The Other Side of the Coin: My Adventure in the World of Fiction

My first “serious” writing involved the essay.  My early high school awards were for essay-writing. I believe that, had things followed their usual course, I would have been an essayist—if I were to be a writer at all. The social sciences called me, too. High school friends thought I would end up in law or in politics, or, if I were to pursue writing, journalism or history.

These might still happen, of course. I cannot, with certainty, divine the future. But the path of the fiction writer is now also open to me. Becoming a full-fledged writer is now one of my possibilities. And this is because of two turning points.

***

The first came early in high school. It was September 2003, and I was the freshman representative to our student council. Eyeing political advancement, I took the opportunity to present a project for the upcoming Teachers’ Day celebration: why not stage a play? Recruiting fellow students would be easy, I thought. Pleasing and humoring the teachers would be easier. I was, after all, an award-bagging essayist. What could possibly go wrong? So I wrote a play, recruited some friends, and staged it on Teachers’ Day.

The play was a flop.

A school year later, my political career was over (with my ill temper in a batch meeting ruining my initial popularity). But it was not my political ego that was injured; my thoughts kept returning to that Teacher’s Day fiasco. As a high school writer, I was traumatized. I wanted to know what went wrong. Was it the lack of time to rehearse? Was it my friend’s lack of cooperation? Was my writing… bad?

I never found out the real reason. But I did edit the play. I tried my best to make it as good as I could. I tried to eliminate all the flaws I could find. I explored the characters: their back stories, their clothing styles, crushes, and favorite movies. I made a sequel.

In short, I wrote. I wrote feverishly that following summer vacation, in 2004. And I had a lot of things to say. Everything was fresh. Everything was amazing. My classmates’ life, my life, their suggestions, my imagination… all these got me going. I delighted in borrowing material from real life and then spending the hours before sleep listening to my favorite music, forming silly characters and associating them with certain theme songs, and at the same time planning plot lines that I may or may not, later on, include in the story.

But even as I took delight in Matthew’s endless pranks and Vincent’s romantic exploits, I began wanting to say more, much more, than what a play allowed me to.  I realized that, because drama draws strength from its visual aspect—every movement is significant, every detail poignant—the script cannot stand on its own. It has to be performed.  The written material per se is one step removed from the audience, and it prevents me from saying what I want to say immediately. A play is not literature, littérateurs say, if it has not yet been staged. Yet I wanted my prospective readers to immediately see what I saw, immediately imagine the scenes I imagined. So I decided to make a detour: I would provide the image, the scenery, and the action in the text.

I tried turning my story into a novel (which I never quite managed to finish). I made the great leap and shifted to fiction. In fiction, ideas are put into play; they are thrust into a laboratory simulating real life. Dialogue meets action, and characters with many different personalities and facets abound. Fiction allows narration, description, and action.

***

During that time I was caught up with The God Stealer, Don Quixote, Harry Potter and Veronika Decides to Die; Sionil Jose, Cervantes, Rowling and Coelho were my idols. And I wrote. I wrote without asking myself why (though I had some wild notion of striking it rich and getting my work filmed), without any idea how, without considering who. I wrote because I wanted to. Because I thought it was fun. Because I, I, I.

At the same time I was growing up. In my senior year I grew interested in Marx and the French Revolution. But it was ideas that attracted me most. Plato’s theory of forms inspired me as much as Kant’s categorical imperative.

As I imbibed all sorts of knowledge and ideas, I realized that my writing so far had been too self-absorbed and too commonplace. Young love and high school students’ obsession with grades had become dry themes: these I had already explored, and I no longer had anything new to offer in these departments. But from where would I draw new inspiration? What now would I write? I began to waver: had I, a person of second-rate talent and imagination, been right to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts, Creative Writing?

Then the second turning point came.

History had always been my favorite subject. The many astounding victories of Napoleon, the glory of the Roman Republic, and the bravery of the Filipino insurrecto tearing his cedula at Balintawak all moved me—and I applauded the grandeur, the bravado, and the selflessness of the French and Philippine revolutionaries marching against Bastile, against Intramuros, in the name of equality, fraternity, and liberty. This began to change, however. A while ago I mentioned F. Sionil Jose, who, though known for his Rosales novels and the story, “The God Stealer,” wrote much more short fiction besides. “The Heirs” I read when I was in fourth year high school. Upon reading about the massacre of a peaceful aristocratic Spanish family by the revolutionaries, I felt as if I were splashed with cold water. But I kept this revelation in the back of my head, for the time being.

December 2008. I was at home, flipping through the many channels of SkyCable, when I chanced upon the 1997 cartoon film Anastasia. Curious, I followed Anya (Meg Ryan) as she snooped around the old palace, haunted by her hazy memories. In typical “cartoon princess” fashion, Anya begins singing: “Once Upon a December.” And just as I was about to scoff and snort at the predictability of it all, a chorus of sonorous voices erupted, drowning out the faint music box, and from out of the high paneled walls sprang the ghosts of Old Russia spinning in gowns and uniforms, triumphant even in their ephemeral appearance, being only memories of a past that was gone.

I was not exactly sure why, but I got goosebumps.

Taken by itself, the 1997 movie Anastasia was cute, and I am sure that little girls who watched the film in the ‘90s could not but be delighted with the pomp, the pageantry, the playful songs, and of course Dmitri (John Cusack). But as I watched the film with a more mature eye (or at the least, I was no longer a child awed by puppies and swirling gowns), I saw the dark overtones, smoothed out though they were for general patronage. Anastasia was set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, which resulted in the brutal killing of Tsar Nikolai II and his family. Later sources would say that the Tsar was possibly well-meaning and innocent, if a little ineffectual, much like Louis XVI, the victim of the French Revolution. “The Heirs” sprang once more into my head. Was it justified, I asked, to shed the blood of those in power in the name of a revolution?

Of course I cannot deny that there were cruel tyrants among the old order, and it is indeed the duty of the people to fight the oppressor in the name of equality, fraternity, and liberty. Yet I came to see that the revolutionaries did not have to pay abuse with abuse. Bringing the innocent to the guillotine along with the guilty was something that I found repulsive.

But for a revolution to succeed, does it not need to destroy the symbols of the ancien régime? As the primary symbols, then, should not the old rulers be eliminated? Then again, aren’t kings and queens and landlords also, first and foremost, human beings? Must they suffer the brunt of history merely because they are symbols? And even as symbols, the kings are representative of a tradition, a culture, an identity. Eliminating them even as symbols entails cold violence. And after Anastasia, I was not quite sure if that cold violence was necessary, nor due, nor just. For something is lost. A la Levinas, this elimination causes something to slip from our grasp, gone forever.  It was then that I concluded that the worst thing a people can do is to cut out these symbols—for what is left if a people severs these links to their his-story, their identity?

From there I thought of our own Philippine history, and I was astounded and appalled by how we in general seem obsessed with erasing our own past. In my mother’s hometown, Ibaan, Batangas, the townsfolk repainted the old stone church in the poblacion in an effort to beautify the building. The result: the venerably chipped, time-tested masonry was covered with gaudy and artificial white and gold paint. In Manila, the older streets were renamed all too easily: Azcarraga became Recto, just as Ongpin was once Calle Sacristia and Juan Luna, Calle Anloague. Teodoro Agoncillo, author of the 637-page History of the Filipino People (used as a textbook in the Ateneo’s Philippine history courses), allotted only 60 pages to the Spanish colonization until 1872—a peculiar thing, given that this period extended more than 300 years. To me it seemed as if, in the Filipino psyche, the memory of Governors-General Legazpi and Blanco has been drowned out by the image of an utterly tyrannical Spain. American injustices (the internment camps and the “water cure”) have been replaced by a forgetful Americanophilia. It appears that in our hurry to move forward, we Filipinos have neglected our history, or else accepted only one version of it.

Writing, then, became my means of exploring the other side of the coin in history. Since my third year in college the majority of my writings (and especially my stories) have been historical. But instead of a glorious revolutionary singing a paean to equality, fraternity, and liberty, instead of an abusive fraile shouting down curses and threats of infierno from his pulpit, I played the devil’s advocate. I turned the tables upside down. I depicted cruel insurrectos and noble Castilians. I attempted to show that the concerned parties were also capable, respectively, of evil or good—or even both.

Some might say that my fiction as of now is the product of an elitist imagination, one that would vainly seek to cling to the faded glories of decadent España, even to the extent of reviling contemporary Philippine society and all its so-called progress. Others might accuse me as guilty of dichotomizing what shouldn’t be dichotomized, for the world after all is multicolored, not black-and-white. And perhaps they are correct. Maybe I do wish to condemn our contemporary society as guilty: and the crime is forgetfulness. If I insist, rather pathologically, on dwelling in a world of curtseys, Latin chants, gas lamps, capiz-latticed windows, and silk fans, this is because I wish to point to a tradition that I believe to be rapidly fading, to be completely forgotten two or three generations from now. If I insist on dividing the world between two sides, it is because our society has for too long antagonized this tradition that someone must radically take its side, even contra mundo. I side with this tradition, allowing no room for middle ground, because I fear that, should we Filipinos completely forget our history, we may yet again perpetrate the mistakes of 1896 and 1945 and 1972. We may yet again consent to the spilling of lives, the burning of artifacts, the bombing of our sacred shrines, and the eradication of our history, our story, our identity.

***

This thinking, of course, is not original, though as a junior I imagined it to be so. People before me have come to this conclusion. Max Pulan, in his Philippine novel in English class, accedes that the Filipino writers have often made this diagnosis: Filipinos are forgetful of their history. But one particular voice in the wilderness caught my ears. In my first two years in the Ateneo the name of Nick Joaquin was but distant and vague. I did a literary paper on his poem, “The Years,” but I only knew of him as the man behind “Summer Solstice” and Portrait of the Artist as Filipino. But as I evolved my historical objective in writing and delved into Filipiniana literature, I re-encountered Nick Joaquin, the author of short stories, a play, and two novels, and (usually as Quijano de Manila) a number of nonfiction books besides.

In Joaquin the fiction writer I saw an honest ardor for history: a desire to recall the story, the poetry, and the beauty of a past being so appallingly forgotten. Through “May Day Eve” and “Guardia De Honor” I was able to grasp a glimpse of the lives of our fathers and mothers—a glimpse that I never found in our history textbooks. What tomes of history texts and Hi 165-166 classes could not offer I grasped through Nick Joaquin’s view; it was a perspective that has seen history before it faded. Cobblestone streets, red-tiled roofs, calezas rolling along Azcarraga, the church bells ringing, the sea-breeze blowing, the galleons sailing… in a word, all the things I wished we would cherish, the things we would never forget even as Makati rises and the highways encircle a new Manila and freight ships burden her waters.

***

With Nick Joaquin’s stories now as my new point of departure, my writing began to change. My sentences grew longer, turning into strings of run-ons, sometimes elegant but always verbose, suiting my talkative nature as well the cadence of the long-winded and flowery Filipino and the Spanish more than the direct and concise English. Perhaps I may also acknowledge Sir “Krip” Yuson, who in both our fiction and poetry classes taught his students to love language and “get drunk with words.” After seeing me string Spanish, archaic Tagalog, Filipino, and English into one poem, he it was who encouraged me with the phrase, “Amor con amor se paga.” I would like to think that with the lovely Castilian phrase he paid my love for tongues.

Language leads to description, and so I also nurtured a penchant for detail. Before my second year in college I often failed to set up scenes: my characters appeared to float in a dreamy no-man’s-land devoid of buildings or gates or trees. But as I discovered Nick Joaquin and fell in love with language it has become a bit of a mania for me to fill the spatial gap, to try and describe the scenes as I saw them in my mind. So I ornamented my fiction with literary curlicues as I dwelled on what I saw, on what I had come to love: golden chandeliers, red-roofed stone houses, the glint of rapiers, and the passing whiff after a cannonshot.

Of course, I would not claim to have even mastered this “tropical baroque” style, much less transcended it. Narratives from my first Joaquinesque phase seemed clumsy, too artificial, as illustrated by my short story, “The Orchid,” which is not included in this portfolio:

What he saw was her lonely form framed by the tall but cracked mahogany paneling, the painted angels and saints fading, their hymns to the Heavenly Court forever lost. It was as if the Casa had suddenly turned old.

In the above passage I was telling, not showing, the readers exactly what I wanted them to read. In my desire to have them see what I see, I told them what to look at. I told them what to feel. Compare this to a passage from Joaquin’s “May Day Eve”:

He ached intensely to see her again—at once!—to touch her hand and her hair; to hear her harsh voice. He ran to the window and flung open the casements and the beauty of the night struck him back like a blow. It was May, it was summer, and he was young—young!—and deliriously in love. Such happiness welled up within him as the tears spurted from his eyes. But he did not forgive her—no! He would still make her pay, he would still have his revenge, he thought viciously, and kissed his wounded fingers. But what a night it had been!

There was no need to tell the reader that Badoy Montiya was, quite literally, drunk with passion: one can read it in his disjointed line of thought, in the mix of fascination and vengefulness.

Further reading, perseverance, and two more years improved my descriptions somewhat, however:

The streetlights cast a dim orange glow over Taft Avenue, Pasay, even as the train crawls overhead, leaving the city behind. The buildings are covered in soot, their window panes dull and broken. Below, a small group gathers, laying their carton beds along the sidewalk. They do not mind the black gutter water lapping at their bare feet, nor the squeals of naked children running across the cracked road, nor the mixed stench of urine and the toxic fumes from one or two passing jeepneys.

I learned that I had to trust my own skill as much as my projected readers’ intelligence and empathy. I had to restrain myself, to allow the details to speak for themselves, to speak of the dark and dismal state of dead-end city.

In my second writing phase I developed plotting. Sir DM Reyes, in our third year workshop, had always emphasized the plot, and with good reason. Before, I considered “The Orchid,” mentioned earlier, to be the best of my short stories due to its length and dramatic idea. Set in the first part of the Philippine Revolution, the story features a crack rebel officer falling in love, within one evening, with the daughter of a condemned old aristocrat. But the problem was that I relied too much on the story’s language, focusing on polemics more than action. And due to this lack of action the story seemed to drag, dialogue after dialogue, for eleven pages as the couple while away the hours before the execution.

“The Unfinished Portrait,” which stems from the same root as “The Orchid”—F. Sionil Jose’s “The Heirs,” in fact—is a slight improvement due to the advantages of plotting; it has more of a story to tell. Borrowing themes from Portrait of the Artist as Filipino and The Portrait of Dorian Gray, the short story (also not included in this portfolio) centers on a financial opportunist who contemplates finishing a celebrated family portrait. After swinging back and forth between the present events and flashbacks, he realizes that a painting, far from being measured by its face value, actually reveals a viewer’s character: those which, as in real life, are overlooked when one sees only what he or she wants to see. Instead of turning out to be another artificial polemic, “The Unfinished Portrait” becomes a little more ambitious due to the dynamics of plot. Instead of being expository, it becomes a story with a direction.

The problem with “The Unfinished Portrait” and the other narratives from that phase, however, was the lack of research. While these stories aspired to achieve integrate exposition and plot, my failure to lend credibility to the characters and the situations dispel the illusion, and pieces like “The Unfinished Portrait” become like half-cooked dishes in need of salt. I saw that the maxim, “Write what you know,” holds true: one must study first, to somehow experience what he or she is going to write about. With this realization I began entering my third phase—a face that, to be honest, I have still to fully fit into. And the marks of this phase are the vignette stories like “Reino del Encantos” and, more importantly, The Knights of Santiago.

The latter, a novel in progress, was a phrase in itself: in my third year I was inspired by “murder mystery” role-playing games, Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous Sherlock Holmes, and the metafictional Don Quixote. It occurred to me that I ought to write a detective story—but the detective should himself be the subject of detection, of re-discovery. Just as Don Quixote was about the writing of the knight’s exploits, I thought that it was possible to recover our national identity by a story on the recovery of a lost hero, the “lost great Filipino detective.” So Teniente Rafael Hurtado was born.

However, he was not born full-grown into an already clear-cut world; early on I understood that I have to provide him a life and a home. I went back to texts like The Formation of Philippine Society and even primary sources like Urbana at Feliza. I drew elements from my mother’s hometown, the real-life municipality of Ibaan. I reacquainted myself with the tobacco monopoly, the miasma theory, and the Philippine Revolution. The product of all this was the three chapters of The Knights of Santiago, a detective story and, ultimately, a retelling of the events leading to the Philippine Revolution, told in the perspective of a discharged Teniente—a criollo and a drunkard.

***

My dialogue, too, evolved. Having begun my writing adventure in drama, I had ever since found that letting the characters speak is very important in revealing their personalities and pushing the plot forward. The exchange of lines between the characters lends speed and direction to a story. For instance:

“Hay, you know my worthless husband. …Probably he’s wasting my hard-earned money on beer and softdrinks. Beer, yes, I can forgive, but softdrinks! That I’ll never understand.”

“Hard-earned! But it’s your children who do your peddling, Maring!”

“It’s the one good thing about fucking often. Why shouldn’t the bastards do their little part, eh? Why, if I’m lucky they won’t turn out to be like their pig of a father—though I can’t say I’m hopeful. Only two hundred in one day! Pah! Imagine!”

In the above conversation one can see that Maring’s character (bitter, lazy, uncouth, uncaring, among others) was established by her lines.

I realized that dialogue was such a crucial indicator of character that each voice, like each personality, had to be different from the other. The eighteenth century aristocrats, by virtue of their upbringing, would speak in a formal, proper fashion; in writing about them I had to be conscious of my word choice (preferring “the matter at hand” to “the thing at hand” and the Spanish “casa” over the common language’s “bahay” or “house”) and word presentation (using “do not” instead of “don’t”). On the other hand, the middle classes would speak in a more natural manner than the straitlaced elite, so I could depict them as using contractions and words like “I’ve” and “thing,” respectively. And with boorish characters, proper tone and syntax (and even proper spelling) would completely go out of the window. To illustrate, I shall show the different speech patterns found in my novel in progress:

“Hombre! Don’t you know? I’m making my study of the different months. Like you with your permitations and combatations, eh? Only mine’s more usable, see… Enero is the month of beginnings, the month one is most likely to get a good start in his work. Febrero is the month of hangovers, when people have already drunk too much lambanog, eh? So everyone is irritable and sober. Marzo is the month of passion, when people are most likely to punch each other… And so on, ad infierno, as you say, no?”

“But all that is mere nonsense, Teniente,” Fray Caceras said. “These are but products of your feeble and addled mind. Perhaps, yes, we may assign certain attributes to certain months. But these attributes would need to have a logical and scientific basis…”

Teniente Hurtado, the filthy and lambanog-loving central character, speaks in a disjointed fashion peppered with the repeated “eh”s and (misspelled) highfaluting words, and so delivers as speech worthy of loquacious drunkards. In contrast stands Fray Caceras’s flawless technical language, which in turns reflects his character as a man of learning, the embodiment of cold reason.

***

It is true that many of my writing skills and habits have remained unchanged. Though I no longer need to look at the moon to draw inspiration, until today I am still moved by scenes. I see in my mind a vampire in rags walking past the empty stores along Taft Avenue, and then I write a story about it. I see Teniente Callado riding down like Santiago upon the American lines in 1898, and I write a story about it, too. I still associate theme songs with my characters. Instead of “Write in white heat, edit in cold blood,” I still write-and-edit with heated blood. I am still far from being the best writer in my batch, let alone my generation. I still cringe whenever I see my old works, and I immediately proceed to edit them, as if ashamed someone might sneak into my room and read these monstrosities. However, my impetus for writing did change.

A littérateur once declared that “with fine sentiments bad literature is made.” However, Dr. Rizal, in a letter to his friend, voiced a reverse opinion: fine sentiments, “proper feelings,” must precede good literary craft. But can’t good literature spring from a fine idea, a fine theme, a heated passion? For, at the time of this writing, I write not only because I want to, not only because I want to get rich, not only because I want to be known as some great bohemian artist wasting away in his attic.

I write with the idea of “the other side of history” in mind. I write so that we—humanity in general, Filipinos in particular—we may never forget that it takes two parties to constitute history: a winner, yes, perhaps, but also a loser. A loser who has just as much right to be remembered.

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