Natural disaster coverage is ruled by numbers. We define the strength of a typhoon through wind speeds, death toll figures, property damage expenses, and the scale of politician-sponsored relief efforts—which are often opportunistic. The individual lives rocked by such catastrophes rarely lead the list of indicators, or how the elements influence (and are influenced by) existing systems and structures.
Caroline Hau’s debut novel Tiempo Muerto reaches beyond the stultifying drag of numbers, and examines the deeper factors at play in the aftermath of loss. Published by ADMU Press, the book tells the story of two women, Racel and Lia, who return to the fictional hacienda of Banwa to look for the same woman who has gone missing, after a typhoon devastated the island. Racel, who has spent much of her life as a domestic worker, searches for her mother; Lia, the heiress of an oligarchic family, comes back to look for her old yaya. The distance between their subject positions is a stage for us to see the realities that plague our country today, from the plight of Overseas Filipino Workers to violent land disputes. And in the balay bato of Racel and Lia’s shared childhood, they find that it may be more than just a person who has gone missing.
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As the author of short fiction collections such as Demigods and Monsters: Stories, and academic texts such as The Chinese Question: Ethnicity, Nation and Region in and Beyond the Philippines, Hau is no stranger to the themes of ghosts and nationhood. And in Tiempo Muerto, which refers to the season in plantations when there is no harvest, she handles both topics with the deftness of someone deeply in tune with the country’s pulse and struggles.
Through an email interview, Hau spoke to us about haunted houses, the idea of the tropical gothic, and the purpose of the novel in a country where very few read.
When and how did the idea for Tiempo Muerto first come to be?
I had long dreamed of writing a novel, but couldn't pluck up the courage to do so until two years ago.
I inherited my love of reading from my mother, along with her catholic (with a small-c!) taste in fiction. My mother's huge bookcase, which I raided periodically, was well-stocked with literary, gothic, supernatural, mystery, romance, and true-crime novels.
Having devoured gothic romances as a teenager, I wanted to write my own "tropical gothic" (as Nick Joaquin calls it) version, complete with a lonely island, a haunted house, a heroine (or two) under stress, an accursed family and its secrets. Writers like Jose Rizal, Nick Joaquin, and Bienvenido Santos have used gothic elements in their fiction to explore the dark, troubled history of our country. The Philippines--especially the island of Negros, which inspired the fictional Isla de Banwa of Tiempo Muerto—is gothic terrain par excellence, with its deeply disturbing contrast between fortune and famine, its private armies and state-sanctioned massacres, its history of rapine and violence. I wanted to see if I could write Philippine gothic from a female, and hopefully feminist, perspective.
Tiempo Muerto revolves around two protagonists: Racel, a domestic worker, and Lia, the daughter of a moneyed family, who both return to Banwa to search for a missing woman with whom they shared a childhood. What were the challenges of narratively switching between viewpoints like this, especially with two characters from very different socioeconomic backgrounds?
No writer wants her characters to sound the same. Whether a writer can pull off this feat is another matter. I opted for what I thought was the easy way out by telling Racel's story in the first person and Lia's in the third person.
Filipino novels in English tend to be written by, for, and about middle-class people. The activist-scholar Ramon Guillermo has talked about the need for more realistic (rather than parodic) depictions of the ruling classes in politically engaged literature. I tried to keep Guillermo's words constantly in mind as I worked on fleshing out Lia because I see myself as writing in dialogue with that political tradition, which has deep roots in Filipino and other Philippine languages, rather than in the mainstream of the Filipino-English literary culture.
As for Racel, with a few important exceptions (my favorite is Broken Islands by Criselda Yabes), we don't see a lot of literary representations of the kasambahay that focus on the work that they actually do and on how they think and feel for themselves and about their work and other people. I had the privilege of interviewing a number of kasambahay in 'Pinas and Overseas Filipino Workers in Singapore over the years, and what I learned from them has been both illuminating and humbling. Their stories cannot be fully contained within the suffering-martyr/bagong bayani narratives that have been crafted about, and for, them by scholars, journalists, policymakers, politicians, and governments.
There's also the problem of language(s): how to convey the polyglot richness and complexity of the kasambahay's (and most Filipinos') life experiences? I decided to borrow from several languages, Philippine and non-Philippine, translated and untranslated. I hope readers find in Racel something of the humor, intelligence, and resilience that I so admire in the women workers I have been honored to have interacted with over many years.
In many ways, your novel plays with the trope of the haunted house. At the same time, one would be hard-pressed to classify Tiempo Muerto as a horror novel. For you, what were the possibilities of the haunted house that you explored in your book?
It's possible to write a novel about a haunted house without necessarily writing a horror novel. I guess the difference lies in how you play with the conventions and tropes of this genre and, more important, how you manage your reader's expectations. Readers who come to Tiempo Muerto looking for a Filipino rendition of Richard Matheson's Hell House and Stephen King's The Shining will be disappointed.
I'm more interested in the everyday horror—whether low-intensity or high-intensity—that we Filipinos live with and confront. What monsters in fiction can compare with the real-life horrors of famine and starvation, torture and EJKs and massacres, wars on our own people, natural disasters, slums, crimes, and violence against women and cultural, religious, sexual, and other minorities?
Your novel seems to draw a connection between Philippine mythology, folklore, and superstition, and very real material issues such as labor and gentrification. Can you elaborate more on that? What can we excavate from the relationship between the material and the "supernatural?"
For me, at least, the boundaries between myth, folklore and belief, on the one hand, and the so-called "rational" thinking that enhances human capacities, grows economies, builds infrastructure, and runs governments, on the other hand, are porous. Economics and politics, even the natural sciences, are shaped by rhetoric and narrative; they are permeated by magical thinking. Myth, folklore, and beliefs tell us a lot about how our people make sense of the cosmos and of our place in it, what matters to us, what worries and scares and moves us, how we go about making, unmaking, and remaking our communities.
It seems that as of late, more stories are being told about the struggles of the Filipino worker in relation to other countries that employ and exploit them. In Tiempo Muerto, it's Singapore. Glenn Diaz's The Quiet Ones trains its eye on the United States. Even in cinema, the recently released Hello Love Goodbye takes the OFW’s Hong Kong as its setting. What can you say about the importance of such stories, of reckoning with the Filipino workers' condition on the global stage?
I think Filipinos are not just aware of the reality of globalization; they live that reality. We're talking of at least two million OFWs (more than half of them women) and at least seven million more Filipinos living abroad. The Philippine economy is dependent on the remittances of Filipinos overseas, and also on the business-process outsourcing sector powered by Filipinos based in the Philippines but serving clients and companies in other countries. Our literature and film are responding to this phenomenon by making room for characters who journey beyond Philippine shores. At the same time, I should emphasize that the global is already in our national and local. Resil Mojares argues that "There is a measure of bad faith in urging a country that has been colonized by foreign powers to 'globalize,' since by definition a nation colonized is globalized. The imperative lies in whether it is being globalized in ways that people are critically aware of, and in terms that they can effectively negotiate with or command."
Stories about the Filipino engagement with the world can be set in 'Pinas as well as abroad. The more stories we can tell about Filipinos at home, abroad, at home abroad, or not at home here and there, the better we can understand the promise, opportunities, pressures, and perils of being "global Filipinos."
This book is your first novel. I imagine the experience of writing was an interesting change of pace. What kind of adjustments did you make in your writing and creative process, considering your previous work in nonfiction and short stories?
Writing a novel requires time and stamina. Surprisingly, it also requires as much research as working on an academic book. Imagining a world whole, rather than simply studying or analyzing an existing one, has been both daunting and exciting for me. I set aside an entire year to devote myself to writing and revising the novel. I wrote in the morning, as soon as my daughter left for school, and worked until lunchtime. I was irritated at first at the constant interruption of housework, of teaching and administrative duties. I have yet to master the art of getting up in the middle of a sentence and picking up where I left off hours or days later, but I hope to someday.
There's this one character in your book — I'm going to paraphrase this badly, I apologize — who offers the rather cynical opinion that the only books people in this country read are cookbooks and The Bible. It's always interesting when an author interrogates the very medium they're working with, so I'd like to ask, what role does the novel play now in this country, in its culture?
I think that was a cynical opinion, and not an entirely accurate one either (don't blame me, blame the character!). Millions of Filipinos read romances, and millions read stuff online. Millions more don't have the time, space, opportunity, and means to read. Readership of self-consciously "literary" novels remains limited, unless you're as talented as F. Sionil Jose or Ninotchka Rosca, whose novels have remained relevant and in print over decades. Novels nowadays may not have the same electrifying impact that Rizal's Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo did more than a hundred years ago. Then again, we need to remind ourselves that, because of censorship, Rizal's novels were read by only a very small number of people in his time. And yet, Filipinos who had not read the novels but who had heard about them and their author interpreted the novels in their own ways and sought to make a reality out of their shared dream of an independent Filipinas. Maybe that is what good novels do—shed light on what we have yet to fully understand, dream up new ideas, possibilities, and alternatives, conjure new worlds. Above all, help spread the word around.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.