Reading John Bengan's short story "Armor" I found myself thinking about literary awards, and how few I follow. This story won the 2013 Carlos Palanca Memorial Award, a prestigious accolade for literature of the Philippines. So many brilliant stories flutter across the pages of big, little and small presses and publications all over the globe, and I didn't know of John Begnan's achievement, which is truly an achievement. Throughout "Armor" I felt a quickening. With its written English mimicking the sound of another tongue. With its racing pack of referents, words and images that are unashamedly foreign. The story is crisp, tender and proud. Embracing the culture of Bayots, Death Squads and the crushing shadow of poverty, this story reads like something new.
John Bengan and I have more than our identity as 'foreigners' in common, he is an alumni of The New School MFA in creative writing, where I am currently completing my second year. The coordinator of The Writing Blog approached me with the opportunity to interview John. After introductions, I went about sending him my questions via email.
Matthew Choate: The story of "Armor" is foreign, it is set in a space that is unfamiliar to most Western readers; the language is written English but contains the beat of another tongue; and the premise of the plot is familiar, while the characters are not. Was this level of construction something you intended when writing "Armor"?
John Bengan: Thank you! I wrote "Armor" on a dare. A friend suggested that I write about a person who prepares for a beauty pageant with "Kabuki-like intensity." Later, that same friend gave me an essay about embalming, which he said would be a good inspiration.
A couple of years later, in Helen Schulman's fiction workshop, I remembered the pageant contestant. The "death squad" is a recurring subject in my other stories, and the thought of combining these two seemingly mismatched elements (death squads, gay beauty pageants) gave me the impetus I needed.
The way I see it, the story isn't "foreign." I know this character. I've seen him around the block. I've sat through these beauty pageants for cross-dressing gay men many times, but I understood that readers outside of the Philippines would find the material "foreign."
My characters are not from the West. Neither is the consciousness I'm trying to capture, which unavoidably shapes the narrative and creates the rhythm of the story. Kamau Brathwaite calls an English that follows the rhythm of natural and cultural experiences "submerged."
MC: As a 'foreigner' I often struggle with context when writing for an Eurocentric audience that is not familiar with the nuances of South African society. In other words, the balance between information, background, and the rhythm of the story itself. Is this something you think about when writing a story set in the Philippines?
JB: My biggest worry when I was still at The New School was that I was doing a lot of explaining. I hated it when I had to explain in a short story. Meanwhile, my colleagues in the workshop would throw casual references to Black Friday, Planned Parenthood, or towns in rural Pennsylvania.
At first, the concern was something mundane, like trying to make them visualize a jeepney or a tricycle, until I got questions about specific situations or attitudes that would have been a no-brainer for a reader in the Philippines. Suddenly, there was this problem. How do I tell the difference between my very real mistakes and their inability to comprehend my material?
I feel that I find a balance when I recognize my faults for what they are and improve the story from there. Also, I looked closely at the work of Aleksandar Hemon, and Gina Apostol and other writers I admire.
In the end, I trust my instincts. I try to be succinct when necessary, ambiguous and oblique when the story demands it. If it's beyond control, so be it. The Eurocentric reader will have to accept that there's a world out there.
MC: In this story you introduce the culture of Bayots, gay men competing in impoverished beauty pageants. When a writer has an interesting or complex culture this can dominate the narrative, but not so in your story.
JB: I don't really think of my material as "interesting" or "complex." I care more about the structure of the story, its design, or how it uses time. How much time should I cover? Should I go for linear or non-linear? I also think about the way I see my characters, whether I'm being honest or condescending to them. When the story succeeds, when all the components work, the material is not merely novel or strange or interesting. It goes beyond these categories. It becomes meaningful.
Living in New York for two years, I became aware that I do a lot of translating when I write fiction in English, even though I don't really deal with someone else's work. For instance in "Armor," we can compare the beauty pageant for cross-dressing men to drag balls there in the States. They have similarities, but also differences. Drag's counterpart in the Philippines, at least in its popular form, is inspired by international beauty pageants for women, especially the Miss Universe contest, an event many Filipinos watch every year. This style of drag is also found in the U.S., but is just one of its categories, as RuPaul's queens have taught the mainstream audience.
MC: Death Squads, vigilante groups 'cleaning-up' the streets of Mintal with motorbikes and guns, is one of the integral pieces of your story. I know when I am faced with writing about my home there is also a narrative of violence that is hard to avoid. What are your thoughts are on the morality of writing violence?
JB: What I know is that violence in literature, or in any art form, is not the same as violence that happens in real life. Art is contemplative space. It makes us stop and think. In real life, we would simply be overwhelmed by the experience.
One of my favorite writers is Nadine Gordimer, who also happens to be from South Africa. She has a short story that I teach often, "The Moment before the Gun Went Off." In that story, she transforms this tragic incident of a white landlord who accidentally kills a young black farmhand into a parable of modern South Africa.
Marlon James's The Book of Night Women, which I read in Robert Antoni's seminar in vernacular writing, does something similar. The violent acts in that novel illustrate the bigger picture that I believe James was after: the disfiguring experience of colonialism.
MC: "Armor" is part of a voice that is growing louder; international writers generating fiction written in English, when often this is not their native tongue. When you write, are you conscious of who your audience is, and does this affect what you choose to say?
JB: I imagine that my readers are simply people who love to read.
MC: We share some similarities, you as an alumni and myself as a current international student of The New School's MFA for Creative Writing. I see in my peers how many of us came over to America wanting to convert our studies into a fledgling career, something more than just studying abroad. You have subsequently returned to the Philippines, what is the experience of writing back home, having lived and studied in New York?
JB: Apart from this awareness of how I use language, I gained a way of seeing my material from another vantage point. I'm happy to note that immersing again in Philippine culture hasn't changed that. If living in New York gave me perspective, returning to the Philippines made me appreciate discipline.
But writing back home isn't any easier or more difficult than writing abroad. It's still as arduous and satisfying as I remember it.
John Bengan earned his BA in English from the University of the Philippines Mindanao where he currently teaches literature and writing. Through a fellowship from the Ford Foundation, he completed an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. His writing has appeared in The Philippines Free Press, The Brooklyn Rail, Likhaan 6: the Journal of Contemporary Philippine Literature, and Hoard of Thunder. His short story "Armor" won first Place at the 2013 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature. He is currently working on his first book of stories.
For the past six years Matthew Choate has worked as a journalist, copywriter, editor and radio producer in his native South Africa. Matthew is a second year fiction MFA student at The New School, New York.