SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES
An Interview with F. H. Batacan (and Andrea Pasion-Flores)
by Noel King
“You have to find a way of tapping into your anger about the extent of suffering and injustice you encounter every day.” —F. H. Batacan
F. H. “ICHI” BATACAN was born in Manila and graduated from the University of the Philippines with a BA in communications and an MA in art history. After ten years of working in the Philippine intelligence community, she turned to broadcast journalism. Smaller and Smaller Circles, her first novel, won the prestigious Philippine National Book Award and is widely regarded as the first Philippine crime novel.
ANDREA PASION-FLORES is Batacan’s literary agent and also a prominent Filipino writer. Her story ‘Love in Mini Stops’, taken from her new collection For Love and Kisses, appears in issue 8 of Contrappasso.
Noel King spoke to these writers at the Bayleaf Hotel in Intramuros, Manila, on September 8, 2014.
KING: Ichi’s novel Smaller and Smaller Circles (1992) won several prizes—one of which led to its publication. Andrea, can you give me some indication of the initial print run and, since it is now into its sixth or so edition, can you guesstimate its total sales?
PASION-FLORES: For whatever reason publishers here settle on 500-1000 for an initial print run. By 2006, Ichi’s book had gone through four print runs and sold 6,000 copies or more—a pretty good number for a literary crime novel here in the Philippines. That was a good eight years ago, so it’s safe to assume many more have been sold.
KING: It is described as the first ‘Pinoy’—which I gather is a slang term for ‘Filipino’—crime novel, or perhaps the first by a female writer here. What other Filipino works would you see as inhabiting the same broad generic terrain? For example, Jose Dalisay’s second novel, Soledad’s Sister (2007), certainly suits the ‘literary crime’ label.
PASION-FLORES: For literary crime, I’d say Nick Joaquin’s Cave and Shadows (2003). More recently there’s also Blue Angel, White Shadow (2010) by Charlson Ong.
BATACAN: I think the distinction some academics make is between literary Filipino fiction and a sub-set of literary fiction where the narrative is structured around a crime, but does not necessarily meet the expectations of readers seeking typical mystery-thriller ingredients. In that sense, some scholars say Circles is the first Filipino novel that’s more typical of the Western idea of a mystery-thriller, even though it’s more of a ‘why-done-it?’ than a ‘who-done-it?’ But that’s not a claim that I myself make for the book. I’m not a scholar, so I leave all that to those who are.
KING: Are there any works of fiction that you would cite as having made a sufficiently strong impression to prompt you to start writing fiction? These need not necessarily be instances of crime writing. Elmore Leonard routinely cited Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Richard Bissell as the writers he learned from.
BATACAN: The first thing to say is that I don’t have a literary or creative writing background.
KING: No, I noticed that your studies and subsequent professional work involved broadcast journalism, art history, and a period of working in intelligence.
BATACAN: I would say my early influences in the genre came from film and television. As a child my father and I loved watching television crime shows together. In some ways I had a difficult relationship with my father and so watching TV detective programs became a way for us to bond—things like ITV’s The Professionals, The Sweeney, Columbo, Baretta, Quincy M.E., and Hawaii Five-O.
KING: Hawaii Five-O in its first iteration, starring Jack Lord, with lines like ‘Book him Danno, Murder One,’ which became a line in an Australian pop song, “Aloha Steve and Danno” (1978) by Radio Birdman. What work did your father do?
BATACAN: He was a radio man. All of us, including my mother, either started or ended up in broadcast journalism.
KING: So you watched lots of TV with your radio dad.
BATACAN: We would have exchanges where he would say to me, ‘we haven’t seen this episode,’ and I would say, ‘yes we have, this is what happens.’ Parents today are very protective about what their children watch whereas in my era it was much more open, in a sense. The family would watch TV together and we would all go to see current release movies. Our parents would say, ‘let’s take the kids to whatever thriller is playing.’ We were only five minutes away from the nearest cinema and my parents loved going to the cinema. And so, on a weekend, after church, we would go to the movies.
KING: What period is this?
BATACAN: The 1970s.
KING: Well, that was a great moment in the history of US cinema, the period variously known as ‘New Hollywood,’ or as a ‘Hollywood Renaissance,’ or as a ‘New American Cinema.’
BATACAN: Things like The Domino Principle, Telefon, The Odessa File, The China Syndrome, the French Connection films. My mom and dad loved the James Bond films and when they first met, my dad was tall and slim and knew how to work a suit. My mom thought of him as a kind of Filipino Sean Connery.
In regard to your earlier question about reading: in terms of crime fiction or mystery-thrillers, I had an early exposure (aside from the childhood Conan Doyles, Poes, and Futrelles) to female writers like Highsmith, du Maurier, and Ngaio Marsh, all of whom my mother loved and made us read. She was a great reader. While there was crime fiction in the house, we had far more “mainstream” literary works thrust upon us: Shakespeare, E. M. Forster, Thomas Hardy, Dickens and Dumas, Faulkner and Golding. A lot of plays, authors like Harold Pinter. And Euripides, an early favorite.
KING: So, classical drama.
BATACAN: Yes, and if you think about it there are lots of aspects of crime fiction on offer in those works—ideas of justice, retribution, of redemption, of good and evil.
KING: Absolutely. It’s not for nothing that an academic article on Chinatown is called “Oedipus in Chinatown.” I was utterly charmed by your two Jesuit priest investigators. What made you settle on Jesuits as your detectives? The connection between religion and crime fiction obviously already exists, in G. K. Chesterton’s Catholicism, in the Yiddish series from Harry Kemelman: Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Sunday the Rabbi did something else, etc. So to give a speculative counter-example, why isn’t your male detective, say, a former security guard whose marriage has broken up and who now does investigative work? Walter Mosley’s wonderful ‘Easy Rawlins’ series has Easy conduct his detective work without being a private eye in the traditional sense. But why Jesuit clerics?
BATACAN: To answer that I think I would have to go back to the time I was working for an intelligence agency and the context of the work I was doing in the intelligence community at the time I started writing the book. Of course I’m not going to go into very much detail about that work but it was at a time when the agency was coming off a period of reform under a really reform-minded Commissioner. And as always happens in the Philippines, when there’s a change of National government, programs associated with the previous administration are often discontinued, even when they are producing positive results. So I went from a period of four years’ work in which I felt really proud about what I was doing, feeling that I was really making a difference, to an entirely different work environment, one that changed literally overnight. A new President was inaugurated in 1992, my reform-minded boss got promoted to a higher position, and the next day my agency was under a new management that was completely uninterested in reform and efficiency. For years, we were forced to watch while every good thing we worked for was thrown away, subverted or, worse, perverted.
KING: Can you say what kind of Intelligence work you were involved in, nothing too detailed, just a broad category that might indicate something to readers?
BATACAN: Economic intelligence. When I started Circles in 1996, I was in a place of great frustration, great anger, over how many of our past achievements had been eroded by corruption in the Agency and that there wasn’t anything one could do. You would propose projects to professionalize the organization, to improve intelligence collection and analysis, saying, ‘OK, in the beginning this will make a dent in what you are currently raking in, but down the track it will mean you will be able to stay longer in your jobs, and it will generate real change.’ This was the twenty-six or twenty-seven year old me thinking that of course for the love of your country you would do this. But of course it was never going to happen. So since I couldn’t write about what was happening at the Agency in terms of compromises and corruption, I could write about the general mindset of law enforcement agencies, the proclivity for complacency, patronage, and corruption.
At the same time I had always been fascinated with the idea of the relation between science and faith. And of course the Jesuits had a long history of being able to traverse those two realms. So while I can’t say I had a Eureka! moment, it just seemed a natural thing to go with. With the concepts of science and scientific techniques you can map the idea that there is a better way of doing things, there are absolute ways you can improve things to make peoples’ lives better. People matter, even if they have no money, no status, no power. They must demand their rights. Nothing that the people in the Philippines demand from their politicians is anything other than their right, whether it’s efficient transport or food on the table or a decent education for their children, or even safety in the streets—all of these are things that it’s the job of government to provide. For example, the Philippine National Police are always putting out these ads warning people to ‘be careful’ about street crime.
KING: I’ve seen them.
BATACAN: Why is the onus always on the individual citizen to watch out for him or herself? In any proper democracy the onus is on the government to keep the streets safe—it’s not the task of the individual citizen.
KING: You have just finished a process of revisiting your original work, rewriting, adding new things, expanding it by half again for its forthcoming publication in the US with Soho Press. Could you say something about what this process has involved?
BATACAN: Well, first I must say that this rewriting is done by me as a forty-five year old on work originally done by me as a twenty-six or twenty-seven year old, so I hope I’ve got rid of a lot of juvenile mistakes and gaucheries. I think it has been more about rounding out the characters and also an attempt to make the narrative more intelligible to a non-Filipino readership. In my rewrite I tried to be aware of those aspects of the book, those where a Filipino reader would get the point immediately whereas a non-Filipino might not. So I was working on bridging that gap as much as possible. They are small things but they are also mind-set things that need to be made a bit more accessible. For example, many crime fiction readers expect a fast-moving plot which increasingly ramps itself up as it goes along.
KING: A ‘real page-turner’ as we say.
BATACAN: Whereas I think in the Philippine context, it’s very different. As an example, four years ago there was a huge massacre involving two rival political families in Maguindanao. One ambushed the other. Lots of people witnessed the killings, saw the ditch dug and the bodies thrown into it. Four years later, nobody has been brought to final justice. Although there were dozens of witnesses, piles of evidence, it has been estimated that in terms of trying to get convictions, it could take one hundred years! So that was something that had to be made clear to a non-Philippine readership. Something you might expect from a Western democratic perspective does not apply at all here.
KING: Andrea, can you say something about your role as an agent in this process of getting an expanded version of Smaller and Smaller Circles published by Soho in New York? When I interviewed Jose Dalisay last time I was in Manila he mentioned your work at The National Book Development Board, saying, ‘it has recently been very active… 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.’ And now you are at Jacaranda, a literary agency.
PASION-FLORES: When I was at The National Book Development Board I used to do the Philippine Literary festival and I’d invite writers and publishing professionals. I asked a couple of literary agencies to come, and one of them was Jacaranda whose founder Jayapriya Vasudevan I had heard about while in Singapore during the Asian Festival for Children’s Content. I spoke to her about coming to Manila so she could invite Philippine writers who might be interested in representation. After Jacaranda’s visit they came back to me and said, ‘why don’t you select some writers and bring them to us?’ So I picked up two writers, Ichi and another person. I have this feeling it’s very hard to sell a distant press on a Filipino topic or author if they have never been to the Philippines. In the next literary festival I wanted to bring in more professionals, and I was introduced to Juliet Grames of Soho Press in New York, and she gamely agreed to come. I wanted to slowly introduce to the wider world the Philippines and the wonderful writing that’s coming from here because I suspected people needed to see the Philippines firsthand and not just read about it in the news and be misled by the bad press it constantly gets. Juliet had Filipino friends and was keenly aware of the Philippine context, and open to its cultural offerings, which was very refreshing. And I suppose when Jacaranda offered Smaller and Smaller Circles to her she was already interested in looking at work that was coming from this part of the world. Of course it helped that Soho publishes place-based crime, so Juliet made an offer to Jacaranda for Smaller and Smaller Circles, and that’s how this got started.
KING: Ichi, the University of the Philippines edition of Smaller and Smaller Circles has the author’s name as F. H. Batacan. Was this a deliberate attempt on your part to non-genderise the authorial name, or were you thinking of the tradition of F. R. Keating, G. K. Chesterton, et al? Or did none of this apply because you were already well known in the Philippines by way of your journalism? What do the F and H stand for?
BATACAN: My first name is spelled ‘Felisa’ on my birth certificate and ‘Felicia’—my real name, the name my parents chose for me—on my baptismal record. The ‘H’ is the initial of my mother’s maiden name. So when the University of the Philippines Press asked me which name I wanted on the book, I had the slight dilemma of wondering whether I should honour my parents’ wishes or use my legally recognised name.
KING: So ‘F. H.’ gets you around that nicely.
BATACAN: Yes. No thought at all to non-genderise my name, despite what many people think. No one has been more surprised than I at the journey Circles has taken. It really surprises me to see how far it’s come because I didn’t shop it around.
KING: Well no, that’s Andrea’s job!
BATACAN: I wrote it because I was so angry and I assumed there would be many others out there equally angry. I think if you want to write crime fiction in the Philippines you have to be constantly angry. You have to find a way of tapping into your anger about the extent of suffering and injustice you encounter every day. When I worked overseas for thirteen years—
KING: This was in Singapore.
BATACAN: Yes. Every time I came back here on a visit I found something new to be angry about. It’s a wonderful country but the suffering and the injustice you see every day is staggering. When I was all those years in Singapore at no point did I contemplate writing about Singapore. My heart, my consciousness are in the Philippines.
In the past decade or so, I think there’s been a strong backlash in the country, especially among many younger writers and critics, against creative work that tries to say something about the state of the nation, about its ethics and morality. But I think that’s where crime fiction maybe has an edge over other genres of writing, because it enables you to talk about ugliness, to speak of what’s wrong, while at the same time providing an entertaining read for those who may not necessarily want to be confronted with that ugliness except as a fictional element. You get to plant the idea of a better way of doing things. I feel so powerless so much of the time in the face of this ugliness but when I write…
KING: It provides you with an outlet?
BATACAN: Not just an outlet. It is my power—the only one I have.
ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER
NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.