Conducting an interview via email is rare but necessary when your subject lives on the opposite side of the globe, and it pays off to conduct an interview through email when your subject is of Jim Pascual Agustin’s caliber.
We hope you enjoy this informal autobiography, written by Jim and guided by Fixional. You’ll likely find yourself unable to click away from Jim’s captivating life story and fluid prose.
Jim’s Fixional work can be viewed here.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born in a place called Marikina, the shoe capital of the Philippines. But when I was growing up I saw more rice paddies than shoe factories. My father was a soldier and my mother was a public school teacher. I was too young to be aware of the murderous regime of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos and his wife, Imelda of the thousand shoes. Until I was eight, my family lived in an area called “Land for the Landless,” or “Landless” for short.
We shared a big communal house set up with about a dozen relatives and their own growing families. The house seemed to never stay the same as rooms were added on through the years, hence the entire structure didn’t have a coherent design. It was something similar to “Howl’s Moving Castle”—doors joined the various sections, but it felt like you were transported completely elsewhere once you stepped through them.
My family stayed in the front part that faces the metal gate. The house was raised on a combination of wooden beams and concrete. We had a wooden floor that I was tasked once a week to wax, scrub and polish with a coconut husk called bunot. There were gaps in some of the wood so that you could see right through to the ground where my dad’s fighting cocks were kept. We had a lot of natural light coming in through windows with glass slats.
A door in our kitchen led to my uncle’s side. (An aside—my mother’s brother married my father’s sister, which then led me and my cousins to be called a particular way—pinsang buo, which roughly translates as “cousins that are bound tightly together.”). I remember that side to be very dim, like a cave. You had to blink a little to get used to the space when you came in. They had a massive wooden table with benches. To this day I’m still not sure how many children my uncle and aunt had back then, possibly 12 or more. A lot of their names (or nicknames) started with “E”—Edna, Edwin, Edgar, Estong, Eva, etc. I hope they forgive me for forgetting. I know there were smaller rooms where they all must have slept, but those seemed off-limits to me and so my memory of them is blurry. There were thin, floral-patterned curtains that divided some rooms, that I know.
The room where my father’s mother stayed was quite bare, and I struggle now to remember how one got to it. She had a woven mat—called banig—that was rolled up to one corner during the day. When we played hide and seek I used to roll myself up in it and stand as still as I could, with only a view of the dark wooden ceiling where cobwebs moved with the breeze from the one window.
Then there was the section where my mother’s father stayed. He had a wooden staircase leading up to his room with bamboo slats on the floor, thick wood posts that glistened with dark varnish, and wide capiz windows that looked down on the little courtyard with a guava tree. His must have been the oldest part of the entire place. He kept a violin, but I never heard him play.
I blame the Marcoses for forcing my family to leave that house. They decided to build a highway in their name, and in their plans our house was smack in the middle of it and had to be demolished. The Marcoses were deposed in a largely peaceful, popular revolt in 1986, when I was in my last year of high school.
I never thought I’d leave the Philippines. That is until I met a Canadian-born, South African girl while on holiday in the Mountain Province during the monsoon season in 1993. We were late to get a seat inside the only bus that was bound further up the region, so we ended up sitting on the roof for the hours-long trip which, at one point, was made even more challenging when the driver loaded a massive pig on the roof. After that meeting I kept in touch by snail mail with that girl. She returned briefly to Manila in 1994, and then I flew to South Africa meaning only to visit and see what her world is like, but I ended up staying.
What’s something people wouldn’t know about you from reading your author bio?
Far more than I can say here. I find bionotes problematic. Like borders or picture frames, they draw attention to a few chosen facts that happen to fit in those limited dimensions, but there’s way more outside of those borders. Where should one start? I can only try.
I loved flying kites as a kid. In the house where I grew up, you had to go on the roof to steer clear of the power lines on the street. There were three routes to get there: going up the guava tree to a branch that touched the corrugated iron roof, clambering along the side of the house from the kitchen window, or squeezing through a small window in my grandmother’s room which opened right onto the roof.
Each route offered various dangers, but I don’t ever remember feeling scared of heights. Standing close to the edge of the roof and with the right wind conditions, you just had to throw the kite up and watch it take off. As the kite weaved about, sometimes the wind would suddenly drop. There would be an immediate slack on the line. That feeling as I held the string would send jolts to my heart.
It’s almost the same as what one feels on a plane that encounters unexpected turbulence and drops, or when you’re at the top of a roller-coaster ride and it hangs in the air for a split-second before plunging down. It’s as if the possibility that the kite could plummet down to the ground, or be caught in the rusty TV aerial antenna of some neighbor, or meet some other tragedy, were transferred directly on to me, that in some way I became that kite just by holding on to that string.
In your author bio, you say you translate works in Filipino. What has been your favorite work to translate? Why?
One of my early mentors, Danton Remoto, taught me the value of translation. He said you gain a necessary distance from your own work, a way to be more critical of it.
Although I started translating my own work and that of other writers (to and from Filipino and English) early on, I’m really just beginning to get used to the idea of calling myself a translator. I was greatly encouraged years ago when Modern Poetry in Translation (UK) gave me that “title” when they published my translations of my own work and that of Filipino poet Noel Romero del Prado.
Translation became especially useful for me when I suddenly found myself having no one to directly show my work in Filipino; there wasn’t even anyone to speak with in my mother tongue. In my first years in South Africa, just for my own satisfaction, I translated to Filipino various poems by Raymond Carver, Anne Sexton, Craig Raine and John Berger. There is currently a surge in making international writers accessible to Filipino readers, so I’m aiming to get back to those translations and adding work by South African poets I’ve since come to love, in the hopes of maybe putting a book out one day.
But it’s really only this year that I decided to concentrate on an entire book by a single author. I’ve committed myself to translating to English the forthcoming poetry collection of Filipino poet and dear friend Emmanuel Quintos Velasco. His piercing work deserves a wider audience outside the archipelago.
I intend to keep translating Filipino poetry—not just from Tagalog but also from the various languages in the Philippines—into English to reach international readers. It’s a balancing act though when I have my own writing (in both languages) I’d like to put out there. I can see the need to get more organized, a trait I am good at only in my own head.
From reading your blog and your author bio, I see that you’re quite outspoken about political issues in the Philippines as well. How does this come out in your work?
I’m not the first to say that everything’s political. I never planned on writing about political issues. It just happened. I was involved in a bit of student activism while in university and writing about what disturbed me came naturally. Things may appear simpler in one’s youth, but growing older shouldn’t result in the deadening of one’s views. With age, one is expected to gain a deeper sense of kinship with others, what some might call wisdom, openness, tolerance. I guess it’s far more difficult to do that now for we seem to have more layers that separate us despite the myriad of gadgets and digital connections at our fingertips.
What’s been happening in the Philippines since Duterte came to power is utterly unacceptable. It’s a struggle to write something worthy in response to the relentless atrocities that are taking place, horrible acts that brave journalists manage to keep on reporting. It seems almost a dishonesty to even imagine writing something to encapsulate what has been a living nightmare for thousands of victims largely from poor communities. But one has to just try and regain a foothold on what it means to be human. We have to imagine the many ways of resisting this darkness.
I had a short story idea that I never got to write. Someone “arms” the people in a particular community with uncapped internet access and hundreds of hidden video cameras that send out live feeds to the world, capturing what happens to the people they love when the killers come to visit. The killers find out later that their acts had been broadcast to the world and then…that’s where my idea stops. It was too disturbing for me to keep thinking what would happen next.
I have, however, written a number of poems and posted many of them on my blog. The most popular one was called “Duterte’s Dead.” Some of the poems have won recognition outside of the country. Others are about to appear in various anthologies of protest poetry. Now, have any of these kept a killer from squeezing the trigger? My hope is that somehow, in some strange and unexpected way, one day they will.
As I am now living in South Africa, it is inevitable that I end up writing about this country’s various challenges as well. I actually never thought that the situation in the Philippines could ever top the level of violence in South Africa. It’s painful to see my country of birth spin into madness.
Can you name a work (book, story, poem, essay, etc.) you would recommend to readers?
Two books by John Berger: his unique and deeply moving collection of essays interspersed with poetry, And our faces, my heart, brief as photos; and his only “official” book of poetry, Pages of the Wound.
The most recent poems of yours that we posted to Fixional are based on Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors Trilogy. For readers who aren’t familiar with the Three Colors Trilogy, can you describe it briefly? What about these poems did you model from the Trilogy?
The Three Colors Trilogy are interlinked films, each named after a color from the French flag: Blue, White and Red. It would be unfair and futile to try and describe each film, whether briefly or over many pages. It’s just impossible. All three use love as pivot for so many complex emotions and issues—grief, redemption, equality, empathy, justice, among others.
In the poems which I wrote many years after first seeing the films, I made use of quite a lot of particular visual details from Kieslowski’s work, such as the lollipop, the suitcase with a hole, and the slot machine. I then wove in details I came up with on my own to tell the same stories of the characters from the film in a slightly different way. I wasn’t sure the poems would work until I got to the last one. I was worried that whatever I came up with would in some way ruin what I admire so much about this trilogy of films. I just hope that readers who have never seen the films might still take something worthwhile after reading the poems, that they then seek out the films.
What do you want readers to get out of your poetry?
I want them to be taken aback a little, be suddenly aware when they take that next breath. And maybe, if they’re feeling generous, to tell me what they felt or thought. I hope that whatever it is lingers long after they’ve moved on with their day.
What are you working on now? Do you have any poems/projects coming out soon?
I have two finished poetry manuscripts. The first one is largely set in South Africa and thus deals with the many challenges of the country. It’s tentatively called, “Crocodiles in Belfast.” I’m waiting for the final word from a local publisher.
The other, “How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter,” deals mainly with memories of growing up in Manila, mixing them with current events in the Philippines. I’m still looking for a publisher for that.
There’s a third manuscript I’m still just playing with, which for now I’ve called “Dogs in Designer Bags.” It’s composed of “light” or what might be called “funny” or “weird” poetry. There aren’t many journals that welcome these types of poems, so these ones are mostly unpublished. I’d hate for people to think that I only write “serious” stuff. I actually love to laugh and poke fun at things, myself included.
Then there’s a growing set of poems I wrote originally in English which I would like to translate to Filipino and publish as a collection. It’s my way of trying to keep a foot in the literary tradition of my mother tongue, since the last all-Filipino poetry book I released was in 2013.
The last project is to get enough of my own Filipino poetry translated to English for a collection. I believe there are completely different voices between the two languages I write in. Actually, I think a good writer should have as many voices as possible—and having another language to write in certainly multiplies those voices.
I keep wanting to go back to writing stories—or at least prose pieces (one excuse why I took so long to answer these interview questions from Fixional!). Writing prose demands more time and effort from me than writing poetry. I’m far more aware that there has to be a clear narrative flow, which poetry doesn’t strictly demand.
Jim Pascual Agustin writes and translates in Filipino and English. He grew up in Manila in the Philippines during the reign of the late dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. Agustin moved to Cape Town, South Africa in 1994. His poetry has appeared in Rhino, World Literature Today and Modern Poetry in Translation among others. His ﬁrst book, Beneath an Angry Star, was published in 1992 by Anvil Publishing. It was followed two years later with Salimbayan (Publikasyong Sipat).
The University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in Manila published his recent titles: in 2011, Baha-bahagdang Karupukan (shortlisted for the National Book Award) and Alien to Any Skin; in 2013, Kalmot ng Pusa sa Tagiliran and Sound Before Water; and in 2015, A Thousand Eyes. The same publisher released his ﬁrst short story collection in Filipino, Sanga sa Basang Lupa at iba pang kuwento, in October 2016.
His poem “To be an Orc” won the NoiseMedium Grand Prize (www.noisemedium.com). His translation of his own poem from the Filipino, “Danica Mae”, won the Gabo Prize for Literature in Translation and Multilingual Texts from Lunch Ticket (www.lunchticket.org).
In South Africa, his poetry has won the DALRO Award for poetry second prize as well as the Sol Plaatje EU Poetry Award 3rd Prize in 2014 and 2015.
Wings of Smoke (The Onslaught Press, Oxford 2017) is his latest poetry collection.
He posts random thoughts and literary news on his blog www.matangmanok.wordpress.com