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Interview on Writing and Winning: Sun.Star Cebu


I could say that Sun.Star has been a massive part of my writing life. I could still remember the thrill upon receiving Mayette Tabada’s email that my balak would be published on Sun.Star’s Weekend six years ago. Since that time, there has been two editors.

Now, I’m under the care of Kristin Lerin, my supportive travel editor for the past three years. Despite writing for national paper and online media, I see to it that I send an essay to Sun.Star every month.

I don’t know, but I love the fact that my editors are all female on all print and online media I’m working. They are less intrusive of their writer’s writing style.

Together with Richel Dorotan, Sun.Star Cebu recently published a profile of us winning the 63rd Palanca Awards. I was surprised to see my Baguio portrait next to the banner. I thought Sun.Star is running my travel essay on Palompon with the wrong photo! 🙂

Questions were modified for the better, consequently answers were tightened and changed. I love Richel Dorotan’s stubbornness, that will to answer questions in Cebuano.

There were parts, which I considered the most important, taken out of context and omitted though. So here are the original questions sent and unedited answers I gave.

For the printed version of the interview, check here.

How did you hear about the Palanca Awards?

From the writers.

What was your initial reaction when your name was declared as winner?

Winners are notified two weeks ahead the public announcement. Upon reading the notification, at first, I was shocked but it was genuine, not your Ms. Universe ­kind ­of shock. After all, it was my first try. Two weeks after, the cat was out of the bag and the news had circulated on social media, I got anxious. Insecure. Terrified.

Northern Vietnam Travel Guide Sapa Travel Guide 1

How are you now after bagging the award/s?

Writing is still a struggle. I still do my own laundry, cook my own food, and pay my bills. I feel like there are more qualified writers for this feature. It was my first. And there is that possibility that it might be the first and the last. That win was nothing compared to Richel Dorotan’s, Noel Tuazon’s, Ernesto Larriosa’s to name a few. Winning Palanca seems like an ordinary occurrence for these amazing writers.

How long have you been writing?

I have been keeping diaries since I was a sixth grade: diary entries about my teenage infatuation. Oh, yes, John Prats filled my high school diaries. 🙂

But I would say, I was a reader first before I became a writer. I grew up in Tuburan where reading is not really important for teenagers unless they are Precious Heart Romance. So I consumed those stories until three in the morning, until my father turned off the main light switch. Gradually, I found the characters overly flawed, the plots similar. These romance writers follow a certain arch on all their works. And I realized they suck at story­telling. At first, I wanted to write a love story with different twists and turns. I want to defamiliarize my women characters, I want them to be unpredictable. It started there. Then I pursued my degree in the city. My reading preference matured a lot after taking classes under Januar Yap. And I could say, it helped me find my own writing style.

Have you submitted an entry in the past prior to winning this year? If so, how did it go?

No. This was my first try to join a national contest. So, the terror came from the assumption that I won because of the so­called “beginner’s luck.” I am always discontented with my works, insecure that it won’t meet the standards of my admired writers.

Have you submitted other outputs before for other contests apart from that/those for the Palanca Awards?

Does college days count? 2013 has been “why­ not join literary contests” for me. There was Sinulat.

Before winning at the Palanca or currently, are you active in any local writing communities? Would you say it helped a lot in molding you as a writer and at the same time, as an awardee?

I sometimes hang out with the young and old writers, especially the dominantly male Bathalad and the exclusively young Nomads. In many ways, they have contributed in the forming of my reading list and inspired me to keep on writing. But writing is a solitary act. I love hanging out with them because they are as crazy, as devoted to the craft. I don’t see myself as an awardee. I write because I love to write. I write to let the demons out. I write because I love playing with characters and voices, fictionalizing, making fun of real people. I write because story­telling amuses, entertains, delights, terrifies, saves me in many ways. I write because I am discontented with reality. I write because reality is too fast-­paced. I write because there are things that can only be appreciated once written and read.

I don’t write for recognitions and accolades. Of course, when I receive the accolades from the writers I admire, I feel that PERHAPS I’m doing the right thing. But it is always the self that is hardest to please, it is always the self that has the final say. There is still so much to learn. But I’m not cramming. I’m relatively young for a writer. I’m taking my time slow. What matters most: I’m learning and writing still.

Would you say writing short story/ies is your prime advantage as a writer?

Ironically, “Tubod” was my first story for the past five years. There are many germs for stories but I’m still playing with the characters, places in my head. Basically, they are still unwritten. Interestingly, I don’t see myself as a short story writer although there are characters that demand a story, not an essay, or a poem.

Playing with ideas and imaginary/real people, places in my head—daydreaming to make it short—has been a favorite pastime since I was kid. Either these ideas come out as a poem, short story, essay, how would I know.

The ideas are twinned with the form. As of now, I test genres like I’m testing different bodies of waters.

When do your creative juices normally exude from the writer in you?

If this question was asked five years ago, I would say late at night, or when the muse visits me. I’m past that. At this age, if you take writing seriously, discipline matters. I discipline myself to sit and put the thinking into actual words at least an hour or two every day.

When writing, do you prefer to initially transcribe your thoughts via digital medium/gadgets or do you still prefer the classic way of writing which is via notebooks/paper?

Ideas are born usually when I’m doing something especially during laundry, walks, or in­transits. For jotting down ideas or germs, the most accessible is the phone, then the notebook. I keep a traditional diary: records on my readings, musings, and things that I don’t want Facebook to know, unless I am ready to make a lot of enemies. I don’t know, but I write poems in cursive. Perhaps because my poems are rather short. There is a certain cadence in writing longhand that computers can’t capture. When it is an essay or short story, I usually play around with the ideas in my head and play with them some more in the computer. Of course, the cutting, pasting, arranging of ideas become easier with Ctrl X+V. I once read an amusing interview on Lorrie Moore. During her younger years, she literally cut paragraphs with scissors and kept on arranging them until she found the perfect fit.

May we know your influences as a writer? Any particular icon you really look up to or admire? Local? International?

My writing influences keep on evolving. This year, it has been Rebecca Solnitt, Andre Aciman, Chang­rae Lee, Jamaica Kincaid, Orhan Pamuk. Ironically, most of this year’s reads and influences are nonfiction except for the painful, erudite, eloquent Chang­rae Lee’s “The Surrendered.” I admire a lot of homegrown and foreign writers.

Sure it means a lot but if you may be specific, what does winning at the Palanca Awards mean to you? What’s in it for you?

If you’re young and writing, nobody takes you seriously. Sadly, in our country, you will not be taken as a “serious” writer unless you win a major award. I find it rather contrived. If it takes an award to be taken seriously, so be it. I know Nyor Butch Bandillo will probably smack me for saying this.

Joining the Palanca was just coincidental, really. I kept the story secret and decided to send it on the last day of submission.

Apo Island Travel Guide Snorkeling in Apo Island

Snorkeling in Apo Island

What are your plans after Palanca?

I find this question rather funny. Writers don’t live a celebrity lifestyle. Writers, despite the awards, continue weaving stories, continue living their normal lives. I live my life in monthly basis. Plans? Keep on writing. Travel some more. Read some more. And perhaps, teach. Perhaps this question applies to those who have gathered awards here and there.

Just curious, do you have any particular favorite pen you normally use when writing the traditional way? May you tell us the brand?

I’ve been a Faber Castel user for some time now. It makes my handwriting not so doctor­ish and makes my diary cleaner to read. And, it is affordable.

And lastly (Of course, we shouldn’t miss this. Hehee), what’s your advice for all writers out there?

It might be too condescending for me to give advice when I myself have barely started. I have some notes to self that others might find helpful: No amount of writing workshop can make a good writer out of you. No matter what happens, like Nyor Butch advised recently, never stop writing. Never stop reading. Read anything—good, beautiful, beautifully good, crazily exceptional, bad, terrible and know the difference between them. Write like your own god and edit like your own satan. Don’t Facebook too much. Literary wins are not the real benchmarks of greatness. Let travels teach you the beauty of the world and the kindness of humankind.

Jona of Backpacking with a Book

Hi there, I’m Jona, originally from Cebu, Philippines, had live in Hanoi, Vietnam, and now currently based in Munich, Germany. This blog used to house thoughts on life and books, but eventually it morphed into a travel blog. For collaborations, projects, and other things, please email me at backpackingwithabook@gmail.com. For essays, creative nonfiction, and others, find me elsewhere.

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  1. Maricel Urkom says:

    Congrats, Jona. I’m your avid fan.

  2. Teesh says:

    Congratulations Jona!! 🙂

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