As part of Local Lit Fest 2020, we chat with author Jessica Zafra about stories and writing in the Philippines. A stray cat was mentioned somewhere in there. Read our conversation below.
FULLY BOOKED: What made you write?
JESSICA ZAFRA: My mother read fairy tales to me when I was a baby. Apparently, my favorite was “Little Red Riding Hood,” which she read in different voices. So, I became interested in stories. One day when I was 8 I ran out of things to read and I thought, “Surely I can write something myself...” Then I started trying to write.
Do you remember the first story you’ve ever written? Mind sharing it with us, if you do?
I wrote many drafts of stories that were actually essays. The first real short story I ever wrote, a fictionalized version of my high school prom horror, was “Through A Time Warp, With A Paddle,” which I wrote when I was 17. It’s in my collected stories.
Who is your biggest literary influence?
I have too many influences to name. Many of them are filmmakers rather than writers. The most obvious influence, since I learned to write by imitating him, was J.D. Salinger. The more I wrote the less I sounded like Holden Caulfield and more like myself.
Can you share with us your writing process?
For 20 years I wrote 3 newspaper columns a week. I blamed that for my relatively small fiction output, but now I know that it was excellent training. One of my favorite writers, Graham Greene, said that if you write 1,000 words a day, the books will take care of themselves. It’s worked for me.
What’s the best thing about being a Filipino writer?
Life in the Philippines is so odd and science fiction-like, you hardly have to make anything up.
What’s the most challenging thing about being a Filipino writer?
Books are still a luxury to a large part of the population, and reading for pleasure viewed as a hostile and suspicious activity.
Which Filipino author/s do you think all Filipinos should read?
There are so many wonderful Filipino writers, but we have to begin with the writer who basically invented the Filipino nation: Jose Rizal. It’s to read Noli and Fili not as a tedious school assignment, but as a gift to yourself, so you know where we came from. Then you realize that Noli is funny and scathing, and Fili is an absorbing revenge story.
If not writing, what career would you have pursued?
A navigator in Dune.
What’s next for you?
My first novel, The Age of Umbrage, is coming out in September from Ateneo University Press.
Any advice to aspiring Filipino writers, especially for these unprecedented times?
Get a notebook and just write. Spew out all your confusion, rage, anxiety, despair. And then imagine that out of this apocalypse will come a better, kinder, more equal society committed to stopping climate change. If you can imagine it, it will happen. Also, be nice to stray cats and dogs.
Lastly, what’s your favorite Filipino word and why?
That’s like asking what type of breathing I prefer.
Can you share a quick selfie for your readers here?
Check out all the other activities we have in store for Local Lit Fest 2020.