What I write, how, and why

It’s difficult to live nowadays in a country such as this and not be compelled to write, if only to meditate upon the tragic course we are heading as a nation. A few years back, after winning a Palanca for my first novel, I thought that I could probably retire. All My Lonely Islands felt like the greatest and (possibly) sole work of my life, regardless of whether readers feel the same or not. As someone who had resisted the Call of the Write for nearly her entire life out of cowardice and overthinking, I feel that the most courageous feat that I will ever do in this life and beyond had to be writing that book, and exposing the overwrought innards of my soul. And if Arundhati Roy can release a second novel after 20 years and Harper Lee after half a century, I didn’t see the particular need to hurry.

Until this year. Until today. Until this moment.

There is an urgency to write nowadays, while I still can, while it’s still legal and within my rights. One day, I just sat in front of my computer and started typing without any particular direction or mandate, just with that harrowing sense of time running out. By the end of six months, I had a partial manuscript, and it is not what I had expected. I thought I was going to tackle the “war on drugs” in a very combative manner, befitting the rage and helplessness I feel on a daily basis. But what came out, as I should have expected from myself, is a meditation on an alternate reality. This Is What I’ll Remember is shaping up as a re-imagination of what the war would look like if we were an affluent nation and if we had won that war through scientific violence.

Contrary to all the blood and gore that I was anticipating, this manuscript had decided to zoom in on the aftermath of such a world, where addiction and violence had been weeded out from the gene pool but at great cost. In my mind, I saw the desolation of a country that thought it could win the war it had waged on its own humanity, and utterly failing. The story further zooms into the lives of two cousins living in this fallen reality, one a genetically edited “Construct,” and the other an accursed “Natural.” I should have known my story is going to be as intimate as this, because that’s the kind of stories I like reading and writing best, like a detective looking for clues under the microscope, scanning all the little particles and seeing what secrets they are willing to give up.

Character-centric stories resonate with me the most, because it always feels as if the characters are representing the entire world even in the confines of their personal struggles and triumphs. In hindsight, I realize that I had been heavily influenced by Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, although I had read it ages ago. And yet, the power of that novel stayed with me, not because of the harrowing science behind that world, but because the novel illustrated the slow erosion of hope through the lives of three clones. And in the end, the novel wasn’t even science fiction; it was a meditation on what it’s like to barely survive life.

Whenever I embark on a new writing project, I always try to set a vision for that project, which goes beyond brainstorming about the premise and characters. I try to establish early on what I want my novel to be and what I don’t want it to be. For this manuscript, I want to combine alternate history with psychological thriller and the good old ghost story. The tone and mood I’m aiming for is a mixture of the conflicted soul of Never Let Me Go, and the quiet dread of the Turn of the Screw. Most of all, I want something that will make readers think about our current situation as a nation. I want this manuscript to serve as a warning. What I don’t want is for people to read this novel and shrug it off as just another story. I’ve always thought that we need writers not primarily for entertainment, but for survival. When we are on the brink of losing our humanity is when we need our writers the most. We need to save each other.

Even now, while writing this, I feel the old anxiety that came with finally heeding the call to write years ago. I remember those first semesters in the MFA, when I was a late bloomer in the literary scene, an utter newbie sitting in class, getting lost in the sea of literary theories and heritage, and wondering how I could ever write something from all of that. The answer wasn’t really as complicated as I thought it would be. It had to start from a story that demanded from me to be written, a story that I had known all my life although it took years and years for me to recognize it. There was already the seed, what I just really needed was the patience to tend to it, and the faith that it would grow.

When I wrote All My Lonely Islands, it was coming from 31 years of existence, four of them as a third-culture kid (TCK) in Bangladesh. At that time, I felt that there weren’t enough stories to represent the disruption of identity that TCKs experience whenever they move from one country to the next. Most people look at TCKs and just see the good side such as exposure to different cultures and languages, constant travels, living the “expat” life, but what they don’t see are the challenges; the struggles of being uprooted from everything these children had ever known, the fractured sense of Self and belongingness. That was the side of the story that I had the unique position to tell; it was the story that I felt could help represent all the thousands of TCKs out there looking for empathy or some semblance of stability or home.

When I returned to the Philippines for university, I felt as if the Philippines I knew had long been gone. I didn’t understand most of the pop culture jokes and lingo, I wasn’t aware about most of the country’s issues. During that period of alienation, I found solace in Philippine literature. I remember finally reading Noli Me Tangere in the Filipiniana section of the UP library, in a dark corner, away from the table of students who were quietly giggling and bickering over group work. I realized then that what I was reading was an important period of my history as a Filipino, and therefore in the process I was getting to know myself all over again. That’s when I realized that literature has the power to save a life.

That opportunity to represent and give voice is the privilege that comes with writing. It is why I do it in spite of the sleepless nights, the constant self-doubt that never goes away even when one has been published (or gets a national literary award), and the uncertainty of writing as a career. I’ve always known that writing is not for the faint of heart or for the halfhearted, so here I am again, attempting bravery just once more, realizing that if I have the capacity to write just once more, maybe it will change someone’s life. Somehow, I never thought I was capable of writing an alternate history, let alone speculative fiction. I never thought I was going to ever be inspired to do so or tackle a national issue that doesn’t seem to have an end and is beyond all my comprehension. I never thought I was ever going to be political, because politics had always left such a bitter taste in my mouth. It is an arena of the human existence that I had always detested, mostly because it is the same predictable story of power corrupting the soul. Yet here I am speculating about it, fermenting an idea in my head, writing a work-in-progress that is simmering with quiet rage and hopelessness. A confession; I only felt marginally better after writing this story thus far. Nevertheless, I plan to persist and follow this trail, and maybe at the end of it, I will regain hope, too. Maybe this time, I can even save myself.

Just last week, I finished reading 1984. I’ve always wanted to read that book but didn’t feel the urgency to do so. Now, it seems like the most relevant book ever written by anyone. It’s terrifying mostly because it proves the sheer foresight of writers and the great danger of bringing that future to life with something as potent as words. People tend to dismiss words as mere bluster. For politicians, perhaps. For writers, it’s almost like dark magic. We are prophets, regardless of how much we are willing to accept that fate. For the present, we are sometimes misunderstood as troublemakers and warmongers, harbringers of doom. People might laugh at us in the wilderness, until the time comes when they don’t.


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