Bold Type: The RandomHouse on-line magazine
Ballantine Reader’s Circle website
Poetry Webchapbook from The Literary Review
Q&A with Bino A. Realuyo
When did you first begin writing?
All kinds of beginnings impact a writer’s eventual decision to write, be they directly literary or not. Growing up, I had very little exposure to literature. Well, literature in the Philippines borders on class issues. People can’t afford to buy books so they opt for the mass produced “comics.” That’s the root of my writing experience, I used to create these comics. I drew storyboards and wrote with equal intensity. As a child, I always thought I would make a life out of my love for drawing. It came naturally, my father being an architect. There were no such things as writers in my family. No models. So I wrote because I loved writing: poetry, stories, most of them in my native language, Pilipino. My mother encouraged me to write. When I was ten, she told me she wanted me to write a novel about her life. But I never took it seriously enough, not knowing that it could be a vocation in life. I have done so many other things before arriving at a point where I thought writing was even a possibility. It happened after college when I finally gave up any hope of becoming a visual artist; I concentrated on the art of the written word. Looking back, I feel like it has been there all along–this desire to write–although I kept on spiraling around it and away from it only to be pulled back again.
Were any authors particularly influential on your writing? Whose work are you currently reading?
Poets have influenced me a lot. When I decided to return to writing after college, I read a lot of poetry, mostly by writers of color, as if I have wasted so many years I was trying to catch up. I was also an activist then so I found myself in the midst of very political works. By political I meant works by feminists, women of color, witness poets from other countries. It seems like I went backwards. Many writers are usually educated in the classics and then they progress to readings contemporary ones or writings on the fringes, including writers of color. But since I was educated in another country, I didn’t have much exposure to American classics. Now, I am reeducating myself. I am reading a mixture of contemporary literature and what would be considered classic works. For fiction, I have a preference for works by expatriates and immigrants, writers born and raised in other countries and are now writing in the so called “first world”: Jamaica Kincaid who is now based in the United States or Ben Okri who is in England. They possess these very lyrical narratives that I love, and I think it’s because they grew up in very oppressed climates. And now they are writing outside their national realm, forging a completely new language that still reflects their native tongues. I am also now rediscovering writings I grew up with–Philippine literature–more contemporary ones this time. These are exciting times for Filipino writers. A hundred years since the violent crisscrossing of history in 1898, there is a lot of energy, significance and self-discovery, enough to inspire wonderful literary works.
You have said that your “body of work is a statement on the horrors of colonialism and imperialism and ultimately, the hopes offered by immigration.” What role do you see for a writer in today’s society?
We live in very, very dangerous times. Life is moving very fast around us, often bereft of meaning. We are quickly losing our mythologies. Look at the news: children are killing other children. Why are these things happening? I think the job for writers in this century is to create new mythologies for us to live by, to make it easier for us to understand our ever-changing environment. Poetry brings new metaphors to life. It makes us understand that the meaning of life is not necessarily what you see from outside. Fiction creates many worlds, many possibilities. From these worlds, each of us can create our own, one which we understand, something that comes from inside and not outside.
America looms large in the Filipino imagination. How do the Philippines figure in the American imagination? How does this affect your work?
It draws a blank–for the first minute–then a whole set of pre-imagined stereotypes run through their heads.
Writing as a Filipino in this century in the United States is bearing a heavy cross. Americans have become very ignorant about Filipinos, well, about history in general. In this country, as “multicultural” as it seems, for many Americans, the ethnics carry some kind of codex, I think, or images, mostly stereotypes. Give them a country and they will create a list of images, the vocabulary of the cultural attachÈ of the ignoramus embassy. As clichÈ as it sounds, I have been asked many times if Filipinos really eat dogs. When I was in Mexico, I got asked the same question. So I tell people whenever I see dogs–and there are a lot of them in Manhattan–I feel like having them for dinner. Arf-arf. Then the discussion goes to cats, and how there are no cats in Chinatown.
American literature is racialized. White writers don’t bear the problem of ethnically identifying their characters, as if by not stating so, they’re de facto “white.” If ethnic characters are included in these writings, they’re often stereotypical images. As ethnic writers, we have a responsibility to bring forth stories that have been shunned by “mainstreamed writings.” The time has come to make all stories, our stories, part of the American literary consciousness, not only as Chinese laundromats, Latino criminals, Filipino maids, etc. I take this responsibility very seriously.
You mentioned in an interview that you were working on a new novel, ASHEN PARTS, as well as researching your father’s experiences during World War II for another work. How are those projects progressing?
I’m doing a lot of research for my second novel, “The Ashen Parts.” The American bases in the Philippines are no longer there and much of that area is buried in lahar from the Mt. Pinatubo eruption, so visiting is out of the question. But I am very excited. Writing “The Umbrella Country” was strange because it was my first attempt. But now, I feel more confident that I can do another. In the “The Ashen Parts,” I’m tackling the issues of colonialism and militarism, so I feel somehow the politics is completely within my elements. I began writing it in Puerto Rico, in Mexico, looking for images that I thought I could include in the book. These countries are closely tied to Philippine and American history, so I find “home” whenever I travel to them to write. It is an exciting project. I feel that my poetry and prose is merging into this next book.
I continue to write poetry although I am still trying to get my first collection, In Spite of Open Eyes, published. I am working on a collection about the Death March because my father was in it and was imprisoned in a concentration camp in 1942. When the Philippines is mentioned in American history books, it’s usually this era, the Second World War, the march, because many Americans died there. That war is many, many generations before me, but it is very close in spirit and emotion, because of my father. I have spent my whole life going to Veterans hospitals in the Manila and New York City. These are fragments of my own history that I feel very compelled to write about.
This may be an unanswerable question, but I’ll ask it anyway. Why do you write?
I have a lot to say.