June 15, 2020

Archipelago of stars

I have received a few messages on Facebook inquiring about my biography and the origins of my writing life. These came from teachers who are teaching 21st Century Writing in the Philippines to high school students. I have pointed them to the About section of this blog for my biography. For notes on my writing life, I am publishing here once more my essay Archipelago of Stars which became the titular piece of my book of essays released in 2016. 

“HOW CAN I BECOME A (GOOD) WRITER?” is probably one of the trickiest questions that I have been asked in my life. “Are writers born or made?” ranks closely in second place. The first question denotes the existence of a step-by-step procedure similar to, say, gourmet cuisine, guiding the novice through a logical sequence of actions from mincing and chopping, to sautĂ©ing and flambĂ©ing, and then continuing to the delicate art of plate presentation. Meanwhile, the second question implies the role of genetics, or the difference one brand of infant formula milk makes in the development of a would-be writer.

I never considered becoming a writer when I was growing up. There was no oracle foretelling what I’d end up to be, although soothsayers have always been inclined to say that I was bound to do great things. I’m okay with the thought, for as long as it doesn’t entail death by firing squad or hanging like most of the great people I encountered in grade school history lessons. I get embarrassed when I’m asked, “What do you do for a living?” I don’t want to be presumptuous by announcing, “I’m a writer.” Then again it’s a more pleasant thing to say compared to admitting that I’m a bum most of the time.

Until recently, when I was asked to speak in a writing workshop, I haven’t bothered tracing the origins of my writing life.

Like many children I dreamed of becoming a doctor. When I was five years old I showed an intense fascination with the doctors who looked esteemed in their starched, antiseptic white gowns as they attended to my paralyzed grandfather. However, my mother was so opposed to the idea that she announced it right there and then that she would not hear of me wanting to become a doctor.

“Why?” I asked innocently.

“I said no, and that’s it!” My mother ordered with a finality of a Supreme Court ruling.

I never mentioned my silly dream of becoming a doctor to her again, although I learned later that she went to medical school herself but was kicked out on her third year because she went on an extended vacation in Europe, and did not bother filing a leave of absence from school.  My pursuit of a career in medicine became a clandestine operation only a circle of cousins, classmates, friends, and teachers shared.

Perhaps realizing that her fatwa would do more harm than good my mother placated me by constantly giving me books. Henceforth I always looked forward to the arrival of a new Dr. Seuss title with a fanfare of a parade on Mulberry Street. Soon after my father brought home a large crate containing Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopedia.

Back then my father came home to Pagalungan during weekends because he worked in Cotabato, a city ninety minutes away. On late Friday afternoons my siblings and I, together with our white shih tzu Commander waited patiently for him in our front porch. Going over a thick edition of an illustrated Readers Digest Children’s Story Encyclopedia, we picked the stories we wanted our father to read for the Saturday.  An exercise that was something far from being peaceful.

“I’m the kaka so I should be the one picking the story,” I invoked my firstborn privilege.  “I’m the youngest,” Farah appealed to our good side, “and I’m Papa’s little girl.” Anwar would use brute force by pulling Farah’s hair. He was a boy who realized early on that, in very select instances, words have their limitations.

Invectives were hurled. A kick here. A punch there. More hair-pulling ensued. A bucket of tears spilled. Amid the fracas, there was a common understanding among us, an early evidence of enlightened diplomacy. The book, like a sacred relic, must, at all times, be spared from the conflict. Commander never took sides. He played the important role of barking repeatedly until our step grandmother, realizing that there was a commotion, pacified us with threats of a lashing.

With bruised egos and butts still hurting from the beating inflicted a day earlier, we huddled around our father as soon as we were done with our Saturday brunches. He read stories with passion. He was an animated storyteller. We cheered Raja Indarapatra when he victoriously slew the monster Kurita.  We were soaked in the spray of ocean as Old Stormalong battled the Octopus. I adored my father, and, in silence asked myself: Will I become a good storyteller like him when I grow up?

I was raised with a well-stacked library filled with Tagore, Shakespeare, Dickens, Homer, Voltaire, Dostoevsky, and, surprisingly, a Blakely St. James with pages stuck together by what I presumed later in life –when I was old enough to know what the f-word was— as dried bodily fluid. I think that early on my writing life was already taking shape with the steady speed of termites feasting on a narra tree.  My ustadz said that in Islam nothing is coincidence. Everything is decided by the will of Allah. “Even before all of us were born, the wheels of fortune had already been set in motion,” he declared. His fatalism would answer the question, ‘Are writers born or made?’ Debating on the merits of being weaned on Promil or am is immaterial since our fate had been decided for us.

I was already poring over the pages of Berenstein Bears before I could recognize my ABCs. Nothing special. Every kid has done it. In Walter Salles’s Behind the Sun, which is set in the Brazilian heartland much more rustic than my hometown, there’s a memorable scene of the young boy Paco ‘reading’ the pictures of a storybook that is given to him by a gypsy. It is of no consequence to him if he cannot make sense of the words in the book. He creates his own fantastic, yet coherent story out of the pictures.

Imagination is the writer’s chief weapon. But if all human beings have the faculty to imagine, what sets the writer apart from the rest?

I cannot claim to be an expert in English – the language I use to write ninety percent of the time. Neither can I profess the same with Filipino or Maguindanaon. I was too young when I was uprooted from my hometown to study in the city, long before I could learn the complex literary style of the bayok. The way I use Filipino borrows much from the conventions of Cebuano, the predominant language spoken in Mindanao. I would write “Gikain” rather than “Kinain.” Both words are in the past tense, which means, “Ate.”

I was not an exceptional student, but I belonged to the honors class. The only time I got an award in grade school was in a Spelling Bee contest. That was in first grade.  Lessons on the parts of speech induced me to a stupor. I couldn’t differentiate an adverb from an adjective. Worse I associated gerund to a type of a shrub, the variety which you dry the leaves and store them in transparent antique bottles that sat nicely on your mother’s cupboard, sandwiched between cinnamon and thyme.  My fourth grade teacher resigned to the fact that I was hopeless, an opinion that changed every time she read my theme-writing notebook. “You write well,” she would declare. To me that was more important than determining whether a clause was independent or not.

In freshman high school our teacher –with that ridiculous faux New Yorker accent of his— mistook English for a class in stenography. At the end of the school year, he asked us to present him a complete transcript of his lessons before he signed our clearance form. I was too lazy to write down notes. Alain, a classmate who also shared my lack of enthusiasm for longhand exercises, had to buy a large notebook, borrowed notes from a few classmates, and copied them page by page like a sage rewriting the Torah on fresh parchment. Meanwhile, I retreated to a quiet corner of the school library every afternoon, and, with a black Kilometrico ballpen, mastered the slightest arcs of my teacher’s signature.

The onset of puberty and nationalistic fervor brought about by the triumph of a Filipino popular singer in a Hong Kong singing competition might have sparked my hormones to do their job because things got better in my sophomore year. I performed well in class, landing a spot in the Top 10. English was no longer confined to the boring dissection of the moronic and the oxymoronic. We studied World Literature, and since I was enrolled in an all-boys high school I was asked to portray Sita in a dramatic performance of Ramayana.

With my newfound confidence I joined a school essay-writing contest. Proclaimed first prizewinner I climbed on stage to receive my medallion, but the teacher in charge of the contest refused to give me my prize. “There must be a mistake,” she mumbled. “Would you mind waiting downstage for a while?” She scrutinized the tally sheet. Everything was perfectly okay. Still she wouldn’t give me the medallion. A sophomore beating three seniors and two juniors who were supposed to be on top of their classes was unthinkable. After five minutes, when all my humanity had been vaporized, she called me again, this time with total certainty in her voice, that I was the winner. Even the finest coffee emerges into the world via the indignity of cat dung.

Despite my initial success in writing I didn’t forget that I wanted to be a doctor. In college I took Nursing as a preparatory course for Medicine, but I shifted to Biology the following year. I became editor of the student publication. I confess that I was not a good student. I became a student activist, armed with the strong belief that real education was achieved by understanding the struggle of the toiling peasants and the working class.  I once wrote in my journal, “Do not let schooling interfere with your learning.”

In another year I shifted to Communication Arts. It was not because I wanted to pursue writing seriously. It was the magic of filmmaking that enthralled me. In the dark and empty theaters of Megamall, I fell in love with Fellini and Ozu in a film festival.

During the summer before my junior year, my dream of becoming a doctor –an act of defiance that had been nurtured since childhood— was once and for all thrown off course. It would take several years for me to realize that filmmaking was just an extension of my writing. Writing not with words, but with images, in the true spirit of the camera stylo that Jean Cocteau envisioned filmmakers to aspire for.

If writing were a curse, it’s much deadlier than Aveda Kedavra! As a novice asking the question, “How can I become a (good) writer?” is only a small peek into the pensieve. One fundamental question that needs answering is, “Are you prepared for the writing life?”

In two decades of writing –well, half of the time I was merely doodling—I’ve learned a lesson or two, struggling to be alive in a culture that treats writing as frivolous as fine arts i.e. painting. People will either love or crucify you for your writing. You can thank them for their appreciation, but you must keep an open mind about criticism. Listening to critics doesn’t mean kowtowing to their tastes. If at first you don’t succeed –in getting your work published or winning a literary contest— then you can try again. Writing doesn’t guarantee a luxurious summer holiday in Ibiza, except maybe if you land a contract to write textbooks. Some writers have day jobs as teachers or NGO workers, while others are lucky enough to be writing for newspapers and magazines on a regular basis. The income though is never sufficient so they accept raket on the side. Most people have no respect for the writing process, unless you share a National Artist’s gene pool. People hardly understand why you need to lock yourself up in your room for days, foregoing meals and baths. They will suspect that you’re either on drugs or have developed a proclivity for incessant wanking. Don’t excuse yourself by saying, “I am writing.” It’s no good. It’s not a worthwhile pursuit compared to slaving in an office from eight to five, the way society defines what an employee should be. In mid sentence you will be called to wash the dishes, or “to be useful in the house.” Sometimes when I’m confronted with a similar situation I wonder: If I became a surgeon, will people treat my work the same way? Will I be asked to put the scalpel down in the middle of a delicate brain surgery because I need to throw out the garbage?

Writing is a solitary experience. Even if you’re stuck at JFK or in the middle of an EDSA X rally, writing is a process that is done by turning your back from the world for a while. Yet deep within your soul, you know that you must be certain that your words can connect to people. You can read all the writing self-help books, but in the end it all boils down to you alone. A little bit of patience and humility will keep you afloat during the most trying times. Because like it or not, not all writers are destined to become literary giants. But that doesn’t mean you cannot taunt the establishment for being elitist, stupid, medieval, vampiric, and incestuous. You can even accuse them of patronage literature, that homoerotic pat on the backside, the pederasty.

In 2007, my first book Children of the Ever-Changing Moon was published. The response I got from readers was generally positive. My favorite review came from a respected Moro leader. Borrowing words from the Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner, he said, “You are like tourists in your own country.” All the writers in the little anthology were still grappling with cultural identities. Now publicly acknowledged as a “writer”, at least in my own community, I’m anxious about complacency, not writing enough, and lately, not writing good enough. Should I write what I like and feel strongly about? That’s easy. Or should my writing be representative of my people? A tall order. Realizing that spontaneity is one of my strongest traits, I tell myself to just let the words flow in the spaces between light and shadow, and weave tales out of an archipelago of stars.

It has been an exciting adventure, and I am still the same —“a tourist in my own country.” But now I have the keen awareness that the process of writing is nothing but a surgery of words –suturing loose thoughts, incising ideas to reveal new images, a laparotomy to explore hidden meanings and connections.

I have become a doctor of words.

— Gutierrez Mangansakan II

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