Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In the aftermath of the US elections, Jessica Zafra picked up Isabel Wilkerson’s book “Caste: The Origins of our Discontent.”
“She argues that the problem of the US is not racism but casteism. Your caste is determined by what is perceived to be your race because race is a social, not biological construct. So they look at the color of your skin, and you know, you could be Barack Obama but being non-white, you are considered inferior to the dominant caste which is these white people,” Zafra explains. “It’s very distressing. After reading this, I thought, ‘This was an eye-opener. Now back to fiction.’”
Zafra is done with non-fiction.
She quit writing for a newspaper in 2016, and, save for a travelogue of Central Europe, has been pouring her time into writing fiction. She published a collection of short stories in 2019 (an omnibus of two earlier collections). And this year, Zafra gave the world her first novel.
“The Age of Umbrage,” which was published by Ateneo de Manila University Press last month, tells the life of Guada as she navigates the (sometimes absurd, sometimes lonely) world of the wealthy. But like the Kate Bush shirt she wears to tennis and the books she reads in the Almagro library, the privilege she grows up with doesn’t really belong to her.
Zafra finished writing the novel in three months in 2016. But as she likes to put it, “[it took] three months and all the thirty years of attempt” to finally complete a novel that she doesn’t hate. (She drafted two “horrible” novels before this and made sure that no one will ever find them in her files).
Zafra calls 2016 the beginning of the apocalypse, but in a way, it is also the end of her detour. “Columns were something I did to make a living, but fiction is what I’ve always wanted to do,” Zafra explains.
In this interview, Zafra talks about the process of writing the novel, the role of writers in this age, and why she’s only on Instagram.
When I started reading “The Age of Umbrage,” I didn't have any idea of what it's about.
Great. That's the best way to start.
I wrote about a family basically insulated by wealth and privilege and a character who grows up in this privileged environment but does not actually have that privilege herself. It's all borrowed.
It's interesting that the setting is in Makati.
I've lived in Makati for a long time. I guess I was fortunate in that I observed all these ghettos of the rich people — the older ones — are in Makati. I found it interesting that in Makati you've got such a huge divide. You've got the people in very congested areas and you've got people with parks and guards and everything. Well, I've never lived in one of those rich people ghettos. That's totally imagined, ha.
It’s also a coming of age novel. Which one arrived first? The interest in tackling social divide or the coming of age part?
Like all first novels, I saw it as a thinly veiled autobiography. I started writing it and it's boring, because I come from a middle-class background. But then at the same time, I kept writing about my theory of world domination where Pinoys will take over the world because of OFWs. I think in 2014 or 2015, after I had been attempting to write a novel for so long, it clicked... What if the parents are OFWs? Essentially the same as your upbringing except that they were thrust in domestic service in the house of rich people and everything followed through there... My protagonist assumed that that was the life she was going to live and then she realized, "Nope, you're an outsider. You don't belong here."
But as a child Guada isn't really that innocent.
Because she reads books. (Laughs) If people read more books, they would not be victims.
What about the other characters?
Guillermo is based on one of my oldest friends. I think he's my first gay friend. I remember in the late '90s to early 2000s we were always bemoaning the fact that as freelancers — he's a freelance designer, I'm a freelance writer — we were always broke, we were always in debt. When I was writing this, I'm like, "I'm going to make Ige rich and never worrying about money and spoiled."
I have models who are people I know. I get little bits of their history. For instance, Philamer grows up to be a director who watches every single Madonna concert everywhere in the world. That is based on a friend of mine who is a director who has seen Madonna in 10 different countries. I get little aspects of friends' personalities, so I know that these things exist in reality. But I don't get wholesale this character is based on one person. Everyone is a composite out of qualities of people I do know…
I was basically mining my life and the lives of my friends so very little research involved. I can tell you that there's an earlier incarnation of this novel which was complete crap so I threw it away. (Laughs). They're horrible as in no one's going to find them in files. I destroyed them.
You wrote them longhand too?
Yes, I write everything longhand. Writing longhand, apart from the cognitive benefits, is convenient because I write in my notebook and I have to type them onto a computer, right? That's the edit already. I can copyedit while typing.
What were the books you were reading while writing “The Age of Umbrage”? Did they affect the output?
No. I don't think they affected the output in a big way. But the influences on my novel are fairly obvious. I even mentioned them. “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Great Expectations,” the Truffaut movie “400 Blows.” [There’s also] "The Great Gatsby.” My favorite book in high school. First I loved the prose. Later, I got that it’s about how the rich break things.
In recent years, the social divide is widening, and a lot of people are becoming more interested in tackling it. On social media, it's a big topic.
Because of wokeness, I guess. Huge inequality is one reason for all the trouble in the world that we are seeing in the recent years so we can't help but write about it.
It's a very short novel. You said you were trying to extend it but...
Filler was creeping in, and I hate filler.
The form is fairly new to you. What did you learn about the novel while writing this one?
I learned that there's a difference between a novel and a bunch of columns that you stuck together because they have the same subject. That was what was wrong with the previous attempts. They read like columns that had been stuck together which happened to have the same protagonist. What I learned was developing character, learning the rhythm of the piece, introducing conflict and tension. These came up in the course of the writing. It happened backasswards. Learning as I went along.
"I don't know about the grown-ups who have no habit of reading. But I still have hope for kids. They have to see their parents reading. That's the only way."
What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person?
You know I have absolutely no idea. For instance, we all have this notion that creative persons should dress in a certain way. I am the most boring basic dresser you've ever seen. I do have these fabulous meme earrings... I guess the main quality would be an insistence on what they are and not following what society demands.
What is the core philosophy that guides your work?
Oh no, so I have to invent something to tell you? My core philosophy is I like to write. It's the reason I live. That's it. Without my writing there's really no point. I'm very lucky in that I realized early in life that I want to write. As in I don't want to leverage it into becoming a T.V. host or becoming a film director. No, I just want to write.
It was the greatest shock to find that my column early in the '90s had a cult following because I write for myself. It's a shock to discover other people liked this. But then, it also taught me that if you write what you want there will always be people who'll find you. I basically write for the two or three people that follow me?
You're not on social media except Instagram.
I feel there's too much noise. I feel that if I were on social media I would spend hours on it that I would rather spend writing. Also, I don't believe that every thought that crosses my head is worthy of publication. I already did that as a columnist. I got tired.
Do you find Instagram distracting?
Especially during the U.S. elections, I found myself scrolling incessantly. So now I'm thinking I should have days off from Instagram. Isa lang 'yan, ha. Imagine if I were on Facebook. Days would disappear. There are just too many damn cute cats on Instagram.
You said that you stopped writing columns because you no longer understand the audience. What do you mean by that?
I'm used to writing in a certain way. In 2016, everything just became so combative and, face it, ugly. Trolls became part of the equation. I don't want to deal with that. And then being smart-shamed. Sorry, I was already bullied in high school; I don't need to go through this again. So, I just stopped.
But weren't you thinking that as a writer it's kind of your responsibility to…
No, not exactly to engage but to inform or form their mindset?
No, no, no. I had already seen that, as in the case of fake news, arguing with people who believe in fake news is not going to change their minds. So, I will save my time for things I can do.
What do you think will make people read more?
I don't know about the grown-ups who have no habit of reading. But I still have hope for kids. They have to see their parents reading. That's the only way.
How has the pandemic changed the stories that you seek and the stories that you write?
This is going to sound terrible, but I'm having a really productive pandemic. I'm stuck in the house with nothing to do. To escape horrible reality, I've been writing more. My quota now is one short story a month.
What do you think is the role of writers now?
It's always been the same role. The difficulty is in reaching the audience that needs it and guiding them how to think. The problem is there is no lack of good journalism, but there is a lack of having taught people how to think because people don't know how to think.
How about fiction?
To teach people empathy. Fiction is about putting yourself into the life of someone else. Putting yourself into their minds. If you can do that, you can see other people not as flat objects that happen to be around you but as human beings who have the same aspirations, fears, anxieties as you. I think that's the main value of fiction.
Who are the Filipino writers you enjoy reading?
I really like the author of “Smaller and Smaller Circles” FH Batacan.
A friend of mine has been saying for a long, long time that the best way to get to know the city is to read a mystery novel set in that city. I feel that Manila needs more mystery novels besides “Smaller and Smaller Circles.”
What are the mystery novels that you like?
I read a lot of those. It's like a palate cleanser. Or sometimes you're tinatamad to read and to get started again, you just read detective series. I tend to choose them by country. There's Andrea Camilleri who writes about Sicily, Patrick Modiano writes about Paris, John Burdett about Bangkok.
My comfort view is Agatha Christie adaptations. Like many classic mysteries, the assumption is that the world is essentially an orderly place and when something violent and horrible happens, the perp will be punished, and human ingenuity and integrity will solve the problems. Of course, it doesn't always happen.
Jessica Zafra’s Shortlist
Social Media: Instagram only. “I take too many pictures of my cats.”
Mode of news consumption: Viber groups
Authors: FH Batacan, J.D. Salinger
Writing spot: Coffee shops. “You block out the noise and the distractions. Now you can't do that.”
Skill she wishes she had: Building bookshelves
Downtime activity she misses: Sitting around doing nothing with friends