As a part of the special The Gender & The Genre of El Fantascopio Blog, our beloved collaborator Cristina Jurado interviews Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. You can read the Spanish translation of this interview at Cristina's wonderful blog Más Ficción Que Ciencia and at El Fantascopio. Hope you enjoy it!
The science fiction that came from the Philippines:
Interview with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
One of the countries less known in terms of genre literature is The Philippines. Can anyone cite one of its science fiction, fantasy or horror writers? And even one from outside the genre? I must confess I know nobody, so when the occasion came to interview a Philippine genre writer, I was gladly surprised to see that she was a female author.
Reading the short stories of Philippine Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, one realizes that things are changing for the good. Genre from countries outside the Anglo Saxon circuit is more present than ever in the pages of the main speculative fiction magazines and anthologies, bringing new ways to enjoy fantastic themes. She reckons there is a new breed of South East Asian writers, who are trying to find their own voices, incorporating the supernatural elements –mythology, customs, etc.- of their ancestral cultures, and mixing them with their more recent literary traditions, product of years of Western colonialism.
Loenen-Ruiz musical education (University of Santo Tomas’s Conservatory of Music and Philippine Women’s University), pervades some of her works, even though in all of them is clear the importance she gives to sounds. Her literary beginnings took her into realistic fiction, poetry and non-fiction. Her short stories appeared in publications such as Philippine Panorama, PATMOS (an international publication of the Institute for Studies in Asian Church and Culture), Isip-Isak (the local version of PATMOS), and in the Second Hay(na)ku Anthology *. In 2005 Loenen-Ruiz decided to embrace full-time speculative fiction, and she joined Online Writer’s Workshop for Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers. In 2009 she attended Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, and was the first Philippine writer to obtain an Octavia Butler Scholarship. Her short stories have been published in Fantasy Magazine, Apex Magazine, Interzone, Realms of Fantasy, The Apex Book of World SF 2, Robots: The Recent A.I. anthology, Weird Fiction Review and Weird Tales Magazine. In her country, her works have appeared in Philippine Speculative Fiction II, Philippine Speculative Fiction IV and Philippine Genre Stories. She currently lives in the Netherlands with her husband and kids, writes her blog From the beloved country, and has a column titled “Movements” in Strange Horizons.
This is the interview I was fortunate enough to make her few weeks ago.
Cristina Jurado: I’ve read in one of your previous interviews that the fact many people told you to write magic realism turned you more firmly towards science-fiction and fantasy. Why those genres?
Rochita Loenen-Ruiz: I’ll admit to being a rather obstinate person and to also being someone inclined to rebel against prescriptions. So, when I got questioned on my choice to write science fiction, I became even more determined to write it. To me, science fiction is a literature of limitless possibilities. There’s no limit to what the mind can imagine and I love that the genre allows room for all kinds of speculation. It’s a field where you can explore serious subjects and at the same time it’s also a place where it’s possible to dream and to have fun and play.
CJ: Asian cultures have a rich mythology quite unknown to Westerners. To be born and to live your early days in such fertile culture must have impacted you. I personally believe that it’s just logical to pass from loving and be interested in mythology to write fantasy and science fiction. Was that your case? If yes, was it a conscious passing?
RLR: I didn’t even realize what I was writing because at that time there was no market for sf and f in the Philippines. But when I look back, I realize that I was always fascinated by the irreal as well as the possibilities of the future. It felt very natural to progress from mythology to writing science fiction and fantasy.
I think that one factor that played a big role in my move to writing science fiction and fantasy comes from the experience of being between worlds all the time. Half of our family was born in Ifugao and the other half in the South. We grew up in the mountains but we moved to the city and in the city it was soon very clear that we weren’t city people. I also missed the mountains very much. Even though we found a place in the city, we were never truly of the city. That in-between kind of feeling was conducive to works that were interstitial in nature.
I had always been writing, but when we moved to the city, the fantastical elements in my stories and my creative pieces became more pronounced.
CJ: You grew up in the Philippines, became a graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop and the recipient of the 2009 Octavia Butler Scholarship. I would like to know what have you learned from that experience, and what do you think your attendance has brought into the program.
RLR: Before Clarion West, I had no formal training in writing. I had an aunt who was a writer and who encouraged me to write with all my senses, but I hadn’t gone to classes or to a school where you learn how to write creatively. It was a huge experience for me to go to this place where most of the participants had a western or European background. Before Clarion West, I was always a bit timid about sending my work out to the bigger markets as I had this idea that only people who had the proper background (literary credentials) could publish. Being at Clarion West, meeting writers from divergent backgrounds made me realize that I don’t need to be afraid and my story has just as much right to be published as any other person’s story.
The conversations I had with Nalo Hopkinson also helped me a lot. I love Nalo’s work and her encourage helped me to break through the block that kept me from engaging with my own culture and background through my writing.
I think that if you come from a place that’s not represented often enough, there’s always this fear of exoticizing that place or commercializing it in some way. I didn’t want to write to that stereotype of The Philippines as a third world country or as a dystopia or as being very hispanized or as a little brother/sister of the United States. I wanted to write my passion for my country and my love for the place and the people I grew up with and at Clarion West, I started to do that more consciously.
As time passes, I am made increasingly aware of the legacy that the Butler scholar carries. The Butler scholarship made it possible for me to achieve a dream (going to Clarion West) and it continues to sustain the dream.
It encourages me during the difficult moments and it challenges me to speak up and to speak out. I draw support from the knowledge that there were people who believed I could make a difference in the field and even if it’s only in a small way, I would like to do that. Have I brought something to the program? I think only time will tell.
“The biggest challenge for the Filipino writer would be to produce a sound that’s distinctly Filipino”
CJ: I’m interested in writers’ craft, in particular the creative process behind a story. How do you face it? Do you use outlines, characters’ cards, etc.?
RLR: Someone once said that a writer is always working and I have been sometimes accused of living in another world. When I am working on a story, it is on my mind a lot of the time. I may not be sitting down and writing it, but in my head, I think about the characters and the setting and the situations they find themselves in. In a manner of speaking, I live inside the world of my story and to me the characters move and breathe inside that world.
I hardly ever work with outlines because for some reason the energy seems to leave the story the moment I write one down. I suppose that if I did outlines things would be easier and my work would probably be more polished. To be honest, I envy those people who can write outlines. I think that’s much more productive than my own process.
When I was much younger I had notebooks filled with character sketches. Like snapshots capturing people and places in the moment. I still do that but these days the snapshots tend to grow into stories.
There are times when I get stuck and then I find it very productive to discuss what I’m working on with people I trust.
Some stories come out fully-formed. Some stories I work on in several drafts before I reach the end.
CJ: What makes a believable character?
RLR: A believable character is someone who is a fully rounded person. I remember John Kessel telling us about everyone being the hero in their own story and I think this is how it is with stories. It’s not necessary to put a full character sketch of each person in your story, but if each character has a story in the writer’s head that impression will make it onto the page.
I think what makes a character memorable is the way in which the writer allows the reader to connect to that character’s struggles and the entire kaleidoscope of emotion that makes us human.
CJ: I’ve read some of your short stories, like Of Alternate Adventures and Memory or 56 beads ad I find them full of hard SF. I don’t know if you have any science background, because I haven’t seen anything in your bio that suggests it. So, is it difficult to write credible hard SF?
RLR: I’ll admit to having a fondness for gadgets and a fascination for technology. I enjoy listening in on conversations about technical and technological things. I think I may be that irritating person at the party who will question a tech guy on why do things work that way and how do you make something work the way you want it to work and is it possible to create gadgets that interphase with the human body. Interestingly, it seems that people are already working on that last bit.
I guess what I have an overflow of is curiosity. I just like to learn and discover new things. I’ll read an article in a medical journal and think…how do I apply that to a story? Or I’ll be reading about music therapy and thinking about how that would work if generated through the human body (59 beads).
Is it difficult to write hard SF? I honestly don’t know. I think that in writing (not just SF), it’s important to think about the story you want to tell and then think of how to present that story. If the science fiction element is forced (because it MUST be an SF story) then it becomes hard. I do have to say that it always helps to know someone who’s an expert in a particular field of science.
CJ: On the other hand, Of the Liwat’ang Yawa, the Litok-litok and their Prey, Hi Bugan ya Hi Kinggawan, or Song of the body cartographer, are more of a fantasy ride. You have been asked many times about Philippine’s mythology so I would take a different stance about your fantastic stories. Why this fascination about monsters? Is it maybe because there is a potential one in all of us? Is it a way to recognize the evil in our human nature? (I’m not referring at the Catholic concept of evil, which is extremely negative, but the evil as a force that complements the good, a necessary force in nature, in my opinion)
RLR: I think that darkness and light live in each of us and, as you’ve said, there is this potential for evil in each one of us. I also find myself wondering what we really mean when we talk about evil. In writing the monster in Of the Liwat’ang Yawa, the Litok-litok and their Prey, I basically wanted to look at the monster from a different angle. In that story, we see the monster as being horrific—it eats a child after all. But does the monster consider their self as being monstrous?
I wanted to ask these questions regarding survival and self-preservation, which are very strong instincts. How far we are willing to go in order to survive. To what extent do we become monsters when it comes to the fight for survival and self-preservation?
I think that what makes the monster monstrous to us is the absence of remorse or our inability to see beyond the face presented to us.
CJ: In a way, you represent a new breed of writers, coming from outside of the Anglo Saxon circuit, and showing that there are other ways to understand speculative fiction. Apart from the mythology, what are the other differences between Filipino and Anglo Saxon speculative fiction?
RLR: Aside from the matter of mythology, we also the matters of setting and social/cultural environment. Filipinos grow up in a society that’s inevitably much different from the US/UK/EU. That society and that background makes itself evident in the work that is produced. It’s quite possible that Filipino SF would be more politically/socially driven when compared to Anglo Saxon SF.
The thing is, a lot of our literature has been so influenced by Western and European literature that I sometimes find myself wondering: are we writing to an expected pattern or an expected narrative or are we making our own spaces and our own narratives? I feel that the biggest challenge for the Filipino writer would be to produce a sound that’s distinctly Filipino, that incorporates the influences we’ve had into it and which is also accessible to people who are not Filipino.
CJ: I’ve read you were working in your first novel. When can we expect to be able to read it? Can you tell us a bit about what is it about?
RLR: This novel is not the first novel I’ve written, but it is the novel that I would love to see published someday. The trigger for this novel came from a discussion on non-binary work and the limitations of the English language. The experience of displacement, of being forced into exile and of wanting to find a place that you can call your own—these are things that also find their way into the work.
When I showed the seed for this novel to a dear friend of mine, she told me that there was something horrific about it and I think that in some ways it is horrific. But it’s not a horror story.
I wanted and continue to want to explore what it means to be alien as well as that perception we have of aliens. In this, the experience of being alienated and of being seen as alien has helped greatly in the formation of this novel.
I’ve started on a revision of the first draft and what’s interesting to me is how the story is evolving and changing even as I write from the spaghetti draft I’ve made.
“There is still this tendency in the genre to look down on SF by women”
CJ:I believe that one can learn a lot about a writer by the list of his or her favorite authors and books. Can you tell me which SF, fantasy and horror writers and titles do you cherish?
RLR: This has got to be one of the hardest questions to answer—the next hardest one is the one that follows. I have so many writers whose work I love that it’s like asking me to pick favorites from among my loved ones. I want to mention Octavia Butler, Nisi Shawl, Nalo Hopkinson and Shweta Narayan as they were among the first writers of color I’d read in genre. JT Stewart inspired me so much when I was at Clarion West that I wrote a story dedicated to her.
Who among us hasn’t been inspired by Ursula Le Guin and James Tiptree Jr.? What about Joanna Russ, Angela Carter, Kelley Eskridge, Nicola Griffith, Tricia Sullivan, Karin Tidbeck, Jeff VanderMeer, Kate Elliott, Karen Joy Fowler, Eileen Gunn, Ray Bradbury, Timmi L. Duchamp, Hiromi Goto, Aliette de Bodard, Lavie Tidhar, Jaine Fenn, Kari Sperring, Iain M. Banks, Corey Doctorow, Benjamin Rosenbaum, Andrea Hairston, and Claire Light? Some of these names are familiar to you, but each of these writers has taught me something through their work and they have challenged me to reach beyond myself and to look beyond what the eye can see.
Further, I cherish the work of my fellow Butler scholars, the work of writers from South East Asia and the African continent, and the work of my fellow Filipino writers in genre. I am always excited to see new work coming in from new writers, to see work coming from voices that have been marginalized. To me, those kinds of works are important and necessary and we need to cherish and encourage all these stories coming from all these different places.
I’m perfectly sure that I have forgotten other writers in the process of answering this question, but that’s always a peril when the list of writers and books you love just keeps on growing.
CJ: I also believe that one can learn even more about a writer by the list of his or her favorite authors and books not related to the genre he or she cultivates. Could you share with me which writers outside the genre do you like the most?
RLR: Can you tell how much of a book addict I am? This is another tough question. One of my favorite books is called Pinoy Poetics edited by Nick Carbo. It’s filled with essays on poetics from Filipino and Filipino-American writers. I used to read a lot of F. Sionil Jose, Nick Joaquin, and N.V.M. Gonzales (Filipino novelists)
I get inspired from reading Leny M. Strobel. Her reflections on decolonization and her work with regards to reclaiming history are important and necessary. Barbara Jane Reyes’s poetry and her writings on life as a poet and an academic are always inspiring.
Filipino-American poet, Eileen Tabios has inspired and influenced me a lot. It was Eileen’s work with the hay(na)ku that planted the seeds to Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life and Of Alternate Adventures and Memory.
I love and cherish the work of Audre Lorde, Sarah Ahmed, Chinua Achebe, Toni Morrison, Gabriel García Márquez, Virginia Woolf, Isabel Allende, José García Villa and Pablo Neruda. (This is another case of I have too many favorites I can’t remember them all.)
CJ: Do you feel that being a woman has influenced your capacity to publish?
RLR: I think that this difference of gender may have played a stronger role in the past. The field isn’t level yet, but I like to think the field is opening up. In terms of the short fiction market, I think that there are more chances for publishing. What complicates my capacity to publish isn’t the fact that I am a woman, but rather it’s the things I write which may not speak to everyone. It’s inevitable that my work is imbued with that sense of being a woman of color who comes from a third world country and who lives in a country that isn’t her own. These social, cultural and political realities affect the work and affect my own capacity to produce and publish work. Although, I want to say here, there seems to be more of an openness to different work than there used to be.
CJ: In sync with the previous question, why do you think there are less women publishing SF?
RLR: We would have to look at society and the way in which patriarchy keeps women bound to societal expectations regardless of how far we have come in the struggle for equality and liberation.
I think that if a woman doesn’t have the support she needs, if there is no one encouraging and telling her that she must continue to engage in that creative endeavor and that her work is important and necessary, it’s very easy to give up.
With regards to the publishing of SF by women, I think there’s still this tendency in the genre to look down on SF by women and to pronounce the work as not being really SF or not being rigorous in its science.
CJ: What do you feel about new publishing methods such as crowfunding, co-publishing and self-publishing?
RLR: I think that these publishing methods have opened up new ways for different voices to be heard. It’s not perfect though and I find myself admiring people who embrace that avenue as it takes a huge amount of work to publish and promote yourself.
CJ: Finally, what it’s the biggest misconception about Philippine SF writers?
RLR: Perhaps that would have to do with the way in which some people view Filipino writing as being the same or similar to Spanish writing (hence the magic realism prescription). There also seems to be this set idea of what constitutes Filipino writing. I don’t know what it is as I don’t write to prescription but it’s interesting to note that if you ask people what their idea of Filipino writing is, they won’t be able to give you a proper answer.
* “Hay(na)ku” is a Tagalo expression meaning “Oh, My God!” in English.
About Cristina Jurado:
Cristina Jurado Marcos writes the sci-fi blog Más ficción que ciencia. Having a degree in Advertising and Public Relations by Universidad de Seville and a Masters in Rhetoric by Northwestern University (USA), she currently studies Philosophy for fun. She considers herself a globetrotter after living in Edinburgh, Chicago, Paris or Dubai. Her short stories have appeared in several sci-fi online magazines and anthologies. Her first novel From Orange to Blue was published in 2012.