LINDA TY-CASPER: PHILIPPINES WRITER
Author Bio: Linda Ty-Casper is a highly-acclaimed Filipino writer. She was born as Belinda Ty in Manila, Philippines in 1931. Her father worked in the Philippine National Railways; her mother was a school teacher and textbook writer. It was her grandmother who told her stories about the Philippine struggle for independence, a topic she picked up in her novels. She has law degrees from the University of the Philippines and Harvard. However, erroneous and biased statements in books at Widener Library converted her into an advocate, through faithfully researched historical fiction, of Filipino's right to self-definition/determination.
Her numerous books are generally historical fiction. The Peninsulars centers on eighteenth-century Manila; The Three-Cornered Sun written on a Radcliffe Institute grant, deals with the 1896 Revolution; and Ten Thousand Seeds, the start of the Philippine American War. Contemporary events, including martial law years, appear in Dread Empire, Hazards of Distance, Fortress in the Plaza, Awaiting Trespass, Wings of Stone, A Small Party in a Garden, and DreamEden.
Her stories, collected in Transparent Sun, The Secret Runner, and Common Continent, originally appeared in magazines such as Antioch Review, The Asia Magazine, Windsor Review, Hawaii Review, and Triquarterly. One short story was cited in The Best American Short Stories of 1977 Honor Roll. Another won a UNESCO and P.E.N. prizes.
She has held grants from the Djerassi Foundation, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and the Wheatland Foundation. She and her husband, (literary critic and professor emeritus of Boston College) Leonard Casper, reside in Massachusetts. They have two daughters.
Linda Ty-Casper's three novels set in the Philippines during the Marcos dictatorship --are available in Kindle (Amazon.com) and Nook (Barnes and Noble):
Wings of Stone
A Small Party in a Garden
From:THE OTHER SIDE
Beating Sticks in the Forest
by Linda Ty-Casper
hen I first came to the States I had dreams in which our old house outside Manila was burning, suspended in the sky. In flashes I would see my grandmother looking for me. I would see myself trying to find my classroom in the old Washington Elementary.
I wonder if the biblical Ruth, after deciding not to return to her people but to stay with Naomi, her dead husband's mother, had dreams about her old home while she worked in Boaz's fields.
With the years, those early dreams finally passed from my memory. But after our children left to be on their own, the dreams returned. This time they were not of houses burning and people being hurtled through space, but of my parents sitting just across the river from our present house and calling me to cross and come over. The longing to be able to go home, just for the day (and especially Sundays), took on the intensity of former nightmares. I longed to visit in Malabon; to spend lazy Sunday afternoons sitting under the trellis of bridal bouquet, at that table to which extra chairs were added, one by one, as friends and relatives arrived.
My memories were almost palpable--I remembered the playhouse that lay just beyond the trellis where my mother played solitaire at a round table. Under its glass top were photographs-my own, my sister's, my parents-that grew more and more out of sequence as the years passed and new photos were added. As I watched her play, she would tell stories about growing up in Nueva Ecija, a province to the north. How she had once stood protectively against her own mother's legs when a dog started barking at them in the street. How they moved to Intramuros, the old walled city, so she could go to school in Manila. How, after she graduated from the Normal School, without opening her first paycheck, she gave it to her mother.
Now I, too, play solitaire-sometimes in the morning, as I anticipate the day; sometimes late at night as I ponder where it has taken me. I often feel that my parents and I are playing cards together. As I play, I remember each of us. I gather those gentle conversations around. Those "solitaires" are my way of coming home.
After years of fiction-writing, I reread my stories and unexpectedly recognized in them that ache I carried: of no longer being able to go home. My novels are all set in the Philippines, and I realized that writing them was a way of coming home after all. In them, I am my grandmother and aunts,
my parents--telling stories that would otherwise pass away silently with the dead.
My writing continues in a long tradition of story-telling, a tradition embodied in my grandmother, my aunts, and my mother. I relived the 1896 revolution against Spain and the Philippine-American war at the end of the nineteenth century through the vivid stories of my grandmother. Her precise description-down to actual buildings--of living in the old city of Manila, enclosed by a one-square-mile medieval wall, was borne out by painstaking research. My mother and aunts gave me a picture of life in parts of the islands that I never experienced. (Linda: I think we need at least one summary line about your aunts and mom before moving to you, since you mention all of them.) My aunts brought me to visit relatives scattered about the city, told me stories about growing up with them, how they learned to play softball from their American teachers.
Yet I also write from my own childhood memories-of going up the river in Calbiga, to my father's island of Samar, where trees were wrapped in thick vines that obliterate the ground; of an uncle's garden in an old section of Manila; of the convent where I went to school. The house in Wings of Stone, right down to the pool of tilapia, is my aunt and uncle's home, which was directly across from my own home.
I suspect that in telling their stories my grandmother and aunts and mother were home, in much the same way that I was home while writing my books from the stories I was told and what I remember. Attempting to come home again, we used words--they in the oral tradition, mine in the written.
My novels deal with the past. When loneliness, separation, and deaths have made coming home impossible, they enable me to visit with those who speak in my dreams at night. Our lives are linked in words. As I write, I become all of the people I long to come home to. Their memories brought them home in the same way that writing my books allows me to be home: watching corn being ground between two flat stones for corn pudding, majablanca, which melted on the tongue, so different from the pale imitations I made in the States from cornstarch. The people I long to go home to have become me as much as I have become them.
Certain tribes in the Philippines beat sticks together while walking through the forests, trying to keep the soul from straying from the body. In a very real sense, remembering our stories accomplishes that. Before the Spaniards came, women healers-called baybaylans and catalonans--preserved common stories through chants and verses while they treated physical and psychic wounds. They presided over rituals, and preserved the communal identity.
Women writers perform the role of these ancient priestesses by preserving the stories of our lives. These stories shape a home we can come to as generations pass on, and in them, we are home to each other.
Copyright 2001 by Linda Ty-Casper; all rights reserved.
INTERVIEW OF LINDA
by Kristina and Leonard Casper
Do you have readers you aim the writing at?
I'm not aware of readers when I write. I am thinking of the writing, the subject matter. Besides, I don't know what readers want to read. All I know is what I want to write: things that will slip out of memory, if no one writes about it.
And I don't keep up with fads, devices. First of all I never studied writing so I have no clue as to what these are. I was helped a lot by talking to NVM Gonzalez and Maning Viray over the phone, which was a good way of visiting; and from reading Franz Arcellana and Frankie Jose.
I work with whatever works for the story. And each story is different, so it's hands-on experience, with structure... I couldn't possibly keep up with what's going on even if I wanted to. All I know is details/actualities: the social and personal, caught up in dilemmas that turn the characters inward, to their soul, where they can struggle with themselves until they come up with what they have to do and decide to follow their better selves. Not all do, of course. "Soul" is another word we no longer hear much about. And soul is not a pietistic word. It's a spiritual word. We are spirit and also flesh.
Whatever is valuable but in danger of disappearing has to be written as simply as possible so the writing does not get in the way. With language I try to catch the motion of the story, the characters' inner feelings and thoughts, rather than how they look. Fewer words are required when intensity is achieved. Sort of like a painting, compared to a photograph.
What do you think of younger writers?
They have so much confidence, they're good. Their voiceFranz said that [this] has to be earnedgives their work brilliance. Nick Carbo's Secret Asian Man pretends to be cartoonish but also gives a sense of a knife being twisted in the flesh.
I always believed, not in the Filipino novel, but in the Filipino writers. All are part of the country's treasure. Each. All. Our literature is a mirror held to our faceso it is as diverse in language, subject and thrust as we are. The surprise comes from that, as well as from the particular talent of each writer.
Afraid I might be influenced by their style, I tend not to read much of other writers. I usually read books for the story, for facts. But sometimes I get tempted by certain books.
What does writing do for you?
Writing, I guess, is my way of visiting my parents. Mostly on Sunday: I think, if only I could go home once more. Malabon is gone. Nueva Ecija that I knew is gone. But when I was writing The Stranded Whale, I remembered how the Rio Grande de Pampanga looked, the way the banks slid down. I remembered looking towards Jaen across the Rio Grande. Progress has altered the view. Calbiga where my father was born is no longer the same. I was there only once but I have put Calbiga in my stories and novels.
Does your writing pay particular attention to the elderly?
Many people who are important to me are gone. I remember an uncle who used to give us ten centavos when he came to visit. He always wore a suit. I can't recall his name, what he looked like, but I remember his manner of gifting us, and of Ninang who insisted coins be wrapped in paper because one never know[s?] how many hands had touched them.
If I had stayed in the Philippines, I probably would never have turned to writing. I visit home in my stories. I miss relatives, friends who are gone. I put them in my storiesthe way they walked one day, the clothes they wore? We used to walk to church, have parties? I remember Washington Elementary School and often the rooms appear in my dreams. Caloocan High, the buildings where, only later, I discovered General Antonio Luna remained during a shelling, waiting for the American Army to approach closer before returning their fire.
I remember General Jose Alejandrino because a friend of my mother's, Mr. Macaraeg, arranged for me to interview him for Professor Arsenio Manuel's class in history. I remembered that morning while I was writing about the Battle of Mangatarem in The Stranded Whale.
People and places are not forever. Unless someone writes about them who will know they ever existed, ever were? The old Intramuros where my father took us to visit the churches, the cemetery at Calbiga, these are in my stories. The people in my stories once lived. I remember those I did not personally know from what people told me. My Tia Pinang remembered relatives, the tragedies of lives, the brief happiness? I remember her being waked in Tia Mameng's white Iglesia ni Cristo deaconess saya, though she wanted to be waked in her own black saya. No one is waked in black, relatives said. That's a story: the Grace Park church where she was waked, the ride to Malabon past fishponds, the cemetery beside the church which was shelled by Dewey's fleet at the start of the Philippine-American War. The warehouses were spared.
The research I do augments my own and borrowed memories. I can't begin to exhaust the materials available in the States. The libraries. I used to walk up and down past the shelves at Widener, the levels below the circulating desk. I often looked around and found exactly the book I needed. Minnesota Volunteers for example, when I was reading about the Philippine American War. I couldn't stand looking through card catalogues. After Widener was computerized, Kristina taught me how to look for files, but my old way worked best for me. I liked to be surprised. To find things I had never heard of. Like coming upon watermelons left in the field.
My grandmother used to tell stories about the revolution against Spain, the war with the Americans, the Sakdalistas? Often she would say, 'Someone should write this story, the story of my life.' I'm doing what my grandmother asked me to do; though, listening to her then, it was farthest from my mind to do as she asked. I am my grandmother telling stories. I think there are lives that should not be allowed to die, impulses and attitudesvirtues, now almost a swear word in the marketplace, like valuesimportant for the country to remember as having existed, so the leaders will not put their interests ahead of the country. The generation of 1896, that's my catch-all for all the good people in our country; they would not have brought us into this turn-of-the-century spiral into corruption.
Did you always think writing was important?
Not quite in the beginning. When I started I didn't want people to know I was writing. I asked Ate Luz if I could use her name. I would have gone on doing so except her sister-in-law, a teacher, had the same name and her co-teachers began teasing her about being a writer. Maybe, I tried to hide my writing because I did not know if it was any good.
I finally used my own name because I thought no one would even see the story. Wrong. I was still at UP. And Professor Campos stopped one afternoon to mention having seen my story. I turned red. Back then I turned red whenever I was embarrassed. What was I doing writing short stories when I was supposed to be reviewing for the bar!
I remember I wrote a short poem about an ant when I was nine or maybe younger. I received a one-peso check for it. For days I kept looking at my name, then I hid the check in the escribana where it got lost among the santols and other fruits that cousins hid there to ripen.
Do you think writing is important?
I thought in the beginning that writing was self-indulgence. I had been taught to do something useful for the country, for God. I am of the generation who still think of Rizal as a role model. To die for one's country was the ultimate justification for living.
I thought writing was a wasteful, if relaxing, frittering of time. Now I know it's another way of serving the country after all; to help build a critical resource beyond the tampering of those inclined to power. Literature does not mean anything to those who lust after political or financial power, it is "only fiction after all"; so what is written remains a valuable but inviolable social, historical, emotional record. It's what we as a people have ever been, throughout the years, as remembered by our writers.
Telling stories about the lives she knew was my grandmother's way of remembering, of leaving those memories behind. She was full of admonitions, her way of teaching others how to live. When I received the ten centavo piece from my uncle, she said, "Bigay mo sa pulubi, mas kailangan niya yan." That stopped me from counting how many lemon drops that would buy from the corner store?ten drops a centavo. "Kung gawan ka ng kawanggawa, magkawanggawa ka sa iba. Makararating iyan sa Diyos at matutuwa siya." "Huwag mong purihin ang sarili mo; hayaan mo sa iba." "Pagtayo ng mayabang, nadarap siya." "Huwag kang magpaganda. Husto na sa iyo ang binigay ng Maykapal." So I didn't wear lipstick until Sister Mary Helen of the CCD program kept after me because, she said, I looked so pale. Nanay could recite from the Pasion.
Until I took courses to prepare me to teach CCD when our children were young, my grandmother's teachings constituted the Bible for me. After all she prepared their servants for confession. In the 1890s. My mother, busy with teaching and writing textbooks, assumed we were being taught life's lessons. My father's only advicewhen I was leaving for the States"Don't give up your citizenship for anything." When I came home to visit, he never asked if I still had my Philippine passport. He knew I would keep it.
How important is history in your books?
Since no one now has time or opportunity to read deep into our history, I decided to provide that look into our past. To make it easier for readersat first, I was thinking of our daughters, then when I was teaching [at] Iskwelahan, I thought of the other children growing up in this countryI write history into my novels, suffuse the individual stories with our history, the way weakened bones are pumped with calcium so they don't fracture underneath the body's weight.
Now I know writing is for my own sake, too; to keep myself from scattering; from one day wondering what I did with my life. Maybe someone that's not very much, where's the reward? I happen to think it is enough; not spectacular or earthshaking, but enough to provide the strength, the confidence to get up in the morning and face each day. For me it is necessary to write. I now ask myself, when I have choices to make?will it make me a better person, a better writer? Someone unashamed? I respect characters who have integrity; and cannot I ask any less of myself.
I've been writing off and on for some 44 years. I would stop; but I can't think of anything else I would want to do. I hope what I have written is a faithful portrait of our people, for better or for worse. And I will continue to write because now I know it is another way of serving the country.
Do you write better in the States or in the Philippines?
There are more distractions in the Philippines. People dropping in. All the time. Relatives, neighbors, vendors. Aling Sepa used to walk from their farm to the market, stopping by to let Nanay choose what she wantedfresh fish from the river, newly picked patani. Aling Sepa is in several of my stories? Len even took a picture of her once. Then she disappeared. Never heard about her. People disappear from each other's lives. Doņa Nena GarciaMama to many of us in Bostonsaid her brother was called to Bataan at the start of WWII in the Philippines. Nothing more was heard of him, ever. Nor of the other government employees with him who were sent to resist the Japanese soldiers.
I remember people. Maybe that is why after researching "large" events, I have the right "small" characters to respond to that largeness. I remember people in the streets, in the markets, in church, in buses and jeepneys. I loved to go by public transportationtrains especially since my father retired as operations manager of the old Manila Railroadand my mother was forever afraid I would be kidnapped. I used to walk from the Bonifacio Monument at night, in the 80s, having come from UP. Someone asked me how I knew about the streets mentioned in my contemporary novels. That's how.
Friends take me hotel-hopping, take me to theatres, to churches, to markets, to historic places. A cousin, Bella, insisted on my seeing Vigan. Hermy Abejo, a friend from UP days, took me to Barasoain church when it was inaugurated. We visited churches around Laguna de Bay one Holy Thursday. Betty de Jesus took me to galleries outside Manila to give me a feel of the country.
In the States, I have stopped going to plays and movies. They have nothing to do with me. In that sense I am provincial. I want to be reminded of people and places I know. I can add to what a friend said, 'I have met all the people I want to knowI've seen all the places I want to see.'
Writing was easier in the Philippines because I did not have to cook or do housework. And the distractions there became parts of stories. What I saw was part of my writing because part of me. I remember seeing a leaf rotating heavily in our mango tree. It turned out a spider had imprisoned a bird inside. That was the right motif for the part of Wings of Stone which I was writing at the time...
Once I was typing in the front porch in Malabon, this was walled-in glass but had two side doors to the garden. I went upstairs for awhile, when I returned I couldn't find the typewriter. Apparently I was being watched and my leaving briefly allowed someone to climb over the bougainvilleas and wall with shards of broken glass and, entering one door, to take the typewriter. Those were the beginning of hard times. It's even more desperate now for many. But whoever took the typewriter pulled up the sheet from the machine and left it on the table!
In the States, it helps that a river runs just beyond our backyard, because it can be any river in the Philippines. Trees alongside the banks shut off the sight of houses. I could well be homeexcept I have to stop to make lunch or supper, to fill the birdfeeders, to chase off squirrels or rabbits. Tina says we provide a salad bar for the rabbit who eats flowers off the hostas, the mums, the cardinal plants? A muskrat even comes up from the river.
Some instinct told me early on, that I had to set priorities in order to write. I try not to attend conferences, do readingsbecause they take energy from my writing. I consider my books more important than myself. So I am not a joiner. For a while when Kristina was young, I helped with Iskwelahang Pilipinoteaching culture through literature; we caroled and helped with the food booths. I am a member and officer of the Boston Authors (founded 1900 by Julia Ward Howe and friends), a manuscript group of writers who meet monthly to read their works-in-progress ? I do not tell other people that I write. At one dinner I sat next to an editor without telling him I wrote novels until another writer asked me to exchange seats with her so she could have a one-on-one talk with the editor. She thought I was wasting the opportunity.
Does travel help your writing?
Going to the Philippines does. Before, every time we went home, we took advantage of PanAm's offer to take in 11 cities if we went around the world instead of going back the same way we came. I've seen enough of Europe and Asia during those visits home. All I want now is to visit home, if I can't return for good.
Seeing the countries and cities that are part of the novels helped, of course. Though I don't watch much TV, I will watch documentaries of places. I haven't even traveled much in the US. But every day I thank God that we have the river in back, occasionally see hooded mergansers as winter starts, the blue herons up to November, see the leaves come out in the spring, turn in the fall?It keeps the world simple. I don't need to go out to the Arboretum. I am much content.
If you would have written only one book, or you hope to be remembered for only one, which would that be?
The Small Party in a Garden. I wrote it quickly, it almost wrote itself, after my mother died. I was remembering her and mourning. Even now I cry thinking of her and the novella. She read all my books. She started me writing when she asked me to write about historical events for the magazines she edited. And she allowed me to write it from one person's viewpoint. One in the crowd, so the narrator gives immediacy and feeling to a historically accurate event.
That novella is me dreaming of home. Politics is a part of life so there is violence in that novel, but my mother and father are there alsoalways, all waysperhaps as figures of the goodness always at risk when corruption thickens to the point that it is hardly even noticed anymore. There are many others like them, and not just of their generation. It's wonderful that despite the corruption and violence, the scandals and thick-skinned leaders some goodness endures.
How do you take to critical reviews?
I file the good ones to look at when my writing stalls, and I ignore the rest so they can't upset me more than once. But I find, I learn from critical comments, those that are valid and relevant.
I am even more critical of my writing, especially after they get into print when the faults just jump out at me. By that time, though, I am sufficiently distant from them not to be overly upset. I just avoid reading those flawed passages again.
How long do you work on a piece?
Novels take years. First I have to convince myself I should write it, and if it's past history as opposed to contemporary, I read and read and read until it's coming out of my ears. Then there is the waiting for it to come into focus. When it has worked itself into my head, a first line eventually occurs to me even while I'm doing something else. That is the reason I try not to be engaged in something I cannot put down when an idea occurs.
Stories used to take me a couple of hours. Unconsciously, I have been writing them in my head. I can't go back to an unfinished ms. I have to rewrite itin longhand. Often it's a different story the next time around. Some chapters are written the way I write short stories. But not all chapters can be written that way. The longer chapters I rework over and over.
Now, however, I can't sit long anymore. Arthritis requires me to move or my joints lock in place.
But thinking goes on, consciously or not. Thinking is part of writing.
Only Dread Empire took just six weeks. It was a kind of challenge. One of Len's students had written a crime fiction novel in six weeks. But it took me months to go back over that novella. I think it finally was close to the first version when I gave up. But I did enjoy rewriting it in longhand. For some reason, writing by hand gives me the feeling I'm doing something.
Do you still write in longhand?
The first few lines. Then I can take off on the typewriter, or now on the computer. I notice though that I have to revise more than when I wrote entirely by hand. Until '94 I needed to hear the pencil scratching across the sheet. I remember at Bellagio, other writing fellows were astounded that I was computer illiterate and several offered to start me on the computer in my office. I did not want them to take time off their grants. I wasn't sure I would learn. Then in '94 Luisa Garcia brought me her computer, set it up, gave me basic lessons. It took me a year to take to it. I'm still wary of the printer, and the offhand way a dialogue box suddenly drops to warn me an error has been committed and I have to do this and do that or everything I typed would be lost! It takes a lot of energy, energy drained from the writing, to figure out how to save the material. I've found relief in clicking on the X, to take me back where I was interrupted by advanced technology.
But yes, the computer has allowed me to attempt longer novels, to rearrange without having to write out each version in longhand. There is a trade off, however. I delete pages by mistake, hitting the unintended key or combination of keys. Once I lost 93 pages and had to rewrite them from scribbled notes. All I use the computer for is word processing and email. I somehow believe to ask more of it would be courting disaster. How can I have the machine play a CD when I am trying to find the right word, to catch an image?
What do you see yourself writing next?
Reviewing The Peninsulars, Franz Arcellana said one's first book is usually autobiographical. Maybe that's what I'll do. But someone reading my novels/short stories already knows mea part of me goes into every piece I write. In that sense the pieces are my autobiography, taking life from me. I live in them as much as they live in me. I'm constantly rewriting them in my mind. Only when I can no longer do that is it possible to think of the next book.
I have also always wanted to write about the Sakdalistas, the Commonwealth years, the Japanese Occupation. Will they all fit into one last book? If it's meant to be, as Nanay used to say, why not? I'll wait for a first line that will go on and on and fill whole pages. Will it be good? I don't know. I never know. Somebody else will have to decide that. Or the characters, whoever they will be, perhaps will tell me.
Some characters live beyond the last page of a book, practically begging to be written into their future. Blas Viardo, my fictive reconstruction of my great-grandfatherbased on Nanay's memoriesis such vibrant character he might be able to live to the 1990s! Blas was 45 in 1896. But he himself will tell me that vibrancy is not everything: truth is.
edited by LindaC/AF 11/4/00
Interview reprinted by permission of Alberto Florentino.
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