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An Interview with Dean Alfar

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
January 13, 2009

Do a search on Dean Alfar. Google will come up with about 51,200 hits mentioning him and Wikipedia will give you a brief summary on Dean and his accomplishments to date. Wikipedia calls Dean Alfar an advocate of the literature of the fantastic and this is an apt description when it comes to the work this man has produced since he started writing and publishing professionally.

Dean Alfar
While a majority of Filipino writers choose to write what is defined as literary or academic work, poetry and prose, Dean Alfar's work occupies interstitial spaces. Defying the literary norm, he is perhaps the first professionally published Filipino writer in the Speculative Fiction world to date.

Any speculative writer who knows their speculative alphabet is well aware of how difficult it can be to break into the professional field of Speculative Fiction. Dean Alfar's first international success took shape in the form of L'Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars ). First published on Strange Horizons (http://www.strangehorizons.com), L'Aquilone du Estrellas was later reprinted and included in The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror: Seventeenth Annual Collection (for fiction published in 2003). Edited by Ellen Datlow (one of the most respected names in speculative fiction today ), Gavin J. Grant and Kelly Link, Dean's work represents what happens when a dedicated writer puts his heart and soul into his work.

Aside from these accomplishments, Dean is also publisher and editor of : The First Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthology, as well as the upcoming Second Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthology.

Today, Dean's work appears regularly in international publications such as Rabid Transit and Bewildering Stories. In the Philippines, his work has appeared in magazines such as: Story Philippines, MOD magazine, and Philippines Free Press. He is the winner of nine Carlos Palanca Awards and in 2005, his novel ( Salamanca) won the Carlos Palanca Grand Prize for a novel in English.


Interview with Dean Alfar:

When did you start writing and what prompted you to pursue professional publication? Also how long have you been writing to date?

I started writing quite early, in grade school. My mother claims I wrote my first play in 2nd grade - I contested it, thinking it impossible, until she produced proof: an old class photo, me as thin as a rail; on the back, in my La Salle penmanship, a dialogue scene entitled "Captain Deanie", which had me attempting a crash landing in my spaceship.

I wrote plays for a long time, but in terms of prose, my first Philippine publication was in the early 90s, a series of stories for the National Midweek. I stopped writing in 1994 to deal with real life: marriage, business, stability. I started again in 2003.

In terms of international publication, well, for the longest time I thought it was a pipe dream so I didn't even try. Every year, I'd buy the equivalent of my fantasy bible - The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror anthology series edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling. One time, I read a story I truly enjoyed, written by Christopher Barzak. I read the credits and found out it was first published online by Strange Horizons. I looked at the site's submission guidelines, sent over a story I'd just written, and made my first international sale. Later, my delight was multipled when it was selected for The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror Seventeenth Annual Collection. That electrified me and showed me that I, and by extension all Filipino authors, could compete internationally.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

There is an incredible richness in terms of history and color when you look back at the past of the Philippines. A number of the new stories I wrote are set in Hinirang, a reimagined Philippines during the time of the Spanish domination. In addition, there is the breadth of Mindanao, whose stories and culture were never touched by the Spanish colonizers, plus the surviving folklore and tales of various provinces. All these, plus a little imagination, go a long way.

More important for me though is to be able to write stories about people, about their heartaches and hopes, their aspirations and fears. What matters in a story are the characters in the story. Part of my agenda is show that speculative fiction is more than capable of dealing with fiction that observes the human condition; that the dominant social realism espoused by most of the Filipino writers is not the only viable means of narrative expression.

As for inspiration, I listen to old stories, read everything I can (even things I do not necessarily like or evince immediate interest in), interact with different kinds of people, keep an open mind and just write.

You've won the Carlos Palanca nine times, the last time, you won first place for your novel, Salamanca. Would you like to share some of the inspiration behind this novel?

For some time, friends and family had been pressuring me to write a novel. I did not, because I was convinced that novel-writing was done by writers who had seen much more than me, because I was afraid I had nothing of import to say, and because I deep inside I didn't know if I could finish it - the form was unfamiliar to me. But in 2004, I read about the NaNoWriMo - write a novel in 30 days or die trying - signed up and started writing.

I took a small vignette I'd written earlier, about a girl who lived in a house with glass walls, wrote after work everyday and finished the novel before the deadline. Along the way, I managed to develop stories in stories peopled by characters I felt I knew intimately when it was over. I polished up my manuscript, looked for a publisher, and "Salamanca" was launched 7 months after it won the Grand Prize for Novel.

Winning my 8th Palanca Award was particularly humbling. The prize for the Novel is given once every 3 years, and to see my name alongside F. Sionil Jose, Doc Ed Tiempo, Wilfrido Nolledo, Jose Dalisay and Alfredo Yuson was simply unreal. It was made even more fantastic by the fact that my wife, Nikki Alfar, also won for Short Story for Children that year, so we were like this writerly couple, a marriage of harmonious words.

I've been impressed by how you seek to encourage more Filipino writers to embrace genre writing. How has the response been so far?

In the Philippines, there is no question that social realism (and domestic realism) are dominant. We continue to link literature with nationalism, with nation-building, with the plight of the poor and the marginalized, with boys on carabaos in ricefields during May looking at the empty sky and longing for a better tomorrow, with the Marcos regime and martial law, with protest and revolution and pain, with sorrowful women forced into prostitution, with the hopeless death spiral of the economy.

This is all fine and important. But I feel that there are many other stories we can tell. And that these other stories can also comment on the Filipino condition but in different ways. And that ultimately, Philippine speculative fiction is not about escape but about hope.

Additionally, a lot of the younger writers are not products of the Marcos years or the eras before that. They are Filipinos too, but grew up with a plethora of new influences unknown to their parents and grandparents. They find realism incapable of giving them the tools they need to express themselves in, in writing. So they move to surrealism, magic realism, fantasy, horror, science fiction, interstitial fiction - all of which fall under the umbrella of speculative fiction

Response has been positive. I've gotten letters and messages from various writers, old and new, who are happy to write about things the way they've wanted to. My first edited antho, Philippine Speculative Fiction vol.1, has sold out, and I'm preparing this year's edition.

What are some of the challenges you encounter as a genre writer in the Philippines? What are the advantages of writing in genre in the Philippines? And how has being a Filipino influenced the stories you write and market abroad?

One of the challenges include finding markets/publishers in te Philippines. Of late though, magazines and periodicals are becoming more open to spec fic. Distribution and collection remain problem areas (I'm a publisher too). The market is there, the readers are there, but we need to make better efforts to reach them - in terms of content, availability and price points.

Advantages? The Filipino reader is almost always open to the fantastic. It is inherent in us, derived from memories of stories told by our grandparents, the ghost stories of the provinces from our friends, in the history of our country.

As for the stories I write and market abroad, being Filipino is a definite advantage. Combining my Filipino sensibility (filtered through 300 years of Spain, 50 years of America, peppered with Chinese, Malay and Muslim perspectives) with English (my native tongue), I think I have a point of view that may be of interest to some international readers. But really, there is no difference between the stories I market abroad and the stories I market locally.

Your short story, The Kite of Stars, was chosen by Ellen Datlow, Gavin Grant and Kelly Link to be included in the Seventeenth Annual collection of Best of Fantasy and Horror. I loved reading this story and wanted to ask what inspired you to write it?

I remember beginning with the ending. I had an image of an old woman, strapped to a kite, waving an arm to someone below, her face enraptured. I thought about it and realized that she was waving to someone she desperately loved. So I wrote the ending first and then the quest bits and then the beginning (I tend not to write in a linear fashion).

I wanted to write about the trajectories of love, which sometimes miss their mark. It is an idea I expanded upon in "Salamanca".

Who are your favorite writers and why do you love their work?

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, because his work literally changed my life, showing me that wonder can be infused in the everyday, and that the mundane can be elevated to something beautiful. Kelly Link, because of her mastery of the short story and her mindblowing experimentations with craft and storytelling. Christopher Barzak, whose fiction inspired my second wind after a self-inflicted dry spell of almost a decade. Jeffrey Ford, whose language and imagination enable him to tell stories with no two alike. Umberto Eco, for his fierce intelligence.

Who were some of the authors/people who influenced and inspired you to write?

Wilfredo Ma. Guerrero, my playwright mentor, who taught me not only the play's form but also that there was no conflict in writing in English (in terms of being Filipino). Edith Tiempo and Doc Ed Tiempo, who encouraged me in Dumaguete when I was younger and somewhat lost. Butch Dalisay and Krip Yuson who are constant sources of encouragement. Plus all the writers I listed in response to the earlier question.

Among the stories you've written, which is the closest to your heart? Why?

"L'Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)" - my first international sale

"Terminos" - earned me my Ratbastard stripes, subsequently nominated for a Spectrum Award

"Salamanca" - my first novel

How important is it to you that your stories and other works reveal or connect to your roots as Filipino?

Quite important, though I believe that for the Filipino to be able to write wonderful speculative fiction, we need to simultaneously embrace and divorce the notion of being Filipino, and become the Filipino of our imagination.

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Miguel Escan�ko in his review of Dean Alfar's Salamanca ( Current Magazine, Sept/Oct 2006) writes: Dean Francis Alfar establishes himself with his first novel Salamanca as arguably the leading Philippine writer of magic realism

Reading Salamanca, as well as Dean's other short works, the reader acknowledges that this is no understatement. In Salamanca, the reader is reminded of how rich our culture is. Indeed, the fantastic blends so well into the realistic world so

that after reading the book, the reader feels as if he or she has been awakened from a beautiful dream.

In this column, Dean Alfar shares more about his work and his novel, Salamanca.

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The Interview.... continued:

Someone once said that no matter how we distance ourselves from our work, still a part of us comes out in the work that is produced. In your novel, Salamanca, which character do you identify yourself the most with and why?

On rereading it, I find traces of myself in almost all the characters. My favourite character though is none of the major characters. It is Shiro, the three-legged dog. I like how he kept the faith of devotion to his master burning through his years of imprisonment, growling in Japanese military code to reach his loved one.

Not only do you write, you also produce comic books. Would you like to tell more about this? What's the difference between writing/producing comic books and writing a short story or a novel?

My other passion is comic books. With comics, my agenda has been to be able to tell intelligent stories that make use of the form - without sacrificing the very character of the comic book form. The big difference is learning to think and write visually, since there is an artist involved.

We've received a small degree of success. One of my groups works, Siglo: Freedom (10 stories set in 10 decades, all dealing with the Filipino experience of freedom) was awarded the National Book Award. We've since completed Siglo: Passion, and plan to release more Project: Hero 2 this year.

I hear your working on a next novel. Would you like to share a bit about the inspiration behind this novel and how you envision it?

The big one is tentatively called "Sinverguenza" (which means "without shame" in Spanish). I'm thinking of it somewhat in terms of a prequel to "Salamanca". I like situating my stories in historical settings, imagined or otherwise. I'm also creating the outline for a long fantasy novel set in Hinirang, with flying galleons battling over Taal volcano and lots of wonder. I

hope to write this one soon. On my plate, I have a novella (around 35k words), a short story collection, and small pieces of short fiction. More than enough to keep me busy, I think!

What does a normal day for Dean Alfar look like?

I own an integrated marketing communications company, which is like an ad agency, so my days are spent in the office or with clients. On an average day, I developed ideas for ad campaigns, function as the creative director, art direct a photo shoot or manage various projects. I've learned to write, guerrilla-style, when I have a moment or two of peace. On weekends, I hang with friends, do some writing, play with my 4 year old daughter, Sage, and get some sleep.

I remember reading a question somewhere about whether now is the right time for Filipinos to start writing in genre (considering all the economic/political events). What's your take on this?

It has always been time to write in genre. The literature of the fantastic is relevant and a viable means of communicating the hopes and anxieties of the Filipino - if it needs to be justified in those terms. But really, a good story needs no justification. It need not be socially relevant for as long as it tells a good tale that touches the reader. It is the reader who decides if a story is relevant.

And what do you think makes the Filipino genre writer unique in a field that is dominated by westerners?

Our perspective, certainly. The way we look at things. We have the duality of being "pure" Asians as well as the having one foot in the Western sphere (because of English, for one thing).

Comparing Dean Alfar today as to say five years ago, what's the biggest change in your work? What would you still want to accomplish within say the next five or ten years?

I've learned about the space of the novel and more about the aesthetics of short fiction. The biggest change is that I'm no longer afraid of longer work - just dismayed at the time needed. In the next five years, I'd like to have 2 or 3 new novels, a couple of short fiction collections and a play or two. I still have a lot to learn and am far from my idea of myself as an ideal writer; years and years and years to go.

As a reader, what attracts you to a story? What would compel you to keep on reading a story? Do you have any pet hates when it comes to stories and storylines?

Capture me within the first few sentences or lose me forever. This can be a story hook or an interesting character or the writer's way with words. I could go on reading either from pure enjoyment or because of craftwork. For fantasy, I avoid anything that sounds trite and overused. Imaginary world fantasy has to be rife with politics and excellent characterization.

What advice would you give to writers new to the field of genre writing and publishing?

Keep writing. Segregate time to write. Do not fall in love with your text. Consider your current story as the last one you'll ever write - so do your best. Learn to brutally edit and revise. Submit, submit, submit. Do not be discouraged by rejection.

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For responses to this column, please feel free to write or respond via the following email address: raindancer_68@hotmail.com

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