Saturday, November 5, 2022

Interview of Filipino Novelist Linda Ty-Casper



I did this interview of the Filipino author Linda Ty-Casper several years ago, before her husband the noted literary critic Leonard Casper passed away. I am sharing it as part of the celebration of the release of her new book, WILL YOU HAPPEN, PAST THE SILENCE, THROUGH THE DARK? REMEMBERING LEONARD RALPH CASPER. 


In this book, Linda collects letters to and from her late husband into a collection she calls his "Memoir." The book is avaiable from, Barnes and Noble, and Cecilia Brainard


Where were you born? When? Number of siblings?

I was born in the Mary Chiles Hospital, Tondo or Santa Cruz, Manila, September 17, 1931. Just we two, but we had many cousins who were like brothers and sisters to us.


What was your family like? (Siblings, Where did you live? What were your parents like? Family activities. Games? Read a lot? Athletic family?

I just have one sister, younger; Freida. We both attended George Elementary in Santa Cruz; Caloocan High, and U.P. She took Public Administration, was Chief of Personnel of the defunct Batasan Pambansa. She’s retired now; visits her son in LA. Other son: a Lt. colonel; youngest son, a doctor. Seven apos. Len and I have none.


After I was born we lived in Santa Cruz. My grandmother’s brother had a house on Felix Huertas which faced on open field that became the Manila Jockey Club. When she moved her family (after her husband died) from San Isidro, that was one of the places where she stayed temporarily before moving to 604 Calle Camarines which intersects with Felix Huertas; an accessoria now called townhouse. She had 4 living daughters, three other children died in San Isidro. She had lived through the Revolution against Spain, the Philippine-American War.


They were rice growers in Nueva Ecija. After she moved to Manila, relatives used to come with rice, etc. So we had the rice grown especially for the family. Her two oldest daughters were great cooks. My knowledge of cooking comes from watching them. Tia Pinang sold jewelry for friends and relatives. No contracts involved. No signatures. Just word of honor. She knew many relatives and often took me with her when she visited. We would ride a calesa, she sitting regally in her black saya with stiff butterfly sleeves. She looked like the Mater Dolorosa.


  Ninang/Tia Fidela was quiet. She sewed most of our clothes when we were growing up.  After she died in 1980, I discovered she had written about her life, sheets rolled and hidden in her aparador that had all kinds of antique things and clothes, and some letters I have not brought myself to read. She was a private person. The third aunt was a teacher in Nueva Ecija. Gapan. Her husband died before their first child was born, in a car collision with their relative, Epifanio de los Santos, from Malabon. I remember relatives from Malabon did not dress up, like those from Samar. You’d think they were poor, their houses were often nipa but they owned lumberyards, fishponds, farmacias.


The youngest was my mother, Catalina Velasquez who graduated 1926 from Philippine Normal School and who was a model teacher in several elementary schools. (one,Meisic, was the name of a former US Army barracks during the Spanish-American and the Philippine American War.) She also taught at Santa Clara Elementary before she was assigned to the Bureau of Education where she wrote textbooks for the government; and also textbooks to be submitted to the Bureau by private publishers. Friends of the Flower World was published by Macaraeg. I remember her best friend and co-writer, my ninang, Trinidad Sion, picking her up to work in the morning, in a calesa. I would run to the end of our street, waving to them. And waited for them to return.


She wrote textbooks for Ginn and Company of Boston. On weekends, a car came for her and me. I would sit in the office, somewhere on Dewey Boulevard, while she and George Miller discussed projects. He was tall and rather round, wore the white suit then worn by government officials. Perhaps because I was so quiet, Mr. Miller would tell me to browse in the library and get whatever books I wanted. So we had quite a few Ginn books, mostly textbooks on right conduct, geography, history, science. During the War, he was concentrated in Santo Tomas. His driver, Felix, also tall and courtly, visited him throughout the War.  After Len and I married and had moved to Boston, my mother would come to meet with current Ginn officials and I would come along, too.


She was on the editorial board of several journals. When I was in high school, she asked me to contribute essays on historical events. At first she thought I shouldn’t view them from a fictional character’s perspective, but I explained that the facts and historical persons were accurate, only the witnessing character was imagined, and imagined from persons who would have lived then. I think my writing historical novels was influenced by this technique. When I was ten, I also published a poem, about Ants. In the escribaƱa where we also hid santols, I hid the royalty check: P1.00; which I eventually lost.


My father was from Calbiga, Samar which we visited. All that went into a short story, “In Time of Moulting Doves” (the boat trip, the church, the cemetery, the wake, fiesta) written years later when I was taking the Bar. So I know the mountain road up to Calbiga; the winding river below.  (A friend recently gave me his painting of Catbalogan, which reminds me of the harbor where I almost drowned.) Researching, I learned about the Revolucion in Samar. Almost wherever I went afterwards, I would meet people who loved to talk about historical events and places in their town. Like the crossroads at Santa Barbara, Iloilo where the revolucionarios first took up arms.


After high school, my father had been recommended by the representative from Samar to the Philippine Military Academy, which he left only to attend Mapua Institute of Technology. My parents met one summer in Baguio, while she was staying with the Paezes, relatives from Malabon. Tia Nena Paez Lozano said, they all waited for my father to visit, because he was so impressive in his PMA uniform riding this large mola.


My grandmother’s first cousin, Lolo Jose, was manager of the Manila RR then, and after graduation from MIT, my father worked for the RR. He oversaw the building of bridges and train stations in both the northern and southern lines. We could ride free on the trains so we saw many of the towns North and South of Manila, from the Bicol to Damortis. I used to know all the stops, recognize the landmarks. These train trips gave me a sense of what the country was/is like, the landscape, the people as well. On weekends we would meet my father in Blumentritt because he was on the line during the week. He brought back fruits and crabs…


We were not athletic though we attended athletic events at the Jose Rizal Memorial Stadium. My sister and I played the usual games with neighbors, like patintero, piko. Sungka I played with my grandmother. She often won because she concentrated on her moves even while telling me stories. She might have meant to distract me. She was sly, a restless angel. After her huband died, she raised her seven children through pangguingue. She let people think her brother gave her an allowance, so they would willingly stake her to the game. After she had won enough to pay off the loan, she played with her own winnings, and kept winning.


Our main activity besides school and going to the Luneta, was having friends, and relatives from Samar and Nueva Ecija and Malabon visit; and returning their visits. One of my uncles won the Sweepstakes and he gave me a doll as tall as I. During the grand vacations we would visit in the province. I remember swimming near the dam at San Jose, northern part of NE. Later I learned that the Revolution and War went through that part of NE.


My father took us weekly to the nearby photo studio to have our pictures taken. We took part in school plays and dances. There are pictures of us in costumes. My sister and I improvised plays in which we acted. He also took me to churches in Intramuros, so I’m familiar with the old walled city. He took me along when he visited relatives, when they had fiestas coinciding with the fiesta in Calbiga. I think I was taken on visits because I was shy. I would rather read and stay at home. I was an old ten-year-old.


When we moved to Northern Hills in Malabon, we had a garden and lots of flowering plants and trees. From his trips, my father brought home different kinds of orchids which were attached to the trees for shade. I liked digging in the soil, my father liked climbing trees to cut off branches. My mother watched. My father also liked to build things (he designed and oversaw the construction of our house to which we moved right after the war began), and I was his apprentice so I know how to hammer and saw, and which tools to use for each job.


From the upstairs porch of the house we could see the sun setting in Manila Bay. Houses were far apart in Northern Hills but we had neighborhood activities. I remember walking a lot with friends; school and church dances, CYOs, though I was never very sociable. I preferred to read. But friends would insist on my going and would pick me up. I remember helping Fr. Milford take the census of the people building on the vacant lots around the new Our Lady of Grace church. When he was not available I would go on my own, with cards on which to write names. I felt safe.


As far as I know, nobody was in the fine arts, though after my father died, I found poems he  had written through the years. My mother had poems published in the journals, as well as articles and essays. But we had friends who were writers. I.V. Mallari encouraged me to write. One time as a reward, he took me shopping. I could choose whatever I wanted. I asked for a vase in the shape of a swan. Epifanio de los Santos whom I never met wrote historical essays in Spanish. His son,Tio Pepe, brought boxes of his mss for safekeeping during the war and these were stored in the upstairs bodega. Unfortunately when he returned to get them, anay had eaten through the boxes. Only later did I realize what a great loss that was to Philippine history and literature.



Can you discuss your school life - schools, teachers, classmates, literature read, teachers who made big impact, what you thought of school?

I was told I was “saling pusa” before I entered George Washington Elementary school. Probably in the classes my mother taught at Meisic, the old barracks of American soldiers; at Santa Clara… I don’t think I was a good student because I did not like studying. I remember—grade three—when I would forget to bring a book report. So when I was called upon, I made it up. I don’t think Mrs. Giron minded. At least out of kindness, she did not denounce me to the class.


Tia Pinang walked us to and from elementary school. I think so we couldn’t stop at the stores across from school. Occasionally, during recess with a centimo from visiting relative (we were not allowed to touch money, because they were supposed to be germ ridden so when a relative gave us a coin, it would be immediately wrapped in paper), I would walk over to get slices of santol, or singkamas which I relished particularly because of the heko which is like bagoong, only it’s supposed to be dirty. I have pictures of my classes. I remember Preciosa Cruz, the principal’s daughter, who had a pretty mole. Purificacion Parenas came to my father’s wake in 1990, and I was so distracted, and thinking I would see her afterward, that I failed to get her address. I still exchange Christmas cards with Naty Punzal who sat next to me in one of the pictures.


I was poor in arithmetic. I remember getting a zero in my tests. Because he was an engineer, my father taught us our numbers. I remember his getting so frustrated because of my failing to pay attention. My sister was a much better student.


I mostly read textbooks during the schoolyear, and also the books from Ginn, the textbooks my mother was writing. My mother was careful about what we read. No comics, though we managed to get our hands on them and read them secretly. I loved the Mohicans. I even read Liwayway to which my grandmother was addicted. She had a terrific memory. She remembered so many stories from her own life (some of which are in my stories about the revolution and war; she would have made a terrific writer)and readings. She could quote the pasyon. Of course it was only years later that I recognized their source,  when I read the pasyon.


So I was surprised in grade four when I was accelerated to five. I don’t remember being special, or what I did to deserve it. But I missed my classmates and did not do very well, I’m afraid.

The War came when I was in grade 6, so I skipped the rest of the school year, and when it ended after four years, I enrolled in high school. Because I was not a good student, to make sure I would at least get accepted, a friend gave me a sample test for high school entrance. Pleased and surprised, he told my mother, that I scored 98. It turned out to be the actual test. When I took it again, I was not interested or as careful as the first time, and got a lower score. The friend couldn’t understand it.


I remember one of our classmates in high school, (first held at the Cecilio Apostol Elementary School in Grace Park) was Marina Feleo whose father, a Communist leader, was being hunted by the government. Other classmates were neighbors, Sonia and Norma Gadiongco, Fe del Rosario; and others who went to UP also. Sonia was so beautiful she was always queen or something. I was flagbearer, with Yeyeng Nebrida. Loida Flores was the sister of Lina Flor who wrote the radio drama, Gulong ng Palad; and whose works are also at the Ateneo Library of Womens’ Writings. When Kristina was born at St. Elizabeth in Brighton, the attending nurse checked me the next morning. “Do you remember me?” she asked. I did and said, “Gloria Cunanan.” Two years ago when I was in Manila, some of my high school classmates gave me a party. I had not seen them in about 40 years, but we remembered our four years at C aloocan High with much affection.


Caloocan High was housed in the old buildings of the Manila RR, which originally had been Antonio Luna’s headquarters in the Philippine-American War of 1899. I didn’t know it then, of course. But I could sense the dignity of the cottages, the grounds, the old trees, the spacious rooms and wide windows.


I remember Mrs. Aurora Santos a tough math teacher, Pacifica Cordero who, when the parade passed the Cordero house near the muncipio of Caloocan, with her sister Laida, always clapped and called my name. Otherwise Sonia got all the raves. But I wasn’t jealous. I was envious occasionally. Mrs Martinez was our GS adviser and Dorothy (Zshornack?) our leader. We would assemble at the Monument on Samson (named after a Katipunero who fed and sheltered Bonifacio and about 500 of his men when their activities were uncovered) and Avenida Rizal Extension, which around the Monumento heading north came to be known as MacArthur Highway. The sculpture  at the top and around the column was by Tolentino, and depicted a revolucionario being garroted, Bonifacio and other national heroes. There is another one at Balintawak, smaller; but more colorful.


When my parents moved to Northern Hills (Potrero), we started living where the history we were studying in textbooks had taken place just fifty years before: Balintawak, Pugadlawin…. Girl Scouts hiked to the Tuliahan River where the Katipuneros fought the Spaniards, and revolucionarios the American soldiers. We walked across the field where the Katipuneros gathered in Melchora Aquino’s yard after the discovery of the KKK; and there, deciding to fight for independence from Spain, tore up their cedulas. I walked down a street called El Heroes del 96, to Caloocan which used to be right on the RR line on which American troops came to assault the Filipino trenches. Malabon down the causeway, visible from the slopes—Libis—behind the Caloocan muncipio, was scene of that War, as well. A relative’s farmacia was almost across the church of San Bartolome in Malabon which was shelled by the Americans. Some of my classmates had the family names of those who fought in the Revolution and War. In the plazas were statues of heroes of the Revolution and the War with the Americans. Marikina, where I now stay when I visit my sister, also figured in the Revolution and War…


Did you always want to be a lawyer? What made you change careers? When? Did you choose to be a writer or did writing choose you?


Law was not in my plan. Of course, like everyone else so young, I didn’t make long-range plans for my life. Mrs Clemente of UP pointed this out in class. But after high school, the choice was “narrowed” down to medicine or law. My mother preferred to have a doctor in the family; my father, a lawyer. I couldn’t stand the sight of blood. And I told my mother that an uncle who was a doctor did not believe women would make good doctors.


After completing the Associate in Art, I had to decide. Hermy Abejo and I went over to the History dept, but Dean Wico said, “Go across to the Law school. If they reject you, come back.”

We didn’t have to come back. I thought that to be so advised was kind of inevitable: life happening the way it should.


I still was not a good student in the sense that I did not concentrate. I did what the lessons assigned—with only one or two textbooks per class, we had to scramble for texts in the library.

So it was a complete surprise to me when after the first semester, classmates asked if I had seen the bulletin board. I didn’t even know where it was or what it was. It turned out I had gotten 1.2 average. All I know is I didn’t plan for it, but I did the work as best as I could. I was still shy then, didn’t want to call attention to myself. During High School when editors of school newspapers met annually, we from Caloocan (maybe only I) were awed by those from Torres, and other high schools in Manila.


I was not a groupie of any kind. I could hardly wait for class to be over so I could go home where my grandmother was waiting. I brought her little things as pasalubong, peanut brittle, hopia, chocolate bar - whatever I could afford from my allowance, which wasn’t much, because my mother wanted to teach us thrift. (I didn’t get payment from the essays I wrote for the journals, because my mother bought whatever I needed.) When Nanay had to go to the hospital, she insisted on waiting until I got home so I could accompany her to St. Luke on Misericordia. Her nephew who lived across the house, was a doctor and made the arrangements. Hers was the first death in the family for me. I remember being alone in her room and running across to a small chapel to call the priest, not knowing what to say. He came. I don’t know his name, but when I remember Nanay in the hospital, I pray for him, too.


After graduation from UP, I went through the process of applying for study abroad, which many of us were doing (except those who refused to face a few years of doing the dishes and picking up after themselves). I had gotten married meanwhile, and so was no longer eligible for the Smith Mundt I had applied for. However I had received scholarships to Yale, Michigan, Harvard. I chose Harvard because Len was going to teach at Boston College, thanks to the Jesuits he taught with at Ateneo.


At Harvard, towards the end of the Master’s program I took refuge in Widener during a storm and found the Philippine section in the Oceania area, four floors down in the basement of Widener. I had no idea such books existed. So I would take the time after that to go down and read. I found  remarks derogatory to the Philippines and decided to answer them in essays. Then I thought essays would end up in the basement, too, so I started a novel. I never took a writing course I just used history as the plot: but I was interested in my characters, not in those famous persons already in history texts. And after graduation, deciding to stay awhile in Massachusetts, I kept reading for the novel. Not being organized, I looked quickly in the card catalogues, but mostly went down the basement to walk along the shelves. This way, I found books that would have taken a long session at the catalogues to discover. When our family grew, I found out that writing was compatible with raising a family. So that is how I became a writer. After each I say, this is the last, but there were more periods of Philippine history to make accessible by writing novels that bring them life, as accurately as possible and humanized.


A friend remarked, years later, “You had your way, after all.”


Can you discuss your evolution as a writer?

I wrote short stories while reviewing in Malabon for the bar, waiting for the results, and later waiting to graduate form Harvard. The stories always occur to me in first sentences. I can be doing something else, on a trolley, when suddenly they come. I can’t plan. If I sit down to write, I can’t force my material. But once the first sentence is written down, I stay with it until it comes to its end. I write chapters that way. If I can’t finish in one sitting, there is no story. So my stories and chapters are short.


I don’t outline. With the historical novels, history provides the outline and general direction. I just provide characters who I gather from all the people I know. A friend asked me when I was going to write about her. I said, you’re in my stories and books, you just don’t recognize the gesture or words because it’s not your bio. Friends are part of my stories and novels because they’re part of Philippine life. Maybe that’s why my writing has been described as a crossroad of Philippine society. Democratic in its range. No supremos/supremas in them. But ordinary and very real people in real surroundings and real events.. To be believable though they have to be authentic, real characters come from real people.


Of course, when I was starting I didn’t know this. I just put in characters who would act the parts in the story, fleshed out from real people. Once I have the characters, and their names have to be just right for their personalities and role, I allow them to react/respond in their own way. POV, conflicts, motivations develop as the story goes; as it grows. I have had no formal writing courses. I learned from hands-on experience, to know if the story was going in the right direction.


I was hesitant about admitting I wrote—too many explanations needed--so my first stories to be published came out with my cousin’s name. She permitted me to use her name until we realized her sister-in-law, a teacher had the same name and was being pestered by co-teachers when she denied being the writer.


The first stories were almost lifted from life as I saw or heard about it. Nanay told a lot of stories about people and events. The mood of the story comes when the two are just right, compatible. For the novels, details come from research. For the Peninsulars, I read Latin American books in translation. I wanted to get the rhythm of life and of language, for example the kinds of mirrors used in Mexico very possibly could have been used in Manila. I read about events that could possibly have influenced the period in history, so I did research (in shoeboxes full of notecards) on the British Occupation of Manila, China and other SEA countries of the period (which I usually decided not to use because not necessary.)


And when I am stumped, I usually find information or “the right” word by happenstance. Daily papers somehow provide me with the words I’m groping for. Of course a lot of time gets wasted in this unplanned method, but mostly because I get carried away with what I’m reading, however, extraneous to the subject I’m working on. Research is fun. Writing from research is harrowing. I wait until I have absorbed the material and synthesized the facts with the yearnings and dreams I have read about.


Somehow the first stories, simple as they were, were published. The Peninsulars I had been working on for about five years and was still revising, in Boston, when Len went to teach at UP, and NVM, a neighbor, looked at the mss and offered to bring it to Mr. Makabenta at Bookmark. My only other books that did not get a string of rejections were the collections of stories, and Wings of Stone. Readers International wanted another book after Dorothy Connell read Awaiting Trespass in one sitting, in Bonnie Crown’s office. (She had just come back from Manila—where she had met Len--and worked for the Asia Society in New York.) An American publisher had previously said AT needed more chapters, but the story was complete as a story and more chapters would only send it off in a direction I didn’t think it should go. Or dilute the intensity of the character. Some such thing. Besides I was no longer absorbed by the story. I no longer thought of adding a word, or changing a line in the novel. When that happens, I know enough to stop meddling.


How many books have your written?

Fifteen books. I remember Franz Arcellana commenting that a writer’s first book is usually autobiographical.

Short stories, maybe forty. I’ve stopped writing them. Mainly because the first sentences don’t come and when they come I have no energy to follow through. When I started, I knew enough not to be engaged in something I cannot put down until the sentence would come to me. If I don’t attend to the idea immediately, the story just scatters. I can’t even reassemble the words the way they came, then,  and that is crucial for me to start.


What influenced your writing?


 I learned a lot from attending the UP Creative Writing conferences whenever we went to live for months in the Philippines (Len has had two Fulbrights there), from remarks by writers on other writers. I absorb. That is why I’m wary about reading fiction by other writers. No such problem with historical books which need to be absorbed so the history becomes the authentic, not imagined part of the character and story.


I used to wish I could write like NVM. So simple but difficult, I discovered. After reading Franz’ collection in 1990, at the Workshop, a way of writing “Tides and Near Occasions of Love” came to me. It’s only 6 pages but I like to think it has a Franz Arcellana mood and imprimatur. (This one story alone won a PEN-UNESCO award, earned me a chance to write in Italy and Bangkok and to appear in several international anthologies.)


I know now that each writer has a particular way of seeing and writing, as each story has   its particular voice and mood, yearning. From time to time I would try to write differently. But I couldn’t. A friend said she can tell my stories even without my name on it.


I research, I write. Then Len reads what I have written. We don’t always agree but he’s very meticulous and sees what I missed. He doesn’t change anything. Just points to weaknesses, contradictions. He finds less and less, proving he’s a good critic so I have learned some things.


What about getting your works published – how did you get this done?

Ateneo made the arrangement with Washington U Press for the dual printing of DreamEden. I don’t know publishers. Frankie Jose used to tell me when some important critic or publisher was in Boston, and I would tell him I didn’t feel comfortable approaching them. I was at a conference in San Francisco (a rare occasion for me) when I was seated next to a publisher at dinner. Another writer, not Filipino, came over to ask if we were discussing publication. I said no. Could I take your place? she asked. So I moved over.


I have just finished a draft of the EDSA II mss begun in 1999. I don’t know where to send it. It is autobiographical in a sense. I recognize myself in it. Still I think many others, not necessarily Filipinos, would see themselves in the same character. I hope so.


Of course I get discouraged. Len has heard me say often, I’m not writing another word. Then something happens that, I think, needs to be written about. Friends (not writers themselves) send me newspapers, their notes on radio and TV programs. “Write”, they urge. (I feel like the fairy tale princess who was locked in a room filled with straw and told to spin it, overnight, into gold. But friends mean well. They know I have to be convinced. Only when no novel about that same event is coming out, will I start; will I wonder, “What if…?”  And of course I’m always urging others to write about what they insist on telling me. They should try writing, in their own voice and flesh.


When I get discouraged I distract myself from the book-in-progress by turning to the work I have volunteered for. I have taught CCD, worked with food distribution during the Food Stamps period. I used to belong to nine committees in church, but I’ve learned not to scatter myself too much. I’ve  been secretary of the Boston Authors’ Club since 1985 (founded 1900 by Julia Ward Howe; Book Awards time, reading all the annual publications) can take as much time as one is willing to give); since 2002, secretary and archivist of Restoring Sight International, which raises fund for eye operations among disadvantaged children in the Philippines; coordinator/counselor for Birthright ( I joined about 15 years ago) which believes it’s the right of every child to be born. That’s about all I can handle, along with the writing. A friend said it’s like having three part time jobs, besides writing. Then I garden. Ideas come to me while I’m digging dandelions.


When an aunt came to visit, she asked, Who’s your gardener?  Me, I said; also driver, cook, maid to clean, etc. She felt so bad for me she offered to send me a maid. I explained it will distract me to have someone about the house. I’d worry she’s being deprived of her own time and friends. When I can no longer do these things, I’ll go to assisted living. Nursing home comes after that. No more writing. Just thinking. I sometimes envy those I visit, lined up across from the nurses’ station waiting for their medication because they can think, and do nothing else,  all day.


Because I often wait to be prodded, to be motivated, wait for the idea to come as first sentences, a book takes me so long to complete. Once, three of my books were published one year after another, and a writer, Filipino, said I’m rushing into print. The average time on a book is 5 years. A first draft of Stranded Whale, dated 1989, took almost 20 years, because I kept putting it aside; but research began at Widener right after graduation from Harvard Law, continued at Radcliffe Institute some 18 years later. I had only a few book sections when I went to Bellagio in 94, where I wrote one chapter that month. But I was thinking of the book even while I was enjoying the site. I had developed a herniated disc just before we left, and had painkillers with me so I could walk. On the return, the plane was delayed nine hours and I had to take the few remaining pills so I could sit in the plane.


Last time I was in Ateneo a student asked when I was going to write about the millennium and the Second EDSA. Again a friend sent entire newspapers. Fr. Bernad once wondered how I wrote DreamEden when I wasn’t there. But my brother-in-law, a PMA colonel, took me through Camp Aguinaldo and sites of PP, until I  knew what gates the rebels used... I’m so afraid of contradicting history that I research until my head bursts from all the information: the sign to stop and let the novel come to me as a first sentence.


I don’t push myself to write. I know I have to wait. It’s the way I am. I don’t plan. Mangyayari kung dapat mangyari, Nanay used to say. So no long plans. Just a step at a time. I let things happen and find which one leads to another.



Do you and your husband (noted critic Leonard Casper) work together? (Editor's note: Leonard Casper passed away in 2018)


Len and I write different things. We have different personalities. A word that seems perfect to him, does not to me. And vice versa. We have learned to disagree gently. We know we wish the best for each other.


Writing was actually compatible with raising a family. I took the time for writing after the necessary chores were done. I wrote on the ironing board when we lived in Cambridge. The three-room apartment was actually one room divided into three, the dining area under the stairs to the second floor apartment, so that guests had to rise carefully or they got a bump. Cambridge was a special experience, the people, the streets. I walked a lot from Harvard Square to North Cambridge to save carfare, and absorbed interesting facets of Cambridge life. We made our best friends while we lived there. At one end of the short Rice street was Our Lady of Pity, a beautiful church where the sermons were in French; at the other on Mass Ave was a tavern.


What themes are in your writings?


I don’t think about themes when I write. It emerges from my material. But looking back I realize that I have been writing how it is to be Filipino in history, how Filipinos live in a country “ruined” by the corruption and greed of its leaders. It didn’t used to be that way. There was honor among us. I write about this so the young (including at first our two daughters also) will know what they cannot remember: that there once was decency, civility, goodness for them to recover for the future. I feel it’s their right to know this. And every book is historical, either past or contemporary history. In my books, the past is present as well; the way, as Franz says, history is culture and culture is history.


One of the ways I encouraged myself to write was to think that the young, our own children in particular, are not likely to read the books in history that were available to me, so I wrote about people living in/through that history, for them.


Perhaps, writing is in my genes. Nanay’s telling stories was etching historical and personal events in my mind, the way the words in a book impress themselves in the readers’ mind as fact/as symbol/as ideas; becoming the reader’s own experience, so he also becomes the story, and in that way is no longer isolated in the self; becomes part of the country whether in the Philippines or wherever he may choose to live abroad.


I like to think that, in my books I have become my grandmother telling stories she wants not to be forgotten. I could not have written without her. She is in my stories, the yearnings, the memory. She is the strength of my stories. I write the way I write probably because of her. She was the first and enduring influence in my writing and my life.

She had a way of looking into space while I waited to be told more. Incidentally, she advised me to look at something green in the distance, to glance up regularly when reading; in order to rest the eyes. I recently read that same advice in a medical column.


Do you consider yourself a Filipino or a Fililipino American writer? 

I basically think of myself as a Filipino, because, except for some stories written while at Radcliffe, my stories are about the Philippines and Filipinos. I still carry a Philippine passport. It’s a promise I made to my father when I left for the States. A promise he didn’t ask me to give, but which I gave to let him know I would never be totally away.


I go back to the Philippines in my stories. While I am writing, I am visiting. I am home.

Maybe that is why I write the way I do; choose certain characters…why the  writing turns   the way it does, why the characters’ yearnings... I’m not a critic. I know less about my writing than some critics may. I sometimes see things in my work only after people mention them. At an informal workshop, one of the writers said she could see the plot unfold as she read, I think it was “Application for a Small Life,” because I was dropping clues. She did not believe it when I said, I didn’t know how it would end. I just followed the story as it unfolded to me. If I had taken writing classes I would have known how to control a story, plot the story line. I follow a character, trusting him or her to respond to what is happening in a way no other person would. Of course that means an initial situation that demands a response.

Filipino American literature is a valid category. I have been called a Filipino American writer. Maybe I am one, because I am a Filipino writer living in America. I might not have continued writing if I had stayed in the Philippines. When I visit there, I can’t really write, so many interruptions, so little time to be with family and friends that I want not to use it up writing.

I have an anecdote abut this. One time I was in the downstairs porch typing a story, I think. It was an enclosed porch with glass panels and doors, and with a view of the front garden and the trees. Traffic sounds barely audible (though when I am deep into writing I can write through an upheaval. It’s only at the start when I need quiet and being alone.) I got up for a drink of water, when I returned the typewriter, manual, was not on the table. But the sheet I was typing was where it had stood. Someone had probably seen me typing through the bougainvilleas, campanillas climbing the stone fence, and clambered up and down the wall. But he left the page I was working on. Perhaps, he knew how important writing is; might have even intended to use the typewriter for a story. He might have even read one of my short stories. I like to think so.


I now write with a view of the Sudbury River in back. Trees keep out the views of houses so I feel that I am beside a river in the Philippines. I think I could never have continued writing if there were houses in back of us, instead of occasional swans, blue herons, ducks and geese of different kinds. I specially like the hooded mergansers and kingfishers. I saw many of the latter in the river in Calbiga. So in a way, everything connects; and “writes” my books for me; for others.



Watch also: THE CEBUANA IN THE WORLD: Cecilia Manguerra Brainard Writing out of Cebu

tags: Filipino books, Filipino literature, Pinoy Reads, Pinoy literature 

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