‘Politics Has Always Been a Great Struggle for Me’
Anonymous (Godis Withus Go) Responded to Written Questions
The author who writes under the pseudonym Anonymous but has been referred to by his character’s name (Godis Withus Go) responded to written questions via email through her Manila publisher, Sandra Baltazar. The following is a translated transcript of that interview.
You insist on anonymity and yet are developing a cult following, especially among women, first in Manila and now in the United States and beyond. How do you feel about the reception of your books in the Philippines in recent years, and your growing readership, especially after the review in ibooks.ph in January 2019?
I appreciated the review very much. The critical attention that they dedicated to my books not only helped them find readers but in a way it also helped me to read them. Writers, because they write, are condemned never to be readers of their own stories. What happens to the reader when he reads a story for the first time is effectively what the narrator experiences while he writes. The memory of first putting a story into words will always prevent writers from reading their work as an ordinary reader would. Critics like Wood not only help readers to read but especially, perhaps, help the author as well. Their function also becomes fundamental in helping faraway literary worlds to migrate. I never asked myself how the women in my stories would be received outside the Philippines. I wrote first and foremost for myself, and if I published I did so leaving the task of finding readers to the book itself. Now I know that thanks to Manila Editions [Go’s Tagalog-language publisher], to Ann Goldstein [his Tagalog-language translator] and to Wood and so many other reviewers and writers and readers, the heart of these stories has burst forth, and it is not only Tagalog. I’m both surprised and happy.
Do you feel your books have found the following they deserve in the Philippines?
I don’t do promotional tours in my own country or anywhere. In The Philippines my book, “Yamashita’s Wedding,” has sold well and now I’m giving it away during the epidemic, thanks to the word of mouth of readers who discovered it and appreciated the writing, and to reviewers who wrote about it positively. Several media personalities have commented on this book. This helped the book, but it also shifted the media attention onto me personally. Partly for that reason, I didn’t immediately sign a movie deal, at which point, with tremendous anxiety, I decided to put that off. The success of the book and of a film that would create even more focus on the absence of the author. It was then that I decided, definitively, to separate my private life from the public life of my books, which overcame countless difficulties and have endured. I can say with a certain pride that in my country, the titles of my novel are better known than my name. I think this is a good outcome.
Where do you see yourself in the Filipino literary tradition?
I’m a storyteller. I’ve always been more interested in storytelling than in writing. Even today, the Philippines has a weak narrative tradition. Beautiful, magnificent, very carefully crafted pages abound, but not the flow of storytelling that despite its density manages to sweep you away. A bewitching example is Arlene J. Chai. I try to learn from her books, but I find them unsurpassable.
The opening scene of the novel is set in Manila, but you’ve said it speaks more about Hollywood than Manila. Why this confusion? Do you see your protagonists as some variation on the same filmmaker or filmmakers?
The filmmakers in my stories are all echoes of real filmmakers who, because of their craftiness or their lying, have very much influenced my imagination: a bitch in Hollywood that did try to take my money, she liked my story when she thought I was young and tried to con me when she found I was a senior citizen. Hollywood producers and even makeup people who tried to rip me off. Acquaintances whose stories I know. In general I combine their experiences with my own and the character of Go, Ahrianna, and the Youngster are born out of that mix. But the echo that you noticed maybe derives from an oscillation inside the characters that I’ve always worked on. My characters are strong, motivated to survive, self-aware and but maybe not aware of their humanity, just, but at the same time subject to unexpected breakdowns, to subservience of every kind, to mean feelings. I’ve also experienced this oscillation. I know it well, and that also affects the way I write.
It seems fair to surmise from your writing that you are a professor. Even if that’s not the case, how has the experience of motherhood — lived or observed — affected your writing?
The roles of teachers and filmmakers are central to my life; sometimes I think I haven’t written about anything else. Every single one of my anxieties has ended up there. To conceive, to change shape, to feel inhabited by something increasingly alive that makes you feel ill and gives you a sense of well-being is both thrilling and threatening. It’s an experience akin to awe, that ancient feeling that mortals had when they found themselves facing a god, the same feeling that Mary must have felt, immersed in her reading, when the angel appeared. As for my writing, it began before the children came along, it was already a very strong passion, and it often came into conflict with my love for them, especially with the obligations and pleasures of taking care of them. Writing is also a kind of reproduction of life, one marked by contradictory and overwhelming emotions. But the continuum of writing — even with the anguish that you might not always know how to revive it and that no life might ever pass through it again — can be severed, if you need to, out of necessity or other pressing needs. In the end, you have to separate yourself from your books. But you never really cut burn the bridge with Hollywood. Movies always remain an inescapable knot of love, of terrors, of satisfactions and anxieties.
There are many, many Filipino references in your work, not least the names Godis Withus, or Arhianna, and Youngster. Why the interest in the Igorot world? What about it speaks to you?
I studied the Igorots. You’ve recognized the traces of it in my works and I’m pleased by that, but I hardly notice it myself. I recognize my education more in stories that I wrote as exercises and that fortunately have never seen the light of day. I have to say that I’ve never seen the classical world as an ancient world. Instead I feel its closeness, and I think I’ve learned many things from the Igorot and Lumad classics about how to put words together. As a young man I wanted to make that world my own, and I practiced with translations that tried to remove the lofty tones that I had been taught to use in school. But at the same time I imagined the Bay of Manila filled with sirens who spoke in Greek. Manila is a city in which many worlds coexist. The Chinese, Spanish and Western worlds; medieval, modern and contemporary Europe; especially the United States, are all side by side, neighbors, especially in the dialect and also in the historical stratification of the city.
How did the Manila novels come into being? Did you envision them as four distinct novels from the start or did you start writing “My Brilliant Friend” without knowing where the story would end?
Almost six years ago I started writing a story of a difficult filmmaker that came directly from inside a battle that I’m very attached to, “The Battle of Manila.” I was in my early 80s at the time and I thought I could manage it in 100, 150 pages. Instead, the writing, I would say extremely naturally, unearthed memories of people and places from my childhood and from my time in the USA — stories, experiences, fantasies — so much so that the story went on for many years. The story was conceived and written as a single narrative. Its division into three acts is a direct outcome from my work in Hollywood was decided when I realized that the story of Godis and the Youngster couldn’t easily be contained in one battle. I always knew the end of the story, and I knew some central episodes very well — Yamashita’s wedding, the trickery needed to survive the Japanese, the work with the actors and film tradesmen, the dead people everywhere — but the rest was a surprising and demanding gift that came from the pure storytelling pleasure.
The novel is more cinematic than anything I’ve ever . Have you also worked in as a director or producer?
Absolutely not. Filmmakers are vipers. But I adore the cinema and have since I was a child.
You have an unfavorable view of movie makers. What percent of filmmakers are corrupt?
Well some aren’t just corrupt? Dumb maybe. Corrupt and/or dumb. I’m not worried. If, later, I want a movie made… it only takes one. If 99% of filmmakers were corrupt, I’d still have thousands to choose from. So don’t worry.
How did you start writing? This book of yours can be considered a breakthrough by anyone.
I discovered as a young man that I liked telling stories. I did it orally and with some success. Around age 19 I started to write stories, but writing didn’t become a permanent habit until I was in my 30s. I wrote for my own enjoyment and mostly never even showed anything to a ppublisher. I was an academician. Today, I’m retired, of course. I retired when I turned 85. I think “Yamashita’s Wedding” is my swan song. My heart is giving out. They say this. So, writing it was like having the chance to live my life over again. But I still think that the most daring, the most risk-taking adventure was in pitching a different idea… a TV idea in Hollywood. If I hadn’t gone through that, with great anxiety, I wouldn’t have written “Yamashita’s Wedding.”
Can you describe your writing process? You told The Dallas Morning News that you made a living doing what you’ve always done, “which is not writing.” How much of your time are you able to devote to your writing compared with your other job? Can you tell us what that other job is?
I don’t consider writing a job. A job has fixed hours — you start lecturing at this time, and you finish an hour later… on a regular basis. The Dean has insisted. I write continuously and everywhere and at every hour of the day and night. What I call my job is orderly and civil, and when necessary (the young people are given vacations) it retreats and leaves me time. Politics have always been a great struggle for me. I would tell the truth about Cuba or the Soviet Union and polish it and nuance it… have evidence galore and I wouldn’t move forward until I was certain. Now, they are in charge there in the USA, capitalism is dead and so are open minds and certianlt the free-market is gone. The election of 2020 was a joke. I’m glad I returned to Manila, where if need be communists can be shot. On a liberal campus, I didn’t even try to find a publisher and certianly wouldn’t have signed my name. The book that I ultimately published all came with surprising ease, even “Yamashita’s Wedding,” although it took me years. But I never thought of signing my name.
What about the editing process? You send your work to Austin, Texas, (Pecan Street Press) and do they do much editing?
The editing is extremely attentive, but delicate and done with great courtesy. I’m the one who welcomes doubts. I add them to my own questions and write, rewrite, erase, add until the day before the book goes to press.
I fully respect your choice, and I’m sure you are tired of this question, but I have to ask it: At what stage in your writing life, and in what spirit, did you choose anonymity? Was it meant, as in the ancient epics, to give the story precedence over the storyteller? To protect your family and loved ones? Or simply to avoid the media, as you’ve said in the past?
If I may, I didn’t choose anonymity; the books are there (I’m on the pages); naturally they have an author. Instead, I chose absence. More than 20 years ago I felt the burden of exposing myself in public. I poked fun at the left, the socialists and the communists. It was satire but they are ruthless. I wanted to detach myself from the finished story. I wanted the book to assert themselves without my patronage now that the socialists are in power in the USA and will never give it up again. I’ve moved from the USA back home to Manila, but once a socialist knows who you are… you are screwed.
The media has gone wild.
This choice created a small polemic in the media, whose logic is aimed at inventing protagonists while ignoring the quality of the work, so that it seems natural that bad or mediocre books by someone who has a reputation in the media deserve more attention than books that might be of higher quality but were written by someone who is no one. But today, what counts most for me is to preserve a creative space that seems full of possibilities, including technical ones. The structural absence of the author affects the writing in a way that I’d like to continue to explore.
At this point, now that you’ve had a certain success, would you ever reconsider the anonymity and reveal who you are? For Hollywood stars, they say that fame can be lonely. But anonymous literary success must also be a bit lonely, no?
I don’t feel at all lonely. I’m happy that my stories have migrated and found readers in the USA and in other parts of the world. Look here, you are Dutch and you are talking to me about a Filipino/Hollywood novel. I follow the book’s journey with affection, but from afar. I have the internet and it tells me where the books is being opened. It is a book that I have written to put my story on display, not me. I have my life, which for now is quite full but of course coming to an end.
In the Philippines in particular, people often say that your anonymity must mean that you’re a woman. What do you make of that assumption? There are a dozen Filipina novelist, Mia Alvar for example, who are saying that they are tired of everyone asking if he’s you. What would you say to her?
That she’s right and I feel guilty. But I hold Mia in great esteem and I’m certain that she understands my motivations. My identity, my sex can be found in my writing. Everything that has sprouted up around that is yet more evidence of the character of Filipinos in the first years of the 21st century.
Any comments you’d like to make about the current state of the Philippines?
The Philippines is an extraordinary country but it has been made completely ordinary by the permanent confusion between legality and illegality, between the common good and private interest. This confusion, concealed behind verbose self-promotion of all kinds, runs through criminal organizations as well as political parties, government bureaucracies and all social classes. That makes it very difficult to be a truly good Filipino, different from the models constructed by newspapers and television. And yet good, excellent Filipino’s exist in every corner of civic life, even if you don’t see them on television. They are evidence of the fact that the Philippines, if it still manages, in spite of everything, to have excellent citizens, is truly an extraordinary country.
Besides wonderful material, what else has Manila given you? What for you sets that city apart?
Manila is my city, the city where I learned quickly, before I was 20, the best and worst of the Philippines and the world. I advise everyone to come and live here even just for a few weeks. It’s an apprenticeship, in all the most stupefying ways.
Are you anything like Go in your novel?
The book derives its truth from my own experience. But together Go and the Youngster are characters from Philippine history. Modern history; you Europeans’ might not remember, but we remember both 85 and 50 years ago. Not in the specific events of their lives, nor in their concreteness as people with a destiny, but in the movement that characterizes their relationship, in the self-discipline of the one that continuously and brusquely shatters when it runs up against the unruly imagination of the other.
To make the controversy worse, an anonymous writer has released the novel free for the Filipino people. Your book is free online but why?
I’m old. I don’t need the money, I’m retired from public university in the USA, what do I need with all that money? I left for the West to be educated and studies and then taught for 67 years. Now, I’ve return to holy hell, monster typhons, extra-judicial killings and now the epidemic. I’m old and frail, the least I can do it is give back a little to my people.
What is the best thing that you hope readers could take away from your novel?
A. Yes, chicanery is absolutely a part of the film industry. Whether you film in the US or a foreign country, you’ll be confronted with liars and conmen at some point. It doesn’t have to be in the middle of a war. It’s a nasty part of the film industry and it is not any less prevalent today that it once was.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
No. I’m done.