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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Tuesday, January 31, 2006

entry arrow12:01 AM | How We Grow

Most writers -- including me -- have a peculiar disdain for their early works. The common reaction by any writer upon reading an old story or poem can include a fair amount of retching (real or acted out), coupled with smile or two of embarrassed amusement.

Last summer, for example, while cleaning out an old closet, I came across several stories I wrote for The Junior Sillimanian, my high school paper. When I was a sophomore, I had written a short story titled "My Short(age of a) Story," about a male high school feature-writer (ngek) who, to survive the fast approaching deadline of his school paper, desperately embarks on collaborating on a short story with a female classmate, which soon proves to be a recipe for disaster and high jinks. (Upon publication, however, the story proved so popular, I wrote a sequel -- "My Second Short(age of a) Story".) Reading it fourteen years later, I thought the story was cute -- but an embarrassment, nonetheless.

Which is as well. Who was it who said that the true mark of maturity in one's work is when we move on from falling in love too much with our old work?

Which brings me to my UBOD collection, Old Movies and Other Stories (National Commission for Culture and the Arts, 2005). Palanca-winning dramatist Alfonso Dacanay has given it a very good review in Philippine Graphic a few weeks ago -- I think the first review done on an UBOD book -- and I thought that many of his critical points were right on the mark.

It brought me to an interesting place in this so-called writing career: how do you deal with a book you know you've already moved on from? I remember poet-fictionist Gabby Lee texting me worrying about the same thing on the eve of the UBOD publication, three years after we (and 38 others) won the publication grant after a nationwide search for new authors. She said she had, "old, cringe-inducing poems" in her volume.

"In mine, too!" I said.

I've always thought that given the chance to layout that first collection of stories, "Pete Sampras's Neck" should go first, "Private Journeys" next, and "Old Movies" last. That should show the evolution of my so-called writing maturity.

I wrote the first two stories when I was in college, when I was still sentimental fool and busy with smarting over losing my first love. (In that sense, anyone can read "Pete Sampras" as shameless autobiography.) The "Pete Sampras" in the book retains the juvenile nature of whatever writing capabilities I had then. (Its predecessor -- something called "My Name's Not Oscar Wilde" but retitled "Secrets" by editor Paolo Manalo -- was the first story I sold to the Philippines Free Press, but you can also imagine how embarrassed I am now of that one as well.)

Both "Pete Sampras" and "Oscar Wilde," together with two short shorts "Prom Date" (now titled "How Sarah Broke Up With Me") and "Road Trip" (an explicit gay romp between brothers going at each other on a family road trip), were my entries to the Dumaguete workshop in 2000. You can imagine how Mom Edith Tiempo took to those very gay stories.

Going to Japan in 1997 provided a new twist in that journey to maturity. In a sense, it made me break out of the Dumaguete box that was stifling me. During that Japanese sojourn, I wrote two juvenile pieces on the vagaries of love -- "The Painted Lady" (set to be published this February by Story Philippines) and "The Players" (published only last year by the Philippines Free Press, and was a finalist for the FP 2005 Literary Prize). I remember frequenting an abandoned Japanese taizanso (an old tea house and Zen garden) in the early morning, and just writing and writing on a blue notebook. They took my thoughts away from homesickness, and I considered them to be the final exorcism of an intense love affair that consumed most of my early twenties.

I considered these two pieces as hardier fiction than the trifle I produced in "Pete Sampras" and "Oscar Wilde." But I never published them because they were too raw, I thought. It took me a long time to gain the courage to submit the two for publication... Perhaps I found them too dramatic, but then I also knew their narrative style fitted what was me then and what was my style at that time. Of course, I have unleashed them to the world now -- after a lot of drastic editing. (I must mention that Vannie de Sequera does a fantastic job of stripping "The Painted Lady" to its essentials. I can't wait to see its final form later this month.)

"Private Journeys" for me is the culminating story of that Japanese period, but this was written much, much later, in 2001, right before I started work on "Old Movies," and directly after the Dumaguete workshop (I suffered a yearlong writer's block right after the workshop -- to be broken by Lakambini Sitoy who told me to "just snap out of it". I did. Come to think of it, Bing always figures as my savior whenever I find myself in a writing bind....). I still like this story because it somehow compresses everything that concerned me after I returned to the Philippines. I like the story very much, although I also know I can do better. The truncated ending of that story is so because "Private Journeys" was supposed to be the start of (a now abandoned) novel. But I still like it.

In 2002, I grew up, finally. "Old Movies" -- as I like to think of it -- is the start of the next period of my writing, a phase that is certainly more mature. This phase includes "The Hero of the Snore Tango," and a story I have not yet shown anybody, but am thinking of submitting it to Paolo soon. In "Old Movies," I wanted to get away from the verbose narrative style I found to be extremely clunky in most of my early fiction. I channeled both the minimalism of Migs Villanueva ("We Won't Cry Over This") and Isolde Amante ("Dance") for that one, and came out with a drama about a mother and her son, and the only way means with which they could communicate: old movies. Even then, it still has traces of an old, old story I have long ago burned -- "The Halved Oedipus" -- which was my first rejection from Sands and Coral. (It was about incest. Ngek.) So, yes, for all those who keep asking me this question since, well, forever: Travis is Lolong's son. Corny, no?

For "The Hero of the Snore Tango," I channeled Charlson Ong's wonderful "The Execution" but I also found myself returning, not surprisingly, to my earlier verbose tendency. (Ngek.) Still, this is my favorite story so far, because I wrote it as a paean to my father. He died long before I decided I wanted to get to know him better; I thought this was the only way to do just that. It started as an essay for All Soul's Day (titled "Dancing on My Father's Grave"), and ended up a story. Who knows how things like these go....

But the fact that I won the Palanca for these two stories should tell me that perhaps I did reach that certain level of maturity I wanted.

Or did I?

I have a love-hate stance with my early stories. I am embarassed by them, but I know they were necessary stepping-stones. Confronted some time ago with this ambiguity, I decided to confide the same to Timothy Montes and Lito Zulueta. They each told me that "juvenile" stories have a place in everybody's fiction, and that they do deserve to see the light of day. The UBOD book -- three years late -- is very much a collection of those early stories. They, for lack of a better word, "suck" to me now, but I love them still, just because.

(The same reason goes for why I keep putting off my second -- and longer -- collection despite its acceptance by UST Press. The editing is done, I have my blurbs, and layout na lang ang kulang. But I am seriously rethinking the collection now. I just cannot see myself, at least now, releasing all these these stories to the world.)

Since then, the stories that came after "Old Movies" and "Snore Tango" -- including "Yeah, Baby, Take It All In, Bitch" (retitled and revised as "Commodity" for the more sensitive reader), "The Pepe Report," "Cruising," "Rosario and the Stories," "The Different Rabbit," "A Tragedy of Chickens" -- are experiments with various fictional forms (science fiction, fantasy, magic realism, children's literature, postmodernism, etc.). I don't know why I am doing this. Perhaps I am trying to find another voice, because I certainly don't want to be known anymore as another queer writer. (Another box to get away from!)

Now, I'm writing in a historical vein -- in stories I am still editing and have yet to publish, including "A Strange Map of the World", "The Death and Life of Tigulang", "Isla del Fuego", "Lola Beatrice", and "Pedazo de Verguenza," plus the usual Ian Rosales Casocot fiction (Paolo's term) in "The Beauty of Men", "Substance", "The Ghost in the Garden", and "The Palace of Memory." And while historical fiction is very difficult to write, I find myself totally enjoying the process.


[0] This is Where You Bite the Sandwich