Recently, I interviewed poet and novelist, Bino A. Realuyo, whom I met at a Sunday Salon reading in 2007. He read from his poetry collection, The Gods We Worship Live Next Door, a beautiful, haunting account of his troubled Philippines. In one particular poem, written in the perspective of his father, a war survivor, I was introduced to the vision and talent of a writer who gives voice to the voiceless, shedding light on forgotten histories. In this era of self-help literature and the ever-beleaguered memoir, here is a truly audacious writer of hope and change.
Nita Noveno: What is your earliest memory of growing up in the Philippines?
Bino Realuyo: The seasonal typhoons, the wallpapered house, the boarders, the relatives, and the street floods. Memories treasured, formerly resented.
Nita Noveno: When and why did you first start writing?
Bino Realuyo: I learned how to draw before I wrote. My father was an architect and my mother a beautician—both engaged in colors and the expanse of the imagination. In my house, there were always materials to draw with. I created “comics” as a child, and in doing so, learned the art of narrative. Yet, outside my world, there were the family histories—each person in my family carries an extraordinary story. My mother told me when I was a boy—You will write my book someday—as if an omen. I took it to heart. And I know one day, when I grow up, I will write her book. Perhaps I write to tell truths. I haven’t quite understood why I write, but it has become a process that seems as natural as breathing. I can’t do without it. I wasn’t a trained writer, at least not in an academic way, but then, I have been writing since childhood, from pen and paper to manual and electric typewriter to a laptop, in which I wrote my first novel and poetry collection. I took the art of writing seriously after college, which was also the time when I stopped drawing and painting all together. Strangely enough, as if a call of destiny, I met a small group of audacious poets and writers and together we formed The Asian American Writers Workshop in New York City. Now I believe you can’t quite run away from what you’re meant to be.
Nita Noveno: Who influenced you early on as a poet/writer?
Bino Realuyo: When it comes to muses, I go through phases now. I look for writers who live in the same world of the works I am currently doing. But as a young poet-novelist, I voraciously and repeatedly read Li-Young Lee, Marguerite Duras, Czeslaw Milosz, and Pablo Neruda. Of course, I read many other writers, especially writers-of-color, whose works were a prodigious political influence. Right now, I am in awe of Jose Saramago, the man and his work. We had similar economic backgrounds growing up. When I read him, I feel I’m watching him write. It’s such a spiritually invigorating process. I have read “The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis” a few times now; and while inside, I have always wished it would never end.
Nita Noveno: Your father, a veteran of the Second World War and survivor of the Bataan Death March and a Japanese concentration camp, has influenced your life greatly. Does his story continue to inform your writing?
Bino Realuyo: It is the subject of my next poetry collection—On Which the Summer Leans. It has been emotionally formidable dealing with my father’s war experience. I have had many failed attempts to write about it. Now, five years after his death, I still find it hard to isolate his world, so that I could unflinchingly stare at it, and deconstruct. But I am immobilized by the rush of emotion. I have come to realize that it should not be approached that way, and that no matter, I will have to be a part of his experience. I am vehemently anti-war, which makes it challenging not to locate myself in the consciousness of any war. I grew up with artifacts of wars around me—bayonets, helmets, all rusty with time. In many ways, I was in the Death March, and so were members of my family, albeit physically absent. My book will be a convergence of many disparate parts, if only to find in each, a whole, a self.
Nita Noveno: Tell me about your life in the Philippines before coming to the US and the process of writing your first novel The Umbrella Country.
Bino Realuyo: Thanks for mentioning The Umbrella Country. It is ten years old this year and is still being printed. I am so long overdue for another work of fiction! I grew up in what I refer to as “the belly of beast.” It is a working and middle class urban neighborhood that exists to this day. I lived in such a protected cocoon, being the youngest in my family. It was a life full of contradictions. We lived humbly; and by any estimation, poor, yet we were privately schooled all our lives. My mother rented out the extra room in the house to make ends meet. These boarders and “bedspacers” eventually became source of inspiration and friendship for everyone in my small family. Of course, I mentioned them in my first book. I was a very quiet, yet observant boy, and took tremendous pleasure in solitude. Manila is not made for introspective literary types. There was a constant barrage of noise—traffic, people, natural elements. At fifteen, I would write my first novel. About seven years later, I would revisit the book and from it came The Umbrella Country. Some say I was exorcising my demons—that was the easy interpretation. I thought I was doing what I did best—tell stories.
Nita Noveno: What have been your biggest challenges as a poet/writer?
Bino Realuyo: Singularly, publishing. I know I represent all fictionists-of-color when I say that. It would be easy to cop out and write “white,” to make these editors think I’m part of the Americana. But I have to honor my own narrative—the Filipino-American story. We have so much to tell, why move into someone else’s territory? But with that comes the challenges of acceptance and eventual publication. It is difficult to find a champion, someone who understands that ethnic stories are lucrative and marketable. The current state of readership in the U.S. adds to the dilemma. People are not reading literature the way they used to. The younger generation has completely different reading habits; many will find such process of collecting books a foreign matter. Lastly, American literature is so immersed in “empire” narratives—those from India and China. If you are from neither, you better find ways to get yourself in the door.
Nita Noveno: Interesting. I’m a big fan of Indian authors like Arundhati Roy and Salman Rushdie, and most recently Aravind Adiga who wrote The White Tiger. What do you mean by “empire” narratives? Does it have to do with the sheer size of the country and its colonial history?
Bino Realuyo: I am also a big fan of the writers you mentioned. Old empires are a source of inspiration and fear for new civilizations like America. The return of India and China as economic giants foments all kinds of threat in the western world. Such reaction is not the sole territory of the economic and G-8 politicking-the same can be applied to literature. Although, in the arts, there are many more elements that get enmeshed—fetishization, exoticization, romanticism, xenophobia, name it. It’s Columbus looking for the Spice Islands all over again. Where do smaller countries like the Philippines fit in the ageless dance of old and new empires? What is the responsibility of Filipino-American writers in light of the fact that native born Americans know very little about this first colony of theirs. We know that the rise of India and China as superpowers will generate more interest in the literature they produce. More American scholars will study them; more writers from those countries will find home in American publishing. But in the same token, there is a growing backlash in the globalization of big things. Small voices are becoming big voices. Filipino singers are being discovered on Youtube. I think if we understand where we place, we will know how to navigate the bigger spaces around us. We have to keep pushing. Our narratives are just as important. After all, in the overall scheme of big things, there are more of us.
Nita Noveno: Nowadays authors can bypass the publisher and self-publish, and for a select few, this has led to success. The rise of electronic tools like Amazon’s Kindle, which cuts down on publishing costs, translates to less money for writers. With these trends, the individual reader’s taste is more pronounced and less dependent on what comes out of the gates of the conventional literary establishments. What are your thoughts of the way publishing is moving towards the electronic age?
Bino Realuyo:This goes along my previous response of leveraging power in new ways, especially in the new world of technology. Your question touches on the scholar Howard Gardner’s “multiple intelligences” theory, where every person has a unique way of learning and acquiring information and knowledge. One size no longer fits all. I am excited about the changes in literature and readership. I was part of the first generation of writers who migrated from typewriters to laptops. During my early years as a poet, I was visited by a New York Times photographer who asked me to pose next to piles of manuscript, emulating a Hemingway perhaps. I told him I didn’t have such, and then showed him floppy disks instead. The photographs didn’t get published, but the astonished look on the man’s face remained in my mind. Now, a decade later, I am once again experiencing another shift in technology, this time, in readership. I think technology will partly address the unfortunate privileging of writers by very few mainstream publishers, as if they’re being selected into a special country club of sorts. It is extremely difficult to penetrate mainstream publishing, especially if you’re a writer-of-color. There is almost a quota for how many ethnics get published in a year. Unfortunately, Asian Americans are put in the same bowl. If a Filipino writer is put next to an Indian writer, who do you think would they choose?
I believe technology will democratize literature. But, we as writers need to participate in the process. We can’t simply sit passively and wait for things to change around us. The transformation can’t happen without our input. If these so called “digital natives” are reading differently, and are using hand held devices to read literature, then how can we create new ways of writing such that we accommodate this shift in reading styles? There is much to think about and discuss, but it has to happen now. I can never separate activism from literature.
Nita Noveno: What has Barack Obama’s election meant to you?
Bino Realuyo: I am so thrilled that a community organizer has become the president of this country. He is such an unconventional politician, a maverick of sort. My first job out of college was community organizing and such work does something to your heart and mind. I still work in marginalized communities—something I could have easily abandoned for an easier job elsewhere. I know that Obama still carries with him those years of organizing in the housing sector in Chicago. Similarly, I continue to cherish the years I worked in human rights in New York City. I am such a believer in bottom-up grassroots organizing. I think Obama looks at the world through related lens. Interestingly enough, he is at the top of the pyramid, with an organizer’s frame of mind. I am intrigued by what that means and what happens to his grassroots ideas once he has climbed the ladder to the top. These are exciting years for people who believe in people.
Nita Noveno: What are you reading these days?
Bino Realuyo: After I finish graduate school at Harvard, I will have the privilege of time to read literature again. Also, I make every effort to support Filipino-American writers. I have put together a page on my website that you can visit http://www.binoarealuyo.com/filipinoamericanbooks.htm with a whole library of books published in the U.S. since 2005.
On my bedside table right now are new books published recently, Luisa Igloria’s amazing new collection Juan Luna’s Revolver, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s At the Drive-in Volcano, Jon Pineda’s The Translator’s Diary, Eileen Tabios’ Nota Bene Eiswein, and Joseph O. Legaspi’s Imago, all excellent poetry collections.
Nita Noveno: Are you working on any writing projects (prose, poetry) at the moment?
Bino Realuyo: I am trying to get an agent for my next book of fiction, The F.L.I.P Show: A Novel-in-Episodes. It has gone through so many transformations over the years. I have edited it as recently as last month, when a thought came to me that completely reshaped it. I think I am ready to let it go. This summer, when I finally join the free world, I will embark on a poetic journey, via On Which the Summer Leans, my second poetry collection. The writing life takes so many forms when you have many jobs and lead multiple lives. The literary life, at least, from my point of view is a chronic illness. For now, I am writer with a wounded soul.
Nita Noveno: Salamat Bino. Thank you.
Bino A. Realuyo continues to document the Filipino and Filipino-american diasporic experience with his new work of fiction, The F.L.I.P Show: A Novel-in-Episodes, and a poetry manuscript-in-progress, On Which the Summer Leans. He is the author of The Umbrella Country, a novel, and The Gods We Worship Live Next Door, a poetry collection. He is the editor of The NuyorAsian Anthology: Asian American Writings about New York City and guest editor of The Literary Review’s special issue Am Here: Contemporary Filipino Writings in English. His poems, fiction, and essays have appeared in The Nation, The Kenyon Review, New Letters, The Literary Review, Manoa, Puerto del Sol, and the Norton Anthology, Language for a New Century. He can be found on the web at www.binoarealuyo.com.