In Conversation with Joseph F. Nacino8 min read

19 December, 2019 0 comment

Vancouver’s Immersion book launch happened a week and a half after Toronto’s, which corresponded with Literasian East. The collective book launches featured five out of the fifteen authors of the speculative fiction anthology. The other ten remains to be seen, hence I contacted one of the authors of the anthology— Joseph F. Nacino— the author of On The Road to Biringan.

The piece feels like the quintessential Filipino speculative fiction piece. It takes popular and obscure Filipino folklore alike en route towards the invisible magical city, Biringan. Rounding it off is a real historical figure, an outsider: Takayama Ukon. He is an exiled samurai who adapted Christian beliefs and set off in his grand quest of intrigue, mystery, and redemption.

Joseph masterfully weaves the story with a working amalgamation of history and folklore. The story is personally one of my favorites from the anthology, hence the burning interest to communicate with the author.

Vincent Ternida (VT): What drew you to Takayama Ukon’s story and what inspired you to combine it with popular folklore?

Joseph Nacino (JN): I’ve always enjoyed the “secret” parts of history and was fascinated by the story of a former samurai-turned-Christian who had arrived on our shores during the Spanish period. Actually, the story of Ukon isn’t really a secret: there’s a monument to him in Manila. What’s great about Ukon is that he was a principled man, refusing to turn away from his religion despite despite his warrior lineage. So after reading his story, I thought it sad that his story ended a few days after his momentous journey-exile from Japan to the Philippines. Thus, I thought of extending his story further, where he went on to do great things away from human eyes.

You may have noticed that it ended quite abruptly. I’ve always imagined my stories as capsules or snapshots of characters and the events that happen to them. But I guess this is my way to ensure that not only do the characters and the stories feel real to me (through their histories and tics), they also feel real to the reader. Unfortunately, this also means that I usually go over my word count limit. Hence, I’m terrible with endings.

That’s an element in my storytelling: to keep myself interested in the story I’m writing, I try to put cliffhangers all the way to the ending. Once, I couldn’t figure out the ending of a story, I decided to throw in a grenade: Boom. The end. But a lot of times, I like to end on an ambiguous note: Do the characters survive? What happened to them? The end. This is really a road trip story. Maybe I’ll get back to writing another story on what happened to him and the Biringan prophecies about him.

VT: Do you see yourself as a detective/archaeologist/historian when doing the research or does the inspiration strike while writing?

JN: On a personal level, I like to write stories I would love to read about. I write about things that interest me, which I find while surfing the net and which veer towards the weird. The more obscure, the better!
To keep things interesting, I like to mash things up. For example, I wanted to do SF combined with horror, so I wrote a story of a haunted house in space—or in this case, a haunted space station. Another time, I wanted to write a combination of SF and fantasy. This became a first-contact story involving a race of large dragon-like aliens landing in the Philippines.

As a Filipino, I try to involve elements of Filipino-ness in my stories, which usually involves a Filipino character. An alternate history story I wrote about the post-World War 2 Japanese invasion of the Soviet Union involved giant robots, Yuri Gagarin, Tokyo Rose, and a certain Filipino soldier recruited to help with the Japanese propaganda broadcasts during the war. Of course, I like to write about monsters, but these are either Filipino myths settled in urban locations or unknowable ones nested in familiar locales like Metro Manila.
On a deeper level, I want to write stories that go against today’s wave of gaslighting and historical revisionism. For example, I wrote a story about Filipino monsters hiding among us being hunted down by the government, drawing parallels to the current War Against Drugs.

All these stories have elements drawn from the world around me, mixed up in my subconscious, and then grown together like a coral reef. Sometimes they work, sometimes they need more work so I let it stew in my head for a while. A deep and wide pool of imagination has always been my friend when writing my stories.

VT: How is it being a spec fic writer in the Philippines?

JN: I write for a living and I’ve been involved in many industries that need writing skills: online news, ad copy for online gambling, and PR and speechwriting for gov’t agencies. That’s me being a responsible adult. But I write my stories on the side when I can, and this gives creative purpose to my life.

I know I’m not the only one: many of the writers in the Philippines hold regular jobs as teachers, editors, reporters, columnists, copywriters, online content managers, engineers, accountants, etc. Yes, many of us write for a passion and because they can’t live without it. It’s still best not to quit your day job.
Sadly, I don’t get to write as much as I want because of lack of time or being too tired to think about that plot point that’s been bugging me. There isn’t a lot of paying markets for our stories. Thank goodness for the Internet where we can submit to international markets and compete with the world.

I established and served as editor of the online Estranghero Press, and for a while, it was fun but a lot of hard work. It was great trying to promote other people’s work, but it did make me realize that I didn’t have any time to write my own stories. Thus, I opted out as I wanted to concentrate on writing. However, it did make me more sympathetic to the editors of the world who have the responsibility of choosing the right stories and herding them into book form.
Philippine speculative fiction is faring well, though there have been a lot of changes. For one, there are fewer local publications coming out with physical books. The Philippine Speculative Fiction series edited by Dean Alfar shifted to e-books though they still aim for yearly releases. Some magazines still print spec fic stories but these have to compete with non-spec fic stories. However, there are more spec fic writers winning Filipino literary awards, like Eliza Victoria and Kate Osias. Some local writers have gone to the US writing workshops, conferences, and events abroad. Meanwhile, Filipinos based abroad (like Michi Trota and Mia Sereno) have won Hugo awards. So yeah, to paraphrase the Jurassic Park quote, Philippine speculative fiction will find a way.

Unfortunately, I haven’t been keeping track of spec fic creations in online platforms like Amazon and Wattpad. On one hand, I do know that it’s opening up a lot of opportunities. In fact, a local TV station has a regular TV show that features Wattpad stories. On the other hand, most of these stories—including the ones that get featured on the said TV show—are mainly romance. Not surprising: many Filipinos still like to read, and romance is a big market here.

VT: Any projects planned for the future?

JN: I do a lot of traveling and wherever I go, instead of doing a travelogue, I include it in my writing. That’s why I have a series of stories in my head about a tikbalang wandering around the world like the dunes of the Sahara and the fjords of Norway. To keep things interesting, I want to write them in different ways, like a fable, a fairy tale, a detective story, a horror story, etc.
Another project I’m currently stuck doing is an alphabet-type mosaic book with each letter signifying a story of a Filipino mythical creature, with an overarching framework of a group of reporters investigating mysteries and myths. Someday, I tell myself, someday.

I hope to write a novel someday and I wish I could get the nerve to collect all my published stories and offer them to a publisher. In the meantime, I still have a backlog of stories to write! For one, did you know that a flotilla of Japanese pirates/ex-samurais once fought with an army of Spanish soldiers in Cagayan? Likewise, did you know that the year when HG Wells’ War of the Worlds happened was when the Philippine Revolution exploded?
There’s a lot of stories to write and I hope to get all of them down.

Looking for a last minute Christmas present? Jospeh F. Nacino’s On The Road to Biringan is one of the featured stories of Immersion: An Asian-Canadian Anthology of Love, Fantasy, and Speculative Fiction available on print on demand in Amazon.ca

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Vincent Ternida’s works have appeared on Ricepaper Magazine, Dark Helix Press, and was long listed for the CBC Short Fiction Prize. The Seven Muses of Harry Salcedo is Ternida’s first novella. He has a collection of short stories in development. He lives in Vancouver, British Columbia.

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