Monday, December 20, 2010

Nikki Alfar: Writing with Courage

Photo credit: Dean Alfar
Originally published in on June 26, 2007

“It took a long while before I got enough confidence to admit that I’m not Butch Dalisay, but that’s okay.”

For someone who once did not have enough courage to write, fictionist Nikki Go Alfar has certainly covered considerable mileage, judging from the awards she’s received.

In 2001, the comic book Isaw Atbp, which she edited, earned a National Book Award. Her short story for children, “Menggay’s Magical Chicken,” won third prize in the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature in 2005. A one-act play, “Life After Beth,” also won last year.

Nikki was named among the “13 emerging women writers” by the Ateneo Library of Women’s Writings, which cited her work as editor of Mango Jam, a girl power comic series.

At six, Nikki already knew that she was going to be a writer. “I started writing Nancy Drew-type stories, then I moved on to the Sweet Dreams type. I used to get in trouble a lot in school because my notebooks were full of stories but had no notes,” she relates.

“Pretty much from the start, I was really into this whole speculative fiction bent. One of the first novels I read was Stephen King’s Cujo and later The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien,” Nikki remembers.

Her parents were not as encouraging, however. “My mom brainwashed me, ‘If you’re going to be a writer, you will be poor!’ and I didn’t want to be poor. I’m kikay [stylish], so I can’t be poor!” she laughs.

Enrolling at UP Diliman’s creative writing program didn’t provide much encouragement either.

“You know how it is,” she explains, “in grade school and high school, you think you’re very brilliant—and then you get to college and you realize: hey, there are other more brilliant people and you’re just okay!”

While she put her writing ambitions aside, Nikki continued to participate in a writers’ group, where she would meet playwright Dean Alfar, who would later become her husband.

“After college, I did a lot of other things—I was a flight attendant at Air Philippines and later a bank manager—because I wasn’t brave. You see, when you start in writing, it’s not a lot of money, and of course, since I had just come out of college, I wanted money!”

(Her husband Dean, who had won three Palancas before they got married, also went on a writing hiatus for the same reason: “When I got married, I decided that I should prioritize my real life [because] there’s a certain sense of duty, of obligation. You have two mouths to feed, and honestly, writing doesn’t pay the bills,” he said in a previous Innerview with PinoyCentric.)

Getting the groove back
It was in Hong Kong, where the Alfar couple lived briefly, that Nikki slowly eased her way back into writing, first for magazines and later for comics catering to an adult audience (“I wrote porn!” she exclaims, “but somewhere in the course of the last couple of years, I seem to have lost the ability”).

Sometime after moving back to Manila, where Nikki gave birth to their daughter Sage, now five, the couple started writing fiction again.

Nikki reflects: “The first year that I joined, we both lost, and I felt, oh my God, I’m not just not good, I’m bad luck!”

It was her second entry to Palanca—“Menggay’s Magical Chicken”—that got Nikki her first award in 2005.

“By that time, I had been married to Dean for many years, and he’d been winning a lot, and I was used to going to the award ceremony and receiving things for him, so when I got an envelope, I assumed it was for Dean. I opened his, and said, Yay, he won!” (This was for Salamanca, which won the grand prize for novel that year.)

The other envelope was for Nikki. “I honestly thought when I was reading it, siguro naman they’re not gonna write to tell me I suck, di ba? ‘Dear Nikki, you suck, don’t join again.’”

Because of her speculative fiction leanings, Nikki’s stories are mostly a blend of the modern and folklore or mythology. In the short story “Heritage,” for example, the protagonist makes a life-changing decision with some guidance from Lola Basyang.

“I have been told that I tend to be funny, although I don’t try to be so. I guess my sarcasm and cynicism come out in my writing, as well as my mad obsession with folklore,” she assesses.

“I wouldn’t say it’s unique because my idols—Gilda Cordero-Fernando and Jing Hidalgo—have delved into that. Maybe mine is a freakier version!”

These days, Nikki works mainly from home, which gives her more time with Sage and also allows her privileges that a corporate setup does not offer—cigarettes, for example.

“I can’t think without my nicotine! If I don’t smoke, I write two or three sentences and then nothing,” she says. Years back when she was doing full-time copywriting work, she’d go out of the building and, after two puffs, would run back to the office and write.

There also has to be absolute silence. “I have to not have people talking when I’m writing. I can’t even listen to music with words. It has to be instrumental or else I’ll follow the words.”

Sometimes when she’s stuck in a story that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, she shifts gears. “I usually move on to a different story, or I play an online game until I can get back to what I’m writing. My husband has a theory that there’s no such thing as a writer’s block: All it takes is discipline.”

Nikki is certainly braver now than she was years ago. “It took a long while before I got enough confidence to admit that I’m not Butch Dalisay, but that’s okay.”

To talent and courage, add discipline, Nikki says. “Having studied creative writing in college, I believe one cannot teach a person how to write, but you can teach someone how not to write. The only way to write is to read and write.”

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