WHAT I WRITE, HOW, AND WHY
I was once asked to name places that had the most impact on my writing. I thought about this for a while. It’s impossible for me to answer this question. I’ve been to many places in the Philippines and the United States, traveled to seventeen countries, lived and worked abroad for more than twenty years. I ran away from home when I was twelve. It’s not so much any place but the experience of being in transit, of getting lost or stuck, or passing through borders that has shaped me as writer.
The catalysts in my essays are never the same. Sometimes it’s a combination of things. Often it’s a hunch, something irrepressible. Or a compulsion. Sometimes it’s only after I’ve written several stories that I begin to realize what it is exactly I want to write – and only then can I say I’m just beginning to write the story. There’s always an underlying purpose and often this unfolds in places of fear and discomfort inside me. Or in absurd associations, a feeling that something is coming full circle, you start seeing it everywhere. I tend to accumulate bits and pieces of images, ideas, different structures and patterns – a ball of tangled threads. So when I sit down to write it’s as if I’m carefully pulling a random string not knowing which strings are worth weaving, which ones are the beginning, the middle, the end. It’s tricky pulling these strings. You could end up pulling the entire universe. You have to choose carefully, know when to cut them. I write personal essays, meaning years of prep work or cultivation have taken place before I even begin to write it all down – movies, maladies, math. There’s a feeling that something is coming together. When that happens nothing is banal.
I was twelve in 1979 when I bought my first camera. I’ve been taking pictures ever since. It stimulates my writing. Sometimes I line up my photos. I like what it does to that part of my brain that frames images, classifies and differentiates things, sequences them, or discovers association from the most incongruous elements. You learn to crop or decide which part of the photo could be darker, brighter, or blurred.
Lately I’ve been spending more time in the kitchen. I’m proud of my salmon recipes and home-baked cinnamon rolls. I like that there are strict recipes to follow and a clear picture of what should come out of the oven. I get to focus and listen to internal rhythms while washing vegetables or kneading. I wait for the perfect moment to turn the fish in the frying pan.
Nothing beats washing dishes in the sink, to me one of the most comforting household chores, very contemplative, a lot of unclogging, outpouring and cleansing taking place, an extremely beneficial time to scrub my memories through running water and soak my stories. It composes me. It also develops the mind’s fluidity and grip. You can’t let one soapy chinaware slip from your hand and shatter everything.
I suppose some of us need to find our own truth and connect with others, and these two needs – my own truth and the truths of others – often move in opposite directions. I grew up with different forms of repression and I had to learn to wield language and storytelling to escape and fight back to be my own person. My motivation to write comes from that need, along with a deep respect for language and storytelling. Even when I’m not writing physically, I sometimes feel like I’m still writing, putting things together, exploring, doubting, making lots of mistakes.
The yearning has always been there. I just couldn’t give it a name. When I was eight my teacher picked me to join an on-the-spot essay writing contest at Saint Joseph’s School in the small agricultural town I grew up in. It was held in the school library. Most of the students who joined were older than me. I didn’t think of it as a competition, more of a task that needed to be done. I wish I kept what I wrote because I won. My memory of what I wrote is vague. What I remember clearly was how I wrote it. The theme was written on the board: I am a Filipino.
I remember looking around and seeing how absorbed the others were. Other than the title and my name written on it, my paper remained blank. I don’t think I was old enough to even barely grasp the idea that something as big as a nation defined me. The concept went over my head.
I started my first sentence with “I am…” and thought hard. At some point my mind drifted. There was no pressure. What I remember clearly was the sense of wonder that came when I asked myself, “What can I write today?” And then it happened. I was no longer looking at the paper. My eyes wandered. I was looking at other things in the library — the shelves, the titles of the books, the walls, the posters, the other students, the toys, everything that was organized, out of place, anything that struck me. I did the thing that gave me so much fun. I wrote down everything that I saw in the library, each sentence starting with those two words — “I am…” This is not exactly how I wrote it but it’s close: I am a Filipino. I am a book. I am blue. I am a flag. I am a chair. I am a hero. I am a bird. I am light…
I probably filled half of the paper. When I felt that I’d written enough I handed my paper to the librarian. It was the first essay I ever wrote. There’s a photo of me during the awarding ceremony, my mother pinning on my medal, “Most Creative Writer of the Year”. I didn’t look proud. I looked lost.
I want to write across time and space, not just about being gay or being Filipino or being an immigrant. It was never one over the other. All these parts of me will always be there — even if and even when I don’t write about them. They keep interacting with different elements. Adobo and passports. Typhoons and desire. Broken rails and beauty pageants. A constellation of shame, marathons and affection.
I’ve lived most of my life abroad, working in places where I don’t speak the language, so I don’t think of my reader as only coming from one specific group. There is always synthesis, a combustion… I’m mindful of what’s dying, what’s getting replaced, what’s being suppressed. The American reader is no more special in my mind than the laughing lovers in Johannesburg, the feisty teacher I met in New Delhi, the painter in Seoul, the child woodcutter in Bukidnon. I don’t adjust my voice or my style. I don’t think of faces over my shoulder as I write. Instead I ask myself, when is language dangerous? When is it critical or not significant to others? What universal truths can I shake from Napa to Ninh Binh?
To be different and universal. That is the goal.
We don’t have to live in other countries to know this (although that helps sometimes). We can start by seeing the person next to us for who they are – their history, the landscape they grew up in – and who they’re becoming. Sometimes there will be mirrors. Sometimes there will be windows and doors.
I remember the artist Roderico Jose Daroy (1954-2014) who rescued shards, refuse, and fragments and brought them home. The objects occupied an entire floor in a rented bungalow in Bangkok. I saw his orderly spread of old picture frames, hardened watercolor cakes, vintage prints in various stages of decomposition. I walked around it, sat down as if on a shore contemplating the sea of dissolution in front of me. They were meant to be exposed to the elements, the flow of time. There was an inherent wildness to it, a constant beginning and ending. I felt tethered to it. I like things that grow. Decay. And all the deviations in between. If I could be a superhero for one day, I would like to have the powers of mutability and permeability. I would be a grain of purple rice, an industrial crane that in a whim can turn into a broken microscope, the gum you are chewing now. My secret joy will be those states in between when I am neither one nor the other.