Clarion 2014, week 1: All things shiny and new, raring to go

The week 1 class photo by the stone bear. Look at us, still looking fresh.
The Week 1 class photo by the stone bear. Look at us, still looking fresh. L to R: Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi, Zach Lisabeth, Marian Womack, Nino Cipri, Ellie Rhymer, Director Shelley Streeby, Harry Markov, Marty Cahill, Tamara Vardomskaya, Ryan Campbell, Instructor Greg Frost, Sarena Ulibarri, Amin Chehelnabi, Kristen Roupenian, Noah Keller, Amanda Fitzwater, Leena Likitalo, Manish Melwani, me, and Kayla Whaley.

Every day this week, I’m going to blog about a week in Clarion (which honestly feels like a semester each). I suspect my first few posts will have more delineated days, as everything was so new and left sharp impressions; the days for the other weeks will blur into longer paragraphs, probably.

Apparently, my class is more international and more diverse than previous classes. 10 women, 8 men; almost half the class hails from are non-American (Australia, Bulgaria, Canada, Finland, New Zealand, Singapore, Spain, and of course, the Philippines–with quite a few more having different ancestries); four are People of Color and one is a Person with Disability;  some are LGBT; and of course, one is from a Third World nation.

We came to the workshop with our personal demons perched on our shoulders (and maybe goals smoldering in our hearts), but also wielding our individual strengths. Some, like me, came with a list of story ideas to tackle, the first paragraphs of some of which were already written out and the rest outlined. I can’t speak for the others, but I know I came to the workshop naively thinking that I could plan my way through it.

Like I said, I was naive. I’d soon learn to let go of that, but that’s a story for Week 4.

My main goal, in hindsight, was to be able to write my emotions and/or personal experiences into my fiction. That sounds like a very elemental thing, but I’d been told before that my work lacked grounding. Some even lacked a little bit of me in it. I also wanted to experiment with other forms and try out other genres, with Science Fiction at the top of the list, followed closely by Steampunk and Horror. And, though I didn’t articulate it to myself until about halfway through, I wanted to see if I could write an actual short story, not the summary of a sprawling monster (like I usually do; but later, Cat Valente and Ann Vandermeer would tell me that sprawling monsters are something to be embraced).

In the end, I learned a lot of things. But there are some things that could have been categorized as things I needed to learn.

 


 

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Toothless taking my white wolf Snowfur under his wing.

Sunday

Hotel breakfast was at 7 a.m. sharp. It was also quite good: a cinnamon roll, strawberry yogurt, a banana, and tea. Had no appetite for anything heavier. I remember thinking that I had never seen so many white people in one room and I had to keep myself from staring. Had to check out at 11 a.m., but the concierge thankfully allowed me to wait in their lobby for classmate and roommate Ryan Campbell (who was picking me up at 2 pm.). Missed lunch that way, though I really wasn’t hungry.

Ryan finally picked me up (“I’ll be the girl holding a white wolf stuffed toy”) and he was surprised that I didn’t have a Filipino accent. Said I sounded like I was born in America, to which I explained that English was my first language. We accidentally detoured into Old Town, which was not a bad thing–it looked completely different from the rest of San Diego, what with the riot of bold colors and all the tourists.

We arrived at UCSD at around 2:30 p.m. Campus is huge. Ryan handed me a plushie of Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon and I was shocked because I had just mentioned to him a week or two before that my sister and I loved it and that I was gonna get her a plushie once in San Diego (or at Comic Con). On our way to Revelle Check-in, I first met Amin and Noah, who were walking together. A bunch of people who were heading a summer group for high schoolers asked me if I was part of their group and I delightedly shook my head.

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Jeezus, look at how high that bed was! And the movers never came to adjust it, either. 😦

When we finally arrived at our apartment, Ryan stayed long enough to watch Amanda Fitzwater and Haralambi Markov come out of their rooms and hug me (Harry squealed before saying “You’re tiny!” to me–I’d never ever been called tiny in my life) before jetting off to pick up more classmates from hotels and airports. Meanwhile, I tried to fix my room; the bed was, shockingly, as high as the desk, thus reinforcing the stereotypical (and yet totally true) petite Asian stereotype.

We had our orientation at around 4:30 p.m., followed by a campus tour (where I was taking pictures of everything, like the tourist that I was). Like I said, UCSD’s campus was huge; we mostly stuck together for fear of getting lost among the buildings, the numerous art installations, and all those teenagers. Only Nino and Manish weren’t there; Nino would arrive in the evening and Manish in the morning. Registering for the wi-fi was just as frustrating as finding one’s way around campus–but not as bad for me as for the Mac users, apparently.

Instructor Greg Frost gave a brief talk at around 7:30 p.m., after dinner, regarding what we could expect from the workshop and what he expected from us. Greg acknowledged that he was easing us into the workshop culture, but at the same time, let us know that we’re no longer wading in the kiddie pool. Clarion, apparently, is an MFA program squeezed into six weeks. We also signed up for the one-on-one conferences.

Monday

We waited for each other at the ground floor before going to breakfast, as we would every day this week and every Sunday morning with new instructors (but otherwise, never again). We took the long way going to the Pines (we had yet to discover the shortcut) and had extreme difficulty finding a table among all the screaming teenagers. Food wasn’t bad, but still couldn’t eat much. Something of a tummy ache, which would last me several days. Was this jetlag?

I decided to record everything on my phone, the way I do whenever I interview someone or listen to a conference.

In class, Greg said that he was going to keep lecturing about craft until one of us began submitting something–we didn’t critique the submission stories like I thought we would, which kind of made me kind of sad because I knew deep down that I wouldn’t be able to get a story done for Week 1 in time, even with all the exercises Greg gave us. So much for six stories in six weeks.

Greg also laid down how we might want to proceed throughout the workshop as well: reading a story twice, the concept of ideal and idiot readers, beta readers just so we might feel a little more confident before uploading our works, leaving a story alone for 24 hours after finishing it (yeah, haha, if you have Time Management skills), writing the author a letter along with the critique. He also gave each class a bunch of scientific articles–prompts that may or may not start stories.

Between 9 a.m. to 12 n.n., Greg walked us through opening sentences and first pages, 1950s Syndrome (stories with inefficiently extrapolated futures), kinds of characters and character deaths and repellent characters and characters who don’t know certain key things about themselves and the Symbolic Self, and where to find good research books (the children’s section of a library or bookstore).

The exercise he gave us was in 4 parts. He gave us a few minutes to do each one:

  • VOICE
  • SETTING
  • CHARACTER
  • PARTS OF A STORY (scenes)

Some of us read theirs aloud afterward. I was really impressed. They all immediately came up with sketches with speculative elements and I came up with winding drivel in the realist mode. Nothing wrong with realism, but it was so clear to me that my brain was still warming up. I needed to get into gear faster.

Kayla has co-opted Ellie's ukulele while Nino and Tamara look on, amused.
Kayla has co-opted Ellie’s ukulele while Nino and Tamara look on, amused.

After our first lunch at Canyon Vista, the conferences began, four people per day or so. Amanda was first blood among my roommates; after she returned, we all asked her how it went and then it spiralled into a living room session where we (Ryan, Harry, Amanda, and I) just started talking about our jobs and our backgrounds and how we don’t feel we fit in with our cities/countries and the languages we spoke and our opinions on certain movies.

Some time after dinner, a bunch of the others decided to have a drinking session on the roof (Monday Roof Brews–called that maybe twice, then never again). The latecomers were told off by 9:20 guard, who explained that we can’t drink up there according to California State Law and that we were getting a little too loud.

There I was, dressed for winter in the height of a California summer, on a campus right next to the Pacific Ocean. At some point, because we were just getting to know each other and I diverted to the wallflower aspect of myself, I crouched on the ground and spread my long skirt around me to stop my legs from shaking (Ellie would lend me her leather jacket for the rest of the time I spent standing there). It would take three days for me to stop wearing my scarf everywhere and about two or three weeks to wear a jacket for the protection of the hood against the heat, not against the cold. I remember looking at everyone and thinking how comfortable they all seemed hanging out with each other and drinking and playing ukulele and talking about movies they’d seen. Ellie impressed us all by singing the complete lyrics (with ukulele accompaniment!) of Amanda Palmer’s “Ukulele Anthem.”

I talked to a few people myself, or else just listened to the conversation. Manish made me feel right at home when he showed me that he, too, was also wearing two or three layers. We talked about Filipino food and Singaporean food (that we promised to show each other should we ever visit each other’s countries), and Singapore-Philippines relations.

“Almost all of you said were introverts!” I thought at some point, really amused. I felt like such a small-town girl, even though I come from the bustling megalopolis of Metro Manila–everything there was so convenient and easy and efficient, the way everything back home isn’t. There wasn’t even any traffic! I worried very briefly that it was going to be high school all over again.

Luckily, those worries were unfounded.

Tuesday

I wasn't kidding about the house being atop the building.
I wasn’t kidding about the house being atop the building.

Greg talked about writer’s block today–basically, he doesn’t believe in it. It could be 15-20 different things at any one time. He also said there may be such a thing as pre-emptive writer’s block, which is being unable to start because you have no ideas and you feel you have to start the story right. “Start it wrong,” he said.

Then he launched into context, which is basically about character relationships. Rarely is a character interesting by themselves; they need people to bounce off of. Then he taught us his theory about relationship triangles, which is an unbelievable and effective story fix. We learned about the Ecology of the Supernatural, the Ecology of the Economy, a little bit about telling details and in-cluing, and just a few Things That Don’t Work Anymore in Fiction.

I currently have no record of what exercise we tried today because my hard drive is still in the repair shop (more on that for Week 4), but I think this was the one where Greg gave us 4 or 5 situations and gave us 10-15 minutes each to write different beginnings for each one. Again, I was amazed by what everyone read aloud–there were no two concepts alike among 18 writers. But I don’t know, the idea caught fire for me, so I ended up writing a flash piece on the situation “a man falls from a bus, a woman smiles.” Made it about a young guy in his 20s who is super late for the bar exam because he’s stuck in traffic. It’s his last chance to get his life together, and he’s also thinking about the dead sister he admired. He gets off the bus but falls down, and he looks up to see her ghost encouraging him. I read that one aloud; was glad for the chance to try and get over my fear of public speaking.

I hear that this library has appeared in two science fiction B-movies as a spaceship.
I hear that this library has appeared in two science fiction B-movies as a spaceship.

After class, Sarena, Amin, Nino, and I paid a visit to the literal house hanging over the edge of the Engineering building. It was an amazing, dizzying, terrifying experience–according to the housekeeper, the artist built the house (which is basically a living room with completely different corner and furniture sizes to mess up your perspective, full of the paraphernalia of a cozy existence and burgeoning family life) to convey how disoriented he felt upon coming to live in America or something of the sort. I had to hold onto the chair as I stood there, feeling like falling. But it was cool to watch Amin and Sarena’s sizes shift depending on which corner of the house they walked to. Instant magic.

We also went to the library to register–god, was it gorgeous. Looked like a fortress. We went up the snake path to get to it, and then down to what felt like the secret underground entrance.

I checked out the Special Collections archive and ordered a couple of boxes full of the previous classes’ works. Got the box containing Kelly Link’s stories, as well as the 2013 class–wanted to read my friend Isa’s fiction. Little did I know that this would be only the first of two times that I’d set foot in the archive. Went up to the sixth floor to find Harry and Manish, whom I spotted going up as I signed up for a library card. I forced myself to begin writing a story then and there. It’s one of the ones on my Clarion Ideas list. Thank god I’d been thinking of that world for about two months already, though I was still certain that I would not get it done before Week 1 ended. Harry and Manish took turns talking to me before they left the library; it seemed like Harry’s longhand draft was going well, while Manish was researching for his story. We did not get off on the correct floor because, due to the library’s architecture, we miscalculated where the entrance was.

First karaoke night! Everybody took a go at the mic; that was when we learned that Ryan could do a startling impression of Kermit the Frog while singing “Rainbow Connection” and that Kayla could rap (I think she did Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass”). Tamara also released her operatic voice training on “Cabaret.” The duets and other regular combos also established themselves that night. It was time for me to shed (a little bit of) my shyness, so I had at the mic with Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life” and Pink’s “Raise Your Glass.”

Wednesday

Suite HARV standing in front of the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. Photo by Leena Likitalo.
Suite HARV standing in front of the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore. Photo by Leena Likitalo.

Final day of lectures and exercises, though we didn’t know it yet. Later in the afternoon, Tamara would break the ice by sending in her first story of the workshop.

We had a bunch of exercises. First up was one teaching us the importance of names: we paired up (I was with Amin) and had to name seven completely different characters–the names, in fact, had to be in keeping with the characters, a la Charles Dickens. Best one was naming “A descendant of Vlad Tepes who fits himself with artificial teeth and lamely attempts to bite people at random. I had a real hoot over Amin’s “Clad the Nibbler.”

Still don’t know for sure what today’s other exercise was, but I am willing to bet it was the one where we had to write a sex scene, then make a list of nouns and verbs related to kitchen tasks. Then we had to replace all the nouns and verbs in the sex scene with the list we had. That was to show us how sex scenes are just one of those things that could easily go bad in writing. Most of it is titillating, but extraneous. Even the best writers’ brains can short circuit when it comes to sex scenes. Needless to say, that was very awkward and super funny when a few of the others read theirs aloud–and because I did a bunch of non-sexy paragraphs to warm up first, I don’t think I got that exercise right until the last few minutes in. We had our first class photo after the session, by the stone bear.

Ryan drove us to Greg’s reading at Mysterious Galaxy. In the car were the four of us (Suite HARV as we once called ourselves) and the quirky, fun-loving Leena. We kept chatting about how American roads were so different from the roads in our countries (New Zealand, Bulgaria, Finland, the PHL) until Ryan overtook a car and said that some guy was flipping him off. Sure enough, the driver of the car he just overtook had his arm hanging out the window, middle finger raised. When we looked around, we saw the driver of the car throwing a punch at the guy in the passenger seat and went “WHOA!”

Inn n Out burger. What in the world is Animal Style?
In-N-Out burger. What in the world is Animal Style?

The car swerved left and right along the freeway, until it finally drove off to one side. The two guys, an older man and a teenager, got out to duke it out. Laughing, us foreigners were going, “Ryan, slow down! U-turn! We must watch this! It’s like reality TV!” And Ryan says, laughing, “No, I might get called to court!”

Even after all that excitement, we made it to Mysterious Galaxy in one piece.

I’m developing a theory in which heaven is an amalgamation of all of the awesome places a person has loved in their lives. Mysterious Galaxy is going to make up some part of it; apart from being spacious and well-lit, they had an excellent F/SF section, a multitude of books on cats, fridge poetry magnets, and other awesome bookwormy merchandise. Couldn’t help wander down the aisles during parts of Greg’s reading; it’s not that it was boring, not at all–it was my equivalent of doodling during a long session.

Afterward, Ryan drove us to In-N-Out for dinner (Leena had takeout at Chipotle because she’s vegetarian). I finally had one of their famous hamburgers (California Burger in the PHL), although when I posted the picture on my timeline, a bunch of friends told me to go back and have it Animal Style, whatever that was. This is when I also learned that Marty doesn’t like tomatoes, so I became his official Tomato Gobbler every time he had a burger/sandwich that had one.

Thursday

We critiqued the first 3 stories of the workshop today. We still did not know that this would constitute a light day. I think the session went really well; you could glimpse from that day how we would all style our critiques from then on, but it wasn’t until Week 2 that we’d hit our grooves and I could begin tracking my own progress while taking note of the others. We all have our own strengths and weaknesses when we critique, as well.

The end of the snake path leading to the library.
The end of the snake path leading to the library.

I am not certain if Zach assumed his Time Lord duties on this day, but as far as I know, we did not have a set time to deliver our critiques for all of Week 1. Also, got my Comic Con ticket today. 😀

Manish and I talk about our stories at lunchtime. He said he understood if I couldn’t talk about mine though I tried anyway, because why not attempt a different process? He told me that it sounded like the main character didn’t have much agency at the moment, and I took note of that. We both agreed we’re probably just going to do 5 stories for the 6 weeks, though we both said we’d see if we can’t cough up a sixth somewhere in between (ha. Hahaha. Ha.).

After lunch, I went to the library with Marty and Kristen. The boxes containing the stories of Clarions past arrived today and we dug our way through the works of Kelly Link, Jeff VanderMeer, Cory Doctorow, and Nalo Hopkinson. We thought we could make ourselves feel good by how bad the stories were–but they weren’t bad at all, so joke’s on us. Kelly Link’s “The Specialist’s Hat” may very well have been in the same form in Clarion as it is now that it’s published.

I also read one of Isa’s stories. Somehow, reading the work of other Filipinos who’d been there before me made me feel better because, as I have written before, I had identity issues (which were somewhat put at ease after the workshop). I didn’t have time to browse through everything because we still had stories to read and because I had to get going with my own story–but somehow, I had time to drop by the Price Center and do a little grocery shopping. I also went to the UCSD bookstore and ended up with two books. I had confidence that I could finally find my way back to the apartment by myself.

Big mistake. I wandered around our part of campus for about 30 minutes more, looking for any sign of something familiar, only stopping to go to the bathroom (which I found through sheer accident via the shortcut to the apartments from the Pines cafeteria). By the time I got to the apartment, I had almost no strength to type. Amanda helped me through this by suggesting I rub the bottle of Grumpy Cat Vanilla Cappuccino I bought up and down my arms.

How a Grumpy Cat Cappuccino Saved My Arms from Wilting.
How a Grumpy Cat Cappuccino Saved My Arms from Wilting.

I registered for the Thursday of Comic Con, but then learned about the difficulties of transportation, the lack of schedule, and that some of my classmates were going on different days. Que horror! But I wouldn’t send the email to the organizers asking to move my registration until Week 2.

A terrible and embarrassing thing happened to me today. I locked myself out of the bedroom in the apartment–I usually lock the door at night before going to sleep and before leaving the apartment for breakfast. Panicked because I didn’t know if I lost the keys or locked them in my room. I got the spare from the front desk, but in my panic, I guess I didn’t do a proper sweep of my room. Kiik and Noah helped me retrace my steps and look for the keys for about an hour. It wasn’t so bad. We ended up talking about food because it was so close to dinner. Noah also told me a little bit about where he lived and some of the animals there, and so did I. Then we stopped before some bushes next to the Literature building because I saw a hummingbird for the very first time and admired it for a while.

Ryan texted Kiik saying they found my bedroom keys on my desk (goddammit); this led to my first time taking the shuttle around campus. We talked about more food and Kiik asked me about life in Manila.

Friday

The clusters of purple buds, lined with delicate crystal-like drops.
The clusters of purple buds, lined with delicate crystal-like drops.

Four stories for Friday. Super heavy day, but somehow, we still made it in time for lunch. My one-on-one with Greg got moved to Saturday.

On Friday afternoon, we went for a walk on the cliffs. I went anyway, even if I needed more time to work on my story, because Greg also told us that we could do less writing and more hanging out with our classmates. Plus, I’m always game for more nature.

The cliffs were beautiful. There were random rabbits and strange flora everywhere, including a small cluster of buds that had what looked like crystals sprinkled all over them. Noah plucked one and showed it to me. When I took it, the delicacy of the buds surprised me; they crumbled if I wasn’t careful holding them.

There were parts of the cliff that were closed off because the ground wasn’t exactly steady. Marty and Greg proved to be rebels in that sense. A bunch of us jokingly shouted, “Don’t do it, Greg! You still have so much to live for!”

We also watched a bunch of para-gliders, a flock of birds flying in wave formation, judged the people/person living in an excessive mansion by the cliff’s edge (it apparently has 12 or 13 bathrooms), and watched a spectacular sunset before moving back to the roof and hanging out some more. Couldn’t believe the week was ending.

Sarena drove me, Tamara, Nino, and Kristen to this cat-themed Drive-By Cinema truck somewhere in San Diego. I held Sarena’s phone and watched the car move along the freeways that none of us knew.

Drive-In Cinema. They're not looking at the camera, but pictured are Sarena, Kristen, Tamara, and Kiik.
Drive-By Cinema. They’re not looking at the camera, but pictured are Sarena, Kristen, Tamara, and Kiik.

There were excellent tacos when we got there, and someone was handing out fake blooms to all the attendees. The 45-minute stream of cat videos was just about ending when we sat down. Then they played a 60s Japanese yakuza movie called Tokyo Drifter. Tamara and I had way too many side comments, but the movie was (unintentionally) hilarious. The best part was the bar brawl, Western saloon style–all the men just start hitting each other for no reason and the entire set began falling apart.

I was really worried that all of my roommates would be asleep when we got back at around 11 p.m. (I’d left my room key behind–this was a habit I eventually shed, I think.) Kristen and the others were offering that I sleep on their couch if that was so, but apparently, my worries were once again unfounded. Once Sarena parked, we found a small group of Clarionites standing around the parking lot, laughing raucously. They’d apparently been found out by 9:20 guard again.

Saturday

Greg and I have our conference. He had some comments printed out for both of my submission stories. I didn’t feel too bad about not having my own session this week because of this, but we were both sorry he wouldn’t be able to workshop something new of mine. He really is the Chill Uncle among all of our instructors.

I'm sure this is just the camera angle.
I’m sure this is just the camera angle.

We opted out of the Pines breakfast and had brunch at a loud and vibrant Mexican restaurant in Old Town instead. The cafeteria food had yet to taste terrible to me at that point and I was just barely getting over my jetlagged stomach troubles, but when I ate the rice, egg, and refried beans…heaven. I didn’t realize how much processed food I’d been eating. Nino even introduced our side of this table to this milky drink which Ryan reminded me was called Horchata. ❤

Leena asked me about the story I was planning to submit and I told her it was a secondary world based on pre-colonial Philippines. She told me she didn’t know much about the country’s history, so I kinda launched into explaining 30o+ years of colonization in about 5 minutes. Shoulda warned her I was a history geek.

After brunch, the group went its separate ways. Suite HARV, with Tamara and Amin included, decided to traipse around Old Town’s markets. We found an old Mexican-type house that had been turned into a museum (complete with an outdoor oven!), went through a dried meat shop, and dove into numerous stores full of luchador masks, pottery, tiles, and magnets. Even a Chinese pottery and porcelain shop, for some reason, where Amin and I found a multi-colored phoenix made more frightening by the scary baby doll looking down at it from behind. I bought a bunch of tiles for some folks back home.

After getting some top-notch ice cream and admiring how blue the sky was, we squeezed into the car. I ended up sitting on Amanda’s lap, and we casually drove down the freeway, hoping no cops were around. Ended up chatting about the other times I ended up squeezed like this, especially in lines–best to make light of a tight situation.

While printing out the stories for next week, Clarion Coordinator Laura caught me typing up my personal motivational posters on my laptop for printing, too. I printed a ninth one not too far later on, and I’m sad that I didn’t get a photo of all 9 on my wall or get to take them all home with me afterward. The ninth one read HAVE FUN. YOU’RE NOT HERE TO WRITE A MASTERPIECE.

Geoff Ryman arrived at around 7 p.m. He hung out with us and Greg in the common room and the roof for a little while. Man, is he tall.

So ended Week 1. Little did we know that it wouldn’t always be this carefree.

Motivational posters tacked over my bed. The ninth one that I filled the gap read HAVE FUN. YOU'RE NOT HERE TO WRITE A MASTERPIECE
Motivational posters tacked over my bed. The ninth one that I filled the gap read “HAVE FUN. YOU’RE NOT HERE TO WRITE A MASTERPIECE“.
L to R: Greg Frost and Geoff Ryman. I think Geoff is about 6'7".
L to R: Greg Frost and Geoff Ryman. I think Geoff is about 6’7″.

A funny thing happened while I was at Clarion: On Filipinoness in writing

Some Philippine mangoes. I wrote a story that made my classmates say, "I'll think of this story whenever I eat a mango." Photo from agritoursph.wordpress.com
Some Philippine mangoes. I wrote a story that made my classmates say, “I’ll think of this story whenever I eat a mango.” Photo from agritoursph.wordpress.com

 

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.”

In which I battle with my heritage of smallness, pre-Clarion

*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.

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:

  1. These writers were addressing social and educational factors beyond my control;
  2. They were raging not at me, but at my entire generation;
  3. 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.

 

II.

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.

 

III.

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?

 

IV.

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:

 

  1. The Introduction of the Wheel
  2. The Introduction of the Plow
  3. The Introduction of Road and Bridge
  4. 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.
  5. The Introduction of New Livestock like the Horse, the Cow, the Sheep, the Turkey, the Goose, etc., and the Carabao as Draft Animal
  6. The Introduction of the Fabrica, or Factory
  7. The Introduction of Paper and Printing
  8. The Introduction of the Roman Alphabet
  9. The Introduction of Calendar and Clock
  10. The Introduction of the Map and the Charting of the Philippine Shape
  11. The Introduction of the Arts of Painting and Architecture
  12. 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.

 

V.

And so we circle back to literature.

There is a Huffington Post article titled “Are Authors Scared to Write Diverse Books?”. It’s not the best article about diversity in literature out there, but I think it’s a good jumping point.

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 for them. 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.

Pinoy Otaku Literature

I liked a lot of things–most of them firmly rooted in pop culture–including anime. When I began to write seriously, I also began noticing how different the plots and characters between the anime serieses I loved and the works of fiction I loved. I even tried to push away the anime influence for a while; and even though I took a seven year break from watching anime, the influence has not left me. Proof of that is how I’ve attempted to alter my drawing style several times in an attempt to alter the trappings of my imagination (though my style still has solid anime-esque foundations nowadays).

Here is my friend, the good-natured, utterly polite (at least in person), and ever-controversial polemicist Karlo David, articulating more eloquently than I ever could, how this generation’s writers and artists can own something as foreign and popular as anime and transform it into art with a Filipino sensibility. 🙂

Karlo Antonio Galay David

aoi_bungaku Anime can be very reaffirming

The Filipino youth of this past two decades has an imagination highly influenced, if not dominated, by Japanese animation. Fanfiction, Wattpad stories illustrated anime-style, even the music and fashion sense – the symptoms are everywhere. This younger generation is an otaku generation.

I have been particularly exposed to this fact. During my time in the Ateneo de Davao, many members of the literary org, SALEM, were practically more into anime than literature, and were in the club with writing fanfiction as their main writing background. Many of my friends there were consequently anime fans. In Dumaguete I might very well be the first and so far only graduate student of Silliman University to have been made a member of its humble otaku club, SU MAGE, and several of my students in NORSU are no strangers to anime either. Indeed, I think I can say with…

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Book Review: ‘Storyteller’ by Kate Wilhelm

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Storyteller by Kate Wilhelm. Photo from socialistjazz.blogspot.com

I never thought I’d get to read Kate Wilhelm’s Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Workshop for reasons other than a passive interest in how the Clarion Workshops came to be. But now that I actually stand a damn good fighting chance at going to Clarion San Diego, Storyteller immediately rose to the top of my to-read list.

What can I say about it that hasn’t already been said in much better ways? Nearly every Clarion graduate recommends it to incoming students, often with glowing reviews. I love Wilhelm’s use of clear, concise words to convey her points; her fond, mama-hen-like tones when talking about specific incidents–whether these are about water gun fights or specific workshop sessions. I love how the writing lessons she chooses to include are very nuts-and-bolts, and yet, not at all preachy or technical or jargon-filled. Plus, the index toward the end saved me from having to highlight passages I liked very much.

Best of all, you can apply these lessons in writing, etiquette, love, and life to just about any kind of story, not just Science Fiction or Fantasy.

I came to Storyteller looking for information about the workshop that I wanted to ask and didn’t even know I wanted to ask the coordinator in our email exchanges, that I was often unable to find even combing through this wonderful index of Clarion-related blogs curated by Liz Argall.  For sure, I did not get direct information, but by reading through the slow, turbulent history of the workshops from the 60s and 70s, I think I know a few things already, like which traditions they might have kept. I hope the cafeteria food isn’t as bad as so many people say.

It doesn’t tell you some things, like how to prepare for Clarion way before you arrive, or how to manage your time well, or how many stories you should churn out during your stay, or which events should you attend or skip. I am starting to realize that those are the things you either find out when you get there, or for yourself through trial and error.

I finished reading the book feeling as if I had my fill of the most satisfying appetizer. Can’t wait for the full course in June.

“Why do you write speculative fiction?”

Well, since it’s been a year to the day I finished my first-ever (fantasy) novella, I might as well celebrate it with a writing post.

I just got back from coverage of the Panagbenga festival in Baguio. The reporters were billeted at The Forest Lodge, though we usually ate our meals at The Manor, both of them in Camp John Hay.

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The view from the veranda of Le Chef, The Manor’s premier restaurant. That’s only a small part of its humongous garden.

One lunch time, Forest Lodge’s General Manager Heiner Maulbecker sat with us and gave us a history of Baguio. Maulbecker had been living in the area for about 30 years. Then all of a sudden, he asked me to tell him about myself: how did I get my job, what did I write, all that jazz.

“Fiction,” I said. And then he asked me what sort of fiction I wrote, and I said fantasy and science fiction, though I wrote more of the former. He zoned in on  the science fiction bit.

“But you still have human feelings, a human component?” he asked me. I nodded. He recommended me Frank Schatzinger’s The Swan and said he didn’t really like science fiction all that much but that particular book is interesting.

And then, question of all questions, he asked me why I wrote that sort of thing.

I no longer remember what I answered. But I nibbled on that question even as I took a bathroom break. Why do I write fantasy/speculative fiction? It was just like my thesis days.

Except I came up with an answer that I wish I’d thought of a year ago, though I guess I wouldn’t have been able to think of it due to my lack of life experience at the time. I think answering this question is going to take a good few years yet, but I think the building blocks for my (I believe weighty) answer sprung to being as I was washing my hands in one of The Manor’s cozy bathrooms.

I like to show what’s possible through the impossible.

I’ve been making too many puns on certain words lately, but hey, if they birth thoughts like that, so be it.