We’ve still got about a week left of Buwan ng mga Akdang Pinoy, so the celebrations just keep rolling in. This time, we chat with Glenn Diaz, author of the The Quiet Ones, about the inspiration and the challenges behind his Palanca-winning novel, and his life as a reader and a writer. Read our conversation below.
FULLY BOOKED: When previously asked about what inspired you to write The Quiet Ones, you had a pretty straightforward answer: imperialism. Can we perhaps take this on a more personal level? Is there a specific incident or moment in your life that drove you to tell this particular story?
GLENN: The answer was facetious but only partially. I worked as a call center agent when I was 19 and I remember feeling something weird whenever I talked to an American caller. I thought it was interesting that my relationship with this faceless, often harmless person is determined to some extent by things that happened centuries ago, even before we made contact.
That sort of became the crux and preoccupation of my fiction: to render history in the contemporary, the quotidian, the commonplace. The call center industry, as an economic and cultural phenomenon, is a unique product of Philippine colonial history, from the Spanish mercantilist and imperialist conquest in the 16th century that would forever complicate the idea of the Filipino nation to the US-enforced orientation of the Philippine economy to suit (and be subjected to) the neoliberal post-Cold War world.
But of course, writing the book is first and foremost a way for me to make sense of an important life experience. I remember feeling so fundamentally oppressed and disempowered by the call center job, and fiction provided a space where I can exact some control. But because I choose to publish, I’m conscious of fiction’s capacity to go beyond private catharses. And in the same way that John Berger posited mass demonstrations to be a rehearsal for revolutionary awareness, fiction can also enable people rendered powerless by certain forces to imaginatively rehearse an alternate, less oppressive reality.
The story has many familiar faces; we probably all know or have met an Alvin and an Eric and a Karen. Are they, let’s say, inspired, by people you actually know? Which of them do you relate to the most?
I am sadly incapable of imagining characters and plot points and it’s a first book, so many things in it are, in varying ways, derived from real life (I even retained most of the names! I hope they see it as a tribute and not libelous cannibalizing!). But of course at a certain point in the writing process, in my head they all gained their own contours and quirks and complexities often quite apart from the initial template.
On whether there is a character I relate to the most, I often joke that they’re all part of one cluster a la Sense8: there are shared traits and intersecting plot points and aspects of me abound in all of them—including the Spanish-Australian divorcée with cougar tendencies. But biographically speaking I am most similar to Alvin (except for the embezzlement part; I’m not nearly as courageous and/or stupid).
Since they all have distinct voices, who was the most difficult to write? Why?
The aforementioned cougar character probably. Carolina differs from me biographically in almost every way: race, gender, age, class. While her sensibility is cosmopolitan, there’s also something culturally unique about it. In fact, when an old story featuring her character was workshopped many years ago, the very necessity of having someone like her figure in a Filipino story was even brought up.
In writing the book, all these carry repercussions on how her character not only behaves and thinks but, most crucially, “talks”—because I foolishly took on the challenge of telling parts of the book from her point of view. And because of all these, it’s also the voice that is most prone to miscues, from the dialogue in Spanish to the Aussie slang (but the dangers also made it the funnest to write!).
What was the most challenging part of writing this book?
Although I knew from the beginning that my first book was going to be on the call center industry, what I wrote over the years were short stories. And so while the stories featured recurring characters in a recognizably single universe, finding a suitable structure that would make them cohere in a sufficiently novelistic way still posed a challenge.
I had a few false starts. I tried doing a novel-in-stories a la Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, but it didn’t feel “systematic” enough. I tried suturing them together in a way that would conceal their provenance as short stories, but it felt contrived and stunted. The eventual structure is something I owe to a comment made by one of the panelists at my thesis defense. The romantic aspects, he said, were interesting vis-a-vis the political project, so I decided to make romance an organizing principle. Something that employs the same structure is Pedro Almodovar’s Hable con ella, which is also an influence.
How does your usual writing day (or night) go?
To write I only require a laptop and ambient noise. This means I mostly write at night when the house is quiet and I can turn on the TV but not watch it (tennis matches featuring players other than Rafael Nadal are ideal) or at a moderately busy coffee shop. I write very slowly because I let ideas marinate for a long time in my head before I start and, when I get to actual writing, I compulsively edit, which drastically slows down my pace even more. I stop after a few hours, often when I’m tired or when I find better things to do, like rewatch an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race.
Who is your biggest literary influence?
Which Filipino author/s do you think all Filipinos should read?
The novels of Gina Apostol are provocative and deliciously intellectual but also absolutely hilarious. No one draws from Filipino myth and lore like Rosario Cruz Lucero. John Bengan has been writing brilliant short stories on the DDS long before the term was coopted by Mocha Uson. The Janus Silang series of Egay Samar can rival any foreign YA franchise for building a world that’s at once contemporary and wondrous. The riveting novels of Lualhati Bautista continue to be relevant. No one writes about eroticism and the city like Tony Perez. So many more.
Do you remember the first story you’ve ever written? What was it about?
A call center agent is on her way home from work at the LRT when the train makes an abrupt stop and she sees an old Caucasian man lose his balance and fall down. She comes over to where he was—
What’s a story you’d like to write but haven’t started yet?
A project that I had done some research on but has stayed on that level is a historical novel on the provenance of the Our Lady of Piat image in Cagayan, where my maternal family is from.
What are you reading right now?
I’ve just started with my PhD and I’m rereading Resil Mojares’s Origins and Rise of the Filipino Novel and alternating it with Allan Derain’s Ang Banal na Aklat ng mga Kumag. A fortuitous pairing, it’s turning out.
What’s next for you? Any projects down the pipeline that you can share with us?
I’m working on something that can hopefully combine Jovito Palparan and the human rights situation in 2000s Central Luzon and the world of amateur singing contest. Fingers and toes crossed!
Thank you, Glenn! But before we let you go, we need to prove that you are indeed human, and not a bot on auto-response. Would you mind taking a photo right now for your readers?