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.

     

    LONTAR Special; Interview with Dean Francis and Nikki Alfar

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    lontar-the-journal-of-southeast-asian-speculative-fiction-issue-3-coverTo celebrate the third issue of LONTAR, we have two things: 1) a special week-long promotion bundling issues #1 and #2 for free when you buy #3, and 2) an exclusive interview by editor Jason Lundberg with the husband-and-wife team of Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar, whom one could make the case are the current godparents of Filipino fiction of the fantastic. The Alfars have each edited (some together) many volumes of the landmark Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology series, and can often be found on panel discussions about mythology, fantasy, and science fiction. Between them, they’ve won a slew of awards for their writing, including thirteen Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature.

    Q. Both of your stories in LONTAR #3 employ roadways as an essential trope: as a confusing and misdirecting force in Nikki’s story, and as beings with sentience in Dean’s story. How important are roads in the current Filipino literary psyche?

    DEAN: Roads continue to function as spaces to be traversed from one point to another, permitting reflection en route to an epiphany, as markers on a personal journey, or as obstacles (sometimes small, sometimes vast) to be conquered. Roads bring us together, but also make our world smaller. Their duality is this: roads signify escape, but also bind us to specific paths. In my story, some of the famous roads in Manila gain thought and emotion and reflect the history of the people around them. There is an intimation of their own society within the context of Philippine society. The roads themselves cannot escape being part of something bigger.

    lontar-the-journal-of-southeast-asian-speculative-fiction-issue-1-coverNIKKI: When Filipinos visiting other countries receive apologies from the locals about “the terrible traffic,” we just smile at them indulgently, because you probably have no idea what traffic is until you’ve been to Manila. Once on a bad day, it took a car the better part of an hour to make it from one end of the street Dean and I live on to the other; I’m not kidding. So while I’m not sure about the Filipino literary psyche specifically, I can say that roads are pretty damn significant to the Manila-dweller’s psyche—sometimes roads simply fail to get you where you want to go, which more or less nails down what my story is all about.

    Another way to look at it is through a lens I like to use in a lot of my other writing—from a folkloric point of view, Leaving the Path always has consequences, often dangerous ones, but sometimes also reveals unexpected avenues to growth and fortune. This is something ingrained in all of our psyches, virtually all across the world, I think, from childhood—and what is a road, if not a gussied-up path?

    Q. The fantastic is used in each of your stories in different ways: in “A Field Guide to the Roads of Manila,” it is employed in the service of a revenge tale; in “An Unexpected Stop,” to heighten the sense of dread and unease during a domestic spat. Is the Philippines an inherently fantastical place, in that it is best represented using these non-realist techniques in literature?

    lontar-the-journal-of-southeast-asian-speculative-fiction-issue-2-coverDEAN: The fantastic is embedded in our bones. We exist day-to-day and cheek-by-jowl with the absurd—newspaper reports of supernatural occurrences and senseless slaughter. There is the magical and the mundane. Philippine literature deploys both realism (social and domestic) as well as the fantastical (speculative fiction) to help articulate how we negotiate our lives.

    NIKKI: Oh my goodness, yes, the Philippines is an inherently fantastical place! Listen: there is a Philippine island called Siquijor, where lightning flashes in the sky on absolutely clear, storm-free nights; and we are modern people, so we know witches don’t really live there, except you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who is 100% positively sure they don’t. My mother-in-law, who is as sophisticated an urbanite as you could possibly meet, will tell you with utter certainty about the time she saw tiny men, the height of her finger, moving around beneath her house. In fact, my story is dedicated to my friend Carlos Piocos, a Filipino writer currently taking postgraduate studies at the University of Hong Kong, because he told me the real-life tale that I built the piece around.

    Q. Dean launched the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology series ten years ago, and the two of you have collaborated on editing several of the volumes; you’re teaming up once again for this year’s tenth annual installment. What have been some of the most interesting, fulfilling, or surprising things you have seen within the Philippine speculative fiction scene in the last decade?

    DEAN: First and biggest for me was the reception of the anthology by writers, readers, and critics. I was floored by the number of submissions at the beginning, which proved to me that there were writers—new as well as established—who felt the same way I did: that there were other stories to tell, and other ways to tell stories. That fantasy, horror, and science fiction mattered. Then the readers, who bought and read the books and shared them, and wrote back. They showed us there was a market that cared for these stories. Then the critics and educators, who wrestled with what was then new to them, and helped bring speculative fiction into the larger conversation in terms of Philippine literature. Speculative fiction is now studied and written about in universities.

    NIKKI: Pretty much everything Dean has said, and additionally this: I’m constantly startled by the openness of readers and especially writers, by their willingness to learn and experiment, most especially the younger ones. When I was a young person, I was an arrogant shit who thought I knew everything I needed to know. (People who knew us then think this was true of Dean, not me—I was just more discreet about it.) So I’m humbled by people’s humility—and also somewhat troubled by it, because people often ask us why we don’t put together an anthology of speculative fiction in the Filipino language. The answer is that we are writers in English, and we are aware that our skills in Filipino are not sufficient to really evaluate literary execution. So we always say, “Please do it; we would love for someone to do it.” But no one has, so thanks for giving me an opportunity to say this again: Guys, you don’t need our permission. We don’t own spec-fic in the Philippines. Just go ahead and do it!

    Q. Where can readers go to find other examples of Philippine speculative fiction? Which authors would you recommend?

    DEAN: There are anthologies, collections, and novels from publishers such as Anvil, Visprint, and the university presses such as University of the Philippines Press. Eliza Victoria is one of the most prolific and gifted Filipino fictionists—check out Dwellers and Project 17 [ETA: her story “Fade” will appear in LONTAR #4]. Joseph Nacino has a number of anthologies out, such as Diaspora Ad Strata, Demons of the New Year, and The Farthest Shore, covering sci-fi, horror, and fantasy, respectively. Speculative fiction also appears in publications like Philippines Graphic, curated by Joel Pablo Salud and Alma Anonas Carpio.

    NIKKI: LONTAR! You’re publishing my best friend, Kate Aton-Osias, in the next issue, did you know that? [ETA: indeed I did, a story called “The Tango”.] Also, Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology of new Philippine myths edited by Melissa Sipin and Rachelle Cruz, is being published in the States this year, so that may be more accessible for international readers who want a physical book they can get ahold of. For the more digitally-inclined, Flipside Publishing is very active in publishing Filipino work online, much of it speculative fiction.

    Q. Shameless self-promotion time: what is next on the publication horizon for Dean Francis Alfar and Nikki Alfar?

    DEAN: My third collection of short fiction, A Field Guide to the Streets of Manila, is coming from Anvil later this year. Kenneth Yu and I will be publishing Science Fiction: Fiction for Young Adults, from UP Press. Sarge Lacuesta and I also have this year’s edition of Maximum Volume: Best New Philippine Fiction, from Anvil. And of course, Nikki and I are working on the tenth annual Philippine Speculative Fiction.

    NIKKI: My second story collection, WonderLust,recently became available digitally at the Kobo ebook store: https://store.kobobooks.com/en-US/ebook/wonderlust-1. My first collection, Now, Then, and Elsewhen, isn’t online yet, which is sort of silly of me. (Writing- and publication-wise, I tend to have frenzied spurts of activity, followed by long periods of mindless iPad devotion.) So I’ll be working on that, as well as trying to eke out enough stories I don’t hate for a third collection. Dean and I are also due to put together our next Best of Speculative Fiction anthology, curating what we consider the top stories from Philippine Speculative Fiction volumes 6 to 10—although I’m always threatening to throw him off the title, because he’s so busy that he sometimes forgets what he’s working on with whom!

    New Dean Alfar, Icarus, Nancy Kress,& more

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    Alternative Alamat cover - click to view full sizeOk first before I forget: remember we have verrrrry handy Gifts & Gift Certificates available which should take the pressure off any holiday fever you have going. Send them a gift certificate, let them pick our their own DRM-free ebooks and, Voila! Bob’s your uncle, you’re all done.

    Suggestions? How about this week’s two new titles from Flipside? More Dean Francis Alfar is always welcome so I’m glad to say we’ve added his first book, The Kite of Stars. The second title is if anything even more interesting, Alternative Alamat edited by Paolo Chikiamco has eleven stories which start off from the basic elements of Philippine mythology and then build on or question the underlying assumptions.

    Nancy Kress fans? Pick up a copy of her thriller DogsWant more? How radical are you? How about this: Earth at Risk: Building a Resistance Movement to Save the Planet. “These speakers offer their ideas on what can be done to build a real resistance movement, one that includes all levels of direct action—action that can actually match the scale of the problem.” Let’s be part of the solution!

    For those who love subscriptions, this week’s recommendation is Icarus edited by Steve Berman. You can pick up four issues at 75% off the cover price ($6.99) here. The new issue, #15, includes Peter Dube, Richard Bowes, Christopher Barzak (whose first novel was just optioned to film!), Stephen Graham Jones (who was a huge hit with the Clarion West students this summer), and JL Merrow.

    Subscription segue: Later this week we’ll have the new issue of Beneath Ceaseless Skies to keep fantasy fans happy.

    For the holidays, coming up fast so the calendar says, I’d like peace on earth and for people to be nice to each other. Once those have been accomplished, on the material goods list, maybe an excellent pair of vegan boots? Since next Tuesday is Christmas Day we may not have any new books (although we may, I’m always the last to know) and I will be busy looking for Christmas cake, hoping for a selection box, and playing with wrapping paper. Check out these bestsellers as a place to start for gifts to send all those happy folks with new ereaders to fill.

     

    New Fireside

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    Fireside Magazine — Issue TwoWe’re very happy to have sent out the second issue of Fireside Magazine off to subscribers yesterday. Fireside have really made waves with their multiple Kickstarters, it’s awesome to see the magazine build. You can get the first issue here or subscribe here. Speaking of Kickstarter, another great new magazine has a few more days left of their Kickstarter: Unstuck have raised $10K so far. You can still kick in a few bucks and get some crazy good things.

    And next week: more new things! We have 2 titles from PM Press, 2 from new-around-here-author J. M. McDermott, and one title from an international publisher, Flipside, in the Philippines—yay for DRM-free! That will be Dean Francis Alfar’s second collection, How to Traverse Terra Incognita, which I recommend you pick up. A long time ago he published a lovely story, “L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars),” in Strange Horizons and he’s only gone from strength to strength ever since.

    That’s next week. This weekend, if it’s like the rest of the month, the bestsellers will be Clarkesworld Magazine (hey, Kij Johnson and Sofia Samatar, all right!), Lauriat: A Filipino-Chinese Speculative Fiction Anthology, and Irregulars. Oh yeah, and Fireside.