Penman No. 155: Writing Virtual Reality

Penman for Monday, June 29, 2015

I WAS surprised to receive a text message the other week from a former student, Dada Felix, herself a prizewinning short story writer. Dada told me that she’d just heard from another acquaintance who was now working in Saudi Arabia, and who’d written her about the sandstorms in that country. “It was just as you described it in your novel Soledad’s Sister,” Dada said.

I thanked Dada for the compliment—and I took it as a compliment, because while a third of that novel takes place in Saudi Arabia, I’d never been to that country—not before I wrote the novel in the early 2000s, and not since. In fact, I had to look back at my manuscript—it’s funny how little you retain in your head of your own work after a few years, except perhaps for specific passages—to see what exactly I had written. I found this:

“Seven weeks after Soledad arrived, a sandstorm blew in from the east, a dark, mountainous reddish-brown cloud that rolled over the city with a great cavernous howl, obscuring and blistering everything in its path. She had just stepped back into the servants’ dormitory from giving Amina a bath, and all the girls were rushing to seal the doors and windows with towels. Still unused to the voluminous abaya, Soledad fought with herself to move as quickly as the others…. As the sandstorm blew around them, making the glass in the windows sing but striking terror in the hearts of the foreign maids and workers in the compound as it raked and scoured everything in its path, Meenakshi’s lightness of mood seemed even more out of place. When Soli cowered in a corner near her bunk, holding on to her knees, Meenakshi crept up to her and whispered, ‘He wants me to meet him tonight, in the harbor, near the fountain.’

“.… Around them the wind had miraculously fallen to a hush; the sandstorm had left as quickly as it had arrived, spending its force at the water’s edge, and people began reopening the windows cautiously to look up at the sky, which was still a murky brown but through which patches of blue were beginning to show.”

I remembered that I wrote in that scene to introduce some visual drama, and also to create a contrast between the fierceness of the storm and the almost casual decision the girls make that would change their lives forever.

But what looking back at my own text truly reminded me of was how often, in the course of writing fiction and even nonfiction, I had to recreate factual scenes based on research and my imagination. This will happen quite often to anyone dealing with historical material, or anything that happens outside his or her personal experience.

Research, of course, is invaluably helpful. When I wrote the biography of accounting pioneer Washington SyCip (who incidentally turns 94 tomorrow—happy birthday, Wash!), I chose to start the narrative at a crucial turning point in his youth, when he was returning to the Philippines in mid-1945 after serving as a codebreaker with the US Army, and his ship steamed in to Manila Bay. I had to ask myself, what would Wash have seen, standing on the deck of that ship? I consulted several sources to reconstruct the likely scene:

“In the city’s oldest section, within the stone walls of Intramuros, an entire procession of churches—the Manila Cathedral, Lourdes, Santo Domingo, San Francisco, San Ignacio—had crumbled to the ground; only San Agustin remained. Of the city’s many universities and colleges, only two colleges—Letran and Sta. Rosa—withstood the bombs and the artillery. The City Hall, the Post Office building, and the Metropolitan Theater were all vacant hulks, their bone-white shells pockmarked in thousands of places by sustained bombardment between February and March 1945.”

That kind of factual rendition isn’t too difficult to achieve, so I tried to get beyond the physical into something more internal—Wash had been told, mistakenly, that his father had been killed by the Japanese, and he was brimming with anxiety—so I followed up that description thus:

“The man on board the Navy ship was too far to see these details for himself, but the strange concavity of what had been the metropolitan skyline, the impression of a body supine and overrun by tubercular rot, and the brooding silence that waited across the bay would have encouraged his worst fears.”

Strangely enough, this was a scene—steaming into Manila Bay—that I had already rehearsed some 25 years earlier, in a novella titled Voyager, set in the 1880s, when a steamship arrives from Hong Kong, carrying a Spaniard who has just killed a compatriot on the voyage to protect a Filipino revolutionary. An officer of the law, he has seen the best and the worst in men—himself most of all—and projects this duality of vision onto the unfolding panorama before him, in the novella’s closing scene:

“And now, in an afternoon of dolphins and rainbows playing above the water, we return to the wide-open arms of Manila Bay, the home of Spain and the throne of God on this side of the earth, the ramparts of its forts rising proudly into the sky, and yet anchored to the earth by dungeons, tunnels, pipes hissing with the force of sewage seeking to be expelled. Below the great Cathedral are catacombs I have yet to visit. Across the street, in Fort Santiago, is a flight of steps that leads down to a room of solid stone, with a solitary window offering a view of the river through the iron; when the tide rises, both view and viewer go in a muddy froth. This is where and how the City holds the secrets that keep it alive, where God, I must believe, now and then deserts His pigeoned domes to visit.”

I had to imagine much of that, this being the time before computers and Google, and when I had scant time for and access to libraries, as a working stiff outside of academia. Years later I would read a contemporaneous account that pretty much validated what I had made up.

Do I always get it right? Heck, of course not. These forays into virtual reality are inherently risky—you’re guessing half the time, and all it takes is one small but noticeable mistake to ruin the seamlessness of the effect. There’s a long list out there of factual boo-boos poets and novelists have made—not that it matters much to their unsuspecting readers.

But not all readers can be so easily seduced by fluid prose. It took an Indonesian professor who had flown to and from Saudi Arabia to gently, almost apologetically, inform me that I had my time zones all wrong in my opening scene in Soledad’s Sister—the same work that Dada praised for what seemed to be its uncanny accuracy—that a plane flying eastward from Jeddah would have flown behind the daylight clock rather than ahead of it. I thanked her profusely, and made a note to correct that in future editions of the book.

(Image from alarabiya.net)

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