to coax me into telling him what my story was about, since I mentioned I wasn’t sure I was going to make this week’s deadline. I told him about two parts of it and mentioned I was retelling two Philippine myths about mangoes, and he said that it might be better to save it for Cat’s week, as she’d definitely be up for talking about that sort of thing. I mulled this over until just before I went to bed.
First time I ever took an afternoon nap in Clarion. I woke up aghast at myself and at the time I could have spent reading the stories for the next day, but Ryan said that I probably needed that.
We discussed Donald Barthelme’s “Jaws” at the evening lecture. Geoff discusses plot, POV, dialogue, and character, but the most interesting point in the lecture, for me, was made about names. In science fiction, it’s better not to make up the names–but when you do, make sure they have a sound palette.
While telling myself that maybe this week is my lesson in revision (apparently, I’d learn that lesson during Week 3, too), I pull out two flash pieces with three years’ distance between them, the second of which I wrote in answer to the first. I completely rewrite the first piece, which I experimented to death on with different lengths during my undergrad thesis, put them in the same document, and show them to Harry, who expressed a wish to beta read for me the week before. He finishes the two during the 15 minute break between the sessions, just like I thought he would, and tells me that the two need something to tie them together. This I accomplish when we go to the library together and write side by side.
Noah also handed me his manuscript during the break. After finishing up at the library, I come over to their apartment and go over the manuscript with him up until we have to leave for the reading. There were 4 stories for tomorrow, and I think this is when we start thinking about making Thursday a 3-story day, too.
Majority of us went to a brewery before the reading, but I’m disappointed to learn that they do not have root beer, which I’d developed a taste for starting when Ryan bought this really nice, smoky kind from Trader Joe’s some days ago. Nino and I crossed the street to buy some Mexican, but for some reason, crossing the freeway doesn’t feel as dangerous as playing Froggie’s Revenge with the vehicles on Manila’s streets.
The people at the bookstore asked us how we were before the reading began. There was something ominous about the way they said we looked like we were holding up well.
Geoff is a wonderful reader; he tries to embody his characters as he reads. Harry and I sat together on the floor and came up with strange phrases using magnets on a magnetic board; I was delighted to learn that there were different boxes containing different themes: Bitch, Zombies, Edgar Allan Poe, Vampires, and Shakespeare. A bunch of us fooled around some more with the bookstore merchandise, which include tentacles that you can wear on your fingers. Ryan and Manish put some on and it was…well, they could become very popular with a certain kind of audience in Japan.
We had some McDonald’s burgers and fries–it’s a step down from last week’s Inn n Out, but I have this thing where I want to check the McDonald’s branches of the countries I travel to so that I can see what’s so different about them. The original American McDonald’s has, apart from a wider selection of humongous burgers, salad and yogurt. It is funny how they’re still pretending to be healthy. I cannot finish the large fries without help; Harry bought himself a milkshake that will figure very prominently later on. We also stopped at Trader Joe’s and I did a little more grocery shopping until Harry was ready to yell at me because I was taking so long–but I refused to leave without two boxes of those damn good Butter Waffle cookies.
In the middle of critiquing the 4 stories for the next day, Ryan asked Harry and I if we’d like to watch Look Around You, a show parodying British educational science videos for elementary students, each episode 10 minutes long. We watched about 3 episodes, laughing and going “WTF IS THIS?!” the whole time. Looking back, this is probably the first time I had to force myself to take a break for my own sanity.
Honestly, I didn’t understand why having this many readings in one evening was proving difficult. It’s not like I didn’t get piles of readings 2 inches thick when I was in college; when I was doing my thesis, it got worse when I had to add my thesis writing in between all that. But perhaps Clarion’s difference is that 1) it’s much shorter than a sem, and 2) you have to critique your readings at the same time, which requires more brain power than just regurgitating your facts during recitation.
Harry told me that he had a fever the night before (“The fever took me”), partially due to the seasonal changes and partially due to that milkshake, probably. I joked that we could have sued McDonald’s while he ate some of my cereal. We walked to class together and for the first time came across the two fat corgis and rubbed their bellies like crazy. Harry was worried that we wouldn’t make it to class in time, but I reassured him; I have, at this point, sprinted or brisk walked to class in under 20-30 minutes several times. I think it was also at this point that I could wake up without an alarm going off every 7 a.m.
Kiik brought cookies and everyone went gaga. He’d bring sweets to all of his sessions and we’d always joke, “Mm, Kiik’s story’s really good!” (although his stories really were good.) I think we didn’t go completely crazy after six weeks of cafeteria food due in part to his random food offerings. Thank you, Kiik!
Sarena had been holding yoga sessions on the roof since the week before, but I only got to join in on this day, alongside Kristen, Marty, Sarena, and Tamara. I begin to feel the heat of the San Diego sun on my face, though it’s a dry and at times grating heat. Geoff joined us later, although he might have had a harder time, having had no yoga mat to protect him from the warm concrete. He later had to remove his rubber shoes and the things jangling in his pockets.
Geoff’s lecture that night centered the first chapter of Arundhati Roy’s “The God of Small Things.” He touched briefly on character (every time you add a character, you add 500 words) and novel ideas vs. short story ideas (you start with a very visual idea that your audience can get right away).
But what he really talked about was plot; specifically, Story vs. Plot. Plot is a series of related incidents moving through the arrow of time via cause and effect, while Story is how you present the plot, not necessarily in chronological order. A good plot is character-driven and has good motivation. Meanwhile, if you establish your storytelling method early enough, the reader will get used to it. Geoff also said that chronological writing is a symptom of lying; you know your plot when you can recite it backwards.
When you smash up a plot, you smash up causality and culpability. We all tend to view the end of the chain of events as the meaning, but that is not what Arundhati Roy wants her readers to do when reading “The God of Small Things.” We all paired up (I was with Kristen this time) and had to order all the events mentioned in the first chapter chronologically–in short, figure out the plot. Kristen was in charge of recalling the events because she’d read the whole book, and I was in charge of finding the events as they were ordered on the sheets were given (and there were a lot). When we heard other groups saying they’d gotten up to 40+, I felt my stomach falling. But it was a good exercise.
Fourth of July! But I was more into celebrating how I was finally going to be workshopped at last. I brought Toothless with me, as he served as the Comfort Dragon.
Harry told me he wasn’t going to class in order to fully heal from the Milkshake of Doom (which he said tasted funny, in hindsight), but he headed out to breakfast first. I spent more time reading the day’s stories and finishing up my critiques. Halfway to the cafeteria, I got a raging stomach ache and I couldn’t even pinpoint why. Harry found me holding onto a fire hydrant for support. I suppose to passerby, I looked pretty scary/weird: a girl the hood of her dark jacket up, dark floor-length skirt blowing in the wind while she’s doubled over a fire hydrant. Harry eased me to a bench and decided to stay with me until I was well enough to walk to the cafeteria and have enough tea to soothe my aching stomach (with Toothless’s wings as my umbrella; Kiik thought I had a bat on my head).
Sarena asked me if I was nervous about my session. I told her that at this point, I just wanted to get it over with.
But when we do get to the classroom, we discover that it’s locked and that either no one has the key code or it doesn’t work at all. I think it was Ellie who offered to kick the door down, but we sadly do not go with that offer. We go back to the Common Room and hold the session there. I forgot it was Shelley or Laura’s husband who brought so many pizzas to the Common Room. He got such a round of applause when he got there. Harry appeared in time for both the pizzas and my session, wholly well.
I was last on the list of those to be workshopped that day; we were so hungry and the pizzas smelled so good. Geoff asked me if it was okay if we ate before my session and I responded by saying that I am getting hangry myself. They laughed and someone said that I don’t want hangry people critiquing my story, either. My session seemed to go over well; this was “The Politics of Ink: A Love Story,” which was 1,319 words long. It raised some questions about using food words to describe People of Color (although we could all agree that the male writer in my story was an asshole) and the gravity of different types of abuse. You’d have thought I would’ve been on top of the food adjective stuff, but I had never had to consider this in the context of white people before. Proves that I still have so much to learn.
“Dead Men’s Path” by Chinua Achebe was the story for Geoff’s final lecture, which was mostly about language. Geoff demonstrated how a good writer–like Achebe–will end a sentence or paragraph with the punchiest word. Two more things he talked about: the Buggeration Factor, in which the event occurring is still a coincidence but the readers will believe it because it is the worst that can (and will) happen; and that story climaxes are different for readers and writers.
WRITERS: When the outcome becomes the most inevitable
READERS: When the story is the most dense
Afterward, Geoff, Nino, Amin, and Marty go out to buy more drinks and the others clear out of the room. Kayla, Marian, and I are left behind; that’s when I decide to introduce my portable speaker. I hooked up my phone to it and Kayla and I had a private Disney-themed karaoke session. I do believe we scared off Marian at some point, just before we moved on to the pop songs. Harry came in just in time for Destiny’s Child’s “Independent Women,” but we had to cut it short in order to watch the fireworks on the roof…which happened pretty far away and were very small, according to Harry’s critique of them. When it was over, I called out from the platform, “HAPPY INDEPENDENCE DAY, AMERICANS!”
We also found out about pterodactyl porn. The costumes…are very lifelike. Amin, Marian, and I sit together and show each other photos of our cats; Amin and I talk about the sicknesses and surgeries we’ve had, who we were when we were teenagers, the Philippine and Australian school systems, our art (I draw, he sculpts), our jobs. Some of us stay up late in the Common Room talking about anime shows and exceedingly gross movies (that aren’t necessarily horror but are still horrific) and recommending favorites to each other and Harry disturbed the crap out of all of us when he sat on one of the high chairs and said, complete with hand gestures, “I have two words for you: Newborn. Porn.”
Decided to hole myself in the apartment and work on my story. The following week, I will realize that I only had about half of it down on this day–but I rewrote that one-half from top to bottom until my brain wanted to explode and it was time for dinner (well, merienda). Turned out that Zach and Nino were cooking–there was some chipotle and tortilla chips on Nino’s table, and some steaming cheesy (chipotle?) fries. Nino also had some kind of meaty stew simmering in a vat, and Kiik brought some yogurt thingies. Overall, my stomach was really happy.
Zach’s lovely girlfriend Liz came by for a visit, too.
Leena, Harry, Tamara, and I sat in one corner and showed each other music videos ranging from corny to cheesy to downright terrifying from our own countries. I did not want to win that one, but dammit, I won it with the official music video of the “Otso-otso.” To rub salt into the wound, some news blows up on Facebook feed about Imelda Marcos being the guest of honor at a scholarship dinner at my university, and I retire to my room for a while in order to process my disappointment and to write just a little more in my story.
As such, I was not mentally prepared for Cat’s arrival. I processed too late that she was coming and had no time to keep it cool. As such, as we were looking at the stars (and mistook an airplane for a planet), as Cat and her husband Heath and the others got acquainted, and as Cat was telling some fascinating story about her time in UCSD and I leaned too far back into a chair and almost toppled Kristen and myself (“Jesus, Vida, you’re gonna kill us all!”)–I was losing my shit. Harry had to hold me. But luckily, Amanda was there to lose her shit with me.
We brought Cat and Geoff up to the roof to hang out. Cat got us all spellbound by more tidbits about UCSD and a little bit about her time in Japan as a Navy wife–we couldn’t help sit on the ground and listen. She and Geoff retired early; Geoff to orient her about the class.
So ended Week 2, which was rough and rigorous and still amazing. Cat would later say that we had thousand-yard looks in our eyes upon first meeting us.
Every day this week, I’m going to blog about a week in Clarion (which honestly feels like a semester each). I suspect my first few posts will have more delineated days, as everything was so new and left sharp impressions; the days for the other weeks will blur into longer paragraphs, probably.
Apparently, my class is more international and more diverse than previous classes. 10 women, 8 men; almost half the class hails from are non-American (Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, and of course, the Philippines–with quite a few more having different ancestries); four are People of Color and one is a Person with Disability; some are LGBT; and of course, one is from a Third World nation.
We came to the workshop with our personal demons perched on our shoulders (and maybe goals smoldering in our hearts), but also wielding our individual strengths. Some, like me, came with a list of story ideas to tackle, the first paragraphs of some of which were already written out and the rest outlined. I can’t speak for the others, but I know I came to the workshop naively thinking that I could plan my way through it.
Like I said, I was naive. I’d soon learn to let go of that, but that’s a story for Week 4.
My main goal, in hindsight, was to be able to write my emotions and/or personal experiences into my fiction. That sounds like a very elemental thing, but I’d been told before that my work lacked grounding. Some even lacked a little bit of me in it. I also wanted to experiment with other forms and try out other genres, with Science Fiction at the top of the list, followed closely by Steampunk and Horror. And, though I didn’t articulate it to myself until about halfway through, I wanted to see if I could write an actual short story, not the summary of a sprawling monster (like I usually do; but later, Cat Valente and Ann Vandermeer would tell me that sprawling monsters are something to be embraced).
In the end, I learned a lot of things. But there are some things that could have been categorized as things I needed to learn.
Hotel breakfast was at 7 a.m. sharp. It was also quite good: a cinnamon roll, strawberry yogurt, a banana, and tea. Had no appetite for anything heavier. I remember thinking that I had never seen so many white people in one room and I had to keep myself from staring. Had to check out at 11 a.m., but the concierge thankfully allowed me to wait in their lobby for classmate and roommate Ryan Campbell (who was picking me up at 2 pm.). Missed lunch that way, though I really wasn’t hungry.
Ryan finally picked me up (“I’ll be the girl holding a white wolf stuffed toy”) and he was surprised that I didn’t have a Filipino accent. Said I sounded like I was born in America, to which I explained that English was my first language. We accidentally detoured into Old Town, which was not a bad thing–it looked completely different from the rest of San Diego, what with the riot of bold colors and all the tourists.
We arrived at UCSD at around 2:30 p.m. Campus is huge. Ryan handed me a plushie of Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon and I was shocked because I had just mentioned to him a week or two before that my sister and I loved it and that I was gonna get her a plushie once in San Diego (or at Comic Con). On our way to Revelle Check-in, I first met Amin and Noah, who were walking together. A bunch of people who were heading a summer group for high schoolers asked me if I was part of their group and I delightedly shook my head.
When we finally arrived at our apartment, Ryan stayed long enough to watch Amanda Fitzwater and Haralambi Markov come out of their rooms and hug me (Harry squealed before saying “You’re tiny!” to me–I’d never ever been called tiny in my life) before jetting off to pick up more classmates from hotels and airports. Meanwhile, I tried to fix my room; the bed was, shockingly, as high as the desk, thus reinforcing the stereotypical (and yet totally true) petite Asian stereotype.
We had our orientation at around 4:30 p.m., followed by a campus tour (where I was taking pictures of everything, like the tourist that I was). Like I said, UCSD’s campus was huge; we mostly stuck together for fear of getting lost among the buildings, the numerous art installations, and all those teenagers. Only Nino and Manish weren’t there; Nino would arrive in the evening and Manish in the morning. Registering for the wi-fi was just as frustrating as finding one’s way around campus–but not as bad for me as for the Mac users, apparently.
Instructor Greg Frost gave a brief talk at around 7:30 p.m., after dinner, regarding what we could expect from the workshop and what he expected from us. Greg acknowledged that he was easing us into the workshop culture, but at the same time, let us know that we’re no longer wading in the kiddie pool. Clarion, apparently, is an MFA program squeezed into six weeks. We also signed up for the one-on-one conferences.
We waited for each other at the ground floor before going to breakfast, as we would every day this week and every Sunday morning with new instructors (but otherwise, never again). We took the long way going to the Pines (we had yet to discover the shortcut) and had extreme difficulty finding a table among all the screaming teenagers. Food wasn’t bad, but still couldn’t eat much. Something of a tummy ache, which would last me several days. Was this jetlag?
I decided to record everything on my phone, the way I do whenever I interview someone or listen to a conference.
In class, Greg said that he was going to keep lecturing about craft until one of us began submitting something–we didn’t critique the submission stories like I thought we would, which kind of made me kind of sad because I knew deep down that I wouldn’t be able to get a story done for Week 1 in time, even with all the exercises Greg gave us. So much for six stories in six weeks.
Greg also laid down how we might want to proceed throughout the workshop as well: reading a story twice, the concept of ideal and idiot readers, beta readers just so we might feel a little more confident before uploading our works, leaving a story alone for 24 hours after finishing it (yeah, haha, if you have Time Management skills), writing the author a letter along with the critique. He also gave each class a bunch of scientific articles–prompts that may or may not start stories.
Between 9 a.m. to 12 n.n., Greg walked us through opening sentences and first pages, 1950s Syndrome (stories with inefficiently extrapolated futures), kinds of characters and character deaths and repellent characters and characters who don’t know certain key things about themselves and the Symbolic Self, and where to find good research books (the children’s section of a library or bookstore).
The exercise he gave us was in 4 parts. He gave us a few minutes to do each one:
PARTS OF A STORY (scenes)
Some of us read theirs aloud afterward. I was really impressed. They all immediately came up with sketches with speculative elements and I came up with winding drivel in the realist mode. Nothing wrong with realism, but it was so clear to me that my brain was still warming up. I needed to get into gear faster.
After our first lunch at Canyon Vista, the conferences began, four people per day or so. Amanda was first blood among my roommates; after she returned, we all asked her how it went and then it spiralled into a living room session where we (Ryan, Harry, Amanda, and I) just started talking about our jobs and our backgrounds and how we don’t feel we fit in with our cities/countries and the languages we spoke and our opinions on certain movies.
Some time after dinner, a bunch of the others decided to have a drinking session on the roof (Monday Roof Brews–called that maybe twice, then never again). The latecomers were told off by 9:20 guard, who explained that we can’t drink up there according to California State Law and that we were getting a little too loud.
There I was, dressed for winter in the height of a California summer, on a campus right next to the Pacific Ocean. At some point, because we were just getting to know each other and I diverted to the wallflower aspect of myself, I crouched on the ground and spread my long skirt around me to stop my legs from shaking (Ellie would lend me her leather jacket for the rest of the time I spent standing there). It would take three days for me to stop wearing my scarf everywhere and about two or three weeks to wear a jacket for the protection of the hood against the heat, not against the cold. I remember looking at everyone and thinking how comfortable they all seemed hanging out with each other and drinking and playing ukulele and talking about movies they’d seen. Ellie impressed us all by singing the complete lyrics (with ukulele accompaniment!) of Amanda Palmer’s “Ukulele Anthem.”
I talked to a few people myself, or else just listened to the conversation. Manish made me feel right at home when he showed me that he, too, was also wearing two or three layers. We talked about Filipino food and Singaporean food (that we promised to show each other should we ever visit each other’s countries), and Singapore-Philippines relations.
“Almost all of you said were introverts!” I thought at some point, really amused. I felt like such a small-town girl, even though I come from the bustling megalopolis of Metro Manila–everything there was so convenient and easy and efficient, the way everything back home isn’t. There wasn’t even any traffic! I worried very briefly that it was going to be high school all over again.
Luckily, those worries were unfounded.
Greg talked about writer’s block today–basically, he doesn’t believe in it. It could be 15-20 different things at any one time. He also said there may be such a thing as pre-emptive writer’s block, which is being unable to start because you have no ideas and you feel you have to start the story right. “Start it wrong,” he said.
Then he launched into context, which is basically about character relationships. Rarely is a character interesting by themselves; they need people to bounce off of. Then he taught us his theory about relationship triangles, which is an unbelievable and effective story fix. We learned about the Ecology of the Supernatural, the Ecology of the Economy, a little bit about telling details and in-cluing, and just a few Things That Don’t Work Anymore in Fiction.
I currently have no record of what exercise we tried today because my hard drive is still in the repair shop (more on that for Week 4), but I think this was the one where Greg gave us 4 or 5 situations and gave us 10-15 minutes each to write different beginnings for each one. Again, I was amazed by what everyone read aloud–there were no two concepts alike among 18 writers. But I don’t know, the idea caught fire for me, so I ended up writing a flash piece on the situation “a man falls from a bus, a woman smiles.” Made it about a young guy in his 20s who is super late for the bar exam because he’s stuck in traffic. It’s his last chance to get his life together, and he’s also thinking about the dead sister he admired. He gets off the bus but falls down, and he looks up to see her ghost encouraging him. I read that one aloud; was glad for the chance to try and get over my fear of public speaking.
After class, Sarena, Amin, Nino, and I paid a visit to the literal house hanging over the edge of the Engineering building. It was an amazing, dizzying, terrifying experience–according to the housekeeper, the artist built the house (which is basically a living room with completely different corner and furniture sizes to mess up your perspective, full of the paraphernalia of a cozy existence and burgeoning family life) to convey how disoriented he felt upon coming to live in America or something of the sort. I had to hold onto the chair as I stood there, feeling like falling. But it was cool to watch Amin and Sarena’s sizes shift depending on which corner of the house they walked to. Instant magic.
We also went to the library to register–god, was it gorgeous. Looked like a fortress. We went up the snake path to get to it, and then down to what felt like the secret underground entrance.
I checked out the Special Collections archive and ordered a couple of boxes full of the previous classes’ works. Got the box containing Kelly Link’s stories, as well as the 2013 class–wanted to read my friend Isa’s fiction. Little did I know that this would be only the first of two times that I’d set foot in the archive. Went up to the sixth floor to find Harry and Manish, whom I spotted going up as I signed up for a library card. I forced myself to begin writing a story then and there. It’s one of the ones on my Clarion Ideas list. Thank god I’d been thinking of that world for about two months already, though I was still certain that I would not get it done before Week 1 ended. Harry and Manish took turns talking to me before they left the library; it seemed like Harry’s longhand draft was going well, while Manish was researching for his story. We did not get off on the correct floor because, due to the library’s architecture, we miscalculated where the entrance was.
First karaoke night! Everybody took a go at the mic; that was when we learned that Ryan could do a startling impression of Kermit the Frog while singing “Rainbow Connection” and that Kayla could rap (I think she did Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass”). Tamara also released her operatic voice training on “Cabaret.” The duets and other regular combos also established themselves that night. It was time for me to shed (a little bit of) my shyness, so I had at the mic with Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” and Pink’s “Raise Your Glass.”
Final day of lectures and exercises, though we didn’t know it yet. Later in the afternoon, Tamara would break the ice by sending in her first story of the workshop.
We had a bunch of exercises. First up was one teaching us the importance of names: we paired up (I was with Amin) and had to name seven completely different characters–the names, in fact, had to be in keeping with the characters, a la Charles Dickens. Best one was naming “A descendant of Vlad Tepes who fits himself with artificial teeth and lamely attempts to bite people at random. I had a real hoot over Amin’s “Clad the Nibbler.”
Still don’t know for sure what today’s other exercise was, but I am willing to bet it was the one where we had to write a sex scene, then make a list of nouns and verbs related to kitchen tasks. Then we had to replace all the nouns and verbs in the sex scene with the list we had. That was to show us how sex scenes are just one of those things that could easily go bad in writing. Most of it is titillating, but extraneous. Even the best writers’ brains can short circuit when it comes to sex scenes. Needless to say, that was very awkward and super funny when a few of the others read theirs aloud–and because I did a bunch of non-sexy paragraphs to warm up first, I don’t think I got that exercise right until the last few minutes in. We had our first class photo after the session, by the stone bear.
Ryan drove us to Greg’s reading at Mysterious Galaxy. In the car were the four of us (Suite HARV as we once called ourselves) and the quirky, fun-loving Leena. We kept chatting about how American roads were so different from the roads in our countries (New Zealand, Bulgaria, Finland, the PHL) until Ryan overtook a car and said that some guy was flipping him off. Sure enough, the driver of the car he just overtook had his arm hanging out the window, middle finger raised. When we looked around, we saw the driver of the car throwing a punch at the guy in the passenger seat and went “WHOA!”
The car swerved left and right along the freeway, until it finally drove off to one side. The two guys, an older man and a teenager, got out to duke it out. Laughing, us foreigners were going, “Ryan, slow down! U-turn! We must watch this! It’s like reality TV!” And Ryan says, laughing, “No, I might get called to court!”
Even after all that excitement, we made it to Mysterious Galaxy in one piece.
I’m developing a theory in which heaven is an amalgamation of all of the awesome places a person has loved in their lives. Mysterious Galaxy is going to make up some part of it; apart from being spacious and well-lit, they had an excellent F/SF section, a multitude of books on cats, fridge poetry magnets, and other awesome bookwormy merchandise. Couldn’t help wander down the aisles during parts of Greg’s reading; it’s not that it was boring, not at all–it was my equivalent of doodling during a long session.
Afterward, Ryan drove us to In-N-Out for dinner (Leena had takeout at Chipotle because she’s vegetarian). I finally had one of their famous hamburgers (California Burger in the PHL), although when I posted the picture on my timeline, a bunch of friends told me to go back and have it Animal Style, whatever that was. This is when I also learned that Marty doesn’t like tomatoes, so I became his official Tomato Gobbler every time he had a burger/sandwich that had one.
We critiqued the first 3 stories of the workshop today. We still did not know that this would constitute a light day. I think the session went really well; you could glimpse from that day how we would all style our critiques from then on, but it wasn’t until Week 2 that we’d hit our grooves and I could begin tracking my own progress while taking note of the others. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses when we critique, as well.
I am not certain if Zach assumed his Time Lord duties on this day, but as far as I know, we did not have a set time to deliver our critiques for all of Week 1. Also, got my Comic Con ticket today. 😀
Manish and I talk about our stories at lunchtime. He said he understood if I couldn’t talk about mine though I tried anyway, because why not attempt a different process? He told me that it sounded like the main character didn’t have much agency at the moment, and I took note of that. We both agreed we’re probably just going to do 5 stories for the 6 weeks, though we both said we’d see if we can’t cough up a sixth somewhere in between (ha. Hahaha. Ha.).
After lunch, I went to the library with Marty and Kristen. The boxes containing the stories of Clarions past arrived today and we dug our way through the works of Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer, Cory Doctorow, and Nalo Hopkinson. We thought we could make ourselves feel good by how bad the stories were–but they weren’t bad at all, so joke’s on us. Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat” may very well have been in the same form in Clarion as it is now that it’s published.
I also read one of Isa’s stories. Somehow, reading the work of other Filipinos who’d been there before me made me feel better because, as I have written before, I had identity issues (which were somewhat put at ease after the workshop). I didn’t have time to browse through everything because we still had stories to read and because I had to get going with my own story–but somehow, I had time to drop by the Price Center and do a little grocery shopping. I also went to the UCSD bookstore and ended up with two books. I had confidence that I could finally find my way back to the apartment by myself.
Big mistake. I wandered around our part of campus for about 30 minutes more, looking for any sign of something familiar, only stopping to go to the bathroom (which I found through sheer accident via the shortcut to the apartments from the Pines cafeteria). By the time I got to the apartment, I had almost no strength to type. Amanda helped me through this by suggesting I rub the bottle of Grumpy Cat Vanilla Cappuccino I bought up and down my arms.
I registered for the Thursday of Comic Con, but then learned about the difficulties of transportation, the lack of schedule, and that some of my classmates were going on different days. Que horror! But I wouldn’t send the email to the organizers asking to move my registration until Week 2.
A terrible and embarrassing thing happened to me today. I locked myself out of the bedroom in the apartment–I usually lock the door at night before going to sleep and before leaving the apartment for breakfast. Panicked because I didn’t know if I lost the keys or locked them in my room. I got the spare from the front desk, but in my panic, I guess I didn’t do a proper sweep of my room. Kiik and Noah helped me retrace my steps and look for the keys for about an hour. It wasn’t so bad. We ended up talking about food because it was so close to dinner. Noah also told me a little bit about where he lived and some of the animals there, and so did I. Then we stopped before some bushes next to the Literature building because I saw a hummingbird for the very first time and admired it for a while.
Ryan texted Kiik saying they found my bedroom keys on my desk (goddammit); this led to my first time taking the shuttle around campus. We talked about more food and Kiik asked me about life in Manila.
Four stories for Friday. Super heavy day, but somehow, we still made it in time for lunch. My one-on-one with Greg got moved to Saturday.
On Friday afternoon, we went for a walk on the cliffs. I went anyway, even if I needed more time to work on my story, because Greg also told us that we could do less writing and more hanging out with our classmates. Plus, I’m always game for more nature.
The cliffs were beautiful. There were random rabbits and strange flora everywhere, including a small cluster of buds that had what looked like crystals sprinkled all over them. Noah plucked one and showed it to me. When I took it, the delicacy of the buds surprised me; they crumbled if I wasn’t careful holding them.
There were parts of the cliff that were closed off because the ground wasn’t exactly steady. Marty and Greg proved to be rebels in that sense. A bunch of us jokingly shouted, “Don’t do it, Greg! You still have so much to live for!”
We also watched a bunch of para-gliders, a flock of birds flying in wave formation, judged the people/person living in an excessive mansion by the cliff’s edge (it apparently has 12 or 13 bathrooms), and watched a spectacular sunset before moving back to the roof and hanging out some more. Couldn’t believe the week was ending.
Sarena drove me, Tamara, Nino, and Kristen to this cat-themed Drive-By Cinema truck somewhere in San Diego. I held Sarena’s phone and watched the car move along the freeways that none of us knew.
There were excellent tacos when we got there, and someone was handing out fake blooms to all the attendees. The 45-minute stream of cat videos was just about ending when we sat down. Then they played a 60s Japanese yakuza movie called Tokyo Drifter.Tamara and I had way too many side comments, but the movie was (unintentionally) hilarious. The best part was the bar brawl, Western saloon style–all the men just start hitting each other for no reason and the entire set began falling apart.
I was really worried that all of my roommates would be asleep when we got back at around 11 p.m. (I’d left my room key behind–this was a habit I eventually shed, I think.) Kristen and the others were offering that I sleep on their couch if that was so, but apparently, my worries were once again unfounded. Once Sarena parked, we found a small group of Clarionites standing around the parking lot, laughing raucously. They’d apparently been found out by 9:20 guard again.
Greg and I have our conference. He had some comments printed out for both of my submission stories. I didn’t feel too bad about not having my own session this week because of this, but we were both sorry he wouldn’t be able to workshop something new of mine. He really is the Chill Uncle among all of our instructors.
We opted out of the Pines breakfast and had brunch at a loud and vibrant Mexican restaurant in Old Town instead. The cafeteria food had yet to taste terrible to me at that point and I was just barely getting over my jetlagged stomach troubles, but when I ate the rice, egg, and refried beans…heaven. I didn’t realize how much processed food I’d been eating. Nino even introduced our side of this table to this milky drink which Ryan reminded me was called Horchata. ❤
Leena asked me about the story I was planning to submit and I told her it was a secondary world based on pre-colonial Philippines. She told me she didn’t know much about the country’s history, so I kinda launched into explaining 30o+ years of colonization in about 5 minutes. Shoulda warned her I was a history geek.
After brunch, the group went its separate ways. Suite HARV, with Tamara and Amin included, decided to traipse around Old Town’s markets. We found an old Mexican-type house that had been turned into a museum (complete with an outdoor oven!), went through a dried meat shop, and dove into numerous stores full of luchador masks, pottery, tiles, and magnets. Even a Chinese pottery and porcelain shop, for some reason, where Amin and I found a multi-colored phoenix made more frightening by the scary baby doll looking down at it from behind. I bought a bunch of tiles for some folks back home.
After getting some top-notch ice cream and admiring how blue the sky was, we squeezed into the car. I ended up sitting on Amanda’s lap, and we casually drove down the freeway, hoping no cops were around. Ended up chatting about the other times I ended up squeezed like this, especially in lines–best to make light of a tight situation.
While printing out the stories for next week, Clarion Coordinator Laura caught me typing up my personal motivational posters on my laptop for printing, too. I printed a ninth one not too far later on, and I’m sad that I didn’t get a photo of all 9 on my wall or get to take them all home with me afterward. The ninth one read HAVE FUN. YOU’RE NOT HERE TO WRITE A MASTERPIECE.
Geoff Ryman arrived at around 7 p.m. He hung out with us and Greg in the common room and the roof for a little while. Man, is he tall.
So ended Week 1. Little did we know that it wouldn’t always be this carefree.
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.”
Dire straits preyed upon the frozen Pentagon City.
Its otherwise fair midwinter afternoon was disturbed by a great white beast winding through the streets — one-third dragon, one-third yeti, one-third unrequited lover, and one hundred percent malice. Every three moments it huffed deep, drawing slick-wheeled cars and the occasional unlucky pedestrian into its maw, and then bellowed a conflagration of blue frost, whistling like a blizzard and freezing the whole block.
To the Hatter, the clamor was only a distant hum. Instead his ears focused on the revving engine inside the Chrysler stuck in the snow off Interstate Seventy-Seven. He listened patiently until the engine fell idle, and a bleach-blond girl emerged, her nose red, her hands muzzled in mittens. She worked her eyes on the Hatter, who stood right there, listening patiently.
“Need a helping hat?” he asked. The girl only stared. He was dressed for the weather, all in gray except for his white scarf, and was perfectly ordinary except for the scruffy round hat atop his head, which had sat in that exact position so long a swift had nested there, and was now warming a clutch of tiny eggs.
“Uh,” the girl said at last, before she smiled.
—My words follow—
“Oh, don’t mind these,” said the Hatter. With one hand, he whisked the nest–swift and all–off his hat and behind his back. With the other, he removed the hat, spun it twice, and rested it on his stomach as he bowed to the girl. Then he repeated all the motions in reverse.
The swift was rather ruffled, but it still did not leave its perch. It twittered madly, but the hatter paid it no mind.
“I am the Hatter,” he said, smiling. “And you, charming lady, are…?”
“Call me Mittens,” said the girl, bemused, but still smiling politely.
“What a strange name.”
“Why give your real name to someone who’s given you a fake?”
“Touche,” the Hatter tapped the side of his nose. “So, do you need a helping hat?”
Mittens gripped her arms, sneezed. “Well, it seems that a monster straight from the Book of Revelations is snaking its way through the city and I, like most sensible people, am trying to leave. Only my car’s broken down and I’m supposed to be meeting my boyfriend at the outskirts. But I don’t see how a hat is supposed to help fix my car.”
The Hatter’s smile could have split his face. “You have obviously never heard of me.”
I came to know Japan through its anime and manga culture, through Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay “In Praise of Shadows” and Akira Kurosawa’s film Dreams and the music of Yuki Kajiura, through the brutality of its soldiers toward the Philippines and other nations during World War II, through an array of sushi restaurants of varying quality, through statistics of its suicides, wacky game shows, offbeat products, gruesome urban legends, and Shinto creation myth.
It will take several lifetimes to scratch the surface of Japan, but reading Catherynne M. Valente’s newest collection of (Japan-centered and Japan-tinted) short fiction and poetry, The Melancholy of Mechagirl, one gets the sense that—while by no means an in-depth look at the nation—she knows more than the average anime-addicted, J-pop culture-savvy gaijin ever will.
It is hard to talk about this collection of science fiction and fantasy without talking about the author’s two-year experience as a lonely young army wife in a rural military town in Japan. Valente seemed to know this as well, judging from the afterword in which she artfully summarized that experience and established it as the anchoring point of any of her even remotely Japan-related fiction. I read this afterword first because I was genuinely curious about her fascination with Japan, having first encountered and fallen in love with her work in the Orphan’s Tales duology and the Fairyland series. But nobody else need read the afterword first, as it won’t affect the reading of the nine stories and four poems, many of them about a lonely foreign girl—often a writer, too—stuck in a strange, fascinating country.
I’ve got to be honest, though. While Valente is at the top of her game in this collection, it’s her stories that manage to pull back or balance the lonely foreign writer girl situation that really strike a chord. Sometimes, the pain becomes too raw, too engulfing, and maybe at times too specific, as I can’t put myself in the shoes of any character imbued with this sort of angst? I find myself wanting to read more about, say, Kyorinrin and Tsuma rather than Kyorinrin’s roughly-imagined girl Akemi in the semiautobiographical, metafictional story “Ink, Water, Milk,” which is unique to the collection.
Or sometimes, Valente manages to emulate the neatness and the strangeness of Japan a little too well, like in the aforementioned story or in “Fifteen Panels Depicting the Sadness of the Baku and the Jotai.” Maybe I have Victorian sensibilities, but I can’t seem to grow used to the idea of supernatural beings making love to inanimate objects (or inanimate objects making love to other inanimate objects, for that matter).
“Ghosts of Gunkanjima” is a sad story about the inhabitants of the abandoned factory-island of Gunkanjima, but I know Valente is capable of the kind of sadness that makes you stop reading for a little while and try to even out your breathing. The award-winning “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Space/Time” was gorgeously written and a fun read (even if the scientific terms went over my head) because of the comparison of different creation myths and certain points of rebirth in the life of a science fiction writer, but I felt there was still something missing from it.
The collection begins to pick up with “One Breath, One Stroke,” however. The dazzling parade of supernatural creatures somehow reminded me of a scene about walking into a kitsune wedding from Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams. There was something poignant about the struggle of Ko the old man and Yuu the calligraphy brush, who share the same body, trying to leave a house they can’t leave—the House of Second-hand Carnelian, whose one half is in the human world and the other in the supernatural world.
“Story No. 6,” which is unique to the collection as well, is not your conventional story in that the plot is not in trying to catch the elusive Kami haunting old black-and-white reels of Japanese films, but in what happens to the characters and audience members that she takes along with her, never to be seen again. Also, it made me want to Google the films mentioned and find out if they really do have missing scenes and characters.
I don’t go looking for science fiction to read, but sometimes, the stories I do come across are good fun and not at all like the jargon-heavy, techno-savvy stuff that make up much of the genre. “Fade to White” is one such story. I enjoyed the post-apocalyptic USA where everything down to gene and marriage pairings must be regulated, as well as following the story of Martin, who dreams of becoming a Husband, and secretly part-Japanese Sylvie, who would rather not be a Wife. You don’t get to find out what the amusing corrected TV commercial scripts interspersing the narrative are about until the end, but it’s well worth it.
“Killswitch” is novel in that this is my first encounter with a piece of fiction dealing with video games, even if this one is about a near-unplayable game that terminates itself once the end of one of the playable character’s storylines is reached. With only 5,000 copies available, the said game has become an urban legend and people will do anything to crack the code.
The four-part novella “Silently and Very Fast” earns all of its commendations. It will take a little patience to get through the beginning, as readers are immediately introduced to the strange world of Neva and her highly-evolved artificial intelligence, Elefsis. The novella follows Elefsis’s entire life, beginning with his/her/its creation as a less sophisticated Jarvis of the house of celebrated computer programmer Cassian Uoya-Agostino, and his growth as he/she/it is handed down from one vastly different family member to another over hundreds of years. Neva is a lonely girl here, but combined and complemented with the loneliness of Elefsis, it’s a loneliness that circles you until it becomes a nest you can safely, comfortably get warm in. This novella definitely kicked me in the gut. I highly recommend it.
I wish I were qualified to talk about the poetry, but I am not. I will say, however, that I enjoyed the titular “The Melancholy of Mechagirl” and its rolling bubblegum-pop scientific jargon. “The Girl with Two Skins” was highly affecting (and probably my absolute favorite among the four poems), and “Memoirs of a Girl Who Failed to Be Born from a Peach” both sad and amusing.
“The Emperor of Tsukayama Park” is probably the most “Japanese” of them all in that it uses a lot of nature imagery and evokes that sense of neatness and ephemerality that the Japanese prize and are known for. In that sense, it is also the one I understood the least, perhaps because it is the one poem less like fiction than all the others.
All in all, The Melancholy of Mechagirl is a lot like wine and a lot like Japan itself—a heady, acquired taste. But once the taste is acquired, I definitely don’t mind getting tipsy with it.