BY MARIVIR MONTEBON
New York City — With the way the weather behaves these days – extremely changeable and swift in a matter of 24 hours – having a pleasant day could just be considered a miracle. The afternoon of mid-April when I first met celebrated Filipino writer Ninotchka Rosca was blessedly pleasant – warm and sunny. It was one of my longest interviews as well, as it was over late lunch in a Filipino restaurant in Queens. I purposely ordered a train of Filipino desserts, for it was a celebration that finally, I met the Ninotchka Rosca.
Ms. Rosca is a two-time recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship and frequent contributor to The Village Voice, the Huffington Post, Q, Ms. Magazine, and other US and European periodicals. She authored six books, which includes two bestselling novels, The State of War and Twice Blessed which won the 1993 American Book Award for Excellence in Literature.
Born and raised in Manila, Ms. Rosca studied Comparative Literature and Khmer Civilization at the University of the Philippines.
She founded and was the first chairperson of Gabriela Network, a US-based organization of women and women’s rights advocates which supported the Philippine women’s movement.
A human rights activist at the perilous time of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Ms. Rosca was forced into self-exile when she was threatened a second arrest. She now lives in New York.
But as one would always say, you bring your convictions wherever you are. She was and is still in the thick of organizing and educating women and men into the fold of gender equality and ethics. She has been in vital positions with Amnesty International and the Pen American Center and was actively involved in the Beijing International Women’s Conference.
She is one of the 12 Asian American Women of Hope designated by the Bread and Roses Cultural Project, considered to be role models of youth for their commitment and compassion for change.
Currently busy with AF3IRM, a nationwide organization of transnational feminists and handful of writing projects, Ms. Rosca continues to be relentless.
1. What inspired you to be a writer? When did you begin to write in the professional sense?
I learned to read and write at a very early age, around 5 or 6 years — and by that I don’t mean the usual way children read/write. I was reading college level books, like Cervantes’s Don Quixote, etc.
Also, the neighborhood domestic help found out I could read/write, so they’d buy comic books, Liwayway and other periodicals and made me read aloud to them in the afternoon when their bosses were asleep. They each paid me 5 centavos — which likely made me conclude that one could make a living doing what I already liked.
I remember writing a poem when I was 7 years old, about galaxies. But my first paid publication occurred when I was 12 years old. Never looked back from then.
2. Who are the writers that you love/respect and regard as models/mentors?
There are thousands of writers I respect enough to read their books over and over again. Can’t say I “love” them but I do take pleasure, aesthetically and philosophically speaking, from specific books: all the classics, of course, from the Homeric epics to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, Upanishads, even the Bible; then works by Tolstoy, Babel, Gogol, Dostyevsky and a host of others; plus among the contemporary writers, Le Guinn’s The Left Hand of Darkness; Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore;Pamuk’s Red; then the Latin American writers: Belli, Garcia Marquez, Puig, etc. Just too many to name.
I don’t regard anyone as a model or mentor. I did learn a lot about writing techniques from Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks & the Magic Mountain.
3. The name Ninotchka Rosca is already a brand name in writing. How did you develop your craft? What attitude should there be to become an accomplished writer?
I am my harshest critic. When my name goes on something that’s to be published, the thing usually goes through many, many revisions plus months and sometimes years of intellection.
4. What projects (books/events) are coming up soon with you in the US and the Philippines?
I am trying to finish several short stories plus one long manuscript on the firefly.
5. You are also a women’s rights advocate, a prime mover in the women’s movement, how do you see the women’s movement in the Philippines and the US (compare or contrast) in terms of truly responding to the essential needs of women for growth and recognition? You can cite flaws please, and challenges that have to be dealt with.
The basic difference between the US-based and Philippine-based is simply this: the first is concerned with expanding the definition/scope of rights, privileges and freedoms toward the achievement of comprehensive equality for women. The second is concerned with re-gaining the basic rights, privileges and freedoms lost to colonialism/imperialism toward the achievement of national self-determination.
In the focus on the national paradigm, the importance of absolute comprehensive equality for women is often neglected.
6. Is there hope for the Philippines to be able to release itself from material poverty and cultural malaise? How? And in what manner are you contributing to it?
The effort to liberate the Philippines from material poverty and cultural malaise, as you call it, is in a race with global warming and the polar meltdown, which is already starting. If you check the projected map of the world after a complete polar melt, there is no Philippines.
7. Who/what inspires you to write and continue to be an active part of the women’s movement?
I don’t know what — inspires is not the right word — compels me to write. Maybe the certainty that I am good at it. I am compelled to remain active in the women’s movement since this is still an open dynamic field of intellection, its ideology has NOT yet congealed and been reduced to citing texts from a hundred years ago. Plus it’s really fun to watch the development of young women from timid, romance-ridden creatures to self-aware and self-confident beings who can strut, if need be, with the best of them.
8. A writer has certain quirks, what do you do prior to writing and focusing on it to beat your deadline? Tons of coffee? Impeccable cleaning up of your desk? Yoga?
I have to be physically fine, so my mind can let go of paying attention to my body. But writing or not, I do yoga, clean up the apartment periodically, have coffee, walk the dog. I really have no special rituals to writing as this is so naturally part of me it’s like breathing.
9. Describe yourself as a mother and a no nonsense woman.
I can’t describe myself as a mother as I have not experienced myself as a mother. I’ve been told I have been a horrible one — which by others’ standards is probably true, since I’m really not sentimental.
All I say is that I’ve never been violent, physically or verbally; have always been logical and given logical explanations; and never tried to dominate, which does not necessarily mean I lose sight of my own needs and wants. My only wish has been for the other to be able to stand on his/her own feet and thus render my presence unnecessary. That of course is the rule by which I manage all other relationships.