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Soledad’s Sister in Italian

I’m a huge fan of Filipino writer Butch Dalisay, and it’s not just because he admitted me into his college creative writing class on advance prose despite my writing inexperience, or that once, with the intercession of my good friend Boojie, he jazzed up my dear old Apple Powerbook 540c at no cost (well, Boojie brought with us a case of SanMig and some pulutan); it’s just that he’s one of the best Filipino writers in English around. As someone who keenly follows his literary production, I’m happy to note his second novel Soledad’s Sister is now being translated into Italian (the novel was shortlisted for last year’s inaguaral Asia Man Prize, the Asian version of prestigious Booker Prize in the UK). In a recent piece for a column he writes for The Philippine Star, he posts an interview with his Italian translator, who wanted to know something about the milieu of his new novel. I think in the span of a few paragraphs, Dalisay manages to capture for his translator’s benefit what Manila, the Philippines and the wandering Pinoys are all about:

A translator’s interview
PENMAN By Butch Dalisay
Monday, October 20, 2008
The Philippine Star

Thanks to my agent Renuka Chatterjee, my novel Soledad’s Sister has been accepted for publication sometime next year by ISBN Edizioni in Italy. First, of course, it’ll have to be translated into Italian, and the publishers have asked Clara Nubile, herself a published author, to do the job. Clara wrote me to ask me some questions about the book and the Philippines as a whole, so I sent her back my answers, which I’m excerpting here, to give readers an idea of what I’m telling people out there about us. These are, of course, just my own perceptions; I’d make a lousy ambassador of goodwill.

CLARA NUBILE: Nice to meet you through your novel, Soledad’s Sister, which has the unforgettable taste of durian — tender and ferocious at the same time. How did your novel come to life? What was the spark that ignited it?

JOSE DALISAY: Nearly one out of every 10 Filipinos is working and living abroad — that’s more than eight million out of 90 million Filipinos. This diaspora, which has been going on for many decades now, is the single most important development that will define Philippine society for a long time to come — economically, politically, culturally. One day I came across a newspaper report saying that more than 600 Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs, as we call them) come home every year as corpses. It was a chilling statistic, and it gave me the idea for this novel.

How would you describe your way of writing? How you would describe Jose Dalisay, the writer?

I’m one of probably a very few Filipinos who make a living out of writing. That’s because I write a lot, in all kinds of genres — fiction, non-fiction, journalism, drama, screenplays, some poetry — in both English and Filipino. I get the most satisfaction out of my fiction and column pieces in English, however, because I don’t have to make commercial compromises in them, the way I have to when I write screenplays, which are commercially produced, or political speeches, or commissioned work. I’m a fairly traditional writer in the realist mode, and I write about all kinds of subjects — politics, history, culture, the passing scene. I like looking for the extraordinary in the ordinary. Some readers will find me boring, but I’m not going to write like the 25-year-old I’m not. I’m glad and lucky to be 54.

And what about the contemporary literary scene in the Philippines, both in English and Tagalog?

It’s a very vibrant scene, with new writers and books coming up every year in both English and Filipino. We have literary traditions going back to pre-Hispanic times and we have over 100 native languages, in some of which a written literature survives. Filipinos are a very expressive people, and writing and performances (in music and dance) come naturally to us. You cannot censor a Filipino! Unfortunately, literature as a market suffers from the fact that our people are largely poor and cannot afford to buy books, so our print runs are extremely small. No one here makes a living out of writing fiction in English (I earn from commissioned works, screenplays, journalism, etc.).

The influence of the colonial past, from Spain to the United States: how would you describe postcolonial Philippines?

One good description of the Philippines (provided by the essayist Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil) is that we spent 300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood. Many enduring traces and influences of our Spanish past remain — even in the language — but the modern Filipino is highly Westernized (i.e., Americanized). Several layers of thought and perception coexist quite comfortably in the Filipino — the pagan, the Christian, the capitalist, the Marxist. We absorb and adapt easily, as the situation demands.

Manila. A haunting place. A memory of memories. The bay. The leaden sky. The enthralling sea. The scents of street life. The beauty of daily life in a big, voracious, cannibal city. Your own Manila, just a brief description.

An aging beauty, sometimes sorrowful and languorous, maybe in the afternoons, but all dressed up and lipsticked for the evenings.

There is a huge emigration of Filipinos all over the world. What is the effect of this emigration back home? Orphaned children and psychological and emotional problems between fathers, mothers, sons and daughters?

Every departure has a price, and we don’t mean the airline ticket. Our overseas workers are buoying up the economy, keeping our heads above the water in times of global economic distress and in the absence of good, well-paying jobs at home. But those separations are tearing at the very fabric of family — the most important thing to Filipinos, and also, ironically, what our OFWs are seeking to protect and promote by working abroad. But also, we Filipinos are a vagrant people, lovers of travel, eager to see and experience new things.

And what about music, which, somehow, is another character of your novel. Karaoke bars, musical competitions. Every Filipino seems to be a potential singer.

I’ve said before that the shortest distance between two points is that between a Filipino and a microphone. Yes, we love to sing. It’s a form of relief and release, and it costs nothing. I suspect it’s a kind of poor man’s revenge — to be able to sing My Way as well as or better than the rich man down the street — so karaoke is democratizing.

In his essay “The Philippines: Born in the USA,” the journalist Pico Iyer writes that “Every Filipino dreams to be American when he/she grows up.” What is your opinion or your experience?

It’s a bit of an exaggeration, of course — but just barely so. I grew up reading American textbooks. I learned more about America than many if not most Americans. We need to demystify or demythify that idea of America as being central to our lives. We care too much about America in a way that America will never care about us. The world’s a much bigger place now; it always has been, but we just didn’t know it. Our OFWs are discovering that larger world.

Prostitution is another plague of Southeast Asia, and of Philippines as well. Is it a legacy of American colonization and the massive presence of American soldiers?

Well, the Americans didn’t invent prostitution, but their presence here didn’t discourage it, either. That said, the Americans are gone but prostitution is still here, and I suspect it always will be, until we have a society that offers people better alternatives.

Aurora and Soledad. Rory and Soli. Two sisters, so close by birth, so far by life. One is the anti-mirror of the other. How would you describe their sisterly bondage?

I’m going to say something so plainly true it’s almost stupid, but I’ve always believed — and have tried to show this in my fiction — that where people are alike, they really are alike, and where they’re different, they really are different. So these sisters share enough as sisters might, but are otherwise they’re their own persons.

The male characters in your novel seem to be hopeless, ineluctable Latin-lovers, lost in romance, sex, dreams, a need to escape. Love and loss. Love and longing. Fascinating characters. Filmic, in a way. How would you describe Filipino men and their mentality?

We’re romantics, yes; we could feel as much if not more for those we lose as for those we covet. And once we get something or someone, we take that object or person for granted. We’re creatures of desire, loss, and guilt. There’s probably a million Filipino men out there who’ll roundly and loudly disagree with me, but I suspect there’ll be a lot more who’ll say, “Yes, that’s me!”

The Filipino community in Italy is well integrated in the social and cultural structure. Why do you think it is easier for Filipinos to get integrated in other nations and cultures?

We’re great survivors, and part of that is our ability to adapt and to adjust, our resourcefulness in the face of hardship and privation. Sometimes that translates to keeping a low profile, staying out of trouble, agreeing to whatever the prevailing terms of reference are. We’re not known for making waves — which is both a good and a bad thing.

Written by Romel

November 1, 2008 at 5:07 am

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