How a former presidential speechwriter self-published his first book

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Poet Gian Lao spent six years as President Noynoy Aquino’s speechwriter before publishing “All the Winters of My Body,” his first poetry collection, where he struggled to confront joy, sadness, and privilege in the context of the political environment. Photos by JOSEPH PASCUAL

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It's taken Gian Lao eight long years to put together “All the Winters of My Body,” his first book, a collection of poetry. And six of those years — the years between graduating college in 2010 and releasing “Winters” in 2017 — were spent working in Malacañang, as part of President Noynoy Aquino's team of speechwriters.

When you're helping write the speeches and statements that will help tell the story of the country at a certain point, there just isn't much room for personal writing. "I struggled to confront my joy and sadness and privilege in the context of the political environment," Lao says. In “All the Winters of My Body,” this manifests in the theme that drove the second half of the book (out of four parts), called "Meanwhile the World Aches."

Yet the book, while written mostly during his stint as a former presidential speechwriter, is more personal than political. "I’m cutting myself some slack when it comes to how the book responds to current political concerns," he says. "But I do hope I can be more overtly political in the future."

"I don’t know if I can attribute this statement to the evolution of my own beliefs, or to the evolution of the world in which we dwell," he says, "but it’s important for us to realize that the personal is political, and the political is personal — especially during times like these, when the very concept of truth is under assault."

Twenty-nine is an age that's a few years past being considered anything like a wunderkind. But between the pages of “All the Winters of My Body,” you can see a young man grow.

Gian Lao Book Gian Lao on his first book: "A lot of people will disagree with me, but I think every writer in the Philippines should consider independent publishing," he says. "I had a few initial reasons why I wanted to self-publish. I wanted full creative control." Photo courtesy of GIAN LAO

‘Gian Lao’ means ‘arduous’ in Vietnamese." And if you're looking for a word to describe what Lao went through in releasing “All the Winters of My Body,” "arduous" — difficult and tiring, requiring strenuous effort — might be the word that makes sense. After almost a decade of putting together his first book — a process that can be both fulfilling and solitary — he stuck to what he knew best: the personal. He decided to self-publish, choosing to work with one of his best friends from high school on the book cover and one of his best friends from college for the layout.

"I can’t speak for others, but getting this book out independently involved a lot of work," he says. "I had a pretty long back and forth with the printing company, probably because it was my first rodeo. I played middleman between the printers and the cover artist and the book designer. I proofread my own work several times. I planned my own book launch, looked for a venue, bought drinks and snacks, and hosted the whole thing. And now I need to consider distribution channels. I’m just really lucky that so many good friends were willing to help me."

"A lot of people will disagree with me, but I think every writer in the Philippines should consider independent publishing," he says. "I had a few initial reasons why I wanted to self-publish. I wanted full creative control; I wanted to reserve the right to give PDFs of my work to schools; I wanted to learn the process of making a book; I wanted to price it fairly — as in, I wanted it to either be cheaper than its counterparts, or at the same price point but with better paper quality. It allowed me to have the price reflect the value of the book as a physical object."

The title refers to his "personal bias" for the cold. "I like imagining myself in cold places when I write poems. It disconnects me from this country, and it disconnects me from myself, which is a good thing when you’re looking for a fresh perspective," he says. "I like writing from the winter of myself because it refreshes the wonder I have for how I experience this country, myself, and other people."

Reading “All the Winters of My Body” takes the reader to similarly cold, isolated places. Dedicated to the two great loves of his 29-year existence, the book sees a talented young writer reckoning with his self — his past and his present, and his world. With kind eyes and a sharp mind, Lao peers from the winter of his self, looks at the world he exists in, and tries his best to make sense of it while making sense of himself.

"It’s important for us to realize that the personal is political, and the political is personal — especially during times like these, when the very concept of truth is under assault."

Which is to say that the book can be messy, too earnest, and open-hearted — but that's also not necessarily a bad thing. From the cold, isolated places we find ourselves in while reading the book, we realize that there are others out there in similarly cold, isolated places. And in our isolation, we see a community. In the personal, we see the political.

"Maybe this is me being naïve, but I like to think that the truth still resonates with people. If you’re doing the right thing, then you have to 'keep it real.' Of course, you need to find avenues to express your thoughts and what you stand for, and you need to express them in a way that connects with people, but the main thing is being real. People enjoy talking smack about the public, but the public is actually very intelligent and perceptive. They can tell when you’re being a phony," he says.

"So, with my writing, I just do my best to be genuine. That involves making yourself vulnerable, and talking about your deepest insecurities; that involves making your reader feel like they’re listening to a secret, which can get tiresome. Which is where poetry comes in: it allows you to make such sentiments new."

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"All the Winters of My Body" is available on Gian Lao's website.