Kristine Ong Muslim is one of those rare people that publishes two short story collections in a calendar year--Age of Blight via Unnamed Press in February 2016, and Butterfly Dream by Snuggly Books in May. Oh yes, she also published a poetry collection in December and has published a title in 2017 already. She's graciously taken some time to send us a guest post about Filipino writers we should be aware of--I know after reading this, there are at least a few I'm planning on tracking down.
8 Contemporary Filipino Writers You Probably Haven’t Heard Of (But Should)
Editors, who are on the prowl for fresh new voices to diversify the offerings in their short fiction anthologies, must look no further. Here’s my shortlist of eight noteworthy contemporary Filipino writers. They all write short stories in English. They are also vastly underrated. I will tell you why I think so, as well as link to some of their works available online.
Years ago, I wanted a shot at being considered for Griffith Review’s New Asia Now issue. I didn’t make the cut. Glenn Diaz did. And for very good reason: here’s his story “Stress Management.” This piece doled out the rarefied insides of the call center industry, served them up with clarity and precision. For close to six years, I was content being a rank-and-file employee in two call centers, one in Manila and another in Cebu City. I was an invisible, unambitious, routine-addicted cog in the bristling corporate machinery, a worker drone strategically positioned to see and hear just about everything. I could say that finger-on-the-trigger “Stress Management” got it to a tee, dished it out without flinching. There was no faltering, no glossing over.
Here are two more of Diaz’s stories, “Escape” and “Basta.” Both feature recurring characters and show the extent by which a hyperrealist with a remarkable ear for dialogue can capture the desperation and guilt complexes of the jaded working class.
The thing with Francezca Kwe is that I have yet to read a short story by her I am willing to deem average. Take, for example, this oldish tale of hers. Even as it repurposes worn tropes and cloyingly familiar gothic elements, “A Ghost Story” is competently and intelligently told, the narrative drive deviating at times yet is graceful in its course correction and foreshadowing. Here are three more of Kwe’s stories that show her impressive range and assured voice: “The Fires of the Sun in a Crystalline Sky,” “The Red Cup,” and “Days of Rain.” I will be first in line to buy her debut book-length collection of stories and sing high praises to it.
In April 2015, a thirty-something Filipino writer and cultural critic selected four sentences from each story in a flash fiction anthology called Fast Food Fiction Delivery (Anvil Publishing, 2015) and then encoded them into the interface of his free blogspot account. He outfitted this particular blog, which had no way of generating revenue and did not even come with a paid domain name, with an algorithmic element for producing random combinations of the sentences from the anthology. The results were striking. At times, disquieting and hilarious. They were fascinating in that they let slip a crude facet of the nature of human cognition and language. The machine-generated, machine-constrained “microfictions,” each structured by randomly joining up sentences plucked from the anthology, almost always seem to acquire a degree of lucidity. They raise questions about the nature of authorship. The parts, torn from the whole, imposed order and coherence in their newfound independence. They also demonstrated the intrinsic portability and redundancy of the layering found in collaged text, a styling evocative of the Dadaist movement. I can no longer link to this wonderful conceptual piece that operated well within the bounds of fair use in a found poetry project. It was taken down because the thirty-something Filipino writer and cultural critic who created it was threatened with a cease-and-desist letter to the tune of twelve-year imprisonment and ₱600,000 in fines for copyright infringement. (For context: I can live comfortably on ₱600,000 for three straight years—without a day job—as long as I’m in any region in the Philippines except Manila, where cost of living is high.) This thirty-something Filipino writer and cultural critic was Adam David, a key figure in the underground literary movement in the Philippines.
Barely a month before receiving the demand letter, David published his incisive take on the anthology’s poorly thought out framing. That’s on top of his derisive jabs about the anthology on social media. One could say he had it coming. Hegemony is not known for its moral qualms, anyway. It is an artifact formed during the first few milliseconds during the Big Bang of socioeconomic inequality. It just flexes its power and then flexes it some more. It huffs and puffs on all cylinders to compensate for what it may lack in imagination and flair. I’m pretty sure David had a firm grasp of this crucial power dynamics. I’m pretty sure he made his point all the more compelling because he knew the incestuous nature of the beast, was long familiar with its petulance and temperament. For years, he had been badmouthing it—and rightfully so. He had been poking it in the ass repetitively, anticipating the predictability of its response.
“Another creation by David that I want to recommend is the 39 side-stapled pages of hybrid poetic texts called Repaso (the Youth & Beauty Brigade, 2015). To say that I love Repaso would be putting it mildly as I’ve reread it far too many times the flimsy edges of the front cover have curled slightly I had to weigh it down with a heavy book to whip it back to shape. Two essays, which were indicated to be penned by Adam David, bookend the writings of Mona Lisa P. Cajucom, who was rumored to have killed herself. Footnotes in colloquialism-riddled Tagalog were interspersed with Cajucom’s found-poetry tracts. Whether or not Mona Lisa P. Cajucom existed in real life doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. What matters is that Repaso was eloquent in its recitation about the parts of our lives that happen in small rooms behind locked doors. Cajucom’s writings, which David claimed to have collected (and contextualized through his essays and annotations), consist of a series of rote, oftentimes optimistic depositions that begin with the word “here,” a powerful invocation that instructs the reader on how to view Cajucom—an eyewitness holding a bunch of snapshots she took with her omniscient camera, holding them up to an audience, and describing what those snapshots held. I really love Repaso, and I hope people will check it out. I love it because it lays bare our “hunger for a sort of emotional connection” even in times when we don’t really need one or even in times when we are contentedly out of tune with the rest of the world. Remember being cheerful while stuffed with 100 percent interior darkness—Repaso is more or less like that.”
Paolo Enrico Melendez
Remember the erstwhile anthology Fast Food Fiction Delivery I mentioned earlier? That’s where I first read a sample of Paolo Enrico Melendez’s fiction. I remembered his byline because his story was a stand-out in a pool of the anthologized 68 and was well worth the price of admission to that book. The story, “Early Reports of Mana,” was a take on the sacred profane and was well engineered at less than 500 words. The proposition: manna fell from the sky and its taste varied from person to person. The subtext: how the ensuing flavor occurred to an individual said a lot about that individual’s character. “Early Reports of Mana” felt like a sophisticated pretext for a run toward safety even as the jugular had been intentionally exposed to the blade. Too bad, the story is not available online for me to link to here.
Anyway, here’s an example of Melendez’s compressed fiction that can be read in full. “Out on the Far Dark Rim of the World” is a handiwork of a miniaturist whose ethics is defined by subtlety and restraint, dangling with incredible flourish the malice of ephemera and the mundane.
“There a line of fortune-tellers sat on short monobloc chairs, behind them vendors of small clothes for Sto. Niño icons, herbs and strange bottled brews, mysterious amulets, embossed with pidgin prayers, of the kind worn by Buen’s colleagues, misshapen candlesticks grotesque because recognizable as human. Two men dressed in robes, one white, the other maroon, preached salvation to his own indifferent half of the main plaza.”
Mia Tijam’s body of published writing is what I imagine a bright, maniacal wild card would leave in its wake. Inventive, unpredictable, proficient. Hers are stories swollen with myriad heresies furnished with an evil eye. “The Ascension of Our Lady Boy,” where a Pinoy gay narrator tells of bodily transformation woes and communion with orgy-bound farm chickens, is Tijam rolling in top form. “Waiting for Agua de Mayo” scores with measured emotional register, while “Talking to Juanito” shows how the skillful use of vernacular can add an ominous tinge to growing horror.
Christine V. Lao
These two Christine V. Lao stories, “From the Book of Names My Mother Did Not Give Me” and “A Girl’s Guide to Love in the Big City,” bring to mind the literary equivalent of an arpeggio. The constituent notes of a chord are played in a progression customized according to the desired degree of improvisation. In Lao’s artistic construction, lyrical vignettes take the place of constituent notes. The organic buildup makes for lovely composition overall, rough-hewn where it counts, where the text can use a little bit of edge.
“Every night, they make love. And after that, as she sleeps, he creeps up her heart to plant a garden. At first, she is amused by his compulsion to transform the arid organ into an oasis.”
Joseph F. Nacino
There was a time when I would not touch domestic realism—or any semblance thereof—even with a twelve-foot pole. That was before I read Daryll Delgado’s fiction. Her “The Other Woman Narrative,” in particular, engages as it bares its intricate form. There was also a time when I would join any call to deep-six stories about writing and the act of literary creation—or any variations thereof. That was before I read her “The Other Daughter.” Delgado’s adroit tackling of short-form fiction’s manifold possibilities makes me question my aesthetics. I realize that is a good thing.
Not included in this list are two important contemporary Filipino authors, Eliza Victoria and Dean Francis Alfar. Both are deservedly making strides in numerous major genre publications. Dean Francis Alfar delivers with “The Kite of Stars” and “Simon’s Replica,” while Eliza Victoria has this new amazing story “Queen Midnight.”
Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of eight books of fiction and poetry, including the short story collections Age of Blight, a Chicago Review of Books’ best books of 2016, and Butterfly Dream. Widely anthologized and published in magazines, she grew up and continues to live in rural southern Philippines.