6th Philippine International Literary Festival
November 20-21, 2015, Davao City
Panel on Writing in Place/Creating Your Space
My name is Kristine, a native of a rural town in Maguindanao. I authored six books—four of which are with publishers outside the country while two are forthcoming from the University of the Philippines Press and University of Santo Tomas Publishing House. I also edit the poetry section of a print and online journal called Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, where sense of place—as called up by Southeast Asian elements—is one of the requirements for a piece to be accepted for publication. Published by Epigram Books in Singapore, Lontar accepts and pays for stories, poems, and comics. I have no Palancas (I joined only once), no fellowships and awards from Philippine institutions but outside the country—yes, have a purely technical background (I have an engineering degree from UP Diliman), not connected with any academic institution (I was a call center agent for around six years), so my insights on traditional international publishing would prove most useful for emerging Filipino writers who are not formally educated but have clarity of vision, drive, genuine fascination with the written word, and persistence.
The fact that this festival is held here in Davao City and not in Manila, plus the fact that someone like myself from the provinces has been given the chance to talk, is proof of how the tactical use of place and space can advance a Philippine literary scene that is diversified, open, and inclusive.
In my books, I deal and have worked mostly with imagined geographies, which I use as tools for controlling, illuminating, sometimes objectifying and romanticizing all manners of characters, concepts, events, and even other places. While thinking about how I was going to talk about “place”—both physical and imagined and in the context of creative writing, I realized there may be times when I used it and its signifiers to reinforce the imperial gaze. But most of the time, I use place in my writing as symbols to clarify, as well as obscure, my intent. Here’s an example from my upcoming book, Age of Blight shown here with its temporary cover design.
I’ll read a segment from an uncorrected version of a long story that uses a fixture—a tank—and its immediate surroundings to embody “sense of place” manipulated to fit the metaphor I was going for. It’s an industrial chemical plant situated across fields of lavender—a staged setting that is also present in my other books. I chose lavender because its scent is distinctive and soothing. This story is really about my views on monotheistic religions, most specifically the three Abrahamic religions, Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Everything’s buried in symbols, like most science fictions.
In the chemical plant right across your grandfather’s fields of lavender, there is a gleaming containment vessel that serves as a quarantine tank. The tank is angular when viewed from the outside. But your elders claim that the tank is perfectly spherical because designing strong vessels entails the removal of corners and edges. According to your elders, corners and edges present the weakest points, and weak points have no place in containers whose sole purpose is to isolate. They also say that the spherical quarantine tank is propped on a giant tripod supported by tungsten struts and that it comes with a calibrated pressure valve, eleven downstream sampling points, and a pair of fouling-resistant heat exchangers.
Another segment from another story in Age of Blight demonstrates how a real-world setting—Turkmenistan’s Door to Hell—can inspire a fictional account.
It is obvious to me and to the elders, however, that the Builders seemed unexpectedly at ease, as if they already knew their way around the village. For example, they weren’t surprised, or even pretended to act surprised, when I led them to the Pit of Hell—a natural hole in the rocky ground where fire had been burning for hundreds of years. It was as if they expected that I would flaunt my village’s access to the underworld.
Okay, there’s no smell. Natural gas is odorless. When we package it in gasul, that’s when the distinctive smell gets added. The sulfur, which should have been sulfur dioxide, is meant to conjure brimstone, as in the stereotypical Hell. As you can see, I am into using olfactory components in my writing. Now, this story tells of a fossil-worshipping primitive tribe whose village was about to be invaded by futuristic versions of Columbian colonizers. The narrator was the only person in this fictional village who has been schooled in the language of the Builders. The rest of the story has vivid—I hope they’re vivid enough—depictions of landforms.
Aside from sense of place, there’s also spatial orientation and directional cues to consider when writing fiction and poetry. Here’s an example of how I used spatial orientation and directional cues. This is a page from one of my books. Put out by a Texas-based publisher, We Bury the Landscape is a collection of 100 small fictions about 100 paintings and photographs. In this piece, I am forcing the reader to meditate beyond the printed page, thus the framing in the form of a series of questions.
Place has its special place in symbolic writing, as well as in all forms of writing. For one, “place,” as it exists in the author’s mind, is elastic and susceptible to dramatic make-overs.
This is my physical writing place.
This is how it appears in the book where I basically write about talking objects and talking body parts.
This is where I grew up and continue to live. This is the yard. Outside the gate, there used to be a giant corn effigy. I live in a farming town. There are only two seasons--harvest time and non-harvest time. Harvest time is the few months in a year when people have lots of money. Then they spend it. Non-harvest time is the rest of the year.
This is how I manicured this third-world space, how I reframed my geographical circumstances and its associated cultural baggage. I am very much aware that the woman in the picture conforms perfectly to Western standards of beauty.
This one is the cover image for Black Arcadia, Lifeboat’s delinquent sister. Black Arcadia will be published by UP Press. The two books are designed to be read together.
So, does literature have to be reflective of geography? Whether creative writers like it or not and whether they work in the speculative mode or realism, their body of writing will be, one way or another, reflective of their physical space. It is possible that some of their anxieties, for example, about their physical space, as well as the time period that enables that physical space to exist, seep into their writing. In writing, place is very much alive and wields transformative powers. Text shapes place, even distorts it. Place, in turn, shapes text.
But does literature have to be reflective of geography? Can we produce great literature by being mindful of place? Reading and appreciating literature—yes, definitely. There’s a world of insight that’s afforded by reading text while considering its author’s geographical and cultural circumstances. Should the contemporary Filipino masterpiece—the one stunning literary masterwork that defines us as a nation, something that ends up among those that get labeled as “masterpiece of world literature” the same way the rich and thoroughly complex The Divine Comedy is representative of Italian writers at their absolute best—should such modern masterpiece be set in the Philippines? How will place figure in the creation of literary masterpieces? Should it be in English or Filipino? What about regional writing?
The first Filipino Pushcart Prize nominee for a writer writing in Filipino is Mesandel Arguelles. I translated the work that got him the nomination. This just happened this month. I have been nominated many times in the past; the same with Mia Alvar here. But we are different cases because we choose to write in English. My reason for bringing this up—Arguelles’ being the first writer writing in Filipino to be nominated—is that I want to underscore the fact that there’s a bigger world out there, a much wider space with stringent standards for excellence.
In closing, let me show you how the skillful use of sense of place can make a difference in communicating intended meaning. This is a World Wide Fund for Nature ad. The visual component bolsters the textual component-- “Don’t buy exotic animal souvenirs.” An airport, a gleaming environment emblematic of the modern world. It spells detachment. Technology signifies objectivity. Note the trusses—they are normally triangular for a reason-- that’s a testament to the ingenuity of human engineering. The trusses reflect light so delicately while stabilizing the heavy superstructure from floor to ceiling. These trusses are under a lot of stress yet they still manage to look graceful under all that light. Then it is sullied by something organic, blood, a reminder of pain and cruelty. It reminds us of our mortality and humanity, of our capacity to choose between inflicting pain and preventing it. This is powerful writing and conceptualizing using place. This is powerful writing that seeks and ultimately finds meaningful change.
Meditations of a Beast
Age of Blight
A Roomful of Machines
We Bury the Landscape