Odd and Ugly

Some writers talk about stories coming to them fully-formed like gifts from their Muse, needing only to be written down (usually in a white heat), much to the envy of their peers. “Odd and Ugly” was like that for me. That said, I realized soon after I wrote it that so many elements had already been floating around in my brain for years—I apparently needed the one thing that would tie them all together.

The image of a girl talking to a kapre in a tree had already been in my mind as early as 2009, when I first imagined what would become “To Megan, with Half My Heart.” Five years later, at Clarion, I was trying to get going a dieselpunk World War II setting starring a young Filipina who was a gifted mechanic. That story never got off the ground, although I still hope it will someday. Then I plucked that same girl and plopped her in 19th-century Philippines, talking to a kapre in a tree (who is disturbed by her robot yaya companion). That scenario had potential, too—I even wrote out a scene—but it didn’t take flight, either.

Later that year, I was toying with the idea of a Philippine magic school where the final exam required collecting certain magical objects from magical creatures. As expected, I thought of a girl receiving a white stone from a kapre. I even drew the scene in my idea notebook while waiting for an interviewee.

Early Ezequiel and Maria

But nothing happened to it. So 2014 rolled by, as did 2015.

Then came 2016.

Everyone calls it a horrible year, not least because of Duterte and Trump coming to power. The extrajudicial killings began halfway through, and every day, well into 2017, it seemed like the volume of bad news was there to stay. I began to devour whatever nice, darkness-free thing came my way. That included the trailer for the live action Beauty and the Beast movie.

And I thought, “What happens if I retell Beauty and the Beast with the girl and the kapre?” and before I knew it, I was already off and writing the first scene during my break at work, on the last day before I went on Christmas leave. I gave myself the hard deadline of finishing on Dec. 31 and rewarded myself by playing Dragon Age: Inquisition in the evenings, thus ensuring that I wrote my first and last short story of 2017.

Not having to worry about the structure of the story gave me the freedom to think long and hard about what I wanted it to convey. The point of view of the kapre—addressing the girl, thus rendering the story in second person—came naturally to me. I know of no version of this fairy tale told by the Beast, meaning, he doesn’t usually get a voice.

You know who else don’t usually get a voice? Slaves. And one theory of the origin of the kapre is that Spanish colonizers kept native Filipinos from helping escaped slaves by telling tales of the latter as dark, cigar-smoking giants up in trees. It seemed like the perfect origin story, a great opportunity to talk about the slaves hauled by the Spanish to the Philippines, and according to my friend Tade Thompson, who gave this story an incredible beta reading, a great chance to inject some regional history into the world. All these parameters, combined making the POV kapre reveal less than what he knows slowly, were pleasurable challenges.

After several very pleasing rejections from well-known genre magazines, I entered “Odd and Ugly” at the Writers of the Future contest and promptly forgot about it. So it was a complete surprise when I got the first call stating that it was a finalist and another call two weeks later telling me I’d won first place.

I’m calling it “my little novelette that could.” Apart from being published in Writers of the Future vol. 34 and granting me the opportunity to return the US for a short while, my friend Dominique La Victoria adapted it for her postgraduate thesis at Goldsmiths College in London, where it got a 15-minute staging. That adaptation, “Toward the Fires of Revolution” won third place for the play category of the 2018 Palanca Awards.

“Odd and Ugly” was eventually reprinted at PodCastle, and I’m very pleased that they got Filipino-born Don Pizarro to narrate it.