Interloping The Real And Surreal In Creating Fiction

Nonfiction by | April 24, 2016

The title of my talk seems awesome but I will avoid any heavy literary term and speak to you from the heart; and since you are young writers seeking to create masterpieces through your fiction or poetry, I will share with you my earliest attempt at short-story writing. Strangely enough, these attemps have become my most anthologized stories – “The Chieftest Mourner” and “Love in the Cornhusks”.

Soon after the war, my mother put me on a rice truck over dark mountains from Bacolod where my father was a retired judge to Silliman University in Dumaguete, Negros Oriental.

Silliman was a close-knit scholarly community with huge shady trees lining its avenues and the park with an ampitheatre where we held the first Shakespeare plays – in 1946 “The Taming of the Shrew” where I was Kate the Shrew; and in 1948 ”As You Like it” where I transform from Lady Rosalind to the page Ganymede in the Forest of Arden. Reuben Canoy played the princely Orlando.

In 1948, too, the little magazine Sands and Coral was born with Cesar Amigo and myself as editors. It was conceived over steaming cups of coffee in the living room of Rodrigo T. Feria, our adviser, and his American wife — the critic Dolores Stephens Feria. We had the terrifying job of turning out a purely literary magazine with these aims: 1) to maintain a higher literary standard among our campus writers; 2) stimulate genuine creative thinking, and 3) develop a keener appreciation of the more serious creations of our students. We had no office; we plotted at street corners or at the North Pole where being seen drinking beer made one of the talk of the town. We worked at cafeteria tables or in the library; we even did some editing at a picnic. For our cover design, Reuben Canoy squiggled a skeletal figure reaching for the surface of the sea, strewing sand over coral. This poetic squiggle has managed to be somewhere on every subsequent issue of Sands and Coral.

The literary icons Edilberto and Edith Tiempo contributed instructive treatises on Metaphor and the Objective Correlative. Dolores S. Feria took upon herself the review of Steve Javellana’s “Without Seing the Dawn” which raised expectations of the “the Great Filipino Novel for its vivid warmth and sly humor.” Mrs. Feria was later among the activist faculty of the University of the Philippines incarcerated during the Martial Law years.

On my part, I felt pressured to write my first story “Bridge to the Morrow” which was based on the war-time experience of the Gurucharri family of Kabankalan Occidental as they were badgered by guerrillas. Twenty eight years later, in the Sands and Coral issue marking the Diamond Jubillee of Silliman, this story was fleshed out in “Ordeal in Hacienda Mercedes” where the big house was moved to central Luzon and the romance of Vince and Skit set in Chicago, USA. The mother-son-wife relationship likewise came into play.

The second issue of Sands and Coral, published March 1949, was thicker and had me as sole editor. The pressure was doubled and I wrote my second story “The Chieftest Mourner.” It was to become one of my most anthologized stories. Its inception took place in Manila where I spent the previous summer with relatives – the family of the Director of National Library Eulogio Rodriguez – my “Tio Lolong.” Upon the death of the poet “Baticuling” – Jesus Balmori – who wrote in Spanish and Tagalog, his glamorous live-in wife Nena Yance turned to Director Rodriguez to make the funeral arrangements. He was the poet’s good friend and adviser and could be counted on to handle diplomatically the ticklish problem of two widows and protocol in a wake where the President himself would pay his respects.
I had a grandstand view of the tense but ludicrous situation! And it was only in death that I met my poet-uncle – he with the somber smile in my “The Chieftest Mourner”. And I feel flattered that readers assume I really am the poet’s niece.

What was actual reality in the “Chieftest Mourner” is the scene in the funeraria where a dramatic dichotomy is visualized: on one side, the beautifully made-up and glamorous querida whose dove-like wreath lies on one side of the poet’s coffin; the other side, the buxom widow with an armada of fierce relatives who pounce on the querida, whose last words as she flees the scene – “You can have him – all that’s left of him!” For the reader then, the question is “who is the Chieftest Mourner?” My dear young writers; I would like to point out that this story emerged because of the pressure for me to produce a work of fiction for the Sands and Coral of which I was sole editor.

Another story that was conceptualized out of sheer pressure was “Love in the Cornhusks.” I was a Fulbright grantee at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor for a Master’s degree in 1954. Instead of a thesis, I had to produce a volume of stories for the Creative Writing Program. Every two weeks, I had to present a story to Dr. Arno Boder, the head of the program. Can you imagine sitting in front of this learned professor while he reads what have your written and comments from time to time or asks questions which make you re-examine your own work? It was an unnerving experience!

Incidentally, I won a Jules and Avery Hopwood award for fiction for the volume of stories “Now and at the Hour and Other Stories.” And so on one chilly autumn afternoon, I was sitting on a park bench wondering what I would write about. On the grass nearby lay a very dead-looking tramp. I suddenly felt very home-sick for home in Mintal that Mama built by sketching of the ground for carpenters for figure out the kind of structure she wanted.

And so the story of Tinang unfolded – a character based on a young girl given to us by an impoverished family in Sorsogon (one of Papa’s assignments as Judge). Her name was Rosario. She grew up with us and when Mama started her dream of farming in Davao, she would be sent on errands to the fields. In “Love in the Cornhusks,” it is the character of Rosario that transforms to Tinang. The character of the Señora is patterned after my mother’s. The only factual element is the letter of Amado which to us evokes humor because of its attempt to be formal. In actuality, Rosario married her “Amado,” established a farm in Samal and sent her kids to college.

I hope this revelation of what is real and surreal doesn’t throw my story into the cornhusks!

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