Kawika Guillermo believes that writing is highly collaborative. He believes in it so much that he sees his identity of “Kawika Guillermo” as the all-encompassing brand naming this process. The moniker is better known as the fiction writer pseudonym of Christopher Patterson, Assistant Professor in the Social Justice Institute at the University of British Columbia. As a means of situating the author within his Filipino and Hawaii-based migrant family history, “Kawika Guillermo” is also a roof representing the many souls who take part in the creation of his fiction.
Guillermo follows up his first novel, Stamped: an anti-travel novel, with an ethereal speculative fiction saga that encompasses a version of human history through the eyes of a forlorn lost soul searching for their soulmate throughout humanity’s tumultuous and violent existence. Entitled All Flowers Bloom, this SF tale is a collection of lives lived throughout Soul 871’s journey to find their love, the enigmatically named “S.” Guillermo’s journey to create All Flowers Bloom can be juxtaposed with Soul 871’s many trials and errors. Several of the novel’s episodes appeared in anthologies and magazines like Drunken Boat. With the release of the novel falling in March 2020, I spoke with Guillermo in his UBC office to get his thoughts on the story’s narrative, the human condition, and creation in general.
Of Myths and Pronouns
Vincent Ternida (VT): I liked how the different stories are told in episodes, each life narrating a different kind of incarnation, it almost reminded me of Cloud Atlas.
Kawika Guillermo (KG): I haven’t read the book Cloud Atlas or seen the film as I didn’t want the afterlife I’ve created to be influenced by it. I don’t mind the comparison, but one thing that bothers me about Cloud Atlas was how it has become the go-to novel about reincarnation, though the theme of reincarnation has been widely popular in Asian literature for centuries if not millennia.
I was living in Nanjing, China, when I really started to write All Flowers Bloom. I wanted a fun way to learn Mandarin, so I read a lot of updated Chinese myths. I was taken with how my students and friends would invoke these myths in their everyday lives. I wanted to normalize those myths as everyday gods or imagined gods. I also wanted to be true to the subject matter without the work being a sole product of the western gaze— to place it within an Asian ‘futurity’. All Flowers Bloom was mostly influenced by Asian myths and literature like 1001 Nights. Regarding 1001 Nights, we usually get the Aladdin version but my goodness, the gender biases and racial violence is hard to read from a queer and racialized perspective. Part of me wanted to play with myths and stories without erasing their wisdom. The Chang’e myth, for example, is well known in both Hong Kong and mainland China and I was obsessed with it. It’s a tale of a goddess who lives on the moon with a little rabbit friend. She betrays her husband which gets read as selfish, but could also be seen as queer. As she’s handed down throughout history, she becomes queer.
As for the novel’s episodic form—I love brevity in novels. I feel the longer an episode gets, the more serious it becomes. If they’re short, they can be fun, kooky, and make no claim to represent history accurately, or even fairly. I want people to say that “they don’t know anything about this history, I’m going to read an actual book about it”. When I’m writing short stories, only three out of ten stories usually make it to the final draft. Some you let go, some end up published in a novel, and some in small journals somewhere. A chapter of All Flowers Bloom actually appeared in a journal back in 2011, so there’s been a long, decade-long writing process to All Flowers Bloom where I had to let go of things, to cut down a lot. In that process, the book became more experimental and avant-garde. It’s not historical fiction in a traditional way. It’s queer and silly and hopefully a fun read.
VT: Strangely enough, I read Soul 871’s voice as a male.
KG: For the vast majority of the story, Soul 871 is female.
VT: I guess what largely pushed that impression was during the story about the Roman slaves, Soul 871’s obsession with ‘the woman who smelled of olives’ kicked off in that story as well as the story of the Saladin invasion where Soul 871’s incarnation met face-to-face with Death and Death showed him her soul’s present incarnation, which was an old man.
KG: For very real reasons, we’re just trained that men are the ones who are usually the pursuers in a romantic narrative. 871 is pursuing S, but they are also being pursued by a god, so their gendering transitions even from a formal aspect. It’s fun to see how readers interpret the text. There’s not really a particular pronoun use either that’s consistent with them. Some as he, some as she. It’s very subjective, so it becomes convenient or even necessary for the reader to think of them as they, though the book never instructs this.
VT: There’s this allure about Soul 871’s plight, I want to root for them, their obsession could get somewhat addictive. Throughout the narrative, I was really wondering what will happen when they finally get what they want.
KG: (laughs) I wanted their obsession to feel real without imparting that ‘love is great all the time’. Love is challenging and desire makes you let your guard down. Soul 871’s story was very much about weakness, which is one way to perceive love, especially when you’re in its aftermath. I’m a love addict— I love the feeling of falling in love, being in love and loving. I don’t just mean with romantic and erotic love, but also with friendship, family, and as a father. The experience of loving my child is phenomenal all the time. Yet I’m also paralyzed with fear that something bad could happen to him, and sometimes that fear gets ugly. We often say that love can move mountains, but you can’t move a mountain without crushing something.
Outrage and Privilege
VT: Soul 871 is always reincarnated in some sort of turmoil that has largely been forgotten or misunderstood such as the Filipino-American war. Does highlighting these atrocities a way for you to bring to light the many unspoken acts of evil humanity has inflicted and have forgotten about?
KG: The question about atrocity propels much of my writing, both academic and fiction. When I was living and travelling around Asia, I would learn about historical facts that were not covered at all in American High School and College. I’ve highlighted this in my first novel Stamped, where Skyler (the protagonist) learns that the genocide by Pol Pot in Cambodia was partially a result of the American bombings that preceded it. More bombs were dropped in Cambodia than the entirety of bombs dropped by the US and its allies during World War II. There’s a sense of disillusionment and cognitive dissonance when learning that for the first time ever, and it’s further reinforced by seeing locals missing limbs— I was outraged. Even if you’re marginalized in North America and never learned about such events, there’s complicity being a citizen of the US and Canada, and a responsibility to learn that history even if schools never teach it. The Filipino-American war is a good example. Whenever I taught this topic in the U.S., only about one out of 30 students would even know about the war or fifty years of American colonization. And they were usually Filipino.
My outrage was widely seen in Stamped and it’s still there in All Flowers Bloom. I originally wanted to expose those histories, but I also wanted some wisdom to go with it. So I tried to put the reader in the shoes of the perpetrators who had to make those decisions, and people who are complicit either by participation or by inactivity. An example is in the Viking episode when Soul 871, as a woman, helps encourage men for conquest by emasculating them if they don’t go viking. She too is complicit with what’s happening, though she’s not bashing-in any skulls. I wanted the reader to not just see them as horrible people because the characters are sometimes forced by their society to choose this path, or they can’t see a different path, or they don’t understand their own histories. I wanted the reader to see atrocities from a much more personal point of view where they can see themselves in it. Just by purchasing an iPhone or ordering a gift from Amazon without questioning its production process, we’re complicit in what’s happening in contemporary colonial history. I wanted the reader to understand what it’s like to be in those spaces, to see the privileged perspective and see themselves.
Suspension of Disbelief
VT: So a dragon shows up in the middle of history…
KG: (laughs) I had one early reader who refused to read after the dragon showed up. They were like this ruins the novel, this makes no sense. I’m just gonna take it that there are readers out there who will read this as serious historical fiction and when they get to the dragon, they’ll toss the book against the wall. I really wanted to have a dragon. I was willing to lose five to ten percent of my readers for a dragon. I would not let this book get published without a dragon.
VT: I like how you made the journey through time linear. Some people believe that your next life can be in the past or somewhere further into the future. Our existence right now is a lesson for the soul, when you go back and forth, time really doesn’t exist.
KG: I did think about that heavily. There’s an ethical reason for not time travelling: I wanted every decision to be final. There’s almost something sacred about time being linear. Even though I feel in this book that time works in a loop— we end where we begin, but only metaphorically. I wanted the reader to feel that even in this silly novel, past misdeeds had graveness and dread to them. There’s something about time travel narration that I find disturbing in even the notion that history and atrocity can be revised.
VT: I didn’t have a problem with it, I was merely married to the idea that the soul has no concept of time. I reconciled that the idea of the afterlife moving at the same time as human history— they’re not exactly in that plane. Plus I felt it helped with Soul 871’s irresponsible obsession journeying throughout time for his true love without realizing how much power he wields by being able to continue living lives even after he’s reached “heaven” several times.
KG: That concept follows the ideas of my first book Stamped about people who are so marginalized in North America that they cannot understand themselves within a position of privilege and power when they go abroad. I think it’s the question of our political climate. We’re living in a time where everybody can be accountable for everything. We have to understand that whether or not we have privilege over others, whether or not we’re on the bottom rung, we can still be complicit with the structure of power, with the privilege of perpetrators. There’s something neoliberal about having a marginalized identity— it paints all of us as victims. Then we’re all competing with each other to be granted any kind of power. We see power as given to us by a patron—an institution gives us power, the state gives us power, the media gives us power, a white person gives us power, in some form or another. In the past we were able to exercise taking power through reading books or just having pleasurable sex. Just being ourselves made us feel powerful—Black Power, Yellow Power, Red Power—those movements didn’t ask for power, they took it! Now, we claim a marginalized identity in order to be granted power by a higher power, like a god or a state or an institution—“trickle down power” I call it. It feels that everyone has their own marginalized identity. Even Donald Trump, a rich, white man, thinks he’s a victim, and so does thirty-three percent of the U.S. electorate. So everyone thinks they’re a victim. That’s really dangerous: we can all wield power without ever thinking of ourselves as perpetrators.
Both Stamped and All Flowers Bloom explore the tricks power can play upon us. We have power over others but we’re not able to understand it because it’s not an institutional form of power. My father was a custodian when I was young, and now he works as a contract worker in an Amazon factory. I’m currently only a contract worker for this University, yet when my students look at me they think I have total control over their futures—they see pure power and privilege. And because I come from a Filipino and Hawaii-based background, I’ve been marginalized everywhere, but in the academy I also have the privilege to write and talk about race in a way that very few professors can (or are willing to). Our everyday power is not something we can parse through easily in a multicultural worldview. 871 in some moments realizes the power that they wield, but I feel that the reader definitely sees it. I wanted the reader to follow through with a person who had no power, who is victimized, is then empowered and then suddenly is doing that to other people without any remorse, because they’re unable to see themselves as anything but a victim, and their love as anything but sacred and beautiful.
Sometimes the best use of power is to let it go, but to do that we have to seriously reckon with our past misdeeds. In the novel, there are some episodes where they’re able to have some broader wisdom, but the current life ends and then the next life starts over and they don’t have any memory of what happened in their past lives. We’re constantly living through that too. We’re erasing the atrocities that we’ve been complicit in. A drone bomb kills a wedding party and the next day we’re still talking about which candidate is going to best represent us. We’ve found ways to work our atrocities in without repairing them or making moves to heal, simply making historical atrocity more tolerable so we can maintain the status quo. It’s almost like being reborn, starting over and over without any memory at all.
All Flowers Bloom is forthcoming on March 2020 via Westphalia Press and it will be available in ebook and paperback. For now, Stamped: an anti-travel novel is currently available through Westphalia Press and widely available online.
Vincent Ternida’s pieces have appeared on Ricepaper Magazine, The Ormsby Review, and Rabble. His short story Elevator Lady 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.