I write for a living, but I do not consider myself a writer.
In my mind, to be a writer is to address the world around you and its various issues and concerns through your work. I can’t do that, of course, writing business articles for CEOs and executives who want to become “thought leaders” in their fields. Developing educational materials, after all, can’t exclusively pay the bills.
In truth, I thought I have fully accepted my fate: I write for a living, but I am no writer.
I finished Dominic Sy’s A Natural History of Empire a week before Metro Manila was put in lockdown. I started reading it late last year, stopping after almost every story, unable to finish the book.
I kept going back to “Then Cruel Quiet,” a seemingly simple story about a fifth grader named Samuel who’s tasked to buy a caramel cake for his mother’s birthday. The story is tense, filled with hints of violence, from the other schoolboys who poke the organs of the frog that lay on the ground with “its hind legs crushed, its pelvis flattened into the dirt” to the confrontation between Samuel’s brother and father, their ideologies clashing with each other, creating an uncomfortable atmosphere that most of the grownups in the dinner table tried to dilute.
In all of this tension is Samuel, a mere boy, powerless, voiceless — a bystander to the chaos and violence that others around him can’t seem to rid themselves of. He’s uncomfortable and anxious sometimes, but he’s mostly fine throughout.
It is only towards the end of the story that readers truly see how all of these affect Samuel. On the bathroom floor, Samuel is overwhelmed with the marching of ants coming from the cracks of the tiles; he cries and frantically tries to drown them with pails of water “with all of his will and desire.”
Perhaps, like Samuel, the existential dread and the cracks slowly forming and eroding my sanity are finally taking a toll on me.
In 2016, I sent a children’s comic book pitch to a local publishing house about an anthropology professor turned superhero. He, along with his son, protects the anting-anting from getting into the hands of a syndicate led by a mysterious evil woman. The amulets date back to the Spanish occupation in the Philippines. The pitch was accepted. In fact, we already had several pages illustrated and approved.
I struggled to continue the narrative. I needed to research further and I had to move beyond my original source materials Agoncillo, Tiamzon-Rubin, and Ileto. Needless to say, I didn’t have the patience nor the dedication to finish the project.
Communication with the editor eventually ceased. I convinced myself that I would be better off spending my time writing on something that will actually earn me money. The illustrator went on to do more important things, winning contests and prizes here and there.
The comic was supposed to run on four issues with sixteen pages each. Sixty-four pages of comics about history and folklore. It was also an attempt to blend supernatural phenomena with science and tech. In the end, it was just too much work, and so, it was abandoned.
The first story in A Natural History of Empire is about an old man looking back at his life — the pointlessness of it all. He could have been a wonderful father, husband, professor, and most importantly, a brilliant writer. He turned out to be an extremely unhappy divorcee, denounced by his daughter, with nothing but piles of rejected and unfinished manuscripts to show for it.
Sy aptly named the story “Prolegomena,” setting the tone for the entire collection: grim, hopeless, and filled with doubts and delusions. “Prolegomena” ends with the man hearing and seeing parishioners singing, almost uselessly, to a God who isn’t there to absolve them. He then starts writing his seventh manuscript.
From that point on, the stories read like parts of an unfinished novel. The fiction pieces revolve around stories within a story — fragmented relationships, historiographies, encounters with the dead and the lifeless — and local histories dismantled and reconstructed to bring forth other often overlooked perspectives. All of these layers of writing and rewriting mixed with the surreal and the mysterious left me with an uneasiness, wondering what was real and what was not, what could have been and what is, and asking myself what to do with the uncertain future that lies ahead.
Two weeks after I finished reading Sy’s collection, I revisited the unfinished stories I wrote on my laptop. I cleaned my room and recovered files and photocopies of research I did for the project that didn’t push through four years ago. I emailed Dominic Sy about his work. He has yet to reply.
I am not writing for CEOs anymore. I still write for a living, creating teacher training materials and crafting articles about pop culture and tech. I am trying to be a writer, but I don’t know where to start.
Patriz Biliran is a freelancer. She plans to finish her Master’s degree in Educational Technology at UP Diliman in the near future.