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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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Monday, March 20, 2006

entry arrow6:21 PM | Writers Tale #1

In the five years I've been seriously writing fiction, plus essays and some secret poetry on the side, I've met (and "experienced") many Filipino writers who have somehow shaped the trajectory of how I write. Some I can't meet in person anymore: Nick Joaquin was one, and in college, when I first stumbled upon "May Day Eve," he gave me my first writing insight: that sometimes style is substance. (Charlson Ong would soon say the same thing about my first story collection, Old Movies and Other Stories.) What do you have in "May Day Eve" after all but the simple but bitter love story between Agueda and Badoy Montiya, made fantastic by the author's tropical baroque style? The way Nick Joaquin bent time and continuance in that story astounded me. I was hooked on fiction for life.

This got me thinking last night, that maybe I'd like to do some small tribute to all those writers who somehow got me going. And I'd like to begin with Lakambini Sitoy.

In Montemar with Mom Edith Tiempo and Bing Sitoy

Everyone else calls her Bing. There's always something wondrously animated and mysterious about Bing: we've been out on many dinners in Dumaguete, and I still can't put my finger on it. My earliest memories of her are hazy -- notable only for one single defining characteristic: everytime I bring out a mental picture of her from my memories, she always wears a headband. Sometimes it is grey, most times it is red.

I have two theories to explain this. When I was growing up in Dumaguete, she was already the consummate campus Renaissance woman, daughter of the well-respected University pastor who was also a very good writer. Bing seemed to be into everything. Her stories were already being published everywhere. And she was president of the student government. This was during the heady, radical days of the 1980s. I remember walking home from school one day, and she was out in the street with a bunch of other students. They were all bearing placards, and Bing was on the bullhorn, coaxing students to join them in some kind of protest. I think she was wearing that headband that day.

But she could have been wearing that headband, too, on a photo of hers that got published in one of the issues of The Sillimanian Magazine.

It was through that magazine that I became most familiar with her fiction. What people closest to me do not know is that Bing was the one writer who somehow got me going, and for a long time, she didn't even know it. I read her story "The Australian" in The Sillimanian Magazine once when I was a freshman in high school. It was the story of a hunky Australian who comes to small-town Philippines to check on, and hopefully collect, his mail-order bride. What ensues is comic Pinoy social hijinks -- but even then, I knew the story had an underlying and very serious feminist critique. I was a young boy newly-graduated from grade school, still testing the unfamiliar waters of high school life. I proceeded to emulate (sige na nga, made an "homage") everything in Bing's story. I wrote a piece of embarrassing juvenalia I titled "Leaves." It wasn't Bing Sitoy at all, but that got my freshman English teacher's attention, and I was soon drafted to join The Junior Sillimanian, the student organ. That piece of fiction -- together with an even earlier piece I titled "Philodendron" -- started what "career" I may have in writing.

Years later, it was also Bing who managed to shake me out of a particularly iron-clad writer's block, which descended on me soon after the Dumaguete workshop in 2000. I couldn't write for almost a year; everything I learned from the workshop were like pieces of an intricate puzzle that was only slowly coming together.

Finally, I met Bing personally for the first time during a party in Silliman, in 2001. Over buffet and lechon in old Silliman Hall, I told her about my block, and Bing just stared at me and simply said: "Just stop thinking about it, and start writing."

I did.

And the story I eventually wrote won the Palanca. Who knew?

Bing as a literary fairy godmother? Perhaps. Because I had another block a year ago, and she came by to visit Dumaguete again. You can guess what happened... Sometimes I wish Bing was just around the corner, here in Dumaguete, and then we could go out for coffee or what-not, any time we wanted, and gossip about everybody else. (We gossiped about you, Dean. Hehehe.) She published some of my stories in The Sunday Times, when the weekend magazine was still accepting fiction. When she won the David TK Wong Fellowship, we corresponded through email. She came visit Dumaguete now and then after that, and before she left for Denmark early this year, we had a nice dinner in Persian Palate. She told me she was still uncertain about going to Copenhagen. That she might stay in Dumaguete for a while, and write. I told her I was trying to write a novel about the Sierra serial murders of old, and she gasped -- because she was trying to do the same thing. We both agreed that this is the one Dumaguete story that grips all of us in silence, because it is so strange and fascinating at the same time. A Filipino serial killer? From the Spanish upper class? In quiet Dumaguete? We shared notes over lassi, carefully analyzing what was true and what had become urban legend. Her graciousness showed when she told me she was bequeathing the project to me; I was in Dumaguete, after all, and I had the feel of the place. Bing is like the ate I never had, I guess. But an unconventional one. And I'm really glad I got to know her.

Bing's first story collection, Mens Rea and Other Stories, was published by Anvil in 1998. Her newest collection, Jungle Planet and Other Stories, was published by the UP Press early this year.

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