Finding Our Stories

I’ve found my way here, after a short delay. Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, guest-blogging from the Netherlands. For the curious, you can find out more about me here. I am a Filipino writer. I can’t predict what I’ll be posting about most of the time, but this first post is something that I’ve been thinking about and which I hope will resonate with some of you.

I recently had an online exchange with a couple of young writers from the Philippines where we talked about writing and the challenges that we face as writers coming from a culture that is so influenced by the West.  This exchange was triggered largely by a post I wrote about a conversation I had with Chris Beckett at Eastercon where Chris asked me what kind of science fiction a Filipino writer would write. (This was after I told Chris how Philippine Literature follows a realist tradition and that as of yet we don’t have an established science fiction tradition.)

In another conversation (also at Eastercon) with the writer Gareth Owens, I found myself forced to think on the kind of fiction that I was writing and in doing that I came to understand how the work I produce reflects the things that concern me at the time of writing.

These conversations reminded me yet again of the words Ted Chiang gave to us at Clarion West: Find that thing that only you can write about and write it.

I was thinking of Ted Chiang’s words when I was talking with Chris Beckett and I found myself telling him about highland mythology as I had grown up hearing it. How the great god who dwelt in the Skyworld came down to the mountains to give rice to the mountain people. How he taught the mountain people to plant rice and to cook it. I said to Chris that if I were to look at this myth with a science fiction mindset, I would see the god as being an alien or perhaps someone of the same race coming from a far-far future bringing this particular gift of rice as a means of providing for the people he was descended from. And indeed, if we think about it, to the people of the mountains, he was offering them a higher form of technology.

Coming home from Eastercon, I decided to reread what books I had on Filipino myth and legend, and I encountered quite a number of stories that could have been science fiction but told in the language that was accessible to a people who knew nothing of flying saucers, alien abduction, time travel, cloning, and all the modern tech as mentioned in the books written by American authors of science fiction.

I thought that a person who has no knowledge of warp drives or light speed would not refer to them in this way, but would likely use the metaphor of a basket that carries the heroine up into the heavens. Thinking about this, I found myself wondering whether such a story couched in the terms of a tribal person would connect with an audience who expects to see spaceships and aliens in a science fiction tale.

I found myself thinking, yet again, on what kind of science fiction a Filipino would write, and how a writer can break free from being someone who emulates the works of writers he or she has admired to become a person who writes with a voice and with a story that comes from the writer’s own soul.

What things influence the Filipino writer then? What’s our backstory? How can I as a writer coming from a country that has been so colonialized and that is still trapped in a colonial mindset free myself so I can write the fictions that only I can write?

What makes it more complicated is how I am now writing in a country that is not my home country. As an expatriate, is my view of my homeland still current?  Or am I writing looking at the homeland that exists in my memory?

I think then of how speculative fiction is the perfect genre for people like me who exist in the interstitial spaces.  I wonder to what extent the diaspora and the experience of being in the diaspora has awakened fantasists and dreamers. I wonder how many of us read and write science fiction and fantasy because we see not only this country of the present, but also because we are still caught up in the country of our memories, even as we move towards the country that we hope to find ourselves in.

I realize that finding the stories I want to write about is a challenge for a lifetime. The question of what kind of science fiction a Filipino writer would write is not one that can be answered in the space of a few paragraphs. The present challenge is to write in a way that is true to the culture we came from.  If I look at it this way, I see how behind the fantasist’s work, the realist’s burden still exists. If so, then perhaps the divide we have been taught to see as existing between fantastic and realist works is so much smaller than we imagine it to be.

7 comments on “Finding Our Stories

  1. For me, the dilemma of Philippine science fiction is that a lot of people aren’t aware or conscious of it. There is also the misapprehension to label such stories as “science fiction” or even “speculative fiction” (because they are Western terms).

    Some of the works of Gregorio Brilliantes, for example, has a science fictional aspect to it, although we don’t necessarily label his work as genre. Lately, we have writers like Luis Katigbak and Emil Flores who do label their work as science fiction, although as you pointed out, it is also probably influenced by Western culture. (But I don’t necessarily find “influenced” as a bad thing, as long as it’s “influenced” and not mimicry.) Another author not getting deserved attention is Alvin Yapan who writes science fiction in Tagalog, and there’s a lot of interesting words and terms he creates using the language that’s not merely an attempt at transliteration.

    Also in the previous decade, the Palanca Awards had the future fiction category, which produced several politically-charged works. Not quite what the mainstream science fiction crowd is expecting (since some abhor the term “future fiction” as a workaround of avoiding the term “science fiction”).

    Another misconception in my opinion is the (unfortunately) prevailing thought here that Filipinos can’t write science fiction because we’re not technologically advanced–which I think is a result of colonialism. Our rice terraces for example is a great work of engineering–all before we were colonized by Spain. As far as current times is concerned, we have talented programmers (we did create the I Love You virus) and a lot of our export is people skilled in the sciences (whether it’s tech support in call center agents or nurses). We also do a lot of “modifications” to existing technologies, which is how we came out with the jeepney, but there are other local technologies which we innovate as well.

    Looking at myths and applying a science fictional paradigm is an interesting point of attack. I think another possible venue is in combining magic and technology, as both aspects represent our culture aptly (and a lot of Western writers tend to shy away from, save for exceptions like Nnedi Okorafor).

  2. Charles, if you google Filipino Scientists, there are a good number of pages that will point to Filipino scientists and their achievements in their particular fields. I also think Science Fiction is more than warp drives or technology. It’s interesting to observe how technology impacts society. Thinking then of Filipinos and technology, what sciences are we engaged in and how do they impact our society. I remember that there was a scientist from the Philippines who was engaged in water as fuel long before water as fuel became big news. What if our government had paid heed to this man’s endeavour instead of ignoring it? What kind of future would we have had? Oh wait, that’s alternate history… Lol.

    I like to think of the what ifs and writing this reply has brought another story to my door.

    I wish I could read the work of Alvin Yapan. It sounds interesting.

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