Sarge Lacuesta: ‘It’s very Filipino to be moving from place to place’

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Filipino writer Sarge Lacuesta recently launched two new books, "Coral Cove," his fourth collection of short stories, and "A Waiting Room Companion," a compilation of essays. Photo by SHAIRA LUNA/Courtesy of SARGE LACUESTA

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If publishing a book may be likened to giving birth — the creation and delivery being a mix of fun and labor and chance and anxiety — the Filipino writer Angelo R. Lacuesta just had twins. At Solidaridad Bookshop on Feb. 24, he launched two new books: “Coral Cove,” his fourth collection of short stories, and “A Waiting Room Companion,” a compilation of essays. For those who have been following his work over the past 20 years, this is a splendid occasion to listen to his voice in various modes and frequencies, in long and short narratives sculpted by a keen sense of puerile maturity, in the almost indistinguishable threads of fiction and non-fiction.

Lacuesta, perhaps owing to his character, has always given an impression of being around. One can imagine him walking by, sitting in the back, finishing a drink, carrying with him a quietness and softness that reflects in his work. His fiction voice is neither candid nor cunning but broad and brisk. It is often in the process of remembering, of putting thoughts together, of having a body and soul that moves in seemingly separate directions. The confidence is unmistakable, especially in “Coral Cove,” driven by the self-consciousness of whittling a story until what’s left is right. As with his previous collections, he is inclined to wander and repeat — wonder and refit — and the story in the end becomes something else: a journey, a mood, a regret, a love, a loss, a blip. Even when talking about something from the past — a collapsing marriage, a T.V. show during the martial law years, a childhood playmate, a sick father ­— he tends to dress them in warm clothes and makes them familiar, as though the reader had been in the narrative all along, a character moving with time.

That voice is much friendlier in “A Waiting Room Companion,” yet this friendliness also comes with the worry of knowing him too much (knowing, not understanding) and overstaying, of being acquainted with his private triumphs and failures that one feels the need to write back. As these essays have come from years of magazine writing, Lacuesta allows himself to be more candid — confessional even — and waxes rheumatic (kidding!) about his journeys, moods, regrets, loves, losses, blips. It is a collection of travel memories as much as it is a collection of traveling memories, a picture of families as much as it is a family of pictures.

CNN Philippines Life sits down with Sarge, as friends and family call him, as he talks about these new babies, his father, the late great screenwriter Amado Lacuesta, his fondness for music and film, being in a rock band in the ‘80s, and why remembering is important.

SARGE-2.jpg In “Coral Cove,” Lacuesta’s voice is unmistakably confident, driven by the self-consciousness of whittling a story until what’s left is right. As with his previous collections, he is inclined to wander and repeat — wonder and refit — and the story in the end becomes something else: a journey, a mood, a regret, a love, a loss, a blip. Photo from UST PUBLISHING PRESS

Congratulations on the launch of your two books. Did you plan to release them both at the same time, or things just fell into place?

I had intended “A Waiting Room Companion” to be launched ahead of “Coral Cove,” but a change in publishers and a number of large edits on AWRC pushed the two launches closer together. In the end I think I was relieved by that — I wanted the “lightness” of my non-fiction collection to be offset by my fiction.

“Coral Cove” is your fourth collection of short stories in almost 20 years. What is the joy of writing fiction for you? Does it get easier?

It gets harder. I almost exclusively derive my joy from imagining the finished product in my head, thinking — no, daydreaming — about the completed emotion of the written story. Writing it out is always a difficult and terrifying effort. For the Filipino fictionist in English, it’s almost always the difficulty and terror of getting the language to perform the way you want it. You’re in constant translation — not in your head, but in the way the things happen within the Filipino experience.

I notice there is a lot of traveling taking place in these stories. A man would go to Mt. Makiling curious about a UFO expert. A student would return to Cebu from London with her adviser for this geological find. A balikbayan accepts work in the Philippines and finds himself in a resort in Batangas with a shady congressman. A personal driver would go all the way from Baguio to Manila and back just to pick up something for his boss. You also write about Filipino workers in Macau. Did these stories begin as ruminations on places?

My characters are always traveling, I think. I don’t do it on purpose, of course, and now that I know, maybe I’ll have them stay put a little bit longer. Seriously, though, I think it’s very Filipino to be moving from place to place — to clear one’s head, to think better, to escape, and of course, to find a better livelihood or to find a home.

Several of these pieces mention and reference martial law. What exactly do you remember of that time? What essence of it have you tried to put in your stories?

My father kept a cassette tape of Marcos’ declaration of martial law. In the recording, you can hear two-year-old me in the foreground gurgling over the T.V. So I was literally a martial law baby. As a middle-class kid growing up in the ‘70s, I knew no other form of government: Marcos was the mainstay and the basis of everything. It was during the rallies of the early ‘80s that I began to see what was really happening. Martial law is remembered more in this collection than any of the previous ones because I see now how important remembering it is.

In my first two collections, it was World War II and American times, as remembered by my grandparents’ generation. Maybe this is what I am trying to say, that remembering is important, that writing and reading are remembering. When we stop doing both, and we start saying “let’s move on” or “that was in the past” — that’s when shit happens.

Martial law is remembered more in “Coral Cove” than any of the previous fiction collections because I see now how important remembering it is.

My personal favorite in this collection is “Sparrows.” It’s a grim narrative that moves nonchalantly from one time to another, or could you say from one memory to another, yet it also works for me like a personal mystery story (maybe from the son’s point of view) or a mystery personal story (from the father’s). Could you share more about it?

“Sparrows” is about a member of the Sparrow unit — the assassination squad of the NPA — who pays a visit to an unwilling contact in Manila who works at an investment bank. The visit is casual and friendly, without any threat or undertone. This is partly based on personal experience. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, as people suffered under the Marcos regime, there was a boom in the art world, fuelled by Imelda Marcos and amplified by the money generated by the government’s cronies and the silent and complicit middle class. The child in the story would have been my age now, and I keep wondering about what he might be like today. Would he be complicit, too? That is a question I also ask of myself, obviously. But I also wonder about the father of that child.

How much have you changed from being a relatively young writer to an experienced one? Particularly about the topics you write about and how you approach them. How do you know if a story is all ready to fly?

And speaking of middle age! I think that I finally know where I wish to go in my writing. I finally know what to write about, and what to problematize, and I think it’s been staring the Filipino writer in the face all along.

What I do not know for sure is when a story is all ready to fly, although I’m quite lucky to be married to a reader who will tell me what works and what doesn’t. Of course, in the end, the writer who decides the story is finished is on his own: it’s a matter of listening to himself and of listening to the world — if he’s got the truth right.

SARGE-1.jpg In “A Waiting Room Companion,” Lacuesta allows himself to be more candid — confessional even — and looks back on his journeys, moods, regrets, loves, losses, blips. It is a collection of travel memories as much as it is a collection of traveling memories, a picture of families as much as it is a family of pictures. Photo from ATENEO DE MANILA UNIVERSITY PRESS

Let’s talk about “A Waiting Room Companion.” These are essays you have written over the years for various magazines, many of which are no longer in print. Which means these pieces have been around for quite some time. What prompted you to put them together?

During the Q&A portion at a recent launch of a book of gathered memoirs by a very established writer, my question was: “When does one write one’s memoirs?” However, they ran out of time before I could get to ask it. That’s a powerful metaphor if you think about it. Yes, these pieces have been around for quite some time, but it was the slow death of print (which is probably sadder than a fast one) that prompted me to gather the occasional pieces I had written for magazines, newspapers, and other ephemera. I like to think that I put a little bit of myself in everything I write, and I didn’t want to waste anything by letting them go the way of the rest of print — call it a matter of efficiency. Of course, the irony is that AWRC exists in print …

Each of these essays, one way or another, is about you and your experiences and reminiscences. How do you feel about being open about yourself in your work without the cloak of fiction (which of course can also be very personal)?

Funny — I didn’t really realize how personal this whole project had become until a couple of weeks after I had published it. Over the course of a year, what started out as a book-in-between-books turned into a sort of pa-cool high-concept almanac that quickly and mercifully transformed into what it seems to me now: a very personal journey. As I prepared the book I found myself rewriting some of the pieces to make them more autobiographical — an example that comes to mind is the car piece that was published as an entertaining listicle but finds new life here as a series of recollections of a youth spent in cars.

It’s one thing to talk about yourself all the time in real life and of course on social media, but it’s another to write it out and actually publish it. There’s a lot of self-importance and entitlement and you feel like you’re imposing yourself on the reader — more than when you’re writing fiction. But to me that means you need to give it some extra muscle, an extra layer of effort. When it comes out as an actual book, spent on by a publisher, and printed on real paper that costs money and that trees died for, then you really feel the value of print and the value of the writer.

You talk a lot about music in this book. You had been in a rock band in the late ‘80s and ‘90s. You had fond memories of vinyl, cassettes, CDs, record stores, gigs, music venues, albums, songwriters, songs, the overlooked and the underrated. How does this love for music affect your work as a writer?

Music and film are probably the most important non-human, non-material things in my life, which is probably why I decided long ago that I would never be a good filmmaker or a musician. I’m too close to the stuff to be cold and clinical about it, which is something I can be toward writing. I can’t explain it easily, but I’ve always found it easier to drown in a piece of music or a film than in a piece of writing, which I’ve learned to be able to take apart very quickly.

The facts are: I gave up what would have been a career in music (playing with a band) for a career in writing, mostly because I was really bad at writing songs, and I still can’t really figure out how to write a conventional film narrative.

My band were working toward an album when I quit playing, and I still have a concept for an album in my head, but I’d really much rather enjoy music than make it. I have the same attitude toward film, I think. But there’s always that “what if” thought.

To know how to read is to know how to process information and grasp nuances and evaluate a text against one’s own experience and values.

You also talk a lot about your father. In fact, sometimes it feels that you are talking to him. He appears not only in your recollections of childhood but also in your letter to your son, in present-day experiences that seem to connect naturally with your past. Had he read your writings? What is the most important thing you learned from him as a creative artist?

I’m part of that generation where most sons thought their father was God, or at least a god, so that partly explains my fascination with him. Yes, my father taught me to how write — not just by literally teaching me how to do it, but through his library, his interests, and his life as a writer.

One important distinction between my father and me: he had a natural gift for the narrative and I don’t. His first scripts “Pridyider” and “Working Girls” plainly show that — walang workshop-workshop, and he came upon Syd Field later on in his screenwriting career (is that good or bad?). He always took his narratives from real life and edited and reshaped them as necessary. That’s something I am still learning to do.

Yes, you would have loved him! And I tend to say that to every person I love who never met him. Parang “oh yeah I’m lovable but you know what, you would have really loved my father.”

Your dad quit his lucrative banking career for screenwriting. Do you think it was worth it? Among his works what is your personal favorite?

You know, I don’t know if it was worth it. The big thing that happened while he was still in investment banking was that he won a prize for his first screenplay. It was supposed to be directed by Ishmael Bernal, but Ishma chose to direct “Working Girls” instead. That was a big life event, and it was what made him turn his back on finance and become a full-time writer.

Here’s one piece of advice I got that my father probably never did: never make a big decision after a life-changing moment. At any rate, “Working Girls” is my favorite movie of his — a middle-class sex comedy like no one else has quite come close to writing — so the real question could be, “Do I think ‘Working Girls’ was worth giving up a stable job and a comfortable life for?” And sometimes the answer is yes and that makes “Working Girls” even more of a middle-class sex comedy!

With the sudden and early death of your father, the occasionally difficult relationship with your mother, the luck of adulthood with your loving wife and son, do you agree that family is the writer’s compass?

If my father taught me how to write, it was my mother who taught me what to write about. My wife, who is a writer, is the reader who matters to me the most; and my son says things like “artists aren’t losers — they have ambition!” So yes, my family was and always will be my compass — they have been my mentors and readers and critics.

That said, I recall my father writing on a piece of cardboard in all-caps the momentous, obvious, and desperate phrase: “WHATEVER AND WHEREVER, I MUST MATTER” with the I underscored with a squiggly line and the cardboard hung up for all to see, and in my mind I probably was like “yeah, whatever.” But yes, the writer is also always and must always be alone.

Do you wish the Philippines had more writers?

I wish the Philippines had more readers. Not because I want to justify the Filipino writer’s feeling of self-importance — haha — but seriously because it’s quite clear that one of the reasons we are suffering today is that we are painfully under-read. It’s so easy for us to be addicted to the internet and social media because before that we only looked to T.V. and the movies for content. To know how to read is to know how to process information and grasp nuances and evaluate a text against one’s own experience and values — whether one is reading a piece of literature, or an official pronouncement, or the news. Only when there is a critical mass of readers will the writer’s — and the Filipino’s — craft and material conditions improve.


“Coral Cove and other stories” and “A Waiting Room Companion” are available in Ateneo de Manila University Press, UST Publishing House, and Fully Booked branches.