First Play For and By Tikbalang Triggers Uproar on Opening Night

This story is the first one I wrote in a world where what I’m calling (for now) The Chronicles of The Archipelago Daily take place. When I wrote this back in 2013, it was the most ambitious and experimental piece of fiction I’d created. Little did I know that it would open doors for me, such as finally getting published in the Philippine Speculative Fiction series of anthologies and landing a slot at the 2014 Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop in San Diego, California.

So, in 2013, I was still working as a Desk Editor for GMA News Online. I was fresh from college and from a local writer’s workshop in May of that year–and when I say fresh, I mean “smarting.” I was suffering burn out after months of working on my thesis when I was at the workshop (and for many months after, too). I found the panel to be kind at most and civil at worst outside our sessions. But there was a clear aversion to engaging with speculative fiction on its own terms and to the writing of the Manileños in general–so much so that I did not receive a single critique that could help me improve the work I submitted. I knew my story wasn’t perfect–hell, I submitted the very first draft as part of my thesis on the final day of the deadline–so I wasn’t expecting praise. Then again, I wasn’t expecting a diatribe on the un-Filipinoness of the stories of the young, well-educated writers writing in English, either. But that’s another story for another time.

(Side note: I’m aware of my privilege of having been born and educated in Imperial Manila, as well as of the rivalry between it and the other regions, particularly when it comes to literature. I would rather stay away from that battle, having nothing to contribute. I acknowledge, too, that the work I submitted did not have Filipino characters or a Filipino setting–indeed, none of it was of this world. But what irked me then and now was the realism vs. speculative fiction debate. At its heart are a bunch of snooty writers being prescriptivist about other writers’ content. I take issue with anyone presuming they can dictate what others should write–especially what they should write in order to look, sound, and feel Filipino.)

When August rolled around, I was starting to snap out of my burn out. At the same time, my friend and former co-worker Ronin introduced me to his Agosto Series, wherein he posts flash fiction in Tagalog in honor of Buwan ng Wika. That’s when I got the idea to write a speculative fiction series in news article format. I researched different types of articles and video interviews (particularly, the one featuring animal rights activists campaigning for the transfer of the elephant Maali, whose illness was a big issue at the time)just to get a feel for what I wanted to do. All the while, what I’d seen and heard during the workshop was turning over and over in my head, until I got angry enough to write this story, which was originally titled “A Cha-Cha with Insanity” after one of the subheads, before I changed it to “First play for, by Tikbalang triggers uproar on opening night.” (It was changed to “First Play For and By Tikbalang Triggers Uproar on Opening Night” when it was published in Philippine Speculative Fiction vol. 9. the following year. I kept that title when I had it reprinted over at Expanded Horizons.)

In this story, most of an ambitious play director’s all-human cast walks out on him due to his unrealistic demands. He finds supernatural Philippine creatures to fill in the slots instead–and because they’re supernatural, he was able to bulldoze the limits of a typical theater play, much to the chagrin of religious leaders, activist groups, and even his fellow artists and writers in the scene.

With that summary, you can tell that this story of mine is my commentary on the local literary scene. And the commentary will continue to stand for as long as people keep buying into the realism vs. speculative fiction debate.

This story is also one of a series funded by the 2018 James Tiptree Jr. Fellowship.