Thinking about the forest and the city with novelist Glenn Diaz

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Diaz talks about completing “Yñiga” amid the pandemic, women as subject positions in his works, and the privilege of thinking about the world. Photo by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In August 2014, after nearly three years in hiding, retired army general Jovito Palparan Jr. was captured at a house in Sta. Mesa, Manila. Notoriously known as “The Butcher,” Palparan was then wanted for the 2006 disappearance of UP students Karen Empeño and Sherlyn Cadapan — a charge he would be found guilty of four years later.

That arrest took place near the house where author Glenn Diaz grew up, a seemingly banal detail that would eventually shape what was already seeping into his imagination: something about an old woman, political killings, unresolved daddy issues, and reckoning with history. That arrest would, in fact, parallel the opening scene of Diaz’s sophomore novel “Yñiga,” once deemed by the author as his “Palparan novel” until it rolled into larger, deeper thematic preoccupations, as Diaz shared in these brief, Chingbee-esque notes.

Published by Ateneo de Manila University Press in 2022, “Yñiga” was shortlisted for The Novel Prize two years earlier. The award is given biennially by Fitzcarraldo Editions, Giramondo and New Directions to “a book-length work of literary fiction written in English by published and unpublished writers around the world." Prior to this, Diaz’s debut novel “The Quiet Ones” gained much acclaim from the literary community and went on to win the Palanca Grand Prize, the Philippine National Book Award, and the Madrigal Gonzalez First Book Award — and is currently in its seventh printing. Early 2022, Diaz, through Paper Trail Projects, released another book, the entrancing “When the World Ended I Was Thinking about the Forest,” as well as a zine called “Bisperas” at the Better Living Through Xeroxography (BLTX) expo in December.

In the tremulous, sprawling worlds that Diaz builds, violence invades in the most benign and menial of forms, well aware that monsters also exist in the minutiae. But what towers over this is how Diaz perpetually centers the forest and the city in his works, most of which are available on his website, as sites of power dynamics, sociopolitical conditions, and history’s unfolding — creating dense, often formally daring prose that attempts to complicate, if not unmake, the “superficial understanding of the world,” as the author puts it.

“Ang thinking ko lagi diyan, the conventional narrative of the world is always superficial, para siyang ‘[Kapuso Mo,] Jessica Soho’ or ‘Rated K,’ parang the person will always overcome systemic shit, that’s the default narrative for many people,” says Diaz. “In writing, you have the opportunity to, I hate this word, add nuance to complicate that.”

Recently, in a coffeehouse and roastery near the university where he teaches literature and creative writing, I had the opportunity to speak to Diaz. Here, the novelist talks about completing “Yñiga” amid a fraught zeitgeist, women as subject positions in his works, relentlessly coming to terms with the English question, and the privilege of thinking about the world.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Diaz’s debut novel “The Quiet Ones” gained much acclaim from the literary community and went on to win the Palanca Grand Prize, the Philippine National Book Award, and the Madrigal Gonzalez First Book Award. Photo by JL JAVIER

I’ve learned that you’ve written your first novel “The Quiet Ones” for about six years. Did the idea for “Yñiga” already cross your mind around the same time? How was your writing process for “Yñiga?"

I had a character in mind. I remember mayroon akong nasulat na initial scene, not even a full-blown chapter, tapos na-workshop siya sa Iligan [National Writers] Workshop a long time ago, 2013. ‘Yun ang record na alam kong character na talaga siya, as in kahit ‘yung pangalan niya [settled na].

The first scene I had was the interview scene. Alam ko nang may interview scene ‘yung babae, tapos ito ‘yung pangalan niya, tapos alam ko lang na mayroon siyang something in the past, tapos ‘di ko pa alam ‘yung biography niya. Hindi pa siya tapos nun, basta alam ko lang na may female character, tapos andun siya sa isang lugar, tapos may daddy issues, tapos may historical stuff.

[Pero] noong nag-MA na ako, I started writing the stories that would end up sa “The Quiet Ones.” Nauna ko siyang matapos kasi mabilis siyang isulat, biographical, tapos parang siya ‘yung MA thesis ko. So medyo naiwan ko ‘yung “Yñiga” project, tapos nabalikan ko lang siya for PhD na [dahil] kailangan ko ng bagong nobela.

I’ve read some reviews of “The Quiet Ones” that zero in on the book’s supposed lack of plot mostly because of your writing style. Did it in any way inform your writing for “Yñiga?"

Yeah, actually very conscious ako na kailangan ko ng plot [for “Yñiga”]. Not that I resented the fact na loose ang plot ng “The Quiet Ones,” pero gusto ko kasing “nobela” siya. That was the initial conviction I had about the book. Gusto ko talagang doubtless na magiging nobela siya. By virtue of that, kailangan talagang may plot siya. Tapos sa PhD nga siya sinulat ‘di ba, so every chapter pinapasa ko dun sa supervisor ko. Tapos, kahit na naglalaro ako ng time [sa narrative], pinu-push talaga niya ako [about] what happens next, to push the story. Interesting din naman ‘yun na kailangan mo talagang gawing plot-driven, gawing umaandar ‘yung kuwento.

Interesting siyang challenge kasi never ko siyang naisip na challenge sa “The Quiet Ones” because of my training. ‘Pag sa CW [Creative Writing] kasi, dahil short story ang training niyo, parang ‘yung plot talaga, of course may plot-driven short stories, ay secondary to character development and scene-setting. So ang challenge sa akin para maging “nobelista,” whatever that means, ay kailangan marunong kang mag-move ng plot.

The cover of Yñiga illustrated by Jo Tanierla. Photo from GLENN DIAZ/WEBSITE

There’s something cinematic about how you open “Yñiga” in the same way that the introduction of “The Quiet Ones” feels so seductive. How do you go about your introductions? Is it really the first thing that you write?

Great question. For “Yñiga,” kailangan talaga siyang unahin kasi opening siya. Parang I’ve had three to four starts na may iba akong pinaplanong opening, pero noong na-figure out ko nang ganito ‘yung magiging rhythm niya, na ganito ‘yung magiging look, feel at stand ng narrator, medyo na-pin down ko na siya. Sa “The Quiet Ones,” kasi nga parang kailangan ko siyang gawing nobela, kailangan plot-driven ‘yung simula at dulo. Doon ko pala nasulat ‘yung “Escape,” ‘yung initial short story na ginawa kong first chapter ng “The Quiet Ones,” pero hindi talaga siya ‘yung unang-una kong nasulat.

I’ve always been interested in how fiction imagines. ‘Yun ang challenge ko sa “The Quiet Ones” na sobrang visual talaga ‘yung imagination, so iniisip ko nga kung paano mare-render, halimbawa dun sa “The Quiet Ones,” may initial scene na nag-a-alternate between the hotel room, tapos paglalakad, tapos mayroong audio ng balita sa TV, so parang simultaneous na stimuli ng visual, audio, etcetera. Interesting sa akin kung paano siya nare-render in fiction kasi sa fiction ‘di iba isa-isa lang ‘yung mga bagay, hindi puwedeng sabay ‘yung visual tsaka audio. Certainly, visual ako mag-imagine. Some people say it’s wrong, [that] it’s not very suited to fiction kasi fiction ‘di ba, [it concerns] voice and consciousness as opposed to the visual vocabulary or register.

“The Quiet Ones” somehow takes a fragmented structure, which I find sexy; “When the World Ended I Was Thinking about the Forest” reminds me of “Bluets” by Maggie Nelson; and in “Yñiga,” you’ve let go of quotation marks and opted not to set Tagalog words in italics. Do you see these particularities as mere experimentations in form?

Hindi naman completely intentional or deliberate like this is gonna be super meaningful or this is gonna be discursive, but I have ideas in mind. Writing is formal. It’s inevitably formal, so all the choices are, I suppose, simultaneously intuitive. Meaning, feel ko lang naman, tapos okay din naman ‘yun kung feel mo lang naman, walang rason. But at the same time, they come from a creative mind, so may dahilan siya kahit hindi siya masyadong conscious. Parang ‘yung “The Quiet Ones,” well, after the fact ko lang na-realize, if you’ve seen “Talk to Her (Hable con ella)” by [Pedro] Almodóvar, parang ganun ‘yung structure niya. Sobrang later in life ko lang na-realize na may ganun pala.

Doon sa “Yñiga,” napapangitan lang ako sa quotation marks, parang excessive lang siya, parang ganung knee-jerk [response] na hindi naman siya pinag-isipan masyado. But I realized later on kailangan maayos ‘yung dialogue kasi ‘pag maayos ‘yung dialogue, feeling ko hindi na kailangan ng quotation marks, so it helps me be alert to the register of whoever is speaking. Parang may blurring din kung ano ‘yung spoken tsaka ‘yung iniisip ng characters. So nagsimula siya na instinctive lang, but when you think about it, actually may mga dahilan pala.

"I’ve always been interested in the city as a thing, as an object," says Diaz. Photo by JL JAVIER

In “When the World Ended I Was Thinking about the Forest,” you’ve mentioned the balete in Jose Rizal’s “Noli Me Tángere” and “El Filibusterismo, which, as you said, “might be the unacknowledged center of Rizal’s narrative universe.” The balete is also significant in “Yñiga.” Is there a spiritual connection there?

(Laughs) Ang bigat. I don’t know. I think the interpretation comes afterwards, although I also think, of course, may connection kasi I reread “Noli” and “El Fili” every year, parang hobby ko siyang basahin tuwing bakasyon, so some of the ideas in the book inevitably seep into the whatever ideas that I have. Tapos kasama siya sa project ng libro… kung anong nangyari dun sa kaaway sa libro, kung paanong parang kasama ‘yung balete sa nangyari. Feeling ko interesting siyang narrative device.

“Yñiga” is replete with remarks involving zodiac signs, which add humor to the book. How invested are you in astrology?

Cute naman siya. Alam ko kasi na it’s gonna be a serious book. Thematically and politically it’s gonna be serious. So parang ‘di siya enjoy isulat kung walang moments of lightness, so why not make them in character-fixated astrology. Of course, astrology is not materialist and historical, but at the same time, parang helpful siya to characterize [people].

In a previous interview with B. B. P. Hosmillo, he asked you about the thing that you will not write about, and you said that you don’t see yourself “writing about a reality that is not compelling and resonant and true for [yourself] as an individual.” I have to ask, though, why did you, as a cisman, center “Yñiga” on mostly women characters, and how do you negotiate with that complexity as a writer?

That’s a good question. That’s my only misgiving about the book. Medyo scared ako diyan. In one of our brutal sessions doon sa UP [National Writers] Workshop, parang I asked Ma’am Luna Sicat-Cleto “as a woman writer, how do you feel about this characterization?” Tapos, if you noticed, sobrang female ng universe ng “Yñiga” or ang daming female characters. When I think about it biographically, tungkol siya sa mga babae sa buhay ko, my lola and my mother. So all the biographical details, ‘yung sa Zambales, the teachings, the characterization of the nanay characters, those are bits and pieces of other women that I know. And then the other thing is that my generation, parang for many of us, our political education, especially sa subject ng political killings and desaparecidos, it began with Sherlyn Cadapan and Karen Empeño, first they’re also women, tapos ang mukha talaga nun ay ‘yung mga nanay nila up to now, [like the face of the disappearance of] Jonas Burgos is Edita Burgos. It’s them, it’s the women who are carrying the fight sa ganitong political context.

In terms of how I, as a cis male author, negotiate with that, feeling ko si Yñiga actually ay parang extension siya ng Carolina character doon sa “The Quiet Ones.” I’ve always felt like, actually this is appropriation or weird, an old woman. Of course, not feel as in feel, tsaka may physiological difference, but in terms of sensibility, that’s what I feel about the world. May something attractive about that subject position. At na-realize ko rin, after much probing with a friend, dahil ‘yun sa lola ko kasi sobrang lola’s boy ako. If you noticed, kahit sa “The Quiet Ones” maraming old female characters, kahit pa strangers lang in addition to Carolina. I feel like I write about them or from their perspective. Not to be defensive, kaya hindi rin ako nag-first person [point of view]. Tsaka, if you noticed, Yñiga is kind of opaque, parang inscrutable siya. I know she’s unlikable kasi hindi nare-reveal ‘yung motivations niya masyado. Siguro that’s also my way of edging na I’m not taking on the consciousness of someone whose experiences of the world, frankly, will never be privy to myself.

Death haunts the entirety of the narrative of "Yñiga," as it was written and completed during the tail-end of the Duterte presidency. Photo by JL JAVIER

Apart from being overtly political, there’s also so much grief and a very distinct nothingness in “Yñiga,” which I find so personal. I’m curious, though, about how you deal with grief, especially during the pandemic.

This book was written and completed during the tail-end of the Duterte presidency, so parang death talaga haunts the entirety of the narrative. And ‘yung political killings na kahit na the book supposedly engages Arroyo-era political killings, pero because of our history, tinuloy siya ni Duterte, parang whatever unfinished business that Arroyo and the national security sector had, may continuity in that.

In terms of grief, feeling ko, like with everyone, the pandemic was tough and exhausting. But at the same time, as in [habang sinusulat ko] itong librong ‘to I was like on the verge of very horrible things… medyo salvation talaga siya na I have to work on something, so it saved me. Obviously, it shaped my impossible, gargantuan sentiments.

Seldom do I see writers depict the urban poor community with grounded understanding. How did the community at Sitio San Roque help you complete “Yñiga” and, more importantly, inform your politics?

I’ve always been interested in the city as a thing, as an object. One way to look at it for myself, ‘yung trajectory ng mga bagay, continuation siya ng “The Quiet Ones” in the preoccupations of the city as representative of power relations, repercussions of politics, etcetera. I grew up very near the place where [Jovito] Palparan [Jr.] would be captured, in Sta. Mesa, malapit sa PUP. It’s not an affluent place by any means, so familiar talaga ako dun sa ganung milieu.

Tapos ‘pag pumupunta ako ng San Roque tapos I hear about San Roque as a place, parang emblematic talaga siya ng ganung setup sa Metro Manila, kung paano in-appropriate ‘yung space. The fact that the mode of development that the government chooses, their prioritization of central business districts, tapos ang gagawin parang the valuing of land/space based on the market, and it can occupy this space, sobrang emblematic ‘yun sa San Roque. Sobrang tagal na nila diyan, parang ‘50s or ‘60s, tapos they’ve literally built a community in the area tapos lahat ‘yun babalewalain lang dahil nga, ironically, the National Housing Authority pa ‘yung nagpapaalis sa mga tao. So it’s very much emblematic of the kind of connection between housing, situation sa siyudad, sa Metro Manila, tsaka sa developed development that the government pushes.

We met at the BLTX expo last year, and I got a copy of your zine “Bisperas” that you wrote in Filipino. I wonder if you’ve always written in English, and how do you contend with the contradiction the language carries?

I’ve always written in English, unfortunately. Mula grade school, ito ‘yung colonial education ‘di ba na parang if you write in Tagalog or Filipino, hindi siya skill na parang everybody can speak Tagalog, so ang skill talaga ay English. Pero I’ve realized, my sensibility was not squarely an English writer’s sensibility… If you read the Chingbee [Cruz] essay on [the topic], ‘yung nabasa ko ‘yun, talagang I had a moment of awakening na I realized my Tagalog/folk sensibility was corrected into English.

"We’re so totally battered by violence that it’s hard to think of ourselves as historical beings or in historical terms."

If you’re familiar with our Anglophone tradition, our English writers, for many of them, parang tapos na ‘yung English question, parang hindi na siya colonial baggage, hindi na siya source of agony… For myself, hindi siya solved kasi I can write in Tagalog, I can write in Filipino. It’s a decision, so if I decide to continue writing in English, I know there are more opportunities for myself, but at the same time, my audience, my readership will be limited. Not that I really want to be popular, but to reach more people and engage more people in conversation. Language is a fundamental aspect of that, so nasa plan ko talaga na magsulat sa Tagalog eventually.

You always anchor your work on history, class struggles, and gender. Why do you think it’s always important to confront these things?

It comes from a place of deep conviction that we need something better in this wretched world… Actually that’s my initial lessons on education and society. Medyo caricatured na siya ngayon na imperyalismo, pyudalismo, etcetera. But what I’ve come to realize, totoo pa rin siya. I still consider it the sharpest, most coherent critique of Philippine society, parang siya talaga ‘yung nag-offer ng analysis at solusyon, so that’s my political conviction. Kailangan siyang isulat kasi we need to imagine better, otherwise we give up.

I also recognize that it can be a form of privilege, I suppose, the fact that you have enough mental space to, like, think about the world, especially for Filipinos. We’re so battered by violence in a historical way, tapos in an everyday sense. [There’s] traffic, mass transportation [woes], etc.. We’re so totally battered by violence that it’s hard to think of ourselves as historical beings or in historical terms. So whenever I write, kailangan ko siyang i-foreground.

Was there a point that you were afraid your writing wouldn’t matter?

I don’t think it matters. I don’t harbor any delusions that it matters. I’m not always surprised when I’m reminded that, you know, people like you read stuff that I write (cute naman ‘yun), especially nitong huling eleksyon na sobrang unthinkable sa akin na the entire cultural army of pro-Leni, from Vice Ganda to [inaudible], that whole range of cultural figures, didn’t do anything. Of course, it has its value. Pero at the same time, we need to reckon with the fact that its value has been diminished by material, systemic, historical factors, so hindi puwedeng writing lang.


“Yñiga” is available through Ateneo Press on Shopee and Lazada.