Archive for January, 2015

Writer, Lawyer, Literary Agent, Part 2

by on Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

At the launch of For Love and Kisses

At the launch of For Love and Kisses

Andrea Pasion-Flores holds a BA in journalism, an MA in creative writing and a JD in law from the University of the Philippines. The first part of this recent, edited interview deals with her career, the second part with her short story collection, For Love and Kisses. The volume is short and light enough for a trans-Pacific flight or maybe a trip to the beach. The seven stories are character-driven, revealing the darker side of the human psyche, and they work on different levels. The language is of a quality associated with literary fiction. What makes For Love and Kissesparticularly appropriate for readers of Turning East is that it is well grounded in place—in the physical setting and in certain sectors of middle-class and upper-middle-class Filipino society.

Book cover

Book cover

1. “For Love and Kisses.”

I noticed the influence of the Catholic Church in the five-year-old protagonist’s having an intimate familiarity with the divinity she calls Mama Mary, which made me wonder where the story came from.

It began at the wedding of someone whose mother was battling bipolar disorder. The father had left the mother and the children, and the grandmother had stepped in to help, providing for the family financially as a husband would. At the wedding the mother became very fidgety and broke her large pearl bracelet, scattering the pearls all over. When she started to pick them up, she held up the ceremony. It was a scene I couldn’t forget. In the story I intensified the mother’s illness and used the point of view of her five-year-old daughter. A child wants a normal mother who will cook for her and be present for her in a way this woman couldn’t. I wanted the child to begin to understand the woman, who was full of pain and dependent on the support of those around her.

You give the reader a sense of how the extended family works in the Philippines.

My parents’ generation had a lot of siblings. The family unit is so large–with grandmothers or aunts, uncles who feel part of the primary family unit–that one feels intruded upon at times. For example, my mom has become an American living in the US with my siblings. I used to resent all these relatives asking me to bring things home: socks, chocolate, shampoo, things that are available in the Philippines. I wanted to bring back books, but they’d say, “Well, ship your books.” There’s an aunt who’s a matriarch, like the grandmother in the story.She gives out advice rather freely, and what she says is law.

I’ve seen a similar family dynamic here with an aunt who has a business. It’s also similar to what I know of a black family in the US where the matriarchal aunt ran the family business.

In my husband’s family, the aunt with the most successful businesses is the one all the other siblings turn to when they need something. It’s clear that she’s that kind of figure in the family, the matriarch, although she’s not aggressive and she resists this role.

Book signing

Book signing

2. “Vanessa Calling.”

Reading the second story, told from the point-of-view of a ten-year-old, I began to see the thread running through the collection, namely what people would do for love and kisses. This is the second story where self-image is based on what others think. The protagonist doesn’t want either the attention or the disapproval of her classmates. She’s drawn toward the culturally desired characteristics of being pretty, smart, rich and light-skinned, preferably tisay (short for mestiza) of Spanish descent. This is another story which shows real psychological truths about both children and their parents. For non-Filipinos, “Propaganda” might seems like a strange name for a prestigious hairdresser’s—probably a mistranslation—but it’s the name of an actual shop in Metro Manila.

Yeah. Propaganda, I thought, was a cool name and I wanted to use it, the way beauty in the minds of the characters of this story is a bit of a false illusion, like propaganda of sorts. It shows how the child wanted all this for herself and recognized the antithesis of this beauty in another character who exists on the fringe. She is suddenly made painfully aware of her, and she condemns her without realizing it. Propaganda, the salon, was quite popular back when I was still working for magazines. The people who made it popular are still very much around.

3. “Buttercups.”

The tree featured in the story is not actually a buttercup tree, but that’s what the teachers used to call them in the elementary school I attended. The trees were everywhere. I think they’re endemic to the Antipolo area. At that time there were rolling hills and lots of trees. What was nice about that school was that you could roll down the hill and land on a grassy spot. I did a lot of that when I was growing up. There were lots of flowers and trees and bushes and signs telling you to keep off the grass and not to pick the flowers.

The story starts with the narrator telling you something bad was going to happen. I was very conscious of ramping up the suspense and the fear factor. There’s also superstition. I grew up with nannies who told me that dwarves came out at dusk and if I didn’t come inside they’d get me. Or that something living in the tree would attack me if I didn’t behave. As a child I regarded this as fact. I wanted to believe that buttercups were homes for fairies. Especially in the provinces, you’ll find kids walking down the street and asking a big anthill for permission to pass. Makikidaan po? These stories about the supernatural are woven into the Filipino society. It’s a wonderful intersection of stories passed on through the domestic help to the members of the families they serve. Those stories are built into the child, at least children then I suppose. Superstition is deeply embedded, particularly in the rural areas where people are not as economically stable. In the cities it’s disappearing. You won’t find large family trees or rows and rows of “buttercup trees.” So maybe I was lucky to live in a house with a large garden and nannies who’d tell me to come inside because the dwarves were out.

The story reminded me of one we read in Ma’am Jing’s class where there was a bougainvillea that was possessed. We discussed Filipino magic realism in other stories as well.

When I was a lawyer volunteering for an NGO, there were a lot of rape victims. Poor people lived close to each other, or they had large families in one home. For a child that could be a dangerous situation. Sometimes when the mother was in denial you’d hear stories like that. Her daughter was raped—she’d say ginamit, “used”—by the tikbalang. The social workers were already keyed into something like that. In the bougainvillea story in Jing’s class, the whole community was in denial. Something very wrong was blamed on the supernatural, making it unexplainable, when in fact there was a logical, perhaps shameful, explanation for it that people didn’t want to acknowledge. I thought the bougainvillea story was well done. And I’ve actually seen that kind of thinking in a case where the mother of a rape victim didn’t want to sue the rapist, who turned out to be her boyfriend. So she says, “Sinabilang ng kapitbahay,”referring to the alleged rape of her own daughter by a supernatural being.

4. “Skin Art”

In this story the setting really seemed to play a bigger part. Recto is an actual place which the reader can find pictured on the Internet.

I had an uncle who had a school on Recto, a computer school which supplemented kids’ schooling with computer skills. One summer I went there every day with my cousins. The street looked exactly like it appears in the story. There were diplomas and transcripts for sale—or whatever else you wanted to buy. In college I did a story for the school paper on something I saw in Recto. There was a used flask-shaped gin bottle which was labeled “Pang palabas ng regla.” To bring on menstruation. Inside was a root-like thing and water that had turned a strange color. Of course that product was something you might be conned into buying if you had inadvertently gotten pregnant and wanted an abortion. You could drink the filthy water. This stuff was being sold next to votive candles, rosaries and statuettes of the Virgin Mary. One time, I was doing a feature on it for the school paper. I asked my then boyfriend, now husband, to come with me and look around Recto. We would always get stopped and asked, “Do you need a room? 100 bucks [pesos] for two hours.” As for the story, I guess I always wanted a tattoo, but was never brave enough to get one. In a place like Recto you really couldn’t trust a tattoo artist, so it had to be the place to put a character who was getting a tattoo for the first time.

In your story the protagonist is looking at the back of the tattoo artist as he’s working on her. He’s sweating, so his tattoos seem to come alive. There’s a suggestion also of tribal demons and an undertone of his sexuality.

Yes. I wanted it to be a coming-of-age story with clear sexual undertones, with the tattooing as the drawing of first blood, the loss of virginity/innocence. It’s a sexual encounter of sorts. She’s both attracted to and repelled by this sweaty, half-naked man. She has a crush on the other boy, but she also wants approval from this man who’s comfortable with his sexuality and his concept of beauty. But when she confronts herself she sees it’s really not pretty at all, and he’s ridiculing her and shaming her. I needed the protagonist to realize this in the most painful way a girl her age might experience it.

I was surprised at the character’s needing to get her mother’s permission to shave her legs. I started shaving my legs in junior high because it was expected.

It was expected? My God. – When my mom was growing up she told me she wanted to be a nun. I was the oldest child. I think we had to go through a mother-daughter process. I was a hairy kid. I always wanted to shave my legs, but my mom didn’t want me to. There was an event, maybe in seventh grade, when I had to wear stockings. I said, “Mom, if I don’t shave my legs they’re going to look really funny with the hair curled up under my stockings.” She said, “When they start growing out, they’ll be prickly.” “So I’ll shave them again.” My parents went to the grocery and I remember asking them to get me a razor. She said no. I think she relented eventually. When she went to the US, I could do what I wanted.

5. Love in Ministops—

Another interesting concept and certainly very Filipino is the worker as call center worker.

Yes. I’ve wondered about the call center culture. You read all sorts of stories about sex going on with all these young, hormonal kids who work strange hours in the night in order to accommodate businesses in other parts of the world. There’s apparently—I should verify—a place where you rest. The employees are young, single and well paid, so they have all sorts of wants and apparently also needs. We all do I suppose, but it’s different when you’re confronted with all these when you’re young. I would think a call center agent would have to compromise or negotiate with her conscience about many things, and that’s interesting.

Their life styles have changed, and they’ve started wanting cars and other things they could suddenly afford. I wanted to get into that world to see, for example, if their relationships are as fleeting as their jobs. The way they jump from one call center job to another, they sometimes don’t stay a year unless they get into a managerial position. It’s the kind of job where you only stay if you’re well paid. So I wonder what’s negotiable, what can be bought by stuff.

Like a designer handbag.

Like a bag. Is it okay to sleep with a guy you know is married? Maybe the character knows it’s not okay, but she thinks that at least she got a bag out of it. I don’t know. If you keep thinking that way, how far are you willing to negotiate?

In my generation, growing up attending an all-girls Catholic school, it was hammered into our heads that you had to be a virgin when you got married, you had to be able to wear a white dress when you walked down that very long aisle, et cetera. On the other hand, that’s not expected of the men, isn’t it? It screws you up, doesn’t it? “Ministop” is about denying that you’re in a relationship where you want more than what’s given.

There seems to be a lot of self-denial with both of the characters. It also continues to ask what you’re willing to do for love and kisses. What are you willing to do for male approval?

It continues from the beginning of the stories until the end.

I was impressed with how well you got the smell of the Ministop.

The smell of used cooking oil. You’ll never get me to eat chicken from a Ministop. It’s refried and refried. For a while there were more Ministops than there were 7-Elevens, and they appeared wherever there was a call center. I used to do yoga in Eastwood, which is call center country. I’d go to the Ministop for a bottle of water or a banana and see kids eating. Ministop food is cheap, fast and available 24 hours a day, with rice and chicken and whatever. In the morning it was evident that the smell had been lingering all night.

I also liked your descriptions of the rain. Despite the floods I never appreciated rain until I moved to the Philippines.

When I’m in another part of the world and I hear “rain” it’s not quite the rain I expect. Rain here is both pretty and terrible. I wanted to set the story it in the monsoon season to show the character’s life was like a monsoon—chaotic, devastating.

6. The Hungry Ghost.

I first encountered the Hungry Ghost in a Korean temple. If you were staying there, after meals you had to rub your bowl down with a pickle, rinse it with clean water and pour the water with the little bit of rice dregs into a bucket for the Hungry Ghost. So in your story there’s Chinese influence in the form of the extra place the wife puts on the table for the wandering ghost of the dead, despite her husband’s discomfort and disapproval. The table is the setting. It was immediately clear to me that the characters belonged to the social class which would have dinner knives on the table, unlike most of Filipino society.

(Laugh) Yeah.

Was there a little suggestion of magic?

No, just superstition. Here you have the wife negotiating with the husband, but she’s quietly forceful in a way that might be a little unexpected. I actually attended a 12-week culinary course in one of the cooking schools in Manila. It was great fun and hard work. So I put a lot of that in the story.

I think this story turns around the question of what a woman is willing to do, and the last one slams the door on it.

7. “How to Drink Whiskey if You’re a Girl.”

I picked the title thinking maybe it’s not about the negotiation, it’s drawing the terms of the contract: this is what I can give you, and this is what I want in return. At a time before the story opens the character was with a guy who was married, like the one in “Ministop.” But she’s had enough. It’s done. Now she’s going to do only what she wants to do. We do compromise every day, but maybe I wanted to show a point where you mustn’t compromise. And that might be how to drink whiskey if you’re a girl.

She’s thinking: I’m not going to get picked up in a bar, forget it.

More than that. It’s about how a woman might want to live her life. The unwillingness to compromise might be good too, to be content with self.

Notes to “How to Drink Whiskey if You’re a Girl”: There’s a brief exchange in Tagalog. Here’s a translation. Kaka-mis ang Pinas. I really miss the Philippines. Kelan ka uwi? When are you going back? Alanis is Alanis Morissette, a Canadian rock singer.

For international and local readers (copy links and paste to navigation bar):

You can order For Love and Kisses from University of Santo Tomas Publishing House

In the Philippines it’s also available via National Book Store and Powerbooks. Also via Mount Cloud in Baguio.

In Singapore, it’s distributed by Kinokuniya and Littered with Books. Also Closetful of Books:

Writer, Lawyer, Literary Agent, Part 1

by on Tuesday, January 13th, 2015

Andrea in the harbor in Hamburg, Germany (Thanks to her husband for the photo.)

Andrea in the harbor in Hamburg, Germany (Thanks to her husband for the photo.)

Andrea Pasion-Flores is a copyright lawyer, author and tthe only literary agent in the Philippines. We first met in Prof. “Jing” Hidalgo’s creative writing class at the University of the Philippines and then at the various events she organized for the National Book Development Board when she was its Executive Director. She holds a BA in journalism, an MA in creative writing and a JD from the University of the Philippines.

The first part of this recent, edited interview deals with her career, the second with her short story collection, For Love and Kisses.

Andrea at the 2013 book festival

Andrea at the 2013 book festival

Andrea’s story

After receiving my undergraduate degree in journalism, I spent two years working for Mccann-Erickson, an advertising agency. I was handling the McDonald’s account. It was while I was there that I was admitted to the UP Baguio Writers’ Workshop for my short stories. I thought writing might be something that I’d like to do. Immediately after the workshop I enrolled in the MA program at UP. That’s where the first three stories from short story collection come from. Then I wondered what I was going to do with this degree. I worked with Cosmo for two years, but magazine publishing didn’t feel like home. It was fun for a while. Magazine jobs are good if you’re young. There are lots of perks. It’s different if you’re married with kids.

I feel I’m both creative and logical, so I thought I should feed the other side of me. I studied law for five years, and I quite enjoyed it, actually. Afterwards I volunteered for a non-governmental organization called Bantay Bata, which has as its mandate helping out physically and emotionally abused children aged twelve and below. I was also working with a law firm. My first court hearing was at the Sandiganbayan, the grafts and corruption court. The first case called was People of the Philippines vs. Imelda Romuáldez Marcos. The second case was people of the Philippines vs. JosephEjércitoEstrada. The third case was mine. I had this strange feeling that maybe I was working for the wrong side. I took that feeling as a sign but plodded along anyway and really tried to figure out whether law firm work was for me. I went back to magazine work, but by then I felt I’d outgrown it.

Then a board member at the National Book Development board suggested that I apply for the opening for executive director. I saw that the position married the law side of me with a bit of writing. There was a lot of legal administrative work, and it dealt with books and publishing. I stayed there for about six and a half years. I think the longest of any executive director. That’s where I really got to do interesting things, like I put poetry in the LRT [Light Rail Transit], namely I got organizations to sponsor posters of poems for people to read on the train and celebrities to record poems so they could be heard at stations. They’re down now, but I I still have people coming up to me, saying, “Thank you for putting poetry on the train.”

With the festivals, it was good to have been able to bring in people I’d read and really admired. And see them talk to Filipinos and engage with the writers here. I thought people needed that interaction. You may have noticed that people here tend to be insular. There’s not much international thinking going on. When you go outside the country and you talk to people, you see that Filipinos tend to keep to themselves.

I think bringing in more expats would help.

Sure. I think Filipino writers could only benefit from the thinking of someone who has been around, who’s experienced living all over the place. When I’m outside the country, I see how much richer the writing and how much more varied is the experience of the different human condition. It feeds the fire and provides so many different perspectives.

As a literary agent reading I’m reading all sorts of people from all over the world, and I see where Filipinos might be able to improve and where we perhaps need to widen our perspective. It’s not just writers. I think it’s the whole industry. We talk to the same people who say the same things, echoing each other—people they’ve had lunch with, people who’ve had dinner or had a drink or coffee with. You know? They’re always saying the same things. It’s different when you go out there and meet people from all over. You get to see from different perspectives.

A lot of places are like that. It would be difficult to find a place that’s more insular than the US was in the 1950s.

It still is a little, isn’t it? A lot of writers want to break into the US publishing market, but they realize that it’s pretty much self-contained. The market tends to pick writers from the US and publish them in the US. The big publishers bring the same US writers outside. But very little exchange happens. So Filipinos know of the US literary canon, but it doesn’t work the other way around. We know more about the US than it knows about us.

So now I work for Jacaranda, a literary agency registered in Singapore. Technically it’s a Singaporean company. We’re three agents, a Singaporean of Indian heritage who lives in Bangalore, an English woman who lives in Singapore and me. We have nonfiction about almost everything, fiction of all sorts, including literature for children above six years old. We have a couple of non-fiction children books as well. We represent a lot of writers from the Asia-Pacific region—the Philippines, Singapore, Australia and India—as well as quite a few from the UK and a couple of people from the US. We’ve represented publishers carrying manuscripts by a Dutch writer, for example. Our authors are as diverse as people in the world, as diverse as our agents are.

We realize of course that it’s not going to earn us the big bucks, at least not yet. People who get into publishing or writing a book are not doing it for the money. We represent a whole slew of writers because otherwise the agency won’t be viable. So we try to pick the best of the various genres we can find in the region. We have a few stars in our roster, which is nice. It’s been only a couple of years since we formed the company, although the lady who founded it has been doing this since 1997. She was the first literary agent in India. Then she partnered up with an Indian-American for five years. When they split up, I was at the National Book Development Board, and I said, “Hey, why not pick someone from my part of the world?” I was practically volunteering. So we found each other—Jayapriya Vasudevan, Helen Mangham and I. We’re spending a lot of time reading and seeing how far we can take it because we do feel that this part of the world is not as well represented as the West.

When I was pushing writers at NBDB, I saw that representation was what we lacked. Back when I was doing the MA, writers were telling each other, “You know, we’re not published in the west because we’re too ‘exotic’ for them. Their imaginations can’t fathom us.”

In my job I see that’s not true. There’s nothing wrong with the imaginations of Westerners. It was just that no one was selling us, plain and simple. No one was picking up Filipino works because no one was selling Filipino writers. Thinking that you have to move to the US to get an agent, that’s a strange kind of thinking, but as awful as it may sound it also almost rings true. You need to think in another way in order to make it to happen.

It’s an extremely insular attitude.


Aren’t you also teaching at UP?

This is my last semester. I’m teaching Composition and Introduction to Literature, but I also have three kids, so I have to find ways of earning a living so I can do the stuff I love. I may go back to teaching when my kids are a little bit older. Right now I figure I should concentrate on my literary agenting job and maybe find something exciting within publishing that might be more in line with what I’m doing. I’d thought that in academe I’d be in touch with all sorts of people working on manuscripts. That might be true, but Filipinos seem to take a while to write, and there’s more of the short form than the long form. They’re always trying to do literary fiction, which is more difficult and more demanding. It’s tough to sell because you’re in competition with the world and there’s just so much excellent work out there. There’s only so much money because it really doesn’t sell, but then again who’s doing literary fiction for the money, right?

Last year when you came back from the Frankfurt Book Fair, didn’t you say there was a demand for it?

In Frankfurt the publishers were looking for fiction, contemporary realism, because at that time the fad was dystopia and sci-fi fantasy, and most publishers had bought enough to last them a long time. Now we’ve gone through the vampire phase, we’ve done dystopia, and we’re in the fault-in-our-stars, make-people-cry phase, right? Commercial fiction is very market-driven. What’s good about literary fiction is that if the story is excellent you know you can sell it. A good story will last through time. But, having said that, when money’s put into something, someone’s job is on the line. If you’re an editor who picks up literary fiction and it doesn’t sell, you’re actually endangering yourself. There are targets. They have to sell. It would be great to find a wonderful book that also sells.

How would you distinguish between literary fiction and commercial fiction?

Defining literary fiction is hard because it’s more about language. When I look at something that’s plot-driven I know that it’s probably going to be commercial fiction, which has to be fast-paced—start with action and conclude at a high point. However, when you put in good language and layers of meaning, it becomes more than just a story or a plot. Then of course there’s what judges tell us is good, the award winners, the books that make it to short lists.

And those awful out-dated things that you have to read because you’re an English major.

Because they were doing something different at that time. Also, nowadays if you’re doing something different from what’s being done, trying to do with language what other people haven’t done yet, that’s also exciting to read. Yes, “literary fiction” can mean difficult, yes boring for some.

With some big exceptions, I find some commercial fiction so badly written that I rewrite every sentence in my head. It’s no fun for me. 

When you look at what sells, it’s probably not going to be what you and I want to read. I’ve come to realize that there are more people in the Philippines, for example, who read Wattpad stuff. Those little Tagalog romances are doing very well. They’re being turned into movies and read on Wattpad by the millions. Romances always sell. They’re formulaic, which means they must have a happy ending, they must titillate. If a book has done that, it’s done its job. They also speak to a particular market, economic stratum and age. They’re like Fifty Shades of Grey except very short.

I did a romance in English for Summit Books. Have Baby, Will Date. I’d just given birth, and a friend of mine was the editor. She said, “Why don’t you write about a single mom who’s had a baby?” She gave me the milestones of what had to happen in the story. My first manuscript didn’t have a happy ending. The protagonist and the father of her baby weren’t supposed to get married. I left it hanging. So I got a call, and I rewrote the ending.

While writing that, I had in my head the kind of girl I was writing for, what kind of job she might have, where she lived, where she shopped, how she dressed, what she could afford. I knew she had to be single and had maybe had a couple of break-ups. I was really writing for the market. When you’re doing literary fiction you don’t have a demographic in mind. That might be where you distinguish between writing for the market and writing as literary art. For the short stories I didn’t write for the market.