I have a story there. It’s my week 2 Clarion piece, “Ink: A Love Story”, about two writers who write their perfect lovers into existence.
I’m sharing the TOC with Clarion classmate Manish Melwani and the awesome Zen Cho, author of Sorceror to the Crown.
The cover of the issue, done by the talented Lydia Wong, was based on my story.
Please grab a copy now!
I’ve also just returned from the 1st Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Writers Workshop, which was held by the UP ICW at Microtel, UP TechnoHub. The focus was speculative fiction, a first for the Philippines. The workshop completely exceeded my expectations, from the quality of the work to the quality of the discussions to the quality of the accommodations. I was even struck down by stomach flu some hours just before the cosplay graduation ceremony, unfortunately. Photos to follow, but for now, here we are, about to watch the play Distrito de Molo at Palma Hall in UP (photo taken by panelist Eliza Victoria).
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.
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.
There it is, real life is already catching up. I’d been trying to write this post these last few days, but I was simply too busy with work and technological failures to do so. I think that after Clarion, the challenge is reconciling the disparate sizes of two different parts of your life: re-learning to see the beauties of your real-life while balancing the possibilities bursting the seams of the artist life. Both have their dark sides, of course; anything without a shadow is simply flat and lifeless.
No class picture for this week. It became increasingly hard to get all of us together for one photo, although we did manage in time for the last week. I kind of wish some of us insisted more. Oh, well.
We were up bright and early for the first breakfast with Cat (Geoff passed on this in favor of packing and getting ready for his flight). I Skyped with my boyfriend for the first time since arriving in UCSD and introduced him to my roommates. While waiting for the others, Leena and I discussed going to San Diego Zoo next week, as we were in sore need of animals to pet–I mean, I kept losing my shit every time I saw someone walking a dog (which was almost daily). We just needed to find another interested classmate with a car, as we were quite likely to lose our way even riding a bus.
I was chilling in my room after breakfast when I heard that Geoff still hadn’t left. Amin, Marian, and I knocked on the door of his room, which he opened just when we thought he’d gone. We gave him hugs and thank yous all around and he signed their books while I asked him to sign my notebook (this is the disadvantage of owning an e-book–the authors can only sign your reader, and I don’t even have that).
Emily Jiang of the 2008 Clarion UCSD class came by with a staggering amount of to-die-for cookies, brownies, lemon squares, and books for us in the afternoon. She also invited us to the book launch of her latest book. Two folks from San Diego came with her and promised Cat an ostrich egg later in the week–I didn’t think they were serious.
Cat told the story of how she and Seanan MacGuire were saying how they’d never win certain awards early on in their careers, and then they went on to win those awards just a handful of years later. She had each of us take a glass (or any kind of container once the glasses ran out), fill it with liquor, and say that thing we think we’ll never achieve but hope to in time. I am not a drinker, but I went ahead and toasted anyway. I didn’t get a chance to think about it deeply enough and said that I would never start my own small press for spec fic in my country–but what I should have said, perhaps, among the many things I wished for and only realized the next day, was that I’d never help start Clarion workshops in Asia with a friend someday.
Cat also had this great analogy: “Readers are banks and writers are trying to get credit lines from them.” First lines, first pages, first chapters, and first novels all serve to help get the reader through the next phase…but if they don’t like that particular book, they won’t buy your next one. No pressure at all.
We played oneround of Cards Against Humanity with Cat’s set after that (Ryan brought his, too, but I had no idea what that game was until this week), and then I went to growl in frustration over work on my story for the week.
I fell asleep at 11 p.m. and woke up again at 2 a.m., which was when I decided to keep writing this damn thing until breakfast. I’ve read of so many Clarion blogs talking about that moment when you’re writing and writing until you just can’t write anymore and the end doesn’t look to be in sight then BAM! Something clicks. In this case, a plot twist typed itself of its own accord, at around 4 a.m. I probably sat on my bed for a full minute, staring at the unexpected line of dialogue, and went “FUCK IT!” and went right back to sleep until my alarm went off at 6 a.m.
Started to feel like my story was going nowhere, which was a sure sign of suffering from Middle Bit Syndrome. This was also when I began drawing in class. Well, inking the pencil doodles that had faded with time, to be precise.
Cat walked around campus barefoot the whole day because her feet had blisters. I remember thinking, man I wish I was bad ass enough to walk around barefoot here. And then I realized that if I tried that in Manila, I’d catch something awful and throw my salary away at salons with foot spa services. Yeesh.
In the 15 minute break between stories, Cat had us go to one of the grass patches in the middle of the walkway and had us do a theater exercise designed to help us understand body language a little more. She assigned each of us an animal (I got a lion) and then gave us situations in which we had to act out what those animals would do: sleep, play, mate, hunt (I may have forgotten or misremembered one or two). It was definitely fun hunting down everyone else, especially when I found out that they were animals waaaaaaaaaaaaay smaller than lions (iguana, dog, etc.). Ryan got a t-rex, so all he did was lie down. Hahaha.
The ice cream in the cafeteria up until this point was only so-so, but today was the first and last day I’d get to eat the best it had to offer: a chocolate-flavored popsicle. I made a complete mess of eating it as Nino, Zach, Kristen, Kiik, and I walked to a completely unfamiliar part of campus looking for where Kiik parked his car. He offered us a ride back to the apartments to save time, but the way there was actually much longer–full of twists and turns around more student housing, then actually trekking down a hill at some point. We joked that he may actually be taking us to a secluded spot for nefarious purposes, but it was an exciting adventure overall. We were only a couple of minutes late for the talk Cat was giving back in the Common Room.
Once we got to the Common Room, the rest were quietly writing in their notebooks. Bond paper with seemingly random words (examples included “family,” “flower,” “death,” and “love”) were taped to two sides of the wall. Cat explained that these were the Lockbox Words of Doom and that she was taking these words away from us and giving them back on Sunday, upon leaving. The point of this was to get us to write around the concept of the word, which she said she has tried in her fiction and which has often yielded some interesting results. We could use synonyms. We could use the words themselves and their equivalent in other languages (I got some dirty looks for asking that question, hahaha) provided that the story was taking place in that culture and that we were sure there was no other, more fitting word. Cat understood that this was the hardest for people who had stories up for tomorrow, and she left us some time to react violently to this.
Luckily, my story wasn’t going to be taken up ’til Thursday, although I had to finish it by Tuesday to give Amin enough time to beta read. I had fun finding all of the forbidden words and using their synonyms/rewriting the paragraphs even if I had yet to finish writing the rest of the text (maybe I enjoyed it because it was an excuse to delay the excruciating task of writing the ending), but it made me think about the implications of using a different language in a secondary world where I once used English. I sort of half made up new words and half cut up Tagalog words I knew and moved around a couple of syllables in order to get familiar yet unfamiliar combinations.
By the end of the evening, my brain was just going UGH SO COMPLICATED CRY that my roommates took pity on me. Amanda brought back an apple from the cafeteria and Ryan let me have some of his root beer. I have no idea where the chocolate chip cookie came from and perhaps it’s best that I try not to remember. I was told that Clarion was full of sleep deprivation; I did not know it would be full of food deprivation, as well.
I gave Amin my story after class today. Felt pretty guilty about it, considering its length and how much we all had to read for tomorrow. But he was very gracious about it.
I am certain Cat had a talk today, but I don’t remember which one this was about. We did, however, touch very briefly on Farah Mendelsohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy in trying to determine the relationship the fantasy in one of my classmate’s stories had to the real world. The four categories were broken down as such:
PORTAL: A portal opens into a new world.
LIMINAL: The mode of most magic realism; real world, but inexplicable things happen or slightly different rules occur.
INTRUSIVE: The mode of horror; shit intrudes on our world.
IMMERSIVE: Secondary world fantasies.
Cat was careful to note that there may be other categorizations out there if we felt like our stories didn’t fit neatly into any of the four. This was just one way of looking at things.
Today may have been the day we did an exercise concerning endings after lunchtime–Cat gave us maybe around five situations and we had to write endings for them. The only ones I remember clearly were “haunted house” and “the Sun God statue just outside of the Biological Sciences building coming to life.” I remembered the last one because I wrote that it was chasing Harry and I until we were up against a wall. The glowing Sun God says, “Bitchez, why you runnin’ from me? I’m fabuloooooooous!” and Harry peels himself from the wall and goes, “Why didn’t you say so before? I’m fabulous, too!”
Karaoke was back! There were fewer of us than during the first night, though I guess that was expected. This was when we first started bringing our printed manuscripts for critiquing to karaoke. We’d read, cheer for the singer, get up to sing ourselves, then go back to reading.
I don’t know about the rest, but I saw this as one way of letting out steam; this was why I attended that time. I sang Kelly Clarkson’s “I Do Not Hook Up,” even though I was growing increasingly anxious about my own unfinished story and still had to read the other manuscripts a second time, and joined Leena in her rendition of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” in honor of her shocking Santa Claus story the week before. Really enjoyed Ryan and Kayla killing “Handlebars” by Flobots.
I left for the apartment by myself at 9:30 p.m. and was dismayed to learn from Facebook a little later that everyone joined in for Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and that Cat and Harry did a duet with “The Time of My Life.” Can’t believe I missed that!
At lunch, Cat gave a short lecture containing–what else–extremely useful tips about story nuts and bolts. For example, on structure:
“The best way structure works with narrative is to have both bursting at the seams. There should be 20 lbs. of narrative in a 5 lb. bag of structure.”
Titles were also taken up. If your title does not in any way connect to the first part of the text, it’s a weak title.
But most of all, she touched on beginnings. Before taking us through a line-by-line analysis of a story Nino was submitting for next week, she taught us some eye-opening stuff:
The accretion of information in the first part must be dense, but not overloaded.
The danger of starting with a flashback is that the reader will have no context and will be waiting to be kicked back to the story’s present.
Short, haiku-like beginnings in short stories grab attention.
First paragraphs should be dense in certain aspects, though not necessarily all (genre, character, voice, etc.)
After lunch, Amin came to the apartment and went over his notes on my story. He apparently didn’t get enough sleep thanks to all that reading–I apologized to him repeatedly. After asking him lots of questions, he handed me his notes and left. I did one more round of top to bottom edits before thinking “FUCK IT!” for the second time this week and uploading my story onto the Google Drive–all 8,062 words of it. It was starting to feel like I’d been in Clarion for 3 weeks and had only 1 story to show for it–not really a bad thing, but definitely not up to my personal standards.
I went back and edited the file a couple of times to add the trigger warnings we all agreed we’d add (if there was a need), and then a warning in the first page that there were trigger warnings in the last page. It was only when I was sitting in Ryan’s car with Amanda, Harry, and Leena, on the way to Cat’s reading, that I realized I forgot to put the 5,000 word mark. DAMN IT. Already, jokes about the length abounded on our Facebook page.
Cat’s reading was nothing short of spellbinding. She read the entirety of “White Lines on a Green Field,” the first story in her latest short story collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams (I had brought my own copy for her to sign).Everyone stood rooted to where they were; when she finished, there was thunderous applause.
Bought Harry his birthday present a week early–fridge poetry magnets, Bitch-themed. My roommates and I had fun making bitchy phrases out of them in between writing stories and other stressful things.
I noted that, down the line of people who were having her sign their books afterward, there were quite a few who brought around 5 or more of her books. I had wanted her to sign my copy of The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, but it was too heavy to bring over. One other impressive thing about Cat was that she took the time to personalize each autograph. I picked up Deathless and Indistinguishable from Magic while I was at it. Sure enough, Cat was also presented with an ostrich egg in a box; she promised to cook it for us for breakfast on Saturday and I was like
We only had to read 3 stories for tomorrow–well, 2 for me. Harry kept making jokes about how it felt like he had to read 4 stories because of the length of mine.
First Clarion birthday today: Manish! They went out for beer and food truck adventures later in the afternoon.
Put on my purple sundress for the first time today. It seemed fitting, given that the design looks truly Philippine–fitting for my story–and that wearing my favorite color comforts me overall. But I do forget to bring Toothless along.
We got tips on how to retell fairy tales today. Giving the tale more specificity and planting it into a culture helps make it unique, for as it is passed down, we get images with their cultural meanings stripped away.
Mine was the last story in our roster of three that day. I learned of something upsetting during the 15-minute break and had a good cry about it in the bathroom. Marian and Sarena caught me at it and tried to soothe me; Marian later brought me tea and Sarena said there would be yoga up on the roof later. I calmed down a bit.
I was glad I saved this story for Cat’s week–“Song for My Brother,” 8,062 words. She told me I had a novel on my hands, that there was so much material to explore in that world, and that there were a whole bunch of little narratives I could put in or structure what I already had around should I think of expanding it. She also mentioned that she googled all the words that were foreign to her, and that’s when I realized (in the privacy of my head) that this world needed to be even more secondary world than it already was. I was in danger of appropriating the cultures of the different tribes by taking bits that stand out and mashing them together. This was also when I realized that the remoteness and virtual unknown-ness of the Philippines as a whole will make any story I set there seem secondary world, whether this is my intention or not. I wonder if that’s something I should try to address, but maybe it’s not something to be addressed at all?
Cat’s style for the one-on-one conferences was to ask what you thought your weaknesses were and give you a challenge for next week to help overcome those. I told her that I had some problems with character and emotion, and that I tended to write and write and write until I cracked. She challenged me to try juggling two voices bouncing off each other to see if I could sustain characterization and voice for more than 2 characters. Sadly, I was not able to try this for the other weeks, but it’s something to think about in the future.
Because I still thought at the time that my challenge was writing in other genres, I asked her about how to approach science fiction (“It’s like fantasy but with a different vocabulary, and there is no reason for you not to use your fantasy voice in science fiction because it needs voices that are different”) and steampunk (“find the dark stuff, like anxiety about steam technology”). I also told her about my problem with “Filipinoness” and she told me something I’ll never forget (and that I had trouble clearing out of my mind during yoga later on):
“Some writers have their own agendas and believe that you should only be writing what they themselves write–which shouldn’t be the case. 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.”
This may sound strange coming from an online journalist, but this was probably the first time I felt like I had a voice and that it mattered. I also learned that being Filipino was not the be-all and end-all of my identity–but it sure is a big part.
The others planned an evening viewing of The Avengers using someone’s laptop and my speaker up in the Common Room. I told Harry and Amanda that I’d follow, that I’d just finish reading tomorrow’s manuscripts–but I do not, in fact, follow them; at 11 p.m. I was suddenly woken up by their return to the apartment. I went to bed properly, disappointed that I didn’t get to watch a movie with some of the class and hear Chris Evans and Tom Hiddleston’s assets get praised to high heavens.
Heard from Marty that Cat requested I draw a Plotstrich. I had no idea how to interpret that and I stewed on it the whole day.
Cat had us go on the grass near the Bear for one last theater exercise. She had three girls and three guys volunteer for this exercise and paired us off. She instructed us to stand certain distances from each other and to try out different poses. Later on, she had us gather in a group and had us do leveling. She was teaching us to pay attention to physical gestures, as these determined how close or unfamiliar people were with each other. Also, a takeaway phrase: “It’s not how characters say it–it’s what they’re doing as they say it.”
While eating, we asked Cat about different aspects about the writing life: editing an online zine, publishing, handling panels in conventions. All that jazz. She always had awesome things to say.
While walking back to the apartments, I asked her how to tell a novel idea from a short story idea, as so many of us turned in stories that she said were actually novels in the making. She said it had to do with the number of plots, as well as a few other things:
The 2 threads in a story, narrative and worlding element, must each have their climax.
Short stories end with the worlding element closing off, not opening with a bang.
3-4 major things happen with the other stuff you as an author know in soft focus.
Having a denouement after the climax to process what happened in the story and/or (literally) talking about endings help make it close off/end as a short story.
Once I got to the apartment, I researched ostrich photos (moving and just standing) and drew about 6 cast-off ostriches. I also researched the basic plot elements and the basic plot mountain. In the end, I took the concept of the cartoon Word World and made the damn angry ostrich’s neck, body, and legs out of EXPOSITION, CLIMAX, DENOUEMENT, RISING ACTION, and FALLING ACTION. Luckily, Cat and the class loved it; Marian and Kayla wanted me to do a tattoo version, although I was not sure if the detail could still be seen if it were shrunk to a wrist tattoo.
Cat, Heath, and the class played Charades Against Humanity well into the night in the Common Room. It’s kind of the same as Cards Against Humanity, only we had to act out the phrases on the white cards. She also donated some of her books to the next Clarion class, although I swear, more than a few pairs of eyes were glittering when she laid her offerings on the table: The Bread We Eat in Dreams, both volumes of the Prester John duology, and the Fairyland books. If there was more, I didn’t see, for I’m pretty sure there was some spiriting away going on…
Saturday morning was spent waiting for the other sleepyheads to show up, cracking open the egg (I forgot how we managed), watching Cat give it a Lion King moment before cooking it, and then eating that rich, herby concoction on bread and with a helping of two cheeses. There was almost none left when I finally elbowed my way to the bowls.
Afterward, Cat signed our books. Earlier, I’d gone down with Kayla to her room to fetch her books and she came up with me to my room as I got mine. Felt sorry for Cat–she must have been tired, but she was so gracious about it. And she never ran out of creative dedications!
She also gave us all some awesome certificates that authorized us to use the Lockbox Words of Doom. But a few of us decided to put some of the words back in the Lockbox for next week.
A different set of relatives were gonna pick me up this time. I was brought to the Filipino area of San Diego–I all but screamed, “HEY A RED RIBBON!” in the car. They brought me to a Filipino grocery, where I ate actual food for the first time in weeks and almost cried at the sight of sinigang. Went shopping for my room because up until then, we hadn’t any dish-washing sponges and I wasn’t about to pay $12 for 7 sponges (I’m looking at you, Trader Joe’s). Also stocked up on the instant noodles, biscuits, Choc Nut, a bag of soft and steamy pandesal, and threw in a pack of chicharon before going to see my other relatives. We dallied in some of the places, which is how I missed the class’s plan to watch Snowpiercer.
I honestly thought that they were gonna watch it in replay because it had already shown in the Philippines around November last year. Turns out that it was getting a delayed and limited release in the US. I was hanging out and sharing food with those who opted out of the movie in the Common Room (Marian was so happy about the chicharon–“You even say it correctly!”) when the others semi-stormed in, decrying Snowpiercer as a bad movie (“What was with that fish?!”). I was really surprised because back home, lots of people whose opinions I respected called it a great movie. Looks like I’ll have to grab a DVD copy and see for myself.
Nora arrived around 7 p.m. or somewhat later and was equally surprised that lots of the class didn’t like Snowpiercer. She was tired and jetlagged, but she brought honest-to-goodness cannolis for us from New York–I’d never even heard of cannolis until that moment, but I had two of them and my god, my stomach was in heaven–and she joined us on the roof for Cat’s last task for us. Cat gave us all a line or paragraph from Donald Barthelme’s “The Great Hug” and we each read the line in a circle under the starlight. At the end of this, Cat encouraged us once more and told us to keep writing no matter what’s going on in our leaves, good or bad, ideal conditions or no, successes and failures aside–to “Write With Your Stars Out,” as Salinger wrote in his “Seymour: An Introduction.”
Hung out a bit more with Cat and the smokers after that, until 9:20 guy came (thought you’d heard the last of him, huh?). We moved to Zach, Marty, and Manish’s apartment for more chatter and oven-heated pizza. Cat wasn’t sleeping because she had an early flight out anyway.
It didn’t feel like we’d reached the halfway point yet, but we had. So ended Week 3…and if we thought we’d hit the wall in all ways possible during Geoff’s week, we were sadly, hilariously mistaken. There was still Week 4.
**Thanks to Tamara for correcting me on a few specific names.
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.”
*It is not within the scope of this post to define exactly what Filipino culture is, on the whole and overall. I will not attempt it because I do not know and because I may not be able to catch myself from thinking Tagalog-centric thoughts that will discredit the other regions, tribes, and languages. The Philippines is young and its people are trying to discover who we are―very much like teenagers. That’s why I suspect that not even the most senior members of the local culturati know what Filipino culture is, and that those who profess to know may be kidding themselves.
**For the purposes of this post, I will be referring to the internationally-known Filipino language as Tagalog, seeing as there is very little difference between the two. I will also be referring to the local dialects as languages for the same reason that I wish as much as possible for a non-Tagalog-centric mentality to pervade this post. And just so we’re clear, a dialect in this context is:
The other usage refers to a language that is socially subordinated to a regional or national standard language, often historically cognate to the standard, but not derived from it.
***Mini Philippine history and culture lecture ahead. Possibly drowse-inducing. You have been warned.
I have an uneasy relationship with Filipino culture.
The question of culture has been bugging me of late because of my Clarion UCSD acceptance. I am told that the 2014 batch is a very diverse group, very international: apart from North America, my classmates hail from Finland, Spain, Australia, Bulgaria, and Singapore. One has Iranian blood and two have Russian ancestry. This is great when you consider how diversity and inclusiveness are huge issues in today’s international SFF scene―just consider the Hugo Award nominations hullabaloo and trending Twitter hashtag, #WeNeedDiverseBooks.
I’d be glad to represent Filipinos in the international writing scene some day (sooner than I think, it seems). There’s just one problem: for the last 22 years, I’ve felt detached from my culture―a foreigner in my own country, an outsider looking in on history being made all around me. I even write about outsiders; most of my characters are loners and society misfits.
As if this weren’t enough, I have been told at local workshops by some veteran writers that my work and my generation―and myself, by extension―is not Filipino enough. Before, such a sentiment used to make me seethe inside for three reasons:
These writers were addressing social and educational factors beyond my control;
They were raging not at me, but at my entire generation;
They were mourning periods in time that the elders back in their day probably would not have considered “Filipino enough,” either.
Let’s leave out for the moment how Philippine literature’s “default” mode is social realism and how many “literary” writers do not take the literature of the speculative seriously, even though most of early Philippine literature is full of “highly magical oral-epic tradition.” That’s another essay for another time.
I am a middle-class young woman. I went to a progressive all-girls’ Catholic school in Metro Manila, the megalopolis where I was born and raised. I am the eldest daughter of overprotective parents in a patriarchal society. I was not allowed to commute anywhere (whether alone or with friends), sleepover at any friend’s house, stay out later than my curfew (which depended on the function, thankfully), and I was not brought to public markets―a pity, as these are places I consider as cultural hubs on par with art museums and preserved historical sights.
From my father, I inherited Polycystic Kidney Disease. Our lives have been defined and rearranged by his having had a kidney transplant and my having the stage one version. There are many very unhealthy Filipino foods I was trained not to eat, such as isaw.
My first language is English, much of which I learned from a steady diet of Disney movies and North American and British works of fiction. There was a time when I was eager to learn Nihonggo because of all the anime I watched, and later French (Parisienne?) because of all the French animated films I adored. But I actively refused to learn Tagalog because my older cousins teased my sister and I for speaking English (they did so in Tagalog, naturally). I came to view the former language, ironically, as the language of my oppressors. In later years, I would adopt a halting version of Tagalog with a heavy American accent I tried hard to suppress as a defense mechanism of sorts. Everyone I spoke to in Tagalog was marked as an acquaintance. I suppose that’s why I had few friends growing up, even though my batch at my old high school numbered over 400 students―and even when I did gain friends, they were very much like me.
This is what I know when I “write what I know”―and when you consider that the Philippine archipelago has 7,107 islands, 81 provinces, 17 regions, 180 tribes, and over 170 languages, I know nothing.
I am trying to navigate my way around this culture dilemma: I join writers’ workshops because of the opportunity to travel and meet new people and try new things; I got into journalism because a friend told me that this was the kind of job where people grow up fast.
These last three years haven’t been all good. For example, I’ve been literally shoved by the cruelty of strangers in the middle of a parade ground―and we work in the same company. My hair was once caught and pulled in the crush of the MRT crowds and I was publicly made fun of for crying out in pain.
But the good outnumbers the bad. I’ve finally been to a local festival, partaken of a Cordillera tribe’s ritual, swum atop a sandbar, eaten fresh urchin roe (thanks to the kindness of strangers), worn a hijab in the Muslim city of Marawi, haggled for goods at a public market, stayed out on a boulevard for hours just to catch the sunrise, learned a handful of words in the respective languages of new friends. Every new place I go, someone passionately lectures about the Spanish/Americans/Japanese influences and their inflicted damages on the food, on the buildings, on the land, on the people―and I will listen, because I am genuinely interested in history.
Yet even after all that, I still don’t know what Filipino culture is. I feel its pull, but it eludes me.
You’d think the Philippines a huge country when I describe it, but in truth, we function much like a small town where everyone knows or claims to know each other. It doesn’t help that, due to over 350 years under three colonizers, we are the most Westernized nation this side of Asia. How can I hope to represent 95 million people of an intensely diverse, intensely colonized, intensely regionalistic nation? I am still learning how to question its divisive modes of thinking!
Barring all these factors, I don’t even know what Manila culture is. I don’t know what the hell being Filipino is supposed to mean―though like I said before, I don’t think anyone does.
None of the above should or would have bothered me, but then I chose to pursue writing as a passion (specifically, writing fantasies). No matter what you write, you can’t be an ace in such a pursuit without constantly asking of yourself “how?” and “why?”
None of the above should or would have bothered me, but then I read Nick Joaquin’s “A Heritage of Smallness” under Dr. Ambeth Ocampo in my junior year of college. That damn thing will break you if you let it. And I let it because what it postulated was true: Filipinos of ages past preferred and excelled in the small endeavor, whether this was literature, architecture, business, or industry. And to think that Joaquin wrote that gem in the 1960s!
The task before me and others like me, then, is to build something great. Something built on and with the bones of the East while bridging it with the West.
And now, I’m going to a writers’ workshop in the United States and by God, I am frightened by the possibility of not being true to my roots there.
I believe in people writing whatever the hell they want, but I also believe in peer pressure. Will I feel forced to write “Filipino” stories, which some define as work devoid of colonial influences? Or will I keep making up worlds like I usually do, occasionally borrowing from other cultures not mine, the way Westerners do? What if I fail to speak for my people? Is it presumptive of me to even call the indigenous tribes my people when I only know of the existence of a handful and seen even less individuals up close and personal?
There is a very problematic strain of thinking in talks of nationalism. It frames the Filipino without any influence of the West. Many agree with this kind of thinking, going so far as to protest in front of the US Embassy when Barack Obama came to visit.
I do not agree with this kind of thinking. While trying to reclaim a lost pre-colonial culture, it also rejects everything good the West ever brought to the archipelago. I am talking about the 12 items Nick Joaquin lists in his essay “Culture and History” as the greatest events in Philippine history―all of them introduced during the 16th century, the beginning of the Spanish era. These are as follows:
The Introduction of the Wheel
The Introduction of the Plow
The Introduction of Road and Bridge
The Introduction of New Crops like Corn, Tobacco, Camote, Coffee, Tea, Cocoa, Beans, Achuete, Onion, Potato, Guava, Papaya, Pineapple, Avocado, Squash, Lettuce, Cucumber, Cabbage, Singcamas, Sigadillas, Mani, etc., etc.
The Introduction of New Livestock like the Horse, the Cow, the Sheep, the Turkey, the Goose, etc., and the Carabao as Draft Animal
The Introduction of the Fabrica, or Factory
The Introduction of Paper and Printing
The Introduction of the Roman Alphabet
The Introduction of Calendar and Clock
The Introduction of the Map and the Charting of the Philippine Shape
The Introduction of the Arts of Painting and Architecture
The Introduction of the Guisado
And let’s not forget who finally united a whole cluster of different barangays, even if it was just in one island group (Luzon). It definitely wasn’t the datus.
(Side note: Isn’t it fascinating how so many turn to history to find culture?)
However, the Philippines does not owe Spain a debt of gratitude simply because they brought these innovations or even because they named the archipelago after a Spanish king, for better or worse. These are simply facts, and people ignore facts at their peril.
But although we must acknowledge what good came to the Philippines from the West, we most certainly cannot shun our own for the embrace of a foreign culture, even if we do not exactly know what we own if it sat right under our noses. I don’t just mean the different traditions and histories of the indigenous tribes; I also pertain to both the traditions and modernity found in the cities and metropolises, though these have been “tainted” by the foreign.
The cosmopolitan in the Philippines is also Filipino; to reject this is to reject the inherent adaptability of the Filipino people. Alone of all the Spanish colonies, were we not allowed to keep our native tongues though we allowed many Spanish (and Chinese and Arabic and later, English) words to seep into these? Are not the descendants of those who were converted to Catholicism still following the framework of our pagan ancestors when childless wives dance for the Virgin of Obando every May for a baby, when multitudes throw their handkerchiefs at the Black Nazarene every January in the hopes of gaining miracles in the cloth? Did we not completely alter until unrecognizable the military jeeps the Americans sold at the end of World War II, hence the jeepneys we have plying the streets today?
We are so good at conquering the tools of our conquerors, even if we never vanquished the conquerors completely by ourselves; why deny this attribute?
Listen, I’m not pro-Spain or pro-America or even pro-Japan. But that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate as well as critique the parts of the cultures they brought and continue to bring to the Philippines. I think we are all the better enriched when we get an idea of how much larger the world is beyond the horizon, whether you look to another province or another nation.
The Filipino adaptability perfectly encapsulates something I’ve lately realized: a vibrant Filipino culture―and culture, in general―is not captured in any concrete, specific thing. Maybe it is not meant to be captured at all, or at least, not completely and for all time. You can definitely find a people’s culture in their values and in the way they interact with each other and the world. The things these people leave behind are only meant to suggest the dynamism of an entire way of life.
Perhaps our perceptions of culture change with every generation. Culture is not static. Hence, maybe this is why the elderly will always be complaining about the youth and the loss of culture in any period in history, everywhere.
If there’s anyone truly in danger of losing their culture, it’s the indigenous tribes. Many indigenous traditions are dying out because their youth are choosing modernity, education, and work in the big cities (especially Manila). It would be great if we could preserve those, but there are huge obstacles to overcome in the endeavor―not least of which is how many seem to prefer squabbling over regional differences rather than embracing them.
At first I thought it was going to touch on a history of North American racism in literature, but author Roni Loren briefly examines the poetics behind her own writing while breaking down three fears straight, cisgendered white writers may have in writing a character totally unlike them (LGBT, disabled, Person of Color, what have you).
But when I read the last fear, I realized that the article applied to anyone writing from an outsider’s perspective in anything. The fear was, “If I’m not part of a certain group, do I have the right to write about it?”
I applaud her answer:
This topic has varied opinions. Some believe that stories about x group should only be written by writers who are x. I mentioned earlier that we need more diversity amongst published authors, so I see where this idea comes from. And I absolutely agree that there needs to be focus on encouraging diverse voices in the publishing world. (That’s a bigger topic I’m not going to tackle here.) But I don’t think that means that any writer should be limited to only writing about groups they belong to or experiences they’ve personally had (how boring). A rising tide lifts all boats. Let’s all be part of that tide together.
By virtue of blood, birth, association, and responsibility, whether I like it or not, I carry the disparate voices of 95 million Filipinos no matter where I go. The danger of speaking for 95 million is that foreigners who do not know any better will look to me and others like me as the voices for them all, even though every single one of those 95 million people have experiences vastly different from one another. We are united only by that word―Filipino―and we do not even have a solid definition everyone can accept.
I don’t even wish to speak for all of them, especially the indigenous peoples. That would be presumptive; some of the tribes even have people who can speak and write forthem. I will occasionally speak about them, but after all, I am an outsider. I am bound to get something wrong. How then, will I ever be Filipino enough (and uphold that proudly)?
It took friends both Filipino and North American, both living in the US, to point out to me that 1) this is a conversation I’ll be having with myself for the rest of my life, and 2) by virtue of blood, birth, association, and responsibility, whether I like it or not, I am a Filipino no matter where I go. I was born as one, I grew up as one, and no matter what my influences are or how left out of society I feel, it’s going to keep showing up in everything I do and in every imaginary world I create on the blank page, one way or another. This existence I’ve been living is valid, too, and I do not owe my career or my subject matter to anyone, foreigners and Filipinos alike.
I may have lived a privileged life as an English-speaking Catholic school girl from Manila with a kidney disease. Some would even consider that the angst I feel when trying to crack this mold as a First World Problem; it certainly does not compare to a faceless corporation evicting you from your ancestral home or sleeping on cardboard boxes in the shadow of a highway.
But you know what, we all have our issues. Having one issue or other does not determine where a person falls in the much too simple dichotomies of weak or strong, right or wrong, patriotic or unpatriotic. Those are just some of the things that make up my voice and I would rather have this kind of voice than the inability to wield any kind of voice at all.
We can only hope to write about each other with respect. But in worrying about the weight of 95 million other voices, I nearly forgot about the heft of my own voice and the respect I must accord it, too.
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.