Penman No. 26: New Novelist in Town

OFW AwardPenman for Monday, Dec. 23, 2012

IT’S ALWAYS a pleasure to welcome a new novelist into our ranks, and today will be one of those happy days when we acknowledge the arrival—literally and figuratively—of a new talent in our midst, Dr. Almira Astudillo Gilles, or just Almi to her friends.

Almi flew in from Chicago as one of 29 recipients of the 2012 Presidential Awards for Filipino Individuals and Organizations Overseas, which were given out last December 5 by President Aquino at Malacañang. I had met her at the ICOPHIL conference in Michigan last September, although she had introduced herself to me by email earlier, as a fellow Filipino eager to make contact with other writers in the US and the Philippines.

Last December 9, Almi also launched her first novel, The Fires Beneath: Tales of Gold (San Francisco: Philippine American Writers and Artists, Inc., 2012), at the Ayala Museum. The novel deals with how a poor man’s discovery of ancient gold in the Philippine South changes him, his family, and his community. I haven’t finished reading the book, but I’ve been much impressed by her sharpness of eye and precision of language.

Writing about Quiapo and Binondo, for example, Gilles observes that “In Quiapo, the Golden Mosque is flanked by the Church of the Black Nazarene while the Binondo Chinese worship at Our Lady of China. On the sidewalks surrounding both places, vendors set up storefronts assembled from canvas, corrugated metal, or pieces of plywood, displaying items promising an easier spiritual journey. ‘Bypass purgatory,’ the vendors hawk. ‘Take one step closer to paradise… at a fraction of retail.’ Most believe, all pray. Both acts of nature and man cause great suffering. Metropolitan Manila lies beneath sea level and all it takes is one bad rainy season to show the inadequacy of the government’s flood control system. But the people take this all in stride. They buy both prayer beads and rubber boots.”

Since she was busy enjoying a well-deserved Christmas break with her family in the Philippines, I asked Almi to respond to a few questions I sent her by email, to map out the unlikely course she took to becoming a novelist from a professional background in the social sciences.

BD: Tell me something about yourself and your background.

AAG: I spent a few childhood years in Frankfurt, Germany where my father was assigned by the World Bank. Hence, English was the first language I learned formally. I was in premed psychology at UP Diliman and switched to AB psychology in my third year because I never intended to be a doctor and the subjects were getting harder. I graduated cum laude, and went to work for Sycip, Gorres, and Velayo (management consulting). After two years, I left for graduate school in the US, where I eventually finished a doctorate in social science, a master’s in political science, and a master’s in labor and industrial relations, all from Michigan State U. I also met my husband there, a doctoral student in economics, and got married there, on campus. My husband works in the telecommunications industry. I have a 22-year-old-son who works for Facebook and a 17-year-old daughter who’s starting college next year. I have a brother in Vancouver, Canada, and a brother and sister in the Philippines. My parents live in Manila.

BD: What started you writing?

AAG: I started writing poetry when I was about seven years old, and as I grew older I also started writing essays which were often published in the school newspaper. After graduate school, I joined the management faculty at De Paul University as adjunct professor, and taught at other area universities as well. At the same time, I had young children and my husband was traveling frequently. None of my childcare arrangements were satisfactory. After I grew dizzy and almost fainted in one of my classes (a night class for graduate MBAs), I went to see a doctor the next day and was diagnosed with hypertension, which apparently had been going on for quite a while. I then decided to quit teaching (I was teaching at campuses all over the Chicago area and would often get home around 11 at night) and try my hand at writing. My children’s book, Willie Wins, was published soon after, and I was hooked on writing. I started out writing for children since I had young ones of my own, and have published poetry, essays, short stories (one of which won a national award in the US), and plays for community theater. Now that my children are older, I thought I’d try something more adult, hence this novel.

BD: Where did the idea for this novel come from?

AAG: My friend’s sister was curator of the gold exhibit at the Ayala Museum, and she suggested I write a novel based on the discovery of the Surigao treasures. It took me about three years to finish, but I was working on other projects as well. I was fortunate that a video series of this story already existed, and I used that as reference.

I wanted the novel to reflect the tug between secularism and religiosity, and tried to delineate this struggle through my main characters (the gold discoverer and his family). Since I consider myself as a writer of the diaspora, I was careful to maintain a high level of authenticity about the Filipino experience (especially since the setting is the Philippines), while trying to appeal to American readers as well. Several chapters were workshopped at a master novel writing class led by a Northwestern University professor, and they were all white (no writer of color). While they liked the voice and style, they defined it as magical realism—a sad commentary on their knowledge of other cultures since the characters, setting, scenes were typical of a Filipino lifestyle. Some were also uncomfortable with my sentence construction (I tried to mimic the rhythms of Tagalog) but generally they liked the novel very much. In a writing workshop organization to which I belong, I’m the only Filipino writer (of English), and the only Filipino writer I know of actively publishing in the Midwest, so I feel I have to work extra hard to publicize my work and get the American readership to be more open to Filipino writing in English.

BD: What did your presidential award mean to you, and where do you go from here?

AAG: I write full time, but I guess you can say that days are filled with a lot of community organizing in addition to my writing projects. I’m very active in the Filipino American community in Chicago, and have a good working relationship with the Field Museum of Natural History. I try to promote Filipino culture whenever I can and am also invited by many schools to talk to students about multicultural writing. I’ve spoken at institutions and conferences all throughout the US, most notably at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC.

I’m humbled by the achievements of all the awardees—they are really exceptional people who have given so much back to the Philippines. I’m grateful that my writing has been recognized (Willie Wins is the most widely circulated Filipino American children’s book in the US, available in many schools and libraries, and is on the reading list of most multicultural publications), but I feel that a presidential awardee is obligated to continue to serve. My other passion is conservation and the environment (as president of the UP alumni group in Chicago, we raised funds for a marine study in UP Visayas), and I’m always trying to push both literacy and conservation. I’m encouraged by the feedback I get about my efforts because many have told me that I have motivated them to either write or start doing something to save the environment. I try to use the award to open doors so that I might do more, and the awards have been very effective in helping me to connect to others whom I might recruit for my cause.

AND SPEAKING of new novels, I’m awaiting an early copy of Marivi Soliven Blanco’s The Mango Bride, a comic romp through contemporary Filipino relationships, which will be released by Penguin in the US this coming April. Like Almi, the San Diego-based Marivi started out writing stories for children. Their examples should encourage more Filipinos, especially women, to make their mark in global publishing.

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