A better-late-than-never write up on the past fiction workshop held Friday, February 26, 2010 at the beautiful campus of University of San Francisco where your Salonniere visited Poet and Professor Barbara Jane Reyes and her undergraduate section “Filipino American Arts,” part of the Philippine Studies Program. With eight engaged and insightful students, we talked fiction, community, and childhood marvels. Not all of the students were Filipino, and each came from different disciplines and studies, which added to our conversation. They were exceptionally astute, each armed with provocative questions. For our session, students read works from Gayle Romasanta, “The Bridge” in Field of Mirrors, edited by Edwin Lozado, Lysley Tenorio’s, “Save the I-Hotel” and two stories from the anthology Growing Up Filipino II, edited by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard, Amalia Bueno’s, “Perla and Her Lovely Barbie” and your Salonniere’s “Here in the States.” Reyes is committed to curating work from local Fil-Am writers with the intention to bring artists into the classroom, both exposing artists to academia and introducing students to working artists. Her mission cannot be praised nor emulated enough. Reyes’ dedication is really quite extraordinary as she encourages readers and writers alike to build and fortify community, raise consciousness, and push the envelope in terms of widening perspectives and making connections across borders and boundaries. Our class workshop was nothing less than the embodiment of her work. The students were finishing up their talk on Tenorio’s story when I arrived after which I was given a chance to relay a brief overview of the story behind my story. The students soon dived into the discussion with probing inquiries:
What happens when story gets misinterpreted?
I recently taught The Tempest, and, after reviewing notes from my UCLA undergraduate classes and taking a peek at a few critical pieces, I was forced to come to the conclusion that it’s pretty safe to say no one really knows what that play is about. We’ve got the general gist, but its hazy, and the interpretations keep rolling in. So misinterpretations, re-interpretations, all of them, hit or miss is what keeps us in the business of writing. People draw different meanings and the responses are infinitely different. That’s what makes writing thrive and audiences craving more.
How is it to tell stories to mainstream and general audiences? When do you know what to translate and how explain to audiences who aren’t familiar with the themes or content?
I also just covered Gloria Anzaldúa’s La Frontera, and some of the students in my class wanted to throw the book out the window when they first read her because she uses Spanish, English, and Calo, which can be off-putting to anyone who is not familiar with these languages. Many of my students read the text as exclusionary, but the other half of the class understood that’s precisely what Anzaldúa intended. These students explained to the others that Anzaldúa purposefully reflected the experiences all immigrants share, no matter where they come from, when they arrive in the U.S. and are confronted by Anglo America. In many of my stories, some words don’t translate, and, if the reader wants to know what those phrases and ideas mean, then they need to look it up, such as merienda, we don’t have that here in the U.S. but most Spanish-speaking countries know what this is and what it means. To stop the flow of the narrative and explain doesn’t seem necessary in the context of the story, so readers, if they’re curious enough, will have to research on their own to get the full gist of what that cultural aspect.
What does your family think of your writing?
Overall incredibly supportive. Both my parents work in education and the arts, and they’ve dedicated their lives to these disciplines, so they understand, to a point, what I’m doing and how I’m driven though my father read this story and could only say that there was a typo. That hurt, but, for the most part, they’ve encouraged me and got me started on this path.
How close does this story come to your family?
This story is in no way auto-biographical but was definitely written out of admiration for the women in my life. My aunts, my mother, my grandmothers each have sacrificed for our family. Every member has worked hard to get where we are today, and I keep that very close to heart with each story I write.
How do you know who is going to tell the story?
Through a lot of painful drafts. Try to keep an open mind and remember that revision really is 90% of the work.
L.A. vs. Bay Area?
Both cities are spatially and culturally completely different. Los Angeles is horizontal, the original urban-sprawl, and San Francisco is incredibly condensed and vertical, so the two landscapes lend to completely different social and environmental experiences. You have the quintessential car culture versus walking. The song is true, “nobody walks in L.A.” I have yet to write about the Bay Area. For now I can’t get Los Angeles out of my creative system, so I’ll stick with my homeland for now until I can let go.
Do you write with an agenda?
Of course! I know my method is backwards and that most writers begin with a character, a story-line, a scene or a snippet of dialogue, and I can’t help but start with that over-arching concept, which makes it difficult because then I have to build the character, the action, the conflict around these lofty ideas, when really the lofty ideas should come last. After writing for over a decade, I’ve had to just accept that this is how I work.
What kind of research do you do?
Tons! Endless, really. So much that it often takes a life of its own.
Do you always work with younger voices?
Not really. I find I’m always stretching my ability to ventriloquize so to speak. The story dictates who the main character is, and my job is working to find the voice and heart of the story. Its like sculpting with a piece or marble. You keep cutting, hacking, shaping, and molding, looking for those true veins in the work.
How was it in your MFA classes working with students in different backgrounds?
Thankfully, our fiction class was small, about 12-15 students depending on the year. We were a very diverse group, which I really am grateful for because most programs aren’t. I found that I had to do very little explaining of cultural contexts and meanings with my work, which is great, because having to explain the cultural mores and background identities is like picking apart a joke. The whole spirit of the work falls a part.
After the talk, we turned to a quick writing exercise, included below, in which the students ran with the prompt. Each came up with wonderfully vivid details and memories about Mighty Max, Grandma’s cooking, purple ice cream, cartoons of Calvin and Hobbes leading to majoring in graphic design in college, and playing with Legos and clay in kindergarten. We lamented about how we’re not encouraged to play with Popsicle sticks, Elmer’s glue, and construction paper as adults. We all agreed adults should have free time to create wacky and zany projects regularly, no bars held.
Reactions to the workshop include a post on the blog Filipino American Community Arts by one of the students:
Additionally, I believe that Rashaan Alexis Meneses was a great addition to our class, as I found her descriptions of her writing process and the development of her style quite interesting. I enjoyed listening to her discuss on how her own cultural experiences and identity have found a place in her work. In my own experience, I’ve always felt that as much as I want to delve into cultural topics and exploration, my Fil-am experience is not a distinct quality in much of my creative work, despite the large role it plays in my life.
Read more here
And a brief write-up from Professor Reyes in her post “Random: Culture, Commodity, Performance, Production”:
…I am also thinking of Rashaan Alexis Meneses’s visit to my class, also last week. She discussed how she came to her story, “Here in the States,” from the anthology Growing Up Filipino II, and her series of stories about immigrant workers in our urban areas (specifically, Los Angeles), what things about their American lives we never know because even though they’re omnipresent, we never ask them to tell us their life stories. She talked about the process of writing these stories and considering an audience who may not have the same cultural knowledge, how much to explain and translate, and how to explain and translate, while balancing what the story needs, at what pace it needs to move, from whose point of view it must be told…
Read entire post here.
After the discussion, we turned to a quick and fun writing exercise that should be a part of any writer’s toolbox:
Getting Reacquainted With Your Own Marvelousness
Trees, red dwarf stars, books about pirates and elves, giant wooden spoons and forks that hang on the dining room walls, these childhood sources of wonder inspired flights of fantasy and ignited life long fancies that have sustained the spirit in the most trying times, reminded sad souls how to smile, and lit paths for journeys well traveled and still yet to be taken. In her article about genre narratives, “Stranger Things” by Debra Spark, published in The Writer’s Chronicle, Volume 42 Number 1, September 2009, Spark speaks of childhood awe:
[M]y inquiry has made me think about a writer’s “source of wonder.” If your “source of wonder” as a child (or perhaps even as an adult) comes from genre narratives, is there a way to recombine those narratives into the fiction you are writing now? If, like me, you aren’t drawn into such narratives, what is your “source of wonder”? Can you locate it–not find it on a map but haul it up our of your unconscious–and incorporate its pleasures into your own fiction?…Why not remember what it was that so charmed you about the stories of your youth and incorporate that delight into your fiction?
Why not indeed? Urging us to dust off our innocence, Spark asks us to rekindle what may be a long spent fire of optimism and curiosity. Our task now is to create a list of seven items, including objects, memories, images, songs, movies, dances, books, characters, and art pieces that conjured wonder when we were young. Just list, for the moment. Don’t edit or over-think the list or any one item but try to keep memories of your childhood and adolescence.
Then chose one for today, and consider the what, when, where, why and how which rises from this source of wonder. Examine your chosen item as if it were a precious stone or a sacred relic from your past, which it is. Describe the item in action. Who is using it? Use only verbs and nouns. Be as concrete as possible. Avoid adjectives and adverbs. Make every word, phrase, and image tactile by evoking all six senses: taste, smell, touch, sight, sound, and, yes, psychic travel. The sixth sense is where you and your reader can have a little fun. Try forecasting the future, what will happen to the item? What did it mean in the past and how has its value changed over time?
Wrapping Up – read only after completing the exercise
That blanket you couldn’t sleep without, the song your mother sang when doing the dishes, as she reminisced when she thought no one else was watching her, or the strange portrait your grandfather nailed to the living room wall that was never explained to you perhaps because you never bothered to ask, these are the stuff of marvel, the magic talismans that can unlock characters you’re struggling with, resurrect seemingly dead-ended plot lines, and jump start essays or provide a missing thread to a braided narrative. Keep this list close at hand and you should be able to draw from it. Add to it regularly, referring to your list as a source of inspiration and wonder, allowing you to reaffirm your roots, and, at the same time usher you into the marvelous.