Alton Melvar M Dapanas (them/they) is author of Towards a Theory on City Boys: Prose Poems (England: Newcomer Press, 2021), assistant nonfiction editor of London-based Panorama: The Journal of Place & Travel, Iowa-based Atlas & Alice, and editorial reader for Creative Nonfiction magazine. Their piece, ‘Three Holidays’, can be found in EPOCH Issue 03: Roots, available to purchase here.
Why do you write CNF, and do you explore other genres in your work?
I write creative nonfiction and essays to make sense of the past, to tame my inner demons as they claw their way up to my skin, to come into terms with selves I once were. Phillip Lopate in what might have been the genre’s first comprehensive anthology The Art of the Personal Essay (Anchor Books, 1994) wrote,
“The past is frequently and often lyrically visited by the essayist. The retrospective glance comes naturally to the essayist: The past is an Aladdin’s lamp which he or she never tires of rubbing.”
Or quoting my undergraduate creative writing professor, essayist and fictionist Ma Elena Paulma, I write because “most of the time, we come from middle spaces, where there will always be more than one thing, all at once, a revelation of what is not understood, a rediscovery of what we think has been lost and forgotten, merging and re-emerging the way water shifts through sand” or I write “to be one of many voices, to be read—is this not why I write?”
Reflecting on and ruminating over what has already happened also comes as a Piscean instinct to me, like muscle memory almost. To remake and revisit memories, things you so wish you have done, or undone, or so they say. And such, in turn, has been the currency of most of my works in the genre—in travel and place writing a la Noo Saro-Wiwa and in autotheory enmeshed in lyric essays, Maggie Nelson-style, as well as in my occasional excursions to memoir, ‘psychoscapes,’ and the personal essay. But I also find myself reading almost everything there is to read, even creative nonfiction subgenres I don’t write in, from illness memoir to literary journalism, from true crime to food essays.1 As a lover of contemporary world literatures as well I’ve read Isabel Allende’s Paula (Chile), Xu Xi’s This Fish Is Fowl (Hong Kong), Naguib Mahfouz’s Echoes of an Autobiography (Egypt), Karl Ove Knausgård’s The Seasons Quartet (Norway), Reinaldo Arenas’s Before Night Falls (Cuba), Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (Iran), Judith Schalansky’s An Inventory of Losses (Germany), Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy (South Africa), Wole Soyinka’s Aké (Nigeria), as well as Japanese traditions of the zuihitsu (discursive essay), kana nikki (poetic diary), haibun (haiku-in-prose), and kikobun (travel sketches).
And maybe, just maybe, reading these works in the ‘fourth genre’ made me want to join in, to write what I want to read. Before attempting to write, I felt the need to survey the genre’s historical traditions—which I think every beginning writer of any genre should do—from its roots: Plutarch, Seneca the Younger, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Marcus Aurelius, Yoshida Kenkō, Ou-yang Hsiu, and Heian Japan’s court diarists of the Nikki bungaku (“diary literature”) like Sei Shōnagon, Izumi Shikibu, Lady Sarashina, etc. And that goes until the New Journalism movement of the 60s until 80s (Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Annie Dillard, Norman Mailer, Tom Wolfe), the ‘memoir craze’ of the 90s (David Sedaris, Mary Karr, Frank McCourt) as well as the new permutations of the genre such as graphic memoirs (Maggie Thrash, Alison Bechdal, Anna Joy Springer) and video essays (Kristen Radke, John Bresland).
I also come from a country with, I dare say, a rich Anglophone essay tradition—separate from our essay traditions in Hispanophone and in the local languages which long predate writings in English—beginning as early as 1918, two decades after the Treaty of Paris, with Alejandrina Santiago’s “A Call,” the first informal essay in English written by a Filipino, published in the bilingual Philippine Review, where the “language is cloying, waxing into too many superlatives [about everyday life in and near Iloilo City which] is not surprising, as in this early period of apprenticeship in the English language, the first Filipino writers were prone to sentimentalism and verbiage—characteristics acquired from the Spanish and from the Oriental predilection to rant.” By 1933, Dear Devices, the first anthology of personal essays in English which collated works of the country’s first-generation Anglophone essayists came out. Four years later, one of those essayists, Alfredo Q Gonzalez, would publish The Call of the Heights, the first single-author collection of personal essays. (In 1921, Zoilo M Galang would publish A Child of Sorrow, the first novel in English in the Philippines, and Life and Success, the first volume of essays in English.) Leopoldo Y Yabes, our foremost scholar of Anglophone prose in his anthology Filipino Essays in English (University of the Philippines Press, 1954), wrote from almost seven decades ago that the genre “was, curiously enough, less neglected during the period under survey than it is now. The short story fits more than the essay, it seems, in the psychology of the present… The essay is for gracious living and quiet, deliberate thinking; the short story is for the quick-moving, tense kind of human existence that we go through today.” Apart from the contributions of Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Nick Joaquin (who wrote under the penname Quijano de Manila most especially during the dark Marcosian decades), and Kerima Polotan-Tuvera, the genre has been flourishing in local publishing since Yabes’ pronouncement—from the place writings of Rosario A Garcellano to the narrative histories of Resil B Mojares and Ambeth Ocampo, from the food essays of Doreen G Fernandez to the political autobiographies of Dolores Stephens Feria and Valeria ‘“Yay” Panlilio-Marking, from the cultural critiques of Jessica Zafra to the travel narratives of Alice M Sun-Cua and Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, from the memoirs of Criselda Yabes and Bienvenido N Santos to the personal essays of Erma M Cuizon and Sylvia L Mayuga.
Despite the almost tokenistic attention given by Anglophone anthologies of literary studies in Asia towards the essay2, I must say, the genre is alive more than ever. My favourites among the recently published collections are by writers who are queer, women, or queer women: Arnie Q Mejia’s Writing Naked: A Memoir (UST Publishing House, 2016), Johanna Michelle Lim’s What Distance Tells Us: Travel Essays from the Philippines (Sibi, 2018), Wilfredo Pascual’s Kilometer Zero: Personal Essays (DailyJessie, 2015), Laurel Fantauzzo’s The First Impulse (Anvil, 2017), Gutierrez M Mangansakan II’s Archipelago of Stars (Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2017), and Jhoanna Lynn Cruz’s Abi Nako, or So I Thought (University of the Philippines Press, 2019). Most younger writers, those from Generation Z and Generation Y like me, chose to publish their autobiographical works as independently published chapbooks and zines, or online, and these, I must say, are of good quality. (The editors at Kritika Kultura Journal’s special issue dedicated to the Contemporary Philippine Essay generalised that the current landscape is “energized by [an] experimental spirit” which isn’t exactly the case still.) That said, I dissent from an older Filipino writer who, in an email to Robin Hemley published in Teaching Creative Writing in Asia (ed. Darryl Whetter, Routledge, 2021), expressed that
“The Millennials are a different breed. Their blogs, and their posts on social media are all autobiographical in nature. And they don’t seem to recognize any such taboos. But much of this writing has no literary merit whatsoever, so I don’t concern myself with them.”
Apart from reducing all young writers as “Millennials” (the youngest Millennial is currently aged 25-27) and “their posts on social media [as] all autobiographical in nature,” this remark against confessionalist writing is dismissive of the very historical context and almost 2000-year-old tradition of nonfiction, autobiography, and the essay itself: beginning from Saint Augustine of Hippo’s Confessions (397-398 CE), considered as the West’s first important memoir (at least, in modern standards), to the Japanese court diaries at the turn of the second millennium, to the body of works of Michel de Montaigne, the father of the essay. The same older writer may also need to be reminded of the rise of testimonial literature, a form of autobiographical writing in the Philippines which largely influenced nonfiction works in the local languages in the early 90s. In The Arvon Book of Life Writing (2010), Sally Cline wrote about what she calls the “explosion” of the form which
“…came as a result of the growth of three movements: the sixties; the Confessionalist Literature Movement, The Women’s Movement (seventies/eighties) which with its tenet of ‘The Personal Is Political’ focused on exploration of suppressed female selves and voices; and the Gay Movement (seventies/eighties) which gradually revealed its cloistered sexual selves. These intense hidden experiences led to outpourings about incest, violence against women, and homophobic abuse. Confessionalist literature in the sixties was a literary movement in which the dominant feature was the use of the writers’ most extreme life experiences as literary material.”
And maybe that, too, is another reason why I write creative nonfiction: to celebrate defiance (“…a broaching, an interference, a disruption, a breaking in of me upon you—your mind a quiet lake, me jumping into it,” as Anne Carson wrote of the genre in “Stillness”), to write against silencing.
Did you have a piece already written when you learned about Epoch’s theme, or did you write a new piece? If so, how did you approach the theme of Roots in the creation of your work?
They say that the real writing begins only after the first draft is finished. So with that in mind, I began writing “Three Holidays,” a triptych of lyric essays collaged and weaved together and titled after folk Christian holidays “Semana Santa” (Holy Week) and “Kalag-kalag” (All Souls’ Day), and the Muslim feast of Eid al-Fitr, a week after the theme was announced. The proposed themes for the issue was first posted as a poll via Epoch Press’ Twitter account and as far as I remember, I voted for “Roots.” At the time, too, an online class on hybrid literary forms I was in had just concluded and I was in a Twitter Space with some writer-friends when someone mentioned David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010). That made me decide to reread it early in the year, a detour from a personal tradition. In it, Shields defined the lyric essay as a creative nonfiction genre that
“…doesn’t expound, is suggestive rather than exhaustive, depends on gaps, may merely mention. It might move by association, leaping from one path of thought to another by way of imagery or connotation, advancing by juxtaposition or sidewinding poetic logic. It often accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically, its import visible only when one stands back and sees it whole. It partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language, and partakes of the essay in its weight, its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form. It gives primacy to artfulness over the conveying of information, forsaking narrative line, discursiveness, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation.”
I’ve always wanted to start a project where the ‘I-now’ and the ‘I-then,’ to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, or to borrow from Vivian Gornick, the persona who has lived in the “situation” and the persona telling the “story,” are at best in nodding terms with each other like a ‘hi-hello’ ex-friend you meet down the street. In the Dialectical behaviour therapy and trauma-informed coaching program I’m in, one of the mental exercises we usually do is addressing common distorted thinking patterns such as overgeneralisation—seeing the experience or person as wholly good or wholly bad—by rethinking of the many mental filters and recognising gray areas. And the piece, more or less, dwelt on that, the gray areas, in and through the in-betweenness. A marine biologist-friend has a perfect metaphor for this: estuarine, animals that dwell where the river meets the sea, like jellyfish. I think that even outside my writing (writing in between ‘genres’), I am in between being a settler and a nomad. I don’t see it as writing or living outside box when there should be no box in the first place.
As a beginning practitioner of yoga and the meditative practice, too, I began to appreciate the bodily, not necessarily erotic but parallel to what queer theorists call the sensorium, which as far as I’ve read, prevalent in poems and prose by younger bisexual and pansexual writers, even those in translation. And in place writing, atmospheric details that appeal to the five senses are very important.
So I guess it all fell into place. Thus, the piece.
What is the biggest challenge when writing CNF?
A lot to mention.3
Earlier this week, I rewatched a favourite crime drama miniseries, Defending Jacob (Apple TV+, 2020), a Chris Evans-starrer adaptation of a William Landay novel of the same title. In the series, the character Joanna Klein, a lesbian lawyer portrayed by Cherry Jones would say, “Our memories are often less reliable than we think, particularly in moments of stress.” Joan Didion, in her memoir Blue Nights (2012), wrote of the same thing: “Memory fades, memory adjusts, memory conforms to what we think we remember.” But I try to be as truthful as I can, or in the words of CNF’s godfather Lee Gutkind in his guidebook You Can’t Make This Stuff Up (2012), I write what is “true to the best of [my] ability.” So as much as possible, I don’t use techniques such as representative or collective scenes and chorus or composite characters. I don’t mind if others—writers I read, contributors I edit—do, it’s just not my cup of tea.
However, like Lopate and John D’Agata, I also believe that creative nonfiction should not be held in the same strict standards of truth and “law and order” boundaries as journalism. (In Lauren Slater’s Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, the whole first chapter is composed of just two words: “I exaggerate.” The first autobiography in English, The Book of Margery Kempe, details the medieval Christian mystic’s supposed presence in Biblical events and conversations with Biblical figures.) Quoting from Robin Hemley and Leila Phillip’s manifesto for Speculative Nonfiction magazine, I prefer creative nonfiction that seeks the “figurative over the literal, ambiguity over knowing, meditation over reportage” and recognise, at the same time, that “nonfiction… [can] use speculation as methodology and content” putting a rest to the “tired dog [demarcation] of truth vs. fiction.” (This brings to mind, although remotely, what some essayists call ‘The Didion/Gutkind spectrum’ of searching and researching.) After all, isn’t this obsession of separating fiction from nonfiction an Anglophone phenomenon? Elissa Washuta and Theresa Warburton wrote it best in the Native American anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction (2019): to “destabilize … the colonial demand for factual information.”
For the forthcoming issue of Iowa-based literary magazine Atlas & Alice where I serve as an assistant nonfiction editor, a piece I edited written by a Pakistani-American writer and editor appropriates a 9th century Indo-Persian mode of oral storytelling called the dāstān or qiṣṣah, which has mythopoetic elements, further questioning the imagined Western binaries of what actually happened and what was imagined. One of my ongoing projects also made me reflect on this further. I’m currently translating into English some of Filipino transgender woman and Saudi-based migrant worker Stefani J Alvarez’s dagli which, in Philippine literary tradition in Tagalog-based Filipino, is a short prose piece—may or may not be flash fiction or flash nonfiction. (The Encyclopedia of Philippine Art published by the Cultural Center of the Philippines translates it as “vignette or sketch.”) In my translator’s note, I talked about “the challenge of introducing the dagli to non-Filipino, even non-Tagalog, readership thus the need to locate the said genre in its sociohistorical and ethnopoetic conditions.” Those are just two of the many literary genres, if genre is conceived in the same way, outside Anglophone and Western contexts. And even within Anglophone essays, there are variances. If we based it on annual anthologies, we see some particular differences between The Best American Essays (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Best Canadian Essays (Biblioasis), and the now-defunct The Best Australian Essays (Black, Inc).
And we are always told to write the truth and proclaim it as such—The Truth.5 But whose version though? Didn’t Taylor Swift sang, “I was there, I remember it all too well”? Or at least, that’s what she thought. But William Zinsser sheds some light: “[T]he truth is somewhere between your version of what happened and the other person’s. And that’s okay. As a writer—a custodian of memory—what you wrote is merely your version. No one has a monopoly of the shared past.” And even D’Agata: “…what I love to read in nonfiction often exists between those poles of what’s verifiable and what’s simply not. I love the in-between, which is where I think the most truthful struggles with reality exist.” And scientifically, we are all prone to what Harvard psychologist and ‘memory researcher’ Daniel Schachter calls the “seven sins of memory”—transcience, absent-mindedness, blocking, suggestibility, blocking, bias, misattribution, persistence. And for sure, at least one of these, if not all, affect how we remember and ultimately, how we write what we write. Not too mention the many authorial blind spots which vary from one person to the next. Maybe this is what Theodore W Adorno meant when, in The Essay as a Form, he wrote, “luck and play are essential.” Or maybe not.
There are also other choices to make: from simple, cosmetic ones like which typographical device to separate sections in the manuscript indicating digression and/or segmentation—“star line breaks” or three asterisks? a large capital letter? a subhead? or a bullet? To larger concerns: revealing secrets within the family (given of course, that they are tangential to the narrative and there is no subscription to ‘revenge prose’) or the reconstruction of events which conflict with the other parties involved and be told, “That’s not how I remember it!” And this is what Richard Rodriguez meant when he said, “There is such a betrayal in writing about one’s family,” or Hanif Kureishi, “If you’ve got a writer in the family, the family’s dead.” Even in this contentious ethical issue, nonfiction writers differ: Annie Dillard recommends that people you’ve written about should have a veto vote on how you wrote about them, while Anne Lamott advises, “If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Although what I really grapple with, most of the time, is perfectly summed up by Sarah Fawn Montgomery as tweeted by Dinty W Moore:
“Nonfiction writers, your writing should not be a dutiful timeline, but rather a seismograph … respond to rumbling beneath the surface, locate and characterize tension and friction, and seek to study and record the story’s internal structure.”
More of a seismograph, less of a timeline. After all, the French essai, “trials” or “attempts,” where the genre’s etymology comes from could be traced back to exagium, Latin for “weight.” “The essayist’s job,” wrote Rebecca Solnit as she proposes that the essay is part ‘investigative memoir,’ part ‘personal editorial’ in her introduction to The Best American Essays 2019, “is to gather up the shards or map them where they are, to find the pattern out there or make one with words about the disconnections and mysteries … Essays are restless literature, trying to find out how things fit together, how we can think about two things at once, how the personal and the public can inform each other, how two overtly dissimilar things share a secret kinship, how intuitive and scholarly knowledge can cook down together, how discovery can be a deep pleasure.”
What’s your favourite piece of art in your home?
A cactus plant which has been with me all throughout. So unlike creative nonfiction and the artistic process it involves, outside writing (if such is possible for the writing life), I’m a huge fan of consistency and stability.
1 Some literary magazines and journals, mostly US-based but international in terms of scope, have specialised in particular forms and permutations of creative nonfiction: place writing (Ecotone), video essays (TriQuarterly), flash nonfiction (Hippocampus Magazine), illness narratives (Bellevue Literary Review), lyric essays (Seneca Review), travel writing (Granta), city essays (Slag Glass City), experimental nonfiction (Speculative Nonfiction), nature writing or Earth writing (Terrain.org), personal essay (Tiny Lights), longform nonfiction (True Story), and memoir (Memoir Magazine).
2 Studies on Asian nonfiction are dominated by Asian American writings or those in diaspora in the Global North. Those that focus on Asia like The Routledge Concise History of Southeast Asian Writing in English (Routledge, 2010) edited by Rajeev S Patke and Philip Holden had chapters for Philippine poetry, fiction, and drama, but none for the essay or nonfiction. The essays cited in Asian Voices in English (Hong Kong University Press, 1991) edited by Mimi Chan and Roy Harris, which had contributions from Bienvenido N Santos, Merlinda C Bobis, and Lily Rose Tope, are either scholarly or journalistic ones which are studies on the other three literary genres. The same is true in Antonio G Manuud’s Brown Heritage: Essays on Philippine Cultural Tradition and Literature (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1967). Despite the proliferation of several anthologies focused solely on Philippine Anglophone poetry and short fiction, there are only three anthologies I could find which are dedicated to autobiographical works of prose, and these are by women writers: Filipina 2: Essays by Women Writers in Media Now (ed. Mila Astorga Garcia, New Day Publishers, 1984), Telling Lives: Essays by Filipino Women (eds. Babeth Lolarga & Anna Lea Sarabia, Circle Media Publications, 1992), and Coming to Terms: Writings on Mid-Life by 15 Women (ed. Lorna Tirol Kalaw, Anvil Publishing, 1994). I would be happy to be proven wrong.
In postcolonial contexts, the following key texts are also instructive: The Book of Indian Essays: Two Hundred Years of English Prose (ed. Arvind Krishna Mehrotra, Hachette Books India, 2020), Limbe To Lagos: Nonfiction from Cameroon and Nigeria (eds. Dami Ajayi, Dzekashu MacViban, and Emmanuel Iduma, The Mantle, 2020), Safe House: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction (eds. Ellah Wakatama Allfrey and Otieno Owino, Dundurn, 2016), and The Space of Boundaries in and of South African Nonfiction Writing (Carole Kläy, Universität Zürich, 2015). A forthcoming volume of the Lahore-based anthology Narrating Pakistan will be dedicated to creative nonfiction.
3 In the Anglophone world, particularly in the Philippines, the dominant æsthetic ideology in publications seems to uphold the ‘show not tell’ tenet and emotional restraint which, in the words of Chinese American poet Chen Chen, is “rooted in Anglo masculinist stoicism … related to the fear of sentimentality and the principle of less is more”, which makes sense because the first ‘workshoppers’ at Iowa were homogeneously Caucasian male poets and fictionists. For Kenyan fictionist Troy Onyango, “the idea of restraint [or] control [harms those who] come from [non-Western oral] storytelling backgrounds that encourages excess, one that says: ‘More! All over!’” Korean American novelist Matthew Salesses in Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping (Catapult, 2021) problematised this workshop culture which I admittedly and regretfully have advocated for and been complicit of, if not, obsessed with, in the past:
“When the ‘traditional’ creative writing workshop, in which the author submits a manuscript to a group of peers and listens silently, began at Iowa, it was developed with shared assumptions in mind. The workshop was made up of white males reading white male fiction, as students and especially as instructors. In this world only does the ‘gag rule’ make some sense, in that it forced men used to being heard to stop and listen to their likely audience. But the world has moved on. The traditional workshop does not work without shared assumptions. It doesn’t work if some of the writers in the room have different audiences or expectations—as in the workshop where I was told to race characters of color. At best, it pressures the least normative writers to make fiction that is ‘likeable’ and generalizable to the most normative audience. Non-normative experience becomes exoticized or unspecific, something extra rather than something foundational.”
Pulitzer Prize-winning Vietnamese American novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen alludes to his 2017 New York Times Book Review article on the hostility of writing workshops and discussed “the inherent prejudices … [which] may go unchecked” within university models which are particularly harmful for ‘outsiders.’ In his 2019 interview with Guernica magazine, Nguyen said:
“[In the] workshop … a canonical set of aesthetic norms are often assumed to be true. For example, writers are encouraged to ‘show not tell’ and to follow certain technical aspects of characterization or symbolism. These things are important, but they are specific aesthetic features prized by the American writers’ workshop; they are not universal. If you are a writer from a background unlike that of your peers and professor, you may need a different set of aesthetic possibilities than what is considered normative. But the underlying assumption often goes uninterrogated: Why have certain aesthetic values become the norm? If teachers and students cannot interrogate or understand the historical contingencies of their aesthetic norms and of the writing workshop itself, then the model has real problems.”
Locally, such cultism is so pervasive to the point of self-entitlement where a teacher, upon receiving an unsatisfactory grade from an advanced literature course they took at the graduate level, hysterically ranted in some platforms that they not deserve such mark because they were a writing fellow in national writing workshops and have literally brushed elbows with the contemporary Filipino writers they studied in that course.
In early 2017, I was branded as a ‘radical regionalist’ by a mob (several from this pool of thought police would be exposed as sexual assaulters a few years later) when I questioned a “southern” literary anthology’s lineup of authors for ironically not including anyone from the southern Philippines—as a bibliographic research across fields outside literature and creative writing, from conflict studies to policy development, from the study of religion to military sciences, from cultural anthropology to microeconomics, equate the terms “Southern Philippines” or “South” with Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago; none so far has conflated the Visayas with it—a seemingly well-meaning older writer would tell me, “Writing is writing. Everything else is show business.” But in The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop: How to Decolonize the Creative Classroom (Haymarket Books, 2021), Latin American essayist Felicia Rose Chavez wrote,
“Creative Writing is Ethnic Studies is Gender and Sexuality Studies is Political Science is Religion is History is Sociology. The dichotomy is a sham: All art is political art. Anything less is denial. Denial being the most political choice of all: to elect out, to not bear witness, to laugh about muffins knowing, all the while, that your nonaction exonerates hate.”
Danielle Evans, in 2010, wrote a sober critique on accolades based on actual writing talent versus strength of literary networks. For further socio-æsthetic and politico-linguistic contexts of publishing and writing during—and after?—the reign of American New Criticism in the Philippines, see Meg Wesling’s Empire’s Proxy: American Literature and U.S. Imperialism in the Philippines (New York University Press, 2011) and Filipino avant-garde poet Conchitina Cruz’s PhD dissertation Authoring Autonomy: The Politics of Art for Art’s Sake in Filipino Poetry in English (2017) at the State University of New York, Albany. For some critical discussions and personal anecdotes on Philippine literary gatekeeping, see Jhoanna Lynn Cruz’s PhD dissertation Writing Lesbian: Pushing Against Boundaries Through Nonfiction in the Philippines (2020) at the RMIT University in Melbourne.
4 Interestingly, Gutkind considers prose poems, more or less, under the creative nonfiction umbrella: “in fact, the border between sudden [sometimes brief or flash] nonfiction and the prose poem remains murky and under dispute” (Keep It Real, 2008) and “creative nonfiction does not strictly adhere to one narrative form; there’s the lyric essay, the segmented essay, and the prose poem, all of which can be nonfiction” (You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, 2012). Creative Nonfiction magazine, the journal-turned-magazine he founded, accepts prose poems as submissions and offers classes on the form along with the lyric essay. In 2017, The Essay Review, the University of Iowa – Nonfiction Writing Program’s journal dedicated to “the essay’s limitations and possibilities,” published a poem in mostly lineated verse. Such are testaments of the genre’s oceanic possibilities.
In this interview, I have utilised the liberty to refer to creative/literary nonfiction, autobiography, and essay, or collectively, ‘The Fourth Genre’ in the Anglo-American sense, interchangeably.
5 As someone with a history of untruths (a subject of possibly another piece, or book), I’m not suggesting we pull off a James Frey, or write a memoir with questionable chapters like Lillian Hellman, or pretend to be a Navajo named Nasdijj like Tim Barrus, or fake a biography like Clifton Irving. The words of Lopate who prefers “honest” over “truthful” in To Show and To Tell (2013) best elucidate my point:
“Honest to the world of facts outside ourselves, honest in reporting what we actually felt and did, and finally, honest about our own confusions and doubts … to take something that actually happened, to herself or to others, and try to render it as honestly and compellingly as possible. In giving it shape, the nonfiction writer may be obliged to leave out some facts, combine incidents or even rearrange chronologies.”