story | Neo Huiyuan and Yip Jie Ying
photo | Dini Parayitam
On Jan. 20, the Writers’ Centre held a book launch event for Writing Instructor Laurel Fantauzzo. It was a night where people came together not only to celebrate the individual success of a writer, but also to rediscover the very struggles that often define humanity.
Fantauzzo’s non-fiction book, The First Impulse: Notes on Love, Film and Death in the Philippines, explores the miscarriage of justice that occurred when two young film critics, Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, were murdered in Quezon City, Philippines. The first thing that struck me when interviewing Fantauzzo was her stoic demeanor. I wondered how such a gentle person could write about such a violent crime. As I began the interview, however, I discovered that The First Impulse is about much more than just the murder of Tioseco and Bohinc—it also carries questions of identity, love and justice. Paul Jerusalem ’19, who attended the book launch, noted that, “more than anything, this book is a book of empathy, of trying to understand someone who at first glance has nothing to do with you.” In the same vein, we try to understand The First Impulse, Fantauzzo’s creative process and her thoughts on literature in general. Below is an excerpt from The Octant’s interview with Fantauzzo.
What are your motivations for writing The First Impulse? Is there anything that you are trying to achieve, personally or socially, through writing this book?
I think when you approach really big topics, like justice and love, you can only affect your reader on an individual level.
You can talk a lot about systemic problems but sometimes you need to have an emotional connection to an individual story in order to really get to the depth of what injustice means or what love means. And so I felt like two young film critics who found love abroad and then chose to make home in Philippines being murdered was an incredible injustice which tore them out of the context of their lives. So I wanted to do a project which puts them back in their context and didn’t have murder as the only aspect of who they were.
How did your own exploration of your roots lead to you finding out about the crime?
I’m Filipino-American, and I go back pretty regularly to the Philippines from whatever country I’m in. So when I was in the States, my mom brought me back to the Philippines for the first time when I was 12. And then now that I live in Singapore, I keep an apartment there. So I’ve always had a connection with the country but I’ve always been aware of its dangers. And then Alexis was also a mixed-race Filipino like I am, and his father sort of dragged him back to the Philippines when he was a teenager, sort of similar to how my mother dragged me back to the Philippines when I was 12. But Alexis was much more loyal to the country and called himself fully Filipino. So I felt like he was somebody who could have been a friend or someone I could have been arguing with, and I actually made friends with a lot of his friends after he died.
What are some of the themes that you explored in the book? What significance do these themes carry for you?
[I explored] themes of identity, themes of trying to make a home, themes of love across cultures. Those are all [themes that] really moved me, as part of their story.
What are some themes that fascinate you personally as a writer?
All of those, [and] category disruption, not really fitting into one nation. [Also themes of] the logic or lack of logic of love [and] how tricky identity can be, which I think this book covers.
How would you describe your writing style?
Mostly narrative. I try to make it easy to read, which is a very difficult process. People have been telling me that the book is a fast read, which I’m very pleased about, because it took seven years. I started working on it in 2010.
What was the most difficult part in this entire process that led to the publishing of The First Impulse?
I think mostly the emotional approach of it. There are so many people who are horribly traumatized by this.
Are there any unique traits that you find among Southeast Asian writers of your generation?
Do you think I’m a Southeast Asian writer? So as for diaspora writers, [I admire] Eric Gamalinda [and]Gina Apostol, a Filipino novelist, who’s also one of my writing mentors. I think Larry’s work is great–Lawrence Ypil’s work–very affecting poetry. They’re all unique unto themselves. And I think they address very specific struggles on the individual level that speak back to you on bigger historical and contemporary ills. I find that inspiring.
What do you think is the role of literature in contemporary Southeast Asian society?
I think literature in any society sort of presses a release valve for ills that go unspoken in other sectors. Storytelling is the first step to tangible civic change. I mean if you can’t even talk about something, how can you move forward with it? So I think breaking silence is really a very necessary role of literature. But I would never speak for all of Southeast Asian literature, I also think it’s a very, very broad term.
‘The First Impulse’ is published by Anvil Publishing and is now available for purchase online at http://www.anvilpublishing.com/shop/fiction-literature/the-first-impulse/.