PAGASA tetralogy: A novenary in preparation of a novel – Fellows’ seminar by Kristian Cordero

12 December 2023

“Prompted by Roland Barthes’ The Preparation of a Novel, this presentation outlines how in the course of pursuing the creative life as a poet, translator, independent filmmaker and a small press publisher from one of the regions of the Philippines, I now cast myself to another kind of vita nova, by wanting to write this tetralogy, which I have happily conceived during my STIAS residency,” said Kristian Sendon Cordero, STIAS Artist-in-Residence.

STIAS Artist-in-Residence Kristian Cordero during his seminar on 5 December 2023

“I have conceived a creative project on this most ancient continent of Africa. STIAS is both a creative space for the mind and for the heart. And a good place to embark on a new stage.”

Described as a man in love with words, stories and languages, Cordero is a poet, fictionist, translator, essayist and filmmaker based in Bikol in the Philippines. He has translated the works of Rainer Maria Rilke, Jorge Luis Borges, Franz Kafka and Oscar Wilde into Bikol and Filipino, and produced two full-length films – Angustia (2013) and Hinulid (2016). His current projects include Bikol translations of José Rizal’s two novels.

Cordero’s books of poetry in three languages (Filipino, Bikol and Rinconada) have won the Madrigal-Gonzales Best First Book Award, the Philippine National Book Awards, and the Gintong Aklat Awards (Golden Book Awards). In 2017, he attended the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa. He was also appointed artist-in-residence by the Center for Southeast Asian Studies at the University of Michigan. Cordero is the youngest FIlipino writer (so far) to win the Southeast Asian Writers Prize, and was named as one of the Outstanding Young Men in the Philippines for 2022 in the Arts and Culture category. He runs an independent bookshop and art space, The Savage Mind, in his home city.

Cordero explained that he writes “to reference society by the written word” and to depict “my lived world. Language is my soul and my sole possession. My hope is that I’ll generate insight to gain the courage and freedom to write novels.”

Religion, geography and language

He explained that religion and the region are constant sources of his critical inquiry and textual (re) productions. “Roman Catholicism in the Philippines is considered catholic and universal compared to other theistic religions. On the other hand, Bikol, the geography and the language, is seen as peripheral and vernacular in relation to the national and global imaginaries. The interplay of these oppositions is present in my poetry, fictions and films.”

And religion has been a foundational part of Cordero’s lived world. He was named Kristian to fulfil his parents’ promise that if their prayers for a child were answered they would send their first son to a seminary. “It was a narrative I accepted. I still remember my first Sunday mass at church. I learnt and memorised the Saint’s stories and played the role of a priest as a child – using marie biscuits and coke as communion. Of course, that had to stop at a certain point because expenses were beyond the family budget.”

He also described the influence of his grandmother who raised him for part of his childhood when his parents left the country for work opportunities. His grandmother was a midwife seen as having faith healing and divination powers.

All of this meant that Cordero did initially fulfil the destiny mapped out for him and entered the Seminary, but it was ultimately a road not to be followed.

Cordero also explained the importance of writing about his region and in his own language. “It’s Important to trace and locate the history of the language which was engineered by Catholicism and the complex structures of colonial power. I’m interested in the sounds articulated in speech, how words are negotiated in performance and the soundscapes created.”

He explained how he will attempt to include all of this in his proposed series of four novels.

Auricula, the first of four, explores how colonial and ecclesiastical structures have fashioned identities by using the manual of confession, the books of sermons and conducts, and other devotional materials as blueprints of an elected and holy life. Re-reading these printed literatures written and published during Spain’s colonial rule, I have tracked some gaps and fissures, which enabled me to frame a novelistic agenda on how the Bikols have created a new form of narrating contested subjectivities that are both, oral and aural— fragile and fluid,” he said.

Set around the ‘pistaym’ (peacetime) and the meteoric rise of the abaca trade industry during the American colonial period up to the brutal years of Japanese occupation, he plans to highlight the first half of the 20th century in the second and the third novels respectively.

“I am to historicise and fictionalise identity in opposition to colonial structures initially using the   confession box and later radio as a theatrical space.”

“This quartet which begins in the confession box will culminate with the advent and the rise of the radio in the same provincial town,” he continued. “Meet the local weatherman named Isidro Labordo, an employee of the newly instituted PAGASA, (Philippine Atmospheric Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration) who makes weather reports for his community and dabbles as the mysterious and anonymous storyteller in a popular radio programme. By creating a two-fold persona through his ‘voices’, he retells the old European/syncretic corridos and folktales, and uses this to promote and justify Ferdinand Marcos’ declaration of Martial Law and the establishment of a Bagong Lipunan (a new society) in 1972.”

Ferdinand Marcos Snr was the 10th president of the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. He ruled partially under martial law in a regime famous for its corruption and brutality. His son Marcos Jnr became president in 2022 in a landslide victory.

“Fast forward: Despite being overthrown from political power in the 1986 revolution, Isidro, anticipated the glorious vindication of the Marcoses, which happened in 2022 with the presidential election of Ferdinand Jnr. Now in his advanced age and showing signs of senility, Isidro tries to intimately hold on to what he remembers as the golden age of Philippine history, and this is so because for him the Marcoses possess supernatural powers comparable only to extraterrestrials.”

To illustrate the idiosyncrasies of the time, Cordero pointed to the Philippine Snail Disaster when the Golden Apple Snail was introduced to the country in 1982 with the idea that they would become a major economic commodity. The snails proved to be highly destructive with the ability to destroy a rice field overnight and reproduce extremely rapidly, and remain a substantial threat to farming today.

“In a 1987 Playboy interview Marcos Snr said: ‘History is not through with me’ – a quote vindicated by the election of his son,” continued Cordero. “The Marcos’ were seen as possessing almost supernatural powers. Storytelling was appropriated by a dictatorship creating an alternative universe of propaganda. They created a grand myth narrative about family which was claimed as destiny. But how long can you hold on to a version of myth?”

“Turning all of this into a tapestry of stories is the challenge I impose on myself,” he added. “I see this project as a mirror to reflect our failures, catastrophes and monstrosities.”

But he also emphasised that underlying all of this is hope. “I hope to illustrate everyday life, little intimacies, small stories, sensitive characters. It’s about finding out how we came to live our lives through these historical experiences.”

“I still have to do a lot of research,” he added. “It will be a challenge to create a world that will be morally responsible to my characters. I need that light at this point. I don’t yet have it. But I am excited to flesh it out. I believe in letting a novel grow on you. I also hope to continue many conversations post-fellowship.

He ended by quoting from the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”


Michelle Galloway: Part-time media officer at STIAS
Photograph: Noloyiso Mtembu

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STIAS is a creative space for the mind.