The hills of Vermont
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - September 22, 2018 - 12:00am

That is the title of Kerima Polotan’s wonderful essay on her stay at the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference, an essay that was later included in her book, Adventures in a Forgotten Country.

She went there and mentioned that John Ciardi, who looked like a baseball player, was ‘the big cheese,’ and described how the colors of Vermont’s hills changed from green to red as autumn came.

I had just awakened one May morning when I saw an email from Breadloaf in my inbox. I had already forgotten that I sent them my novel six months ago along with a $15 application fee so I could get in what The New Yorker has called “the toughest writers’ conference in the US.” The email said they are accepting me as a general participant in Fiction, and that only 20% of applicants from around the world got in.

I sat bolt upright on my bed and my mind flew. This was the same writers’ conference where National Artist NVM Gonzalez studied under Katherine Anne Porter, and the same writers’ conference where Kerima Polotan – with shotgun in hand – shooed away the troublesome Persian poet who was hounding her roommate for sex.

I immediately got to work. First, I went to the website of the US embassy, downloaded their application form for a B1-B2 visa and filled up 30 pages of questions. I paid the fee at a Malaysian bank, scheduled my interview, and took a Grab on my interview day, since my alarm clock – of all days – did not ring!

I arrived just in the nick of time and the head of security – a Malaysian Indian who is married to a Filipino from Baguio City – led me inside the embassy. I had all my documents in hand – letter from my employer, the University of Nottingham in Malaysia; copies of my two old passports that contained my two, previous US visas; my bank statement and detailed itinerary, the works.

The gentleman who interviewed me was brisk and efficient and he just asked me the purpose of my travel. “To attend the Breadload Writers’ Conference,” I said, and added: “to see my sister in the US.”

He must know Breadloaf because he nodded when I mentioned it, and then his only query was: “When was the last time you saw your sister?”

I answered: “Ten years ago, when we buried our parents one month apart.”

He looked at me intently, then scanned the computer in front of him, that I am sure informed him I had stayed in the US three times before, twice as a tourist on holidays and once as a Fulbright Scholar – and then he told me, “This visa is granted.”

I thanked him and wished him a good day, and then I left. I was so hungry I walked down Jalan Tun Razak and found, of all places, a McDonalds, entered it and ordered a Big Mac which I rarely do, for lunch. Then I went home, bought the cheapest airline ticket I could find (Philippine Air Lines, Kuala Lumpur-Manila-Los Angeles, with its good airline food) and paid for it with my credit card.

Then I did an inventory of my clothes. This was Vermont, of course, green and cold and beautiful, so I brought along my clothes for autumn, bought my pasalubong of Malaysian food and batik for family and friends in Los Angeles and New York, and pretty soon, it was time to fly.

Hell time came when my seatmate from Manila to LA turned out to be a man who must have weighed 500 pounds. He asked the stewardess for an extra seatbelt, and his flab, like a flood, occupied half my seat. He snored his way throughout the 14-hour flight and after ten hours, I looked at the ceiling and told God, “What have I done this time to deserve this?”

But since God did not answer me, I just watched all the six James Bond movies in the PAL entertainment collection, from Goldfinger to Skyfall, until we arrived in LA.

I stayed in LA for a few days, then I flew to New York JFK, on a flight that got rerouted from Las Vegas to Phoenix to Charleston and finally to New York. With hardly any sleep at all, I pulled my luggage in JFK and transferred to a small plane bound for Burlington in Vermont. Afterward, I took a van all the way to the mountaintop, where Breadloaf sat.

Tiphanie Yanique was my fiction teacher, and we had a blast. Originally from Saint Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, she now teaches at Wesleyan University. She was brisk and bright and light-hearted, but oh boy, she never minced her words. We had classes on the second floor of the Davidson Library, where I stayed often because it was warm and filled with lovely books. We first discussed the good points found in the works of fiction, then what could be improved. It was like graduate school in creative writing again, with matters of craft and technique discussed at length and with such depth.

Tiphanie also had a one-on-one session with us. We discussed an excerpt from my novel, after which she looked at my eyes and she said: “Danton, you are no longer a beginning writer. You are already a wonderful writer. You should send your next novel to a literary agent and get published in New York.” I just blinked my eyes and nodded.

Two nights before we left, The Dark Tower reading was held. It was a reading by writers “of color,” and I read an excerpt from my novel. Afterward, the Latinos rushed to me and asked me in Spanish, “Where is the Spanish original of your novel?” I told them I write in English, and they said, “No, you belong to us.”

I just smiled at them and later, while walking to my room in the cold night, with the scent of pine trees in the air, I knew that I now have three writer’s rooms in my mind: Ateneo Art Gallery where Eric Torres taught us poetry, Hawthornden Castle in Scotland where I wrote my first novel, and now Breadloaf, which just showed me what I should really be doing for the rest of my life: to write.

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