old Type: By viewing the U.S. through the eyes of Filipinos in The Umbrella Country, do you feel you are educating by eliminating or turning tables on that sense of Americacentrism--the way many Americans write about other cultures?
Bino Realuyo: I wanted to write about America from the outside, by seeing it through other people's eyes. I know this experience very, very well, having lived and studied abroad, not only in the Philippines during my formative years but also in Latin America, as an adult. Situating the so-called "first world" as an image, a language, a dream in the minds of people in the "third world" is very exciting for me. The economic power of the "first world," like the United States, has allowed the creation of a utopic America in the minds of people in the Philippines, a world within worlds . . . where pleasure and oppression become one and the same. Filipinos have much to say about their former colonizer, and Americans should pay attention, if they are to learn more about our shared history, if they are to understand themselves more. Yes, there is a tendency toward isolationism in the U.S. because of economic privilege. My body of work is a statement on the horrors of colonialism and imperialism and ultimately, the hopes offered by immigration.
BT: What made you decide to set the novel in the Philippines during a turbulent period of martial law?
BR: I set the book in the time period to create the climate of repression necessary for the characters' eventual interaction and confrontation with the world around them. I didn't want the book to be read only as a coming of age story about two brothers. I hope I succeeded, to say the least, in showing the strange and complex nature of family bonds amid poverty and sometimes violent circumstances.
BT: Did you choose to write in the first person to address the very personal nature of the novel?
BR: There are parallels between my childhood and the one in the book. The pleasure of writing a novel from a first person perspective is being aware of such parallels and knowing that a novelist must possess enough leverage in order to create an invention, a fiction, a life that is not his own. Eventually, the characters gain flesh and demand their own direction. Then the writer becomes an instrument, a pair of hands. When I wrote from Gringo's perspective, I went back to my own childhood. From the parallels, I drew the differences. From the differences, I wrote the novel.
BT: Did you decide not to include certain parallels?
BR: The parallels I chose were the ones that worked best for my characters. Religion is absent in my novel and much of my writing but was an important part of my childhood. I was an acolyte for many wonderful years. In fact, twenty years ago, I was one of the altar boys who welcomed Pope John Paul II to the Philippines. I was immersed in Catholicism then; it was my way of escaping and denying the poverty around me. I have led many, many lives for someone my age. There is no immediate need to explore them, at least, not in fiction. Not yet.
BT: You're able to convey the keeping of secrets, while telling them. The story is about not turning back, yet, by writing it, you relive fragments. How much weight was intentionally placed on irony while writing the book?
BR: The novel was built on irony. The keeper of secrets finally opens the box in which he keeps them. The one who never looked back, finally turns around, all done in memory, in recollection. There is an overall lesson to the whole book: one can never quite put an end to anything. We, as people, are at the disposal of time. Filipinos are known for being indecisive like typhoons. The book uses that characteristic, as well. In the novel, Ninang Rola tells Gringo, "Someday, when you're ready, you will tell your story." The book is about that readiness. The way Gringo deals with his own memory; the way he wants his mother back. The mother--she is Gringo's memory. If not for that one connection, the maternal one, I am not sure I would have written the book. Asked what the book is about, a friend once said, "It is about the mother."
BT: In the repetition of images, such as tamarind leaves, windows, rain, what are you seeking to achieve?
BR: Memory is about images--images that repeat in our heads, against our will oftentimes, as illustrated in my poem "Pantoum." I love repetition of images and metaphors. In the book, each image becomes something else as soon as it reappears. Rain and water have many meanings in the book, so does umbrella. I am conscious of repetition but am also aware of the role the images play in the chapters. These same metaphors often create the problems and eventual resolution unto themselves. Such is life. For instance, in the chapter "Curfew," the whole metaphor for darkness becomes a very repressive element. Darkness overlapping darkness.
BT: Can you tell me more about the hybrid of experience and abstraction that infuses your writing?
BR: Poets who read my poetry find the mixture interesting. I do it naturally. I think having come from a formerly colonized country, I can't help but have a language that is magical and image-driven. The American side of me calls for the objectivity of experience. The combination of both becomes my new language.
BT: How does your poetry affect your fiction and vice versa?
BR: The only thing they have in common is that they are both about the Philippines. The landscape is similar, but the writing is not. There is something very personal about my fiction--the process of gathering, the looking inward first to search for pieces. In poetry, I look outward, to the world, for inspiration.
BT: Addressing outside influences, do you believe your activism has influenced your writing?
BR: I left the activism of the streets years ago. I spent many evenings with a speaker in my hand, screaming about police brutality, anti-Asian violence, AIDS, the nontraditional casting in Miss Saigon, etc. Those were the moments. I was working full time then as a human rights/community organizer. My photo ended up in magazines and newspapers as a result. One day, I asked myself: Is this where I want to be? Who is really listening when I shout in the streets, when I lie down on the pavement? Who reads the placards I write? So, I concentrated on the written word and decided on the power it can bring.
BT: Could you elaborate on that power?
BR: Reading poetry in public offers a captive audience. Publishing in important literary journals gives credence to political writing. There is consciousness, there is life, and there is the authentic language the poet possesses. In any good poem, those qualities are necessary. I truly don't like work that reads like a political pamphlet. My social consciousness informed my work, but I am very aware of letting the art speak, of poetry relating its own message, of not pushing issues into a poem or a story, but instead, letting these people I write about speak for themselves. That, for me, is art. That, for me, is activism, as well. Many writers say, "Just write. Don't think about what you write about." Well, I don't "just write." I get involved in the writing. My belief systems and consciousness are apparent as soon as you read the first line of a poem I wrote.
BT: What are your current projects?
BR: I'm working on a novel, called Ashen Parts, which will examine an American base in the Philippines from the viewpoints of Filipino prostitutes who live there. I wanted to place "America," once again, in the Philippines and examine the effects of such invasive militaristic displacement on the Filipino psyche. In lyrical narratives, the novel creates a world within another world, and a country reclaiming her home, her womanhood and pride. I am also pulling together research for another story that will chronicle my father's World War II Death March and his concentration camp experiences in the Philippines.
BT: Do you feel the literature of the Philippines has a recognizable presence in the United States?
BR: There has always been a Filipino presence in American literature. It's just that many Americans don't know we are here and have been here. Filipinos started writing in English a hundred years ago when the U.S. took over the country in 1898. And because of immigration to the U.S., there is also a growing Filipino American influence. Many non-Filipinos write about the Philippines without much success. We are slowly reclaiming our voices.