A Taste of the Noir East

Interview by Ned Landers

ManilaNoir

“Manila Noir,” edited by Jessica Hagedorn, is a collection revealing the underbelly of The Philippines’ capital city. The stories within “Manila Noir” offer a glimpse at this mysterious city and the people who reside in its darkness—even those Manilenos who have peered into the shadows, intrigued or horrified. This Southeast sampler is unique, possessing an overall gritty tone. Each slice of supernatural splendor pulls the reader in with their nontraditional heroes. “Manila Noir,” also the latest installment of Akashic’s noir anthologies, showcases new stories set in one city.

Characterization is definitely the foundation of this collection. Within each piece readers are given highlights to a different subset of people in Manila. As Hagedorn says in her introduction, “There are transvestites and transexuals in Chinatown and Tondo, shabuheads in Quezon City, feral street kids in Makati, lovelorn professors in Diliman, and even a Jesuit forensic investigating a murder in Lardo.” The strongest characters are the Jesuit and the pre-surgical transexual Norma, who face Manila’s toughest and most violent goons. The authors clearly paint a picture of two strong characters who are not afraid of Manila’s cruelties. The voices ring true to each of the characters and the authors each do a great job bringing these characters to life through introspective narration, description and tone.

The collection is split into the following three sections: “Us Against Them,” “Black Peril of the Orient” and “They Live by Night,” and each section’s stories epitomizes a particular aspect of life in Manila. Part One captures the part of Manila that is at odds with itself. At the same time the rich live opulent lives with their servants, gardens with high walls, careful to not associate with the scum of the city—the poor live in squalor, in neighborhoods rampant with illegal activity and gangs. Beginning with a bang, Lysley Tenario’s “Aviary” tells of a group of young hoodlums who are terrorizing the Greenbelt Mall, a mall that bans “poor people and other disturbing realities.” The group, only identifiable with the narrators “We,” reminiscent of Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Virgin Suicides,” and throughout the story the voice grows to feel larger than a group of youngsters trying to prank the rich rather a voice that represents all the poor and downtrodden who are banned from the mall.

The most unique tale in “Us Against Them” is “Satan Has Already Bought U,” which is mostly set in the span of a few hours and is about two druggies who talk about a substance similar to meth. What’s working the best here is the dialogue, which is crisp and seems to give the drug addict’s side of Manila a voice and flavor that leaves readers wanting to learn more about this unsavory section of Manlian life. But wait until the end, when a shocking scene is revealed, catching any reader off guard.

Part Two highlights the area of Manila that is trying to make things right, and elaborates on many characters solving crimes and bringing thugs to justice. The standout in Part Two—perhaps for the entire collection—is easily the lead story, the graphic noir, “Trese: Thirteen Stations,” by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, that is not only visually stunning but also provides a peek at the city’s underworld that is chock full of supernatural beings that roam Manila’s light rail system, the Metrostar Express or the MRT. Alexandra Trese, the protagonist, investigates the mysterious occurrences at thirteen stations of the MRT, including ghost sightings, trash bags with hands sticking our on either side. She later tracks down a clan of aswangs, the Filipino version of the zombie. The supernatural beings and Trese’s fight to maintain a balance will make any graphic noir fan thirsty for more.

Part Three focuses on Manila’s creatures of the night and among the standouts is Jonas Vitman’s “Norma of Norman,” which is about a pre-surgical and superstitious transexual who visits a fortune teller foreseeing that everything will go well for our transgendered Norma. Later, back at home, she is preparing for a visit from a caller, Peter, who has been anticipating their rendezvous after several missed occurrences and schedule snafus. But instead of finding Peter at her door, Norma comes up against a crazed maniac. The suspense and tone rise to a frantic state until the end, leaving readers feeling like they, too, are in peril by just reading the story.

Ultimately, readers get a strong taste of the real Manila and all her dark secrets, wanting more of while being slightly afraid of what she might do next. Manila is the perfect place for noir scenes to occur, and it is easy to get sucked into its deadly nightshade of doom.

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Criminal Class Press’ Ned Landers spoke with Manila Noir editor Jessica Hagedorn, to get the inside scoop behind the creation of this collection.

Criminal Class Press/Ned Landers: What was your motivation for putting together this short story collection? 

Jessica Hagedorn: I’m a big noir fan of film and literature. I’ve always thought that Manila was the perfect landscape, as a city, for all kinds of goings on—dark and moody and all that. It’s got atmospheric conflict happening both politically and constantly. And it’s got a lot of the elements that go into what makes noir so compelling—as with any other art form. I’ve been a long-time reader of this material. So when Akashic put out the Cities of Noir Series, I said to Johnny Temple, “You’ve gotta do Manila, and I’m the perfect person to do it.”

CCP/NL: Why do you think this collection is important for the literary world? 

JH: I think we’re in a world where doing a book like this provides a chance to showcase writers to a bigger audience—writers from different cultures who probably wouldn’t be known to a wider readership if not for collections like this. I could do that for the writers who are based in Europe as well as those in the Philippines. I have those connections anyway, which was conducive to a wonderful opportunity. I enjoy doing that for artists and writers, especially since I have my foot in both worlds. I actually grew up in the Philippines and go back there to visit my family. Even though I’m based in New York, I have those ties that enable me to ask people who already know exciting writers who I don’t know. Also, I can contact all the established writers, in the Philippines, who I do know, giving the reader a taste of both.

CCP/NL: You said you grew up in the Philippines?

JH: I was born and raised there, yes. It’s why I’m so interested in it. It’s all in my introduction of this anthology. This was a grand opportunity for me as well, to share all these writers.

CCP: What was your criteria for selecting the authors and stories in the collection?

JH: Akashic has its own criteria, which I had to respect—they have 14 contributors in all—so I had to really whittle it down. There were many other writers I would’ve loved to include, but I couldn’t. However, sometimes it’s more fun that way. You become very tough-minded and look for different ways to make the collection innovative. One of the ways I believe I accomplished that was by including this graphic story—some people call it a “Manga.” Comic book artists, in the Philippines, are renowned; and many of them went to work for U.S. animation companies, like Disney, in the ’30s. They’re just very good at it. There’s a driving culture there, right now, of graphic novels—it makes so much sense. I grew up reading a lot of horror comics and love comics. It was sort of my introduction to reading and writing, frankly. I really wanted to include—to sort of commission—a graphic noir. There are two guys who are very popular in Manila, and they came on board. I knew that including them and having Akashic be open to having a graphic noir in the middle of a collection of short stories would make this a stand-out collection. Tan and Baldisimo were open to it, and both these guys are links to the story. I also wanted it to be balanced as much as possible between writers who were based in the U.S. and those who were based in Manila, the locals. Their stories had to be personally exciting to me. That’s part of being an editor, on some level—it’s your taste.

CCP/NL: Can you elaborate on the two graphic novel contributors?

JH: They have a series that’s hugely popular called “Trese,” which, in Spanish, means 13. It’s also a word that’s used in Manila because Spanish Colonial colonized the Philippines, and the language became interspersed with Tagalog, so there are a lot of Spanish words that have become part of the language. So these two guys, Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldisimo, have a series of books called “Trese,” where a woman detective deals with the underworld and the supernatural. She solves crimes committed by these creatures of the night as well as common criminals. The series is fabulously Filipino—in every way Filipino. It fits the whole aesthetic of Akashic’s Noir series and yet it’s so different, as it’s dealing with the supernatural. I told Johnny [Temple] that this just had to be part of the collection because the spirit world is very alive in Manila as well as modern-day everything. They wrote a story especially for the collection, featuring her, Alexandra Trese. (Her name is Alexandra 13.) So it takes place on 13 station stops on the train in Manila. There’s a light-railway system that’s very powerful and sleek, and they have the crimes committed in those stations.

CCP/NL: Why did you structure the collection in three parts and by topic? 

JH: It happened organically. I think a lot of Akashic’s noir books are structured in different sections. I think this sort of evolves naturally with how the editor is choosing stories—certain things keep emerging.  Breathing spaces are good for the reader—it’s a lot to take in.

CCP/NL: It’s good to structure things into different parts, allowing the reader to take it in more effectively and have a better idea of the overall aesthetic.

JH: It’s so tough. Manila’s a very complex city anyway. You can’t explain it in one word. You can’t say something glib about it. It’s got a lot of history, neighborhoods and sections, from the very [very] poor to the extremely rich and powerful. Some of Manila is incredibly polluted. It is also very dense and just goes on and on. You can’t present it in a simple way to a non-Filipino reader, so I think those pauses are really useful.

CCP/NL: That’s definitely the way to go, in terms of structure. What do you hope the main take away will be for readers of this collection?

JH: I certainly hope people are entertained and intrigued. If people are not from the Philippines, not familiar with the culture, they’ll come to appreciate the writing of the [contributing] authors who are from there—they write in English primarily. Readers will be introduced to a whole new world of writing and of literature. But, definitely, I hope they have fun!

CCP/NL: What’s your favorite part of Manila, in terms of piquing your interest or unlocking your writing imagination?

JH: I can’t help it, but there are always sections of Manila—even though they’ve changed so much since I grew up there—that meant something to me and still do, which would be the boulevard by the sea that I talk about in my introduction. It is still, to me, one of the most beautiful roadways along the ocean. It’s got this seawall and beautiful, tall palm trees.  People can stroll along there. Manila’s got a lot of history for me. There’s a red-light district that sits alongside there. That’s where the artists used to live, when I was a child. So it was sort of this seedy area, a very old kind of Manila that was partially destroyed during WWII but rebuilt yet still had all this ruin. However, it was quite beautiful. People sort of cobbled it back together. There are a lot of bars and antique stores. It’s not bad anymore; it’s completely different now. But it still retains some of that aura for me. There are different people coming in for the bars, while others are wanting to enterprise it. This changes the mood somewhat, but it still has this certain weird energy. This area is right by this waterfront roadway, near where I went to school when I was a kid. It’s still my favorite, and I need to visit it every time I’m there.

CCP/NL: You’re bringing it alive for me right now, in my imagination. What am I doing here—I need go to Manila right now!

JH: You need to get out of Manila and go explore the country, because all of the islands are so beautiful and untouched, but Manila’s quite polluted and crazy. It’s as very amazing place, and I hope if you ever visit it, you give yourself the time to leave the city and go out and see the country. Manila’s not just the Philippines, but it’s certainly an important part of my life. That’s why I did the book!

CCP/NL:  In addition to the Manila Noir anthology, where might our readers go to find your writing on Manila or personal writing?

 JH: They can go to Amazon. I’ve written a lot of novels, and they can go to my website to see all the publications I’ve ever done. It’s http://www.jessicahagedorn.net/. I’m primarily a novelist and an occasional playwright, and I will continue to do that.

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