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"Faced by the Truth of a Looming Extinction": An Interview with Kristine Ong Muslim

Kristine Ong Muslim is the author of seven books of fiction and poetry: Age of Blight (Unnamed Press, 2016), Butterfly Dream (Snuggly Books, 2016), A Roomful of Machines (ELJ Publications, 2015), Grim Series (Popcorn Press, 2012), We Bury the Landscape (Queen’s Ferry Press, 2012), as well as Lifeboat and Black Arcadia, two poetry collections from university presses in the Philippines. She serves as poetry editor of LONTAR: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction, a literary journal published by Epigram Books in Singapore, and was co-editor with Nalo Hopkinson of the Lightspeed Magazine special issue, People of Colo(u)r Destroy Science Fiction. Widely published in magazines and anthologies, she grew up and continues to live in rural southern Philippines. kristinemuslim.weebly.com.

Her story, "Genesis," appeared in Issue Eighty-Two of The Collagist.

Here, Kristine Ong Muslim talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about repetition, solipsism, and writing in her second language.

What can you tell us about the origins of your story “Genesis”? What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

The genesis of “Genesis” has a lot to do with me imagining a boy who lives alone inside a house, which doubles as his body. The boy’s inability to get out of his house (or his body), which I wrote as, “Each time he walks past the doorway that leads to the yard, he finds himself standing again inside one of the rooms of his house...” —this one is taken right out of the first season of American Horror Story, where Taissa Farmiga’s character, unaware that she was already a ghost, couldn’t get past the gate. And because I was also reading Conchitina Cruz’s Dark Hours in the period when I was drafting “Genesis” and I couldn’t get that quote off my mind, I decided to incorporate it as an epigraph and as an inline text element.

This story begins with an epigraph that is clearly evoked in the piece’s final sentences. Why did you consider it necessary to begin such a short piece with this quote? What do you think is gained by framing the story for the reader in this way?

Because the Conchitina Cruz quote lent a more strongly felt foreboding to “Genesis” than one I could cobble up and attach to the piece. Because the quote, robbed of its context, simultaneously stirs up solipsism and desperation, two concepts I’m vaguely alluding to in “Genesis.” Also, the quote seems rather fluent in its invented vernacular—the “no, no” part sounds very much like the exhortation of a naïve narrator consumed by hope, by optimism. I used it as a pointer—laid upfront at the beginning of the piece—pointing out to the reader that this, this is the voice of a civilization feigning disbelief when faced by the truth of a looming extinction.

Although the narrator’s voice makes the piece sound quite grand and sprawling, the entire story is only about 600 words long. How do you achieve such rich world building in such a small space? (Also, how much do you revise when writing such a brief piece?)

Repetition is key. Like constructing, brick by identical brick. When seen from afar, the resulting structure appears quite grand and imposing. Up close, one notices motifs that are used repetitively. It is also important to note that I am ESL. I mainly use English for writing. I have difficulty speaking in straight English. I approach the language as one would an artistic implement (as opposed to how I see my native language and its utilitarian nature). I use English primarily for creative expression. I suppose a native-language speaker would think differently because then the use of English comes naturally. For me, it doesn’t.

In revising? I start with something short, like an outline. I write fast. Otherwise, I lose my momentum. I discovered that there are no obvious hesitation marks (awkward scene breaks, etc.) in pieces that I write in one sitting. They sustain whatever energy I’ve pumped into them from beginning to end. And this limits me. I’ve been wanting to overcome this so I can do the same to longer pieces. Anyway, my first drafts are super short. The sentences have faulty construction. Grammar is all wrong. I polish later, add more to the piece. I add color, tone, decide on specificity or vagueness, sound of words when read aloud, things like these. I don’t revise right away. I revise after a few days have passed. Revision is the technical part of writing, the one a writer does for the reader. I don’t have the potential reader in mind when I draft. It is only when I’m revising that I acknowledge the possibility that someone out there is going to read what I’ve written.

You have published books of both fiction and poetry. What lessons have you learned from writing poetry that you’ve applied to your prose, or vice versa? (What are the special advantages or difficulties of working in multiple genres?)

Lessons learned from writing poetry that I applied to prose and vice versa—that there are many ways to tell a lie or a fact. I can sing it, as in the case of poetry. I can go on and on, as in prose, and then end up either not saying anything or saying too much. In prose, I worry about the effectiveness of my transition. In poetry, not so. There are no drawbacks to working in multiple genres. When I get stumped in one format, I can switch to the other. There’s just one slight problem though. If I work straight in one format for far too long, like months at a time, I find it harder to write in another format.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Two interrelated book manuscripts, plus a long essay on my folkloric writing influences.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Brendan Connell’s Metrophilias (Snuggly Books, 2016). In this book, various cities are settings and sometimes motivations for escapades and trysts in the name of fanatical love. Metrophilias is a perfect companion to Lives of Notorious Cooks (Chômu Press, 2012), another book by Connell. Lives of Notorious Cooks is a collection of fictional biographies of cooks. Connell has long been one of my go-to models for the fully fleshed out, wacky, and daring vignette. I heartily recommend any book written by him.

Adam David’s The El Bimbo Variations (the Youth & Beauty Brigade, 2016), which consists of 99 retellings of a line from a song by a Filipino band, makes a compelling point about the occasional pointlessness of language and society, about constrained literary techniques and hybrid poetic forms as emblematic of what seems to me as a desperately hopeful attempt to dissociate art from its surrounding context. It mixes smart-alecky swagger and elegant construction, sprinkled with a dash of macabre humor, making the book an entertaining, thought-provoking read.

Another creation by David that I want to recommend is the 39 side-stapled pages of hybrid poetic texts called Repaso (the Youth & Beauty Brigade, 2015). To say that I love Repaso would be putting it mildly as I’ve reread it far too many times the flimsy edges of the front cover have curled slightly I had to weigh it down with a heavy book to whip it back to shape. Two essays, which were indicated to be penned by Adam David, bookend the writings of Mona Lisa P. Cajucom, who was rumored to have killed herself. Footnotes in colloquialism-riddled Tagalog were interspersed with Cajucom’s found-poetry tracts. Whether or not Mona Lisa P. Cajucom existed in real life doesn’t and shouldn’t matter. What matters is that Repaso was eloquent in its recitation about the parts of our lives that happen in small rooms behind locked doors. Cajucom’s writings, which David claimed to have collected (and contextualized through his essays and annotations), consist of a series of rote, oftentimes optimistic depositions that begin with the word “here,” a powerful invocation that instructs the reader on how to view Cajucom—an eyewitness holding a bunch of snapshots she took with her omniscient camera, holding them up to an audience, and describing what those snapshots held. I really love Repaso, and I hope people will check it out. I love it because it lays bare our “hunger for a sort of emotional connection” even in times when we don’t really need one or even in times when we are contentedly out of tune with the rest of the world. Remember being cheerful while stuffed with 100 percent interior darkness—Repaso is more or less like that.

Conchitina Cruz’s There is no emergency (the Youth & Beauty Brigade, 2015) is a fascinating poetry collection. It is suggestive of journalistic reportage. It also doubles as an eerie, hypnotic simulation of the way some of us tend to curate bits and pieces of our lives for publicizing in social media. In There is no emergency, personas painstakingly document reality in an effort to skew it.

Not in the picture is Sarah Sarai’s gorgeous collection of poetry, Geographies of Soul and Taffeta (Indolent Books, 2016), a juxtaposition of the otherworldly with the trappings of modern existence.

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