Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — The term ‘aliasing’ can mean many things — it can be misidentified frequencies, masked identities, or inauthentic narratives. In Mara Coson’s debut novel “Aliasing” (Book Works, 2018), these things are, more or less, true. Historical figures are given aliases, spies hide behind assumed names, and stories weave in and out from one passage to another, becoming indistinguishable. Even the rubber stamp cover design looks like a distortion — a volcano letting out a bulbous shape (Is that a whale? A cloud?), with edges cut imperfectly (Is this a novel or a zine? Or both?).
Coson’s novel is part of London-based publisher Book Works’ Semina Series, which banners the line “where the novel has a nervous breakdown.” Judging from the fractured narratives spinning in and out of “Aliasing,” that theme sounds about right. The way “Aliasing” unfolds is inspired by the patterns of the binakol weave, which, according to the Yuchengco Museum, is recognizable for its “uniform, interlocked geometric patterns that result in psychedelic optical art designs, which are said to represent the waves of the sea and, among indigenous peoples of the Cordilleras.”
The slim novel (125 pages) cascades as a recollection — both collective and personal — of events that may or may not have taken part in the shaping of its fictional town and its narrator's memory. It is told almost at hyperspeed, by a narrator who, as Coson notes, “has a face full of hair and can modulate her voice.” The fictional town, Turagsoy, is populated by a cast of characters that are every bit as peculiar as they are fascinating.
“Each character is several people at once for me, someone’s teeth with someone else’s hair with an invented person’s sense of self,” says Coson. “If you really see them as I describe, they’re quite grotesque and comically spectral, since they like to bumble in and out as they like.”
The novel’s fictional town reminded me a little bit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo, a town where anything and everything can happen. But Turagsoy can also be every provincial town in the country: steeped in tall tales, coughing out dust, and hopeful of miracles. In Turagsoy, Marian devotees wait for miracles and historical events unfold like radio dramas. Plus, there’s a volcano on the verge of eruption.
Prior to publishing her first novel, Coson wrote for several publications and co-founded the literary journal The Manila Review. Her fiction also appeared in publications such as Esquire Philippines and the anthology "Maximum Volume: Best New Filipino Fiction 2" edited by Angelo Lacuesta and Dean Francis Alfar.
CNN Philippines Life recently talked to Coson through a series of email conversations about creating a T.V. show-like fictional town, fiction as memory, and the figures at the fringe of Philippine history. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.
You had six months to write a novel! Were there crucial measures or habits that you had to do so you can make it to the deadline? What are the advantages/disadvantages of having such a short time to write a novel?
Having a short window of time to complete the book made it necessary to focus and shape it fast, but the speed also allowed me to test out how to combine a lot of different elements quickly, and not overthink which parts needed to be thrown out. (The editing process was longer!)
How did your first novel end up being published by a UK-based book maker?
Book Works had an open call for the last book of the Semina series, themed “where the novel has a nervous breakdown.” The series was named after Wallace Berman’s Semina, which was a [series of] loosely bound journals of both art and writing that really pushed it back then. Stewart Home commissioned the novels for Book Works’ Semina. My proposal came out of a whirlwind pattern. Then, luckily, I was given six months to write a novel.
I didn’t set out wanting to write about kapres and tiklings and Marian worshippers. Possibly the opposite. But I felt I needed to try for this first book in order to understand why not. I included themes I felt I couldn’t or didn’t know yet how to write about. I was not thinking to immerse myself faithfully into a specific genre.
I've read some of your short fiction before and I was surprised at how your first novel is more experimental in structure. What made you want to take this approach?
Maybe it’s the length. I’ve never had much patience to stick to beginning-middle-end or “he said, then she said.” Nor the patience to write lengthily until this book! I think mainly about how the mass of words and events in my mind can best be written out, and often the usual way of going about stories — maybe the better way! — doesn’t quite apply.
What were your primary influences for the central story in “Aliasing”? And they don’t need to be books!
When I realized what I thought was the Taal Volcano was not the Taal Volcano! This mistaken identity, this babushka of a lake within an island within a lake, the lake being formerly part of the ocean, and not knowing when it will erupt again like it did violently in 1754 are qualities that I found made it a perfect environment — even if there are few traces of it in the book.
Turagsoy — which means mudskipper — however, is a fictional town, a patchwork of both provincial life and my own childhood and the childhoods I saw on television.
In terms of material, there’s Mario Feir’s collection. He has a really good library of books and photographs. You can find out more about the Taal eruptions there. I used to spend afternoons there with him and his partner Steven, just pulling books off the shelf. He opens his library to researchers and students.
I wanted to create a town that you could feel the rhythm of, but not tell the streets or how you got there. Then this setting lent well to various stories that I’ve grown up knowing or discovered in the short period while writing the book.
The novel is described as “an alternative history of the Philippines” and there are certainly a lot of “historical figures” here that are usually in the fringe of our country's narratives — Judiel Nieva, Emma De Guzman, etc. How did you decide on who to write about?
When the blurb mentioned “alternative history,” it is hardly as expansive a world as those in books of greats like Wilfrido Nolledo or Erwin Castillo. Historical fiction wasn’t where I wanted to go. For example, though I’d masked Emilio Aguinaldo with Diego Salvador, there is no need to establish a connection between them. I found that keeping Emilio Aguinaldo’s name was almost misleading, in that I had no commitment to explore historical fiction in the book. Diego Salvador is a radio drama folk hero in the style of spaghetti western. I liked the idea of pulling from history a very confusing moment of weaving allegiances involving disguises, and building over it.
You've been writing nonfiction for a long time as well. What were the things from your experience in nonfiction writing that helped you in creating this “alternative history”?
Stewart [Home], my editor, always said, “Try not to sound too knowing.” Since I’d written more nonfiction than fiction, I had been used to reporting what (I think) I see and explaining what (I think) things mean. And it was much better to let it go and let the text breathe. That said, as far as nonfiction was helpful — there were many small anecdotes not contextualized and not distilled, and so they really carry their own individual power, and that gave the right kind of mania to “Aliasing.”
Given that the book is published in the UK, did you set out to write for an international audience despite the novel being definite in its use of detritus from Philippine culture and history?
No, I didn’t intend to write for any audience and I didn’t put my head out of the water while writing the book to check if I was swimming towards any one island. [The publisher of] “Aliasing” is based in the U.K. and so its natural circulation probably provided that assumption. Some people who live here in the Philippines might pick up on a few more things or have a better back story, some say it’s vaguely familiar, but on the whole, the place is unfamiliar to anyone. Maybe other than having to translate for a larger audience, like “Mga Anak ni Facifica Falayfay” or “Ibong Adarna” into English, the book is what it is.
There’s a certain vividness in the way that you’ve written some parts of the novel — some passages even seem like you’re writing from memory, perhaps an effect of the anecdotal sequences that you use. How much of your novel comes from your own actual experiences/memories?
I don’t have the discipline to maintain a diary, and I have a terrible memory! I wanted to record a lot of what I’d researched by leaving them there, even if there’s just versions of what’s happened. I’ve left a lot of personal memories inside the book, like the time I made cheese ... I also really knew a dog named Saucisson who went out to catch tikling, but he could never actually catch them. In the book, he’s a mongrel that caught plenty of them. I also don’t know how close they taste to chicken!
I thought Turagsoy was a fascinating town. It seems like a very T.V. show-place, a melting pot of all these weird events, which, in a way, is very Filipino folk. Can you tell us more about how you created this fictional town?
Yes, it is a T.V. show-place! A memory of a T.V. show place or memories with Michael Learns to Rock. But also part-real experience, part-provincial life, part-imbento. I wanted to create a town that you could feel the rhythm of, but not tell the streets or how you got there. Then this setting lent well to various stories that I’ve grown up knowing or discovered in the short period while writing the book.
The extensive part about alternative Marian devotion is also very ‘90s. Did you have any personal recollections of this?
Marian worship has always felt at the center of my inherited faith because of her role in the immaculate conception (which was the name of my school), and at the same time, at the edges of Catholic faith because the miracles and apparitions being more recent events required an extension of belief — and also caution. At least that’s how I thought of it as a child, and I was very frightened by the story of Our Lady of Fatima growing up. Also the people around me, and those who were sick, were praying to Lourdes, Manaoag, Medjugorje... Maybe it feels very ‘90s to you because we had so much of it growing up? We’re the same age. [Laughs]
What do you want readers to take away from your novel?
I wrote it to be a fun and easy read, and I hope that comes across!