THE Writing University conducts a series of interviews with writers while they are in Iowa City, USA participating in the International Writing Program’s fall residency. We sit down (sometimes remotely) with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home.
Today we are speaking with Kristian Sendon Cordero, a poet, fiction writer, essayist, translator and filmmaker from the Philippines.
1. Do you have a plan or project in mind for your time at the residency?
I intend to start working on two screenplays. The first one is about Vicente Ramirez, a Filipino Catholic priest who eventually joined the Philippine Independent Church at the beginning of the 20th century. He, together with some parishioners in the town of Lagonoy refused to surrender the parish church and other properties after their schism. This plan to Filipinize the Church is an issue that started as early as mid-1800, which even resulted to a public execution of three Filipino priests in 1872, when they were implicated in a mutiny. Ramirez lost the case in 1906 when the Supreme Court decided in favor of Jorge Barlin, who later was honored by Rome and became the “first Filipino bishop.” Being born in a region that is predominantly Catholic, I have this strong curiosity to look into minor characters that have been relegated to oblivion because they disrupted the status quo. And I consider Vicente Ramirez to be an interesting historical figure who has been overshadowed by the dominant discourse that favors
Bishop Barlin. This might stir another controversy similar to the first film I wrote and directed and which some people may think as a direct affront to their faith.
The second project is fueled by this lofty ambition of doing an alien film in a Philippine rural setting and I still don’t know how to really proceed with this project. I consider this to be more daunting than the first project, but I see some visuals in my head already. It seizes me even in my dreams and so I don’t let it go despite all my reasons. I hope I can generate at least some good twenty pages for these screenplays. Tentatively entitled PAGASA after the Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Service Administration, that is the main weather agency responsible for monitoring and tracking tropical cyclones that visit the Philippines, considered to be “the most storm exposed country on earth.” According to Time magazine: “On average, eight or nine tropical storms make landfall in the Philippines each year, with another 10 entering Philippine waters. PAGASA is also the Filipino word for “hope.” It is within this framework of “hope” and the tempestuous heavens that this film project will explo
re the life of a soon-to-be-retired weather forecaster. Stationed in one of the remotest and substation weather offices in the town of Camaligan, the weather forecaster though quite famous among women remains unmarried.
The film will begin with an astronomical phenomenon, “an alien invasion” allegedly witnessed by the old weatherman who would have to convince the locals that certain extraterrestrial forces are about to attack the planet. The locals would not be convinced about this new pronouncement. Now considered senile, the forecaster would recount certain episodes in his life and career lasting three decades of dedicated service, many would wait for his weather forecast, many would find solace in his voice—for his voice was their voice of hope, the only one that would stay awake in the midst of every typhoon. His was the voice, the last to be heard over the radio. Cataloguing the typhoons that had visited the region for the last three decades, for him to “re-member” and “re-call,” he would recount his previous intimacies characterized and tempered by the names he would gradually recognize. Names that would trail a blaze in a mind that has become darker and darker— incarnating the stranger, “the alien,” that has always b
een with him since his first weather forecast, few months before the whole country was put under martial law by Ferdinand Marcos.
2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?
These past four days and nights, I have been struggling with the jetlag. I usually wake up at 3 in the morning and would start reading the two books that I brought with me. In the Philippines, I have been so busy with book caravans and film screenings in various schools and communities in the region and so I really did not have much time lately to really write and that’s why I was extremely happy when I learned that I got selected for the fall residency program because I think this will be a good time to calibrate again and to finally put things down to writing. Fellow Bikol writer, Merlinda Bobis, said something about writing that continues to comfort and challenge me. In her own words: “Writing visits like grace. Its greatest gift is the comfort if not the joy of transformation. In an inspired moment, we almost believe that anguish can be made bearable and injustice can be overturned, because they can be named. And if we’re lucky, joy can even be multiplied a hundredfold, so we may have reserves in the cupboard for the lean times.”
3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?
I brought with me the newly released Penguin editions of Jose Rizal’s Noli me Tangere (translated into English by Harold Augenbraum) and Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic. Both are luminaries in Philippine letters and were required as reading materials in high school and college. It is very seldom you find Filipino authors published by Penguin Classics. So far we only have four, the two novels of Rizal and the collections of Jose Garcia Villa and Nick Joaquin. I have been re-reading Rizal’s novels in preparation for a Bikol translation I intend to do, so in a way this is research to me. I am comparing several English translations before I embark to this big project. I brought the Joaquin book with me, not so much with the stories included in the anthology but because of the foreword written by Gina Apostol and the introduction by Vicente Rafael. I intend to give these books to any of my co-fellows who may be interested to know about the Philippines particularly about the capital that is Manila.
4. What is one thing the readers and writers of Iowa City should know about you and your work?
I have been involved in various cultural projects that promote and advocate writing and filming using the regional languages in the Philippines. While I write in Filipino, that is considered to be the national language, I continue to write in Rinconada and Bikol, and I think I would be more writing in these two languages in the coming years. I must admit that for some, it could be very limiting to write in one’s native tongue(s), but I do not subscribe to this kind of thinking, as I have also been involved in some translation projects that bring some of the most important writings to our native languages. We have published most recently translations of the works of Kafka, Rilke, Borges, Capek in Bikol respectively. And they now constitute what I call the contemporary Bikol literature. In other words, my orientation to what constitute literature is always global or “planetary” as Merlinda Bobis would say it. Hence, I hope that my coming here would generate interest among the writers and readers in this gentle city of Iowa, to learn more about the Philippines and its rich linguistic and cultural diversities and work and collaborate with us. We have to find ways to mutually attract each other, to be interested with each other.
5. Tell us a bit about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?
Until the age of five or six, I know no other place in the world but Iriga City where you will find a mountain that is said to be sleeping or dormant— Initially though, I thought of it as the mountain in the Bible where the Romans crucified Jesus Christ. I never really had a good sense of geography especially after my mother left us to work as a domestic helper in Qatar and eventually in Dubai during the early 90’s. And then afterwards, it was the turn of my father to work abroad as a seafarer under an American shipping company. Unlike my mother who had to stay in her employer’s house, my father would spend eight to ten months away from us. Most of the time he was “floating” in the sea, but he would make sure to send us letters and postcards from every port and country he would visit. As a young boy, I saw scenic places from Miami, Naples, Norway, Spain, Alaska, Mexico, Brazil, to mention a few as extension of our “home”. Strange they may look to me, the letters from my mother came with all those kings and princes from the Middle East. Being born in a family of migrant workers, I would say that my imagination was navigating between their places of destination and ours, their children. It was a difficult kind of homing and I think this has been the impetus that drives me until now to writing and to the purposes and meanings it has given me all these years. While it might be easy to talk about the physical geography and demographics, I think home lies in our capacity to imagine what it is for us. Today, I make a living in the city of Naga while my parents are in Iriga. Naga is lovingly referred [to] as the “heart” of Bikol (being the business capital of region) and An Maugmang Lugar (A Kingdom of Kindness), which was coined by an American-Irish Jesuit priest who was assigned in Ateneo de Naga. Naga remains a predominantly Catholic territory, and to give you an idea how Catholic it is, I’d like to quote someone who described it as a young woman who parties the whole night, only to wake up to the sound of the church bells in the early morning to join her old aunts for the holy mass.