Friday, March 14, 2008

A Very Long and Boring Post

(Yes, I have a feeling I was boring at yesterday's talk. But then again, I didn't stick to my written notes-- well, more like an essay-- and I was digressing all over the place. In any case, here's the full-text of what I said and what I was supposed to say yesterday before an audience of La Salle students. Warning, it's a long post.)

Philippine Speculative Fiction as Crossroads of Rumination and Imagination

I. Introduction
I’m here to talk about two of my stories and the craft of the writing process. However, in order to talk about my writing process or how I write what I write, I have to touch upon why I write what I write.

In this case, I write speculative fiction that is defined as a genre triumvirate of fantasy, science fiction and horror. This can be either a story in one genre or a combination of two or three genres. Sometimes it can be a story that eludes definition of all three, slipping in-between these three genres. These stories are sometimes called interstitial or slipstream. But for all of these stories, I prefer the nomenclature speculative fiction as a catch-all category and leave it at that.

And since I am a Filipino and I live in the Philippines, what I write is Philippine speculative fiction. I remember reading a column by Butch Dalisay stating that he prefers reading fantasy or science fiction that involves the dirt and grime of Quiapo rather than a story involving aliens in outer space or the colonization of Mars. I agree with him. Those wild-eyed, out-there stories that don’t involve Filipinos but are written by one are fine. But for me, I find myself being able to imagine my story more thoroughly if I base it on what I know.

To clarify, Neil Gaiman once said that the axiom, “write what you know” isn’t about personally knowing or experiencing what you write about, but about writing a story that only you can tell. And what are these stories? For me, these stories are the ones that have something fantastic or horrific but grounded in the realistic, i.e. something that either I’ve experienced or has touched my life. That way, I can actually ‘view’ the story in my mind and write it down.

II. Logovore
Take as an example the story “Logovore”. If ever I would try to pin down the first time I came up with the concept of a ‘word-eater’, it would be in April 2005 when I first came up with the excerpt, “The Word-Eater Falls in Love” on my blog.

The idea of a ‘word-eater’ is something I came up with one time when I realized that I have a somewhat unique view on words. For me, a word has—aside from the usual symbol and meaning—a ‘shape’. This view is actually hard to put into words but in my mind, each and every word has a corresponding ‘shape’ like a box or a circle or parallel lines. They’re not just words for me but actual 3-dimensional forms complete with feel and texture.

Taking this somewhat dysfunctional synaesthesia, I wondered what would it mean for a person who regards words the way I did but instead of forms, they could be differentiated by taste. Moreover, what if this person actually lived on the words as we do on food and drink? From there, my mind started running.

Ironically, despite being bilingual, I am more proficient with the English language. More than my education in Ateneo and UP, I grew up with a TV set that was constantly on. My childhood friends were Bert and Ernie and the denizens of Sesame Street as opposed to say its Filipino-versions, Sesame or Batibot. When I discovered reading and books, I was fascinated by how the words would interact to come together as a story. Later on, I applied and got into the Creative Writing course of UP—even though I later shifted out because I felt there was no money in writing. I suppose one could say that the English language was one of the central tenets in my life.

Based on my experiences in my own life, it was easy to spin a story (and history) of the unnamed protagonist in “Logovore.” Like tumbling domino blocks, it all followed: my experiences, my interaction with English-speaking people like my friends, my girlfriend, other people’s friends, as well as knowing English teachers, plus circumstances and instances that are all English language-borne in the story.

It helps that like calls to like, of course: what speech I use means a preference to people who also speak the English language. In application to the story, this meant the protagonist ‘word-eater’—this person who ate English words—had to go places where people who spoke the English language as a matter of survival. These include English departments, schools that place importance in the language, and the like. After all, in a country whose second language is English but is not necessarily prevalent throughout, how can he eat if there is nothing to eat?

Moreover, this can be easily seen in each scene or set piece of the story. Thanks to my girlfriend, I would know about her experiences with her students or meet with her fellow English teachers. For example, the ‘word-eater’s’ colleague in UP is based on a teacher my girlfriend once had, who though was not pregnant, was robust—i.e. fat—enough to imprint in my memory. Another friend of hers who taught in Ateneo was the template for the ‘word-eater’s’ object of affection in the first chapter of the story, who sounded like an Am-girl but talked like a palengkera (well, she did sound one to me).

But more than this, more than the English language, I plumbed the depths of my memory and experience to ground my story. For each set piece, I based it on a particular memory that made its mark on me. Thus, rumination is an essential element in my writing so that I could create the ‘set’ in my head and make it feel ‘real.’

The first scene is actually based on a drinking session with a group of my girlfriend’s barkada in Katipunan road, at a bar beside Cravings. The second scene is set in the UP Faculty Center but ‘word-eater’s’ distress in checking English papers is my own—and my girlfriend’s—whenever I helped her. (Trust me, we take our language for granted such that when someone who is not proficient with it tries to speak or write it, it takes a lot of alcohol to understand what is written on the papers. Especially the essays.) The third scene is especially funny for me because this was the first time my girlfriend and I watched the band Parokya ni Edgar sing live. In that particular instance, my girlfriend is still irked at how Chito ‘borrowed’ the lighter from her.

Other details of the story are also taken from my experience with other people. For example, like the protagonist’s dilemma at school, I know one or two teachers who had to leave their jobs because they were delayed or couldn’t finish their masters’ thesis. Likewise, the sole antagonist is based on a story or two that I’d hear about singers who would took advantage of their fans.

It is these details that when you combine with the speculative fiction elements makes a story real.

III. Brigada
In contrast, the next story, “Brigada”, is more of a stretch of imagination. At the onset, like most too-fantastical stories, there seems no way I could use my memory to write this story.

Essentially an homage to pulp stories, I tried to include the elements of pirates, giant squids and flying ships in the story to re-create the feeling of action and adventure for the reader. The fact that it is set in a future where the Philippines has drowned due to global warming and the melting icecaps gives it an environmental/ecological message that I hope helps.

So where did I come up with this story? Well, I was trying to write a pirate story for Jeff Vandermeer's pirate anthology and when it didn’t pass muster, I had it read by a critical reader to see where its flaws where. And when the call for submissions for the third volume of The Philippine Speculative Fiction came up and the editor, Dean Alfar, asked me for a science-fiction tale, I decided to re-write this story to make it tighter and sent it to him.

And this is a science-fiction story, my first time to write one despite Neil Gaiman’s assertion that “Logovore” had SF elements. (That story was more in the vein of slipstream: partly fantasy, partly horror but either way—not necessarily. But I digress.)

So how do I make a story ‘real’ about Filipinos eking an existence in a water-logged Metro Manila? How do I base this story from my memory and experience? Simple: I don’t. In order to write this story, I had to stretch my imagination and fill in the holes with ‘real’ details.

For example, everyone here has ridden on a banca at one time or another, whether the big motorized ones or the small paddle-powered types. I tried to re-create that feeling for the reader, riding on a banca, the outriggers splashing on the water as the speed whips past your face, the engine at the back of the boat deafening to the ear, and the vibration thrumming under your hand as you hold on tight.

Or the launch of the transformed flying ship fleet, citing Wagner’s rather martial Flight of the Valkyrie, in order to create the sense of something incredible and vast. I know this is cheating but as a writer, it’s our job to describe to the reader what is happening and if referencing on a song so as to make the proper connection in the reader’s head will get the job done, so be it.

All in all, these were the little tricks I used in order to make a fantastical story at least believable. And it helps that the setting is something readers still know despite some changes: the Manila Hotel under water or Tagaytay an island or even a floating Smokey Mountain. By referencing these names that readers will know, I can immediately access the reader’s memory of these places and use it to tell my story.

The intertwining again of memory and imagination except this time, I’m using the reader’s. It’s cheating, I know.

IV. Conclusion
So what does that tell you of me? If were to use the analogy of a building, I use memory as a foundation of a story and use the fantastical or horrific or science-fictional elements to raise the story to greater heights. This way, the reader has access to the story at the ground floor and will be able to climb its higher levels without the feeling of disorientation or dizziness.

But all of these elements will not help if not for one more element.

In effect, I started writing in 2005. Prior to that, I had some story ideas but this was mainly limited to the epic fantasy genre, that being—and still is—composed of most of my reading material. I’ve read the familiar names—JRR Tolkien, Terry Brooks, David Eddings, George R.R. Martin, and Robert Jordan—as well as less-than-familiar ones. In some ways, my story ideas was a way for me to stretch my creativity as I made my own created worlds that I hoped would rival the Middle Earth or Shannara.

But until 2005, I never really got into my creations. I never really tried to write them. In a sense, no matter how many details I created in these story ideas, they still lacked something that I could not name.

Then in 2005, I showed some of my attempts to my girlfriend and her main comment was that, “Where is the sense of being a Filipino in the story?” In effect, she said that my draft could have been written by a foreigner as the story had an analogue of a medieval European setting and analogues of medieval European characters.

And that, I think, was the crux of my problem: where was the actual ‘heart’ of the story? If I could not believe my stories, then how could I make it believable for my reader? And that, I think, is important to the writer: to find the heart of your writing, to discern what your writing is for you.

That’s why we go back to why I write Philippine speculative fiction. I write Philippine speculative fiction because as a Filipino with a Filipino heart, I can best express my stories as a Filipino telling stories that my readers can relate to. Regardless of whether my story is speculative fiction or social realism, it comes across as a story you can empathize with—hopefully—because it’s a Filipino story and you are Filipinos by nation and creed.

You can see this in “Logovore” and “Brigada”. “Logovore” shows us how we are sometimes we become aliens to our own countrymen when we use the English language in the real world. “Brigada” shows us that no matter how much history and destiny seems out to step on us, we Filipinos as a nation still persevere and march on because we can’t think of not doing so. If in the process of such a message, you get to enjoy the story, well that’s a big plus.

And because I believe these—my own stories—as they were being written, they become real to me and hopefully, to you, the reader.


Jae said...

You were not boring at all, Sir Joey! Dr. Marj gave me your blogspot username before the lecture, I hope you don't mind. It was such a pleasure meeting you, Ms. Mia and Selena. Looking forward to the next time we could all talk over drinks, and thank you so much for your impromptu/spontaneous (yes, not boring) speech! xx

P.S. Multiply was mentioned in Grappa's, so I'm putting a link here. The photos from the day/evening are there!

banzai cat said...

Haha hi jae! :-) Well, I've never been one for public speaking as I prefer dinner discussions (i.e. inuman or coffee-binges) like the Grappa's night with Mam Marj.

As for the photos, er, I wasn't able to see it on your multiply. Hope to see them or the link to them. (And why is that everyone is now on multiply? Am I missing something here? Or maybe I'm just a cantakerous old cat for being old-fashioned as to use blogger? *grumblegrumble*)

P.S. Checked out your blog. Your book references complete with photos is to die for. Heh.

Charles said...

Because Multiply lets you store photos. If you were a music whore, you'd go to MySpace. And FaceBook is the new in-thing right now and it lets you install games!

banzai cat said...

So... blogs are for writing? Or is that LJ?

Damnation, where's my Selecta typewriter! *bones creaking*