an interview with wilfredo pascual

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go to link Wilfredo Pascual’s essay You Have Me won the 2015 Curt Johnson Prose Award in Creative Nonfiction. Born and raised in the Philippines, he lived in Thailand for ten years before moving to the U.S. in 2005. Along the way, he traveled to 17 countries in Asia and Africa while working in international development. Wilfredo now lives in San Francisco with his husband, Jack, and he recently completed a collection of linked essays. In addition to writing essays, poems, and stories, he is an avid photographer whose work often examines the connections between his past, his homeland, and his present. He spent thirty days in a Buddhist monastery where he didn’t utter a single word, has a traditional Cambodian tattoo, and traveled across fourteen U.S. states in four days. He is a nomad at heart, but his words found a home in our hearts here at december.

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prednisone 5 mg ldn Two of the four books are translations. I’m reading a novella by the German dramatist Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811) about moral tyranny during the 1647 earthquake in Chile. I’m also savoring Thomas Teale’s translation of The Fly Trap, the 2004 memoir of Swedish entomologist Fredrick Sjoberg who contemplates loss and the passage of time through the world of insects. The other two books are by an American and a Filipino author, both published this year. I’m rereading The Odd Woman and The City by Vivian Gornick, a memoirist I admire deeply. The only non-English book in my nightstand is Edgar Samar’s Janus Silang, an award-winning young adult novel replete with local mythical creatures that opens with gamers in the Philippines dying mysteriously.

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non prescription propecia What skill or talent do you most admire in other writers?

PASCUAL

I’m not sure if this is what I admire most, but I think an ear for capturing authentic dialogue between very different people is a remarkable talent – say an ex-nun from Taiwan discussing climate change in Dhaka with a male model from Boston who is suffering from schizophrenia. Language and the way we communicate go through so many natural and cultural filters. It takes extraordinary skill to capture its peculiarities and nuances without resorting to clichés. I can say the same thing about writers I admire who write about place and are able to capture the subtle shadings in the spectrum of place, what remains and what has changed over time, or what makes a remote small town unique from another that’s only five miles away. There’s so much to consider. You need to be economical in choosing details – what’s fresh, what’s accurate, what’s going to move the story forward or reveal a character, a place. It takes exceptional skill to do that and have readers unaware of the conscious decisions you’ve made.

DECEMBER

Do you remember the first poem/story/essay you ever wrote? When and how did you decide you wanted to make writing a career?

PASCUAL

I’ve been writing personal essays for decades. I believe the yearning has always been there. When I was eight a teacher picked me to join an on-the-spot writing contest. It was held at the school library. Most of the students who joined were older than me. I didn’t think of it as a competition. It was simply a task that needed to be done. I wish I had kept it because I won. My memory of what I wrote is vague. What I remember clearly was how I wrote it. The theme was written on the board: I am a Filipino. I remember looking around, amazed at how absorbed the others were, writing furiously. Other than the title and my name written on it, my paper remained blank. I don’t think I was old enough to even barely grasp the idea that something as big as a nation defined me. The concept went over my head.

I started my first sentence with “I am…” and thought hard. I thought some more and my mind probably drifted. There was no pressure. What I remember clearly was the sense of wonder that came to me when I asked myself, “What can I write today?” And then it happened. I was no longer looking at the paper. My eyes wandered. I was looking at other things in the library — the shelves, the titles of the books, the walls, the posters, the other students, the toys, everything that was organized, out of place, anything that struck me. I did the thing that gave me so much fun: I wrote down everything that I saw in the library, each sentence starting with those two words — “I am…” This is not exactly how I wrote it but it’s close: I am a Filipino. I am a book. I am blue. I am a flag. I am a chair. I am a hero. I am a bird. I am light… I probably filled up half of the paper. When I felt that I’d written enough I stood up and submitted it to the librarian. It was the first essay I ever wrote. There is a photo of me during the award ceremony, my mother pinning on my medal, “Most Creative Writer of the Year.” I wore a strange expression. I wasn’t smiling. I didn’t look proud. If anything, I looked lost.

DECEMBER

How does a poem/story/essay begin for you, with an idea, a form, or an image?

PASCUAL

The catalysts are never the same. Sometimes it’s a combination of things. Often it’s a hunch, something irrepressible. Or a compulsion. Sometimes it’s only after I’ve written several stories that I begin to realize what it is exactly I want to write – and only then can I say I’m just beginning to write the story. There’s always an underlying purpose and often this unfolds in places of fear and discomfort inside me. Or in absurd associations, a feeling that something is coming full circle, you start seeing it everywhere. I tend to accumulate bits and pieces of images, ideas, different structures and patterns that together form, like a ball of tangled threads. So when I sit down to write it’s like carefully pulling a random string not knowing which strings are worth weaving, which ones are the beginning, the middle, the end. And it’s tricky pulling these strings. You could end up pulling the entire universe so you have to choose carefully, and know when to cut them. I write personal essays, meaning years of prep work or cultivation has taken place before I even begin to write it all down – miracles, movies, maladies, math – it’s just a feeling that something is coming together. When that happens nothing is banal, not even a spoon. Sometimes finding a beginning is the least dramatic moment.

DECEMBER

What advice do you have for writers just beginning their careers?

PASCUAL

The library and the archives are your friend. Read translated works. Read the world. Read works across time. Read for craft and heart. Write. Wait. And then write again and wait some more. Attend workshops. Share your work with people you trust and create gems out of betrayal, insecurity, and rejection. Be obsessed with activities other than writing – build furniture, go fishing, be an expert belly dancer, anything. Travel alone at least once. It could help you find your voice.

DECEMBER

What’s your next project that we can look forward to?

PASCUAL

I just finished a personal essay set in the late 1990s: I was an expat living in Bangkok when the local currency crashed and Asia stood on the brink of an economic meltdown. Around that time my Thai ex-boyfriend told me that he had tested positive for HIV. These two watershed events found me seeking refuge in auction houses, flea markets, remote border towns. In this story I return to those years to reflect on the boundaries we have to cross, figurative or otherwise.

DECEMBER

What do you do for fun or relaxation? How do your hobbies or other activities feed into and stimulate your creative pursuits?

PASCUAL

I was twelve when I bought my first camera. This was in 1979 and I have been taking pictures ever since. When I go out to take pictures there’s a lot of introspection going on. Sometimes I line up my photos. I like what it does to that part of my brain that frames images, classifies and differentiates things, sequences them, or discovers association from the most incongruous elements. You learn to crop or decide which part of the photo could be darker, brighter, or blurred.

Lately I’ve been spending more time in the kitchen. I’m proud of my salmon recipes and home-baked cinnamon rolls. I like that there are strict recipes to follow and a clear picture of what should come out of the oven. It’s meditative. I get to focus and listen to internal rhythms while washing vegetables or kneading, observing and waiting for the perfect moment to turn the fish in the frying pan.

But nothing beats dishwashing. I find it one of the most comforting household chores. It has to be in the sink, not the dishwasher. It’s a very contemplative chore, a lot of unclogging, outpouring and cleansing taking place. It’s a great time to think of my stories and remember things. Maybe it’s the running water from the faucet. It’s relaxing and at the same time it develops the mind’s fluidity and grip – you don’t want to drop that soapy plate and break dishes.

DECEMBER

Describe your writing routine, if you have one. i.e., do you write at set times and places or can you write wherever you are? Do you have a favorite place to write?

PASCUAL

I have a room where I write maybe around five or six in the morning. I take a break and then write again around mid-afternoon. But this doesn’t happen everyday. It’s very irregular. I probably spend as much time in the library and the archives doing research. Music is constant. I have a specific playlist on repeat when I sit down to write. When I wrote, You Have Me I was listening to Max Richter for unmooring and Akira Kosemura for buoyancy.

DECEMBER

What motivates you to write? Have you experienced extended periods of time during which you haven’t written? If so, tell me about the circumstances, why that happened and how that impacted you.

PASCUAL

I suppose some of us need to find our own truth and connect with others, and these two needs – my own truth and the truths of others – often move in opposite directions. I grew up with different forms of repression and I had to learn to wield language and storytelling to escape and fight back to be my own person. My motivation to write comes from that need, along with a deep respect for language and storytelling. I learned to love reading at an early age so I knew its power. The language I use and every single word I write is an urgent, critical choice. Even when I’m not writing physically, I sometimes feel like I’m still writing, putting things together, exploring, doubting, making lots of mistakes. The extended periods of time when I could not write I attribute either to exhaustion or simple laziness. I have learned to be more forgiving of myself during those times and consider them as symptoms. You just do what you’ve got to do. Rest or get up. It’s not always an easy thing to do. So I go out, take long commutes, wash the dishes…

 


Senior Editor Ron A. Austin interviewed Wilfredo Pascual for the this installment of  go december’s contributor interview.