Wednesday, May 31, 2006


It is absurdly muggy. At night, the air so thick I feel like I'm drowning - and to a certain extent, I am, since we live without an airconditioner (though sometimes I am sorely tempted to just swallow a higher electric bill). It is a heat that dulls thought and dims the senses.

I can't wait for the rains, the real rains - not these flash lightning storms we've had - to arrive. I need the cool air and long for the scent of rain.

In a couple of weeks, I'm taking the office crew out to some resort for a well-deserved bit of R&R. It's actually their idea, not mine, since I'm the second to the last person who'd every suggest hanging out at a beach to relax (the last person is Nikki) - unless there is a fantastic resort with room service and broadband attached to it. Still, it should be enjoyable. There is one Alfar who loves the sand and the sea, and Sage has made plans to capture starfish.

vignette: in remedios

Some things are severed slowly over the course of days, weeks, months and years. There is nothing dramatic, no identifiable turning point that you can point to and say “There. That’s where everything went wrong”. Instead, there is this terrible dawning of insight, a dim epiphany that things are no longer as they were; that the person who you once cared for and believed cared for you no longer feels the same way; that everything that was once certain and true and irrefutable is now impossibly grey and has the consistency of smoke – as if everything that mattered was gathered surreptitiously, bit by bit so no one notices, then set fire to, and all you can see is are the ashes in the air. You subject yourself to a barrage of questions beginning with: “Was it me?” and “What did I do or not do?”. And of course there are no answers.

In Remedios, some of those who are left behind wear grey. When they begin to suspect that a leavetaking has taken place without consultation, explanation or rationale, they come to Mr. Diaz’s shop on Reyes St. where everything for sale is grey and buy an article of clothing from the old man – a shawl, a sash, a hat, a blouse, a shirt, a tie, a pair of socks. The store is almost always full of people, shuffling around, picking things up, trying them on, looking in the full length mirror at themselves from head to toe, seeing if grey suits them which it invariably does.

Others left behind take to wearing beaded bracelets, thin and fine black leather straps with a small single object strung through. They buy the strings at Mrs. Ruiz’s embroidery store but provide their own personal item of memory: some carry miniaturized picture frames with blurry snapshots; some use pendants invested with memories; some have metal dog tags etched with someone’s name.

And there are those who eschew grey attire or bracelets and walk the streets of Remedios like ghosts, unable or unwilling to sublimate the pain of the long goodbyes in any other form. They can be seen on any given day, tracing the paths they once walked with friends and lovers, counting each step in silence, their lips forming the numbers. They are convinced that when they reach a certain digit they will at last understand exactly why they were left behind and perhaps finally come to accept their solitude.

The most famous ghost of Remedios is a woman named Anna Suarez. Everyday she describes the perimeter of her neighborhood with her feet, beginning just before dawn at the gates of her house, down the street to the Ramos Park where she goes in circles around the playground ignoring and mostly ignored by the homeless people who live there, then across town to St. Francis Elementary School which she haunts in a perfect square pattern, stopping only to watch the children eat during lunchtime. That is when she unfolds the napkin that contains her lunch, a thin sandwich or dried fish with rice, there on the balding grass next to the wire fence. When the bell rings, she stands up to continue her routine, walking down the busy main street, oblivious to the delighted tourists who take pictures of her, with her, next to her. They smile as they pose beside her as she walks, while one of their companions takes the shot. Her final stop, where she spends the rest of the day, is the Church of the Holy Virgin. There, outside one of the side chapels, she stands until the sun goes down, counting numbers over and over again quietly.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


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Of course I love watching plays. As a playwright, I love the nuance of dialogue and scenes and am always interested to see how another playwright wrestled and dealt with certain problematics. And I'm delighted to have tickets for John Patrick Shanley's "Doubt", which won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Best Drama, as well as sweeping the Tony, NY Drama Critics Circle, Drama Desk, Outer Critics & Drama League Awards for Best Play.

Nikki and I are watching on Saturday, at the RCBC in Makati.

On a side note, it stars Cherie Gil - a fine actress with whom I have an oddly checkered history, beginning with her calling me a bastard at Megamall and culminating with me calling her a bitch at an embassy function. But that is a story for another day.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

i *heart* x-men

When I visited my father in Tacoma, Washington, I was eleven years old and Mount St. Helens had just erupted. But there were three things I was more excited about: being with the man I knew only through pictures and letters; snow; and finding the missing issues of Chris Claremont and John Byrne's "Dark Phoenix Saga" in the Uncanny X-Men (culminating with Jean Grey's tragic felodise in the Blue Area of moon, under the eyes of the Watcher, while the rest of the team battled the Shi'ar Imperial Guard).

Papa looked just like his pictures, only older, and I wrestled with my fear of meeting his American wife and my half-siblings. Back then, I hadn't fully developed my Dune-like mantra on how to handle fear, so fearful I was to the point where I almost ruined my visit myself. Part of me felt that as my father's oldest (and original) offspring I deserved his full attention, accumulated through the years of his absence and sweetened by my interpretations of his occasional letters. But though I know he tried to be the missing father of many years compressed in the span of a few weeks, the realities of our own lives' trajectories could never be in accord with my magnificent fantasy of how our reunion would be. I had imagined that, upon seeing me, he'd experience an epiphany, a Damascus moment so pure and profound, that he'd abandon his US family and return to Mama and me, book us flights back to Manila, and pick up our lives as if the entire divorce and separation was just a blip, a continuity error, and we'd live happily ever after. Instead, by the third day, I was calling my mother in New York, struggling not to cry over the phone as I begged her to give me a ticket to join her there with her friends as they made a circuit of the current Broadway shows.

And I found the snow too wet and cold, not at all like the soft snowflakes of my imagination, presenting their unique patterns as they fell deliciously on my tongue, magically whole in the palm of my hand. It was just after winter and Papa took me to a mountain where everything was greyish white and bitter. Bundled up in borrowed warmth (for the sole windbreaker I brought along from Manila proved utterly ineffective), I tried to make a snow angel and caught a cold instead.

But my entire trip was salvaged when Papa, frustrated that I could not enjoy a single thing (including a visit to a frozen beach), asked me if there was any place I'd like to visit, anywhere he could take me to make me smile. Breaking out of my taciturn persona I immediately answered: "A comic store, please".

We drove to Seattle, just him and me. It was a weekday. His wife had work and my siblings had school. We exchanged the barest of words along the way. I realized that I had no idea who he was and I think he felt the same way. Normally talkactive, during that time with him I was practically mute.

I forget the name of the comic book store he took me to, but I remember how huge it was, like an impossible library covered wall-to-wall with comics, new and old, with the back issues arranged in order of titles in boxes arrayed on the floor, with special issues protected by see-through sleeves displayed on racks and shelves.

I had found my personal heaven.

Seeing me frozen, Papa said, "Go ahead. Get what you want. I'll wait in the car." Normally, I would have interpreted those words as a frank dismissal, evidence of his non-interest. But back then, it was a wondrous gift, a chance for me to induldge in four-color joy.

When his patience expired after two hours of waiting in the car, Papa came back into the store to take me home. He found me surrounded by piles of comics I longed for, that I had imagined impossibly ordering by mail from Manila.

"Okay, Deanbo," he said, squatting beside me. "Which one do you want?"

I looked to him. "Can I have a few, please?"

In that moment, he realized he had me. "Sure. And we'll go for some sourdough pizza, okay?"

Breathless with gratitude, I selected around ten comics and handed them to him. He picked himself up, walked to the counter and paid for them.

At the pizza place, I ignored the biting winds as we sat outside and held on to the brown paper bag that contained inestimable treasure. When the food arrived and we were served the most gigantic and thickest pizza slicest I've ever seen in my life, he asked me about my mother, how she was, what was going with her life, how I was, how school was, what I'd like to be when I grow up, was I happy.

I found the exchange of words difficult at first because nothing had truly changed between us since I arrived. But glacing down at my bag of comics, I thought of the conversation as a kind of payment for them, since I had little money myself, and soon was betrayed by my own nature, and finally made the acquaintance of the man who divorced not only my mother but me as well.

Later that night, in the the guest bedroom that was temperature controlled to Philippine standards of comfort, I looked at my haul, open my mint copy of Uncanny X-men #137, and lost myself in the drama of the Blue Area of moon.

Twenty six years later, I'm watching Jean Grey morph into the Dark Phoenix in a movie theatre with my friends. Beside me, my wife Nikki gasps at the same moments I do, applauding without shame. It was not the comics I knew - the was no moon, instead there was Alcatraz Island - but it was still true. I'm loving every frame of it - Scott, Logan, Kitty, Piotr, Ororo, Bobby, Hank, Rogue, Callisto, the Marauders, and of course, Jean Grey, the Dark Phoenix.

I'm eleven years old again, lost in the story of love and hope.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

prepping the personal antho, and then some

One of the things I'd like to do this year is release a collection of my short fiction. I've entered talks with my publisher who has given it the go signal - pending approval by the board of directors for content, etc., of course. I honestly don't think any of my stories are objectionable (at least I haven't been told so by any of my readers) so there's a pretty good chance it will be published (if not, then it's shop-the-manuscript-around time). A bigger consideration for me is time. My publisher knows me well: "We know how you like to move quickly", she wrote me. "But there is a process we have to follow". Which is both true - I do like to move fast, and they do have a way of doing thing which takes months and months.

So if they accept my collection, the book will not be out this year (it took around 7 months for Salamanca to be published, from submission for consideration to the book launch). Unless I find another publisher, say Anvil. Who most likely will have the same time table (and probably even longer, given the fact that Karina Bolasco publishes more books). Or publish it myself (but not under the Kestrel publishing house, but more on that interesting tidbit in a month or two, so as not to jinx the thing in incubation).

So basically, one way or the other, the book will come out late this year or sometime next year. Perhaps it is better to time it next year, so at least I can say I have a new book next year, haha.

Deciding what to put in was easer than I thought. For one thing, I don't have a gazillion stories in inventory. I lost several early ones ("Spark", "The Last Mermaid Story", "The Secret Measure", "Magan & Balo") that I cannot recreate. National Midweek, the magazine that published them in the early 90s, has folded, and through a series of computer crashes, the digital files were lost. Which really makes me sad because I think at least one of them was good - "Spark: The Sad and Strange Tale of Sister Maria Dolores, the Nun who Exploded", which won a literary competition while I was an undergrad at UP.

Ian had a fantastic insight - he asked me if I had submitted those missing stories to the Dumaguete Writers Workshop as part of the fellowship requirements when I attended in 1992. I think I did, so I investigated and got the ball rolling. If "Spark" is there, I will be so happy.

Here's my tentative list for my antho:

"The Kite of Stars (L’Aquilone du Estrellas)" - Very special since it opened doors for me internationally with Strange Horizons and The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror antho.

"Terminos" - part of Rabid Transit: Menagerie, nominated for a Spectrum Award, and according to Jeffrey Ford: "There was a good deal of interest in your story "Terminos" when we were reading for the Fountain Award" (given annually by the Speculative Literature Foundation). I didn't even know that my story was being considered (and am frankly stunned that it was read by people like Gwenda Bond, Carol Emshwiller, James Patrick Kelly, Mary Anne Mohanra, and of course, Jeff.

"Six from Downtown" - my latest story, with horror and my usual stuff.

"Saturdays with Fray Villalobos" - will appear first (I hope!) in Cecilia Brainard's food themed antho, Escabeche for the Soul.

"The Maiden & The Crocodile" - recently appeared in Story Philippines.

"Dragon Eyes"- will appear in Vin Simbulan's antho A Time for Dragons.

"How Rosang Taba Won A Race" - previously unpublished. Or I may use instead the children's literature version, "Rosang Taba". We'll see.

"Gumamela" - first published as "Hindi Ako Gumamela (I am not Fringed Hibiscus)" in ab ovo.

"Into the Morning" - unpublished spider characters story.

"Four-Letter Words" - first published in Manual magazine.

"Yuletide Notes" - unpublished.

"The Middle Prince" - unpublished.

"Hollow Girl: A Romance" - first published in Latitude: Writing from the Philippines and Scotland, and as graphic fiction in Siglo: Passion (illustrated by Jeremy Arambulo).

+ one more story, yet to be completed, whatever it is. Maybe horror, I don't know.

There. That covers my short fiction from 2003 to current. It includes all my best attempts at speculative fiction plus some prizewinners.

Meanwhile, in the "bite off more than I can chew" section, I've more or less agreed to write a modern fantasy novella (around 30-35k words) before June 15th. I know, I know, madness indeed. The horrible thing is that, as of this moment, I have no idea what it is about (except that I call it "spec chick"). Can I do it? Sheesh. I really don't know, but you know me, I will try anyway.

Bahala na.

And now... off to watch X-men 3! Don't disappoint the comic geek in me, Dark Phoenix!

Thursday, May 25, 2006

home for a story

In the blurry of haze of intermittent internet connections, calling clients and many things that need to be written, managed, coordinated, deliberated, finalized, sent out and somehow made sense of (my partner's wife gave birth last night and I'm the sole authority at the office for the next several days), I got a message that made my day.

"Six from Downtown", the new story I wrote in Dumaguete, will be published in the Philippines Free Press in the next 3-4 weeks.


Wednesday, May 24, 2006

catching up on longform reading

While it's true that I read most of the time (while eating, smoking, drinking, crapping, resting, relaxing, watching TV, waiting), most of what I read is what is immediately at hand, which is usually short form - short fiction, comics, news magazines, genre mags, shampoo bottles.

When I choose to read novels, I'm a bit more picky since I have time issues (although it must be said that once in a blue moon a novel comes along, that begun at bedtime, refuses to be put down until the sun comes up the next day). I love narrative space of novels, all the page-real estate that can be used for details, textures, descriptions, extended romps through characters' mindscapes, ruminations on things like history, time, memory, loss and love. With a juicy, well-written novel, I like to take my time, savoring the words that fire up my imagination. I read and reread dialogue (sometimes aloud - that's the playwright in me) and follow the trajectories of emotion.

On my night table:

For my lit'ry diet, various books by José Saramago (to read and reread the kilometric paragraphs): Baltasar and Blimunda, The History of the Siege of Lisbon, The Stone Raft, All the Names. Looking for a good copy of Blindness. Saramago takes a lot of getting used to (I came to him late). It's like needing to have a new readerly framework, which works out just fine.

One of the several books I got from Dumaguete is Edith Tiempo's first novel from 1978 (oh, oh, I was 9 years old!), A Blade of Fern. I wanted to get her most recent ones like One, Tilting Leaves or The Builder , but decided to read our National Artist chronologically.

For spec fic, The Girl in the Glass by Jeffrey Ford - i'm a big fan of Jeff's short fiction but found his early novels a bit lacking towards the ending. I especially enjoyed The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque for the language and the imaginative bits. And though it's not longform, Kelly Link's Magic for Beginners (two stories left). I enjoyed "Stone Animals" and the title story - some of the others I'd read previously in my other anthos. And while I'm digressing anyway, go and find a copy of Black Juice by Margo Lanagan, which contains some of the most amazing spec fic around - especially one of my all time favorites, "Singing My Sister Down". And she'll have a new collection, Red Spikes, out in Australia before Christmas (hmmm... how do I get a copy of that?).

As for non-fiction, I got myself the uber-thick The Classical World: An Epic History from Homer to Hadrian by Robin Lane Fox. I love history and though I've long made an effort to avoid the usual Greco-Roman cultural studies, I could not resist this mammoth hardcover. It is both erudite and acccessible, and I enjoy the way Fox has structured his historical analysis. Apart from my interest in things past, there is much here that new fiction can be based on. Everyone should read gargantuan history books. Everyone. Seriously.

After I get through these (but not the history book, which I intend to nibble at or bite from time to time), there's still the pile of other books I've been buying and putting on the bookshelves outside the bedroom.

From time to time, I ask writer and editor friends for their reading recos, which I then proceed to source:

Umbrella Country by Bino Realuyo (courtesy of Maricor Baytion). Bino was born in Manila but raised in NYC. How I envy Raindancer who just got herself a copy of Bino's latest book.
Women of Sand by Miral el Tahawi (courtesy of Marge Evasco)
My Travels Around the World by Nawal el-Saadawi (courtesy of Susan Lara)

I'll blog about those when I get to read them (book buying is a disease and I am a delirously willing victim).

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

the hinirang novel?

Three years ago, I thought about writing a novel set in Hinirang - the reimagined Spanish-Era Philippines. I went as far as jotting down notes and throwing plot elements against a wall to see what looked interesting. These are what remained stuck on the walls of mind after so long:

One of the lost Tres Hermanas (the three divine sisters worshipped by the Ispancialo conquerors);
the manculam Ai'ai'sin and her devastating riddles;
a group of explorers who stumble into the complex machinations of the Circulo Ultima;
a Tiq'barang detective;
and the last adventure of Huseng Langit, the Giant Slayer of the North.

With Salamanca under my belt, I'm more confident now of writing something like this. Unabashed wonder and adventure and magic (which, of course, is called salamanca). I have a scene with airships battling over Taal Volcano...

So, when? In bits in pieces, I think. Until I can allocate a goodly amount of time, it will have to take its place in the totem pole of things. And right now, fiction-wise, the short stories are more clamorous, so demanding. And there might be a different novel requirement in the next couple of months - so we'll see.

But the best part, the kicker, is: this looks like fun.

fiction: terminos (excerpt)

By Dean Francis Alfar

Mr. Henares thinks about time

From the moment he opened his eyes in the morning to the instant before he fell asleep alone at night, Mr. Henares thought only about time.

He reflected about how time slowed down when he was engaged in an unpleasant activity, such as dyeing his thinning grey hair over the broken antique basin installed by his son-in-law Alvaro in his blue-tiled bathroom; and how time went faster during the rare instances when he felt happy, such as when his brace of grandchildren came for the cold weather holidays, their hypnotic music invariably loud and invigorating.

Mr. Henares recalled days when time did not move at all: waking up one morning convinced that it was the exact same day as the day before, watching the red display of his tableside clock blinking fruitlessly. The experience of the twin miércoles was to be repeated thrice more, adding jueves, viernes and sábado to his list of repeating days. He endured the repeated conversations and graceless routines, read the same stories in the newspapers and watched the same interviews on television.

Once, when he was a much younger man, Mr. Henares went back in time. The incident caught him completely unaware – he realized he was walking backwards and thinking thoughts in reverse. This unfortunate event flustered him so much that when it was suddenly over, he broke down in tears and resolved never to travel back in time if he could help it.

One morning Mr. Henares thought about the future, methodically spooning sweetsop into his mouth and spitting out the seeds into a cup. He sat at the breakfast alcove of his house that adjoined his little shop and squinted at the sun outside the windows.

“The future is always happening,” he said to the empty kitchen. “If it is always happening, then it is, in fact, the present; and any instances of the future having occurred are, in fact, the past. “

Mr. Henares stood up, wiped sweetsop juice from his chin, washed his hands, crossed the connecting corridor and went about opening his shop for the day.

Mr. Henares makes some sales

His first visitors were a trio of young men, all sporting nose rings and dressed in last year’s affectation of jeans and tulle.

“Vueño arao, Mr. Henares,” the thinnest one said, removing his Pepsi-blue hat as he entered the shop.

“Good morning,” Mr. Henares replied. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”

“We would like to sell,” the stoutest one replied, wiping beads of perspiration from his forehead with a swipe of a ruffled sleeve. “We’ve been waiting for you to open.”

“Ah,” the old merchant said, “And what do you have for me?”

“We have time to kill,” the tallest one told him, offering his hands, palms up. He looked at Mr. Henares with half-lidded eyes.

Mr. Henares shook his head. “You understand, of course, that rates have really gone down. With the new teatros and entretenimientos, people are finding things to occupy themselves with.”

“Certainly, Mr. Henares,” the stoutest one replied. “We will take what you will offer. You are the fairest merchant in all of Ciudad Manila.”

Mr. Henares brought out his tools, brass and glass and wood, and extracted the precise amount of time each young man wanted to sell. They waited patiently as he labeled each vial, heads tilted to the mellow bossa nova tracks that emanated from a pair of speakers from behind the counter. When he had finished putting everything away, he gave them their payment, wrapped in blue encaje.

The three young men opened the package then and there, much to the discomfort of Mr. Henares. The tallest one took out the Planet Hollywood shot glass and read aloud what was written around the logo, as his two companions unabashedly held hands and closed their eyes.

Silence is foolish if we are wise, and wise if we are foolish

By early evening, Mr. Henares had completed four more transactions.

A young mother, fresh from the provinces, who sold all her memories of childhood: Mr. Henares’s payment was etched on a Flores bandalore, the inscription set deep in the yo-yo’s polished wooden rim.

A drop hollows out a stone

A pair of lovers, who entered his store and left it hand-in-hand, traded in five separate occasions of romance: when they first knew they were in love, when they first kissed, when they first made love, when they first reconciled, and when they decided to stay together for as long as they could, despite all inconvenience, difficulty or portent. Mr. Henares gave them, in exchange, words written on yellowed Badtz Maru stationery, sweat and ink staining the image of the little black Japanese penguin.

Night follows day

A bored widow was next, bartering away two years of future solitude. “I’m certain someone will want that,” she said wryly, “I certainly don’t.” Mr. Henares gave her a polished citrine carved into the form of a tiny fluted flower with even smaller engraved words.

We do not care of what we have, but we cry when it is lost

The widow sniffed, “True, true,” and asked if she could purchase some romance. Mr. Henares offered her the vials he obtained from the lovers earlier. She took two and stepped out into the humidity.

The fourth customer was a proud-looking soldier, the buttons on his dress uniform shiny and golden. “My maternal grandaunt told me that I would lose my right arm in war across the sea. If it must be so, then I’d like to sell the time of actual loss and recovery.”

Mr.Henares studied the man’s resigned face and offered him, in exchange for his future pain, words woven in sawali.

An empty barrel makes the greatest sound

Mr. Henares prepares for bed

As he closed the shop, he reflected on how time’s ebb and flow meant different things to different people. He once had a customer, a dark-skinned young man from Cabarroquis, who protested against his good fortune in the game of love.

“Everyone I meet wants me,” the dark-eyed man sighed in Mr. Henares’ bed. “Everyone wants to devour me. I never have time for myself. I am certain that even you will soon speak to me of love.”

Mr. Henares had not really been listening to him then, but was instead enraptured by the young man’s skin, marveling at the game of hide-and-seek the candlelight and shadows played upon it. It was only much later when he remembered the words the man spoke.

As he prepared his frugal dinner of salted fish and boiled aubergine, Mr. Henares thought about how some people believed in time as a panacea for all hurt, all pain, all woes.

A pair of sisters, veiled and somber, once asked him if he had thirty years of uninterrupted time for sale. He sadly told them he did not, that no one had ever sold him a block of personal time greater than a handful of years. But inwardly, he cringed at the notion that there were people who believed in a blessed future, guaranteed happiness by imbibing his vials or selling their sorrow, whether past or yet-to-come.

He felt too old to believe in what he sold.

Before going to bed in the house that adjoined his shop, Mr. Henares checked on his trading stock, arranging various items containing words, phrases and maxims. Behind a shelf, almost hidden from his eyesight, he found a faded adarna plume etched with

Vision is the art of seeing things invisible

and a handkerchief embroidered with

What we see depends on what we look for

That night, as he stripped his clothes and slipped into bed, Mr. Henares thought about how time, whether bought or sold or unsold, robbed everyone of everything in the end. He chuckled at himself, surprised by his cynical perspective, scratched at a sore spot on his spotted arms, and went to sleep, thinking about time.

the very very very end

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For storytime last night, Sage selected four Bible stories. As we ended the one about Noah's Ark, with the dove coming back with a green leaf in its beak and creation of the rainbow as God's promise never to drown the earth again, Sage interrupted my narrative.

SAGE: Wait, wait, Dad.

ME: What, sweetie? Do you want me to go back?

SAGE: No. I want to know the ending.

ME: This is the ending.

SAGE: No, Dad. The real ending.

ME: This is the real ending. Noah and his family and all the animals survived and the world started fresh.

SAGE: (exasperated sigh) That's not the ending, Dad.

ME: (points to page) But it is, see? There's the rainbow, there's Noah, there's his family, and look, there are all the animals. Everyone's happy.

SAGE: Dad... The ending...

ME: I'm sorry, but what do you mean?

SAGE: (grimaces) I want to know... I want to ask...

ME: Go on.

SAGE: Dad, in the end, does Noah die? Do all the animals die?

ME: No, no. See? Everyone's happy. The water's gone. They have the rainbow and entire earth.

SAGE: No, Dad. In the very very very end.

ME: The very very very end?

SAGE: Yes.

(A pause.)

ME: Well, then yes, in the very very very end, everyone dies. But not in this story.

SAGE: See? So everyone dies.

ME: But not just yet. Not in this story. And actually, did you know that God took Noah and another guy named Enoch away so they didn't have to-

SAGE: Dad. Next story, please.

ME: Okay, but do you understand that stories can end at different places, especially with people not dead?

SAGE: Of course, Dad. I just wanted to know if they die at the very very very end.

I looked at my four year-old and realized how finely her mind worked. I don't recall ever asking my parents anything like that. I was one to accept the story whole-hog, without questions, basking in the wonder of it all. Perhaps it is just a father reading too much into a conversation, but this isn't the first time Sage and I have had talks like this.

Later that night, I had a hard time sleeping. Floating in my head were hazy elements of a story, something about the very very very end. When I did fall asleep, I woke up a couple of hours later in the darkness, feeling quite sad, weighed down heavily by the certainty of endings.

I got up and smoked a cigarette and I remember thinking how, yes, it is true that at the end of things we all die; but how wonderful it is to be able to choose when to end smaller stories - whether in fiction or in real life. It's a matter of choice and perspective, after all.

Friday, May 19, 2006

shut up and live

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L to R: Karina Bolasco of Anvil, Butch Dalisay, Gill Westaway of British Council, Sarge Lacuesta, Dean Francis Alfar and Luis Katigbak at the launch for Latitude: Writing from the Philippines and Scotland.

The best thing about being in an antho is reading it (after all the back and forths of submissions and editing, the long wait for printing, the launch event) and seeing what everyone else is writing. In this case, I was happy to read stories from my contemporaries on the other side of the world (and try to figure out some mystifying author bios). But even better, striking closer to home, is reading the work of the 7 other Filipinos (Butch, Menchu Aquino-Sarmiento, Bing Sitoy, Maria Fres-Felix, Sarge, Luis and Krip). A big source of happiness for me was having my spec fic story smack dab in the middle of all the pinoy realism.

The best story there was Bing's "Shut Up and Live!", written in the domestic realist narrative mode. It is heavy and powerful and true, about how hope and helplessness and anger crash together within the spaces of lives, often repeating history. And how can I not admire a story that includes the "Bacolod Sex Scandal"?

This story won the Palanca last year (Bing also won for the Essay), and it's easy to see why.

Bing is currently taking MA courses at Roskilde University in Denmark. In our exchange of emails, she posed questions that required kilometric responses from me - tackling speculative fiction, writing cliques, blog stalkers, how we'd sight each other at various Palanca ceremonies through the years, and so on.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

plugging the dam

In my absence, my business partner Marc, with the help of our Project Manager Gabby, handled al of the work of my agency. And now it's my turn, given the fact that Marc's wife can give birth at any time.

It is overwhelming to look at his project turnover document, in addition to all my own projects plus the new ones that are coming in. I'm trying to keep a cool head but find myself almost crippled by a fantastic sense of longing - to return to Dumaguete and just write.

This is the line I walk, and have been walking for years. Without the business, I have no income, without income, I cannot pay bills and support my family (there's the matter of Sage's huge incoming tuition fee, for example), and if my family is unhappy and not looked after, I cannot imagine myself selfishly writing.

It's more than just paying bills, of course. Having income means being able to buy things I like - like books, which are becoming more and more expensive but impossible to live without (show me a writer, a good writer, who doesn't read and I'll eat my shoe), good food, films, the whole quality-of-life argument.

So in the matter of totem-pole prioritites, business, once again, takes the top spot. I gave up feeling sad or dejected about this social reality (hey, maybe that's why I rage so much against social realism, LOL) and just manage to find ways to write when time presents itself or when I can schedule it - very late at night or very early in the morning.

I'm not really complaining. More of expelling a sigh of "okay, okay" and getting on with things.

Vin once asked me this: "If you no longer had to work, and had all the money you wanted, would you write more?"

I told him yes and no. Yes, because of the free time. But no, because knowing myself, I'd probably want to do something else, busy my mind with non-writing, non-quality-of-life stuff. In other words, I'd want to work, do something else.

Right now though, I feel that my previous statement is only partially true.

Coming back from Dumaguete, I had a new story, 1/4th of another new one about a brother and sister taking a hell of a long walk, two scenes for the next novel, and a Word file of new story ideas. I found myself challenged anew, reinvigorated, and raring to write and submit stories for publication.




I fall back into the previous rhythm of my life, managing the tension between words and work, and choose my attitude.

Because, because, because.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

fiction: Six from Downtown

I finished a new story in Dumaguete while waiting for my flight back home. Here's a bit from it.

Six from Downtown (an excerpt)
by Dean Francis Alfar

for Ian Casocot

The Wet Market

A WEEK AFTER I arrived in the city, I spent a day at the wet market, negotiating my way down the slippery floors and taking pictures. I was soon lost in the brilliant rainbow of fresh seafood, laid out in ice, suspended on hooks, swimming in plastic pails and low metal drums, whose names brought back memories of my childhood: palos, pating, alimasag, pindangga, lapu lapu, apahap, sap sap, pompano, tambacol, labahita, malasugi, pugita. At other stalls, I found trays of lato, seaweed that resembled a miniature bunch of grapes which my parents loved dipping in a mix of crushed garlic and spicy vinegar, as well as palm-sized oysters, their dull shells encrusted with barnacles.

One stall’s sign captured my attention and got my taste buds going: Fresh Sirena. I smiled to myself, surprised at how many years had passed since I last tasted mermaid. When I was a child growing up in the south, my grandfather would take me out mermaid fishing. The boat of my memory was cramped and seemed ungainly in the water, but none of that mattered since I loved being out at sea with him.

“They think it’s unlucky,” he told me once, when I observed that it seemed only men went into the sea. “It does not matter to me that you are a girl. You’re what God has given us and that’s all the luck we’ll need.”

At a precise position whose exact oceanic location was known only to him, my grandfather would drop the makeshift anchor overboard and organize the fishing lines, stretching the fine filament across the span of his arms, the very same ones he claimed he had purchased from American soldiers before they fled the Japanese. When all the preparations were done, he’d ask me to attach the bait. This was one of the best parts for me because I got to open the large biscuit tin with the end of a spoon and select a piece of jewelry. I would scoop out a handful of shiny trinkets and fuss over them, showing off to my grandfather how seriously I took the task. My favorite bait was a gold scapular embossed with the image of the Virgin Mary. After I had carefully attached the bait to the line, my grandfather would always tell me to sit still, watch the sea quietly and be ready with the net. Then he’d slowly lower the filament into the water, one hand unrolling calculated measures of length. Sometimes, it took forever for a mermaid to bite, and I remember thinking that perhaps they had all the jewelry they’d ever need. While waiting, my grandfather would smoke a thin cigarette between his teeth, flipping it over into his mouth when only the smouldering filter remained, checking once in a while if I had a firm grip on the wooden handle of the net that was my part in things.

“Be ready at any time,” he’d intone, exhaling cigarette smoke into the air laden with salt.

The mermaids we’d catch ranged from two and half to three feet in length. Their tails, excellent steamed, grilled or boiled with tamarinds, were an iridescent green flecked with blue points of lights. Halfway up was the bony flesh that was always cast away after cutting: the torsos were mottled pink and grey, with protruding nubs where nipples would be; the thin arms ended in four fingers, a filmy web of flesh between each one. The egg-shaped heads were crowned with pale stringy hair, like the ghosts of seaweed, covering much of the face that was punctured thrice by tortoise-colored eyes and a gasping mouth lined with sharp tiny teeth.

“Here’s one,” my grandfather would whisper upon sensing the line grow taut, before exploding into action, standing up and reining in the filament, hand over hand, until the mermaid broke the surface of the sea, unwilling to let go of the shiny bait. At his signal I’d quickly extend the net, making certain to trap the glistening tail, and together we’d haul the mermaid into the boat, where my grandfather would exchange the string in one hand for a fire-hardened club and strike at the mermaid’s head until it stopped moving. One was usually enough for our large family, but I remember during the times of fiesta how the sea would be dotted by little boats similar to my grandfather’s, and how they’d return hours later, pitching low in the water, each with several mermaids.

I stood by the sirena stall and looked over what was offered, fighting the rising disappointment fueled by the memories of my childhood years. The mermaids lay side by side and almost haphazardly on top of each other, eyes closed and mouths agape, on a bed of crushed ice, most of them barely a foot long, some even smaller, and their tails had only the barest hint of green. Sensing my disquiet, the vendor, a middle-aged man with a red bandanna and a bulging belly, explained in a lugubrious tone that it was the lean season, and that all mermaids were that size nowadays.

I purchased the freshest looking one, astounded at the price per kilo, and asked if there was a place nearby that could grill it for me. The vendor smiled and, for one hundred pesos, offered to cook it himself. I suspected he was overcharging me but gave in when he agreed to throw in a handful of sea snails for free.

Monday, May 15, 2006

dumaguete in pictures

I had an amazing time at Dumaguete, so much to write about and to be thankful for - first and foremost, to Ian Rosales Casocot. I will do so sometime soon when my schedule normalizes. Suffice it to say, with the exception of my flight home bring cancelled, I had one of the best times of my life - as a writer.

But for now, here are some pictures. All will be made clear soon, I promise. I'll post the pictures pellmell and sort out the narrative later.

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Ian Casocot, who made miracles occur with startling frequency. We were delighted to discover that we were, each, real.

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When I presented my novel to Mom, I was almost in tears. It felt like a big moment, an apprentice showing his creation to the craftsman. "What took you so long to come home?" she asked.

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Part of the large mural for Salamanca. The artists invoked the sense of wonder of childhood by using simple illustrations of the various characters of my novel. This was my favorite, starring Shiro - one of the few who had a happy ending.

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The workshops in the mornings and afternoons were like concentrated shots of epiphany, thanks to the insight of Mom Tiempo and the panelists.

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Fictionist Susan Lara and poet DM Reyes, two friends who shared their warmth and knowledge

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I'm a big fan of poet Marge Evasco, who bestowed a new word unto me - "Salamanquiero" or Wishcrafter.

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I thought that Lawrence Ypil, one of the writers who wrote a blurb for Salamanca, was some older man. Instead, I found a fine brain in the prime of life.

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Cesar Aquino (or "Sawi") is one of Dumaguete's best writers. So he stunned me by agreeing to submit a story for consideration for Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol.2 - and promised to persuade Erwin Castillo (author of "The Firewalkers") to do the same.

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Anthony Tan of the Mindanao State University in Iligan and I exchanged stories galore. From him I learned about John Ruskin.

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Michellan Sarile, my buffetmate who was appalled that I threw cigarette butts into the sea. "It is biodegradable," I said, shamefacedly.

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Creative Non-Fictionist Patricia Evangelista, with whom I had a midnight conversation about finding relevance.

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I spent time on campus, eventually landing an improptu lecture gig in Ian's class. My topic? Science Fiction.

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I delivered my big lecture on Speculative Fiction to a packed hall, ending with a challenge for the audience of writers, educators and students to restore Silliman to its days of writing glory.

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Silliman Hall, where I read Salamanca and waxed poetic about my literary agenda.

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I was the guest of honor at a house in Valencia, in the mountains, with a spectacular view of Dumaguete. Thanks to Arlene Delloso-Uypitching and her family for the fantastic food and the heady conversation.

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At low tide, people walk the shallows beside the Boulevard.

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Beginning late afternoon, tempura stands sprout out and offer excellent fare for only P3 a stick.

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The Bell Tower of Dumaguete was established during the Spanish era to thwart the predations of Muslim pirates.

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The Cocogrande Hotel where I stayed (and stayed again when my flight was cancelled due to the storm "Caloy")

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Everyone gets around mostly by scooter or pedicab (P6 for the first kilometer and P0.50 for every kilometer thereafter).

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DULA, the organizers of the workshop, treated the 2006 batch, the panelists and myself to dinner at swanky South Seas.

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Dumaguete Writers Workshop 2006

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Poet Mickey Ybanez, of my batch, 1992. Yes, we were the artifacts of that bygone era. That's a pack of Astro cigarettes he's holding (yes, from that song)

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Flight back to Manila cancelled on Saturday, after waiting for hours. I ended spending another two days in Dumaguete, waiting for an available flight.

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Waiting and waiting and waiting. I ended up finishing all the books I brought with me, which is a good thing. I admired Jeff Ford's new collection, "The Empire of Ice Cream", but found his first book better.

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Finally on my way home, still wary about any last minute complications.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

off to writerland

I'll be flying off in a few hours for Dumaguete for a week off from the hustle and bustle of work.

Apart from clothing and other necessitities, my bag includes:

copies of Salamanca and Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol.1 to sell or give away;
my notes for my lecture, to be transformed into some semblance of sense lest I embarass myself completely;
my camera, so I can mess around and hopefully improve my photography;
my laptop, so I can write (and do some work if needed, because I cannot truly escape my business);
my PDA, because it functions as many things (watch, scheduler, mp3 player, etc.);
stuff to read - a couple of books and the latest Time and Newsweek;
cigarettes, because I need my oxygen;
and a booster box of Magic: The Gathering's latest release, Dissension (yes, I'm still somewhat of an addict and I love to sort and speculate).

Everything else I can conceivably need is available there, so no worries.

I'm looking forward to immersing myself in the writing culture and hopefully get some writing done myself.


Friday, May 05, 2006

goodnight, jack

We last saw Jack at Christmas, at Florida with Sage. By then, the cancer had reduced him to a shadow of his former vigor but did nothing to diminish his sense of humor.

For the past few months, the disease spread, necessitating almost daily transfusions and, ultimately, an extended stay in the ICU.

He passed away at 10AM today. His final words were "I'm fading."

I got the phone call and broke down in tears. It is one thing to expect death, another thing to have it happen, so irrevocable, final and true.

Goodnight, Jack, and thank you for the wonder of your laughter, your insane wit, your unstinting generosity and indomitable spirit.

You will never fade.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

spec fic meets chick lit

Just got back from my meeting with author Tara FT Sering and I'm excited about the future. I can't reveal what we have up our sleeves but if all goes according to plan it should be something to talk about.

I delighted at the ease at which we hit it off. The biggest commonality between us as writers is our strong sense of advocacy. It's refreshing, I tell you, to meet someone who has a literary agenda similar to mine. So when we put our heads together... ah, but that is for another time.

I couldn't help but jibe her about two things though, which she took with much laughter: first, her controversial National Book Award (remember the polarizing ruckus of that time, with Carla Pacis appalled that Tara's book won in the Young Adult category?); and second, the fact that Fully Booked's signage for her genre reads "Chic Lit" (which implies that all of it, really, is uber-hip and classy LOL).

Meeting Tara was the necessary jolt I needed, and suddenly I have something I want to sink my teeth into - and for that I thank our common friend Apol Lejano-Massebieau, for introducing us - all the way from France.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

literatura & litcritters' night

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From Ian's blog:

11 May 2006, Silliman University, Dumaguete City. Novelist Dean Francis Alfar will talk about speculative fiction in the Philippines in the morning lecture-forum, and will participate in a reading and a discussion about the creative writing process in the afternoon with Sillimanian authors Cesar Ruiz Aquino, Myrna Pena Reyes, Ian Rosales Casocot, and Stacy Danika Alcantara. The Annual Catacombs Poetry Reading with the fellows and panelists of the Dumaguete National Writers Workshop will be held later in the evening at Cafe Antonio. The readers include Marjorie Evasco, Larry Ypil, and other writers.

You bet I'm stoked!

litcritters' night

Tomorrow night, we're tackling The Golem by Avram Davidson, Editing for Content by Gavin J. Grant, and We Have Always Spoken Panglish by Suzette Haden Elgin. While I'm gone, the group will read a novella - New Light on the Drake Equation by Ian R. MacLeod.

Lots of sci fi, I know. In the coming weeks, I intend to swing the focus once more towards modern fantasy and realism (my bias is obviously towards fantasy - we've tackled Kelly Link and Jeffrey Ford) because there are so many good stories to be read and savored and learned from and remembered.

I'm also looking for stories by Greg Brilliantes and other Filipino fantasists, as well as digital versions of a couple of pieces by Chari Lucero (for her adroit combination of realism/magic realism - and because I'm a huge admirer of her work, boldly telling her so at the last National Books Awards night).

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

people pix

Yes, I've been playing with my new camera. I've got like a zillion miles to go before I'm any good, but here are some of the shots I've taken, much reduced in size (as I've realized that the RAW files are utterly, delightfully huge).

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Nikki and Sage

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My wife

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Andrew, my protege

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Alex, before playing a piece in Acquire

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Vin, and his filthy habit (haha)

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Joy, one of my models at the Taal shoot

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Jen, another model at the Taal shoot

I'm still struggling with the notion of light, but am having great fun.

short time in hong kong

My play "Short Time" will be staged in Hong Kong this coming July, as part of a duo of one-act plays, for the benefit of The Bethune House, a halfway facility for wrongfully terminated Southeast Asian domestic helpers in Hong Kong. The production will be directed by Mida Mabitad-Azada.

Tuesday, July 4th
Thursday, July 6th
(tentative: Sunday, July 9th)

SHORT TIME by Dean Francis Alfar
by Armida Azada

The Red Room
4/F Fu Hing Bldg
9-11 Jubilee St, Cental, HK

Ticket hotline: +852 2544 6373 (c/o Aida)

on awards and stuff

Banzai Cat's latest post notes his ambivalence about joining this year's Palanca Awards competition (sorry, but with the cut and paste thing, I lost all his links):
What with the passing of the submission deadline to the prestigious Palanca Awards last Sunday, [identity-protected] asked why wasn't I submitting anything. I had to give it some thought but I finally answered that for all intents and purposes-- and given that I've never taken any writing or literary/ criticism classes-- I'm really more of a storyteller rather than a writer.

Is that so bad? That I would rather write stories for my readers rather than for critics and go thru the whole process most local writers do, i.e. submit to the Palanca contest and win an award, try for a slot for the U.P. and Dumaguete workshops, get published in Philippine Free Press, etc.?

I suppose going on the workshops thang would help my craft-- and despite critics bent for social realism, noted writer and critic Butch Dalisay points out that it's really all about good writing (scroll down for his review of the country's first Speculative Fiction anthology)-- and I know any suggestion to improve myself is welcome. Still, I'm wary-- and reluctant to dip my foot in that pool.

Maybe it's because local literature is more concerned-- i.e. hell-bent-- about writing social realism as opposed to any kind of story. The impression I've gained throughout the years of observing the literary scene is that if you want respect, you have to write social realism. There are exceptions of course, Dean for one with his focus on speculative fiction. But still...

What do you people think? Am I crazy for not aiming for awards? Is it a bad strategy not to be concerned in getting local recognition from the writers circles? Or am I just paranoid?

I responded, of course:

Every writer has a different track on how he wants to improve his craft. For some, like me, awards and competition fulfill the function of forcing me to keep my writing muscles limber. Likewise, the national-level writing workshops help in craft (as you pointed out). If people can go to business school to learn best practices, what's wrong with wanting to attend a writing workshop with a similar goal in mind? We are all storytellers.

In fact, I think of myself as a storyteller first before I accept the label of "Writer". How to best tell the tale then is the question each storyteller must find personal answers for. But certainly, most writers want to be published. It need not be in the confines of academe or social realist-preferring publications. For example, there are the entire range of spec fic markets abroad. For a story to be more than just ephemera, it needs to be published, it needs to be read by more than just its author.

I also like the competitive aspect of publication - being the story selected by Greg Brilliantes for his mag or by Kelly Link for her antho gives an author a degree of validation. Though it must be said that in the end, what validates a story is not if it won an award or was the product of a workshop or if it was selected by an editor. It's if it told its story best, and if it made a difference and is remembered. And that usually means it was read by someone somewhere, which means it was published.

As for social realism, well, you know how I feel about that. But the truth is that little by little Filipino fictionists are starting to realize that they can write about other things. Story Philippines, for example, has a somewhat wider range than I expected. Domestic realism is more potent than social realism, and as a genre is more open to slipstream manifestations - I'm talking about a number of new stories by Filipino fantastists that merge domestic realism with imagination (such as you, with "The City, Like A Lover", for instance).

It is important that we write and publish more and more different stories, stories that are not of the pure social/domestic realist school - these can be anything else, including spec fic, chick lit, or whatever. Only by producing a large number of well-written stories (and getting them read) will we ever see the day when the dominance of realism in the Philippines is challenged. If we do nothing, we are guilty of the sin of omission. We need to try, and to try as best as we can. Which means becoming the best writers we can be. Awards help impress critics, yes, but in the end what matters is the story.

If you can tell your stories (written, of course) in the best manner that suits them - and if your readers agree (and readers include your audience, editors and critics) - and if you do it without the benefit of having an armload of awards, or workshop credentials, or kissing the ass of social realism, then you've got a great thing going and the Philippines is too small a market for you.

But if, like me, you think that talking to and taking critique from writers (even of different genre schools, critical positioning or background) helps your craft, helps you learn to be a better storyteller, then the given paths walked by writers before you are options to consider.


"terminos" nomination

I just found out that my story "Terminos", which was published in Rabid Transit: Menagerie (Velocity Press), has been nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Award for Best Short Fiction, along with the likes of Haruki Murakami ("Chance Traveler" from Harper's Magazine) and Chrisopher Barzak ("The Language of Moths" from Realms of Fantasy), among other incredible authors.

The Spectrum is "awarded to the best science fiction, fantasy or horror short fiction work originally released in North America during 2005 with significant positive gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender content". A Short List of Recommended Works and a Winner will be announced at the World Science Fiction Convention in August, 2006.

Even if I don't win, I'm delighted (the Murakami is a spectacular piece of writing).

"Terminos", a Hinirang spec fic piece about endings (and possessed of two gay main characters), was what earned me my Ratbastard stripes. I remember Chris Barzak challenging me to submit a story for consideration for publication in Rabid Transit - not just any story, but a story that is "cutting edge fantasy/ scifi/ slipstream/ horror/ realism"; a piece that has "flare and stretches our ideas of how stories can be told, or how we perceive ideas of genre". What I did was revisit two older stories ("Ser Clessidrana Acerca Tiempo" and the much shorter draft of "Terminos") and I rewrote both into a single narrative with touches of modern fantasy, realism, a hint of surrealism and my own magic realist aesthetic. I'm glad that someone other than just me or the editors of anthology found merit in the story.

If you'd like to order a copy of "Rabid Transit: Menagerie", follow this link.