Tuesday, March 12, 2013

An Interview by Luis Diores - "Cecilia Manguerra Brainard - Fiction is Organic to Me"

Dr. Hope S. Yu gave me copies of the anthology, KULAKABILDO: DIALOGUES WITH CEBUANO WRITERS during my recent visit to Cebu.
The anthology is described as follows:

" Composed with talented style and sincerity, each of the interview of the twenty-four very different Cebuano writers in this collection has the power to impress and surprise the reader. Taken together, they form an assemblage of some of the Cebuano strongest lyrical and imaginative voices. Directly connecting the lives and works of these extra-ordinary writers, the interviews enrich our appreciation of their contributions to literature and popular culture.

Dr. Hope S. Yu is Associate Professor at the Department of Languages and Literature at the University of San Carlos"

 "Cecilia Manguerra Brainard - Fiction is Organic to Me"
An Interview by Luis Diores

From the anthology "Kulokabildo: Dialogues with Cebuano Writers" (ISBN: 978-971-539-014-9; University of San Carlos  Cebuano Studies Center), p. 125

          Being a Filipino writer in America, what would you say is the biggest hindrance or obstacle in writing about our rapidly evolving culture?
The biggest hindrance or obstacle is that it’s difficult to publish. It's difficult for all writers, but if you are a Filipino writer in the United States there is a more limited market and so it is harder to find a publisher in the U.S.  It is probably easier for a Filipino writer to find a publisher in the Philippines because the readership would be wider.   
         Who are major influences in your writing?
The Cebuana writer, Lina Espina Moore, who was my mentor and who became a friend, influenced my writing a lot. When I started writing I had difficulty with the Filipino voice. I had read so much Euro-centric material, beginning with Dick and Jane in Kindergarten and so on. Lina wrote about Cebuano topics in both Cebuano and English.  I'd read her novels and short stories and studied how she was able to express Cebuano culture and Filipino culture using English. She was able to give me encouragement and ideas about how to write in English about our Filipino culture.  She used to say, "Write like you talk."  Writing is not exactly like that, but I understood what she meant.

You are gifted in three large areas of literature – writing, editing, and teaching. Which area do you enjoy and dwell on the most?
The three of them intertwine. Writing came first and then teaching and then editing. I enjoy them all; they use different energies from me. If I’m tired doing one thing, I can do  another activity and it refreshes me.  For instance writing and editing are solitary activities, and so when I teach and I'm in contact with students, that’s another kind of energy . I’m with people and I’m relating with them instead of being alone in my dreamworld. 
What message would you like to send to many Filipinos who are clamoring to get out of the country?
The Philippines is very beautiful and there are very many opportunities here. I think that the people who leave the Philippines find out that they could have used their talents in this country as well. I know that our population is very large and therefore our resources are limited, and I know that in some other countries it is easy to find work and to acquire material things like cars, homes, and so on, but many of our retired Filipinos come back. Many of them return to the Philippines because no matter how far you are, you still feel an attachment to your home.

What do you find is the prevailing theme in everything you write?
I tend to explore Filipino and Filipino-American history and culture. You'll find that in many of my writings. I have also been told that I write about Filipino women a lot. This is not a conscious thing I do, but people come back to me and tell me this. So I think that those are the two - Filipino/Filipino-American themes and women.
Do you use different writing processes when you write different forms of literature such as fiction and essays?
To me, writing essays and writing fiction are different.  Fiction is organic to me. I cannot really outline it.  I may have a little plan, but that can easily change.  I generally follow character and character development in fiction writing. Essays are a more intellectual process and so I can outline these.  I can follow the English composition style in terms of writing the essays, but definitely not for fiction. They are different.
 How does your Philippine education influence you as a writer?
Philippine education, or Philippine culture, or my Philippine background mean a lot in terms of my writing.  These have given me my point of view, my unique perspective in terms of seeing the world and dealing with my fictional characters. It is from the Philippine or Philippine-American point of view that I deal with them as opposed to a Euro-centric or American-centric point of view.  
This is a little cliché, but as an aspiring writer, I ask what advice you can give to those young men and women who want to be in your place someday?
I have given this advice many times. You have to be persistent, that is to stick with it.  You have to read a lot because reading and writing go hand in hand.  Read the kind of writing that you would like to do, that is if you want to be a poet, read poetry, if you want to be a novelist, read novels.  It helps a lot if you belong to a workshop, if you are with other writers. If you are working alone, it’s difficult because you need feedback for your work. Further, if you’re with other writers, you can encourage one another other. 
What aspects of American and Philippine culture do you incorporate in your writing? Do you try to balance both?
I've lived in the United States ever since I went there to go to graduate school. I've had to deal with two cultures ever since - Philippine culture as well as American culture.  And perhaps I've had to deal with a third culture - Philippine American culture, because Filipinos in America have developed their own style or culture if you will.  I don't know about balancing these cultures. I am who I am, and I explore topics that interest me.  I know that history is interesting to me.  I have explored Philippine as well as Philippine American history in my writings.  I've written about Cebu, although I've turned it into a fictional place called Ubec.
If there is a conflict between expressing an idea and violating a grammatical rule, what would you choose?
Grammar is a tool, so you can break grammatical rules. It’s the artistic thing that must be followed first. But you need to understand that when you break rules there is a price.  For instance, breaking a particular grammatical rule might make your writing confusing.  You need to be aware of that, and you need to weigh the consequences:  Do I still want to break this grammaticul rule, even if doing so makes my work confusing?  It's best to get your writing workshopped. That way people can come back and say, “This was very confusing; it needs more work.” Or “Yes, this is something new, refreshing.”
So you were part of a workshop?
Yes, in the United States. The workshops were very helpful.  The process is invaluable. I suppose some people can write on their own but the problem is that at a certain point you can’t see your work anymore.  You lose objectivity.  Having other people point out the strengths and weaknesses of your writing helps.  It's like a mirror reflecting your work back to you.  It doesn't mean you change your work according to what people say; you are the author you make the final decisions.  But the feedback allows you to better assess your work.
What I love so much about your work is its richness in Philippine culture, do you write about it because of your love for the country or because you miss it so much? Or both?
This is all I have to offer, you see. I know some writers w ho belong to a particular culture, for instance an African American writer who writes about White protagonists and White themes.  When you read his work, you would think it was written by a White person.  That is not how I wish to write.  I have chosen to write about what is closest to my heart. I can only explore what I am, that is what I try to look at, is this Filipino-ness and this Filipino-America-ness.
These days, where do you draw all your inspiration from?
It's important to professionals to have deadlines.  Inspiration can only do so much; it can come, it can go.  I have deadlines. I have projects that are ongoing. I’m working with a co-editor on a book, an anthology called, “Finding God”. So we have a deadline for that one. I have my own creative writing which I don’t like to discuss for superstitious reasons.  There is a saying that goes, if you can talk about it, why write it. 
I have a lot of things going on.
I get ideas. My co-editor and I finished two book projects.  The last one won an International Gourmand Award and so we talked and said, “Why don’t we do this?”  and we decided to do Finding god. I’m not exactly sure where it comes from but when it’s there the energy is strong and that’s what will make it happen.
After all your years of writing, what work do you particularly love and are proud of?
It’s a little bit hard to say because each book project is like a child.  I love each book I have done; each book had its own demands on me and required something from me.  I have a very strong affection for my first novel which was published in the Philippines as “Song of Yvonne” and in the United States as “When the Rainbow Goddess Wept.” That one was not easy to do.  It's fiction but I used the stories that my parents told me about World War II.  It's used in schools both in the Philippines and the U.S.  It was recently translated into Turkish.
Most of your stories are set in the Philippines rather than the U.S., why is this so?
When I was growing up a lot of the history taught to me was from a Euro-centric point of view,  things like, "Ferdinand Magellan discovered the Philippines in 1521."  The truth is that Magellan did not discover the Philippines.  The islands and people already existed long before he showed up. As I became older and read more I realized a lot of the things we know or think we know and perceive is from a Euro-centric point of view.  What I tried/try to do is see things from the Filipino or Filipino-American point of view. For instance I could be working on a turn-of-the-century story.   I'll have a lot of fun imagining how things actually were at that time:  what the streets and lampposts looked like, what the houses looked like, what clothes people wore, how people thoughts, what events affected their lives.  Take a look at the American-coined word, "Insurgents" about the Filipino rebels of the turn of the century.  That word is loaded with negativity; the correct word should be "Nationalists."  This is another example of how a Euro-centric point of view can change reality.
Some may accuse you of exoticizing the Philippines, how do you respond to these comments?
Well, I don’t know about exoticizing the Philippines. My only comment is let these accusers try it - let them write and publish the stories, essays, novels that I have; let them edit the books that I have.  Let them try to get the awards that I have received. You know, it’s very easy to sit and criticize. Usually what I find is that the people who criticize me most are the ones who haven’t written a single novel, so I invite them to write and publish their first novel and then come back to me and make all the comments they want about my work.

The stories and books coming out of me are all I can offer. That’s the best I can give. If they're not good enough for some people, then too bad. 


Following the interview is a reprint of my short story "1973: Recruiting"
For more information about Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, click on this site:
or go to her official website at http://www.ceciliabrainard.com

Cecilia is on Twitter  https://twitter.com/ceciliabrainard

Also in Facebook https://www.facebook.com/ceciliabrainard

tags: Philippine, Philippines, Cebu, literature, writer, authors, writings, novels, Cebuano, Visayan, Bisaya, Cebuano, Sugbuanon, Philippine American, Fil Am

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