Editor’s note: This is second in a series of features on our selections of our Best Books of 2021.
The term “orality” speaks so much of Mia Tijam’s stories in “Flowers for Thursday,” her first collection of short stories. Small, even pocketable, the book gathers stories as far back as 2006, back when local speculative fiction was gaining ground courtesy of Dean Francis Alfar’s “Philippine Speculative Fiction” volumes. It is in those early volumes where Tijam’s stories showcased their might. “Waiting for Agua De Mayo” was first published in 2006 in “Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 2” and in the subsequent volume, Tijam’s much lauded “The Ascension of Lady Boy'' made its first appearance. As Tijam mentions, “Lady Boy” — a story about a trans woman who inherited her iyay’s aswang powers — had many achievements. It was published online on Expanded Horizons (which has published fiction by Silvia Moreno-Garica, Aliette de Bodard, and Joe Haldeman); and given an honorable mention in 2008 Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, edited by Elen Datlow, Kelly Link, and David Grant.
When I first read “The Ascension of Lady Boy” in 2006 I thought it was a hoot and was glad to see my femme self in the world of speculative fiction. Imagine reading “Mabuhay! My name is Lady Boy and I’m from Los Angeles, Iriga Cityyyyyy!” in a genre of fiction that’s mostly inhabited by gods, monsters, and warriors. I felt seen as a baklita who took after “Maximo Oliveros” over “Spider-Man.” And it was a hoot to find that a prestigious fantasy and horror fiction anthology would name the story as in their Honorable Mentions list when it is so specific in our culture: how it namechecks Ate Luds, Melanie Marquez, and Cristy Fermin; the oft-used “Sirena po!” joke involving a macho father’s wrath and a batang bakla; and more interestingly, the story’s use of baklese (“Charot!”). But “Lady Boy” isn’t just katatawanan or kabaklaan. Reading it now, Lady Boy’s sadness is obvious, how she hides under layers of humor to hide the hurt from trauma and many years of rejection. After a tumultuous life in Manila, Lady Boy comes back to Iriga and not much has changed. Her dad still shuns her and her mother is still a “denial queen.” Much like many of us in the LGBTQ+ community, Lady Boy continues to live her life as happily as we could, but still with that monster of a trauma hiding underneath our beds, ready to ensnare us anytime.
Like in “Lady Boy,” there is a tributary of trauma that runs in Tijam’s stories. The opening salvo “Remembering Thursday” is a dark rendering of a folklore that’s as violent as it is terrifying. “Waiting for Agua De Mayo,” may be about a bakunawa, but its story rolls on with a wave of despair, the sheen of innocence and magic furiously destroyed by the pain of living. “Wishes Do Come True” is most explicit in its woundedness; a story filled with hope swallowed whole by piercing darkness.
In H. Francisco V. Peñones Jr.’s introduction to the book, he uses the term “native imagination” to describe the strain of magic embedded in Tijam’s stories. Iriga after all, as the award-winning poet points out, is a pre-colonial settlement and the center of the cult of aswang. Tijam’s ability to tap into the infinite imagination of her heritage and mesh that with the wounds of modern life speaks so much of the powers of her writing — it has been called “exceedingly beautiful” by Shirley Jackson Award and World Fantasy Award winning-writer Jeffrey Ford.
Here, Tijam gives a rare interview and talks about decolonizing speculative fiction, chismis as folklore, and negotiating with languages when you move around the country that has close to over 200 of them.
When did you start writing and when did you start devoting it to fiction?
I guess formal training or being introduced to writing came with the academics, the extra curricular activities because I remember the first essay writing I had was in Grade 5. It was one of those school competitions sa Division, I think it was a DOST competition. That was the sustaining activity.
By high school it was the Division secondary schools press conference. That’s really good training for a lot of people, especially for kids in the provinces. Now it’s good that we have workshops and it has gone online. And a lot of school programs integrate that, campus journalism, but imagine that there’s no reading exposure in elementary and high school on how to write a short story. Right? How to write a poem. Noon essay pa lang eh ngayon creative non-fiction na, o di mas naloka mga tao diba? (Laughs)
Writing in a sense that getting into it as a daily practice was actually journaling. Kasi before the prompt in journaling, hindi lang diary what I was into. Remember Filofax? Diba may daily yan, I would jot down stuff… the weirdest things, the most interesting things for the day, ganon ‘yung i-list ko. And then I think journaling came because it was part of writing classes.
Getting into short fiction… because my interest before was poetry. I was writing poetry. This is pretty crystal clear… we were required to take short fiction or essay. Hirap na hirap ako sa short fiction kasi I came from poetry na maikli, exact, diba? And then yung short fiction… it was actually Emil Flores.. Mr. Sci Fi, and he was the one who helped me transition, he introduced me to flash fiction poetry... So madali lang… and then the writing exercises… Many people have different perspectives on what is a short fiction form but for us — at least with me when I was trained — minimum 10, maximum 25 pages. So kapag hindi ka nag 10 pages sorry hindi ka marunong magsulat, ganon lang yun kasimple. (Laughs) A lot of my contemporaries, Carljoe Javier, Selena Salang, our one big problem was how to elongate it to reach the 10 pages. And then eventually you develop, so it was that.
[Writing] was also part of therapy. With some therapy programs, when you have a hard time talking about your concerns, what psychologists or psychiatrists or counselors do is to encourage you to write it down. Then they could process and until eventually, [it’s like] having a silent voice until you can tell your story or your narrative with your own voice. So this is pertaining to mental health, during a time when talking about mental health was still a social taboo. If you talk about depression, krung krung ka eh. They think you’re crazy. Or may time pa noon na kapag may mental health issues ka, sakit pangmayaman daw yan.
Looking at the stories in “Flowers for Thursday,” it seems that you kind of took your time until you collected your stories in one book. Why did it take you until now to publish your first short story collection?
(Laughs) I never aspired for a book. That’s one. Finishing one story takes time. Especially if you’re balancing work and family life. [There’s also] the demands of work, of social life, of your relationship.
Two, is that sometimes kasi it was a matter of confidence. There’s a conflicting feeling. You look at the bookshelves and sometimes you would say, “Oh my god ang daming may libro! Right? Sometimes you look at yourself and ask “Do I have a right? May K ba ako makisali dyan?” (Laughs) Do I want to go through the pressure of everything involved when it comes to putting a book out? The conversations with friends… like in the spine of the book, do you want to put your spine out there (Laughs) for feedback and criticism, to be that exposed? Because that’s what it means to be published. And I kind of hate more so now in the age of social media where authors are more reachable compared to before wherein there was no social media. I see that all the time where they’re being contacted by students for book reports, or parang cliff notes na agad yung dating eh.
And it's also an example of, "Hey, I'm 42. And I'm coming out with my first book." There's so much pressure in society, not just for writers, but for a lot of people. You [have] to achieve these when you're in your 20s, or in your 30s. Right? And I think [this book is] a testament to that, that you can have your first in your 40s. And that's fine. That's fantastic. Doesn't mean that you're late into things.
My question to myself was if I'm going to come out with a book, what was it for? And one of the bigger reasons was homecoming to Bicol. Because for the longest time, I wasn't really identified with Bicol literature, right? I was known as a writer from Manila. But the fact that a lot of the things that I do write about come from the Bicol culture, Bicol history, Bicol society. If I want to come out with a book, what would it be? What would it be about? That took time.
Meron bang guidance that came from your publisher, Kristian Cordero of Ateneo De Naga University, when it comes to selecting the stories, aside from being about Bikol since it’s Ateneo De Naga?
Actually, no. KC, he trusts the author. So I had, I pretty much had the freedom to choose. And that was really it.
These stories [were from] when I started publishing in Philippines Speculative Fiction, it also had a very specific guiding principle, which was really postcolonial. So this was when I was taking graduate studies, my master's in comparative literature, in UP [around] 2005-2006. Postcolonial was just actually being discussed at that time. It's not as prevalent as it is now. My project when it came to my graduate studies was, "Is it possible to write a literature in English that is actually decolonized from Western thought?" And so the big part, that's why you would see the themes. A big part, if you look at the postcolonial criteria, a lot of that is about using, reclaiming what you would call your native forms.
"If you go regional and you can see in the stories [in the book], ang dami nang terms and values and references that are intrinsic to let's say Iriga or Bicol or even Naga... ‘yung references that unless I guess you research, [you won't understand]. I think that was one internal game that I was playing with the readers where in... Google it away! Or ask. Because storytelling should be a generative process."
So one part of that Sir Frank [Peñones Jr.] noted is the orality. Mahirap magsulat ng kwento na oral ‘yung dating, nagkkwento. I think that makes it distinctly Filipino. ‘Yung orality. I was exploring other things in the other stories, but that stayed with me. So there was that being conscious of that.... and it's not just a matter of ... minsan kasi exoticized eh. "I'm gonna use these native terms." It's like now uso ang aswang. So it's not that because when I was writing this, I was not coming from [around 2005, 2007]. It was really a conscious effort to come from the postcolonial thought in writing, and sort of like a reclamation, a coming home, an examination of where we are and where we were before.
Remember when “The Ascension of Lady Boy” got acknowledged in 2008? That was big for us in Philippine spec fic [speculative fiction], diba? Sina Dean [Francis Alfar] at that time naloka na "Bakit? Naintindihan ba nila yon? All that baklese? All that kabaklaan?” So I think there was chatter at that time online that it was because it was exotic or being exoticized. In fairness at that time, I couldn't really care less. The community was, "Yeah!" Because this is one story that's distinctly Filipino and it's there. But with me, at that time, I was attending to my dad who was sick. So I had my priorities.
I was reading the intro of “Best of Philippine Speculative Fiction.” And one of the sentences that struck me was parang they started the Philippine speculative fiction anthology because they wanted to read stories that they were reading but in a Philippine setting… which kind of teeters to the edge na okay, we're going to ape Western tropes, diba? And just put all these words from Filipino languages... With your work, you were conscious na nga of decolonizing these things. So with your stories, how did you avoid that pitfall? A lot of the stories here were published online for Bewildering Stories. And that's a different kind of audience versus the Philippine readers. Or did you just focus on the concept of the story?
If the question was "Who do I write for?" I don't write for the international [audience], I write for the Philippine audience. So there's the assumption that the Pinoy will understand that. If you incorporate Filipino languages into the story itself and mesh it into the kind of language narration that you're using for this story. Because if you go regional and you can see in the stories [in the book], ang dami nang terms and values and references that are intrinsic to let's say Iriga or Bicol or even Naga... ‘yung references that unless I guess you research, [you won't understand]. I think that was one internal game that I was playing with the readers where in... Google it away! Or ask. Because storytelling should be a generative process. It should lead readers to ask hindi lang ‘yung tanggap na... It's also a way of teaching, exchanging learning.
There’s regional and then there's the national [language]…. How much more baklese? ‘Yung gay linggo na ginamit [sa] “Lady Boy.” If you're not familiar with gay lingo here, it's a different language altogether also. Actually there is that process, wherein with the editors in the international platform [where some of the stories were published], they do check, like “This part won't be understood by the international audience so is there a way that you could [clarify this].” For example, in "Talking to Juanito." ‘Yung “ta?” Yeah. Oh, so there's a technique that you can use in writing where you can expand it a little, so you're sort of translating it without outright translating it so it [can be] understood by a non-Filipino native or non-Bikolano reader in the international platform, but we are not compromising the essence of where the narration was coming from or where it wanted to go.
Which I guess speaks for the writing tradition here in the Philippines, that people are also discussing this, just now in na very Western ‘yung tradition natin of writing and especially for you comes from the UP tradition of writing.
I guess, if you're referring to that essay that went around for a time like the creative writing program, I think that was from Australia, I think like the writing program itself is very Westernized because of the storytelling techniques that come from the Western canon... Yes, there was that but hindi ko alam kung characteristic lang naming mga probinsya... may different ‘yung rural with the urban. When you're coming from the rural storytelling kita mo rin ‘yung promdi feels, the way it's told. I guess I was traversing, negotiating through all of these because all of these were influences.
So to be fair to UP hindi naman. A lot of teachers when they would reference ang reference talaga is Anglo-Am eh: techniques, styles. Unless you consciously immerse yourself in Philippine literature in English and that's something that I'm grateful for, at least in the school programs now because they have 21st century literature, so mas contemporary, but I'm like, “You know, contemporary but do you know about from the start?” Kasi maganda rin eh — I'm just talking about Philippine literature in English. Hindi ko i-cover ‘yung iba. Philippine speculative fiction carved its space there in English. So yes, with the stories that I read when it's spec fic and in English, that's was my constant challenge to at least my contemporaries and peers in the community. Like if I look at the story, I always see okay, what is Filipino about this? Right. How is it representing our culture?
Parang pwede mo lang palitan ‘yung mga pangalan... na Filipino ‘yung terms but it still feels very Western.
You can tell, diba? When I think when you're an astute reader, na, okay, pinalitan lang but the rest.... it's the same old thing. So I guess that was that. A number of us, we're challenging ourselves in that.
"That's why it's a negotiation of languages for me. Our mother tongue was Rinconada but then we moved to Naga and in Naga the language was Bikol. And then in school, were taught Filipino, which is technically really different from Tagalog. And then there was English. So there is also that journey of languages."
When you mentioned orality, it really was apparent in your work, especially with the opening story, "Remembering Thursday," it's kind of like an opening salvo to what kind of stories there are in "Flowers for Thursday."
How was it for you?
It's dark but at the same time meron siyang folkloric elements na these are the kind of stories you'll read later on in the book. I also had to Google some of the terms used in the story, like the knife that the uncle was using. And it really speaks to your desire to "decolonize" (Laughs) speculative fiction, or Philippine literature in English. So, in choosing the stories 'diba sabi mo, this is more of the Bicolano, the Iriga influence on you. Can you talk more about how he grew up with these stories, the folklore, the legends that you kind of incorporated in, in the short stories?
I think Dean and I used to joke about that... What is speculative fiction is actually nonfiction from where we come from. (Laughs) ‘Yung aswang or ‘yung ganito, where we grew up, ‘yung ganito, o, ‘yung neighbor namin.
Yeah! Sa kabilang barrio may ganon. You live with that. That's why ‘yung mga kwento na wag kang lumabas at this time. Or kung guwapo kang lalake pwede kang pagtipuhan ng ganito.
They say when you're raising a child, it's the first six years for seven years, that are really critical because this is where we can assimilate, we acquire a lot of the skill sets or a lot of the values are things from the visceral or archetypes you and your archetypes as a person and as much as these are actually very traumatic experiences... that's why if you notice not many of us can remember things. When you ask kids like, "Do you remember this?" noong one to six years old [ka pa?]. Kasi sobrang traumatic for the brain eh, na kailangang "Hoo-hoo!" We're gonna break [these memories] down so that we can make more.
Storytelling was very much abound in our families and in our community. Especially in Iriga because it's still very rural... talagang barrio, especially if you go to the barrios just like now na marami pang parts of the Philippines, na walang kuryente, walang signal. So what do you do? There's a lot of storytelling, a lot of oral tradition.
That's why it's a negotiation of languages for me. Our mother tongue was Rinconada but then we moved to Naga and in Naga the language was Bikol. And then in school, were taught Filipino, which is technically really different from Tagalog. And then there was English. So there is also that journey of languages. English became the middle ground for me of all of these languages where I could fully invest and express myself. In the same way that when I first arrived in UP, in Manila, marami akong words na ginagamit from Bikol na iba ang ibig sabihin kapag sa Tagalog! So journey talaga of languages. I was very conscious about the negotiation of languages. But hindi ko pino-proclaim then na “Postcolonial ito!” Internal na lang ‘yun.
These days, I see — at least in my circle or in the social media platforms I use — that readers are actively looking for more non-American/Western reading. A lot of people are reading Japanese and South Korean books, even Southeast Asian books. Although nagbabago na rin naman ‘yung American/Western publishing now because there are more people of color who are given the chance to publish their books, more than ever.
The whole point like you make way, you forge space for the others to join. Eto na kanya kanya kayong style. With me, it's just that I'm very clear about it. That's why oh, god recognized international or na-publish international… it was always a surprise for me. It's not that I couldn't care less it's just that because first and foremost really that's it, when I'm asked "Who do you write for?" My audience has always been the Philippines. [But] it's also a door for people to learn more to want to learn more about Iriga and Bikol culture, [and] Rinconada because very diverse ang cultures by virtue of the languages and locality dito sa Bikol eh. Para siyang microcosm ng Philippines eh. The joke is because we’re the Ireland of the Philippines. Super Catholic, super drinkers, and superstitious. (Laughs)
"There's so much pressure in society, not just for writers, but for a lot of people. You [have] to achieve these when you're in your 20s, or in your 30s. Right? And I think [this book is] a testament to that, that you can have your first in your 40s. And that's fine. That's fantastic. Doesn't mean that you're late into things."
“The Ascension of Ladyboy” comes in at a time where the discussion of the rights of transgender people is very heated.
It was part of my studies on Gender Studies which is one huge chapter in literary theory. And yes, wala pa... ‘yung mga trans [discussions] emerging pa at that time. Now they have more voices, but at that time hindi and at that time, people when “The Ascension of Lady Boy” came out [the first time]... the conversation was bakla 'yan. When people write about it or talk about it, oh, there's this gay guy... gay pa rin... hindi transgender. 'Di ba ‘yun ‘yung usual articulation natin, a girl trapped in a boy's body... a lady in a boy's body.... ‘yung interpretation is bakla ka.
[The story] came from questions that you would ask yourself [with your writing] and how you wanted to resolve [these issues.] What is it that I want to reframe, recreate rework, so that it would address certain things that for me as a person and as a member of a community or society would want to understand or want to put forth as a perspective out there, and take a look, you know, assume this perspective so that, you know, we think better. So you you, ‘yung mga ganon eh.. So si Lady Boy kasi ang dami niyang achievements eh. (Laughs)
Have you had trans women talk to you about "The Ascencion of Lady Boy"?
People would send me like, screenshots of somebody saying or reacting tweet about it. So yeah, wala pa naman sa aking naniningil ng cultural appropriation. Pero feeling nila ‘yung inner bayot ko is Bisaya. Bikolano yan! But most of the [response are] positive. Most of them would say that underneath it all they saw the sadness of Lady Boy.
Do you think your consciousness of language is also an offshoot... or it's because you come from outside of Manila? Because in Manila, there's just Filipino and then English, but I guess, merong tendency to not be conscious of how you use language because parang innate na siya with your tradition...
I think in Manila, English is already a second language, if not even a first language, right? A lot of parents problematize their children's ability to cope with Filipino subjects. "Hirap na hirap po sila sa Araling Panlipunan".... There are more languages than English and Tagalog or Filipino. It's very much part of it because it's. In Iriga alone... you have Rinconada... there's Iriga Rinconada, there's Nabua, which is several kilometers away, there's Buhi... In the regions, teachers would tell you... you just throw a stone, ma'am ibang language na 'yan [diyan] and it's very true.
With me, it was hard, at least me personally because my mother tongue was Rinconada and then we moved to Naga and so you have to acquire a new language. And I remember my classmates in Naga telling me that when I talk my intonation is not because my intonation is Rinconada. And ‘yung intonation ng Rinconada akala mo palaging may kalaban eh. So it's learning that and maintaining Rinconada as well and then learning Filipino and then when we went to Manila, it's English and then Tagalog. Tagalog. When I came back to Bikol, technically it was 20 years since I spoke Bikol Naga on a daily basis. I would literally grasp for words, like I don't know what to say anymore.
I guess as the last question, I want to go back to the intro of Sir Frank. Immediately I was struck by the term "native imagination." How do you feel about the term being applied to your writing?
Well, it is what it is right? It is there. In a sense that Sir Frank said, I think one time in our conversation what he said was, yeah, you think in English, but your soul is Rinconada. Where did our imaginations come from as a person? It comes from where we came from. And that's what he saw. I don't know if it's the same thing that other readers would see. But yes, if it's if you're asking me like, do I own up to it? Yes. Because that is, that is the cultural imagination, that is the mythical imagination, that was [my] formative imagination. And I think it was Wittgenstein that said [“The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”], right?
I don't know yet how comfortable I am talking about all these things because like I said, I refer to whatever it is [in the book.] There's the introduction, there are the stories. Knock yourselves out, okay? (Laughs)