Tuesday, September 18, 2007

The Continuing Conundrum

(Here are links to other entries made after this particular post was written.)

If you don't like the confusion of Gordian Knots, stop where you are. No need to read further. However, if you don't have anything more important to do...go read a book! Or write something! Or go jogging and give some attention to your health for a bit. Do some macramé, yoga. And after that, if you still don't mind some dizziness, come back to this post (which may not make much sense; that's enough fair warning).

Before he began his class and while waiting for the latecomers to arrive, Prof. Emil M. Flores shared with me his thoughts on the development of American and British myths. He explained to me how the writers from these countries who wrote their stories a long time ago were trying to make a mythos that could be identified with their respective countries, in truth to find their own identities through their own tales, as against the then prevailing stories of Greek and Roman culture (for the Brits), and, ironically, British influences (for the Americans). He cited Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow", and Edmund Spenser's "Faerie Queen" as early examples of America and Britain finding their initial voices. I remember reading somewhere that J.R.R. Tolkien was trying to do the same thing for England with his Lord Of The Rings story because he rejected the Arthurian legends as just a hodge-podge of stories put together over time from neighboring lands or disparate tribes across the English countryside.

It is Prof. Flores opinion that the Philippines is in the same development stage as America and Britain were in at the time those above-mentioned tales were written. For him, we are currently trying to find our identity in the writing of our own modern myths, trying to look for those definitive tales that can mark us as a people. For him, the difference is that the Philippines was colonized by Spain and America, but otherwise the "searching" stage is the same.

This reminded me of Dean Francis Alfar's ruminations (part 1, 2, and 3 here, with the promise of more to come) on what makes a speculative fiction story truly deserving of that "Philippine" adjective before it. It is a difficult, convoluted, sometimes contradictory, often confusing mess to sort through. I don't envy Dean's trying to sort it out, and I'm wondering why I'm even trying
it right now. (I suddenly feel very dimwitted, but I'm in the middle of it now, so I'm pushing through to the end).

Prof. Flores and I discussed if--as Dean mentioned to me one evening some months back--citizenship is the sole defining factor. I posited to Dean back then a hypothetical situation wherein Tim Pratt had not yet written the wonderful "Little Gods", had visited Palawan for a vacation, had fallen in love with the place, and then had moved there after tearing up his U.S. passport and acquiring Filipino citizenship. It was only after this that he would complete "Little Gods". Would his story now be considered a part of Philippine speculative fiction? For Dean that night (and I say "that night" because Dean said his thought processes were not yet done), the answer was yes. For Prof. Flores that noon-time in his class, the answer was not as certain.

Prof. Flores said that perhaps it's the story itself that should have that distinctive Filipino flavor. But what comes to my mind is does the author's citizenship matter? In other words, if an American, Englishman, or Australian of Filipino heritage, or any heritage for that matter, wrote a very Filipino-flavored story after lengthy research, can it maybe make the story a part of Philippine speculative fiction?

And if so, where does that place the beautiful melancholy of Kij Johnson's excellently written "Fox Magic"? Is it American speculative fiction, the author having been born in that country? Or is it Japanese? Would the Japanese take and accept it as being the equivalent of one of their own stories written by one of their own citizens? Or not? We'll have to ask a Japanese who has read it to find out, but even then the answer might not be as clear as we expect.

Or to bring something closer to home: PGS (and Philippine Speculative Fiction, as well as other publications) are open to stories from Philippine citizens and those of Philippine heritage. Write anything you want, go ahead, as long as you're either of these. Yet, what if a Filipina, say, marries a foreigner from, and moves to, hmm, lemmesee, Azerbaijan, after renouncing her Filipino citizenship? Then she sends a story in to PGS or those other publications, but her story is about an Azerbaijanie (?)--er, citizen of that country--dealing with Azerbaijan mythological creatures (Gee, what could they be? This sounds intriguing!). What does that make her story? She might argue with the editors that she was a former citizen of the R.P., had learned how to read and write here, and that we do accept stories from those of Filipino heritage according to our guidelines.

To add to the confusion, what if she wrote and sent in instead a high-fantasy story with knights on horses, wizards with magic wands, dragons, stocky dwarfs, and elves with pointy ears, kings and princesses?

Or instead, she sends in a crime story set in Chicago involving Italian gangsters, Hong Kong Triad members, and an American-Azerbaijanie detective (married to a drop-dead gorgeous Filipina, of course!).

Or what if her work was a science fiction story with all these characters set on Mars, or on asteroid DX-CV5676? Does setting play a part, along with characters and the author's citizenship? Martian speculative fiction, anyone?

Or, in the most confusing case, what if she sends in a story woven from the stories she grew up with, a story of tikbalangs and kapres, tiyanaks and mananaggals, written during her free time in the Azerbaijan countryside? She's no longer a Philippine citizen, remember?

So, now what?

(Maybe this is why the Palancas are only open to those of Philippine citizenship, hyuk-hyuk.)

Another friend I was speaking with on this topic released more worms from the can. He suggested that maybe it's the country where the piece was initially published that determines the adjective before the noun. So in his view, a Malaysian publishing any piece in neighboring Singapore has just contributed to the general body of Singaporean literature, not to Malaysian literature. In a real-world situation, I bring up Crystal Koo's winning poem, "Corridor", which was published for the first time in the University of New South Wales' student literary journal. If my friend's argument is right (and in my mind, I don't think so), Crystal has just contributed to Australian poetry! She's based in Hong Kong now, so anything else that gets published by her there becomes Chinese lit as well! And what of the work that was published before Hong Kong was turned over by England to China? Are those pieces no longer veddy British, suddenly Chinese?

Ditto this situation for Nikki Alfar, she of the ability to weave lavish, atmospheric prose; she has a story coming out for the first time in the Winter 2007/2008 issue of Fantasy Magazine, based in the U.S. Her coming tale is thus going to be a part of American speculative fiction.

(Crystal, Nikki! Mga taksil kayooo! (hwe-hwe-hwe))

So is that that, for the location of a piece's first publication? Let's let more worms out. With anything published on the internet being able to cross borders, including blogs, how do you determine location now? Is it by where the servers are located? If so, all of us blogging using non-Philippine weblog services have just contributed to the blogging culture of our servers' countries! Or, in fiction, Dean's "The Kite of Stars", first published on the U.S. based e-zine Strange Horizons, is also American spec. fic. As is the coming "Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-realist Aswang" by Tin Mandigma of Read Or Die, who is seeing this story published next month, October, in Clarkesworld Magazine, another American e-zine.

(Dalawa pang taksil! Mga collaboratooor! Mga kababayan, isumbong natin kay...kay...kay Tulfo!)

But really, the location of first publication on the web is the easiest argument to shoot holes in. The internet is meant to cross borders, and in my judgment content determines a website's flavor. In fact, even first publication on paper by location seems iffy at best in a work's determination as being "Philippine" spec. fic. or not. Yet, I wouldn't be surprised if this argument of "first publication" had its adherents somewhere out there.

"So," my friend asked me, "is it language then?"

Haay, language. Sigh. The worms are all over the place now.

The Philippines has two official languages, Filipino and English. If I remember rightly, National Artist Edith L. Tiempo, when asked why she wrote in English and not in Tagalog, defended her choice by saying that there is no need to defend her choice. She writes in the language she can best express herself in. Still, I do want to allow for some stories in Filipino to find their way into PGS, and I'm exploring how to go about this. There can be no arguing that there is a certain feel and taste to all languages that best reflects the culture it exists in. But then, we'd have to take into account the even more specific flavors of Cebuano, Ilocano, Chabacano, etc., suited to their localities.

That I am Chinese-Filipino, and that I sometimes feel the pull to explore the roots of my heritage, where my parents and grandparents originally came from, to see how I fit not only here but in China, through fiction, I think reflects that same search that Prof. Emil mentioned. I understand this, I understand very well the need to discover identity through stories.

(Ah hah! Taksil ka rin pala! Pare-pareho lang pala tayong lahat! Kaya...ganito nalang: mag-beer muna tayo! Mas maganda pa 'yan! Kam pai!)

Back to Professor Flores. After his comparison of early American and British tales to the current story landscape in the Philippines, he started talking about how much Western publishers are looking for Eastern myths this time. It seems they're looking for fresh ground to explore, having exhausted their own mythologies. He said to me something to the effect that "If we write and send them something about an aswang, they're sure to at least consider it!" So Tin Mandigma is perhaps on the right track with her story to Clarkesworld in spreading word about our myths; and perhaps therein too lies our strongest means to adding that Philippine flavor to our spec. fic. stories. Prof. Flores finds it ironic in fact that Pinoys are into the elves, knights, wizards, and monsters of Western stories, when those across the Pacific are looking here for something that, to them, is new, but which we take for granted since for us something like a dwende is overly familiar.

But in his opinion, Prof. Flores warns that we should be careful not to "exoticize" our fertile mythological world, to write of such strangeness for the sake of addressing a particular audience, lest we lose the original honesty of what is Filipino in them. I translate this to mean that our stories should not be contrived for certain segments of readers, but should just be what they are, written honestly, in the same way that any other honestly written story, any other myth, just is. This to him would be a better reflection of the culture from which the story, its creatures, and its characters, sprung.

In PGS3 there is a story, Dreamtigers, by American poet and fictionist Robert Frazier, who has a take on bangungot different from what we're used to seeing around here. He identifies bangungot in the text as a Philippine nightmare syndrome. In that story, the victims of bangungot are not Filipinos, but Vietnamese. His protagonist is an American black man, and at the end, as he dreams, this protagonist finds himself in the African wilderness. I asked Mr. Frazier if we could reprint his story because I felt it would make a nice comparison/contrast to Miggy Escaño's Tuko, which also deals with bangungot. I reached a point where I wanted PGS readers to see too how other writers who are not from these shores write about us, even just a bit, never mind their background or their nationality but focus on the story, dammit, the story. That Tuko and Dreamtigers were about bangungot was serendipity. But more than that, Dreamtigers shows too that any subject, any mix of subjects, is a target for any writer, for any imagination, no matter where they're from.

There are no clear answers to anything I've brought up; and perhaps everything is just vapor, really. But I'm not sure it's a good idea to cut the Gordian Knot yet, to just slice it and leave it on the floor. Yes, do write what you want to write, tell the story you want to tell, that you find interesting, because if you're not interested in what you're writing the reader will sense that too. All these arguments for what makes a tale Filipino is important, but it also reminds me of the classification issue that I addressed in PGS2's editorial, about how genre fiction is perceived as so different from literary fiction, when I wrote (and I could be wrong, you know) that "a story is a story is a story no matter what it's about or how it's labeled". It could be that it all depends on an individual case-to-case, story-to-story basis. We can leave the classification to the publishers and the managers of the bookstores, in the same way we can leave what makes a story Pinoy to those who are more learned, well-informed on the matter, brilliant.

Just read and write. We can wheel that Gordian Knot into an empty room when we tire of it, and then bring it out occasionally when we feel the need to give its unraveling another try, especially when we come upon a work we feel can define us the way Irving's or Spenser's did for their countries. But the time we spend reading and writing should be commensurately longer than the time we spend on that godawful Knot.

And I think I've spent enough time on it now, thank you very much.

Okay, okay. Show's over. Nothing to see here, folks, nothing to see here. Go home, people. Go back to what you were doing. Pick up that book and take up where you left off. Go back to writing your story. Go back to jogging, or yoga, or macramé.

I'm dizzy. I'm going to lie down for a while. I'm not sure I want to post something like this again in the future. I'm afraid that if I reread this, everything I've put down might be horribly wrong!


Blogger banzai cat said...

Well, maybe it's a matter of culture? I mean granted if Tim Pratt does move to RP (or Haruki Murakami or whoever else), the fact is, they won't know what the Philippines is about or being Filipino since they haven't imbibed the values of being a Filipino or staying here. Same thing that applies to Filipinos moving abroad.

Now the matter of Filipinos who've been brought up abroad, well that's another matter altogether.

11:51 AM  
Blogger Dean said...

Aaaaarrrgghhhh!!!! ;)

Anyway, this issue will soon come to fore. The SFWA is looking for Asian spec fic, including the Philippines (we'll see how it goes - but assuming it does...).

Haha! And now Tim Pratt knows how much we love "Little Gods" (Go Tim!)

2:07 PM  
Blogger pgenrestories said...

Hi Banzai! If it's a matter of culture, in other words, the subject matter of the story and the writer's approach to it, I wonder how a Japanese reader will take Kij Johnson's Fox Magic?

And as for Filipinos brought up abroad, Prof. Emil Flores also mentioned the example of Jessica Hagedorn, who is THE Fil-Am writer of note in America. He pointed out to me how some readers from here reacted to her work.

Hi Dean! Arrgh nga! I'm glad this issue is coming forward. Wow! Asian spec. fic.! Imagine reading all those stories from writers all over Asia! If I write a spec. fic. story set in China, using Chinese mythology and Chinese characters, and it's (most likely not) good enough, where do I fall under? ;) Hehe, just kidding. Everything's confusing enough.

2:27 PM  
Blogger banzai cat said...

Hehe yeah. If it's Kij Johnson, then it must be an American story, unless Johnson had imbibed enough of the Japanese culture. Likewise, with Hagedorn, since she was brought up in the Philippines, then she imbibed enough of the culture before moving to the US.

Playing devil's advocate with myself, let's reverse that: how about Alex Garland, who comes to the Philippines regularly? Does that mean he writes Philippine stories since he seems to know the mean streets of Manila well enough?

4:53 PM  
Blogger pgenrestories said...

Oh no Banzai! You make me want to lie down again.

6:56 PM  
Blogger banzai cat said...

Hehe you're welcome ;-)

11:27 AM  
Blogger Mia said...

I was thinking about this earlier while eating at a restaurant and came to the conclusion that fiction is a lot like food.

Heh. I never can think about things without coming up with all sorts of comparisons and analogies.

3:19 PM  
Blogger pgenrestories said...

Maybe that's the solution, Mia! If we treat it like food, we're bound to come up with something! Adobong spec. fic.!

3:43 PM  
Blogger Emil said...

Emil Flores here. First of all thanks to Kenneth for coming over to the class and giving a good sumary of the things we talked about.

I won't get into a long lecture on "national identity" (I will say thiugh that "nationhood" is a terribly complex and unstable concept for colonized cultures and the fact that we're problematizing what should be a basic idea demonstrates how deeply colonialism has affected us).

The point about FOOD is actually a very good idea. There's a book called MEMORIES OF PHILIPPINE KITCHENS by Amy Besa and in it she shows how as a country like the Philippines was able to preserve indigenous cooking while adapting foreign ingredients and techniques. Amy went all over the country gathering many recipes and rediscovered the Philippines in the process.

She even mentioned in our discussion how, through cooking, she wants to show the world how unique Filipino culture is. "You are what you eat" indeed. According to her, the American customers in her Filipino restaurant in Soho, New York just love adobo. Our food is unique. We just don't think of it as special.

I told Kenneth that I believe in unversal themes and concepts (love, hate, revenge heroism etc.) but the manifestations of those concepts are culturally grounded.
Why is Hollywood remaking SIGAW into THE ECHO? Why is the main character in THE ECHO an ex-con? That's because he comes into conflict with his cop neighbor. This change is important for American audiences. In the Philippines, you don't have to be an ex-con to get into trouble with a cop.

My Japanese students loved THE LAST SAMURAI but when I asked them if it was similar to a Japanese movie, they emphatically said no. The same is true with MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA. It's a Western view of Japan where individualism reigns over duty.

As silly as it may seem, compare ZAIDO to SHAIDER. The family and oppression angle is very much present in the Filipino version of the tokusatsu show. Now compare that to VR TROOPERS or POWER RANGERS. At least the Filipino version didn't just splice together Japanese footage and then reshot scenes with the cast of teenagers from Saved by the Bell.

This is what I tell my students when I don't talk about postcolonial theory: You come from a unique culture. It's up to you to see it. We eat differently, we talk differently, we walk differently, we communicate differently (who else points with their lips or nods with their eyebrows?), we look at the world differently. It is this outlook that makes us Filipino. That outlook gets blurred particularly in SF because our models are foreign. But make no mistake, we are different.

As writers or would-be writers, I tell them to just look at the world around them, when they walk through the corridors, when they ride a jeepney, when they use a cell phone, when they eat. Embrace that world and slowly, very slowly that world will permeate their minds mired in worlds created by foreigners. When that happens, whether they use indigenous ideas or take all the foreign tropes they want, that world will still come out.

Wow. That went on longer than I planned. Hope you don't mind.

All the best!

1:48 AM  
Blogger pgenrestories said...

Thanks, Prof. Emil! I was glad to come to your class, and will be glad to come back to any of your classes in the future, time willing. If you don't mind, I'll copy and paste your comment in one PGS entry! Thanks!

8:37 AM  

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