My answer to the question of why I write has always been because I just…do. It’s a bad answer, I know. For one thing, it lacks the kind of colorful specifics that would make me a more entertaining person to chat with at a party. It’s also flippant and dismissive. I don’t mean to represent myself in this way, but the facts are boring. Writing simply comes to me. It comes to me as I imagine melodies or brush strokes or pirouettes come to others. That is to say: naturally.
For many reasons, some having to do with my fiction writing and some not (advancing age! personal loss! excessive dolor!), I’ve spent the past few years dredging the murky riverbed of my memory. Occasionally during this process it became important to me to tease the strands of Truth from those of half-truth and absolute zero truth. An interesting and sticky exercise, but in the end, it didn’t matter much. These variations on reality are like jackets hanging in a closet, and I found all manner of interesting things tucked away in their pockets, including the idea that maybe I wasn’t so much born a writer as I was gently nudged, this way and that, until I became one.
“Memory,” Tobias Wolff writes, “has its own story to tell.” Yes, and its own truth. Here, then, is the story-truth my memory tells me about my writing self.
She read to me; she bought me every book I wanted. When gossipy Filipinas whispered about us in Tagalog she snapped loud enough for all to hear, “Do you think I can’t understand you?” When grown men cussed loud enough for me to hear, she dressed them down with a how-dare-you and a fine, manicured index finger punctuating the sky. Now she can no longer walk or sign her name, and simple tasks like brushing her teeth have become absurd obstacles, but save your pity: she is the toughest bitch I know. She is the story.
Many years ago, when my favorite Lola became ill, the doctors dispensed a drug that had the side effect of acting as a truth serum. For two days she lay propped up in her hospital bed where she proceeded, nostrils flared and lips pursed, to deliver the truth. For the most part, hysterics ensued; we laughed until the nurses hushed us quiet. But there were moments, too, when aunties abruptly left the room, sometimes in tears, sometimes in shame. The truth is funny and painful; it holds people in thrall.
I am made of blood and bone and Daly City fog. At Westlake Bowl, where I was forbidden to go, I untangled the mystery of boys, french kissing, and Pac Man. At Serramonte Mall white police officers asked us our last names, and then mocked them: Nabong, DeLeon, Alcantara. At the public library on Southgate Avenue I looked up from Little House on the Prairie to find a man standing with his pants down, penis on display. I returned to my reading. All of my stories take place in Daly City, even when they don’t.
When I was eighteen years old, my boyfriend secretly paged through my journal, and he read something I wrote about the boy I had loved before him. My boyfriend was physically imposing and prone to flashes of violence, but instead of lashing out in anger—the response I expected and braced for—he threw my journal into the garbage can and then collapsed in on himself with hurt. I remember I held him and said, “It doesn’t mean anything.” But of course it did: it meant everything. Written words, it turned out, gave me power.
Without being asked, one of my aunts read an assignment I’d written for a creative writing class that I took my first year of college. I was young, just seventeen years old, and every time I walked into that classroom I was afraid. Bewildered and floundering, I never spoke and I avoided eye contact with my instructor and the other students. But I did listen, and I did write. When my auntie finished reading, she set the two pages aside. She sucked her teeth and said, “That was…sophomoric.” It was easy to silence me then.
“Do Filipino girls really taste like fish?” Someone asked me this once, and years later it became a line of dialogue in one of my stories. When I read this story out loud, Filipinos respond with nervous laughter or a chorus of “ewwww.” I think this response is one of recognition. Recognition that our bodies are regarded as lesser than, as a joke, as a thing to be devalued, disregarded, disrespected. Writing is one of the ways I say fuck that: I am standing here, sitting here, being here. And I’m writing it all down.
I am moved by my personal / our collective Filipino American history, by the sepia photographs, the well-dressed men, the nipped-waist women. Beauty queens, pool halls, taxi dances. By teenage girls with bangs cresting their heads like ocean waves and boys who smell of cigarettes and Jovan Musk. I am drawn to the places our elders gathered as newcomers. I am held up by Filipina writers like Cecilia Brainard and Marianne Villanueva, who published my first stories. They are my writing role models and mentors, my notion of literary royalty.
He was just a teenager in a black hoodie eating a burger with two of his friends. Maybe he was stoned or tired. Maybe he was just sad. I was old enough to be his mother, and I felt my body soften around that fact: my shoulders released, my heart opened, I smiled. He said, “You remind me of home.” I cradle this memory like it’s a child; I hold it so dear. I shape my words to feel this way, to feel somehow familiar and right to the person who reads them. My intention is always to point the way home.
I was on my way to him when it happened, which is just another way of saying I missed it. Still, I know the exact moment my father died. I felt the panic rise through my body until it reached the top of my head, at which point little parts of myself began floating off into the ether. My ears buzzed. I began to mutter nonsensically: “Where are you?” I said. “Where are you? Where are you?” I don’t know if I was speaking to myself then, or to my father. I only know that I’m broken apart, and that writing will piece me back together.
It’s your turn now. What story-truth does your memory tell? Write it down, Pinay. I’m listening; I want to know.
Veronica Montes is the author of Benedicta Takes Wing & Other Stories (Philippine American Literary House, 2018). Her fiction has appeared in anthologies including Contemporary Fiction by Filipinos in America and Kuwento For Lost Things, literary journals including Bamboo Ridge and Prism International, and online spaces including SmokeLong Quarterly and Spelk Fiction.