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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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Saturday, March 27, 2021

entry arrow11:10 AM | Books By Filipino Writers I Love

In a few days it will be April, which is National Literature Month—and it got me to thinking about the books in my life that have shaped who I am as a writer. Asked the persistent question about what one must do to embark on a life of letters, any seasoned pen pusher would say that the one important thing—aside from consistently finding the time and wherewithal to write—is to read.

To read for the writer is finding out the means by which others have found the answers to various narrative entanglements. How does Stephen King handle suspense? How does Agatha Christie map out her twists and turns to a mystery? How does F. Scott Fitzgerald sing of longing and opulence?

To read for the writer is both fuel and inspiration.

To read for the writer is an experiment in distilling voice.

All are true for me: I write today on the wings of what I’ve read, inspiring me and sustaining me. Here are a few books by Filipino authors that have come to be my lessons in writing [and imagining] well…

Let’s begin with the book that gave me my dream of writing. You could say that the stories in Nick Joaquin’s Tropical Gothic [University of Queensland Press, 1972] have this aura of inevitability because they are fodder for anyone’s academic introduction to Philippine fiction in English. I remember being seduced by the language and headiness of “The Summer Solstice “ and “Candido’s Apocalypse,” but it was “May Day Eve” with its audacious treatment of time that made my head spin, and made me want to try my hand at fiction writing. One of my first attempts at a short story is a virtual copycat of its cartwheeling chronology.

Rosario Cruz-Lucero’s Feast and Famine: Stories of Negros [University of the Philippines Press, 2003] is the book that proved to be my maturation point. Itcontains four long stories and one novella about life in Negros Occidental, but covering practically the whole of Philippine history, from the Spanish colonial period to the post-Marcos era. It contains several of my favorite stories, including “The Death of Fray Salvador Montano, Conquistador of Negros,” “Doreen’s Story,” and “Good Husbands and Obedient Wives”—fiction which have greatly influenced my own in a very specific way: they were unabashedly Negrense narratives. Stories of home—and they gave me permission to do the same thing in my fiction. The book galvanized me and has since informed much of what I do as a fictionist: I insist on setting many of my stories in Negros, even going as far as dramatizing moments of its history not many people know about. This is to counter “cultural erasure,” to excavate and appreciate what consists of the literature of the place I come from, to get a sense of it, and to insist on its contributions to the national literature.

Dean Francis Alfar’s The Kite of Stars and Other Stories [Anvil Publishing, 2007] collects sixteen “wondrous stories of fantasy, science fiction, horror and things in between,” so goes its synopsis—but this book also jumpstarted the contemporary fascination of speculative fiction, allowing this kind of genre writing to finally be considered with some seriousness in the Philippines. The title story, set in Hinirang, was so influential to me it led to my writing of “The Sugilanon of Epefania’s Heartbreak.”

Jaime An Lim’s The Axolotl Colony: Stories [University of the Philippines Press, 2016] finally collects in one volume the landmark stories of this author, including two Palanca-winning children’s stories. But it is the title story, plus “The Homing Mandarin,” that I would consider my favorite—and a very influential one. I love how it distills the pain of a love that’s gone, and a relationship that’s dead, and shows us the exposed nerves of this marital drama in metaphors that are exquisitely chosen and rendered.

Charlson Ong’s Woman of Am-Kaw and Other Stories [Anvil Publishing, 1992] is a masterful collection of six short stories by the foremost chronicler of the Chinese-Filipino experience. This book is mostly domestic drama, but one that acknowledges the repercussion of national and international events into that hallowed sphere: Martial Law in “The Execution,” for instance, and the Tiananmen Massacre in “The Trouble in Beijing” for another—both of which helped me shape some of the stories in Beautiful Accidents.

Edilberto Tiempo’s A Stream at Dalton Pass and Other Stories [Bookmark, 1970] is the renowned writer’s first collection of short stories—which I read with curiosity, and then devotion, when I was in grade school, without knowing who the author was. [I happened to have found the book just lying around in the house.] It is without a doubt a masterful work, collecting such classics as “The Witch,” “The Grave Digger,” “Kulisising Hari,” “Mori’s Encantadora,” “A Stream at Dalton Pass,” “Daughters of Time,” and the short story version of “To Be Free.”

J. Neil C. Garcia and Danton Remoto’s Ladlad: An Anthology of Philippine Gay Writing [Anvil, 1994] is the book that changed the LGBTQ landscape in the country. When I got hold of the first edition back in the day [I was 19], it felt like sweet contraband to me, but it did show me the way to writing my own stories. It introduced me to the writings of Jimmy Alcantara, Jaime An Lim, Vicente Groyon III, Auraeus Solito, Jun Lana, Honorio Bartolome De Dios, etc. This book gave me permission to explore my own gay life and experiences, paving the way—without doubt—to my own first collection.

When Isagani R. Cruz’s The Best Philippine Short Stories of the Twentieth Century [Tahanan Books, 2000] was launched, it felt like an event: here was a handsomely produced book that was a celebtration of Philippine fiction in English, and looked the part. If you are familiar with designs for Filipino books before this [read: mostly ugly], you would know how this book felt revolutionary. It also became a laboratory for me, because suddenly within my reach was a compendium of great fiction by legendary and forgotten masters. I loved the discovery of many of these authors. This book taught me a lot.

José Y. Dalisay Jr.’s The Knowing is in the Writing: Notes on the Practice of Fiction [University of the Philippines Press, 2006] is part The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White and part On Writing by Stephen King, which is to say that it is a glorious combination of writing manual and writing memoir. That it is very much steeped in the context of Philippine writing makes this a valuable resource for the Filipino writer. It was to me when it first came out, and still continues to be. When I have doubts about fictional techniques, I go to this book. It is a lifesaver.

I love graphic novels, too. On one hand, there’s Arnold Arre’s The Mythology Class [Nautilus Comic, 1999/2014], which was my introduction to Philippine graphic novels—and what an introduction it was! Not only did it kindle a genuine hunger in me for more Pinoy komiks, it also reframed Philippine mythology for me in a significant way, allowing me to see that one can actually contemporize our myths and legends without losing their flavor. This, for me, is the precursor to other worthy projects like Trese, and also informed, by and large, how I treat local mythology in my own stories. Arnold Arre is still upping his game today, which is an inspiration.

On the other hand, there’s Carlo Vergara’s Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah [Alamat Comics, 2002], which is pure delight, a gay twist on Mars Ravelo’s Darna that became its own phenomenal success. What attracted me to it was that promise of queer parody, but what landed it for me was Carlo’s deft handling of the unfolding drama, his superb illustration skills, and the surprise of his humor. This book remains a beloved part of my Filipiniana collection, and I’m glad it has been adapted to the equally beloved musical. [But let’s not dwell on that misfire of a film adaptation.]

Luis Joaquin Katigbak’s Happy Endings [University of the Philippines Press, 2000] is a landmark title signaling the arrival of young GenX voices in Philippine literature. It definitely spoke to the concerns and themes of my generation, with Katigbaks’s often sardonic, often melancholic tone giving his stories not just an embracing feel, but also a way of seeing our world, especially those of us who came of age in the 1990s. I still remember the electricity I felt when I first read the book, its iconic cover calling out to me from the shelves. It made me realize I could write and put my own stories out there, to pursue my own generational book.

Finally, there’s Susan S. Lara’s Letting Go and Other Stories [University of the Philippines Press, 1997], which is a master class of literary fiction in book form. Here we get gimlet-eyed observations of the subtle violence and the occasional redemption of mundane, everyday living, but rendered in precise, restrained prose that makes the drama more visceral. That theme of loss, for example, in “The Reprieve,” or that theme of shame in the twilight years in the title story, “Letting Go.” They’re all so exquisite. These were my templates for such stories as “The Hero of the Snore Tango.” Lara has been a fine teacher for distilling voice.

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