by Michael Jude Tumamac
Kalatas once again celebrates the National Children’s Book Day (NCBD) by featuring this year’s awardees of the Philippine Board on Books for Young People (PBBY) Salanga Writer’s Prize and Alcala Illustrator’s Prize for the whole month of July.
According to the website of PBBY, the lead organizing agency, NCBD “is celebrated every third week of July to commemorate the anniversary of the publication of Jose Rizal’s The Monkey and the Turtle in Trubner’s Oriental Record.”
First up is Michael P. De Guzman, a fellow of the 1995 UP National Writers’ Workshop. His stories and poems have been published in magazines like the Sunday Inquirer Magazine and the Philippines Graphic and anthologized in Ladlad 3, the Silliman Journal, Kids These Days: Stories from Luna East Arts Academy, and the upcoming All This Wanting: New Adult Quick Reads Volume 2. His story “Reyna Elena” is recognized this year as a PBBY-Salanga Honorable Mention, an award he also received in 2003 for his story “Dalawang Daddy Ni Billy.” He currently works in the field of HIV/AIDS.
Kalatas: What was the idea behind your entry, “Reyna Elena”?
De Guzman: I usually get ideas for my stories from a combination of things that I either read or watched and from the experiences I have undergone. Sometimes the idea is a question I ask myself, usually beginning with, “What if?” Oftentimes the idea stays with me for a while, just sort of gestating—during which I examine the idea, exploring characters and situations that will fit the idea, until I sit down and write the first draft. Then I abandon the draft for about a week before editing and revising it.
The idea for my PBBY entry bounced around in my mind for at least a year before I was able to write the first draft. When I was growing up, I was fascinated by the gay men who did my mother’s hair and make-up for special occasions. Their obviously feminine appearance, coupled with the knowledge that they were men, confused and stoked my curiosity. But I didn’t approach them because as a child, I was shy around adults. So I wondered, what if someone like that became friends with a child? How would the child’s family react? How would the community feel about the friendship? Initially I intended the child in the story to be a boy, but when I finalized the plot and the situations in the story, I decided that a girl would better serve the whole story.
Gay hairdressers and beauticians are ubiquitous in many Filipino communities and for the most part they are tacitly accepted in their “role”, which is somewhat in the periphery in relation to the other members of that community. Children share this position as well because of their dependence to adults. I wanted to show that in some situations, those in the periphery can in fact contribute to achieving the community’s goals, whether it is attaining a certain level of prosperity or even survival.
Kalatas: What were the challenges you faced in writing the story?
De Guzman: Because of the process that I mentioned, writing the first draft was relatively easier than editing, revising, and finalizing the story. Fortunately, I have friends who read the early drafts of the story and gave not just valuable inputs on the characters, the plot, and some details but also shared how the story made them feel. When I read fiction or poetry, I always take note of my emotional response to the material so knowing how my work affects the readers emotionally is something I value.
The challenge is, in a way, technical because it’s about craft—the selection of words to use in talking about certain things like homosexuality, gender, and discrimination, etc., keeping in mind the young audience of the story.
But since I have decided that these are the kind of stories that I will write, I have also prepared myself for doing exactly that. My previous entry in the PBBY, which also awarded Honorable Mention back in 2003, was about a boy who is being raised by his gay father and his male lover so thematically “Reyna Elena” is similar.
Kalatas: Can you name the authors or books that influenced you as a writer?
De Guzman: As a child, I didn’t read a lot of books because my grandmother, when I learned to read, encouraged me to read newspapers and magazines instead of picture books. I don’t know what she was thinking then. I was already in high school when I discovered Dr. Seuss and Maurice Sendak, about the same time that I also began reading Stephen King.
I find it difficult to identify books or writers that influence my writing because I think readers are in a better position to answer this question. I can, however, name books and authors that have profoundly affected me and my desire to write. Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince is one such book. Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy is another. Stephen King, Edmund White, and Joyce Carol Oates are some of the writers whose work truly resonates for me. But even if I have my favorite authors, I also read the works of other authors, foreign and Filipinos alike.
At home, I keep a pile of to-read books. I try to read one book a week, so that the pile does not grow uncontrollably. Just last week I found Tall Story by Candy Gourlay in Booksale and I’m looking forward to reading that book.
Kalatas: How do/will you celebrate the National Children’s Book Day?
De Guzman: In the last couple of years, I have observed National Children’s Book Day by going to Booksale and purchasing at least three books for young readers. This year Booksale will have to give way to the PBBY awarding ceremony at Museo Pambata.
Kalatas: What projects are we expecting from you in the future?
De Guzman: These days I am mostly editing my short stories and poems. I am preparing a book of short stories and a collection of poems for submission to a publisher. I asked a writer-friend to critique the manuscript and we’re in the middle of discussing the stories.
I am intermittently working on a novel for older children/young adults. Like most of my fiction this is gay-themed. I am also awaiting the feedback of the publisher I’ve been corresponding with since last year regarding the manuscript that I have revised according to their recommendations. If things go well, that will be my first book for children. Fingers crossed until then!
Michael Jude Tumamac is a member of Kuwentista ng mga Tsikiting (KUTING) and Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika, at Anyo (LIRA). Visit his blog xizuqsnook.blog.com for book reviews on children’s literature.