OpinionThe Writer in the Margins

The Writer in the Margins

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Talk delivered to SIKAP—Creative Content Creators Association of the Philippines, Inc.’s AYO Creative IP Showcase and Content Market for Philippine Creators, Sierra Hotel, Dumaguete City, 4 May 2024.

 

I met Marla De Castro-Rausch last year when she was in Dumaguete and I was giving a tour to her and a bunch of other people in the first-ever Art Tour of Dumaguete City, spearheaded by DTI Negros Oriental. We took them around the city’s various art galleries and museums, most of which sprang almost miraculously from pandemic conditions, which did paint Dumaguete as a thriving creative hub that can withstand challenges. Marla was in Dumaguete to scout the city, hoping it could be a possible host for SIKAP—Creative Content Creators Association of the Philippines, Inc.’s AYO Creative IP Showcase and Content Market for Philippine Creators. I would not know that a year later, she would invite me to the same creative summit, this time around as a Dumaguete writer mapping out his creative journey—with the theme of “making waves.”

I thought about that invitation, and I knew that the only way I could find my own creative journey resembling the metaphor of “making waves” is situating myself as a writer in a specific context: that of one who labors and pursues his creativity in the so-called “margins,” far from the privileges and opportunities of big cities like Manila or Cebu. I wanted to talk about that decision I made years ago to stay in Dumaguete, and I wanted to find out if that decision indeed enabled me to “make waves” even when I was far from the usual centers of creative industries. Let me start from the very beginning of my writerly dreams…

When I was in high school, and then in college, I used to go to the Filipiniana section of the Silliman University Library. There, I’d peruse the ten volumes that made up the 1994 Cultural Center of the Philippines’ Encyclopedia of Philippine Art, especially the Literature volume, and I’d go over the names of the writers enshrined on its hallowed pages. Some of them were Dumaguete writers like Edith Tiempo, and Edilberto Tiempo, and Cesar Ruiz Aquino. I was only beginning to be aware that I had talent to share writing-wise and wanted to be like them, and I was also only beginning to be aware that there were such people as “writers” who lived in the small city that I also happened to live in. I thought then: how far they had come, how they’d made waves in Philippine literature, and they were in Dumaguete! I thought then that someday, somehow, I too could reach that same dream, to be in this encyclopedia.

In high school, I was passionate about two creative pursuits: visual arts and literary arts. I was the class artist, and I usually supervised [and made] many of the artistic projects of my high school batch. Everybody knew me as someone who loved to draw, and who loved to paint. But I was also the editor-in-chief of The Junior Sillimanian, and I was already beginning to churn little stories that found their way into the pages of the school organ. After high school graduation and before I entered college, somebody reminded me that the arts was an impatient master—and that if I wanted to master any one of them, I had to choose one and concentrate on just one.

Did I want to pursue visual arts?

Did I want to pursue writing?

I made a fateful decision: I chose to enroll in Physical Therapy instead.

PT just so happened to be the newest course [and craze] at Silliman University in 1994, and I found myself following most of my high school friends flocking to that new department—with this vague idea of someday going to the United States to earn big bucks working as physical therapists. I wanted to pursue the arts, but I was very much persuaded to pursue what I was told was “practicality.”

That dance with PT did not last. I lasted all of three years—and one day, I found myself on hospital duty and it was so miserable that I had a crisis of dreams: did I really see myself working in the hospital for the rest of my life? The answer was no. So I shifted quickly to Mass Communication—which still involved a lot of writing, but more on the practical side of journalism.

Thus began my slow drifting into writing, and my slow realization that I was making a vital decision regarding this pursuit: I wanted to prove that I could become a writer while staying in Dumaguete. I remember once this survey a national magazine once made of important Filipino artists, asking them the question: What makes you stay in the Philippines? The Tiempos, Edith and Edilberto, had a simple response: “The shoreline of Dumaguete.”

I understand where they were coming from. In unguarded moments where you find yourself musing at the Rizal Boulevard or some other Dumaguete landmark, you do get this profound understanding why you have chosen to live in this place, and why you’ve chosen to stay.

Dumaguete is a safe haven.

But we also know that “safe havens” do not necessarily produce good things. The conventional wisdom tells us that if you want to grow, you have to “leave your safe harbors,” go to other places, become who you are destined to be from the experiences you will encounter in your journey. I know many of my college classmates who followed exactly that route: one is now a vice president at GMA Television, one is now a novelist in Australia, one is now a journalist for Al Jazeera. I suppose they have fulfilled their dreams, and I know they have journeyed so long to reach them.

But I chose to stay.

Could I make waves as a writer in Dumaguete?

In 1997, I published my first “real” short story in a literary folio, like most young writers do. In 1999, I was already contributing feature stories to national periodicals like Sunday Inquirer Magazine, always with Dumaguete goings-on as my subject. [Because what else?] In the early 2000s, however, I was mostly known as a literary webmaster. Around that time, mostly due to having too much time in my hands [and of course having a deep well of youthful vigor and imagination], I had constructed a website I named A Critical Survey of Philippine Literature, on Geocities. At that time, it was the biggest repository of everything Philippine literature, containing not just literary texts, but also literary news, as well as an archive of literary awards. It was a huge hit. That was how I somehow made my entrance into the circles of Philippine literature—not as a writer but as a passionate online compiler.

Still, I was already churning out my early stories, most of which were published on the Philippines Free Press. But it was also a dark time for me. Mentally, I was depressed because I had no idea what I was going to do with the rest of my life. Was writing really for me? Will I succeed? Did I make the wrong decision about staying in Dumaguete? Then I heard some people I knew back then talking about the dire straits of the creative writing scene in Dumaguete—and how most of Dumaguete’s writers were abandoning it in favor of Davao. Someone asked: “Who will be the only writer left in Dumaguete?” Another person suggested: “What about Ian?” Apparently derisive laughter greeted that suggestion of my name.

This plunged me into a deep depression.

But I had one hope of reprieve—enough, I thought, to give me some validation. And it happened! In 2002, that year which started so darkly for me, I won my first Palanca Award for the short story, “Old Movies.” It was an instance that gave me hope, that perhaps I was on the right path no matter what other people opined to be my literary future. I would win again the next year, and I would win several more in the coming years. But “Old Movies” was the story that opened a lot of literary opportunities for me: this was the story that also had me becoming translated to another language for the first time, in French. This story also compelled me to undertake an anthology project. Thus my first book was actually not a book with my name as sole author: it was an anthology, titled Future Shock: An Anthology of Young Writers and New Literatures, which was really a way for me to introduce myself to other writers. That anthology, published by Silliman, surprisingly garnered a finalist nod for Best Anthology at the Manila Critics Circle’s National Book Awards. Not bad for a writer still starting out.

In the meantime, in the 2000s, I plunged into what was expected of me as a budding writer: I attended all the major national writers workshops—Silliman’s, Iligan’s, and the University of the Philippines’. [At the time these were the only major ones.] I also began publishing beyond just in magazines: in 2005, the Cultural Center of the Philippines granted me the privilege of having my first chapbook of stories published in the Ubod Series. In 2010, I was the Philippine representative to the prestigious International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, and by the time I came back to the Philippines, I was ready to pursue creative writing in a more serious light. I was made the founding coordinator of the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center, and by 2012, I had published my first two, full-fledged, collections of short stories: Beautiful Accidents, which came out of the University of the Philippines Press, and Heartbreak & Magic, which came out of Anvil Publishing.

I would publish several more books from assorted publishers in the coming years—but I took note of two things. First, influenced by my writing mentors Rosario Cruz Lucero and Timothy Montes, I began writing stories set in Dumaguete and other places in Negros Oriental, in the interest of battling cultural amnesia [Lucero’s influence] and helping build an idea of Philippine literature as something done city by city, and town by town [Montes’ influence].

Second, I noticed that a lot of my writing efforts was now geared towards writing about the cultural and historical heritage of Dumaguete City. From this vein, I have produced a political biography, a coffee table book about Silliman’s art and cultural heritage, a collection of stories of a forgotten Dumaguete writer, and a series of books compiling the history and heritage of Dumaguete under the rubric of Hugkat Journal. Currently, I am working on an anthology of literary works set in Dumaguete and Negros Oriental, and also a general literary historiography of the province. There are so much I want to do and accomplish.

So what have I learned as a writer striving to make waves from the margins?

First, that Manila is really, and undeniably, the center of culture and the arts in the Philippines, and writers and artists who live there are truly privileged. They have the festivals, the museums, the galleries, the libraries, the publishing houses, the agencies. For artists and various creatives in the regional margins to take part in that actually means a considerable investment. [Plane tickets and hotels cost money!] There was actually a time in my writing career that whenever I got published by a national publication, the only way I was told I could get my check was to go to the offices of their cashiers—an impossibility if you lived far away from Manila. I’m sure I never collected the majority of my checks when I was publishing consistently in the 2000s. This has changed today, but it does prove the point that for the longest time, being a creative away from Manila did not pay at all.

Second, that the writers in “the margins” can actually “make waves” by staying true to the place where they are from—and this can become their unique identity, and their ticket to “relevance.” I’m known as a Dumaguete writer first and foremost, so I am always in the radar of people who want something written about the place, or want to do a project connected to Dumaguete.

And third, that the writers in the margins can “make waves” by raising the profile of the places where they are from. In Dumaguete, we have this dream of becoming a UNESCO City of Literature. We’re still trying to meet all the criteria, but we have already established many literary activities that would constitute a vibrant creative industry in the name of writing and publishing. Aside from already having Asia’s oldest creative writing workshop here, we are also doing such events as regular litera-tours, which can be a boon to tourism; and holding the first Dumaguete Literary Festival this year, which we hope to grow to have better international notice. There’s also establishing a vibrant publishing scene, and an active translation scene, among others. These days, I don’t feel alone in dreaming of this. There’s an army now in Dumaguete willing to go the distance to achieve this UNESCO status.

In the final analysis, this is my realization: the “margin” is really real, but it is also an illusion. You “make waves” creatively from wherever you are, even if it is far away from centers of creative industries,  as long as you are persistent with your work and are adamant about the quality of what you create.

And remember my high school dream of making it to the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art? In the newest edition published in 2018, I’m finally there in the contents of the Literature volume, proving that waves do happen for artists who persist, even if they have chosen to stay in their safe havens.

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Author’s email: [email protected]

 

 

 

 

 

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