By Robert J.A. Basilio, Jr.
Ninotchka Rosca doesn’t exactly consider herself a paragon of a literary artist.
That’s what she herself admitted during a forum last week during the launch of a trade paperback edition of State of War, reissued by Anvil Publishing.
“I’m really a bad model for writing,” the award-winning writer told a packed crowd at the Pan de Sal forum held at the Kamuning Bakery in Quezon City last Sunday.
Ms. Rosca was prompted to issue that candid admission after a question — sent via text message from a young fan outside Manila — was received and read aloud by Wilson Lee Flores, Philippine Star columnist and the forum’s organizer and moderator.
The question was as timeless as it was anticipated, especially in literary events such as this one: “What is your advice to young writers who dream of becoming a writer like you?”
Although she has been asked this question several times, both here and abroad, Ms. Rosca nevertheless emphasized the importance of reading, especially for those planning to embark on a literary career.
“There is no way of becoming a good writer without becoming a good reader,” she said, adding that she is “getting a bit slow” when it comes to reading nowadays, finishing four books a week.
“I come from a generation that didn’t just read one book by one author,” she said. “We read bodies of literature, entire libraries.”
Just a few years ago, she stumbled upon the work of Turkish novelist and Nobel Prize Winner for Literature Orhan Pamuk, known for, among others, his novel, Snow, a work of social commentary about modern Turkey.
Since she liked him so much, she bought and read all his books, she said.
Everyone in the audience nodded, since she was preaching to the proverbial choir, composed of professors, writers, students, admirers, and even fellow activists of her generation such as Gary B. Olivar, who, among others, was a spokesperson of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
All of them had an inkling that her preoccupation with books and reading is nothing new.
After all, as a freshman at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, she decided to read at least two books of every author in the library’s literature section.
The young Rosca was prompted to resort to such measures because she had thought that she was the “most stupid student” since her classmates knew what and whom to read.
“I didn’t know what the hell they were talking about so one summer I decided to read all the books in the literature section alphabetically by author,” she said. “I got to letter L.”
Not soon after, her fascination with the written word had become a habit; a rare quality, especially in these times where everyone and everything is competing for the attention of everyone else.
Her fascination for both reading and writing has paid off.
Not only was Twice Blessed, her second novel, given the American Book Award in 1993, a short story, entitled “Epidemic,” was included in the 1986 Best 100 Short Stories in the US, compiled by the late American fiction writer Raymond Carver and the Missouri Review Anthology.
But even though she was able to produce two short story collections and four non-fiction books — including At Home In the World, co-written with Communist Party of the Philippines founder Jose Maria Sison — her life, literary and otherwise, has not been a day at the beach.
A political prisoner under the Marcos dictatorship, the novelist remains a passionate activist as — among others — a member of the Association of Filipinas, Feminists Fighting Imperialism, Re-feudalization, and Marginalization (AF3IRM), which has chapters in Boston, Los Angeles, New York/New Jersey, and the San Francisco Bay Area.
The transnational feminist organization will organize a demonstration in downtown Los Angeles this March.
“We will lead the biggest march on International Women’s Day. It will be anti-white supremacist and it will be firmly led by women of color,” she said. “Everyone is welcome but just don’t bother us.”
Her several advocacies — which include human rights and feminism, among others — have, as expected, cut into her time for writing.
“I might have lost about five more books which I never had the time to write,” she said during the forum. “I was organizing, advocating, trying to get people out of jail.”
She added: “It’s in the matter of time allotment. I never learned how to balance partly because in politics, everything is always urgent and so you drop your writing to go do [things].”
Although her lost writing time fills her with some regret, Ms. Rosca said her dedication to the written word remains strong and constant; her commitment a lesson — perhaps even an example — to those who wish to lead lives based on literature.
“A lot of people say ‘I want to be a writer,’” she said. “There is no such thing as wanting to be. You are or you’re not — that’s it. Period. Write is an active verb. You have to work to do it.”
Ms. Rosca also said that she would like to be remembered as an author who wrote about the “truth about our women and the truth about our people.”
“Our timeline is like a disheveled length of abaca rope bristling with broken strings,” she said. “I have considered it my obligation and my task as a writer from the very first story that I wrote to repair this rope, to find the links, to reassemble the national narrative, to reattach all the fractured timelines — one single timeline so we can become whole again.”