By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé
Let’s get down to brass tacks. Why do you write?
I write because it is the thing I do. And this ability, if you choose to call it that, didn’t come from anything I did, as much as it came from my life’s circumstances. My parents are each writers in their own respect —my father, a historian, a professor, and now a columnist, my mother a journalist who started a lifestyle magazine and then became a political columnist. Because of them, I grew up in a house of books, and from very early on, I was a reader, hardly unique. All of us writers are.
Throughout my life, I did try to do other things, but it would always come back to writing. If I could do it all over again, I would be a physician and specialise in women’s health but that I suppose is for another life. The conventional path of a reader in my day at least was to go into law or literature. In school, I worked in the publications. My first part-time job was as feature writer. My first full-time job was as an advertising copywriter. Even though I applied to be an account executive, they made me a writer. I’ve worked as a magazine editor, as a special projects editor, a script writer, an English instructor, and a translator from Tagalog to English. That’s how I’ve made a living all my life, and that’s not likely to change in the future.
Perhaps the better question to ask is me is why I write fiction. I write fiction because like so many writers before and after me, I’m entranced by stories. So I pursued my graduate degree in Creative Writing (at Bowling Green State University) to learn the craft of fiction. I am always curious about the workings of the human spirit, what draws men and women to act the way they do, what circumstances allow good to emerge or evil to be unleashed. I am fascinated by the human heart. What’s more, I believe that literature or more specifically, fiction, allows people to learn truths about the human condition.
There are many people who want to write, who want to be seen as a writer. That isn’t me. Right now, two years short of fifty, the way I am seen is not ever of grave concern. Being a writer has come naturally to me, and I venture to say that it has come more naturally to me than being a wife has, or being a mother. It also defines me as these two other things, as grateful as I am for them, define me. I am a woman. I am a writer. I am a wife and a mother. I am Filipino, in my heart and soul, if not on paper, but an atypical Filipino.
I do not always love writing. There are too many days when I would almost rather do anything else: play tennis, watch television or go to the movies, sing karaoke, swim, go for a walk, hang with my family. But I write, not so much out of choice as much as because it is inextricably linked to who I am and thus, involuntary.
Tell us about your most recent book or writing project. What were you trying to say or achieve with it?
BLOOD Collected Stories is my most recent book, and my first full-length work of literary fiction. Previously, I had published other things: a chick-lit novel called Mrs MisMarriage, a children’s story. I’ve also translated Filipino poetry into English and conceptualised and edited a flash fiction anthology series in the Philippines.
For many years, I wrote short fiction because as a working mom, I just did not have the time or the inclination to start anything longer. Writing a short story gave me a sense of completion and I take pleasure in that process, as well as in the process of submitting to a publication or a call for submissions. But editors would tell me again and again, “your prose is novelistic.” I understood what they were saying and knew I needed to write a novel. But I couldn’t leave all the stories I’d written and published since I started writing fiction to just hang about or simply fade away. I was also acutely aware that even though I had not yet published a book, I had written enough to complete one, possibly even two. I also wanted very much to stop having to include the phrase “…is at work on her first book” in my bio-notes for various anthologies. So in 2011, I started collecting and sorting through all my work. I discovered that I had work enough for one full collection and another about three quarters of the way complete. I need to write two or three more short stories to complete a second collection of fiction called Dreaming In English Stories.
BLOOD is the first book and it’s comprised of 25 pieces of fiction written from 1989 to 2015 – both flash and full-length, half of which had been previously published in literary journals in Southeast Asia and in the United States. Many of the stories reflect both youth and maturity; a number explore a coming-of-age theme, the conflict between country and identity, sexuality, the challenges of marriage and family, the interaction between two cultures. By no means is it a perfect book, but I am very pleased by it. I also couldn’t be happier about its fairly positive reception, so far. My only wish now is that it will soon be available in the Philippines, so that’s something I am still pushing for.
At the moment, I have just finished translating a Filipino novel into English, one that was written by Edgardo M. Reyes in 1966, that’s called In The Clutches Of Daylight, which opens it to a whole new audience both in the Philippines and outside of it. I’m also at work on my first novel, which is called Another Sky about two third-culture siblings, and I hope to finish that and find it a home by the close of 2017.
Describe your writing aesthetic.
I am constantly torn between plot and language because I love writing compels on both levels. As a reader, I love action. I love it when the story is so deeply engrossing that you are no longer aware you are reading, you don’t see the words on the page as much as you feel them, and the story unfolds in pictures or like a movie in your mind. That said, there is real pleasure too in beautiful language. I always try to achieve both… and admire the writers who are able to do it so the reader cannot even separate the two elements: plot and language because they are blended so skillfully, the reader cannot take them apart and see where one begins and the other ends. I am also very old-school where language is concerned. Grammar. Punctuation. These things are important to me, because when the text falters in these areas, it throws me off, and I do not want readers to be disrupted in that distracting manner. They shouldn’t be kicked out of what John Gardner calls “the dream.”
Who are your favourite authors?
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Anton Chekhov, George Orwell, Henry James, Edith Wharton, Dorothy Parker, EM Forster, Betty Smith. Richard Yates, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Oscar Hijuelos, John Irving, Stephen King, Betty Smith, Alice Munro, Laurie Colwin, Ann Beattie, Mona Simpson, Jane Smiley, Lydia Davis, Cynthia Ozick, Edmund White, Ha Jin. I am always open to finding new favorites!
What’s the most challenging piece of writing you’ve attempted? Tell us why.
The novel I’m writing, Another Sky, at the moment is definitely it. When you’re writing a short story, you can always just end it. You’re only taking a piece of a life. One event. A slice. One character.
Not so in a novel, and certainly not so in this novel. The miniature is safer. It’s easier. It’s the difference between looking after a potted plant and a garden with grass and trees and flowers and a vegetable patch on the side. It’s much more challenging to grapple with sub-plots as well as main plots. I’m also very interested in telling a small story within a big story, describing the personal in view of the political. So that’s tricky and it often feels frightening and treacherous, and even when you have your trusty outline, you can write and write, and still end up having to chop things off and not include it at all. To complicate things further, until you’ve finished it, you can’t see the whole of it accurately. It’s like you’re climbing a mountain and you’re looking for footholds, and you can’t look down because you won’t feel like going up any further. Finally, you have no idea how things will look once you reach the summit, and that’s also frightening. I have a very real fear of heights. All you have is your will, the will to push forward.
It’s going to take a whole lot of will to write this novel is all I can say.
What’s your idea of bliss?
My idea of bliss is being with the people I love by the sea. I am blissful sitting on a deck chair with a good book, feeling the sand in my toes and hearing the waves lap the shore. Better yet, being in the water itself. That’s pure bliss to me. I also love hearing other people tell me stories — a good old-fashioned gossip session is a joy. But having a stranger tell me they’ve read my work and enjoyed it? That’s happiness, pure and simple. Having a good friend or someone in my family tell me that? That’s even better!
What makes you angry, and I mean all-out-smash-the-china raving mad?
Injustice and inequality, corruption, hypocrisy, people in power preying upon the impoverished, the double standards between men and women, rape and misogyny, dishonesty.
If I’m to be totally honest, today’s publishing and book business also peeves me. I don’t understand for example why bookshops don’t immediately re-stock titles that sell out. Don’t bookstores want to keep a book that moves in stock? It also makes me mad that writers are always being asked to do things “gratis” because “it’s so easy for you” and more often than not, unlike plumbers or electricians who get paid after the work is done, a writer has to wait three months after the work is done to get paid. And while we’re at it, please don’t ask your friend who is an author to “give you a book.” It would be nice if you bought the book yourself, no? Then again, you don’t have to buy it if you don’t want to — just don’t ask her to give you a copy.
What books would you take with you on a three-month retreat in the boondocks?
I have to face this question every time I take a trip or go on holiday. What book am I going to bring? Thank goodness for the kindle. Ideally, the perfect combination is one old favourite, one completely new novel, one memoir and one collection of assorted short stories. Three months in the boondocks? Is there wifi? I’m a very fast reader, so I tend to bring my kindle and when I’m done, I rent or borrow a combination of old and new. When I’m writing short stories, I make sure to bring short stories. But I will always have a novel.
Your house is burning down. What’s the most important thing you’d want to take with you?
After my family, I guess my family’s passports, birth certificates, cell phones, my engagement ring.
Describe your life philosophy. In a sentence.
In my life, I seek to make a contribution, to be of use, to love, be loved, and to my own self be true; in writing, I steal from EM Forster: only connect.
Noelle Q. de Jesus is American by passport, a Filipino in heart and soul, and has made Singapore her home since 2000. She was born in New Haven, Connecticut, grew up in Manila, and studied in the United States. She has a bachelor’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies from Ateneo de Manila University, and an MFA in Fiction from Bowling Green State University. She also earned a certificate in screenwriting from the New York University Tisch School of the Arts (Asia). Her first job out of university was as a copywriter for McCann Erickson Philippines, and she also helped start the Philippine franchise of Cosmopolitan magazine. Since moving to Singapore, she has worked fulltime as an editor for Singapore Press Holdings Magazines as well as for MediaCorp Publishing. She was also editorial consultant for Ink Publishing for four years. She is now a freelance writer and editor. She is a Palanca Award winner, was a fellow in the 1990 University of the Philippines Writers’ Workshop and her short fiction has been widely published and anthologised in Southeast Asia and the United States. She conceptualised the flash fiction anthology, Fast Food Fiction Short Short Stories To Go (Anvil Publishing) and co-edited a second volume in the series. She has published a chicklit novel, Mrs MisMarriage with Marshall Cavendish International Editions. Her first book of short fiction, BLOOD Collected Stories, published by Ethos Books Singapore, won the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book Award for the Short Story Category. This July, she represented the Philippines in the first ever Asian Women Writers’ Festival. She was also invited to be guest writer at the Brockport Writers’ Forum in April 2017, sponsored by SUNY Brockport’s Creative Writing Program, one of the oldest reading series in the United States now celebrating its 50th year. She is married to Nathaniel Y. Chua who works in finance but who also writes. They have a daughter who will be attending UC Berkeley in the Fall, and a son who will be entering National Service here in Singapore next year.
Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé is the Poetry Editor of Kitaab