Over on my blog, I talked about two questions that I was attempting to answer: How did I get here and what were the things I read that made me the reader and writer I am today? This is in light of the panel on writers as readers at today’s Filipino Readercon, where authors talked about the books that influenced their writing. So I guess I just wanted to throw my (very, very, tiny and insignificant) voice into the conversation.
I grew up in a very literary household. My parents were both teachers at the University of the Philippines, and my mother, in particular, is a children’s book writer and illustrator. So from a very early age, I was already exposed to books. In particular, we had a very comprehensive line of Adarna Books from the 80s and early 90s, most of them written by Rene Villanueva and featured a number of mythical creatures and historical figures. We were also exposed to a number of children’s books in English, mainly those of the late, great Maurice Sendak, Jose Aruego, Shel Silverstein, Doctor Seuss and series like the Richard Scarry sets of books and the Berenstein Bears.
Out of these, the book “Outside Over There” by Maurice Sendak had the most effect on me. This story was about a girl named Ida, whose little sister was kidnapped by goblins. I had absolutely no clue about the Lindberg baby kidnapping case, nor did I know that this was the inspiration for the film “Labyrinth”. But the illustrations were gorgeous and unsettling, and were both beautiful and frightening to me - especially in light of the fact that I was the eldest child and that, as those with younger siblings would know, sometimes you’d actually want your younger siblings to leave you alone.
Another book that stuck in my head as a child was “The Witch’s Garden” by Dutch artist Lidia Postma, which had beautiful, ethereal illustrations about a mysterious old lady and her overgrown gardens that a bunch of neighborhood children decide to explore. I don’t remember how the story ends, but I do remember being fascinated with the elaborate drawings and designs of the fairy creatures. These weren’t pretty Victorian drawings of fairies - they blended with the trees and the wildflowers, and they were both amazing and frightening at the same time, as though they were looking out of the page and straight into your soul.
Aside from reading these books, I was influenced by Greek mythology in third grade, when I picked up a paperback copy of Edith Hamilton’s “Mythology”. I was obsessed with the Greek and Roman gods, and intently followed the summaries of the Iliad and the Odyssey, the story of Oedipus and the doomed family of Agammemnon and the adventures of Odysseus. I memorized the stories of the minor gods and the major gods, and they ran rampant through my imagination. My first copy of “Mythology” was yellowing and the binding was cracked and falling apart and I had to tape the pages together so that they wouldn’t fall off from the binding.
Another thing that influenced my reading were Filipino myths and legends. I remember being given a large yellow book (I have no clue what the title was) on Filipino myths and legends - from creation myths all across the archipelago, nature legends, and stories about Pedro Penduko, Juan Tamad, Bernardo Carpio, and the like. Another book that contributed to this was the collections of Maximo D. Ramos, especially “The Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology.” Coincidentally, around this time, my mother published a children’s book on Filipino monsters as well, called “Luis and the Enchanted Creatures”. All of these stories bubbled and simmered in my mind, and I grew up knowing that there was magic all around us. I never believed in anything otherwise. I knew, with a child’s conviction, that kapre lived in trees, that the wack-wack will fly through the night sky searching for blood, and that the mighty tikbalang was waiting for a lost soul to wander into its territory. This was further underscored by the series of books called Pop Stories For Groovy Kids by Nick Joaquin and illustrated by various Filipino artists. They were gigantic picture books with frightening and twisted stories, like a modern-day quest for the Ibong Adarna and Sarimanok by two young girls who needed to rescue their friends. Or the midget Lilit Bulilit who sucked unwanted fetuses from the wombs of mothers using sarsaparilla straws; the reversed story of Beauty and the Beast in Johnny Tinoso and the Proud Beauty; and the terrifying Piper of Hamiling, who led children through a crack in the mountain, modeled after the Pied Piper in tales of old.
Around this time, I also ended up reading a lot of Sweet Valley Twins and High books. To collect these books is to be in a position to barter goods and services with the other girls in class. I was a very shy child, and I didn’t horse around with the other girls because I was asthmatic and not athletic at all. So my only point of contact with my classmates were my books - I would lend them out, and in that way, make connections with the other girls. I was also introduced to Nancy Drew mysteries during this time, as well as the Baby-sitters Club series and Enid Blyton collections. What I didn’t have in physical strength or endurance as well as mathematical aptitude I more than made up for with my English classes. I was reading at least three levels ahead of my classmates, and in seventh grade, my final paper for my English class was an overview of Greek mythology, focusing on the female characters. (This would later be echoed in my senior year English paper, when I did a character analysis of Hermione Granger from Harry Potter.)
But the next book to absolutely change my life was The Lord of the Rings. I was fourteen and a sophomore in high school, and I saw “The Fellowship of the Ring” on the bottom shelf of the fiction section in our high school library. I had slowly been sharpening my teeth on a steady diet of Gothic literature and Anne Rice vampire novels when I encountered the tatty green paperback and thought to myself, “Well, this looks pretty. I should give it a try.”
And then my mind was blown.
My introduction to the world of fantasy and speculative fiction felt like finding a treasure map where each X that marked the spot was another book or series or story that would excite me and frighten me and make me want to devour even more books. I remember weeping when Gandalf stood on the Bridge of Khazad-Dum with his staff in his hand and the balrog looming over him, and his cry of “You shall not pass!” I remember my mother, who had seen my tear-streaked face, ask me if everything was all right. It was the first time I had a physical reaction to the death of a fictional character - and mind you, I had no idea he would be resurrected as Gandalf the White later on.
From then on, it was a steady diet of fantastic literature for me: from Lord of the Rings, I moved on to the Chronicles of Narnia, the Earthsea trilogy, Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, and the six Thomas Covenant books. I was hooked. I was swimming in worlds beyond worlds. This was just an extension of my fascination with myths and history and stories, in general. I was reading everything I could find while I was a high school student - Ender’s Game, the David Eddings books, Dragonlance, etc. Nobody else in my batch was reading these books - at least, not until my senior year, when a few friends of mine stumbled upon LotR and were also hooked. During this time, the first two books of Harry Potter were already available, and I also read those and found myself eagerly awaiting for the next installments along with my brother and sister.
In college, I was lucky enough to know people who introduced me to more people who knew books - actual local writers who wrote the books that I was reading in school. And so I was exposed to people who were in the business of writing books, and I decided that I wanted to be just like them. And I found myself in the workshop circuit, and my world of writers and readers just expanded and expanded. From reading fantastic fiction, I found myself reading graphic novels and comics as well - I read The Sandman series as a college sophomore, and Neil Gaiman pretty much blew my mind out of the water, drawing from various sources and making them part of the patchwork world of Morpheus. Here were the myths I loved and grew up with; here were the stories and themes that I was familiar with; here was Shakespeare and Marlowe and Orpheus and my heart broke for all of them, for poor doomed Morpheus. I read Grant Morrison and Alan Moore and Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross and I just wanted to write ALL THE STORIES ALL THE TIME.
I think I was very lucky to have been part of certain groups of people who were willing to teach me things, who were recommending books and stories that became part of the fabric of my reading life, and influenced the stories and poems that I would eventually write, and would want to write. And now, I’m also very lucky to be teaching a new crop of students who are as young and wide-eyed as I used to be. It feels like coming full circle, like I’m giving back all the things that were given to me when I was younger. And it’s a great feeling to have, passing on stories from one person to another, giving these tales a chance to breathe and stretch their legs and move on into the future.