MUCH OF MY OWN FICTIONAL WORK HAS DEALT WITH LOW LIFE:
An Interview with Jose Dalisay
JOSE DALISAY is an English professor and director of the Institute of Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of more than twenty books, including novels, story collections, plays, and essays; a recipient of the National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle; and was named by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors List as one of the top 100 most accomplished and influential Filipino artists of the past century.
Noel King caught up with Dalisay at the Pan Pacific Manila on 19 August 2013.
KING: Jose, you are a professor here at the University of the Philippines in Manila and a writer of more than twenty books of fiction and non-fiction. How did you come to be involved in this Manila Noir anthology, how were you approached?
DALISAY: I was asked to do a story for this book by its editor Jessica Hagedorn, with whom I’ve had an email conversation of sorts over the past ten years or so, but we have never actually met. I’ve read some of her work and she’s read some of mine, and so when this project came up, I suppose I was one of the first authors she approached to write a noir story. This must have been more than a year ago. And the idea appealed strongly to me because much of my own fictional work has dealt with low life, shall we say, and I’m fascinated by the idea of Manila as a noir or noir-ish city, it’s always had that appeal for me. And so I thought, this isn’t going to be too difficult a concept to execute, and I thought Jessica would have a number of possibilities to work with depending on the authors she approached. She asked each contributor to choose a district of the city that we were familiar and comfortable with and my natural choice was my residence, my corner of Quezon City called Diliman, which is where the University of the Philippines is located. I live on campus, in campus faculty housing. And so I thought, all right, I’ll do a noir story based on campus and involving a professor. So that’s how it began.
KING: That trope of suburb-city-story applies across all of the books in the series so far. When you say you are familiar with noir, do you have any particular noir writers you admire?
DALISAY: Not prose writers in particular, it’s really noir film that’s interested me all these years, because as a graduate student in the United States many years ago I was a Teaching Assistant for a professor who taught film, and many of the movies that he chose were the noir genre, like Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai. And so that stuck in my mind.
KING: Where was this?
DALISAY: This was at the University of Michigan, in the mid to late 1980s, and since we were doing Orson Welles that film came up. I liked that whole idea of something being black and sinister, but also with profoundly human motives behind its workings, not something supernatural. I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of the darkness within people, and how people might seem utterly normal but when pushed to a certain limit that black side of them will emerge. And there’s something very stylish about noir. It’s really an angle or a way of looking at things, and I thought that for me this would be a fun exercise, and that’s the spirit in which I took this invitation from Jessica.
KING: And how was the commissioning process? You were the first writer approached, and the book happened within a year, which is quite fast.
DALISAY: Yes. Actually, we had much less than a year to write our pieces. If I recall correctly, I had about three months or so within which to come up with a story, and I delivered on time. I like deadlines. If I had been given a year I might have done it in the eleventh month! So I recall that I liked it so much that I drafted a story pretty quickly, and there was a back and forth between me and Jessica about some things that had to be edited here and there. That was perfectly fine by me, she is a very capable, sensitive editor. I stood my ground on a couple of points which had to do with how a man looked at a woman. I remember, and I told her, trust me on this, this is how we males see, this is how I would see this woman. And to her credit she accepted my explanation for that.
And we didn’t even talk about whether or how much I was going to get paid. We all did get paid, $200 for each contributor. To me that was really just a bonus, and I suppose I can speak for the others when I say that this was really more of an honour for us, especially having learned that so many world cities already had their own noir books. And we all thought, hey, Manila should have been right up there on that list much, much earlier, like Mumbai and Mexico. I can’t think of a city that reeks of noir more than this place.
KING: So you were familiar with some of the other titles in Akashic’s series?
DALISAY: Just the titles. I’d never actually seen the books. As it happened, last year on a visit to New York, I did stumble on some of those books at the Strand Bookstore, and it was amazing just how many there were, which amplified again the pleasure for me of being part of Manila Noir.
KING: And were you familiar with Johnny Temple, the founder of this independent press?
DALISAY: Not at all, I knew nothing about the publishers. I liked the name, Akashic Press. And the name, Johnny Temple, I mean how much more Hollywood-ish does it get? Johnny wrote to us and he was very nice about everything. The whole project was done very professionally, and with Jessica being on top of it, she made sure that everyone delivered. Some authors, at least one I knew of, were late for delivery and so didn’t make the cut. Jessica was very strict, didn’t care who you were, if you didn’t come up with your story on time, you were out of the project.
KING: I have the US edition of Manila Noir but since arriving here I notice that there is a Philippine edition of the book.
DALISAY: The Philippine edition was produced by Anvil Books, the country’s leading literary publisher. They are a subsidiary of the National Bookstore, which is the country’s largest bookstore chain, so the book was in good hands here. They made sure that we had a kind of splashy rollout for the book, they invited as many authors as they could round up, and we had the launch a couple of months ago at the newest National Bookstore branch in Makati, at a mall called the Glorietta. There was a pretty big crowd. I have been to a lot of book launchings here, and this was pretty sizeable. That particular day, we signed about 250 books, like an assembly line. The launch was advertised to take place from 4 pm to 6 pm and we were there until 8 pm signing books. Many of the people who attended were in their twenties and, as you might already have gathered, the main crowd-draw was the graphic novel aspect of the anthology.
KING: Yes. Well, I imagined that would be the case: Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo.
DALISAY: I’d never met them, I’d heard about their work, so it was a great pleasure to meet them. They are very pleasant, unassuming people.
KING: And that’s not their day job, it’s their night job.
DALISAY: Yes. Actually, there are very few people in this country whom you might call ‘professional writers.’ I might be considered one of those although officially my full-time job is that of a professor at a university. But in terms of my income, most of it really comes from independent or commissioned work, work done outside of the university. I write biographies and histories and that sort of thing. So, like the other contributors, this project was a pleasant diversion for me. There were maybe six of us at that launch, and we all read very short excerpts from our pieces and there were a lot of questions asking how we’d conceived of our particular stories, what were our inspirations?
KING: In your case, you as a young man.
DALISAY: Yes, along those lines. I’m not sure that even half the audience really knew what noir was about, as a concept, but they were willing to discover and learn. The choice of bringing different authors together to bear down on the same general subject probably made the book quite marketable. And also, I think everybody wanted to read what their favourite authors had written for this particular anthology.
KING: I’m guessing it might also have been a little bit to do with specific urban locales. For example, if some young hipsters are hanging out in particular areas of Manila, they might want to find out how that locale is depicted.
DALISAY: Yes. And like I said, a couple of those authors, the graphic guys, and Lourd de Veyra in particular, have strong followings. Lourd has become something of a media celebrity here, partly because he’s on TV, he’s on radio, and he also has a rock band. So aside from being a serious novelist, he’s a huge draw for any kind of cultural event like this.
KING: Which could explain the demographic at the book launching?
DALISAY: Yes. I think this project was very well conceived and of the people they put together, I wasn’t exactly the oldest guy there. But I think it shows in the work too. I haven’t read the whole book, I’ve read about three-fourths of it, and from what I gather, my piece is rather different from many of the others in its sensibility.
KING: It’s also interesting that they chose to use the classical term of noir, rather than get caught up in neo-noir, post-modern noir, and so on.
DALISAY: That’s true. I think if you talked about noir in a Manila context, the first thing that will occur to people is just crime. And it’ll be crime in a very gritty, realist sense. Of course some of the other guys did their own takes on that, the graphic novel piece was notable in that respect. But that’s still, in a sense, hard-core crime.
KING: The description in a couple of stories in the collection of what we in Australia call ‘shopping centres’, and you guys and the US call ‘malls’, intrigued me. The Greenbelt Mall in Makati depicted in Lysley Tenorio’s opening story reminded me of an old friend who died recently, Mike Presdee. Many years ago in Australia, he coined the term ‘proletarian shopping’ to describe the way young people in a suburb called Elizabeth in Adelaide, South Australia, would move around the shopping town there, to be in air conditioning in a very hot summer, or warm in winter, and when it became clear to the security guards that they were not going to purchase anything, they would be moved on. So there was a resonance for me in that respect. And as a boxing fan from way back I loved reading, in Gina Apostol’s story, about the currently run-down state of Ali Mall, Cubao, whose origin dates from the Ali-Frazier “Thrilla in Manila” bout in the 1970s.
Ali Mall, Manila. Photo: When Owel Plays
DALISAY: Yes, Ali is part owner of that mall. He invested in it, and recently it’s been refurbished. It had gone down the tubes over the many years since its beginnings, but now it’s like a brand new mall. This is a city of malls. I don’t know if you’ve been to the Mall of Asia yet, which is a five-minute taxi ride from here.
KING: No. Yesterday I walked through Robinson’s Mall, on my way to Solidaridad Bookshop but the bookshop was closed, so I’ll go there tomorrow.
DALISAY: Yeah, well, that would be a teeny weeny mall compared to the Mall of Asia, which is one of the world’s biggest. And Filipinos love malls, because of the air conditioning, it’s literally just a matter of going in there to cool off, you don’t have to buy anything, but of course inevitably you do buy something.
KING: I’ve been to Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur recently for the first time, and it’s the same thing, a story of malls, the presence of famous European brands and local Asian high-end brands and people drifting around. And of course there is the famous US example of the “biggest mall in America” being in the Midwest where at one point Japanese tourists would come to play golf and shop and use it as a sort of one-stop tourist destination. Don DeLillo writes wonderfully about malls in his book White Noise.
DALISAY: But particularly in the Philippines, what sustains our malls is the fact that this is a consumption-driven economy. We don’t actually produce anything much, we just get all this money from our overseas workers, and that’s all to be spent at the malls.
KING: The Lonely Planet guide mentioned that, all those (mainly) female Filipinos working overseas and sending billions back to your economy. To shift to a genuinely productive domain, what do you teach at UP?
DALISAY: Creative writing, Philippine literature in English, and the short story. And when they are short-handed I teach American literature, again particularly the short story, but it’s really mainly creative writing, fiction and non-fiction.
KING: Can you give me a sense of your student cohort, who comes to your university, and whether they do a three year undergraduate degree and then a discrete fourth honors year à la England and Australia, or is it more like the States?
DALISAY: It’s the US system, four years. The University of the Philippines is the largest government university in the country. It’s a university system much like, say, the University of California system, with many campuses, and the English Department is one of the university’s largest departments. I think we have about sixty people full-time on staff, and we also have a large number of creative writing majors. We offer creative writing from the bachelor’s to the PhD level.
KING: How does it work at the PhD level? Do you have an exegesis to go alongside a creative work?
DALISAY: Yes, they are required to produce a substantially comprehensive critical introduction to their own work, locating themselves within a certain tradition and so on. So the doctoral creative writing thesis or dissertation would be a book-length work accompanied by that exegesis, and a slightly smaller version of that for a master’s thesis. Since UP is a rather difficult school to get into, I tend to get pretty good students. Of course, when it comes to creative writing, the whole ball game changes. You might all be good at some basic level, but some of you will be much better than others. That said, at the graduate level, typically I will teach a class of eight to ten people, and about half of them will produce work that is worth publishing.
KING: How many have gone on to publish works as a result of having done the master’s or doctoral degree, turning their dissertations into published books?
DALISAY: Well, I would say that out of about ten thesis projects, eventually three to five are published as books, so it’s not bad at all. This is a country with some talent, and at the moment it’s not all that difficult to get a book published, although ironically nobody really earns much from book sales here except for textbook writers. And the scale of publishing is still horribly low as a ratio to the general population. Let’s say we have a population now of 95 million, close to 100 million, and for most authors, a typical initial print run will still be 1000 copies.
KING: And what number of sales would constitute a best-seller or fast-seller?
DALISAY: Maybe 10,000 books. That would probably be some so-called inspirational book, or a cookbook, not a novel.
KING: In Australia it might be sports anecdotes, or gardening books. An Australian novel is seen as a best seller if it achieves sales of 30,000. And our population is only 25 million. Is there an issue here, a real question, involved in universities continuing to think of creative writing as the novel, novella or short story, when you might now be encountering a generation that wants to do graphic novels, film and TV scripts, music or some hybrid-combination of things? Some years ago I read about the first novel that was composed to be read on an iPhone, a mobile or cell phone, and it did very well, it attracted a readership of 300,000 or so; I think it was Japanese. If those sorts of forces are in the contemporary world, and therefore informing the kinds of subjectivities that you get as aspiring writers, how do you deal with all that?
DALISAY: Well, all I can say is that it hasn’t worked its way backwards far enough to affect the way I write, or my purpose for writing. But I know for some people it does. You might write shorter pieces for the Net and so on. We’re definitely aware that that’s the way the market is going, and many of us have embraced that. I’m kind of protecting myself from it.
KING: Yet your cell phone says you’re available 24/7!
DALISAY: I was the former chairman of something called the Philippine Macintosh Users Group, so I like these new technological things. More and more of our work is being made available in the e-book format and this can only be good for us, if that provides more numerous and more convenient distribution channels. Of course the romantic in me says I’d still like a book that smells, has pages, a cover and that sort of thing. But the kids these days all come to class with iPads, and that’s how I distribute my own reading material. I just have them go to DropBox and use PDFs.
KING: I like the fact that in the wake of Baz Luhrman’s film of The Great Gatsby, not only were there huge flow-on sales of Scott Fitzgerald’s book, but also enormous numbers of e-book sales.
DALISAY: Yes, I think that’s fantastic, that Hollywood was creating this kind of backlash that brings people back to the original material!
KING: I actually liked the film. Once you got past the shift of making Nick Carraway Scott Fitzgerald—which gave an acting gig to iconic Australian actor Jack Thompson—things went along very well.
DALISAY: I liked it too, I enjoyed the film.
KING: Though I did wonder why so many hundreds of thousands of people in the US needed to be reminded of The Great Gatsby by way of Baz’s film!
DALISAY: Luhrman did a great job with that film.
KING: To return to the Manila Noir collection I see there’s another writer in there whose name is F. H. Batacan.
DALISAY: She was my student, at university.
KING: Her story in here involves the two characters that she earlier set loose in a short novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles. I really liked that book.
DALISAY: That book was begun as a project in one of my writing classes years ago.
KING: Well, it was in manuscript in 1999, received awards, was published in 2002, so it must have been a project with you even earlier than 1999.
DALISAY: Possibly. I hadn’t seen Ichi, as we call her, that’s her nickname, for some years, because she was based in Singapore and only recently came home. She was there at the launch, so I was glad to see her there. There were a few people I had known from way back, she was one of them, I had also known Lourd de Vera for some time, and R. Zamora (‘Zack’) Linmark is a frequent visitor to the Philippines, and several others.
KING: It’s really nice to see that people are, variously, graphic novelists plus poets plus playwrights, novelists, non-fiction writers. Another question I wanted to ask concerns publishing in the Philippines; do you have subsidies, is there a sort of nationalist interest in subsidising work by Filipino writers?
DALISAY: Well, there are grants, yes. We have the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, and they release grants on a competitive basis to applicants, authors, who apply to them directly. But mostly the support comes in the form of grants for workshops, for gatherings, for the teaching of writing and of literature.
KING: Does any funding go to publishers?
DALISAY: Not that I know of.
KING: I only ask that because back in the 1980s Ken Worpole in London, long before New Labour, in the time of ‘Red’ Ken Livingstone, wanted the freedom to start funding publishers directly rather than writers. He felt that would be a better way of getting books moving about the culture. I have no idea what happened to that initiative, whether it was adopted and, if so, whether it was successful.
DALISAY: I’m not aware of that being done here. Nothing substantial for sure. The National Book Development Board has recently been very active in pushing, in supporting both publishers and authors. Andrea Pasion-Flores—herself an excellent writer of fiction and also a lawyer—just left the job of Executive Director for that body. It used to be pretty much dormant, and she made a very dynamic intervention. So I think things are looking up, from the Filipino perspective.
KING: Could you briefly say something about how you came to be imprisoned during the Marcos years? Decades later it generated your first novel, Killing Time in a Warm Place, which I see recently has been republished in an edition with your second novel, Soledad’s Sister, becoming In Flight: Two Novels of the Philippines. I should add here for readers unaware of this time in Philippine history that Martial Law was introduced not to protect the people, as one might usually think of its use, but rather to protect the Marcos dictatorship.
DALISAY: Well, I entered university in 1970, and very quickly got involved in the student activist movement, which was both anti-Marcos, anti-dictatorship, and also to some extent Marxist. For all these reasons I got imprisoned in 1973 for a little over seven months, and yes, that experience formed the basis for my first novel that was published in 1992, almost twenty years later. My experience is shared by many others of my generation, coming out of that Martial Law period. I didn’t get back to university until ten years later, so I graduated with my bachelor’s degree pretty late, but as soon as I did, I decided that the university would be the best place for me, to write, study and teach. It’s a great place for writers I think. I’ve done work in both fiction and non-fiction, I actually started out as playwright and as a screenwriter.
KING: You wrote screenplays for Lino Brocka. The Internet Movie Database lists twenty or so stories and screenplays for which you have been responsible.
DALISAY: I did maybe about twenty-five movies from the 1970s until the early 2000s, quite a few of them with Lino Brocka, about fourteen I think, but mostly they were forgettable movies. We had to churn these out. I used to write a script in three weeks, the shortest was three days.
KING: That great old classical Hollywood B movie thing! And in this region you would also have the example of Hong Kong cinema’s mode of production, the Shaw Studios.
DALISAY: Oh, yes, Run Run Shaw, that whole scene.
KING: No union, no overtime paid as shooting days extend.
DALISAY: Exactly, sometimes I’d get paid and sometimes I wouldn’t.
KING: Well, you are in distinguished company. Bernardo Bertolucci tells of how in his early filmmaking days he didn’t get paid properly for his scriptwriting on some spaghetti westerns, one of which involved Sergio Leone!
DALISAY: Basically, I’ve always been writing for a living, and the academic side of me is really just the icing on the cake. I had to do an MFA and a PhD to validate my university credentials.
KING: Were they both done at Michigan?
DALISAY: No, I did my PhD in Wisconsin, at the Milwaukee campus, because they didn’t have creative writing in Madison at that time.
KING: Did Milwaukee have their Centre for Twentieth-Century Studies running then?
DALISAY: I think that was just getting started when I was there, although we didn’t have too much to do with it. When I did my MFA at Michigan, I had a great time, working with people like Charles Baxter. I had very good mentoring there, and I’m grateful for that. I would have been writing anyway, but going to university gave me deadlines to meet, and that was good. I was like a house on fire in my twenties and thirties, that’s when I produced much of my best fiction. Then in my forties and fifties I kind of tapered off into doing basically commercial work, although I’m always at work on one novel or other. And at the moment I’m working on my third one, which again is about low life. It features a call centre agent, call centres being the thing of the day here in Manila.
KING: Can you elaborate a bit more on that, because I see stories in newspapers saying that X spent some time working in a call centre, graduated from somewhere, and went on to become a successful writer; I think in that particular case, the writer was Indian.
DALISAY: Well, we’re right next to India, if we have not actually overtaken them, in the call centre business. Filipinos are fairly proficient at English, so it’s a huge plus for us. Over the past ten years or so the call centre industry has been one of the fastest growing industries in the country. Call centres here service western clients on the other side of the world. Most call centre people work at night, and that in itself is very noir-ish, because it’s created what I call a ‘vampiric culture.’ These kids are up and about, wired at 3 in the morning. They get off work and look towards the nearest open bars, and a whole economy has grown up around these call centres: bars and shops, and little strip malls that cater to nothing but these night-time work agents coming out after their work finishes. And for many young Filipinos, it’s a logical next step after graduation. You make good money quickly until you settle on what you really want to do. My sole remaining vice is poker and I play in all-night binges a couple of times a week, and it’s always 3 or 4 in the morning when a crowd from the call centres comes into the poker room, so that’s the milieu I’m working with in this novel-in-progress.
KING: And how close are you to finishing your version of The Cincinnati Kid?
DALISAY: I’m about a third of the way through, it’ll take me another couple of years to get this done.
KING: It sounds like a great example of what Godard was up to when he was trying to persuade Diane Keaton and Robert de Niro to do a movie with him, a movie about Las Vegas, casinos, the Mob, Bugsy Siegel. Colin MacCabe’s book, Godard: Images, Sounds, Politics (London: BFI/Macmillan, 1980), has a couple of pages where Godard has collaged some images of the two stars, and there is a great sentence where Godard says, in effect, “People have been working all day long for the industry of day, in factories and offices. Now they’re going to work for the industry of night: the money earned during the day will be spent on the night of sex, of gambling, and of dreams.” So why not call your book The Industry of Night and toss in Scott Fitzgerald’s much-quoted remark that “in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” That could be your epigraph.
DALISAY: There you go, there you go. I am fascinated by that 3am crowd at the poker room. Because you’ve got these call centre agents, you’ve got off-duty cops, you’ve got female impersonators, I mean transvestites, also coming from their shows, and all kinds of, you know, the strangest birds, and you see them gathered in that place at that time.
KING: On this matter of poker and gambling, is Filipino culture as fanatical about gambling as Chinese or, at least, Hong Kong culture?
DALISAY: Not that fanatical. It’s hard to match the Hong Kong people. Here I probably should add that there are many new young Filipino writers coming up, and what we have begun to discover is the international market. I keep telling my younger writer-friends that they really should start looking at finding agents, and going through that whole process, because we’ve been writing in English for over a hundred years now, and surprisingly, in terms of making our presence felt in the international literary market, we have been left behind by the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Koreans, the Indians of course. And I suspect that in some strange way the fact of our writing in English is actually pushing us back rather than forward, because it’s a suspect English. I think people would rather find something in Chinese and then translate that, and that would be more saleable than something written by a Filipino in an English that sounds neither American nor British. So that Filipino proficiency in English could actually be a liability. In any case, I think we have very interesting material here.
KING: Were the Marcos years leading up to Martial Law the defining experience of your generation?
DALISAY: For my generation, born in the early ‘50s, yes, but the defining experience for the Filipino of today is the diaspora of our workers, about a million of whom now work overseas. That’s why I wrote my second novel, Soledad’s Sister (Manila: Anvil, 2008) about that experience. And I think that is also changing Philippine society and Philippine politics in a very strategic way. Some of that experience will be negative in the sense of the social price to be paid for all of these absentees, fathers and mothers, but of course economically it’s a boon. I think in the long run politically that will be a positive thing in the sense that all these people will come home with raised expectations. They’ll say, you know, that if trains run on time in Germany or wherever, then we expect things to happen here like that.
KING: As a Filipino male who is hard working, clearly very industrious, could you, as a closing comment, give me some indication of why the Filipino male enjoys the status of being pretty much a wastrel, dilettantish, in respect of a whole range of Filipino women who do all the work?
DALISAY: The Filipino male is a pampered creature. We all like to think of ourselves as macho men, but actually we are all babies here. And it’s fun if you are a male. I think we are all somewhat ashamed of the fact that we rely so much on our women to do the heavy lifting for us. That’s also a message I try to put through in my own writing, that when push comes to shove, the women take care of the important things in this country, and we Filipino males should be thankful for it.