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How Danton Remoto’s novel ‘Riverrun’ found a global platform

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Danton Remoto talks about getting published internationally and why writers often work another job. Photo courtesy of DANTON REMOTO

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Before Danton Remoto wrote the first draft of “Riverrun,” he saw a ghost.

The year was 1993. He had just arrived at Hawthornden Castle in Scotland for a writing fellowship. Exhausted from two flights that totaled about 22 hours, he retreated to the room assigned to him — the Boswell Room — to rest, eventually succumbing to sleep. A female figure awakened him. The woman, whom he concluded was neither the cook nor the housekeeper, moved towards him. “When she went to me, she had no face and I screamed.”

Remoto suspects the ghost he saw was of the fiancée of the Scottish poet Lord William Drummond. “[He] was very wealthy, and his relatives didn’t like [his union with a commoner]. I think they poisoned her because she died before she could marry him,” he says.

But the ghost perhaps played a significant part in the completion of the novel’s first draft. In a way, writing the novel worked as a distraction against the supernatural. “I was writing for eight hours every day on yellow pad paper. I didn't know the beginning, the middle, and end. I have [written] short stories before. I said, ‘If I fill in the gaps between those stories, I think I can have a novel.’” By the end of the fellowship, Remoto had a 200-page handwritten draft.

“Riverrun” is a recollection of a young gay man’s growing up years during the time of martial law. As much as it is political and historical, it’s very personal too. Despite its dark milieu, “Riverrun” reads like crisp, unadulterated memories from a diary. That becomes even more true to queer readers whose lives and identities are built on brute yearning in secret.

“In my novel, nobody talks about homosexuality. It's all about ‘don't do this,’ ‘don't do that,’ or ‘don't be like those pricks singing in the perya.’ It was not a topic that we discussed then,” Remoto explains.

Remoto kept the novel under his bed for 20 years, after it lost at the Palanca Awards and after being rejected twice by publishers in the Philippines. The novel was finally published in 2015 by Anvil. Over 25 years since Remoto wrote its first draft and five years after it was first published, “Riverrun” was recently picked up by Penguin Southeast Asia. This international edition has additional 80 pages where Danilo finally explores his carnal desires and lives his gay life in public.

In a Zoom interview, Remoto talks about the new chapters of the novel, how the emergence of the Boys’ Love genre is helping him write his new novel, and why writers often need another job.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Congratulations on the Penguin SEA edition of your novel. How did that happen?

When I was working at the University of Nottingham, I was told that Penguin Southeast Asia was looking for manuscripts. I sent them my novel. They said, “We like your novel but can you add sex scenes?” I asked why. “Because the character is always pining for sex and it's not consummated.” I told them the setting is in the Philippines from the '60s through the '80s; gay men are not supposed to have sex because they are going to hell. They will be maligned and discriminated. They said, “But think of it as a novel for the 21st century.” I agreed with them and added the sex scenes. My novel got published by Penguin when I was 57 years old, so there's hope for everyone.

I want to ask you about the presence of food in your novel. You have the kinunut recipe, which you say works like a Greek chorus in a drama. But the characters are also always eating. Danilo and Luis, for example, always eat at the sari-sari store. When Danilo’s family moved to Quezon City, food is also reflective of their status. Can you tell me more about your relationship with food and how that figured into the novel?

Filipino life is shaped by food. I don't know if your grandmother is still there. Or if you still live with your mother. But in my case, my mother, my father, my grandmother are all great cooks. When they were cooking when I was young, I would go to the kitchen and watch them. But the most important thing is this: When they cooked, they would tell stories. They would talk about scandals, gossip, and politics. It was martial law. My father was in [the] military, and he knew many things about martial law. He told my mother and my grandmother all these martial law stories that he couldn't tell outside because we're forbidden to talk about martial law. As a young boy, I was listening to all of that. When I was writing the novel, it just came out.

The recipe for shark meat was a commentary. Shark is a violent sea creature. This setting for the novel is really martial law and dictatorship, but I didn't want to follow other novels that named the dictator and talked about all this. The violence is there, but it's oblique and it's shown through talk. There's a lot of talk and gossip in the kitchen and the dining table because if you grew up during martial law, you could not even talk about it.

Then and now, food is a way of bonding. When you're eating, you’re relaxed and you could tell stories. My cousin was a soldier, and he would tell me stories of beheading during the rebellion there while eating. Now that I'm older, it sounds so strange. But back then, it was very normal for these violent things to be told around the kitchen.

Your novel is rich with anecdotes about history without being too preachy about it. Even with the observance of the moon landing.

My father was a military man and he knew about Apollo 11. He was explaining it to us. In the novel, the character there goes out and he looks at the moon. As a young boy, the character saw the movie of Nora Aunor, “Minsa'y Gamu-Gamo.” There’s a scene there where the grandfather looks up the moon and says, “Oh, the Americans have landed on the moon. Do they own even the moon now?” What I'm showing there is the Filipinos were colonized culturally with the language we use and economically — because the Americans were supposed to have given us food.

My commentary on politics and violence I think are indirect because that's what I intended. I wanted to show how the dictatorship affected ordinary lives, even the lives of people who were supposed to belong to the dictatorship. We're always told that the dictator is on our side so we should follow what he wanted for the government. We're a military family, therefore protected. But violence even reached us. One thing I want to point out is, the violence there and the homophobia for young people are the same — they’re both institutionalized. We're told how to walk, what to wear. Our parents told us what to do, the careers we took. All [these] male careers. We cannot teach, we cannot write, we cannot be nurses. We can only be lawyers, doctors, and soldiers.

"If you're young and gay and very bright, you're okay in the Philippine society because you will take care of your parents. But if you're gay and stupid, you're really considered the pits."

I wanted to ask you why there’s no coming out scene. I guess you kind of answered that already, but were there stories you held on to or stories that explained what you were feeling while you were growing up?

When I was growing up, everything was silent. I've read so many American and British novels. They’re well-written, but there's always a coming out scene where they confess to their parents and their friends at the end. But only Americans and British people came out in my time; the Filipinos did not come out. The parents and the friends knew they were gay, but they didn't talk about it. In my novel, nobody talks about homosexuality. It's all about “don't do this,” “don't do that,” or “don't be like those pricks singing in the perya.” It was not a topic that we discussed then. That's why [in the new version] the character also goes to the UK. He could only come out there because he could not come out in the conservative Philippines.

As a student, especially as a young gay man, I needed to study hard. We really studied hard because we have to compensate even if we're not told to compensate. If you're young and gay and very bright, you're okay in the Philippine society because you will take care of your parents. But if you're gay and stupid, you're really considered the pits.

You said some parts are old short stories you wrote before. What was it like to revise them for the novel?

I put the short story “Green Roses” in. I wrote it 20 years ago. It was a very literary short story. I found it too polished, so I added humorous themes to loosen up the very tight chapter.

There’s an essay that I turned into fiction by adding more action. Fiction needs action — a deeper description of setting, action, and motivation. I wrote and rewrote what I've written and turned them into fiction, so they would fit in the book.

I added more humor towards the end. But it's really about racism and sex. I made them into funny chapters because racism is a difficult topic. In the gay bar, the white people were asking, “Where did you learn English?” The character said, “My parents.” The Scottish said, “Who taught your parents?” Then, he said the missionaries. “And where are the missionaries now?” "My parents ate them." (Laughs) Because that's the idea of Asia, the third world people were cannibals.

I saw that you’ve been doing a lot of things even now. You recently established your own publishing company, Aries Books. Can you tell us more about that?

The insight that came upon me is — you’re a young person, so you know this better than me — that online is really the way to go. Physically, [during the pandemic], we could not transport the books to the bookstores because the warehouses were closed. But the online versions would be easily sent to buyers and readers around the world. We started Aries Books, an online publishing company that I partly own with my friends. The first project is “The Heart of Summer,” my book of stories which we started selling this week. The next is my selected poems. Then, we got the e-book rights to Lualhati Bautista’s Book of stories, “Buwan, Buwan, Hulugan Mo Ako ng Sundang: Dalawang Dekada ng Maiikling Kwento.” I’m happy that she entrusted it to us.

Aside from that, I’m also writing my next novel. I was writing a novel on King Arthur set in the 21st century. I threw it away; it was so ugly. (Laughs) Then, I thought of my life in the U.S. And why not continue Danilo Cruz's life in the US? Many things happened to me in the U.S and I haven't written about it.

The next novel, a continuation of “Riverrun,” is set in New York where he is studying and working. Don't worry, he has sex there because he has a boyfriend now. (Laughs)

It will be wilder. New York is very wild. When I lived there 20 years ago, I was like, “This is so strange.” But I liked it. It’s still a gay romance and also about racism, but still handled in an entertaining manner. I don't want to give a lecture in the story; nobody will buy the book.

I think I finished a hundred pages of the novel, and I have a detailed outline. If I can find the time to write it, I will finish it. Maybe in December. I'm happy that I can write. Of course, we have these COVID-19 problems, but writers are trying to cope by continuing to write.

I also saw that you’ve been reviewing BL shows on your YouTube channel. I was actually reminded of “Dark Blue Kiss” when you mentioned how gays have to compensate for their sexuality by working much harder than everyone else. There was a scene where Kao explains that to Pete. How do you think are these shows changing queer media and literature?

I love them! I lived in Thailand for three months. The context of Thailand is a Buddhist culture. It's not as judgmental as our Catholic culture, so there's more leeway and space for them. But, except in the last 10 years, the only accepted gays in Thailand were the katoey. The katoey is the bakla in the Philippines. The parlor gays, the impersonator, the entertainers. People like Kao couldn't come out. If I may say so, these BLs help me contextualize my New York novel in terms of the pacing and the dialogue. You see, the kilig factor in these shows are spaced out evenly.

What these BLs have done in the last three years in Southeast Asia is to open discussions about homosexuality beyond stereotypes. Tapos na 'yung swishy characters who are brainless. Tapos na '’yung ganyang stereotype, na gays are objects of fun. Now, we have young intelligent men. But of course, they emphasize on straight-acting men. That's why it's really a fantasy. But fantasy has a role in everyday life. These BL shows have helped a lot of people during the pandemic. It's really a crushing reality that you cannot leave the house, the country.

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You’ve been writing for so long. Was there a time when you weren’t comfortable with calling yourself a writer?

I really don't know. There was never a time that I was comfortable with the word writer. I have never seen my mentors boasted the fact that they are writers. And you don't earn money from writing. I'm only earning from writing maybe in the least five or 10 years. I wouldn't earn money from my writing before, when I was writing poetry. Poetry doesn't sell. Writing is not something that I put in my immigration form. I put professor, not writer. There's always another job that you have to do so you can pay the bills.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

You should be hardworking. You should read a lot and write a lot. You should not be easily discouraged. I'm an Aries. I'm a very persistent person. In Ateneo, I wasn't an A student in literature. I was a B+. But the A students stopped writing. I'm one of the three or four who kept on writing. Persistence, hard work… you have to believe that what you are saying matters. And if I must add, a good writer should help in the marketing effort too.

What is the core philosophy that guides your work?

For me, the most important thing as a writer is to communicate. When my first book of poems “Skins Voices Faces” was published, Sunday Inquirer magazine said my poems are simple and easy to understand. I was so happy. When “Riverrun” came out, many reviews were calling it entertaining. I was so happy because I really aspire for clarity. I want it to be clear and entertaining. I want people to smile and to laugh, but I also want people to think deeply. How is it to be Filipino in the modern world with layers of discrimination, pressure to the LGBT, and colonialism? But all of this should be served in a book that's easy to read, compelling, clear, and entertaining. I want a novel that ordinary people will like. I want to be read by as many people as possible.

"A lot of times you have to be admired by the West before your countrymen will read you. It's sad to say that we still need to be admired by the West before we admire our fellow writers and artists."

What myth about your field of work would you like to debunk?

That writing is a glamorous job and that it's an easy job. It's not easy! You have to involve all your brain cells, all your imaginative faculties. That's why you have to be healthy when you're a writer because it is physically exhausting, especially the novel. We're talking about 60,000 to 80,000 words. That's 300 to 400 pages of printed book. That's tiring to do.

Do you have writing rituals?

My room has to be clean. Everything has to be in order. If the house is not in order, I cannot write. The room has to be quiet. That's why I write best at night. If I don't have class the next day, I work until 4 a.m. By 5a.m., I sleep.

You wrote “Riverrun” longhand. I imagine word processing programs aren’t as accessible then unlike now. Has technology changed the way you write?

People were telling me that my novel flows like water. I wrote it longhand because I couldn't rent a typewriter. It was so expensive. The rent cost 200 pesos a day. In 1993, that's a lot of money. Writing longhand is also good because the physical act of writing — the pen and the fingers are the outlet for what's going on in your mind. Now, I write on my laptop. Research is better and easier now. There's no excuse for writers to be lazy. For the new novel, I have to research how the streets of New York looked before 9/11. I like technology now because it helps me with the maps.

I saw that you read Zadie Smith’s “Intimations” during the lockdown. It reminds me of something I read on how she edits her work. She edits every sentence, so it’s polished when it’s done. How about you? How do you handle editing?

The best essays in the book are the last ones: her character portraits and character sketches. She's a very good essayist when it comes to ideas, but she's excellent as a portrait artist of sketches. Zadie Smith is one of my idols. I was enrolling in her class, but all these things happened. Like Zadie, I edit sentence by sentence. I’m a very meticulous editor.

Editing is a very important part of the publishing process. As writers, we should cooperate with our editors. We should be open-minded and transparent because they see something that we could not.

It’s done in isolation, but before the work comes out, it undergoes a process of collaboration.

And marketing is very important. With Penguin, I sent the novel on a Sunday. The next day, they said they'll accept it. But they asked, “how do you think we can sell your book?” They were very upfront.

The Penguin South East Asia edition of "Riverrun" published in 2019. Photo courtesy of DANTON REMOTO

And how did you do that?

For one, I needed a cover that will talk about the past. I looked for a painting influenced by Southeast Asian and Chinese tradition. The painting [that ended up on the cover] is “Barrio Scene (1964)” by Romeo Tabuena. He was a Filipino painter who lived in Mexico and his painting style is very Asian. The houses are very Asian and the bamboo leaves are very Chinese, almost like Chinese calligraphy. I chose a cover that would cater to an Asian audience. But on the other hand, if an American or a British sees this, they would see it’s a beautiful painting.

You mentioned you learned not to boast about being a writer from your mentors. Do you think mentors are important?

Mentors are important because they will confirm your worst fears or your wildest dreams. When I met Tiphanie Yanique at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 2018, she told me I was a wonderful writer who should be getting published in New York. I was so speechless.

When I sent the novel to Penguin Southeast Asia, I didn’t set any expectations. This novel was rejected in the Philippines. It didn't win the Palanca. It was twice rejected by publishers in the Philippines. I noticed that I only get all this approval from the West. Remember Cambridge? (Note: After writing his fellowship at Hawthornden Castle, Remoto read “Riverrun” at Cambridge where it was received well) I think it's not a very nice thing to say, but I'll say it anyway. The Philippine edition is selling out because I now have a Penguin edition. Philippine readers are reading me now because I've been canonized by authors from the West. A lot of times you have to be admired by the West before your countrymen will read you. It's sad to say that we still need to be admired by the West before we admire our fellow writers and artists.

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The Penguin South East Asia edition of “Riverrun” is available through Acre Philippines and Amazon.