Wednesday, April 11, 2007

free press award

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I can't tell you how delighted I am to have my story "Six from Downtown" win 3rd Prize at the 2007 Philippines Free Awards. I'm about as happy as when "Salamanca" won the Palanca Grand Prize for the Novel a couple of years ago.

The main reason is that this story is unabashedly speculative fiction and it competed in a tough field dominated by realist stories. If anything, the recognition by the awards-giving body shows me that spec fic can and should compete against whatever, because ultimately what matters is the story and not which genre it belongs to (and the money's nice too!).

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I was also proud to stand onstage next to my fellow winners, Tim Montes and Douglas Candano, because one of the things we share in common is Dumaguete Writers Workshop - and the lessons and guidance of National Artist Edith Tiempo. This is especially fitting because I wrote the story while I visited Dumaguete last year. Ian, this one's for you!


From "Six from Downtown"

Restaurant Row

Evenings at Shiro Shiro were usually a happy time for most of us. Except for me. Tonight I just sat there, listening to each of my friends relate all their current and prospective creative work (“For profit or for the soul”, as DM, the loudest and the most prolific of us, put it). As each person rattled off all their plans and schedules, I kept silent, knowing I was nowhere approaching my expected output as a member of our circle of writers and artists.

“I’m thinking of the male nude for my exhibit, but very harshly lit,” Tony said, passing a handful of Polaroids around. “No shadows, no textures, no mystique. I think I can pull it off. I’m thinking of getting really old guys, grandfathers, you know, people like that. Hairless, wrinkly. I’ll get them drunk or high and give them a fistful of razors. I’m thinking about what lies beneath all of us – or them, in this case.”

It was not a matter of whether or not I had ideas. I did have them, I recall finding a few quite exciting, perhaps one or two even astounding in their potential. But they remained pure ideas, unexpressed, as I permitted myself to be mired down by the mundane circumstances of my life. Normally, even the humdrum everyday would be a source for me to mine and craft, set down into words, but I’ve been unable to pursue my thoughts to their multi-path endings, unable to commit the time and effort to actually create. The very thought of writing immediately drained me before I even started.

“Of course, all the thirteen stories will interconnect and are all true – I researched the police files myself,” Susan was explaining, a little too loudly as usual. “It’s all about the intertextuality of sexuality.” She was telling the group about her book deal and the risks she was undertaking, pushing her personal literary agenda when all that the publisher wanted were short romances in Filipino. “Without risk, we cannot create,” she said, pausing for dramatic effect. “It would just be empty fireworks. I’m setting the themed collection in a school for the blind. The challenge is to articulate what these characters cannot see – the onrush of heartbreak. Imagine these kids groping each other, fucking around while they make their stupid paper no one buys.”

Her words reminded me how my own thoughts came in staccato bursts, like pyrotechnics that rose and flared, abruptly lighting my consciousness before just as quickly fading into the quiet of my mind. The longest piece I’d had written in recent memory was a fractured poem of three verses in first person with no imagery whatsoever. When I was finished I knew I was guilty of setting monologues as prose poems with no hope of truly creating anything; just wanting to write something, anything, to have something to show the others, to burn away time.

“You know those old ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books,” Andrew asked, gesturing to the group. “You know, you make choices and get different endings and shit? Remember how they could have been so cool? Well, I’m writing one on my blog, hyperlinked and all, so there’s an actual experience of moving away once a choice has been, you know, made. I’m working out linking it to this sad, sad blog I hacked. There’s this woman who’s been abandoned by her husband, and everything she writes is just pathetically exquisite. She exposes everything. She thinks he left her because she’s fat and ugly, and she’s absolutely right. She has a picture and, oh man! One of the links goes directly to her– and she won’t know.” His idea made most of the group laugh and sit up as they contributed memories of the old book series.

“She’s her own tragedy,” Marge giggled.

“That sounds great,” DM said, bestowing a dazzling smile of approval upon Andrew. “Finish it and we’ll think about how to protect it from plagiarists. I like the conceit applied to the web, but I don’t trust the assholes online.”

When it was my turn to speak, I just coughed twice and proceeded to be studiously engrossed with my cell phone, letting the painful moment of anticipated response pass by in bullet-time, before Marge, the purple-haired poet next to me, saved me from further embarrassment.

As I listened to her announce the publication of yet another of her collections of angry-young-woman-who-makes-the-mistake-of-falling-in-love-with-her-mother poetry, I thought about how my own ideas and plans just sat in the still corners of my mind, perfectly transfixed, like the plastic displays of menu items in the Japanese restaurant that DM insisted upon so he could light up and smoke his noxious clove cigarettes.

“So, in the end, my collection says, in a nutshell, ‘I have nothing more to say to you, Mama – go find someone else to go down on you.” Marge sat back, exhausted by her own vitriol.

“I love it,” Susan said, raising her glass of Strong Ice to Marge before turning to look at me. “What about you, Trish? I didn’t hear what you’re up to.”

“This and that,” I muttered. “Nothing much.”

“I’m sure you have something,” DM said with a small frown. “What happened to the novel you’re writing, the one about Spanish friars in Cebu?”

“I have something cooking,” I replied. “I have the words.”

“You’re just being lazy, Trish,” DM said with an exaggerated frown.

“Whatever,” I said. I composed a text message and sent it to myself.

Get out get out get out

When the message arrived, triggering the beep of my cell phone seconds later, I stood up, excused myself and drove back to my house.

I headed directly to the fridge. I ignored the giant candy-shaped aluminum foil that contained the remains of last year’s aborted writing and instead took one of the baby blue tupperwares, peeled open the cover and looked at all the words I’d been cutting out from various books, newspapers and magazines for past several months.

In a clean skillet, I tossed the words in, added a little water and soy sauce, twisted the heat to low, waited for the text to simmer and hoped for the best.

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