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For this installment of A Flash of Inspiration, we’re featuring “The Snake,” a story by Danton Remoto that originally appeared in Litro on January 29, 2021.
Litro: How long have you been writing fiction? Do you write in other genres? Do you find that you return to certain themes in your writing?
Danton Remoto: I have been writing fiction since my university days in the early 1980s. My first teacher was my late Professor Emmanuel Torres at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Manila University. Professor Torres went to school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a classmate of Robert Bly, who allegedly brought a snake to school one day, so that Paul Engle, the professor, and all his other classmates could hardly say anything negative about Robert Bly’s poem. I was also lucky to have Philippine National Artist Edith L. Tiempo as a mentor in fiction-writing at the Silliman University Writers’ Workshop. She also studied at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under Robert Penn Warren. I attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in 2018 and was lucky to be taught fiction writing by the marvellous Tiphanie Yanique. I also write poetry; in fact, I have three books of poems that have won awards in the Philippines. I am most prolific in writing essays. I have been writing a column for the Philippine press since 1990; this year marks the 31st year of my column called “Lodestar.” I have published seven books of essays.
Yes, I do find that in all the genres I write, certain themes recur. These are the themes of departure and return, the character or persona going back to a place or memory or country and then returning to the present; love and its twin, which is loss, like the two sides of the moon; and the struggles and resistance that we have to endure as people living in a developing and neocolonial country.
Litro: What inspired “The Snake”?
DR: I lived in Singapore in the summer of 2003 as a Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore. I lived in a high-end condominium with two other Filipinos, who were well paid in their respective jobs there. I did not know that my location was on the other end of the island. So every day, I would travel to the university and take two train rides. I would mostly see tall buildings and beautiful condominiums on the way to the university. I knew that Singapore, like Malaysia where I also lived, used to be heavily forested. But the forest cover was mostly gone, in the pell-mell rush to progress. But could we really banish nature? Could we really make it disappear such that no remnants or relics would appear, to remind us of the jungle that used to cover the land? In Freudian fashion, the forest here could also mean the world of the subconscious that we try to cover with our busy and modern lives.
Litro: I find that you do an excellent job of balancing acute social analysis in “The Snake” with empathy and a light touch. Was this a challenging line to walk?
DR: Thank you for your kind words. Yes, indeed, it was difficult to write. It was a piece of flash fiction that was less than 500 words, but it took me months to write it. I also had conversations with some of my writer friends in Singapore and read widely on its literature, which was part of my research fellowship at NUS. I wanted to write a piece of social analysis that is not heavy-handed. In my mind, a feather’s touch could also be deadly, like the green snake coiled at the bottom of the toilet bowl in the penthouse of an expensive condo in Singapore.
Litro: Who was the reader you had in mind when you conceived this story?
When I write, I really do not think of a particular reader. The first reader is obviously me, and I try to please myself by constant revision. I wrote this piece almost 20 years ago, as I said when I was doing research on Southeast Asian and Singaporean literature. So perhaps subconsciously, my first readers would be my fellow Southeast Asians who are torn between tradition and modernity, and then any other readers who would stumble upon the work. That is why I was so delighted when Litro Magazine published it with hardly any editorial revision at all.
Litro: Tell us about some of your writing preferences. Pen/Pencil or computer? Language or plot? First, second, or third person? Male or female protagonist? Short forms or long forms?
DR: I now use my laptop computer. I am old now, but I used to remember writing using my blue ballpoint pen, then a white Olympia manual typewriter that used to belong to my father, an entrepreneur.
In fiction I think first of the character. I have to hear his or her voice before I can start a word of the work. I usually write in the first person, with mostly male protagonists. But I have finished two novels, Riverrun, published by Penguin Random House Southeast Asia, and The Country of Desire, which has been optioned by Penguin. My third novel will also use the first-person point of view. But for my fourth novel, I might finally use the third-person point of view. It will be a historical novel about Southeast Asia, to be written with “empathy and a light touch, but with an acute social analysis,” as you put it. I have also finished a book of short stories called The Heart of Summer, but now I am drawn to writing novels. It is like creating a vast, new world whose characters move according to your will or whim, people with their own fears and dreams.
Litro: What do you feel are the biggest challenges of writing a successful piece of flash fiction?
DR: I think the biggest challenge in writing flash fiction is how to make sure that the conflict is already there at the outset. My technique is to think of flash fiction as a piece of calligraphy. With a few deft strokes, you should have already put in place the character and the conflict, and let the story take over. Another technique I use is to think of flash fiction as similar to a short film, which is anchored on a series of moving and poetic images. The story moves, but on the wings of song.
Litro: How do you combat bad writing habits and stay motivated?
DR: I procrastinate a lot before I actually write, but when I do, the images or voices in the story or the novel are still in my mind. The actual writing takes place after I have done my research and I can already hear the voice of the main character. My third novel is about a Filipino studying in New Jersey and living in New York City in the year 2001, when the Twin Towers collapsed. But even though I lived there during that time, I had to do a lot of research on the streets, the buildings, the location of the Asian restaurants, the things found in Chinatown, etc. I am a self-propulsive writer. I wasn’t the best writer in school when I studied at the university in Manila, or at the University of Stirling in Scotland, or at Rutgers University in New Jersey, but I think I was the one who kept on writing. The best university writers have become rich doctors and lawyers, but here I am, still writing almost 40 years after I finished college.
Litro: Where do you turn for creative inspiration? Which writers (and/or stories) are particularly important to you? What books of note are you currently reading?
DR: I think of my country, the Philippines, when I write, its beauty and poverty, as well as its complex history; I think of my past, as an Asian of Malay-Chinese-Spanish descent educated in the UK and the USA; I think of that common reader in some library carrel or place near or far from me who might one day read my book. The Philippine National Artist, Nick Joaquin, and the Philippine national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, whose novels Noli me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, led to his execution by firing squad by the Spaniards, are important to me. When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I was shocked because it sounded like the tales told by my grandmother. I did not know a novel could be written like this! The fairy tales of Angela Carter in The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories are lodestars, as is the fiction of Jayne Ann Phillips in Black Tickets and Other Stories. The poetry of Carolyn Forché in The Country between Us and Gathering the Tribes, as well as the vivid poems of the T’ang Dynasty masters Li Po, Wang Wei, and Tu Fu helped shape my writing as well. Those poems seem to have been painted with words.
Litro: What are you working on now?
DR: I have just finished a book of poems called The Country of Memory. I am now writing my third novel about a Filipino graduate student studying in New Jersey in the year 2001, during the bombing of the Twin Towers. On the surface it looks like a gay romance novel, but beneath it simmers the issues of race, colonialism, and the diaspora. I hope to make it entertaining as well.