Paolo Chikiamco, Taking on E-publishing in the name of Philippine Fiction
Interview by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz
In 2009, Paolo Chikiamco launched Eight Ray Sun publishing with the goal of providing an electronic platform for Filipino Speculative Fiction. This move, opens the way for more exposure on behalf of Filipino writers, and while Eight Ray Sun publishing doesn’t yet pay as much as its International counterparts, it does strive to provide Filipino writers with compensation for the works accepted for publication.
In the meantime, Paolo has launched the first issue of Usok (an online publication of Filipino Speculative Fiction), the Rocket Kapre blog, and the Ruin and Resolve Anthology (a benefit anthology for victims of calamities in the Philippines). Alternative Alamat is Paolo’s latest project. Here he challenges Filipino writers to create stories that draw inspiration from Filipino myth and legend. In line with this project, Paolo has put together The Myth List which can be found at the Rocket Kapre Blog(http://www.rocketkapre.com).
In this interview, Paolo talks about what inspired him to undertake e-publishing, the future of Filipino Genre Fiction and the vision behind the Eight Ray Sun Publishing and the Alternative Alamat Project.
Q: Could you share some of your background? How did you come to writing and what made you choose speculative fiction?
I was always making up stories, even before I learned how to put them down on paper. I’m an only child, and that’s how I’d keep myself entertained once I ran out of books to read–or if I didn’t want to leave my favorite characters behind, even after their stories had ended. The first think I remember writing was a piece of Chrono Trigger fanfiction, which I’d jot down in a notepad every night, then store beneath my pillow. Once I hit college, my house got an Internet connection, and I discovered the online fanfiction communities. It was the first time I ever tried showing my work to other people, and the feedback encouraged me to write more fiction, and eventually try my hand at original work.
Speculative fiction was always my first love–I grew up on a steady diet of David Eddings, Orson Scott Card, and choose-your-own-adventure books… not to mention superhero comics–and I’ve never wanted to write anything else. Mainstream fiction can paint fascinating pictures of people and of a world that, although based on reality, I could never quite feel a part of. Speculative fiction, on the other hand, creates an entirely new world which draws me in by the sheer imaginative force of its imagery and underlying concepts. There’s an, let’s call it an “intensity”, to the experience of reading (or watching, or listening to) speculative fiction that I simply don’t find anywhere else.
Q: Are you still working as a lawyer? I read that you made a choice to leave your lawfirm for the sake of the writing life. What prompted this decision?
Well, now and then I call upon my fading memories of the ins-and-outs of the legal system to advise a friend or a family member in need, but for the most part that’s a world I’ve sort of bracketed and put aside for now. The nice thing about having passed the Bar though, is that my “lawyer hat” will always be there if I need to return to it. (Or if I get in a lot of trouble…)
As for what prompted the decision, that would be my wife, Shaps. I’d never really seen myself as lasting for long in a law firm, but I’d wanted to try it out for a few years, since we were newly married. After roughly two and a half years though, she saw that it was draining me dry. I worked in litigation, so that meant I was in the field of practice that directly dealt with the courts and quasi-judicial bodies, and it was just making me miserable. I’d dread the entire part of the day between leaving the house and getting back home, and, creatively, I was empty. I had become… disillusioned with words, is how I’d put it, and I can’t think of anything that could be more deadly to a writer. Shaps saw that, and told me that I needed to get out of the firm and try for my dream.
Q: After resigning from your lawfirm, you put up Eight Ray Sun Publishing. Would you elaborate more on the vision behind your publishing company.
Sure. About two or three years before I left the law firm, I’d awakened to the existence of a speculative fiction scene here in the Philippines. Kenneth Yu had just launched his Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, and that lead me to the works of Dean Alfar and the Philippine Speculative Fiction Anthology. The more I saw of local speculative fiction, the more I hungered for it, and for the kind of stories that we weren’t yet producing: the novels, the series, the young adult titles… I wanted to fill local shelves with our own worlds of fantasy and science fiction, but I also realized that to produce that kind of content, writing would have to be a whole lot more profitable for local authors than it was. I mean, countries like the United States and Japan have dozens of speculative fiction titles coming out every month, but that’s because in those countries, it’s actually possible to make a living as an author. They also have publishers which specialize in speculative fiction, and while in early 2009 there was exactly one major local publisher with a fantasy imprint (not including Kestrel DDM which publishes the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology series), that was clearly not going to be enough.
So, the vision of the company is this: to publish great works of Philippine speculative fiction, and to do so in a way that would be profitable for the authors, and allow the greatest possible distribution of the stories.
Q: Eight Ray Sun publishes in electronic format. What made you decide for this format as opposed to print format?
Wider distribution was a key part of our mission/vision, and there is no distribution platform with greater reach than the Internet. When I was doing research on the publishing industry before leaving the law firm, I saw that digital publishing was becoming a force to be reckoned with, and a viable alternative and/or supplement to print publishing. It would allow me to keep costs down, even as I secured for our stories a platform that could ignore geographic and political boundaries, and make content instantly available to readers around the world, from the comfort of their own homes (or, wherever they’re sitting with their iPhones and iPads).
I still love print, and I’m hopeful that we’ll eventually see Rocket Kapre books on physical shelves, and not just in the Philippines either. But if a company can publish a physical copy of a book, there are few valid reasons for that book not to be made available digitally as well, so starting with a digital strategy made sense to me.
Q: Your latest project is the Alternative Alamat project. Would you like to share more about this project and what you hope to achieve with it?
While circumstances dictated that the first anthology that we released was Ruin and Resolve, our charity anthology, Alternative Alamat was the first book I envisioned releasing under the Rocket Kapre label. One of the many flaws of our educational system in the Philippines, I believe, is the lack of attention given to our home grown myths and legends. When I was growing up, I loved mythology, and while I don’t regret the hours I spent poring over Bullfinch, I wish I’d spent just as much time devouring Locano’s “Outline of Philippine Mythology”, or any of Maximo Ramos’ books–but I didn’t even know those existed when I was a child, and even as an adult these resources weren’t easy to come by.
The ignorance that most of us Filipinos have about our myths and legends is all the more tragic because we have such a rich heritage, one which draws not just from one oral tradition but dozens of diverse, yet equally captivating traditions. Most nations have one pantheon of gods–in Locano’s “Outline”, I count at least eleven. Think about it: eleven pantheons of divinities, each with their own gods, gods such as, Tagamaling (Bagobo) who had a dual personality, or Ipamahandi (Bukidnon), goddess of accident, or Manglubar (Zambales) whose duty was to “pacify angry hearts”. And, of course, each tradition would have their own demons, their own heroes, their own monsters. Think of all the stories those characters could populate. Centuries of colonization have erased so much, and if we don’t make a conscious effort to rediscover our past, more of it will slip away.
So with Alternative Alamat, I’d like to help people discover (I won’t say “re-discover” because we know so little of it) Philippine mythic heritage, the same way more modern stories which use elements of, say, Greek mythology, rekindles interest in those classics. But the anthology is about more than just serving as a signpost pointing back to our past–I also want more authors to claim ownership over our myths and legends, by using them. I want people to see the old stories not just as artifacts to admire, but as resources that can be adapted and repurposed and made the subject of speculation–as fuel, in short, for new stories, which build upon those which came before.
Q: There was a discussion some time ago about Filipino Speculative Fiction and what makes a fiction Filipino or not. What do you think about this subject?
That’s a tough one. Labels in fiction, I think, are largely used for promotional purposes. I think that the parameters used to determine the bounds of the label should be subsumed to that purpose, so for me, I define it in the broadest possible way: speculative fiction written by Filipinos. After all, even people who would define the term based on the contents of the story would, for the most part, still promote a speculative fiction story written by a Filipino.
I think that seeing how polarizing it can be to try and define Filipino Speculative Fiction shows what sets our fiction apart. A lot of us who are writing spec fic at present, and getting our stories out in public, grew up influenced by and internalizing the Western traditions of the genre in prose and in media. At the same time, as we matured, we became more aware of our identities as Filipinos, and also aware of the fact that our experience of being a Filipino was, and continues to be, different–though no less valid–than the experience of the majority of countrymen. There’s a sort of triple-vision in effect when I write–a simultaneous awareness of Western influence, personal experience, and social reality that is present even when I’m writing a secondary world fantasy–and I think that’s a challenge that many of us have to overcome, and the process by which we overcome it creates work that is different from that of writers who see themselves as part of a more homogenous writing tradition.
Q: What do you think are the obstacles or challenges that we face as Filipinos writing in a field that’s dominated by the West?
The first challenge is that, as I touched upon a little earlier, most of us Filipino speculative fiction writers are ourselves products of that domination. The books we read in our youth gave us many of the tools and techniques that enable us to be writers, but which, at the same time, might not be right for the kind of stories we now want to tell–at least not without some adaptation. Even the language many of us write in, which approximates American English, while serving as the basic tool of our profession, seems to add a layer of alienation any time we choose to write certain types of stories. You see that a lot in the komiks scene here, particularly the local superhero scene, where you can see creators struggling to decide when to use English, or when to use Filipino, or how to translate a concept or experience from one context/language to another.
There was a recent discussion with regard to the viability of the classic superhero in the Philippines–the type who only focuses on halting crime rather than effecting any social change–given that the scale of problems such as poverty and corruption here. And yet, classic superheroes are exactly what many of the creators grew up wanting to do. In the same way, I grew up wanting to write The Belgariad, or the Wheel of Time, but now that I’ve realized I want to write stories influenced by the historical Philippines rather than historical Europe, I find that there is no great body of fiction that I can turn to and build upon. (Which is one of the reasons I’m all for discovering Philippine myths and legends.) It’s a blank slate, and for a writer that is both exciting and terrifying.
The other challenges are more practical in nature, and apply more specifically to Filipinos who live in the Philippines and want to publish novels. While the short story market is becoming more and more accessible to writers from across the globe, it’s still difficult for someone who doesn’t live in the West to get a book published in the West, even when we just factor in logistical matters, such as the fact that a writer who lives in the Philippines is less likely to be able to network at a convention, or attend a writing workshop like Clarion. The sad thing is, it’s not any easier for a Filipino writer to get a spec fic novel published here in the Philippines. Most publishers don’t appear interested in spec fic in general, and spec fic novels in particular. There are no literary agents here, nor conventions where an aspiring writer can approach an editor or publisher. That’s one reason why I believe that many authors in the future will take the self-publishing route–they simply don’t have a way to get the attention of publishers. I hope that Rocket Kapre can help change that in the future.