Monday, December 31

On self-sufficiency

By now I've come to terms with how my life had been, is, and will be a matter of creating for myself a clearing in w/c I can write. There is nothing artsy-sentimental about this; it is purely logistics. When I was in my mid-twenties, I quit a newspaper job to do freelance work and start an MA. Those days and years I'd always remember for the endless writing, the untold hours spent poring over drafts and reading and sleeping in my tiny bed surrounded by books. I was always working on a short story or other, and I didn't even realize that for all my meager resources and not-so-meager doubts and insecurities I managed to build a solid, numinous routine around writing fiction.

But at the same time I knew even then that what I was doing was capricious, quixotic, and ultimately unsustainable, that it was a childish act of refusal to participate in the world of eight-to-fives and NBI clearances and company Christmas parties. When I turned thirty, I returned to the formal workforce, w/c, looking back, coincided w/ the completion of the first draft of what I had decided was to be my first book. I could exhale, I thought: a provisional surrender (I was also fresh off a residency in India where I learned yoga so I was v. zen and v. adept at exhaling). And at this point the manuscript only needed some sprucing up and a few connecting chapters, w/c I was able to do during a couple of longish breaks.

But soon I realized that teaching, w/c I love otherwise, consumed one's headspace w/ a broad voraciousness I didn't quite expect. And because I wanted to write another novel (a "proper" one! I can almost hear), I knew there was room in my lazy millennial brain for only one of the two. When my department encouraged people to go do something else for the next couple of years because there were fewer units to go around, I knew it was a good time as any to start a PhD (also, Duterte was turning out to be that kind of president). Less than a year later I was in downtown Adelaide and telling the guy at Vodafone that I was studying to write fiction, to w/c he heartily replied, 'Really? Don't you just make stuff up?'

Yep, I thought, isn't that wonderful? On the little days when I miss my little life, I find myself imagining that un-lived path, w/c is easier because of social media. In group chats and timelines, friends would talk about meeting up at Habanero at 7PM and complain about checking papers and post photos of their Wai Ying congee. There is a version of reality in w/c I didn't leave Manila, and I sense its intrusion during random moments, conjured innocently by the whiff of carbon monoxide from an old bus, the sodden crunch of lumpia in sweet-and-sour dip, an overheard kwentuhan in Tagalog. None of my dreams take place in Australia, and it feels like a part of me, not least my "lost or unquiet soul" (Mojares), continues to roam around Cubao or Katipunan or Ortigas. The tragedy then: I am gifted three years to write a novel (and a research monograph), but those years cannot coincide w/ my life, at least not to the granular, fulsome extent that I preferred.

The lifelong struggle to carve out pockets of time and resources and mental space for writing is of course no more and no less than an avatar for the similarly lifelong quest toward composure and self-sufficiency. Composure amid the terrors of our days and self-sufficiency from the often alienating, incapacitating institutions through and against w/c we navigate. In writing as in life. I used to fancy myself marginally heroic or subversive in choosing to live in this manner, but now, close to the start of my Jesus year and w/ some freedom to write, I am teaching myself to avoid evaluative adjectives. So the impulse hardens into nature. So the divergence becomes the main path. In writing as in life.

Saturday, January 6

On autonomy

A comforting thought I always carry is that Baguio City is four hours away. The usual calm that often accompanied the stretch between Christmas and new year didn't materialize this year--odd all told, for how shamefully good the year was--and the restlessness had to be placated by, well, movement.

How did that awful, awful line from The Hand of the Enemy go? The tremor comes from coming so close to happiness? I think my favorite moment of 2017 was late one Tuesday when I read the manuscript of The Quiet Ones just before it went to press, and I realized, with absolute relief, that I still like it. It was still decent, I thought, a book I can still stand behind. Years of obsessing about it didn't completely dampen my enthusiasm for the thing.

Talks of autonomy and artistic production closed the year hereabouts, and that early October morning came to mind when I tried to think about my own notions of (artistic) independence. I felt completely, happily alone at that moment, happily sovereign, my sense of self momentarily shored up by the familiar god-like satisfaction of having created something I (self-reflexively) appreciate. Then I remembered that the first words from RCL when I told her about Palanca were, "Wow, and you did it on your own, without a patron." That this had to be said, of course, already reveals the political dimension of the win, in particular the existence of a system under/against which Filipino writers produce, which we all navigate, acts of resistance notwithstanding.

Which is why when I saw the book and all its heft (and beautiful design) for the first time, it really didn't occasion the sort of chest-beating euphoria that it might have elicited from a younger version of myself. Of course I was happy. Of course. But for the better part of my adult life I had derived the entirety of my livelihood from writing, from annual reports to press releases and AVP scripts. Writing had always been labor to me, this book a product, suffused, to be sure, with all the amorphous investments of experience and politics and ideas but a product nonetheless. To unnecessarily fetishize it is to succumb to the logic of capital. In addition, my participation in the literary ecosystem here and, marginally, abroad--enthusiastically in my youth and with reservations today--have all but demystified literary production, mine included and specially. 

For how to assert sovereignty when portions of the work underwent (brutal) workshoping from RCL, or edits from an Australian editor, when it bears the imprimatur of the Palanca awards (the head judge a former teacher; another, a colleague whom I first met at a workshop), when my connections made possible blurbs from GA and JT, advance reviews in newspapers? How to insist on autonomy when I wrote a big chunk of the book in the five years that I was a freelance writer, something I could do because of contacts and networks (JD among them) and a marketable skill I acquired from my state-funded education, which also, come to mention it, made possible whatever virtues the writing itself demonstrates--the comfort in the language, the formal skill, the political insights? How to claim isolation when the very act of writing in English, in a country like the Philippines, is already a politically exclusionary decision?

Do these diminish artistic agency? Do they disempower? Perhaps they should. To valorize the autonomy of the writer is to affirm the bankrupt notion of the individual as free, a most dangerously comforting proposition. And like people, the ideas converse, too, and that GA wrote the blurb for the book was heartening because it gestures toward this conversation (contrary, I hope, to the arbitrary, if not incestuous blurbing business that I've observed dominates local books). The web thus is endlessly intricate, and any critical stance against it necessitates a thorough accounting of one's embeddedness in it, even as one flails and flails to break free. Maybe that's a provisional act of agency one could realistically aspire for in the meantime.