Sunday, March 15, 2020

Takuya Matsuda Interviews Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

Interview of Cecilia Manguerra Brainard by Takuya Matsuda

Focusing on her novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept

Takuya Matsuda is a PhD Candidate, Teaching Fellow

at the English Department of the University of North Texas

This Interview was done in March 2020 by email

TM (Takuya Matsuda): My name is Tak Matsuda, and I’m a PhD candidate in English at the University of North Texas. I’m from Japan and working on my dissertation that discusses ethnic American writers’ literary writings on the Second World War in the Pacific. I read your novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, and was impressed with your portrait of the war and the history of the Philippines in the novel.

I’m writing this because I felt curious that you seemed to use the term of “Filipinos in America,” instead of “Filipino/a Americans,” in several occasions. In one interview, you said, “Many are still bickering about who the true Filipino American is. At some point, some said only those born in the US were the real Filipino Americans. Of course the immigrants ignore this definition.” I wonder if, when you said this, you had in mind the history of US colonization of the Philippines and the post-WWII neocolonial presence of the US in the Philippines. I think that many other Asian immigrants and their descents in the US, say Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans, accept the terms of "Chinese/Japanese/Korean Americans,” as categories determined by nationality. But this is so perhaps because their experience is very different from Filipinos’/as’ experience both at home and in the US.

I would be tremendously grateful if you could elaborate on your remark in the above interview. Again, thank you for writing the great WWII novel.

CB (Cecilia Brainard) : To answer your question about my use of "Filipinos in America", this choice has more to do with what went in my community here in America, than the history of colonization, etc.

I will try to explain.

When I came to this country as a graduate student there weren't many Filipinos here. By the time I was writing, there were more Filipinos, but there some kind of cultural divide between the Filipinos who immigrated here and the Flipinos born here. In fact, some Filipinos born here, used to make the distinction that they were the "true" Filipino Americans" and the immigrants were not. This used to annoy me. Instead of arguing with them, I started using the term "Filipinos in America" to get past that "divide" and to find a term that encompassed all of us here. In fact, there are many traits, customs, and experiences that bind us all.

Because of my bicultural background (I visit the Philippine twice a year) I am comfortable referring to myself in many ways: Filipino, Filipino American, Asian American, American. Some have lifted their eyebrows about that, but many others understand where I'm coming from because they too have had to define themselves in varying occasions.

My husband and I visited Japan last year and had a wonderful time. I will always remember the cemetery at Koyosan, the small Buddha figures to help the dead babies in particular. And I loved Kyoto. There was a Ramen place near the Mall that I visited several times.

Thanks again for your interest in my work.

TM: Your three novels are set in wartime Philippines or/and refer to the wars in the Philippines, including the Philippine-American War, WWII, and the Vietnam War, and they depict the ways these wars impacted the lives of Filipinos. But WWII or Japan's Occupation came first since the Rainbow Goddess was your first novel. Why do you think that WWII became the theme of your first novel and not the other wars? In multiple interviews, you said that your parents had told you about the war, and is it okay to say that your parents' stories were so powerful that you remembered these stories even after many years passed and the stories drove you to write a novel? Are some episodes in the novel actually what you heard from your parents?

CM: World War II was a collective pain for Filipinos especially to those who lived through it. Even though I was born after the war (1947), I still saw evidence of it, like the rubble of destroyed buildings in my city. The presence of that War hung around like a silent ghost. Even as a little girl of 6 or so, I would overhear stories about that war from my parents and their friends:

--- for example, the doctora was hacked to pieces by the Japanese up in the mountains of Mindanao where my parents went. (I fictionalized this in the novel.)

---- my father owned a horse named Robino; (I used this in the novel.)

--- my father was in the guerrilla movement and worked with the Americans. My mother used to say that sometimes he would go away for many days and they would not know where he went. I understood he went with the Americans to Australia.)

--- my mother had a miscarriage (a boy) during that War;

--- my mother gave birth to my older sister behind bushes while a Japanese patrol walked by ( Used in the novel)

So yes, their stories and other Filipinos' stories and the rubble of the war that I still saw post-war had a strong presence in my mind and imagination so that eventually they found form in the novel.

To answer your question: I did not consciously decide on the theme of this first novel, but I would just say that it chose me. I will try to explain.

When I started to write my first novel, I focused on happy memories of my childhood (1950s) when my mother had a best friend (Mercedes, who was transformed in the novel into Angeling's sister) and my Mom's bestfriend had a niece (Esperanza, the cousin of Yvonne in the novel) who was my best friend. In this first draft, I wrote about the times my mother and I visited Mercedes and her niece, how the niece and I used to watch the Chinese Acrobatic troupe at the theater etc. When I finished that draft, I submitted it here and there and was consistently rejected. It took me a while to realize I did not have a novel. I was depressed about this for a spell until I saw the movie "Hope and Glory." I had an epiphany that my work was something like that War story. The idea frightened me because I was born after the War. But it was clear to me that the real stories, the defining moments, the moments with greatest conflict for my characters happened during the War. Finally I rolled up my sleeves and moved my 1950s characters back in time to just before the War began. In the beginning I was not sure if my narrator should be Yvonne or Esperanza, but Esperanza was too strung out. Yvonne was calm, observant and thoughtful. I wrote around 75 pages and had it critiqued in a novel workshop. As is the case, participants picked on little things, this or that, but the teacher, Leonardo Bercovici, a well-known scriptwriter and novelist, stared at me and said, "You have only one job to do, and that is to finish the novel." And so I did.

While I mention some episodes that actually happened, the work is fiction and the snippets of "truth" have merged with my imaginings to become the novel.

TM: In the Rainbow Goddess, you refer to Filipino mythology gods, goddesses, and other legendary figures, such as Tuwaang, Meybuyan, and Bongkatolan. I wondered if these figures and their tales were already familiar to you when you started writing the novel. Meaning, if you learned these tales when you were a child from the elders, as Yvonne does in the narrative, or if you did research and learned from books for your novel, or if it was the combination of these two.

CM: Ah ... I only learned about ancient Filipino epics when I was grown woman in her 30s, here in the US. I was part of an Epic group that used to meet at UCLA. The other members were folklorists and anthropologists and in that group I learned that the Philippines has these magnificent epic songs, and at that time and perhaps even now, epic singers actually sang them still in remote parts of the country (as Laydan's Inuk did). The actual transliterations were difficult to read and I turned them into children's stories. When I started writing the War novel, it came to me to experiment and pop in an epic retelling to see if it worked. I liked it there, and continued doing so throughout the novel. I had no real consciousness while writing that I was writing the epic song of Yvonne.

I should add that while growing up I heard many fanciful stories about witches, enchanted beings, ghosts, and such, and I always loved these stories. Some of these superstitions and folklore also made their way into the novel and my other writings.

This is an addendum, re why some of my other writings deal with the wars in the Philippines. As a Filipino here in America, I became very interested in Philippine history (and Philippine epics). Writing about historical events make these real in my head and give me an appreciation of what my family or the Filipino people in general went through. I like to say: One needs to know where one came from in order to know where one is going. (This is not an original thought. I picked that up somewhere.)

TM: The Rainbow Goddess contains a Japanese family, Sumi, Sanny, and her husband, whose house is burned down and who thus are killed by the hand of a Filipino in the midst of the anti-Japanese sentiment during the war. I know there were Japanese civilian persons and families in the prewar and wartime Philippines, most of whom were laborers and small business owners. But if my understanding is correct, the number was not large, compared to the entire population of Filipinos and to the number of workers from other countries, like China. Did you include the Japanese family consciously? Or was it that there were a few or fair amount of Japanese families in your hometown? I think that although Sanny and Sumi are minor characters, that episode, the death of the Japanese family, is very effective in the novel, because it makes sure to readers that the novel does not aim at villainizing all Japanese and says that what is evil is war, Japan's militarism, etc.

CB: I always heard that there were many Japanese shopkeepers and others in our communities. I do not know the exact count. People said many were spies because they reportedly disappeared after the war. In my small city, there was a Japanese woman (a widow I believe) and her daughter who went to the same school that I went to. I recall the mother helped dress me up in a Japanese kimono with wooden shoes for some event. The mother was very kind, and the daughter, who was older than me, was somewhat naughty. Like Esperanza, she was fun to watch. (I think I envied the "naughty" children for their daring but I did not have the nerve to be as naughty.)

So while it was not a conscious attempt to include Sumi and Sanny in the novel, they did pop up in the novel, inspired perhaps by the woman and her daughter I mentioned above.

I knew/know that people are not all bad, nor all good. Real human beings have facets to their personalities. We are complex. We show our "good" side, but we have our bad side too. I was aware that many soldiers on either side fought out of duty or because they had to, and that most of them just wanted to be back home with their families leading their own lives. Even though I can be quite angry at the atrocities committed by the Japanese military, I know that the Japanese people are just people. I tried to present this in my novel. Likewise, there is also a "bad" American in the novel. I did my best to create fleshed-out characters in this and my other writings.

(Recently, when I consider what the US government and military have done, betraying the Kurds for instance, getting people killed, I can understand the disconnect between ordinary people and government policies.)

TM: This question is similar to one of my last questions, but I was interested in the infusion of the seemingly two opposite elements, war and mythology, in the Rainbow Goddess. The novel depicts the war "realistically" (=Japan's brutality) and yet contains Yvonne's fantasy or her "becoming the epic." This is very much like a Latin American magic realist novel and reminds me a lot of the works of Garcia Marquez, Jorge Luis Borges, etc. How did it happen, your infusing of the opposite elements into your "realist" novel? I know you mentioned about Marquez as a favorite writer of yours in an interview, but do you see his influence in your novel? I wondered if magic realism has been rooted in Filipino culture, because I see a similar tendency/approach in your other novels (say, the presence of ghosts of dead babies in The Newspaper Widow) and other Filipino (American) writers' stories and novels as well, a tendency that departs from the realist terrain so easily and in a great way.

CB: I think because of the Spanish influence and Catholicism, I find many similarities between Filipino culture and Latin American culture. I feel more at home walking around a Spanish colonial town in Mexico than say Seoul or Bangkok. When I read the works of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, I fell in love with their writings. I loved the worlds they created, worlds that seemed historically grounded but that were strange and different. In fact the worlds they depicted seemed more like the world I grew up in.

As a child, we would talk about our dreams and speculate what they meant; if someone dropped a fork, that meant a man would visit you; if the birds were noisy, that meant rain would come; if the moon had a ring around it, that also meant rain; if a bird flew into the house, that was a bad sign and could mean death. You wore diamonds and gemstones because they protected you from harm. Etc. All these things went on, even as we went to school or church and carried on. There was non-stop magic-realism in our lives.

That's were that "magic realism" elements came from .... from the way we lived.

While I had read other writers (Dostoevsky, Forster, Faulkner, Hemingway, etc. etc.) Marquez showed me that it was all right not to be left brain in one's writing, that in fact, adding these strange things can make it interesting. Further, these "strange" elements were in fact more reflective of my culture and beliefs.

I did not intellectualize it and saw it only when the novel was completed: the epic songs echoed my War novel. The epic songs had heroes and villains; and so did my novel; the epic songs spoke of journeys and struggles and so did my novel.

I especially loved that the Filipino people had our own ancient gods and goddesses, and that we had our own river of the dead (like the river Styx).

It was like creating a tapestry about the Filipino people, and even while the main story line was about the War, it was great fun to add these other interesting information about Filipinos and their culture.

Ditto with my other writings: I like to weave in interesting information, like the bit about leprosarium in The Newspaper Widow, etc.

I hope these help.

TM: Thank you for your answer and advice. Please feel free to share this email interview in your blog, as I will use and quote some of it in my dissertation. I will send it to you when I finish writing and defending (maybe spring the next year). Sincerely, Tak Matsuda


When the Rainbow Goddess Wept

by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard

published by the University of Michigan Press

published in the Philippines in 2019 by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House

This Interview is also published in Cecilia Branard's blog:

Tags: Interview of Cecilia Brainard, Philippine literature, World War Two, War novel, fiction, novel, Cebu, author, writer, #CeciliaBrainard #WhentheRainbowGoddessWept

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