Victor Fernando R. Ocampo was born in the Philippines and now lives in Singapore, where his speculative fiction is inspired by everything from childhood experiences to everyday moments on the train (often with added spaceships, monsters, robots, and other creations usually not found on the train). This month, we are proud to offer his story “Blessed Are the Hungry”, in which families on a generation ship must risk life, limb, and excommunication to learn the truth. Victor was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about the story itself, his writing process, and a few of his other projects.
Questions about the story:
APEX MAGAZINE: What inspired “Blessed Are The Hungry”?
VICTOR FERNANDO R. OCAMPO: “Blessed are the Hungry” was a way for me to share my experiences as a young teen during the People Power revolution that toppled the brutal Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. A group of rebels had taken a stand in a military camp and my father (who was in the Armed Forces then) was one of the soldiers that supported them. Up to this day I still remember the frustration and helplessness I felt during those dangerous hours when I heard on the radio that President Marcos was going to attack with his tanks and gunships. My father was in the line of fire and I was too young to help. I was too young to bear arms.
Then something remarkable happened: the ordinary people that the soldiers were sworn to protect took to the streets to block the loyalist troops. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, cigarette vendors, students, grandparents, housewives, nuns and priests — people of every age and from all walks of life came to EDSA Avenue to sing and pray together for peace. I was there for those three magical days with my family, friends and classmates, when rosaries and flowers stopped tanks and changed hearts. Although over time the rose tint eventually came off from my glasses (the revolution didn’t quite achieve what it had set out to do), the memories and the hopefulness from that golden time still remain.
AM: The characters live on a generation ship, en route to a new planet. It’s almost as if the story takes place at the exact chronological center of the lifespan of their generation ship. What made you decide to place the story on the ship rather than, say, on a colony or a space station?
VRO: I found that the claustrophobic, sealed pressure environment of a Generation Ship was a great setting for making sociological comment. There is a kind of liminality that I like to document in my stories — that unsettled feeling of having left home forever but not yet finding your new one. This setting allowed me to explore aspects of this while also making a critique of Filipino Catholic culture.
AM: There is a riot, and characters chant a song with the line “Shalom Maging Payapa”. What do the words mean, and what language are they?
VRO: This is an interesting question. “Shalom” is a Sephardic Hebrew word meaning “peace” or “be at peace” which can also be used idiomatically as a greeting to mean both “hello” and “goodbye”. “Maging payapa” means the same thing in Filipino. The whole phrase “Shalom Maging Payapa” is also actually the title of a liturgical song from the Philippines that is used at funerals and protest actions (as the lyrics are meant to comfort those who are experiencing troubled times).
AM: The ship is named “Nuestra Señora de la Paz y Buen Viaje”, which translates to “Our Lady of Peace and Good Voyage”. Can you tell us a little about where the name came from, and why you chose it?
VRO: The “Nuestra Señora de la Paz y Buen Viaje” is the proper name of the “Virgin of Antipolo”, a wood and ivory 17th–century Roman Catholic statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary that is much venerated in the Philippines. This icon was carried by crews on several galleon voyages between Acapulco and Manila and having it on board was supposed to ensure a peaceful voyage. It is a nod to the folk religiosity that is a hallmark of the Catholic Church in the Philippines.
Questions on writing:
AM: What speculative fiction authors have inspired you? What are some of your favorite books or short stories?
VRO: This is difficult for me to answer as I am quite an eclectic reader and I like so much stuff.
When I was ten, I found a copy of The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories by E.M. Forester in my grandfather’s library and he became my first favorite speculative fiction author. Shamefully, I wasn’t aware that he wrote any other kind of fiction until I reached college. My first favorite science fiction author was Samuel Delaney. I didn’t understand Dhalgren and I hated it the first time I read it. However, I fell in love with his use of language and eventually it become one of my all–time favorite books. Harlan Ellison’s collection, Dangerous Visions, turned me on to short stories. Ted Chiang’s Nebula–winning “Tower of Babylon” and Ken Liu’s multiple–award winning “The Paper Menagerie” are probably my favorites of all SF short stories. Octavia Butler’s Bloodchild and Other Stories was another book that influenced the way I write – particularly the eponymous titular story. My favorite fantasy book is Hope Mirrlees’s criminally neglected Lud–in–the–Mist which I still read every year. The best fantasy short story I ever read was Dean Alfar’s magical “L’Aquilone du Estrellas” (The Kite of Stars).
AM: You were born in the Philippines and are now based in Singapore. Who are some of your local favorite authors? For readers who want to read more authors from that part of the world, where should we start?
VRO: Dean Alfar and Rochita Loenen–Ruiz are my favorite Filipino speculative fiction authors. In Singapore it’s Jason Erik Lundberg and Stephanie Ye (although the latter writes mostly realist fiction). You can get a good introduction to SF/F from the Philippines by reading the series Philippine Speculative Fiction, while for Singapore there’s Fish Eats Lion and Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. Elsewhere in the region there’s the wonderful Aliette de Bodard who hails from Vietnam and France, Zen Cho from Malaysia and especially the magisterial Benjanun Sriduangkaew from Thailand. For anyone interested in discovering more Southeast Asian authors, I maintain a (forever work–in–progress) list of SEA speculative fiction authors with links to their stories on my blog at victorfernandorocampo.wordpress.com/sea–writers/.
AM: Tell us a little about your writing process. Where do your ideas come from? Do you generally know where the story is going to go before you start writing it, or do you simply start writing, and let story tell you where it wants to go?
VRO: My smart phone is my best writing buddy. I usually record ideas, sketch plots and test out sentences on Notepad or Evernote while riding the train to work. Ideas come to me from my every day interactions with people and from whatever it is that I’m reading, so the phone is a quick and handy way to document them before they’re forgotten.
In terms of writing, the hardest sentence to compose is the first and I sometimes spend several weeks agonizing to find the best one. I need complete silence and a kid–free environment to write so I can only really do so late at night on weekends, or on a long–haul flight. I mostly just let the story write itself, following the plot I had outlined on my phone previously. After the story is done I move it from my laptop to my phone where I do most of my editing. Viewing at my work on a smaller screen helps me look at the text with fresh eyes and keeps me from making run–on sentences. Writing is a painfully slow process for me. I really admire people like Ken Liu who can make a prodigious output of such excellent quality.
AM: You’ve also written children’s books, including Here Be Dragons and Big Enough for the Entire Universe. What can you tell us about them?
VRO: I’ve only written one so far — Here be Dragons, which was based on a bedtime story I made up for my two daughters. It’s about an eleven–year–old girl obsessed with cartography. One day she finds a quaint little store that sells the most unusual kind of maps — maps to happiness and sadness, maps of loves lost and loves found, as well as maps to imaginary places known only to dreamers and the strange mapmaker that she meets inside. It was inspired by a Jorge Borges story called “On the Exactitude of Science”. In 2012 it won the Romeo Forbes Children’s Book Award and it’s scheduled to be published with illustrations at the end of this year. You can preview some of the paintings that accompany the story on my blog at https://victorfernandorocampo.wordpress.com/fiction/.
Right now I am in the middle of sketching out my second children’s book which I hope to finish by the end of the year.
Incidentally, “Big Enough for the Entire Universe” (which appeared in the anthology Fish Eats Lion) isn’t a children’s book but a short story about a grey goo disaster that befalls Singapore — an event that turns half the population into mathematical ghosts. This is now being made into a short film by an award–winning Singaporean director whose name I cannot reveal at the moment.
AM: What are you working on next?
VRO: I just recently finished an experimental epistolary–style SF story written partly in “Jejemon”, an SMS/Instant Messaging argot. It was really difficult to write and it took a big toll on me emotionally. To change gears I’ve been working on my first YA short story. This one’s a fun piece about a kid trapped alone in a spaceship with a shape–shifting monster he had accidentally created.
AM: Thanks for much for taking the time to talk with me today!