Jaime An Lim presents the Preface to his The Axolotyl Colony: Stories
(UP Press, Philippines, 2016)
Preface: Reading and Writing Fiction
“Reading and writing fiction is a form of active social engagement, of conversation and competition. It’s a way of being and becoming.”
—Jonathan Franzen, “On Autobiographical Fiction”
I have always loved stories since I was a kid listening raptly to our elder sister’s bedtime retelling of their literature lessons. Folk tales, legends, fairy tales, tall tales, you name it. The more unlikely the story, the better. Mine was a mind capable of accommodating prodigious amounts of adventure and magic and enchantment. I had no problem with suspending disbelief even in the face of gross improbabilities. In fact, for the longest time, I thought aswangs and kapres actually roamed in the night, that an encanto lived in every balete tree, that Superman was a real person residing in the US, that movie actors did not die since they appeared in movies after movies. I thought there was an alternate world out there governed by poetic justice, where the good was always rewarded in the end, the evil punished; where the lost child always found his mother; where it was always morning. Literally. How naïve I was. I was a total innocent, susceptible to the power and reality of stories.
My access to stories widened a bit with the advent in my life of soap operas which we listened to or watched religiously at four o’clock in the afternoon, after school. Handuman sa Usa ka Awit, or some such radio serial. Usually about a domestic crisis that went through a convoluted passage to its tearful resolution, or true love winning, again tearfully, against all odds. So sentimental, so delicious. There we were, seated on the floor and glued to the radio or TV, teary-eyed because the poor girl (who was really the daughter of a rich mother) was being oppressed by her cruel stepmother. Later on, there were the movies with their irresistible buffet of comedy, drama, thriller, and science fiction. Served with a generous dash of melodrama, special effects, percussive music, sex, blood, and violence.
When I started to read, the door to stories galore suddenly opened all the way. I was one of the few kids in town who carried a library ID to the Public Library in Cagayan de Oro where I regularly checked the book stacks like a child let loose in a candy store, pulling out one delectable book after another . Think voracious. My choice of reading material followed the usual path of discovery and affinity. You start with the easy stuff, like comics with their visual and verbal prompting. You revisit the old tales of your early childhood, without the help of your sister this time. You grow up. You start to negotiate the fictional terra incognita on your own. Step by step. The scope of your reading widens. Adventure stories. Love stories. Detective stories. From Treasure Island to Emily Loring to Earl Stanley Gardner to Agatha Christie.
I did not only borrow books; I also bought books. Why I had to choose books over the dozen other interesting youthful options, I would never know. Perhaps, it only goes to show that early on I was becoming a book lover. An obsessed book lover. Libraries and bookstores and books call to me with their irrestible siren song. One time, when I was in high school or perhaps even earlier, I remember wandering into a drugstore that displayed a wire rack of pocketbooks. The drugstore was at the side of Lyric theatre which was on Velez Street, the city’s main street. I was on my way to see a movie and caught a glimpse of the bookrack. In any case, curious, I went in and examined the pocketbooks. Perhaps, it was prophetic of my future writing interest or a defining moment in my life, although I was not aware of its significance then.
I picked three books. The first was a poetry pocketbook, over a thousand pages thick, Louis Untermeyer’s A Treasury of Great Poems (including poems by Shakespeare, Donne, Milton, Pope, Poe, Tennyson, etc.). It was to provide me with my first comprehensive education on the craft of poetry: poetic forms, rhyming schemes, figures of speech, meter, tone. It eventually fell apart after more than ten years of constant use. (My continuing interest in poetry is another story.)
The second was Ray Bradbury’s The Golden Apples of the Sun, an anthology of twenty-two science fiction and fantasy stories which blew me away. I had never come across such stories that brilliantly mixed the real and the unreal. I found them haunting. For weeks, I could not help thinking of the sea monster that fell in unrequited love with a lighthouse (“The Foghorn”), or the young witch Cecy who decided to give up her magical abilities in order to fall in love with a man through another woman (“The April Witch”), or the Chinese emperor Yuan who sadly and reluctantly executed the inventor of a marvelous flying machine for fear that it might breach the Great Wall of China (“The Flying Machine”).
The third was Giovanni Boccaccio’s The Decameron, a series of 100 stories told over a temporal frame of two weeks by ten young Florentines who decided to avoid Black Death by leaving the city and staying in a villa in the countryside. The stories were varied in theme, setting, and tone. Some of the tales were even hilarious and bawdy, which pleasantly surprised me. So in high school, while my classmates were still grappling with “Patricia of the Green Hills,” I was already off to Florence enjoying Filomena’s tale about the attempt of the powerful sultan Saladin to trick the wise Jew Melchizedek into choosing among three world religions--Judaism, Christianity, and Islam--as the true word of God.
In college, my reading syllabus expanded considerably. At Mindanao State University we had the good fortune of having young enthusiastic Peace Corps Volunteers as literature teachers who introduced us to canonical works in modern American literature like William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, and Lawrence Durrell’s Justine, the first book in the Alexandria Quartet. Our Philippine literature classes likewise offered works and authors hitherto unknown to us in high school. Dr. Lucilla Hosillos, fresh from her Ph.D. studies at Indiana University in Bloomington, taught contemporary Philippine literature at MSU for one summer and introduced us to some of our literary luminaries: Jose Garcia Villa, Nick Joaquin, Francisco Arcillana, Bienvenido Santos, Edith Tiempo. My own favorites were: N.V.M. Gonzalez, Edilberto Tiempo, and Kerima Polotan-Tuvera. My story “Outward Journey” was my own version of a “rite of passage” story, in response to Gonzalez’s “The Bread of Salt” and James Joyce’s “Araby.” My “Liberation of Mrs. Fidela Magsilang” was also a variation of a favorite piece, Tuvera-Polotan’s “The Virgin.” They were my early models.
There was also one book that I found particularly useful in my study of Philippine literature: Philippine Cross-Section: An Anthology of Filipino Short Stories in English, edited by Maximo D. Ramos and Florentino B. Valeros. I studied all the stories and rated them according to my personal preferences. I discovered something strange: on subsequent re-readings, my ratings changed over time. Which only meant that at a certain point I was not yet ready, intellectually or emotionally, to appreciate the full achievement of some of those stories. But I read and re-read the book countless of times until, like the Great Poems, its pages got unglued from the spine after the many years of frequent handling.
Of course, reading fiction is different from writing fiction. And the leap from one to the other is a great one. I never imagined myself, by any stretch of the imagination, as a writer. To my mind, writers are a different breed of human beings. They are special. They are the anointed, the special creatures touched by divine fire. Which I was not. They have a command of an extraordinarily large vocabulary, including a hundred difficult words. Which I did not have, despite my pocket dictionary and pocket thesaurus. They also have a fluent command of the English language. Which I was still trying to master.
But, you know what? Reading does bring you closer to writing, simply because you are invariably encouraged to recreate what you find meaningful and admirable in the work of your favorite writers. This is probably why many established writers when asked for a piece of advice by aspiring writers frequently say: “Read. And read widely.” The connection between reading and writer, I strongly believe, is more than tenuous and accidental. Every story or book you read becomes a virtual teacher. You eventually begin to read not as your usual ordinary reader, out to take pleasure in the leisurely act of reading, but as a writer trying to discover your favorite writer’s writing techniques, attitudes, psychology, world view, thematic preoccupation. You begin to take an admired passage apart into its smallest components--word choice, sentence structure, punctuation-- to see what makes it tick. Why and how do certain words produce certain emotional effects? How do you move from point A to point B? How do you create a sense of a beginning, a middle, and an end? How do you control pacing? How do you unify the disparate parts into a satisfying whole? How do you make dialogue sound natural and believable? How do you use narration, summary, and scenes effectively? How do you use hyperbole, understatement, symbolism, and irony as powerful rhetorical devices? Although I believe that you cannot teach talent, you can teach the craft of writing. When I started to read as a writer, it was then that I was on my way to becoming a writer. It was this new perspective that subsequently helped me to make the leap from reading to writing fiction.
In 1970, I reached a crucial crossroads in my writing career. At that time, MSU was sending some of the junior faculty members out to do their master’s degrees. Most of the faculty chose to study at the UP Diliman. I requested that my wife and I be allowed to study at Silliman University in Dumaguete instead. Summer before the start of classes in June, I had attended the Silliman National Writers Workshop, not as a writing fellow but as a teacher-observer. The workshop directors and panelists were seated in front of the conference hall. The fellows, fifteen or twenty of them, were seated in the center of the room, and the teacher-observers were arranged around the periphery. The panelists made their comments on a submitted manuscript, its strong or weak points, and offered possible revisions for its improvement. Afterwards, the fellow made his/her reaction to the panel assessment. Sometimes, there were tears, justifications, disagreements, even among fellows and panelists. But mostly the workshop was very collegial. The atmosphere was both critical and generous, the older writers helping the younger writers to see what they were doing right or wrong. I found the whole interactive process enlightening. It was then that I decided to do my master’s at Silliman.
In Marawi, I was writing on my own with only myself as the audience. In Dumaguete, I suddenly discovered a whole community of writers, a community of kindred spirits. For the first time, I was interacting with so many other writers. My teachers in the Creative Writing program were all writers: fictionist Edilberto K. Tiempo taught Literary Criticism; poet-fictionist Edith L. Tiempo, the History of the English Language; fictionist Raymond Llorca, Contemporary Philippine Literature; and poet Myrna Peña-Reyes, Creative Writing. I met writers on campus or in town, coming and going: Cesar Ruiz Aquino, Rowena Tiempo, Lemuel Torrevillas, Anthony Tan, Carlos Ojeda Aureus, Bobby Villasis, Artemio Tadena, Antonio Enriquez, Edgar Griño, Christine Godinez-Ortega. I did not get a chance to meet the other well-known Sillimanian writers. Elsa Coscolluela was before my time. Merlie Alunan, Marjorie Evasco, Susan Lara, Leoncio Deriada, Timothy Montes, and Ian Casocot came to Silliman after I had graduated.
Then we had the different batches of panelists and writing fellows over the years. They included some of the literary giants that I came across in the Cross-section anthology who I thought were already dead but, as it turned out, were very much alive and kicking, then: Nick Joaquin, Kerima Polotan Tuvera, Ricaredo Demetillo, Gemino Abad, Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, Ophelia Dimalanta, Cirilo Bautista, Gregorio Brillantes, Rolando Tinio. Some of the writing fellows I met included Luis Cabalquinto, Felix Fojas, Gilbert Luis Centina III, Jolico Cuadra, Ernesto Lariosa, Roger Mangahas, Edgar Maranan.
So many writers congregated for the workshop that, every summer, there were probably more writers in Dumaguete per square kilometer than anywhere else in the country. The running joke was that if the bus that carried all the writers for a field trip to Sibulan or Valencia were to plunge down a cliff, it would effectively bring about the End of Contemporary Philippine Literature.
Silliman provided me with an invaluable support for my writing effort. I felt lucky. How many aspiring writers were given their work the rare chance of a close reading by their peers and by the country’s top writers? This community of writers gave me the opportunity to hone my writing craft. They became my sounding board, my inspiration and competition. We helped each other.
In fact, it was Antonio Enriquez who encouraged me to enter the Palanca. We accidentally bumped into each other at the LBC office one morning in 1973. He was mailing his entry to that year’s competition. He asked me to submit as well. He knew I had written a number of stories but I did not have enough self-confidence to enter any literary contest. I did not think I had a ghost of a chance. So I was not really too keen on entering. I remember what he then told me. He said, “You will never know if you don’t try.” I thought he might be right. So I decided to give it a try. What did I have to lose except my illusions and self-esteem? 1973 turned out to be a special year. Tony won the First Prize with “Spots on Their Wings and Other Stories.” I won the Third Prize with “The Liberation of Mrs. Fidela Magsilang.” Not too bad for a first-timer.
What did I write about? Some of the early pieces of advice that I gathered from reading writing manuals and talking with other writers were: Write about what you know, in your own heart and home. Live a full life and observe the world around you. Be attentive to the ways of society—how people speak, what people value and fight for, what complicated personal relationships they get into, how they express their joy and grief, what uplifts them or diminishes them as human beings. Make use of the materials that are available and lying all around you—details of human struggles, incidents and moments that define them. Observe details of time and place. Know your history. If you don’t know the material well enough, then do some research. Read. And read some more. If you write with honesty and clarity about what you observe to be true, then your writing will be credible and believable. If you have to take from your own life, then by all means do so. The whole wide world, which includes you, is your raw material.
For this reason, I believe that all writing, whether we are aware of it or not, is partly and ultimately autobiographical. It is autobiographical because every piece of writing is constructed through the mediation of a writer’s point of view, his verbal resources, his personal history, his knowledge, his values, his frame of mind. He can mask his presence beneath layers of indirection and symbolism. But the mark of his personality will remain stamped indelibly on his work. His work, if it is the authentic product of his heart and mind, will carry his imprint. His writing will carry his voice. It cannot be otherwise.
I am different things at different times. I have a shifting identity, or rather several overlapping identities: Filipino, Chinese mestizo, married, divorced, widower, father, gay, foreign student, provinciano, Sillimanian, Cagay-anon, Cebuano, book lover, movie goer, artist, reader, and writer. So what do I read and write about? How much of myself is found in my stories? How much of my world, my sense of time and place? How much of my life? How much of my own personal story?
Jaime An Lim, born in Cagayan de Oro, finished his AB English from Mindanao State University and his MA English and Creative Writing from Silliman University. He also holds an MA in Comparative Literature, an MS in Instructional Systems Technology, an EdS in Education, and a PhD in Comparative Literature, all from Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. He has won awards for his fiction, poetry, and essays from Asian Student, Academy of American Poets, Focus, Panorama, Homelife, Free Press, and the Palanca. In recognition of his achievement, the Unyon ng Manunulat sa Pilipinas bestowed on him the Gawad Pambansang Alagad ni Balagtas in 2000. As president of the Mindanao Creative Writers Group, he helped organize the annual Iligan National Writers Workshop which has been going on since 1994 with the support of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts.