Wednesday, July 30, 2008

3rd Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards Special Feature: Interview with Ian Casocot

Every Wednesday until August, I'll have a special feature on the 3rd Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards.

Ian Casocot is a writer based in Dumaguete where he teaches English and Literature. His fiction has appeared in numerous publications such as The Philippines Free Press and The Philippine Daily Inquirer as well as winning several local literary awards. He tied for 1st-place in the 1st Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards and tied again for 2nd place in last year's competition.

Tell us something about yourself.

Things about me you can easily Google. Let me talk about writing instead. Writing has become my life and my sanity—but, truth to tell, my writing first started out as a convenient tool for revenge. I never wanted to become a writing teacher, or a writer. True, I've been writing since I was a kid—but I never thought I'd be making it my strongest vocation in life. But people in my life prodded me to certain directions I never thought possible for myself. People told me to apply for the National Writers Workshop in Dumaguete, for example. 'What is that?' I asked, and they said, "You'll see." I did apply in 2000, and I got in, and I got to meet these really nice [older] people who seemed passionate about the craft. "Who are they?" I asked, and people said, "Why, that is so-and-so, and so-and-so, and so-and-so…" And I got to know them and most became great friends who later on would support my fledgling goal to become a "writer." Still, I thought this was just a post-collegiate phase, and that writing would never amount to anything with me. But there were other people in my circle in Dumaguete then who utterly dismissed me, and would talk about me behind my back. When I soon got wind of what they were saying about me, I told myself, "Maybe I should write a story, and submit it to the Palanca, just to show them and piss them off." I did. And it won second prize. I won second prize again the very next year—and I've never stopped writing since. Oh, they still dismiss me, but I think I'm at a point in my writing life when I've simply stopped caring about what these people have to say. Because nobody reads them anyway, so there you go. And so yes, there are stories and there are awards and there are friends and there are "frenemies." In the long run, when you find yourself aching to tell a story, it no longer matters what made you write in the first place. What matters is that you write at all.

How did you come up with the idea for your story?

I just came off winning, together with Michael Co, the first prize in the first-ever Neil Gaiman contest, and so writing the second story for the second year of the same contest proved daunting, and even more challenging. But I knew I wanted to try my hand at writing a "tale." And I wanted to showcase the history of where I came from, as I had previously with "A Strange Map of Time". I was armed with the writing philosophy of Chari Lucero which had stuck to me ever since I heard her speak in Iligan in 2002 (in a wonderful speech titled "The Music of Mortar-and-Pestle," which won the Palanca for essay in 2004): she said that we owed it to ourselves to tell the untold tales about where we came from, to fight what she called "historical amnesia" in our creative writing. And I realized that much of the ancient history of Negros actually narrates like magical tales full of treachery and mayhem and heartbreak and so on and so forth. Around that time, I was interviewing my mother's sister, my Aunt Fannie (old name: Epefania), about her childhood in my hometown of Bayawan (formerly Tolong) in southern Negros Oriental. The image she conjured of herself as a young girl who fell in love with the handsome son of one of the town's prominent families struck me. When I began writing the story, I also told myself I wanted to write a love story that was not your run-of-the-mill romance where all tropes would be explored like a checklist. I've always loved the way Dean Francis Alfar writes his love stories where love is always denied and unrequited—but still manages to evoke a romance that makes us sigh. And so I read and reread "L'Aquilone du Estrellas," and when I felt I have consumed the essence of that tale, I began mine. And so there were really three people who helped me come up with that story, my aunt Fannie Rosales-Moncal, Rosario Cruz Lucero, and Dean Francis Alfar.

What was the most challenging part of the competition?

Waiting for the result during Awards night. The writing is the easy part, because you do that in the privacy of your own writing room. But the Gaiman contest is like the Oscars. The finalists are told they've made the cut, and instructed to show up during awarding. And only then do you get to know whether you've won or lost. So you really don't know what to expect. In my case, it's even a bigger challenge because I live in Dumaguete and I have to fly in to Manila for the contest—and traveling and staying in the metropolis can be quite expensive. What if I show up and don't win anything at all? That's P15,000 down the drain, just like that.

What was the coolest moment you experienced when you won the Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards?

In the first year, it was arriving in the NBC tent to find a beautiful installation inspired by my story. Also the fact that Dean actually read an excerpt from my story in an earlier event. It was like being anointed by the Master. In the second year, it was having dinner with Neil Gaiman himself and talking at length with him. And he signed all my Gaiman books, too!

What advice can you give to those participating in this year's competition?

Write the story you are compelled to write about, and that only you can tell. I think that's an old advice from Francisco Arcellana himself.

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