“The City’s Bad Enough As It Is”: What I Write, How, and Why
I’ve always enjoyed a good ghost story. I was born on All Saints’ Day, our Day of the Dead, and for many years the highlight of my birthday was the Halloween episode of the now defunct Magandang Gabi Bayan, which my siblings and I watched in bed with a blanket around our shoulders. As a reader, a media consumer, and a busybody, I found myself gravitating toward dark fiction – everything from true crime to ghost stories about the UP Main Library – because it excited me, it intrigued me. In good horror tales, something always happened, and something always changed.
As a young reader, I only knew to categorize stories as either “good” or “boring”. Back then, all I wanted was to get from Point A to Point B – and to get to Point B fast. Who cares about lovely turns of phrases and language and words, who cares about character development? I only cared about one thing: what’s the plot? Is someone going to end up dead? Is there a lot of gore? Is there a twist? (I was a big fan of twists.) Is there a monster in it? During those early years of my life as a reader, nobody told me what to read. Nobody served as a guide, so I read whatever I found amusing, and I read blindly. Reading then was like walking around a dark house during a thunderstorm, and I believed, in my heart of hearts, that I’d be more excited if I reached out a hand and touched a large, slimy creature than if I came upon a room within which a young woman sat in silence and mourned the sudden end of her youth. (Unless the sudden end of her youth turned her into a large, slimy creature. Then that would be seriously awesome.)
Also, at an early age I got it into my head that I wanted to write horror, and so I treated every book I read and every story I heard as research, and, more importantly, as a challenge. Can you write something better than this? I read a lot of Stephen King, mainly because he had so many published books out in the market and a handful of them eventually ended up at the local book bargain bin, the only books I could afford with my allowance at the time. The 90’s also saw the rise of slasher flicks. I devoured them and regurgitated them in the form of awful, completely un-subtle, B-movie-ish horror stories, with all of the gore and none of the soul.
While this train wreck of a writing career was chugging along, I was also exposed to the most fantastic tales from my mother and my maternal grandmother, who hailed from the Cagayan Valley. These stories included Our Neighbor the Mangkukulam and The Day Your Uncle Was Nearly Taken by a Sirena. However, I didn’t immediately think of incorporating the aswang, the mangkukulam, the sirena, in my writing, because I didn’t see them as characters. They were real. They were my family’s stories, and they were sacred to me.
All of that changed when I moved to the city.
I was raised in a small town in Hagonoy, Bulacan, and after high school, I moved to Diliman, Quezon City for college and stayed in the same city for work. I met the most wonderful people there while living away from my family, but looking at those years in hindsight, I feel now that I have spent most of my years there in sadness. I didn’t feel like I was interesting enough, or cool enough, or good enough. I didn’t feel like I fit anywhere.
I joined the workforce in 2007, and in that year I began writing stories about alienation and displacement. Tales of “urban ennui”, as a fellow writer told me once. I started incorporating the aswang from my mother’s stories – perhaps out of homesickness, or perhaps due to the years and the distance I felt comfortable enough to relegate them from “sacred stories of my childhood” to “fiction fodder”. As a sad, uncertain young woman in the city, I identified more with the monsters, the solitary souls, the outliers, than with the headstrong, hateful mob, and so I made the aswang the stories’ heroes. I transplanted creatures known to be connected to rural settings – like the diwata – to the metropolis, and watched them grow tired and sad as they worked long hours and struggled to pay the rent.
That was the year I also began writing poetry in earnest. The summer before my graduation as a Journalism major, I interned in the crime beat at a major newspaper, and my poems were also filled with the darkness and deaths of the city.
For four years I stayed at the newspaper as a researcher and writer. I was (over)saturated with news stories. I dug up files and conducted research on long-forgotten crimes to establish timelines, revisit the narratives. In the face of real-life tragedy, who needs horror stories? A good question, and a question I asked myself often. And yet I continued to write them, and I continued to read them, even as I sat paranoid in commuter buses and locked (and double-locked) my apartment door at night.
By that time, writing became more than telling a good yarn.
Writing for me became a psychological exploration of motives, of the tragic trajectory of imagined lives. It was a way for me to try to answer the nagging question Why why why?
I wrote because I wanted to understand.
Why are we like this? Why do we commit these terrible deeds? Looking for the answer, I ended up with stories.
One can say I “grew up” in the city, in the sense that it was where I understood that horror and tragedy need not be loud in order to be grand, that it not be gory in order to be terrifying. That oftentimes there are no “twists”; that you can see the speeding car, the swinging blade, from a mile away, and still deny it.
“Horror is a fact of life,” said Joyce Carol Oates, “and as a writer I’m fascinated by all facets of life.” I have written in different genres with different settings, but I return to these things, again and again: alienation, displacement, world-weariness, crime, tragedy, horror, the city, the city, the city.
I explore the same themes and subjects in this new work, tentatively titled Nightfall, envisioned to consist of several interconnected stories.
The idea came to me while commuting, while stuck in traffic, while watching new buildings rise and suffocate the landscape: What if the city consisted of towers so high they block out the sun? In this bizarre, far-future setting I plan to write about our contemporary agonies: traffic jams, violence, corruption in the police force, loneliness.
It is my hope that the multi-story format will help me make the dark, nameless City come to life, and at the same time help me improve my craft and bring something new, exciting, entertaining, and thought-provoking to readers.