Alternative Alamat Interview: David Hontiveros

Posted by Paolo Chikiamco On July - 17 - 2014

For the digital release of Alternative Alamat, I ran interviews with several of the contributing authors, asking them about writing in general and their stories in particular. I wasn’t able to interview everyone, however, so for the print launch this coming Saturday [EDIT: LAUNCH HAS BEEN POSTPONED TO JULY 25, FRIDAY, 4PM, SAME VENUE] I went back to the contributors I wasn’t able to interview last time.

DAVID HONTIVEROS

David Hontiveros, author of “Balat, Buwan, Ngalan”, was a 1997 National Book Award Finalist in the Best Comic Book category for “Dhampyr” (drawn by Oliver Pulumbarit), and a 2002 Palanca Award Winner (2nd Place in the Future Fiction- English Category) for his short story, “Kaming Mga Seroks.” He has three horror/dark fantasy novellas out under the Penumbra imprint, published by Visprint, as well as a digital novel, “Pelicula”, from Bronze Age Media. His on-going comic book series, “Bathala: Apokalypsis”, is also available digitally from Flipside. He has had his short fiction, film reviews, articles, and comics appear in several Philippine publications. He has adapted Bret Harte (no, not the wrestler) and Edgar Allan Poe (twice!) into comic book form for Graphic Classics. He may be observed online at fiveleggediguana.blogspot.com (where he blathers on about film) and davidhontiveros.com (where assorted bits of his work are housed). He would like to humbly dedicate the story to his four current grandspawn, in chronological order: Gray, Mischa, Chloe, and Sophia, who will keep the flames of his family history burning on, down through the years.

While the Philippines is home to distinct cultural groups, a certain amount of cultural cross-pollination did take place. The results are myths which are variations of the same themes, and characters which appear in more than one culture, or who bear the same name but with an altered form. But, as David says of his story in Alternative Alamat: there is power in words and there is truth in myth. If these characters did exist…which version would be true? Would it matter?

Without spoiling anything essential, could you tell me a bit about your story?

“Balat, Buwan, Ngalan” is about Bakunawa, the creature that’s blamed by legend for eclipses, this massive beast who repeatedly attempts to swallow the moon, but is never quite successful.

One of the things I tried to do in the story was to provide motivation for Bakunawa, to add an emotional dimension to the legend, to cast the myth in the light of an unrequited love, which is something I think we can all identify and sympathize with.

The story’s about other things as well: the importance of legacies and heritage, and of stories and narrative, particularly the oral tradition.

The structure you used for the story was very striking. What led you to the decision to construct the story in this way?

While I wanted to tell a version of the Bakunawa myth, I also wanted the reading experience to be one of discovery, in much the same way it’s a journey of revelation for the unnamed protagonist.

So the order of the three stories is decidedly non-linear, in the same manner in which we discover things in real life, not in a straight line but in a patchwork way.

We’re told little stories here and there, not necessarily in any particular linear order, and these stories, over time, can eventually be fit together to form a larger narrative.

As I mentioned earlier, among other things, “Balat, Buwan, Ngalan” is about stories and narrative. It’s about the importance of storytelling, and what we can glean from all the tales that we’re told. It’s about the interaction between the storyteller and the audience.

Which is also one of the reasons why I chose second person narrative, since it literally places the reader in the position of the protagonist, who is the audience to the karibang’s storyteller.

Thus, the identification becomes more solid: the reader is “listening” to the stories, just as the protagonist is.

And while first person narrative could also achieve similar results, I feel it would also make the protagonist’s journey a little more specific and particular, whereas second person makes reader identification a little easier.

And I wanted that universality, which is why, even within the story, I make no explicit mention of the protagonist’s gender. You, as the reader, could be male or female, and still slide smoothly into the protagonist’s skin, for the duration of the story.

I also wanted a wide berth between the narrative styles of the sections concerning the protagonist and the three stories.

While the three legends have a very distinct “voice” patterned on the oral storytelling tradition, the sections of the story featuring the nameless protagonist have a very modern, contemporary “voice,” steeped in pop culture and 21st century trappings.

To me, that helped underscore what I’ve learned from distinguished voices like Joseph Campbell and Rollo May: that ancient myths can help us navigate the “modern” problems we face on a daily basis.

That these aren’t just some musty old stories that have no bearing on today’s world of Twitter and Facebook and Instagram.

That these tales are just as relevant today as they were back then, when they were first being told around campfires, and by traveling minstrels and bards, and in smoky, raucous mead halls.

So it was a matter of presenting these old legends in the context of a very modern world and having those legends reveal something to the protagonist that he (or she) couldn’t have discovered otherwise.

What part of the story–or the writing process–was the most fun for you?

I think that would have to be a toss-up between,

A) the period when I’m formulating the story, doing the research and gathering together all the separate strands that make up the narrative, since, at that point, the story itself is still all potential, it’s as grand and as sweeping as my imagination allows; at that point, it’s still the best story I’m ever going to write; and

B) those points in the writing process proper when I’m firing on all cylinders, and the words and the language just all come together with surprising ease, and I’m laying down sentences and paragraphs just as I imagined them in my head, or, on those rarer occasions, when what comes out onto paper is even better than what I’d imagined.

(And this would be the same answer for any other writing I do, not just for this particular story.)

What part of the story–or the writing process–was the most difficult for you?

In relation to the previous question, I suppose the most difficult (or perhaps “frustrating” would be a better term) would be when, for whatever reason, I just can’t seem to make the writing as good as how I imagined it in my head, as if my abilities can’t seem to capture in reality the rhythms of the prose that sound so amazing and fantastic in my imagination.

How were you first exposed to Philippine mythology?

There isn’t a clear, momentous memory of my introduction to Philippine myth, though I imagine it must have been through folklore and the lower myths, stories of aswang and manananggal and kapre.

My siblings had stories of our family’s ancestral home (a place I have never been able to visit, as, by the time I was born, my family had ceased visiting the house for vacations), which included tales of a woman who might have been an aswang and a large man who might have been a kapre.

Hearing these as a young boy only served to enhance the feeling I had that the world was a very curious and strange place…

I’ve also always been a huge mythology geek, ever since grade school, and though I was first inducted into the Greek myths, and by extension, the Roman, as well as Egyptian, I eventually wended my way all around the globe and then began to unearth our own local myths and legends.

Is there any myth, epic or legend that you wish would be adapted into a novel, or comic, or movie?

Who is your favorite character from Philippine mythology, and why?

At this point, I’m going to have to cheat and reply to both these questions with one answer.

Now, I may be a self-confessed mythology geek, but that’s a very far cry from an expert; I imagine experts are the mega-hyper-geeks of their field of expertise. Like Joseph Campbell or Rollo May or Father Francisco Demetrio.

And, since I’m not an expert on local myths, I’m certain I don’t know even a quarter of all the Filipino myths out there, so it’s difficult to actually peg down a “favorite,” one that perhaps I’d like to see as an adaptation.

The closest I can come to having a “favorite,” I suppose, would be either of the two myths I’ve done more than just passing, casual research on, one being Bakunawa, and the other, Agyu, whose legend I’m currently approaching through the filter of the superhero genre in The ‘Verse comics I’m keeping myself busy with.

The crux of AGYU, the comic, is definitely “shaman as superhero,” and though earlier, ultimately aborted efforts to get AGYU on the comic page hewed closer to the legend (currently, the approach I’m taking is perhaps a bit more oblique than previous iterations), I’m having a lot of fun with the idea right now, along with my AGYU collaborator, Vinnie Pacleb.

As to the “Why?”

With Agyu, I think it’s probably the whole sprawling epic, proto-superhero feel to his legend: bravery, heroism, evil bad guy, struggle, death, rescue, resurrection… it’s all in there, just without the spandex.

With Bakunawa, I guess it’s that fascinating idea of how the human mind, without the rigidity of science, can make artistic associations and take creative leaps in order to explain massive phenomena like eclipses.

It isn’t the planets and satellites and stellar hoohah aligning and blocking each other in our view; it’s a gigantic serpent/dragon (or spider or lion or dog or jaguar or toad or wolf) that’s actually swallowing the moon (or sun).

And we, puny mortals, actually have the power to scare the hungry beast away by making noise…

The thought that we can have that kind of cosmic agency in our world is so awesome…

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