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!

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