The Recipe for Good Writing: A Gin Martini, Guinness, and Ampalaya or How It Went Down at the Fil Am Book Fest Panel “Writing Our Way Home: Shaping Tradition, History and Culture”

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Saturday, October 19, the stars and planets aligned not just because of LitQuake but because the Fil Am Book Fest II took place at the San Francisco Public Library. In the space of a single day, yours truly was afforded the rare and exceptional chance to reconnect with the most inspiring writers and caring colleagues such as Barbara Jane Reyes, Oscar Bermeo, Jason Bayani, Marianne Villanueva, Emily Breunig, Candace Eros Diaz, Linda Nietes, and Cecilia Brainard, who has been so supportive, a true guiding light since the very start of this writer’s life. Later, the evening of LitCrawl would allow for a quick reunion in the Mission at Muddy Waters Cafe with Rosemary Graham, Marilyn Abilskov, and Brenda Hillman. To share even five minutes off duty and off campus talking about life and writing with each of these luminaries was enough to keep this starved and over-worked soul going for the rest of the year.

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The gravitational force who coordinated, collaborated, and made this rare celestial alignment possible was poet and professor and Festival Director Edwin Lozada who serves as President of the sponsoring organization PAWA Inc, and it was PAWA’s steering committee made this international festival a reality. Maraming salamat to Edwin and PAWA!

For the space of an hour, in the hushed setting of the Koret Auditorium with a crowd of fifty plus literarastes, I was honored to sit down and talk shop with Luisa Igloria, Jon Pineda, and Lysley Tenorio, moderating the panel “Writing Our Way Home: Shaping Tradition, History and Culture” as part of the Filipino American International Book Festival (Filbookfest 2)- Likhâ ng Lahi. Writing Our Way Home: Shaping Tradition, History and Culture. So how did it all go down?

We started with the beginning, when I asked the panelists, where do you start?

Igloria: Its more about finding time and a sense of place. Electronic devices allow her to write everywhere, so its a matter or carving out the space.
Pineda: Carries a journal, a $1 notebook and he fills the pages with characters. Not necessarily their physical attributes but what the character wants. He writes fully knowing he’s going to throw all of it  away, but this is the fastest way to start dreaming about his characters. Its just a matter of allowing himself to explore, and in essence fail.
Tenorio: His writing is generally plot-driven, and he gets ideas from strange but true intersections, Filipino and American and Filipino-American. He cited his work from the story “Monstress,” which was borne out of horrible B movies that were spliced together–the worst movies of all time. He needs a sense of a beginning and an ending with a story, and so long as he outlines a rough plot that gives him no excuse to get through a draft.

Since all writers mentioned the use of media, we moved to how media shaped their process or inspired their writing. 

Igloria: Added that she uses media for quick answers to quick questions. She appreciates the ease and portability of interfaces. The way we wrote five to eight years ago has completely changed, and she’s also open to new ideas of media though she stresses that our most basic sense of media, the sensory apparatus of ears, nose, and eyes, which we all carry are important to keep open.
Pineda: Admitted he’s a very visual person and loves Google maps. The interface is so amazing, allowing viewers to drop down to street level and take a closer look. Its a great tool to find stories. He cited a recent digital excursion where he explored Google Maps and saw the image of a young boy wearing a T-shirt and so obviously giving the finger to the Google car driving by. It was such an instance of giving back to the man. He also encouraged writers to explore historical preservation societies because they have archives that really capture a way of life in the past.

Tenorio: Tries not to write too of the moment with new media but work instead symbolically or metaphorically. For instance, he was recently writing an opening scene that features a webcam though the device at first seemed clunky he later found that it was way to explore the tension of the moment.

Igloria– Added that she appreciates the more open sense of collaboration that newer technology has allowed such as the medium of the video poem where film artists collaborate on the internet. It’s an interesting process to see another form of expression.

We then moved from media to the body and covered an excerpt from Pineda’s Apology because his novel was forefront in my mind and specifically this quote: “It was not a dream, though it felt like one. A beautiful piece of memory that could make him cry. Exequiel woke now, feverish. Out of his head. He summoned it from the faint scar woven in the bottom of his foot. A story hidden in the flesh.” So many of the tales interwoven in this novel are told through the body. I’m curious to know how does the flesh experience–since this is such a visceral and at times violent set of interlocked stories–how does flesh dictate the telling of the novel as opposed to chronology? I’d love to hear the panelists discuss how the body dictates their work.

Pineda: Spoke of how the character of that passage is broken, dealing with his past and the scars, the wreckage of his life. Being mestizo his work deals around the body and especially when he thinks about transitions, and the space the characters inhabit, the body is a point he is constantly meditating on as a device.

Igloria: Emphasized how memory and lyric dwell in the same house. There is always a physical reference point. She recalled how as a child she asked for bedtime stories all the time so her mother started to make them up. The ear was the receptacle, receiving those stories, a physical reference point. Then there were the rituals impressed upon her in youth and up to motherhood from the menstruation rites of adolescence to the tradition of tying the umbilical cords of your children together to ensure they stayed close as they grew older.

Tenorio– Touched on the body in his story “The View from Culion” about a leper colony and the body was very much a point of reference in his story “The Brothers” of which one of the characters was transitioning to female before an untimely death. For him, these specific instances are when the subject matter needs to be rendered by the body. But his stories are not any kind of social documentary on what the body means for a specific experience or expectation. And he noted how one reviewer had called his stories “generic” as if the critic had been anticipating some sense of being transported.

This led to my next question about the sticky issues of authenticity and outside expectations. How did these writers deal with anticipations of others to be representative of preconceived notions about culture and place.

Pineda: Was very truthful and straightforward, calling those expectations ridiculous. He writes from an emotional place and dares to write about certain places even if he’s never been there before.

Igloria: Touched on the sense of complexity, how a writer of diaspora is like the turtle that carries its home with it. Geography is shared but not the only defining element to a work. She emphasized that a writer can limit herself if shes only thinking of geography as a setting when it really serves as an emotional space. Take advantage of the psychology of a space, she encourages.

Pineda: Believes that to have to prove you’re an ambassador or making a nod to a type of individual, well, that makes him think of the kid who gave the Google camera the finger. “The more I write the more I don’t want to care about outside expectations,” he added. “Maybe it comes from twenty years of rejection.” Its nice to get a review but he writes for the connection with the reader. It could be the Catholic in him he explains, this desire for communion but that’s what he aims for.

Igloria: Asked to recalibrate that question and instead posed what are we most curious about? Writing is trying to answer mysterious ineffable questions, that don’t jibe with outside expectations of readership. Its about trying to find emotional truth, trying to seek that thing that will feed a more basic urge.

Tenorio: Urged just write. “They say write what you know, but think I its admirable to write what you don’t know.” There are so many different levels of identity, he focuses on what is useful for the writing.

How has family shaped you as a writer? What memories or experiences in childhood and with family serve as foundational in terms of what inspires you to write and what you write about?

Igloria: Grew up in a kitchen and recounted a story when her family had taught her to peel lima beans at a very young age, so she peeled them all, one by one. And she tells her students to this day thar was her very first lesson in writing because of the time and focused attention required to do something so detailed and miniscule. These kind of domestic details were engendered in childhood, and she has to many countless stories of childhood and family to share.

Tenorio: Explained that he doesn’t write autobiographically. His life is not in his writing though the conflicts that his characters face may be emotionally autobiographical or similar to what he’s seen in himself or his siblings who had it harder to adjust to life in a new country.

Pineda: Spoke of his grandfather’s stories of Japanese Occupation and his father’s. Both were great story tellers, and it wasn’t until later when he learned of tales that his father had been holding out on because he believed if they were shared too soon then Pineda would try and replicate them. The basis of these stories were their intensity.

Finally, these panelists were almost stumped with the last question, which was what is the perfect meal after a long day’s worth of writing or what is the best dish or meal to sit down to after a day of writing?:

Tenorio: A gin martini.
Pineda: A coconut steamer or a Guinness.
Igloria: Wants something really simple like ampalaya, pinakbet. And she stated, “I do like me some coffee, at beginning, the middle and end.”

Photo
Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, my leading lady, plus me.
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2 Replies to “The Recipe for Good Writing: A Gin Martini, Guinness, and Ampalaya or How It Went Down at the Fil Am Book Fest Panel “Writing Our Way Home: Shaping Tradition, History and Culture””

    1. Oh thank you so much Uncle Gene! I know you’ve always been an inspiration and good friend to my dad, which means you’re an inspiration to me. I hope someday soon we can catch up in person. All the best to you and your family!

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