Locating ‘The Imaginary Iceberg’

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - January 30, 2021 - 12:00am

In 1979, Fr. Joseph A. Galdon, S.J., edited the book “Essays on the Philippine Novel in English” published by Ateneo de Manila University Press. It is a compilation of critical essays first published in the esteemed journal “Philippine Studies,” which Ateneo still publishes every quarter. The book gathered together various essays on the Philippine novel in English from 1921 to 1975.

In the spirit of the times, Fr. Galdon listed the themes of the Philippine novel as discussed by the novelist and National Artist for Literature, NVM Gonzalez. The first is the theme of the barrio and city; the second, the theme of Rizal’s hope of the Fatherland, which telescopes freedom, integrity, social justice and the upliftment of the masses. The third theme is that of the Lost Eden, or the longing for a pre-colonial condition that is forever lost, and the fourth is the theme of illusion versus reality.

Another eminent writer, Bienvenido N. Santos, never became a National Artist for Literature because he acquired American citizenship during the Marcos dictatorship when his novel “The Praying Man” was banned. He said that “love remains the constant in the variety of the fictional menu Filipino novelists prepare for their readers, whose particular favorite is the tragic love story. Love as sin rather than love as grace holds much more reading delight than stories of wandering idealists or tales of mighty ‘conquistadores’ in their silks fighting one another for power in an age strangely removed from Sapang Palay (where the urban poor were relocated) and all the make-believe ‘dakilang pag-ibig’ (great love) of a Sampaguita or LVN Production… There is the love element, though not necessarily present as a theme, in practically every Filipino novel in English.”

Furthermore, Fr. Galdon suggested another way of viewing the Philippine novel in English.

“It is the movement of the novel from romanticism to realism from 1921 to 1975… But as time passes, the novels become less and less romantic, even anti-romantic at times, and become more realistic or existential in character… Sex becomes more explicit, characters are more ‘rounded’ and ‘psychological,’ and their inner selves, confronted with ethical choices, are explored more deeply and the authors seek something closer to a one-to-one correspondence between representation and subject.”

In 1998, or almost 20 years after Fr. Galdon’s book, Dr. Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo published her book, “A Gentle Subversion: Essays on Philippine Fiction in English.” In her essay called “History as Fiction: The Contemporary Filipino Novel in English,” Dr. Hidalgo asserted that the novels published from 1973 to 1998 revealed that “the writers in English no longer feel hesitancy regarding the writing of historical novels, if, in fact, they ever felt it. Many are precisely historical novels.”

But history in these novels is not a mere setting, a convenient place card for protagonists and antagonists in the book. Dr. Hidalgo said that history “enters into the motivation of the characters; it propels the plot. The characters in these novels are political beings, their conflicts are engendered by political events. I would even claim that the protagonist here is the nation itself; the real conflict, the desperate need for survival.”

And here is where I will insert, if I may, my first novel with the original title of “The Imaginary Iceberg.” My novel began as a series of short stories written from 1983 to 1993. This was the time I just finished my college studies at Ateneo de Manila University, then took an MA in English Literature at the same university, and finally left for the United Kingdom to take my M.Phil. in Publishing Studies at the University of Stirling on a British Council Scholarship.

The stories written in that decade were mostly in the realistic mold, stories about a young gay man growing up in a military air base during the Marcos dictatorship. Some of them were published in “Focus Philippines” edited by Kerima Polotan, while the others saw print in “National Midweek” edited by Gregorio C. Brillantes. I was lucky to have these two formidable editors as gatekeepers of my early work.

My stay in the United Kingdom was marked not only by postgraduate studies but by many pleasurable hours of reading, especially when winter set in. I had begun reading the stories of Angela Carter and the novels of Milan Kundera and Gabriel Garcia Marquez when I was still in the Philippines. John Smith’s Booksellers on campus, as well as Waterstones in town, sold copies of their other books, so I gladly bought them and read. I also began reading the erotic novels of Anais Nin (“The Little Birds”) and the gay fiction of Edmund White (“A Boy’s Own Story”). The horizon of my reading – and my world – was expanding before my very eyes,

In 1990, I received an offer for a scholarship to take the Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing plus a teaching assistantship at Kansas State University in the USA. But I chose to return to the Philippines and resume teaching at Ateneo de Manila University.

Then in April of 1993, I got a writing fellowship at Hawthornden Castle in Midlothian, Scotland, to finish my second collection of poems called “Black Silk Pajamas.” The British Council gave me free airfare, a stipend and also another fellowship, this time at the Cambridge Seminar on Contemporary British Writing at Downing College in July of 1993.

The fellowship at Hawthornden Castle meant one month of necessary leisure just to write, with free board and lodging, in an ancient castle that, I would learn later, was also inhabited by a ghost.

I finished revising my book of poems in one week, and then I stopped cold. I still had three weeks to go. And as the leaves began to sprout from the dead trees outside, I began writing my novel. I looked at the stories I had written in the last decade, and then I wrote chapters that filled in the gaps. The rooks began to fly, like black letter Vs in the sky, as my handwritten words began to fill up my yellow sheets of paper.

My book, “Riverrun, A Novel,” is available at shopee.ph and amazon.com. Email: danton.lodestar@gmail.com

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