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Award-winning novelist Dean Francis Alfar on rooting speculative fiction in lived experiences and local mythology

Award-winning novelist Dean Francis Alfar on rooting speculative fiction in lived experiences and local mythology

In Fully Booked Chats hosted by fantasy and science fiction author Vida Cruz, we had the opportunity to converse with award-winning author Dean Francis Alfar on speculative fiction, Asia’s unique perspective on stories, and its relevance to contemporary life.  

Discover the magic that lies within this interesting genre from the Father of Speculative Fiction himself. Read through for snippets of the recently-held Fully Booked Chats with Dean Francis Alfar.

The Literature of the fantastic

Speculative fiction is an umbrella term to describe stories that fall into the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, and magical realism. According to Alfar, author of Salamanca and The Kite of Stars and Other Stories (among other books), what makes a story under speculative fiction is always dependent on the genre one is writing.

“Basically, spec fic is the literature of the fantastic. For a fantasy story, there are tons of possible conventions for an author to use. An example is a portal to a secondary world. The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe is a good example. Secondary world is an interesting convention used in fantasy,” Alfar said.

“Other examples for science fiction would be: technology, space flight, clones. For horror: creation of suspense. Something ancient rising from beyond.”

In a previous interview with Fully Booked, Alfar also mentioned that spec fic stories are ones that cannot happen or be experienced in real life, “It will fill you with a sense of wonder, a sense of dread, or a sense of uncanny. It can make you question what's going on, a leap into the imagination.”

Moreover, he stressed that readers can’t talk about speculative fiction without diving into the origin of most stories, fantastical or not—and that’s mythology. We explore our own diverse mythology.

“Because we are an archipelago, there are numerous cultures which have their own myths and folklore, their own heroic tales,” Dean said. “We have fascinating things, magic, and an underworld that can put castles and knights to shame,” Alfar shared.

Although many of these stories have yet to make it to the mainstream, Alfar is happy that over the last decade, various creators—the likes of Budjette Tan, Edgar Calabia Samar, and many others—have incorporated Philippine myths in their own stories.

On Asian speculative fiction

Alfar described Asian speculative fiction as fiction that comes from the countries in the geographic land mass designation of Asia. While the term “Asian speculation fiction” might be helpful as a marketing tool as it separates us from the west, Alfar explained that it also has its own pitfalls.

“In contrast, it (the term Asian speculative fiction) tends to conflict all the different cultures into one monolithic mega Asian culture. When we do this, we end up stomping out the uniqueness of the cultures,” said Alfar. 

Furthermore, Alfar put an emphasis on what sets Asian spec fic apart from others: cultural differences.

“There are certain commonalities. But it would be beautiful to celebrate the differences that make each particular culture amazing.”

Alfar, who also holds 10 Palanca awards, stated that culture contributes to how authors perceive their work. One cannot be somebody taken away from his or her cultural context.

“We are big consumers of western media as it is more available. When we talk about western storytelling, the types of characters are different: you have princesses and castles, which is not part of our filipino culture. So when we write very specifically about culture, we are able to show different perspectives in terms of types of stories we can tell. We don’t have knights but we have agimats. We have our gods of sky, our own underworld.”

Philippine culture in literature

Alfar explained that one of the reasons why Philippine culture lends itself to the speculative is the big commonalities that provides the intersectionality is: love and respect for the environment; there is always a sense of love for what is around us.

“Our various cultures are able to see and experience the world with a sense of wonder and gratefulness. Allows to experience life on a certain level. This allows them to put values on dreams? Allow them to think about questions about why things are happening. It allows them to deal with their fears- fear of the unknown, invaders, etc.”

He is also eager to see more stories that show and banner the Philippines and its cultures; stories that are hopeful. In terms of fantasy, Alfar is excited to see more secondary worlds—for more people to follow the example of Edgar Samar’s Janus Silang.

“I’d want to see representation of Filipinos and characters that are more focused on the youth today. Hopeful stories. Those that show the Philippines and Filipinos in all our glory and agony.”

The growth of speculative fiction

There is one thing that Alfar is certain to explain the growing number of spec fic readers: representation.

“Allows them for representations. People are embracing our own local mythologies. Youngsters telling stories and creating culture, creating something that the downline will use. Articulate their concerns, hopes and dreams through speculative fiction.”

Alfar also said that this form of storytelling encourages their imagination: speculative Fiction allows them to escape the world and jump into science fiction and fantasy. It allows them to create their own “what if’s.”

For aspiring writers who would like to turn their realist stories into one that veers into speculative fiction, Alfar suggests to work with a “what if” scenario and integrate that in the story.

“There’s a way to do this: if you have a realistic story, it means you are anchored in a reality. Your characters act as real people, their concerns are the same as regular people. If you want to inject spec fic, set up something mundane and normal and suddenly the world changes. You can do it in a dramatic and spectacular way or slow.”

“You need to have an idea in mind: What is the spec thing you want to explore? Think about ‘what if’, all you need to do is think what if. Simply write! Just create as you go along. Use the things that inspire you.”

Lightning Questions

Fully Booked: Science fiction or fantasy?

Dean Francis Alfar: I am a fantasist at heart.

Vida Cruz: Fantasy. That’s just because of how my brain is wired.

FB: Dystopia or utopia?

DFA: If it were a spectrum, I would lean more towards utopia. But I would say, “hopeful with flaws.” That’s the kind of story that would interest me.

VC: Can I say neither? Because they’re both pretty bad.

FB: In a war, would you rather be one-inch or ten feet tall?

DFA: I will be one inch tall and live on a chocolate bar for a while. 

VC: One inch because you’ll never see me running away.

FB: Would you rather have the power to go back in time or access the future?

DFA: I don’t want to go to the future because I’ll just be depressed. I won’t be able to go there unless it's a short term future since 100 years from now is not my lifetime. I would rather go back to the past and relive moments with heartache and poignancy and write about it. I can’t really change it, but I can learn from it.

VC: I guess, go back in time since I’m researching a lot of pre-colonial stuff right now. 

FB: Write all year or read all year?

DFA: I would rather read all year!

VC: I’ve been having reader’s block for quite some time now so I’d like to read all year.

Recommended books

Dean Francis Alfar

Never have I Ever by Isabel Yap

Heroes, Villains, and other Women by Kate Osias

Wing of the Locust by Joel Donato Ching Jacob

Vida Cruz

Never Have I Ever by Isabel Yap

Wing of the Locust by Joel Donato Ching Jacob

Dean Francis Alfar is an autho, playwright, and advocate of speculative fiction. Alfar’s short stories have been anthologized internationally, in books such as The Big Book of Modern Fantasy, The Time Traveler’s Almanac, and The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, as well as various magazines and online publications.

Alfar is the author of Salamanca, Kite of Stars and Other Stories, and How to Traverse Terra Incognita, and a Field Guide to the Roads of Manila. He has won 10 Palanca awards, including the Grand Prize for Novel. 

Vida Cruz is a Filipina fantasy and science fiction writer, editor, artist, tarot reader, and conrunner. She has been nominated, longlisted, and recommended for the Hugo Award, the British Science Fiction Award, and the James Tiptree (now Otherwise) Award. She was a 2019 Tiptree Fellow and in 2019, she published her first fantasy short story collection, Beyond the Line of Trees.

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