‘Riverrun’ goes to the Asian Books Blog
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - September 26, 2020 - 12:00am

My novel “Riverrun” was supposed to be originally published in April 2020, but the pandemic has moved back everything. Finally out last August, the novel has received good reviews and is selling briskly. It has been featured in some prestigious cultural sites, including the Asian Books Blog, where I was interviewed by Elaine Chiew.

Elaine is a visual arts researcher and writer herself. She is the author of a collection of stories, “The Heartsick Diaspora” and the editor of “Cooked Up: Food Fiction From Around the World.” Twice winner of the Bridport Prize for the Story, she has been shortlisted for the Manchester Short Story Prize.

Her stories have been published in the UK, US and Singapore, and most recently performed as a story for BBC Radio 4. Originally from Malaysia, she now lives in Singapore. Here is a transcript of our engaging interview. It makes a writer really feel good when the interviewer comes prepared and asks intelligent questions, the way Elaine – who is also a Stanford-educated lawyer – did.

EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Danton. Congratulations on Riverrun, a delightful and poetic read, lightly trodden but deeply impactful; and indeed, as intended, it reads like a personal, intimate memoir. Why did you decide on having this ‘memoirish’ cant, and what were some of the important artistic choices you made or differences wrought on the text by virtue of its ‘memoirish’ shape?

DR: Thank you, Elaine. I really intended it to be written lightly, as it were, since the topic is the grimness and violence of a military dictatorship in the Philippines. The narrative form is that of a memoir, which is obviously influenced by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the stories in Dubliners. Even the title of my novel comes from Ulysses by Joyce. Talk is one of the things banned in a military dictatorship, so I tried to capture the hidden talk, whispered conversations, snide remarks and seemingly unintended jokes cracked in a dictatorship.

I also experimented with Filipino English in this novel, trying to capture the way educated Filipinos spoke in English. I had written books of poetry and essays before I wrote the first draft of Riverrun at Hawthornden Castle, an old castle haunted by ghosts, in Scotland. This influenced the way the novel is written – lyrical in some parts, chatty in others.

I wrote in longhand, on yellow pad paper, and I wrote from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., stopping only for lunch breaks or to take a walk around the chilly woods that April of 1993. When I found out the voice I would use – a slightly older and more cynical person recalling his bittersweet past – the words seemed to fall into place.

Since the form is that of a memoir, I had to be selective with the scenes. I only chose those scenes that moved the narrative forward. I also tried to rein in the meandering chapters found in the early draft by either chiselling them or taking them out of the final draft. I always reminded myself that this is a story, and a story moves forward.

EC: The book is separated into two sections by geography: the first in the Philippines, and the second abroad (or roughly, mainly in the UK). It also feels separated by time: Danilo Cruz, the protagonist, as a child, and him as a teenager going on adult. How do you feel these two sections of the book reconcile with or speak to each other?

DR: The two chapters mirror each other, in a way. The child is brought up in a strictly Catholic and conservative society, where an official story is written and transparency of thought is not allowed. So, imagine his shock at arriving in the UK, where on Day One he is given condoms by the British Council as part of his, uh, package of necessary items as a scholar there. The first part of the novel is the mirror; the second part is how that mirror is cracked by his coming out and learning that the world is much bigger than his provincial upbringing.

EC: Memories can be a tricky thing, and often viewed through the lens of ‘nostalgia’. Do you feel ‘nostalgia’ can color the truth? You handled this lens with deft aplomb, it’s tinged with it but refuses stalwartly to succumb to sentimentality. Can you share some of the conscious ways you navigated this?

DR: Thank you for pointing this out. I think my training in poetry helped me deal with sentiment vis-à-vis sentimentality. Bienvenido N. Santos, one of my professors in Creative Writing and a master of Philippine fiction in English, was often accused by critics of being sentimental. But upon closer inspection, his fiction is not sentimental but rather, filled with sentiment, or feelings. They are very Filipino works. The critics, who studied in the US in the 1950s and were brought up to see fiction as a dry verbal artifice, a well-wrought urn, were wrong to apply completely such an aesthetics.

I also learnt a lot from the haiku and the Chinese poets of the T’ang Dynasty – Wang Wei, Li Po and Tu Fu – on how to write without succumbing to sentimental excess. The brilliant fiction of our Philippine National Artist, Nick Joaquin, also served as a model on writing without the glaucoma of nostalgia covering one’s eyes.

EC: Religion functions as an important backdrop throughout, from the self-flagellation witnessed by Danilo Cruz, the young gay protagonist, in San Fernando during Holy Week to eavesdropping on aunties comparing churches to his anger at Catholic hypocrisy when his cousin Naomi died.  What are some of the ways religion has shaped the makeup of a gay youth in the Philippines, or indeed, how does it wend its way into every bildungsroman?

DR: Oh, the Philippines is a very strange country, indeed. I mean, we speak English with California accents and seem cosmopolitan as anyone in Paris or New York, but our childhood was shaped, even scarred, by our conservative and hypocritical upbringing. The editor at Penguin Books – and oh, boy, was she a sharp cookie – asked why is there no sex in the draft I submitted? She also asked me to add two sex scenes, which I did.

She also said that my novel is all pure longing. I explained to her that the setting is the Philippines in the 1960s and 1970s when gay men were invisible. If they were seen at all, they took the form of the figures I wrote about: carnival entertainers who are objects of fun, closeted military men who prey on young boys or high-school bisexuals who imitate the macho posturing of their elders, as seen in that initiation scene in the woods.

“Riverrun, a Novel” can be bought at www.amazon.com Danton Remoto’s website is www.dantonremoto.com Email  danton.lodestar@gmail.com

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