The Melancholy of Cultural Identity in Dean Alfar’s Short Fiction

I made this in early 2007 I think, since we were studying post-colonialism. I wanted to frame this kind of critical thought around the two stories by Dean Alfar that really struck me for their themes. This is only the first part and it’s horribly incomplete; I seem to remember that this paper came to a total of 9 pages. There was even a specific reading of L’Aquilone du Estrellas and The Middle Prince that has seemed to be lost within the bowels of my hard drive.

Looking back on it three years later, I can see a lot of difference in the literary climate today. For one, there’s a mention of the lack of printing venues for fantasy and science fiction aside from indie publishing. I mentioned that in the essay but that was before Anvil released it’s own line of Fantasy titles. I’m pretty sure many of my former assumptions have changed (or have been modified, at least) since then.

In his introduction for Philippine Speculative Fiction Volume 2, editor and writer Dean Francis Alfar discusses the category “Philippine Speculative Fiction.” Presented with the demand to define it, he gives a simple answer: “[It is] speculative fiction written by Filipinos (“Introduction” ix).” He then asserts that as more Filipinos write science fiction, fantasy, and other genres in between, the “Filipino perspective” will sharpen, moving towards the ultimate goal of developing stories that can be seen as distinct products of the Filipino imagination. He then articulates the Filipino spec writer’s “anxiety about [their] national identity (x),” especially when confronted with the question of “Filipino-ness” in terms characters, settings, and even themes.

This clamor for definition is a legitimate one. Recently, there have been several forays at publishing “genre fiction” by Filipino writers, demonstrated by publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories, Story Philippines and the various titles produced by Psicom Publishing. It’s not that Filipinos haven’t been writing such stories until now. Filipino pop culture is riddled with such characters as Darna, Captain Barbel, and Pedro Penduko, and few can dispute how their storylines fit neatly under this umbrella term. However, as interest in genre grows and its practitioners attain higher levels of sophistication, the question of authenticity in these works as Filipino creations comes into question.

There are at least two concerns to problematize. For one thing, most of these emerging writers are following the long tradition of Western (i.e. Non-Filipino) science fiction, fantasy, etc. A quick scan of the writer’s blurbs in Philippines Speculative Fiction Volume 2 and The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories Issue 1 reveal that their influences range from Douglas Adams and H.P. Lovecraft, to Joss Whedon and even Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Many of these stories explore Filipino history and folklore as well, but pop culture and various foreign influences undeniably inform the works. Secondly, this new mode of writing is a sharp deviation from the dominant literary trope in Philippine fiction, that of social realism. Most of the writers that make up Philippine canon like Jose Rizal, N.V.M. Gonzales, and F. Sionil Jose are of this mold, and their method is to mirror the painful truths of the social condition through their writings. Of the few exceptions, one can count Nick Joaquin, whose works such as Tropical Gothic and “Summer Solstice” depict the presence of the irrational and the uncanny in the Philippine context. Because of this, it has become the implicit duty of the Filipino Writer to describe the Philippines in its most accurate and therefore “realistic” sense, something that contradicts the inherent unreality implied by speculative fiction. Alfar himself mentions these “shackles of guilt” (“Introduction” x), of which Filipino writers need to be freed. Whether by choice or not, the Filipino writer that chooses to participate in this emerging movement must juggle the merits and consequences of these two issues. They are further complicated by the discussion of colonialism (neo- or other wise) and imperialism, something that the Filipino writer of any persuasion can never escape.

One viable strategy that can be promoted is a variation of Stuart Hall’s call to “re-articulate the master codes” of colonial (and neo-colonial) narratives. In relation to speculative fiction, this strategy may mean recognizing the usual themes and motifs that dominate science fiction, fantasy, etc. and recontextualizing those using Filipino sensibilities. The clone, the dragon, and the mermaid are concepts that are foreign, and therefore borrowed, but the mere act of appropriation already changes them. In turn, the quest for the definition of “Philippine Speculative Fiction” becomes a transformative rather than restrictive process.

This essay focuses on a major Filipino fantasist, Dean Francis Alfar. By being the “advocate of the literature of the fantastic” his works are starting to embody the goals and aspirations of this new movement. In reading two of Alfar’s short fiction, “L’Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)” and “The Middle Prince,” we can illustrate how the strategy of re-articulation is accomplished through subverting long-standing motifs of the fairy tale. However, the struggle for cultural identity and authenticity is still a major theme in his works, a battle that has yet to be resolved.

Dean Francis Alfar and Legitimacy of the Filipino Fantasist

There is a reason why Alfar’s voice seems to be the most distinct in this discussion. To put it plainly, he has become the most “legitimate” Filipino speculative writer to date, having been validated both in the Philippine literary scene and the international fantasy arena. He has received the Don Carlos Palanca Award numerous times for both Fiction and Drama and his highest achievement so far is the Palanca Grand Prize for his novel Salamanca, a work that can be categorized as “magical realism” typified by Latin American writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Furthermore more, he has also been published in various international fantasy anthologies such as The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Rabid Transit, and Strange Horizons. He is also the editor of Philippine Speculative Fiction Volumes 1 and 2, anthologies of short stories written by Filipinos under the umbrella term of “speculative fiction.”

The fact that he is also a “blogger” also means that his thoughts on the issue can be read by a wider audience, from Filipinos currently living in the Philippines, to expats, and even the non-Filipinos. In fact one can argue that the “speculative writing” phenomenon owes its much of its conception to the blogging phenomenon which gave Filipino fans of genre a venue for discussion that transcends physical and cultural boundaries in ways that have never been possible before. Story Philippines and The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories have their own respective websites, where details such as publication schedules and even open calls for submissions can be viewed by all.

Despite these promising developments, the fact remains that genre literature is still viewed with apprehension by conventional publishers. Those who produce are usually the “fans.” Philippine Speculative Fiction is published by Alfar’s own Kestrel IMC, with limited copies and limited distribution. Salamanca only came out to print under the Ateneo University Press after having won the Palanca. Psicom’s venture at mass producing thin paperbacks for genres such as chick lit, horror, etc. is one of the very few exceptions. Furthermore, their titles are considered “low-brow” as they obviously market themselves for the mass consumers. Admittedly even Western genre fiction suffers this kind of discrimination. However, despite missing “literary legitimacy”, the genre industry in the United States and elsewhere is still a lucrative endeavor, something that the Philippine scene is still struggling to achieve.

Alfar’s position in the current literary scene is therefore unique, as it attempts to balance itself between being essentially “literary” and essentially “genre.” These are not the only forces that he needs to reconcile as well. There is also the question of two legacies that are fighting for domination in his works: his Filipino identity, and his identity as a Fantasy enthusiast. His fiction shows a sophisticated blend of “literary” and “genre” and reveals how his own Filipino sensibilities figures prominently despite his use of “fixed” genre themes. However, the tension between these forces is still palpable in his works.

Both “L’Aquilone du Estrellas” and “The Middle Prince” feature protagonists that live in worlds inhabited by the fantastic, and their own lives are variations of time-honored fairy tale themes. In “L’Aquilone du Estrellas,” the heroine goes through a quest wrought with trials and sufferings in order to be noticed by his “prince,” and sentiment that vaguely echoes “The Little Mermaid.” Meanwhile, the protagonist in “The Middle Prince” comes from a royal family with three princes as heirs to the throne, a motif that is as familiar is Ibong Adarna. He himself is painfully aware that his fate has been determined and that he must perish like his older brother to give way to the youngest, who is pure of heart.

Alfar’s characters battle against expectations, and one can even argue that this battle plagues the writer himself. He is “expected” as a Filipino writer to have nationalistic settings, character or themes. He is also “expected” as a fantasy writer to write about princes, and quests and grand viziers and while he believes in the merits of these fantastic tropes by themselves, he also demands it to have the same literary weight in the fashion of works of literature he has been weaned on. His narratives then become powerful allegories depicting the difficulties that a Filipino Fantasy Writer is currently experiencing.

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3 thoughts on “The Melancholy of Cultural Identity in Dean Alfar’s Short Fiction

  1. Hello Ms. Autencio!

    Sorry if that sounded so formal, but I didn’t really know how I should call you. ^_^” I’m really glad I found this blog entry of yours, since I’m writing a thesis on Dean Alfar’s Kite of Stars and Other Stories this semester. I’m mainly using Lacanian psychoanalysis as my framework by examining the sense of lack that I noticed in a number of the short stories. However, my panelist during my topic proposal asked me to be more specific about what kind of lack is present there – particularly if the lack is a lack of the Filipina or post-colonially motivated. So, I’ve been looking for ways that I could read Alfar’s works using post-colonialism. Would it be all right if I cite your blog entry at some point, since I think I might wind up borrowing your idea to use Stuart Hall’s re-articulation? Thank you very much!

    Angelica Gutierrez
    AB English Literature
    Ateneo de Manila University

    • Hello Angelica, thank you for visiting my blog. Call me Kristel, please. :D Citing me on your thesis is entirely up to you, there is no obligation at all. The Stuart Hall text I specifically used for this paper is titled “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” I also remember relying on Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities for a background on the sense of nationhood.I also had a couple of sources on the fantasy end of the spectrum but unfortunately, I have not been able to save those. I hope this helps and good luck with your thesis!

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