Self Reads, Therefore She Writes

Self missed first screening of “The Kids Are All Right,” so decided to save her bucks and do something else today.

Weather is cool. Self has been sitting indoors, watching the wind blow the branches of the Japanese maple trees in the front yard.

Here’s what’s on her mind: To whom does she owe thanks? For influencing her writing?

She wants to start with Doreen. That’s Doreen Fernandez. Her name will be recognizable to those of you who happen to be from the Philippines. If not, know this: her writing was never less than illuminating. And she had so much courage.

Self would also like to thank Hans Christian Andersen. And, of course, her parents, who bought the bound volume of Hans Christian Andersen stories that self remembered reading over and over, when she was seven or eight. She cried buckets over one story in particular, “The Little Mermaid.” Perhaps all she stories she writes now are variations of this fairy tale? The self-sacrificing mermaid, the without-a-clue sighing prince?

There was also, in high school, Carlos Castañeda. His books about living with the Yaqui Indians and getting high on peyote? Mind-blowing. (His reputation has suffered much since then. Never mind. At 16, he certainly fired up self’s imagination!)

When she was in the Ateneo, she loved (aside from the writings of Doreen), Manuel Arguilla.

Also, the anthropologist Oscar Lewis (whose books she had to annotate for her first-ever job, in the National Archives of the Philippines)

When she moved to the States, an early hero was Peter Matthiessen, for his Snow Leopard, which she found inexpressibly moving. Also, Russell Hoban, for Riddley Walker, because she was so amused at his depiction of a post-apocalyptic world (“There was a little man named Eusa. And one part of Eusa went to the East, one to the West.” Eusa was killed, murdered, by a “little shining man” named Addum. This is a very rough paraphrase. But, anyhoo, the gist of the tale was that the “little man” Eusa ended up being vivisected, his parts scattered to the far corners of the Earth. Which will, of course, happen to the USA, if ever subjected to “addum-ic” explosion)

The Stanford Creative Writing Program introduced her to Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, and Donald Barthelme (She remembers in particular the mordant wit of this author). Much thanks to her teachers: at the time, self’s reading was heavily tilted toward such dinosaurs as Moby Dick (She actually read all the way to the end of this behemoth) and Lord Jim.

She also, in the States, discovered memoir, and fell in love with: Deborah Digges (Now deceased, alas!), Anchee Min (Red Azalea), and Victor Villaseñor (Rain of Gold).

She discovered histories, especially ones about pre-colonial America (or America on the cusp of becoming The New World) and pre-colonial South America. She fell in love with a book about the painter Brueghel (Brueghel:  Or the Workshop of Dreams).  She loved it so much that she read it twice, and eventually bought herself a hardcover copy.

She discovered the greatest, absolutely the greatest novel ever: Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance (He lives, she believes, in Canada)

Amazing: she discovered all these writers after she’d had a child, was working full time, and had less time for writing than ever before. But the reading impelled or compelled her.

And now that she thinks about it, even the classes she took on Chinese landscape painting (Chao Meng-fu!), classes taught by Michael Sullivan, who split his teaching between Stanford and Oxford, taught her how to see.

One particularly grueling year, when she was working in New York and feeling weak physically because of the winter and the garbage strike and the nun who was murdered and the graffiti on the subway cars and the distance she had to travel to work each day, she read Madame Bovary (on the subway), to the sound of shrieking rails, jostled by an unbelievable array of sweaty bodies. She also read Lao She’s Rickshaw Boy. She knows she must have read other books that year, but those two are the ones she distinctly remembers reading on the subway to and from work (Her apartment was in Flushing)

And now self must get back to her writing (Whew, this has been a very very long detour!)

Stay tuned, dear blog readers. Stay tuned.


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