by Joseph F. Nacino
Any overview of Philippine Speculative Fiction needs to look at not only at its current shape and form but also the context of its rise.
Thus, it may seem that Philippine Speculative Fiction had its start in 2005 when writer Dean Francis Alfar came out with the first volume of the Philippine Speculative Fiction series. However, there were already a number of stories in Philippine literature published before 2005 that would fit in the same category.
But first, what is speculative fiction? Alfar described speculative fiction—or specfic in short hand—in his introduction to The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2005-2010 as fiction that “asks and answers ‘what if?’” He noted that speculative fiction as an umbrella term encompasses the types of stories classified genre-wise as fantasy, science fiction, and horror. He also threw in the following: magical realism, surrealism, and “stories that fall in between genre boundaries (including the boundary of realism) and are difficult to categorize, such as slipstream and interstitial texts”.
Lastly, he included stories in other genres that are written with “speculative sensibilities”. By doing so, Alfar wanted to include output by writers who profess not writing in the vein of speculative fiction but whose stories have a particular resonance that make them a good fit.
With that idea in mind, Alfar pushed for the idea of Philippine Speculative Fiction, “the types of stories we wanted to read (that we saw published all the time abroad, but very rarely in the Philippines), and more importantly, that these stories were created by Filipino writers.”
Using this as our springboard, we can now look at the history of Philippine Speculative Fiction, its precedents, and its place in the world today.
Traveling Backward: From the 1940s to the Present
The problem in looking for Philippine Speculative Fiction prior to the days of the Internet is reading all published Filipino stories since then in order to categorize them. However, lacking a centralized archive of such stories whether off- or online, this would be an impossible task.
However, Singapore-based writer Victor Ocampo made a go of it in his personal blog despite the possibility of missing out on stories already lost in time. He details the first Filipino science fiction tale was written in 1945 when Mateo Cruz Cornelio published a short R.L. Stevenson-inspired novel called Doktor Satan in Tagalog.
Copies of this book are now rare with one of the few still existing to be found at the Rizal Library of Ateneo de Manila University. With the publication of this book, Ocampo notes that: “Most Filipinos readers don’t know that the first Filipino science fiction story was written almost seventy years ago (making the Philippines, to my knowledge, the first country in Southeast Asia to have a written SF tradition).”
On the other hand, in her essay “New Tales for Old”, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo pointed out that the iconic Nick Joaquin wrote his signature story, “May Day Eve” in 1947, which utilized magic realism long before it became popular with Latin American writers. Likewise, a fairy tale by Gilda Cordero-Fernando, “Horgle and the King's Soup”, was published by PAMANA in 1965 but she had been publishing stories even before 1962.
Another earlier science-fiction work is Ang Puso ni Matilde, which was serialized in Aliwan Magazine, a famous print venue of literature of that period. Written by author and film director Nemesio E. Caravana in 1959, the novel is described by Ocampo as “a dark and brooding story reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein but with a touch of Alfred Hitchcock and H.P. Lovecraft”.
But aside from these two short pieces, most of Filipino science fiction were comic book serializations done in the pulp variety, Ocampo detailed.
From the 1970s to the 1990s, most of what could be deemed as Philippine Speculative Fiction was printed in local comic books or put on the movie screen. On the other hand, Philippine Literature began its transformation as a vehicle of Social Realism to raise discontent of the Marcos years.
However, there were still non-realist works being published. Ocampo relates that there was Tantaroo in 1971 written by Ilonggo writer Jose E. Yap (under the name Pedro Solano) and written in the Hiligaynon language. Likewise, in 1981, Gregorio Brilliantes wrote the social commentary/science-fiction story “Apollo Centennial”, considered by many critics as one of the best English Language short stories written by a Filipino.
Tapping into the vein of magical realism, poet and writer Alfred A. Yuson published the novel Great Philippine Jungle Energy Café in 1988. The year 1992 had short-story collections from Joy Dayrit (The Walk), and poet Eric Gamalinda (Peripheral Visions), some of their stories being speculative fiction in nature. Even Hidalgo herself had published anthologies (including the overtly speculative fiction anthology Tales of Fantasy and Enchantment in 2008) as well as her own fabulist-infused short stories and novels.
In 1995, Arnel M. Salgado published the short novel Kidnapped by the Gods that Ocampo dubbed an “Erich von Däniken-inspired ‘metaphysical science fiction thriller’” complete with “Salgado’s signature purple prose” and “‘alternative’ use of vocabulary and grammar rules.”
The tide shifted at the turn of the millennium when the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards, the country’s prestigious literary awards body, decided to add the “Future Fiction” category in both Filipino and English languages. The Palanca Awards committee wanted this category to address fiction that “looked beyond into the future to transcend the boundaries of the present.”
Though this category was discontinued a decade later, it did manage to award stories that were wholly speculative fiction, like Alfar’s “Hollow Girl: A Romance”, Khavn De La Cruz’s “Ang Pamilyang Kumakain ng Lupa”, Raissa Rivera Falgui’s “Virtual Center”, and David Hontiveros’ “Kaming Mga Seroks”.
During that decade as well, a visit by the popular writer Neil Gaiman to the Philippines led to the short-lived Fully Booked/Philippine Graphic Fiction Awards, which recognized stories like Michael A.R. Co’s “The God Equation” and Ian Rosales Casocot’s “A Strange Map of Time”.
As if making up for lost time, other venues for Philippine Speculative Fiction emerged or became open to Philippine Speculative Fiction, like the giant-sized all-fiction magazine Story Philippines (edited by Jade Bernas), the online website Rocket Kapre with its illustrated stories in Usok (edited by Paolo Chikiamco), as well as iconic magazines like Philippine Graphic and The Philippine Free Press.
These venues published stories like FH Batacan’s “Keeping Time” (which later won in the Free Press Literary Awards in 2008) and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz’s “The Song of the Body Cartographer” (which was nominated for the British Science Fiction Association Awards in 2013).
It was then as if the floodgates were opened as books and stories now considered as Philippine Speculative Fiction were published via traditional publishers, self-publishing, or as ebooks.
University presses of Ateneo de Manila, the University of the Philippines (UP), the University of Santo Tomas (UST), independent publishers like Adam David and Kenneth Yu, publishing houses like Anvil, Visprint, Psicom, and the ebook publisher Flipside also started coming out with a number of titles.
From the writing side, Alfar led the charge with his story “L'Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)” being published in Strange Horizons, an international website, in 2003 and was later reprinted in The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror Seventeenth Annual Collection (edited by Ellen Datlow, Kelly Link & Gavin Grant) in 2004. This story later headlined his first collection, The Kite of Stars and Other Stories (2007). Meanwhile, his first novel of magical realism Salamanca won the Palanca Award for Best Novel in 2005 before it was published in 2006.
Despite the absence of dragons in Philippine mythos, Vincent Michael Simbulan fought for these kinds of stories in A Time of Dragons (2009). Horror writer Karl de Mesa collected his short stories and published them in Damaged People: Tales of the Gothic Punk (2006). This was followed by horror doyen Yvette Tan’s own collection Waking the Dead and Other Horror Stories (2009).
There were horror stories galore in the obviously-named Nine Supernatural Stories (2005), which was edited by April Timbol Yap and Lara Saguisag. There were SF-themed stories in the Carljoe Javier-edited Pinoy Amazing Adventures (2006).
Voices from the other Philippine cities were heard with Dumaguete-based Casocot and Davao-based Dominique Gerald Cimafranca coming out with their own respective collections, Heartbreak and Magic (2011) and An Unusual Treatment (2011). Comic book/movie buff Hontiveros (who wrote a horror trilogy of novellas) and the rather prolific writer Eliza Victoria likewise came out with separate SF novels, Serox (2013) and Project 17 (2013).
Nikki Alfar put together her lyrical stories in a collection in Now, Then, and Elsewhen (2013), Marivi Soliven Blanco had fun with Spooky Mo: Horror Stories (2008), while Karen Francisco wrote about mythical beings in her novel Naermyth (2010).
Lastly, I published three anthologies with the help of three co-editors—Dean Francis Alfar, Karl de Mesa, and Professor Emil Francis Flores—first online which I later transferred to print: The Farthest Shore: An Anthology of Fantasy Fiction from the Philippines (2013), Demons of the New Year: An Anthology of Horror Fiction from the Philippines (2013), and Diaspora Ad Astra: An Anthology of Science Fiction from the Philippines (2013).
Even as writers produced their stories and were lauded by the larger audience now available thanks to the Internet, blogger/writer Charles Tan put Philippine Speculative Fiction on the global map with his tireless efforts to promote the stories to the world.
Looking back today and seeing how the idea of Philippine Speculative Fiction has grown and spread, one could say that it is doing well: a readership that spans both a local and international audience and its stories taught and accepted in universities.
If there is a “Golden Age of Philippine Speculative Fiction” as Ocampo said, it is ongoing.
Presenting an Idea: Philippine Speculative Fiction
It was only around 2005 that the idea of Philippine Speculative Fiction was first given life, when Dean Francis Alfar made a call for stories for an anthology focused on these stories even as a lone publisher Kenneth Yu wanted to spread the joy of reading.
Alfar was the first to use the term Philippine Speculative Fiction and was the first to push for the idea. A businessman-entrepreneur as well as a writer, Alfar managed to turn his love for reading and writing speculative fiction into a crusade that would eventually become a movement.
But he was also the first to admit that there were already stories written even without such a title, that such tales were part of our culture and heritage as Filipinos.
As he said in the aforementioned introduction of The Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction 2005-2010: “Make no mistake: the literature of the fantastic existed in these islands, long before the term ‘speculative fiction’ was used. In the oral traditions of many parts of the Philippine archipelago, wonder tales and myths rubbed shoulders with horror stories about underworld denizens. Heroic legends were told and retold, while supernatural narratives were recounted. The Spanish brought stories of the miraculous along with the Christian faith, but even more fantastic stories were already flourishing in Muslim Mindanao.”
“We are a people of mountain, sky, and sea, and our oldest stories took in elements of the other cultures that came to our shores. We are, and always will be, a nation of storytellers, no strangers to the strangeness that is part and parcel of what it means to live in these islands,” he added.
But despite these stories, Alfar thought it wasn’t enough. As he noted in his blog in 2006, he thought a lack in writers and quality fiction among the problems in developing Philippine speculative fiction.
With regard to the lack of writers, he said, “While it is true that some Filipino authors, from time to time (or as anthology calls are sounded) write fantasy, horror or science fiction, majority write in the realist mode. Realism, among its many strengths, carries the force of verisimilitude, a sense that what is written about is true. Observations of the human condition are evoked in stories that deal with families and relationships (domestic realism) or in stories set against the greater backdrop of Philippine history or politics (social realism).”
“These stories are powerful because they are perceived (and positioned) as relevant. Fiction that adheres to the truths about Philippine life and daily struggles, big and small, is the dominant mode. This is the kind of writing that we, as young writers, readers and students, are taught to admire and emulate. And there is nothing wrong with that. Except that it is assumed that everything else that is not realism is somehow inferior, not literary, not relevant, not important not crafted, and ultimately not worth reading,” he said.
To remedy this, he wanted to set a high standard for Philippine Speculative Fiction: “All specfic should be well-written, with all the craft a writer can muster, paying attention to all things that make fine literature—because specfic is literature.”
He added, “Only then can we create literature that can stand toe-to-toe with fiction written elsewhere. A third world country should not be constrained to write third world literature, especially since at its core, speculative fiction is all about imagination—possession of which has nothing to do with social realities.”
With stories and writers, he came up with the first of a series of anthologies dubbed Philippine Speculative Fiction to address the lack of markets open to these stories, challenging “other writers to write speculative fiction”.
In a turn of serendipity, Yu, whose family was in the printing business, was also thinking of markets as a way to encourage the joy of reading in the younger generation. That’s why he decided to come out with a digest-sized print magazine of genre stories ranging from fantasy, horror, science fiction, and mystery as an independent publisher.
With regard to the creation of The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories (DPGS), Yu said: “My goal in doing so was to develop more readers, especially among the youth, in the belief that if my road to becoming a lifetime reader was through genre stories in my younger years, then I wanted to introduce that same road to them—but this time through genre stories written by other Filipinos.”
The release of the first Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology and the first issue The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories in 2005 made it a banner year for Philippine Speculative Fiction. Combined with the all-fiction magazine Story Philippines and magazines like Philippine Graphic and The Philippine Free Press open to Philippine Speculative Fiction submissions, there were now markets for both exclusive speculative fiction stories as well as Philippine fiction that included such stories.
Looking back at what happened, Yu said that “I'm happy to say that even as early as 3-4 years after the first (DPGS) issue was released, I had been told by readers both young and young-at-heart that they enjoyed reading (DPGS), and that this led them to actively look for more work to read, especially from local writers.”
“So, I look back on the experience as worth it, and even with a small readership, I believe I did achieve my goal. And despite the difficulty of being an independent, I look back fondly at all that I went through in getting the print digest out,” he added.
Alfar was also happy with what has happened: “Looking back, we see how much we’ve grown and have yet to grow. While the series and specific stories have garnered critical acclaim (nominations for the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award, citations in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, and top prizes in literary competitions such as The Philippines Free Press Literary Awards and the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, among others), we continue to be excited most by the fact that more and more writers are producing speculative fiction.”
“(Philippine Speculative fiction) has been appearing with some regularity in markets here and abroad,” he noted. “Anthologies, novels and short story collections are available and more are forthcoming. National-level writing workshops—such as the UP and Silliman National Writers Workshops—have added speculative fiction to the conversation, encouraging its creation and critique. Specfic is written about and thought about in universities.”
“It is a good time to write,” he concluded.
Going Forward: The Philippines and the World
Despite the inroads made by Philippine Speculative Fiction in the field of Philippine literature and in the minds of the Filipino reading public, there is still a lot of work to be done.
Dean Francis Alfar reiterates that the dream is far from being solid reality: “Because dreams grow and mutate, and what we want now is something beyond the remit of a single English-language annual. We dream of anthologies specific to fantasy, dedicated to science fiction, particular to horror or slipstream or weird fiction. While we believe in the value of the umbrella term we espouse, we can also see the day when robust production and readership, plus a vibrant market, will celebrate all of the collected genres—as discrete genres that create new spaces in the landscape of Philippine literature.”
Moreover, he said, “We want anthologies in the different languages of the country, not just in English. We want a broader and less Manila-centric representation of writers—for Manila cannot, should not be the centre of literary production. We want fearless secondary-world anthologies that fuse the Filipino experience with imagination.”
Speaking from outside Metro Manila, Ian Rosales Casocot, Kristine Ong Muslim, and Dominique Gerald Cimafranca gave their own assessment of what still needs to be done.
Based in Davao, Cimafranca said there is speculative fiction being written in Davao thanks to a flourishing writing environment: two annual workshops and a biennial fiction contest for Mindanao residents, a weekly outlet for literary works from young writers (Dagmay), and a writing community whose membership spans several local schools. He said, “We get enough of that in our workshops from young students. Very (fan fiction), though.”
In terms of Davaoeno writers and their published stories, Cimafranca pointed to Edmond Julian de la Cerna, who had been published in Alfar’s Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology. However, he said there are more stories written in the vein of speculative fiction rather than writers of Philippine Speculative Fiction.
Cimafranca said, “Thinking about it: the works and writers vis-à-vis the category isn't so easy to pin down. For instance, Mac Tiu's "Balyan", which won the Palanca, is about a healer who has a direct line to Apo Sandawa. Does that count as specfic? Perhaps to you and me, yes; but Mac himself doesn't count himself as a specfic writer.”
“Another of our venerables, Aida Rivera Ford, likewise writes stories with supernatural elements, but I doubt she thinks of herself as specfic, either,” he added. This is unavoidable, he said, as Filipino writers writing about what is Filipino inevitably leads to things outside what the Western world considers is the natural realm: "The supernatural pervades the everyday sensibilities of common folk, so much so that there's really little to differentiate it from the natural."
Muslim, who is now based in Maguindanao, has a different take on things. She said, “I worked in Cebu for five years, and in that time, I did not meet or hear of any Cebu-based published writer who had genre leanings.”
Likewise, she has only read a handful of non-Manila published writers like Casocot, Cimafranca and De la Cerna, whose stories focus on re-imagining local mythical elements: “What we have is mostly dark fantasy and supernatural fiction skewed toward reworking Philippine folklore. I also notice this characteristic focus on folklore among Manila-based writers.”
Casocot, who is based in Dumaguete, cited a number of Dumaguete writers producing speculative fiction like Renz Christian Torres, Robert Jed Malayang, Stacy Danika Alcantara, Fred Jordan Carnice, Carlos Arsenio Garcia, and Rolly Jude Ortega. However, he said there are problems in spreading the word about Philippine Speculative Fiction from Manila to the provinces as well as having a stable writing community producing this type of work in Dumaguete.
“There's a huge gap between the writing culture in Manila and that in Dumaguete. And all too often the call for submissions coming from the centre, or even the dissemination of information regarding specfic as a literary movement, just don't reach the provinces,” Casocot said.
“What I've noticed is that many young local writers actually do write specfic because of their love for Japanese anime or because they're into genre,” he said. “But they are completely unaware that what they're writing actually gets published in the Philippines. They mostly keep their writings to themselves.”
Because of this, he said, “I get kids in my Philippine Literature classes who are usually astounded to finally discover people like Dean Alfar, Nikki Alfar, Yvette Tan, Gerry Alanguilan, and Carlo Vergara. They soon get hooked, but it takes somebody to tell them Philippine literature with a specfic bent actually exists.”
Likewise, he said that unlike in Manila where most writers basically stay for the rest of their lives so that it allows things like permanent cycles of workshops and publishing to grow, it’s very difficult to have any culture of Philippine Speculative Fiction to take deep roots in a university town.
“There was a stirring in 2007-2009 when LitCritters Dumaguete (a writing group) was quite active, but the sad truth about Dumaguete is that it is a university town: many people here, especially young writers, are transients. They write, they produce, they graduate from college, and then they transfer to Manila where life and/or work eventually consume them,” he lamented.
Fortunately, the Internet is a big help, he said. “Facebook, I think, is changing that. But still to get kids who don't know anyone to actually come within the circles of Dean Alfar, that takes prodding and direction. I see myself in that prodding role, of course, especially for Dumaguete. But I get tired sometimes being a one-man crusade.”
Speaking of the Internet, there are also Filipino writers from outside the country that are making themselves felt via cyberspace. Given how Filipinos are now global citizens—whether as OFWs or via the Internet—it’s no surprise that some of them embody the very notion of displacement, whether as the quintessential Filipino living abroad or as a Filipino writer writing speculative fiction that tries to analyse the Filipino identity in a global context.
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, who now lives in the Netherlands, is a writer and columnist for Strange Horizons who is recognized for her opinions on what it means to be a specfic writer of colour. She said, “What living abroad has done is to make me more keenly aware of who we are as a people. What does it mean to be Filipino? What does it mean to be a Filipino writer writing speculative fiction? How do I as a Filipino navigate a society and a culture that's not the same as mine? How do I express myself effectively in a language that isn't mine?”
“That I am writing in a field that is still predominantly white and that I am living in a society that is predominantly white, I think it's inevitable that these realities and the struggle with these realities finds its way into the work,” Ruiz said.
“As I contemplate decolonization and decolonial work, I think of the acts of recognition that are important to us as Filipinos,” she added. “They may not mean anything to those who don't know our culture or who don't speak our language but they are significant to us. As a writer I have reached this point where I don't want to adhere to prescriptions of what should and should not be included in our fictions. As if we can put imagination inside a box and say ‘that's the only thing you're allowed to do with it’. Hanggang dyan ka lang.”
“I am confronted with the ways in which people respond or react to my presence in society as well as in the speculative genre. In both areas, I work to destabilize the status quo and my being Filipino in the Dutch sphere also relates to my being Filipino in the science fiction sphere,” she noted.
But this displacement serves a purpose, Ruiz concluded: “If we make the choice to make space for the next generation, if we think of those who will follow after, the path is always the path of struggle. No one will open the doors for us, it is we who wrestle those doors open. It is to us to make our own spaces and in doing so, we make space for the next generation.
One among the 200,000 Filipinos in Singapore, Victor Ocampo knows about living with culture shock and being displaced: “Speculative fiction in general (and science fiction in particular) is all about facing the new and the wholly other. As a Filipino living and working overseas, this is an experience that I am (for better or for worse) very familiar with.”
“I have been living in Singapore for the last 15 years yet in many ways it’s still an alien world, an undiscovered country if you will (to use Shakespeare’s turn of phrase), one which you can go to but never come back from, at least not as the same person,” Ocampo added.
He pointed out that: “There is a kind of liminality that I like to document in my stories—that unsettled feeling of no longer belonging to the mother country yet not quite fitting into your adopted one. I feel that a science fiction setting reinforces this sense of alienation and adaptation much better than a realist story can, especially if you like telling petits récits—small, local narratives.”
Likewise, he said, “I write from the fringes of both my chosen genre and the world of Philippine letters. Despite the more than 12 million Filipinos overseas, immigrant and OFW narratives make up a tiny portion of the Filipino writing canon. This volume is even thinner for Filipino science fiction for whose audience both local and abroad is even smaller.”
“Nevertheless I believe that we who write overseas are an integral part of the Philippine experience,” he remarked. “We have stories to tell and our voices must be recorded and heard.”
But despite these important questions and issues, Yu thinks that this is all part of the process.
Yu admits that he’s not as involved as before, having placed the now-online Digest of Philippine Genre Stories on hiatus to focus on personal things, including his own writing. Likewise, some outlets like Story Philippines and Philippine Free Press are now gone.
“Having said that,” Yu said, “What has made me comfortable about going back ‘inside my cave’ was the knowledge that after (DPGS), the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthologies, Story Philippines, Free Press, and Philippines Graphic did what they did during the movement, there followed a number of younger advocates who pushed their own similar agendas in the various media: through narrative, art, comics, essays, reviews, etc., and they did so both in print as well as digitally.”
“From where I sit, things seem to be going quite well. Maybe it's not going as fast as some people wish it was, but things are moving forward in small, sure moves, and that's not necessarily a bad thing,” he declared.
“A Short and Incomplete History of Philippine Science Fiction.” Victor Fernando R. Ocampo, The Infinite Library and Other Stories. http://victorfernandorocampo.wordpress.com/2014/05/05/a-short-and-incomp...
“New Tales for Old.” Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Panitikan. http://panitikan.hostingsiteforfree.com/criticism/newtalesforold.htm
Fabulists and Chroniclers, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo (University of Hawaii Press, July 2009).
Joseph Nacino is a writer and the editor of anthologies Diaspora Ad Astra and The Farthest Shore, both published by the UP Press.