Ringing in the new
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - December 28, 2019 - 12:00am

I am writing this on the 26th of December, after I have cooked up a storm for the noche buena and travelled to five cities in the last four weeks: Kuala Lumpur, Penang, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Cebu, Manila.It got to a point that upon arrival from Penang, I worked in the university for one day, then flew to Manila the next day, just picking up my other luggage I had already stuffed with clothes for the conference On Islandic, Oceanic, and Archipelagic Studies held at the University of Santo Tomas and the Ateneo de Manila University.

Manila, it’s always Manila, as the 1970s band Hotdogs would put it. For those of us who are overseas Filipino workers, Manila is touchstone of our travels. We mostly leave through one of its three terminals in Metro Manila, saying goodbye to a busload of family and friends, departures sodden with tears. But we also arrive mostly through any of these terminals, arrivals where the heart leaps with joy the moment one passes through Customs and sees the giant Christmas trees at the airports, ablaze with lights, and listen to the choirs singing their beautiful carols.

I do not see any changes in my peregrinations in the coming year. The departure of one international academic staff at the overseas university where I work as Head of School, along with another full-time local staff opting to teach-part-time, left me no choice but to stay and soldier on until the 30th of June. After that, I have the option whether to stay on and work overseas, or finally come home to, as they say, the motherland.

One thing that will also spill over from 2019 to 2020 will be the writing projects. I have just submitted the revisions for my novel, Riverrun, which Penguin Books South East Asia has accepted for publication in 2020. In revising my novel, I had to think of the international market. Thus, the sentences with local terms like hopia, munggo, narra and patintero had to be recast in order to put the local terms in context. For example, instead of saying, “I hid under the leaves of the narra,” I added “tree” after narra. Or the flaky pastry that is the hopia is interwoven into the narrative itself.

I also added 100 more pages to the original manuscript, with the main character going to study in the United Kingdom in the time of the Iron Butterfly, Margaret Thatcher. I read again the old essays I have written about the UK, dove deep into my memories of my stay in the long, gray island locked in winter, and wrote several chapters.

These two things are fine with me, but what caused me a lot of hand-wringing was the request from the Penguin editor to write “a sex scene or two” to round off the development of the main character. How now, brown cow? If that request came to me when I was 20, I would have dashed off a heart-pounding sex-scene enough to make the reader’s jaw drop. But I am 56 years old now, and considers sex scenes as so 20th century. I postponed writing this maleficent scene for weeks on end, until one day, the editor enquired in her usual polite but firm tone how the revision of the novel is coming along? I told her, frankly, that I was, uh, frozen by the thought of writing a sex scene, so instead of the usual highly charged scene, I wrote a satire. It ended with the main character musing on Soup No. 5, that wonderful concoction of cow’s penis and balls served hot and spicy and supposed to electrify you and your partner in bed.

Yesterday, and it was Christmas Day, Penguin Books also sent me the contract for the English translation of Lope K. Santos’s monumental novel, Banaag at Sikat. Written in long and florid Tagalog in 1904, the novel skewers the capitalist system introduced by the Americans, and advocates a strain of socialism to level the playing field in the land. The executive editor of Penguin said that they have asked around and my name kept cropping up as a translator “whose works sell,” that is why they are offering me the job. I answered that my last translation work was “Tuesdays with Morrie,” the gut-wrenching novel about a teacher and his student and, yes, my translation did well in the box office, I mean, the book stores. But it’s no guarantee that the next one will also fare  as well.

Nevertheless, I read through Banaag at Sikat again, this tome of more than 600 pages, and decided that I will write a translation for the 21st-century reader. Thus, I will telescope the characters’ long debates and speeches into short bursts of digestible prose, with the point and the sharpness intact.

And just a fortnight ago, the famous writer Ricky Lee called me up while I was en route to the airport to tell me that Ateneo de Manila University Press will meet with me regarding the translation of his novel, Si Amapola sa 65 na Kabanata. In this novel, Amapola is a female impersonator who discovers that s/he is also a manananggal, a fabled viscera sucker in Philippine lore and mythology. This wicked novel goes into the mad vortex of Philippine society and politics. I was looking outside the cab window, at the mountains of Malaysia gracefully undulating around me, when Ricky said: “Only you can translate this book, Danton, so I hope you will take on this job.”

So where does that leave me time to write novel number 2? That is why I am looking at summer (June-August 2020). I have done research and looked up at the ceiling too often, contemplating the shape of a novel called Nusantara. It will be a love story about maritime South East Asia before the colonisers came, and before China turned the outlying islands into ports harboring missiles of war.

Comments can be sent to danton.lodestar@gmail.com

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