MANY years ago, a Spanish friend told me: if you want to know the high level of Philippine literature today, you have to read the travel writing of Dr. Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo. Later, I learned that we both worked at UST, and we had a short conversation entirely in Spanish. As she is colleague, I took advantage of her generosity to learn about what pushed her to become a literary creator.

Question: you are one of a few people who have been able to carry out a career combining literary creation and scholarship. Nobel Prizewinner Mario Vargas Llosa is another example of this. Which one has been more prevalent in your life and why?

Hidalgo: I’m flattered and at the same time embarrassed to be spoken of in the same breath as Mario Vargas Llosa. I’m a long way away from even his shadow.

I began writing long before I became a scholar. I consider myself first and foremost a writer. I did not plan on being a teacher. But I’ve been teaching now for almost as long as I’ve been writing. When I obtained my undergraduate degree in 1964, a Bachelor of Philosophy from the UST Faculty of Philosophy and Letters, I was only 19 years old. But after graduation, my college was merged with the College of Liberal Arts, to produce the Faculty of Arts & Letters. The new college was short of teachers. So, the old college’s honor graduates for that year were offered jobs as instructors. I found myself teaching students some of whom were my age or older. I taught part-time, while working as assistant women’s editor of the Graphic Magazine.

When I got engaged shortly after, I decided that a career in journalism would be difficult to combine with raising a family. So, I gave up my job with Graphic, and opted for an academic career. Since then, I’ve been combining both professions wherever life has taken me. But I think I began taking scholarship seriously only when we returned in 1990, after living as expats for 15 years, and I went back to teaching at UP and decided to resume my Ph. D. studies. Academic life requires one to become a scholar, if one isn’t one yet. If you compare my books of literary scholarship and criticism with my creative writing books, the former are greatly outmatched.

When did you realize you wanted to write stories?

I think I’ve always wanted to be a writer of stories and essays. I began keeping a diary and writing a “family newspaper” at age nine. Like many other Filipino writers, I was first published in my high school paper (the Paulinian at St. Paul College Quezon City) where I started out as a reporter, then became literary editor and finally editor in chief. At the same time, I would contribute short stories and feature articles to national magazines. In college, I followed pretty much the same pattern — writing first for our college paper, the Blue Quill, and then for the university paper, The Varsitarian, first as features editor and then as editor in chief. In my sophomore year, I was offered a weekly column in the youth page of The Manila Chronicle. And by the time I became a senior, I was editing the youth section of the Graphic Magazine. I believed then that if one wanted to be a writer, one became a professional journalist. Many of my contemporaries in college were already working full time as reporters for the national dailies and attending classes at night. At the same time, like me, they considered themselves mainly writers of fiction or poetry.

Has it not been difficult, or maybe frustrating, to be a writer in a country where very few people read?

First, I’d like to clarify one point. It is not quite accurate to say that “very few people read” in the Philippines. Some publishers are actually thriving, by publishing certain kinds of books. For example, popular fiction (like romance novels, for instance, and fantasy novels along the lines of the Harry Potter books) has made Precious Pages a big-time publisher, selling books not just here but also abroad. Adarna Books and Lampara Books are doing very well publishing books for children and books for adolescents (the term used now is “young adults”). Some writers of graphic fiction and speculative fiction have broken into the international market. There is also a market for light comic essays, as proven by the success of Visprint (now Avenida). And Filipinos are one of the largest groups of both writers and consumers of wattpad novels (very short, formulaic, self-published, online “novels”).

What is true is that the market for what the publishing world has taken to referring to as “hard lit” is indeed very small. (“Hard lit” refers to the stories, poems, essays, etc., which win literary awards, and which are written about respectfully — even admiringly — by critics, and studied by students of literature and creative writing.)

The fact that the market for quality literature is small did not bother me. I think that, like many of my contemporaries, we became writers because we just loved reading and took naturally to writing. We wrote basically for ourselves, for the satisfaction of seeing our name in print and for recognition by our peers and by our betters — the senior writers whose books we read and admired. It was only when I became involved in publishing that I realized that there was a great need to change the situation, a need to narrow the gap between the audience and the writers of quality literature.

This was when I became the director of the UP Press and later, the director of the UST Publishing House. Also, after he retired from government service, my husband set up a small publishing house, Milflores Books, and I helped him by identifying promising new writers, soliciting titles from them, and by writing and editing some books. This gave me a different perspective on writing and publishing.

Which authors have been more influential in your life? Why?

There are too many to mention. But I’ll just name the most important. Among Filipino writers, the writers who have had the largest influence on my work would be: Carmen Guerrero Nakpil, Kerima Polotan-Tuvera, Gilda Cordero Fernando and, of course, el maestro Nick Joaquin.

Among foreign writers, these writers have influenced me at different times in my life. When I was just beginning to write fiction, there were Jane Austen, Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, Elizabeth Bowen. Later, came Isak Dinesen, Doris Lessing, Maxine Hong Kingston, A.S. Byatt, Jeanette Winterson, Ursula Le Guinn. And there were a few male writers too — Henry James, Italo Calvino, Milan Kundera, Jorge Luis Borges.

I should also mention the 11th century Japanese Sei Shonagon and the other women diarists like Murasaki Shikibu and Lady Sarashina; Annie Dillard; MFK Fisher — they have influenced my nonfiction. And the spirit of the marvelous realism of the writers of the Latin American “boom” — Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, Mario Vargas Llosa, Jorge Amado, etc. — were a great influence on the way I regard literature and its function in society, even if I never tried writing like any of them, simply because it is not possible. I am different by race, gender and temperament. But I think I understood them and was incredibly moved by them.

Regarding the books you have written until today, with which one have you been personally more satisfied? Why?

I don’t think I am more “satisfied” with one book over the rest. The book I worked hardest on, and put everything I knew and understood, at that time, is the novel Recuerdo. So, it is very special to me. One could say I was the most invested in this novel. The one I am proudest of, because it was, for me, a bold experiment, is the novel A Book of Dreams. The short story collection Catch a Falling Star gives me particular satisfaction because it is the most popular of my books, having been in print for more than 20 years now and still going strong. Also, it has now been translated into Filipino (so have three of my other short story collections) which has long been a dream. But the book that is closest to my heart, my favorite child, so to speak, is Tales for a Rainy Night. With those stories, I broke away from realism, and discovered a new voice, a new way of telling stories — I call them modern fairy tales, modern, urban fairy tales.

Filipinos are usually multilingual and you are not an exception to this. I even know your Spanish is excellent. What made you choose English as your literary language? Does it mean you do not usually read authors in Tagalog?

I think English was the only possible choice for me. Spanish was my first language in the sense that it was the first language I learned. I may have mentioned to you that it was the only language my maternal grandmother (who lived with us) spoke, so it was the language of our home. Tagalog, I learned as a subject in school. I can speak it, of course, but I never got into the habit of reading it, let alone writing in it. Because of my having taught in the National Writers’ Workshop of both UP (since around 1993), and of UST (since I took over the directorship of the UST Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies), I have become more adept at Filipino (which, though Tagalog-based, is a different language). Both workshops are conducted bilingually and the teaching panel is expected to comment on all the works submitted by the writing fellows. However, I cannot claim to have a mastery of Filipino. And to dare to write literature in a particular language, you need to have the confidence that comes with mastery.

Why do you think a young student should take a master’s in creative writing? What can be learned there?

As with any art, it is a great help to study under professional practitioners, in an environment conducive to learning, because of the company of people who all agree that literature and creative writing are important. This is what enrollment for an MA in creative writing has to offer. Some writers prefer the greater freedom of learning on their own. I don’t say it’s not possible. But I know — from my own experience, and from watching the development of the younger writers who enroll in both the undergraduate and graduate creative writing programs — that it takes much longer. I don’t think anyone doubts that a young musician benefits from studying in a conservatory of music, or that a young painter benefits from studying in an art school. I wonder why there seems to be doubts that young writers should spend time in a writing school.

Are you currently writing a new book? About what?

I have just finished the first volume of what may be my memoirs. Its title is What I Wanted to Be When I Grew Up: Early Apprenticeship of the Writer. It begins with my birth, doubles back to my maternal ancestors, then moves forward, through my education in convent school, to the summer after my high school graduation. I didn’t want it to read like most of the memoirs and autobiographies that I’ve read. So, I created a different framework for it. The book’s spine is the books I read from earliest childhood until the summer before I entered college. I finished writing that book last year and it should be published by the UP Press before the end of this year.

Am I working on something new now?

Yes, I’m not sure though if it is just a collection of essays, or will turn out to be Volume 2 of my memoirs.