Friday, September 03, 2004

finding the fantastic

I am a fantasist at heart.

I love the literature of the extraordinary, tales of wonder and stories that break the all-too tangible walls of reality. I love myths and legends, travelogues through uncharted territory, explorations into imagination and sorties beyond the known unknown. I like magic in all its forms, the possibility of the interference of gods, the intimation of things beyond stars, and denizens of trees and earth, wind and rain and fire. I enjoy best those stories that take me elsewhere, that speak in the language of dreams, that employ imagery both supernal and supernatural, that play etheric music or hint at cacophonous bazaar mutterings, that show me the possibilities in an empty wooden bowl or a dying mother's wish.

These are the kinds of stories I love to write most. And to a great extent, these are the stories I do write. But in the past decade or so, I ended up questioning the value of the kind of stories I like - not their intrinsic value, because the value of the fantastic is beyond question, but rather why a greater audience has yet to be found.

Let us skip the usual argument of taste and concede the fact that certain people will always like certain things (this is spurious and leads nowhere). Exposure to new forms of literature always carries the opportunity for someone new to fall through the magical trapdoor anyway.

If you look for the literature of the fantastic here in the Philippines, you will be dismayed. Wonder tales and speculative fiction are in very small numbers and still looked down upon as inferior (as if the strides of the past years in international publishing washed over the Philippines and left it untouched, the country snug under its invisible reflective/self-reflexive forcefield). The only the genre that permits or encourages the fantastic is Children's Fiction. This is wonderful, of course, but even this published mode enforces very short stories whose first priority seems to be the deliverance of an Aesopian moral (certainly not all, exceptions do exist).

In the non-Children's section (I hesitate to use the term "adult" because, well, why?), the pickings are even slimmer. In the past few years, Lucero's magic realist stories have livened up the dreary Filipino word-community, harkening back to Yuson's "Philippine Jungle Energy Cafe" of 1988. There are few other examples, and none of them are truly literature of the fantastic as I define the term - unashamedly magical, beyond lyricism and tenor and style.

Fantasy is the kiss of death. Mainstream Filipino publishers prefer almost anything else (something that will definitely sell or has the potential to sell). There is almost no market. And if ever there is interest from a publisher or a producer, it must morph to comply with the perceived saccharine taste of the masses, becoming so divorced from its original truth and beauty in order to accomodate trite and tired sensibilities.

One of the few places to find the fantastic is graphic literature, but even there, the specter of another nation threatens our four-color patrimony (and besides, grafiction needs to fight its own set of battles). Japanese manga has all but succeeded in eradicating the tradition of homegrown heroes.

To find the fantastic, we must create the fantastic. We must write it ourselves, develop it brick by enchanted brick. We must write powerful literature that unabashedly revels in wonder, infused with the culture of our imagination - which means being Filipino and, at the same time, surrendering that very same limiting notion - being more than Filipino, unleashing the Filipino of our imagination, divorcing and embracing the ideas of identity, nationhood and universality. We need to do magic.

Here in the Philippines, the ghetto for the fantastic still exists, its bleak walls lined with sad little candles fueled by hope, its courtyard populated with birds of fire whose plummage burn less brightly, and with duende that bitterly complain about the relentless rain, huddled under silent stranded ships whose sails were once kissed by the breath of gods.


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