LONTAR #10 Interview 3 of 3: Dean Francis Alfar

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To celebrate the tenth and final, double-sized issue of LONTAR, we have three exclusive short interviews conducted by founding editor Jason Erik Lundberg. The third is with Dean Francis Alfar, whose novel Salamanca has been serialised in the journal in three parts, with the concluding instalment anchoring this issue. Alfar is considered the godfather of Philippine speculative fiction, and his writing has won numerous awards, including the Palanca Award Grand Prize for the Novel (the Philippines’ version of the Pulitzer Prize).

Jason Erik Lundberg: Salamanca celebrated its 10th anniversary last year, with a reissue in the Philippines by Anvil Publishing and serialisation in LONTAR. What does the novel mean to you a decade on? Has your attitude to it changed in those ten years?

Dean Francis Alfar: Salamanca is very special because it came at a point in my writing life when I didn’t know if I had it in me to write a novel. I had written plays and short fiction but the prospect of tackling the novelistic space was daunting. Because I was able to write it—then have it win a prize, then get published, then still have legs ten years later—is very meaningful to me: it shows that fear, when conquered, has the potential to transform into something truly magical. It showed me that I shouldn’t be intimidated by something new, and this is a life lesson I have taken to heart.

Because the book has become required reading in some universities, I get notes from readers who are surprised that a novel written by one of their own countrymen could be moving and resonant. I’m always moved when new readers who’ve discovered the book reach out, inspired that if I could do something, then they could do something as well.

 

JEL: In the first two parts of Salamanca (published in LONTAR #8 & 9), you employ techniques of magic realism, for example the house of Jacinta Cordova turning to glass; in this instalment, our ostensible protagonist Gaudencio Rivera is inexplicably struck blind. What is it about the presence of the fantastical in the everyday that keeps you returning to it as a storytelling method?

 

DFA: Like Latin America, the Philippines is an archipelago that is steeped in stories of the supernatural, the absurd and the magical. An evening spent in conversation in any small town will lead to storytelling about local strangeness—and this is part and parcel of how we deal with our circumstances. We tell each other scary stories, we make jokes out of the horror of daily living, and we embrace how superstition rubs elbows with science and technology and modern life. We are currently living during very trying times and one of the ways we make sense of things is to spin narratives that give hope, or explore possibilities, or offer escape, or take our minds off of politics, or take on societal issues with a different magical angle.

Magic, for me, is a way to tell a more impactful and beautiful story. Magic’s dramatic gestures and the gentle flourishes helped Salamanca soar, and underscored the quiet moments when magic was not present.

 

JEL: The speculative fiction scene in the Philippines seems to be stronger than ever; I just ran the numbers, and almost exactly one-quarter of all LONTAR’s contributors over ten issues are Pinoys! What are some of the literary developments happening there right now that the rest of the world should know about?

 

DFA: I’m happy to hear that Filipinos contributed mightily to LONTAR!

Speculative fiction has grown over here in the Philippines in the past 15 years. Apart from anthology series such as Philippine Speculative Fiction, there continue to be novels in both English (such as work by Eliza Victoria) and Filipino (such as the Janus Silang series of YA books by Egay Samar). SF appears regularly in university press publications as well as in magazines (such as Philippines Graphic). Graphic novels and comics are also very strong. SF by Filipinos has won awards and recognition both in our country and internationally.

SF is now present in textbooks and readings for grade school and high school. It is part of some university curricula, with entire classes devoted to the genre. National-level writing workshops (such as the UP Writing Workshop and the Silliman University Workshop) devote time and space for literary analysis of SF.

 

But most importantly for me, SF has inspired new generations of young authors—as well as new readers.

 

JEL: You are known more as a short story writer than a novelist, but Salamanca is a phenomenal achievement. I find it hard to describe the book without resorting to hyperbole; I read it in 2014, and it was easily the best book I read that year. Will you be returning to the novel form in the future?

 

DFA: Thank you for your generous words. Yes, I am currently working on two novel projects. One of them is in the vein of light novel, set in a secondary world. The other is a prequel to Salamanca. Both are coming along at a painfully slow pace (because of short fiction!), but I’ll get there one day.

 

JEL: Shameless self-promotion time: what is next on the publication horizon for Dean Francis Alfar?

 

DFA: My daughter Sage and I just released a collection of speculative fiction from Adarna House earlier this year—Stars in Jars: Strange and Fantastic Stories. I also have an anthology coming out from UP Press this year—Fantasy: Filipino Fiction for Young Adults (co-edited with Kenneth Yu). Along with a couple of other anthologies, I am currently at work completing my fourth collection of short fiction. Hopefully that will be out next year. I am also in talks with film and TV producers for something that should be quite interesting. We’ll see.

Once again, thank you for LONTAR, for providing an amazing space for the diverse voices and stories in our neck of the woods. It will be missed but never forgotten.

 

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