[Meet the Storyteller] Of Sula’s Voyage, Mariposa Gang, and Writing Female Characters in Children’s Stories

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Myra here.

I am happy to welcome here in GatheringBooks a Filipina author who has won literary recognition for the way she weaves words together, and who is now based in Berlin, Germany.

MeetTheStoryteller

Meet the Storyteller: Catherine Torres

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Your “day job” is in the foreign service which has taken you to quite a number of countries such as New Delhi, Singapore, and currently, Berlin. How does your line of work impact your writing?

I’ve heard it said that diplomats are people paid to lie for their countries. I could simply say that’s BS, but that wouldn’t be very diplomatic. Why do I mention this? Because Picasso said that art is “a lie that tells the truth,” and one of my favorite books about the craft of fiction-writing, by John Dufresne, is entitled The Lie that Tells a Truth. What people misconstrue as lies are simply a diplomat’s way of breaking things gently, of softening the blow. Diplomats are expected to speak with subtlety and delicacy of language (you’d be surprised to know how candid they can be with each other especially behind closed doors). I try to achieve something similar with my writing: to soften the stark realities I often encounter in my work.

To sublimate them, if you will. It’s funny that until now, some people persist in the notion that most of a diplomat’s time is spent attending diplomatic parties and posing for the society pages. That’s certainly not the case for us, Filipino diplomats, who are tasked to protect our millions of kababayans abroad as much as to promote our ties with whichever country we are assigned. Certainly, conditions differ from one country to another, but in the same way that a hospital draws the ailing, an embassy draws those with problems that need solving. It can get dispiriting unless you find an outlet, and that outlet, for me, is writing.

Aside from that, of course, living in different places gives you different backdrops for your stories. The ten stories in Mariposa Gang and Other Stories, are set in seven different countries, and half of them are set in Singapore and India, my first two Foreign Service postings.

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In my former office at the Philippine Embassy in Singapore. There are some well-known writer-diplomats like Pablo Neruda and Octavio Paz. Closer to home, there would be Leon Maria Guerrero. More recently, there are the likes of Vikas Swarup, and of course, Michael Punke of The Revenant fame. Nowadays, there seems to be fewer writers in our ranks, though it could be that more of us have simply found other avenues for expression, like blogs, for example. Some Foreign Service establishments like the UK FCO encourage their diplomats to blog about their experiences.

You have also written a book that is about to be published, Mariposa Gang and Other Stories.

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You mentioned in Mariposa’s Facebook page that one of the stories in this book entitled The Mannequins is brought about by your awareness of debt-related suicides by Filipino domestic workers in Hong Kong. Do share more about this.

The reports about the debt-related suicides in Hong Kong reminded me of “Mannequins” because what prompted me to write it was hearing about migrant workers in Singapore becoming prey to loan sharks. I remember while I was there, there were several cases when a body was fished out of Bedok Reservoir. Some of them turned out to be people in dire financial straits who could see no other escape hatch from their problems. There were also news reports about loan sharks using dirty tactics to threaten their clients who couldn’t pay up. At the same time, we had many kababayans who had gone there to make a living, but instead found themselves more severely indebted for various reasons. All these different threads came together and found expression in “Mannequins.”

If you are to identify your favourite story in Mariposa Gang what would it be? What story was the most difficult to write and has taken a great deal from you both as a novelist and as a person?

I would have to say the title story, about a seaman exiled to Iwahig for murder, who finds himself leading a gang of prisoners tasked to catch rare butterflies to be sold to museums and private collectors around the world. It’s my favorite because it tells you that beauty and hope can be found even in the darkest of places.

The toughest to write was “Bag Lady” about a woman who is hounded by misfortune who thinks her luck would change when she finds work as a domestic helper in Singapore, but instead ends up losing even the little she had. It was tough because  you get emotionally invested in your characters and it’s hard seeing them suffer.

One of the most common questions asked of female writers is how they are able to juggle both their career and their home life (something which is rarely asked of male novelists) – you are quite unique in the sense that you are a diplomat, a writer, and a mother/wife/daughter/sister/friend. How do you manage your time? Share with us your writing schedule.

I wish I have a magic formula to share with other women writers doing this delicate balancing act. The truth is, my writing often has to take the back seat. I’ve made peace with the fact that I would never be a prolific writer if I plan to stay in this career path. With Mariposa Gang, for example, it took me five years, between 2009 and 2014, to put together the ten stories in the collection. Life in the Foreign Service provides a lot of fodder for writing, but very little time to write, especially in a post like, say, Singapore, where your weekends are often spent with the community. When I was assigned there, I did my writing on free evenings and weekends. Of course, when your writing schedule is that irregular, it’s easy to grow lazy–you need something to keep you motivated. I’ve found deadlines helpful in this respect.

This was where I wrote a good part of Sula's Voyage, a corner of our flat in Singapore overlooking some greenery. The rest of it I wrote in snatches in coffee shops, on the bus, and in the study lounge at the Singapore National Library.

This was where I wrote a good part of Sula’s Voyage, a corner of our flat in Singapore overlooking some greenery. The rest of it I wrote in snatches in coffee shops, on the bus, and in the study lounge at the Singapore National Library.

Take Sula’s Voyage. It took me less than three months to write the manuscript I submitted to the Scholastic Asia Book Award. For someone with a batting average of two or three stories a year, that’s practically a miracle. What spurred me to write was the prospect of my recall to Manila. I wanted to submit the manuscript before I left Singapore–they required six sets of printouts of the manuscript and I didn’t want to have to send them all the way from Manila, to save on the expense. I wrote like I was possessed. I wrote in odd places and at odd hours, with the one requirement that I have a good cup of coffee to hand. My work here in Berlin is less taxing compared to Singapore, but now, I don’t have someone staying with us to help take care of my son, Sam. I’m virtually solo parenting, which leaves me even less time for writing. So what’s my writing schedule like? Short answer: What writing schedule?

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One of the downsides of life in the Foreign Service is having to pack and unpack every time you move. When we left Singapore, we had to cram our bookshelves shown here into twenty-plus boxes for our shipment. For our Berlin posting, I decided not to avail of the shipment, so I had to handpick around only 50 to 60 books to bring with me. You can imagine the agony. In the end, I decided on my collection of books on writing and books by Filipino writers.

What inspires your writing? Do you deliberately set out to write about “fearless females” in your stories?

While putting together the ten stories for Mariposa Gang, I realized that most of them revolved around the lives of migrants, especially women migrants. You’d find precious few people more fearless than female Filipino migrants. Just look at the often dangerous and difficult places and situations these women risk getting themselves into. So no, I don’t think I deliberately set out to write about fearless females, but I end up doing so in many cases because I instinctively gravitate toward them out of fellow feeling.

Tell us a little bit about your latest book Sula’s Voyage, which was shortlisted for the Scholastic Asian Book Award back in 2014. Describe your own creative process as you wrote this story – how long did it take you to write the book?

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As I mentioned above, I wrote it in a frenzy and it took me less than three months to finish the manuscript. But the germ of the story had been there for much longer. In 2011, I wrote a short story called “Nomad” about a girl who falls in love with a much older marine biologist who studies whales. I tried placing it in several journals, but it didn’t work. That same year, I joined the Scholastic Asia Book Award for the first time with a story entitled The Banyan and The Birdcage. It didn’t even make it to the shortlist, and I thought, no, writing for younger people wasn’t for me. But later that year, I managed to get a story into a YA anthology Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction, a charity anthology for teens affected by the Fukushima earthquake edited by Holly Thompson. This gave me fresh hope, and I thought, why not rework “Nomad” into a YA story? Obviously, I had to tweak the love story, so what emerged in the end was a love story not between a girl and an older man, but between a girl and the sea.

How do you think Sula embodies fearlessness and courage in her ‘voyage’ or journey towards self-discovery?

I think courage is not about being fearless in the sense of having no fears at all, but rather, of being able to silence those fears enough to do what you have to do. In Sula’s case, that meant having the courage to confront painful questions about her identity and origins. She also needed to be brave enough to trust other people to help her along on her journey, even though those same people had let her down in the past.

What can we expect from the book launch of Sula’s Voyage’s during the Asian festival of children’s content, 27 May 2016, Friday, 415-515 pm?

You can expect triple the fun for the price of one. In fact, for the price of none, because it’s free to come to the launch! And for that, you’ll witness the launch of all three new titles from Scholastic Asia: Sula’s Voyage, as well as Sophia Lee’s What Things Mean and Xie Shi Min’s Dragonhearted. The three of us are putting our heads together to give guests at the launch something to enjoy and remember.

If you can share with us a few of your favourite books that feature fearless females and courageous women (from kidlit to adult novels), what are some of these books?

Off the top of my head, here’s my top ten, in no particular order:

Kids and YA

Adult

Thank you, again, dear Catherine for taking the time out of your busy schedule to answer our responses and for being our Featured Storyteller at GatheringBooks. Hope to catch up with you during AFCC.

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