I became a writer, but first, I became a reader. This is how penman Butch Dalisay reflects on the events that led him to become who he is today. Dalisay, who once fancied to become a scientist, is now a retired academician, multi-awarded writer, and has published more than 40 fiction and nonfiction books. But things could’ve turned out differently for him, if not for the power of words.
For Marcel Antonio, the impulse to become an artist came as a natural one. A son of Filipino painters Angelito Antonio and Norma Belleza, the sought-after painter—whose Chagallesque works are prized by collectors in the Philippines and Southeast Asia—grew up surrounded in an environment filled with art.
Though coming from different backgrounds, both Dalisay and Antonio’s bodies of work share an intrinsic quality, storytelling. Their works—a shot through life, memories, and observations—are creative vessels that retell the human experience to lead one to the truth. Looking for Juan speaks with Dalisay and Antonio on their book collaboration, Why Words Matter: Why We Read and Why We Write. In this special interview, the penman and the painter talk about the importance of art, words, and literature in today’s world.
On doing what they do
LFJ: Everyone who has seen or read your works know all about you, but for people who have just found out about you now, can you tell us what pushed you to become a writer and an artist?
MA: The impetus to be an artist for me was a natural one. I grew up with artistic parents and we were living in a small studio apartment in Cubao, but it was an environment replete with music, good food, intelligent company and of course, art. My dad obviously was a great early influence (my mom took up painting fulltime much later), and I remember a distinct childhood memory where I asked him to draw me a muscled man, sort of like Charles Atlas frequently seen in US comic ads at the time, and I spent a good amount of time to mimic and improve his drawing at home and in school. I loved to draw. I easily get lost in worlds of my own creation.
BD: My family was not well-off when I was a kid, so my parents scrimped, saved, and literally borrowed money to send me to a private school. And being the poorest boy in that school, I had to spend a lot of time by myself in the library. I became a bookworm. After reading so many books, I told myself, “Why don’t I write my own stories and books?” And of course, the stories that I had in mind where just copies of what I was reading like the Hardy Boys. They were rip-offs of them, about boys solving mysteries in Mandaluyong and finding things because my brother and I liked to run around and find strange things like Japanese war helmets, so I made mysteries out of those. That’s how I started becoming a writer at around nine years old. I gathered sheets of bond paper together, stitched a spine in the middle, folded them into little books, and started writing my stories. From there, I contributed to the school paper, this went on to Philippine Science High School [where] I became the editor of the school paper, to UP and, I guess, for the rest of my life. I realized that there was really nothing I could do reasonably well other than writing. I became a writer, but first, I became a reader.
The first story that I sold was a television play written in Filipino for "Balintataw" when I was sixteen years old. I was training with PETA when I saw a copy of a video script for a dramatic show called "Balintataw," so I wrote my own script about a street urchin who was adopted by an old couple, and much to my surprise, it was accepted and produced. It was a nine-year-old Roderick Paulate who played the boy along with Joe Ruta and Angie Ferro, and was titled “Bethlehem.” It was my break into dramatic writing. I began really as a playwright more than as a short story writer.
A young Butch Dalisay during his days at the Philippine Science High School (photo courtesy of Dalisay, presented at TedXDiliman 2017)
On their style and process
LFJ: Your pieces seem to tell a narrative veiled in a silent interaction between your characters. How did you come about this artistic style? Tell us more about it, the influences you draw upon, and your process.
MA: My so-called "narrative style" is more a product of randomness and discovery, of playing with the work within certain limits and free-styling from there. I try to find relationships and combinations between disparate images and texts that suggest a memory or experience familiar to me, and I work with that. A sense of play is very important in the creative process. I was influenced in the beginning by Dada artists and early modernism. On the literary side, I took an interest in the OuLiPo movement and their love for constraints as a literary device.
Some of Marcel Antonio's lyrical artwork featured on Why Words Matter: Why We Read and Why We Write
LFJ: Whether fiction or creative nonfiction, you always write with such authority and ease. How do you switch between the two? Tell us more about your artistic style and process.
BD: When I re-entered UP (because I dropped out for 10 years when I was an activist), I chose between History and English [as my major]. I eventually chose English, but I have always loved history. And this, I think, is part of my fascination for creative nonfiction. Nonfiction is about what is and what was, and fiction is about what could be and what could have been. They have their unique challenges, and I love doing them both. Lately, I’ve been doing more creative nonfiction, mainly biographies of famous people. But what I call my fiction, my stories, are the biographies of ordinary people who can’t afford to hire me to write their life stories, and I enjoy doing that.
My approach to fiction is to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. We don’t have to go to a galaxy far, far away to understand or find life’s mysteries. They are right there in front of us.
In my fiction classes, I would tell my students, “Pumunta kayo sa Farmer’s Market, may Jollibee riyan. Umupo kayo nang kalahating oras. Just observe around you and find a story to tell about the people in front of you. There must be a story there.” So my challenge for them as I challenge myself is to find the story in each of us. Even in the most seemingly ordinary person, there must be some amazing story to find and to tell, and that is the wonderful thing about fiction.
I recall my favorite quote from Mark Twain, and I’m paraphrasing this, but what he said was that fact is stranger than fiction. Because fiction, after all, has to make sense. And that’s so true. It’s hard to write a good fictional story. If you’re doing history or creative nonfiction, you’re stuck with what basically happened. But when you’re constructing an imagined or alternative life, your imagination is free to wander, but that imagination also has to follow a certain logic and discipline so that people will believe the creative lie you are telling, and this is the lie that leads to the truth.
On life and artistic experience
LFJ: What is more important: life experience or artistic experience? How much are your works based on your experiences?
MA: I don't think you can separate one from the other and privilege either one as more important. They are not unconnected; they overlap. Life experience informs artistic experience, and vice-versa. They are not exclusive to each other, because literature and art are born from both art and life.
It's hard to say how experiences, in general, manifest in my art, or if it is even apparent in my works at all. More often than not, I stumble upon an idea that I think is quite interesting to me, so I try to chase it but I always end up with something different, entirely. So I gave up trying to work in that manner, and I learned to focus more on finding rather than looking. Thinking about life experiences is one thing; realizing them in an artistic form with clarity and precision is another. I think it is true what they say—the best paintings are always in your head, and blessed are those who can paint them for the world to see.
Marcel Antonio in his studio, 2010 (CC BY-SA 3.0)
BD: You can have a life without art. That sounds terrible, but that’s true for a lot of people. It’s not just art as a painting on a wall, but art as a way of looking at life. You can have a life without art, but you cannot make art without life. And I don’t mean just the life you breathe, but the life you live and all the joys and pains that infuse your art with humanity.
Art is a way of making sense of life. I’ve always said that writing is one way to happiness—and honestly, I would trade all my books for a happy home life. Thankfully, I have both so I feel blessed. But there’s no question in my mind that life is important for the creation of good art. You need to be able to live. Perhaps, you might suffer and that will also be a part of your art, but it’s important for the artist to turn that suffering into something beautiful and transcending. There’s this saying by Hippocrates about life being short, but art is long—ars longa, vita brevis—art will survive us, which is why we artists create what we can while we can because when we go, our art will be the only thing that will be left behind to speak for us. So art, in a way, is a perpetuation of life. And I think that those of us who can do that are incredibly blessed.
Butch Dalisay during his 2017 TEDxDiliman talk, "Why We Write, And Why We Read"
On the power of words and art
LFJ: What was an early experience where you learned that words and art had power?
MA: My first encounter of such power was in the form of a small pamphlet reproduction of an early modernist Chagall painting, The Poet Reclining, 1915. I was probably five years old then. My dad kept that pamphlet among other art magazines and books piled in a corner of his small studio, and I remember spending more time just looking at this particular image with the thought, "Does such a magical world exist? And if yes, I'd like to go and see for myself one day." A few years later, I was learning to paint with oil and it was no surprise to me that Chagall's wonderful vision held a powerful grip on my imagination.
BD: I remember when I got to the Philippine Science High School, I topped the entrance exam, but one year after, they were going to kick me out because my grade in English was 1 and my grade in Math was 5. So they said, “What are we going to do with you? We can’t just kick you out because you’re our topnotcher. What would that say about us?” So they said, go write a letter of appeal and beg to stay here under probation. That’s what I did. I was twelve years old, and I conjured all the words in the English language and put them together to help make my case. I begged the Philippine Science High School to put me on probation, and they did, and I graduated. That, I think, was my first practical experience with how words can literally change lives. If you know what to say, you can get people to understand and believe you.
"Literature makes us human because it allows us to tell stories that make sense of our lives, even stories that never happened, except in our imaginations." (From Why Words Matter)
On Why Words Matter: Why We Read and Why We Write
LFJ: What was your inspiration in creating the series of artworks for Why Words Matter?
MA: Butch's wonderful TEDxDiliman talk, “Why We Write, And Why We Read,” is like a treasure trove of ideas, a list of found objects, a potpourri of colors and emotions. I've always loved the idea of working with a list of something, and with Why Words Matter, I got excited and wasted no time to have fun. There isn't a dull passage in the text. Every line is another window to a different vignette—a list of carefully chosen reasons designed to ignite the imagination. Needless to say, it was a delight and a huge honor for me to work with Mr. Butch Dalisay on this project.
Butch Dalisay and Marcel Antonio holding a copy of Why Words Matter: Why We Read and Why We Write
LFJ: During your talk at TEDx Diliman, you shared your journey as a writer and the enduring power of words. Can you tell us more about how words have affected your life?
BD: Writing for me has always been an art, but it has also been a means of living. I’ve always told my students that there is nothing wrong with writing for a living. People become accountants, doctors, and some people like us, if we’re lucky enough, we can live off of our writing. So words for me have both been a thing of beauty but also of necessity. It has supported my family and my little hobbies or obsessions. It has literally made life as is possible for me. So I cannot thank words enough to have enabled me to be where I am today.
I met Marcel only once but we shared an intuitive familiarity with our material. I was definitely floored when I saw what he had done. In a way, his kind of art is ironically one way of making words superfluous, like music. But also like music, it’s more fun when you can sing along, so my words are still there. And this book, our collaboration, has been one of my most wonderful experiences as a writer and an artist—to find somebody who is on the same wavelength and can get across what I’m trying to say without too many words being exchanged between us. This is the kind of conversation between artists that CANVAS is there for us to thank because it has made this collaboration possible.
Why Words Matter: Why We Read and Why We Write features Butch Dalisay's poetic reflection on reading, writing, language, literature, and the enduring power of words, complemented by the unique lyrical art of Marcel Antonio. Available at www.lookingforjuan (₱1500)
On artistic evolution
LFJ: How do you see your roles as a Filipino artist evolving?
MA: To borrow a sentiment from Butch Dalisay: “I hope to continue to engage with myself and with the world no matter how small my role as a Filipino artist, but I'm hoping my small effort will be big enough to light up the sky of someone else's mind with a certain kind of love.”
BD: It will be the same as it has always been, and that is to tell our people the truth as we see it so they can make more intelligent choices in their own lives. As I was saying, fiction is the lie that brings you to the truth. So in a sense, we need to be very good liars to create a world of make-believe where people, for one minute, can leave their ordinary lives and experience something different. Yet, at the end of the process, go back to their own realities. That has always been the writer’s task.
And of course, for Filipino writers, it is to understand ourselves as Filipinos living in the 21st century. Ano ba ang ibig sabihin ng pagiging Pilipino ngayon? Ano ang mga pananagutan natin sa ating lipunan, sa isa’t isa, sa ating sarili, sa kinabukasan? Papaano tayo makahahanap ng kaunting ginhawa at kaligayan sa ating buhay?
"Words have meaning. And because they have meaning, words have power, and words have consequences. Words can hurt. Words can kill. But words can also heal. Words can save. Words make law. Words make war. Words make money. Words make peace. Words make nations." (From Why Words Matter)
On the role of the Filipino artist in the time of social media and disinformation
LFJ: What is the place of the Filipino artist in the age of social media and misinformation? How can literature and art better humanity?
MA: I've seen a few local artists heeding the call for resistance against misinformation, producing works and performances that highlight the very problem we are facing now in this age of social media. These artists understand how social media shapes art, and that art can likewise influence social media behavior by becoming a tool to generate interest, excitement, discussion, and critique of the human condition.
Art in the service of humanity aims to seek the truth. A good work of art goes beyond the obvious—it decimates borders and tears down walls, banal existence achieves a transcendent status through art and helps heal and unite a community.
Marcel Antonio in his studio painting what would eventually be the book cover of Why Words Matter (photo courtesy of Antonio)
BD: Our job is to find the truth and to assert it. Maybe not in the hundreds of characters of Twitter, but in the many thousands of words of a novel. Iba-ibang porma lang ’yan, ngunit ang ating hinahabol pa rin ay ang katotohan tungkol sa ating buhay sa ngayon at sa mga pangangailangan ng panahon.
It is true that in this digital age, the opportunities for misinformation are rife, and a lot of people have made use of this, or actually misused this for their own purposes. This is why it is even more important for artists to find and assert the truth and to present it in the most artful way.
The best antidote to fake news is true fiction, good fiction, because nothing will move a person more than a good story.