Saturday, January 15, 2011

PGS Contributor Alex Paman

Alex Paman holding up his book, Asian Supernatural

Alex Paman and local Hawaiian ghost storyteller Lopaka Kapanui

PGS contributor Alex Paman was busy promoting his book, Asian Supernatural, in the latter part of 2010. Above are some pictures of him doing so in Hawaii, and here is a Youtube video of his TV interview. I asked him some questions about his book:

1. Could you name some of the more intriguing supernatural creatures/stories from the countries you have researched?

Each Asian and Pacific Islander country I researched certainly had its own unique set of characters, distinct and special in their own way. But the few that stood out were the following:

  1. In Korea, the traditional shaman (usually a woman) is elevated to such a high status that it is actually recognized and celebrated in mainstream society and pageantry.

  2. In Burma (Myanmar), people believe in these earth spirits called Nats, who must be placated with daily offerings so as to not invoke their wrath. But these spirits aren’t your usual duwendes or nunos living under an ant mound whose permission you must get before stepping over their homes; the Nats permeate everyday life, ritual, and religion, and are greatly feared.

  3. In old Thailand, the ghost of a pregnant woman and her unborn child was so feared that people used to kidnap these women from the street while still alive and kill them on the grounds of a compound. They believed that their ghosts would make the most loyal and dangerous guardian against intruders and enemies.

  4. In traditional China, Japan, and Korea, the fox consistently played a trickster role in traditional culture, known for seducing priests against their principles, and was considered very dangerous. What’s interesting is that the creature is an actual animal that turns into a human being, not the other way around.

  5. In Vietnam, there is a curse (called noi) that induces a person to drown himself in water. People have literally drowned facedown inside the muddy footprint of a water buffalo.

  6. Filipinos living in Guam are well aware of the Taotaomona (pronounced ta-ta mona). Said to be the ancestral spirits of the indigenous Chamorros, these beings live in the vast forests (particularly around banyan trees), and punish people who trespass around their homes. Everyone who lives on the island is keenly afraid of them.

2. Why do you think you are drawn to or are interested in the supernatural?

I grew up listening to family ghost stories when I was a kid, and our houses in Quezon City and in Naic, Cavite were said to be haunted. I was also a fan of science fiction, fantasy and horror, and already wanted to become a comic book artist early on. It was a natural inclination to want to draw these iconic creatures and collect them for reference.

I enjoy researching the supernatural, because it touches upon an emotion and a state of mind that doesn’t follow logic or common sense. These beings defy what we define as real, and are usually seen when one is alone or mentally distressed. What if there really are worlds and beings that we can’t define or understand? I think Asians and Pacific Islanders are culturally conditioned and wired to believe that they’re real, and the fact that our ancestors thought they existed gives us a remote window to our own past and what we feared in daily life.

3. Explain to us the process you went through to get Asian Supernatural published.

I had been looking for a book that listed all Filipino supernatural creatures when I was in high school. I had never seen one even when I was in the Philippines, and neither had my friends or relatives. When I went to college in the U.S. and took anthropology classes to finish my major, I noticed that our textbooks contained a chapter specifically on native spirit beliefs. I began collecting Asian-specific anthro books and kept them as reference. My collection grew and grew over twenty years, and I ultimately decided to compile all the spirit beliefs in my collection into a single volume. There was so much material that it went beyond just my original Filipino premise. It was a long shot in terms of publishing success, and to be honest, getting it printed became secondary compared to just finishing the book, because I thought it was important to do.

For two-and-a-half years, I sat down and typed-up all the entries of ghosts, goblins, witches, deities, and places that related to death or the supernatural. I had debated whether or not to divide the entries by country, or just sheer alphabetically. I chose the former, and when I was done—when I thought I had exhausted my resources in literally listing EVERYTHING on the subject—I formatted the manuscript, wrote my cover letter with my precis, and put together my synopsis, market comparison, and my sample first chapter. I then went to the bookstore and listed all the companies that published supernatural books that might be interested. I sent them my package and waited. Ethnic publishers, universities, and Manga companies rejected it off the top, some even bothering to respond.

My presupposition that the world was waiting for an Asian supernatural encyclopedia was seemingly erroneous.

Five months had passed, and I thought my project was a publishing failure. However, around December last year, I received a letter in the mailbox. I opened it with a sigh, thinking it was just another rejection letter. If someone was interested in my book, they would’ve just e-mailed or called me. But lo and behold, Mutual Publishing from Hawaii wanted to see drawings for my manuscript. I quickly drew up some monsters, and after Christmas, they accepted my manuscript.

I quickly learned that the hardest part of getting published wasn’t writing the text; it was what happened after the book was accepted. There were so many details that needed to be attended to in its production (artwork, MASSIVE editing, promotion, etc.), and I took a big sigh after it was done. Writing your book is the easiest party, because it’s the only part of the process that you truly have control over.

And once you’re published, you want to maintain your success and keep getting published. It’s a neat thing being an actual book author, but it takes so much work and you really have little time to enjoy the accolade before jumping back to work.

4. Typical question asked of any writer of the supernatural (but I've never heard or read anyone asking you this yet): Have you ever seen a ghost? Or experienced something like it? In fact, do you believe in ghosts and the supernatural, or is the topic just something of interest to you?

When I did that interview in Hawaii, they told me I was to have only 3 minutes to answer the host’s questions, and right before we went on the air, she began going over questions with me that I had to scramble to find answers for. I was also concerned with getting the book signing addresses correct in my head before announcing them at the end of the clip.

She asked me if I had ever seen a ghost, and I said, “No, but my relatives have.” That was actually not true. I was pretty nervous, and she asked the question at such a fast clip that I totally forgot that I did, because the incident only happened once.

In college, my art class went on a field trip to paint tombstones and mausoleums on our canvas at a local historical cemetery. It was unnerving at first, but over the span of two hours, I learned that the cemetery is actually a beautiful and peaceful place. I did some watercolor drawings of where I was sitting, then left for home. I immediately changed clothes and watched TV inside my parents’ bedroom. There was a large dresser with a mirror next to where I was lying down, and when I glanced up at the mirror, I saw a shadow in the shape of a person on it. This wasn’t something that vanished as soon as I turned my head to look; it stood there for a full second before flitting away. I cautiously stood up and searched the room, and there was no one there. I thought someone followed me home from the cemetery, but it never showed itself again.

I do believe that there is something that is just beyond our senses, an experience we cannot explain because we are physical human beings and are not equipped to sense them clearly. I read an author somewhere who explained it this way: when we eat something, our stomach automatically digests the food without us having to think about it. In one sense, digestion is a type of consciousness that exists for that function. That means a process of organized actions takes place that we cannot personally identify with, beyond just explaining it biologically from a distance, and it exists automatically on its own.

Now apply this to an old house where people have died. Just imagine what alignment of processes and energies have taken place inside, within its walls and rooms. This matrix or pattern of organized procedures may turn into a type of consciousness that is beyond our scope of understanding, but it exists and operates on its own, and would be something we would call “supernatural.”

5. What's your reading and writing habit/schedule like? (I'm asking you this hoping that your reading/writing schedule, especially your reading schedule, might be a good example to younger PGS blog readers here in the Philippines to take up reading some more)

Aside from solid writing skills, being a good learner is the most important characteristic a writer can have. You do this by reading everything about the subject matter that interests you. You can read classic works in literature and in your preferred genre, a newspaper, and even a restaurant menu. You can also watch a lot of television and transpose what you’ve learned into your writing.

For me, I have to read something every night right before I go to sleep. This can be a page or a paragraph of a book or magazine I have next to my bed. There is that expression that says, “You are what you do.” That means literally that if you’re a writer, then you obviously write. Whether as an entertainment reporter for a magazine, or writing book-length fiction for a proposal, I wrote during my breaks at work, and late at night at home before going to sleep. I didn’t spend crazy hours doing this daily, considering it takes years to write a book. But I paced myself and gave myself short-term deadlines that would lead to long-term success.

In the genres of science fiction, horror, and fantasy, you have to know what’s already been done. The only way to do that is to read and be aware of the works created by your professional predecessors. If your knowledge base in those three genres spans only the last twenty years and nothing more, then you haven’t read enough at all. The internet gives you so much access to the past that there's really no excuse or barrier to prevent someone from researching the classic works.

Go out there and read as much about the past as you can. This will enable you to become a more rounded and educated person, and will expose you to wonders that will turn you into a better writer.

6. Name some supernatural stories, fiction or otherwise, and their authors if you know them, that have made their mark on you.

I think the earliest sci-fi or fantasy books I read in grade school were Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Lester Del Rey’s Runaway Robot, and Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time. In high school, I read mostly H.G. Wells, Ray Bradbury, Kurt Vonnegut, and Samuel R. Delaney, works which were required reading. I was also a fan of Rod Serling, who created and scripted a ton of episodes for his Twilight Zone television show. Thanks to those Ray Harryhausen Sinbad movies, I was also exposed to a lot of Greek and Roman mythology. The only person that I can truly say influenced my style of writing is a comic-book writer named Chris Claremont, who wrote the Uncanny X-men from the mid-70s to the early 80s. He had this fantastic way of incorporating various literary themes, styles, and pathos that I tried to emulate early on, and it really made me a better writer.

In college, a friend of mine also introduced me to the works of Joseph Campbell, who found common threads that ran through all mythological traditions. That expanded my knowledge for those cultures, and made me appreciate even more the timeless stories that they created.

And here is the promo they are using for Alex's next book, Filipino Ghost Stories. Congratulations, Alex!


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