1. How do you start writing? What are your preparations before writing a creative piece?
My daily routine begins in early morning, usually at 3-4 AM. This time until 6 AM I assign for creative thinking. When my work area is not yet clean, I have to begin by dusting the tables, computers, monitors and all. I cannot think in a mess – it has to be put in order. Then I sit and start typing on the computer. I am not accustomed to writing drafts on paper. Even before the popularity of computers in our country, I would write straight on the typewriter. I finished my college thesis this way (I just had those small index cards for research notes to comply with the professor’s requirement). This happened because as early as eight years old, I already knew how to type. Of course, without any of these machines, I can be forced to write my drafts on paper, but as soon as I can type, these drafts will be useless; I will just do the piece all over again. Yes, there should be coffee. There is always “barako” at home brewed the old-fashioned Batangueño way.
2. Why do you always associate social issues to most of your writings?
No, I do not begin with a social issue in mind. It just happens that my “persona” (if you speak of a poem) or characters are in it. You can choose social issues as a topic, but for me, they are not my topic; they are part of the life in which people live. Ordinarily, the people that I write about in my poems or stories will have social issues, besides other, more personal issues. No matter where you are in the social ladder, you will always be affected by social or societal issues, unless by some means, you are able to escape them.
3. Can you name a writer/writers (or writings) with profound influence on you?
As a child, I did not read fairy tales because we didn’t have any. We only had books in the public school. We barely had money for food and toys and clothing, so how could we afford a book of tales? So whatever stories I could find in my older sister’s “panitikan” books I would read. Sometimes, she read them to me. Two of those stories I still remember, and they are “Lupang Tinubuan” by Narciso G. Reyes and “Kahiwagaan” by Pablo N. Bautista. Based on self-analysis, I can point to these stories as my earliest influence. Many years later, I would be able to meet Ophelia Dimalanta and Cirilo Bautista who would influence my poetry. They are predominantly English writers, and their tradition has given my Tagalog poems a different flavor. Somehow, I know that I write poems differently from other poets who write in Tagalog or Filipino. If I were still writing short stories heavily during my stint at De La Salle University, Efren Abueg and Simplicio Bisa would have influenced my writing, because they were closest to me during that time. I would add Isagani Cruz, who seems to have permanently changed the way I write essays. Later on, knowing Bienvenido Lumbera personally would make me stick with socially relevant or what has come to be called “nationalist writing”.
4. To where do you think being a nationalist writer can lead you?
To Nobel perhaps… Joke only! But you know, with due respect to all our great English writers, I always have this opinion that if only F. Sionil Jose had written all those great novels in Ilocano or another Filipino language, he would have already won the Nobel Prize. Don’t take my word for it because I am just one of those writers. I find it ironic that one of the most (internationally) translated and admired Filipino writer has not written a novel in his mother tongue. Don’t misquote me. I do not say that you cannot write a nationalist writing in English or any language, for that matter. But where’s your social connection if you write a nationalist piece in a foreign language? And don’t mention Rizal to me. Jose Rizal’s intention for writing his novels in Spanish was clear. He knew he was writing for a Spanish audience. He was telling them what was happening in his country. It was unfortunate that he wasn’t able to finish his Tagalog novel. Today, if you write in English in the nationalist tradition, then whom do you write it for? For me, being a writer in the nationalist tradition must always lead you to the heart of the people; and the best way to it is their language.
5. What can you say about the attitude of the Batangueño towards societal issues?
Historically, Batangueños are a nationalist people. We have already proven that during the revolution against Spain, and the war against the United States (read your history). But through the years, our progress has been mediocre. We also abound with mediocre politicians in our institutions, and with mediocre religious running mediocre religions. We have the most number of OFWs, which means the local economy is NOT good enough to be able to provide enough jobs. There is so much environmental degradation. We have the most number of pigs and chickens, and we also have the most devastated rivers and farms. But look at our people, especially the young. From politicians and the religious, to people from all walks of life, no one has shown concern. We often take pride in our roots, our patriotism, religiosity and all, but we have not cared for this land, nor have shown true love for God’s creations.
6. If you are to write something about the present condition of our society, what specific issue will you choose? Why?
I think I have already explained that, within the scope of writing a poem or a story, I do not choose a specific issue. An issue is not a topic for me. But if you want me to choose now, then I choose the environment, which is a very sensitive topic and of the most import. Many people die fighting for it. After all, this is just one world we live in, and even if there is an available flight to the next habitable planet, can you afford the ticket? I bet only a few world millionaires can fly to it and start anew (fortunately along with their Filipino maids and caregivers). The environment issue covers more than you can imagine. But do we hear any president, or any bishop or minister, for that matter, doing all in their power and influence to effect a change in people’s attitudes towards the environment? No.
7. What role does literature play to preserve our heritage?
If we speak of “our” heritage, then literature must talk about it in order to preserve it. If it talks of “other” heritage, then it will be able to preserve the heritage of another. For literature to be good in doing this for our own sake, our writers must deal with our own concerns, lest they begin promoting other interests. That makes literature created by any people in any country basically and naturally “nationalistic”. You know, whether a piece of writing is nationalistic or not, is just an issue to us because of our colonial experience, which has left us with “colonial mentality” that affects not only our consciousness but our economy as well. I have already told you that our bookstores are not really “national” in the sense that they are not filled with books written by our authors, and that our people seldom buy them instead of foreign authors lavishly displayed – while you can hardly notice our books unless the shelf is labeled “Filipiniana”. Why in our own country and our own bookstores do you still find the need to label our books? Isn’t the whole bookstore supposedly for Filipino authorship? I think these bookstores do not help preserve our heritage as much as our literature does. The owners of these bookstores must find time to reevaluate their role and contribution to our society.
8. Is there any piece of work that you personally offer to Batangas and her people?
I can offer my two longer works in recent years, “Nang Tayo’y Matubos” (poetry, 2006) and “Barako” (movie, 2007). The first one uses a religious tradition, the Stations of the Cross, but discusses more than the Catholic “guilt of sin”. I believe it has been misunderstood by fellow poets as merely a “Catholic” piece, but it is actually a document of world problems, the same problems I have been talking about here, to the effect that we have never accomplished what Christ has told us to do, and so his sufferings in Calvary do not end. “Barako,” as you know, is a movie about politics, with my hometown Ibaan as a subject. These two works are available online to the public.
Thanks to Jo Lontoc for the edits.