Glenn Diaz doesn’t have a problem with being too political

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Glenn Diaz, whose writing often wrestles with gargantuan concepts like capitalism and imperialism, on how he finds comfort in writing. Photo courtesy of GLENN DIAZ

UPDATE: Glenn Diaz's second novel "Yñiga," was recently announced as one of the shortlisted works for The Novel Prize, a new biennial prize "for a book-length work of literary fiction written in English by published and unpublished writers around the world." More details below. 

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Glenn Diaz didn’t want to graduate on time. Taking up a degree in secondary education at the University of the Philippines, he knew then that life would go downhill after college.

“It was unthinkable for me to spend the next 40 years of my life doing a day job that I hopefully like tapos retire at 60. Then, it's over. I had fun in college, and I didn't want that to end,” he says.

So, to extend his stay at the university, Diaz worked as a call center agent during his junior year. The year was 2005. Back then, the call center industry had just begun taking a stronghold in the Philippines. “It was an interesting thing that people were curious about,” he says. “People know that it's not going to be a long-time thing, but it was also a way to earn money quickly.

But alongside its economic appeal, working as a call center agent was sometimes, as Diaz says, “disempowering.”

“Right now, because of COVID-19, the election in the U.S., and this Karen phenomenon, I think people are just starting to get a sense of how entitled and how difficult some Americans can be,” Diaz says, “Imagine dealing with that kind of entitlement and that kind of pride and individualism on a nightly basis. I remember whenever someone would shout at me I would almost cry. The way you process that, you'll think: am I weak? Is that my fault as a person? But then, whatever disempowering feelings that I had, there's a reason behind that; it's not just a weakness of character.”

Related: Can stories be a portal out of our pre-pandemic ‘normal’?

Diaz wrote columns about his call center experience for The Collegian. But when he started writing fiction, he would again meditate on that period and its place within the continuum of our colonial history.

He says, “I was writing for The Collegian [while I was working as a call center agent], so I was also learning about the country's colonial history. I thought it was interesting in a double-sided way that what I was experiencing on a nightly basis in a very intimate and private sense has something to do with events that happened hundred years ago or that happened between all these Americans and Filipinos and even the Spanish. I drew comfort from the fact that I can think of my experience in historical terms. To me, that's empowering. Thinking of that in historical terms is a way to draw strength from that disempowering experience.”

His first short story turned out to be a narrative about a call center agent who encounters a Caucasian man on the train. Diaz produced a collection of short stories about the call center industry for his thesis in his MA in Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. It would later result in his award-winning first novel “The Quiet Ones,” which zooms in on the lives of call center agents involved in an embezzlement case.

Now, Diaz's unpublished second novel, "Yñiga" has been shorlisted for the The Novel Prize, a new award "for a book-length work of literary fiction written in English by published and unpublished writers around the world." The winner will receive $10,000 in the form of an advance against royalties and will have their book simultaneously published by Fitzcarraldo Editions (UK and Ireland), Giramondo (Australia and New Zealand), and New Directions (North America) in their respective publishing territories.

Here, Diaz talks to CNN Philippines Life about writing as a way of unpacking anxieties and why he’s looking forward to the day when he no longer has to write.

What’s the core philosophy that guides your work?

Zadie Smith did this wonderful panel at Singapore Writers Fest recently. She said that the job is to observe and to observe well. I agree with that to a certain extent. As a Filipino writer, my main basis is historical consciousness, precisely because our contemporary lives are shaped so drastically by history.

Following Fredric Jameson, I always look at history as the ultimate horizon of experience. The guiding philosophy of my writing is history. I always subject my experience in historical terms.

“The Quiet Ones” has been out for three years already. I was reading interviews with you about it. And you said that in the beginning, you knew that you wanted to write about the call center industry. Even your first short story was about a call center agent. Can you tell me more about the conception of “The Quiet Ones?”

I suppose at the moment that the experience was happening I didn't know that it was going to be important to me. It was only, I suppose, many years later — this is also true for my current project — it was only many years later when I gained that emotional distance from the experience that I realized the kind of weight — emotional, political, historical weight — that it had on me as a person.

When I started writing stories, I didn't have any classes on fiction, but you know, I came in through an MA creative writing program so I was limited to short stories. The way they teach you creative writing for fiction is through short stories. I had no choice but to write short stories. From the get-go, I realized that I was writing all these short stories and they had something in common. They were happening in the same universe. They were talking about the same things. They featured one character, a central protagonist, which is as you know a thinly veiled version of myself. I realized they were asking the same things in terms of the political project, in terms of the historical project in hindsight. The thinking of the entire thing as a book came much later but when I was writing the piecemeal stories, they were asking the same things so I was really afflicted with questions about history, about empire, about colonization, etc. No matter if I am writing about, you know, the other call center experience or like this Spanish cougar in Pagudpud, they were asking the same things about the afterlife of the empire in the Philippines. That's how it happened. 

"I've realized that when people say something is too political it means that they've thought of the "political" as separate from the everyday life, which is another damage that capitalism inflicts."

When I was a young fiction writer, I was really enamored with, you know, being inspired by a scene or a dialogue. You were birthing stories that way. Eventually, I wanted to be more deliberate in terms of a political project. The political project or the political impetus came first and then when I had a sizable number of stories enough for a book, I thought I didn't want my first book to be a collection of short stories. I didn't think that would have a coherent enough or a hefty enough weight. I wanted it to be more coherent and more united in terms of the political projects. I wanted to have a "novel" for my first book. That's really how I decided that, you know, there must be a way to piece all these things together and to come up with a book.

Around that time, I remember I was reading Jennifer Egan's third or fourth book “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” which is a novel made out of short stories. I thought there must be a way to weave all these stories together and call it a novel. I spent about a year and a half to sort of find a way to call it a novel.

And now you’re writing your second book. I keep seeing you tweeting articles about forests with the hashtag #RRL. Is the second book about the forest?

It's not really about the forest. The forest is more of an animating spirit. It's not thematically about the forest. We're dealing now with a lot of counterinsurgency from this government. But it's really just a continuation or a worsening of something that we've already experienced during the Arroyo administration. The book is about the spate of political killings during the Arroyo administration in the early to mid-2000s. It's about a woman. I joke that my main character or the protagonist in the second book is really just Carolina from the previous book that I transplanted to Manila. It's about an older woman who lives in an area near the slums. One day, they discover that a general wanted for the murder and disappearance of activists and peasants in the countryside is hiding in their neighborhood. Maybe I shouldn't say more.

You finished it during the quarantine?

I did, sad to say. I was one of those writers who actually became productive during lockdown.

Did the pandemic in any way affect your writing?

In the early weeks of the lockdown, I was unhinged. I remember that long summer from March to the early part of May, it was crazy. I was not thinking straight. I was not able to do anything for a good solid month. After things normalized — chaos normalizes into something you can ignore, 'no? Or at least live with — I talked to my supervisor. She gave me a deadline for my academic essay. I was really thankful for that deadline. After all that chaos of not being able to function at all, I was thankful that there was something that can lend structure to my life. Since then, I was kind of just drifting. I don't force myself to write. I have that privilege and the luxury of not writing if I don't have to. Cliché as it sounds, I prioritized my mental health. If I don't feel like writing for long stretches of time, I don't force it.

The last two writers I interviewed write longhand. I also read a blog by Alexander Chee and he was talking about how technology changed the way he writes. When you're writing on your computer, there's this intrinsic notion that you can always revise, you can always rename your file, and you can always erase what you've written in just a second. So, I'm curious to know how you write.

I'm a touch typist, so I type fast. I counted 120 words per minute. I don't think I wrote anything longhand actually. Of course, you have super early drafts like snippets written longhand pero stories or fiction I really write straight on the computer. That works for me because I'm one of those obsessive writers who can't move on to the next sentence until one sentence is "perfect" in the meantime. [The] knowledge that you can always revise can be harmful or detrimental to the practice, but I like that.

I've lost count of how many times I revised “The Quiet Ones.” Before I proceed to the next section, I read the entire previous section. I'm going to revise that again and again before I move on to the next. That's impossible when you write longhand. Of course, it's going to slow you down. But I feel like — it might sound counterproductive — the little fine tuning or changing one tiny word or switching paragraph, that entire process of soaking up the world of the fiction, that obsessively going through the text again and again allows you to really inhabit the world that you're creating.

Considering that, how do you realize that the work is done?

That's the difficult question: When is it done? Or when is it good enough? I went to a residency in India in 2013 and I remember having a conversation with a friend there. I told her, I can't put the book out because I feel it can be better. She told me it can always be better. That's true. It can always be better.

I suppose at a certain point you have to get sick of the thing, be enamored with another project, and decide that something is good enough. It can always be better, but at that point in your life, it's good enough. I also believe that whatever weakness or whatever's lacking in the book or something that you put out at that point is a record of yourself at that time. There's also value in being reminded of that. “The Quiet Ones” didn't really come out a long time ago but when I read it now, there's some dissatisfaction in some of the choices, in some of the decisions that I made. But at that point, as a 30-year-old writer, it's fine. There's value in knowing that this is how you wrote, this is how you processed things when you were at a certain point in your life.

"As a Filipino writer, my main basis is historical consciousness, precisely because our contemporary lives are shaped so drastically by history."

When did you realize that you want to write for a living?

After college, I worked for an internet company. I wrote content for a TV-oriented website. I did that for a couple of years. I knew there was money to be had in writing, if you're not picky. At the time, I also used to do SEO on the side. I knew there was money to be had in that kind of writing but at a certain point I realized it's not worth it. Around this time, I also switched to fiction. I knew I wanted to write fiction, so I needed a job or I needed to do something that would allow me to write fiction. I quit my day job and did freelance. My god, medyo may hubris ako noon na the world needs to read my fiction. (Laughs) I was a freelance writer for a good five or six years. That really allowed me to earn a living and write fiction.

When I got into a residency in India in 2013, the concept of writing residency was so alien to me then. They will fly you in, they will put you in this wonderful location, give you all your meals for three months, tapos all you have to do is write. That's when I realized that there must be a way to pursue that life. I also turned 28 then. If you believe in astrology, may mga ganyang remaking na nangyayari when you turn 28, 'di ba? I realized I needed to carve a life out of writing fiction. If anything else suffers, I have to simplify those other aspects of my life. I'm sure it's going to change eventually, that decision for myself. But at a certain point, I was so enamored and am still at this point with writing fiction that I want to reorganize my life around it.

But have you ever thought of a life without writing?

When I finished the first draft of what I hope to be my second book, parang na-depress agad ako kasi now I have to think of a third project. Just as quickly I realized I don't have to. I can just not write. I look forward to that to be honest. I'm no longer that writer who says I'm going to die if I don't write. When [my writer friends and I] talk and find that so and so is no longer writing, the conclusion is baka they're happy somewhere not writing. That's the implication na if you're not anxious about shit, parang why write? Parang may ganong conclusion. So, I really look forward to that day when I no longer have to write.

I don't know where I read it, but a lot of people find your work to be too political. Do you think there's such a thing as being too political?

I've been thinking about this recently. I've realized that when people say something is too political it means that they've thought of the "political" as separate from the everyday life, which is another damage that capitalism inflicts. You don't think of yourself in political terms, so when you encounter overtly political stuff, you think of it as heavy handed or you think of it as obtrusive or parang sermonizing. On the flip side, I can certainly write a non-obtrusive piece of writing but that only conforms to the fragmented nature of reality that we've been subjected to.

What do you think are the biggest challenges for writers now?

Recently, I was part of a couple of programs out of Singapore like the Singapore Writers Fest and an online residency. I realized Filipino writers are so starved. Institutionally, we don't get any kind of support from the state or even from the private sector. Feeling ko that's the challenge: The kind of material and maybe even moral support from institutions. We have a lot of wonderful writers, so we're not starved for talent. Imagine if we don't have to deal with the emotional trauma of this administration. Imagine the kind of flourishing we can do. How can you even nourish your interior life enough to write when you're thinking of all these things? I'm watching this Danish series called “Rita.” Tapos parang wala silang problema because they have healthcare, they have public transportation. The material challenges are really the challenge to writing.

"Personally, I try to be ethical. I try to be hyper aware of my subject position, the privileges that I have, my blind spots as a person[...] It's really about trying to do good things and helping others. "

We’re all trying to survive this system. And you know, capitalism makes us suffer the entire day. If you’re a worker, you just crave rest at night. Sometimes I wonder how could you actively ponder on capitalism when your time and body are being subjugated by this system? How do you actively think of ways to wrestle with the system?

'Yun nga eh. That's the thing. Many people are not aware of it. Not to be condescending, but there's really a way to go through life without knowing the systems or infrastructures that guide our lives. And parang there's pleasure in that. I suppose there's bliss in that and there's respite in that.

But at the same time, you know, para siyang the fruit from the tree of knowledge of good and evil, 'no? Once you sort of part the veil and you understand all these enormous, giant systems that are guiding and animating and dictating the way we live and the way we think, there's really no getting away from that. There's no way to close that Pandora's box. But I also think that there is power and there is relief in knowing how the enemy works. And today, because of information technology, social media, etcetera, I feel you have to actively resist being aware of these things.

Personally, I try to be ethical. I try to be hyper aware of my subject position, the privileges that I have, my blind spots as a person, etcetera. It's really about trying to do good things and helping others. I mean, it sounds new age-y and basic but I think the danger really, in terms of ideology and in terms of consciousness, that capitalism inflicts is separating people and fragmenting consciousness. I feel the antidote to that is to always remember that we're all together, that we're all part of a collective, that we're all suffering through capitalism.

I remember for instance a long time ago, I took a cab ride tapos I noticed that the meter was running really fast. When you take cabs all the time, you notice these things. As in there's no denying. From U.P. to Kamuning, it was like 300 pesos. I knew there was something wrong. Typically, you would just be angry at the cab driver. But you know, I talked to him and mentioned to him that there's something wrong here. Before he got defensive, I told him you know we're all victims of the system. You're also a victim of the system. You're doing this for your own reasons. Maybe you have a family, you have to put food on the table, etcetera, so I understand that. He opened up and said why he had to do all these things. I think there has to be a point when we reckon with the kind of divide that capitalist thinking inflicts on us. I feel there's a way to connect to people and find affinities and find solidarity.

To end, what have you been reading lately?

I'm doing this podcast called “Anong Kuwento Natin?” with Edgar Samar. If I have access to a copy of the text that he is discussing I read that. Right now, I'm reading “Shuggie Bain” by Douglas Stuart. It's the recently announced Booker Winner. I'm reading the new Arundhati Roy non-fiction. Those are the two things on my bedside stand.