Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Stranger Fiction

All this talk online about Speculative Fiction has reminded me of the class I used to teach in UP Diliman: Creative Writing 111. Now, CW 111, or Fiction 2 as it is sometimes known, has always focused on writing stories outside of the usual realist tradition: when I took it under Butch Dalisay in the mid-90s, we studied stories by Eric Gamalinda, Donald Barthelme and Joy Dayrit, among others. When I taught it in 2004, I put Aimee Bender, Paul Auster and Cyan Abad-Jugo on my syllabus (Cyan herself was kind enough to drop by the class when we were discussing her story).

Blogs were a fairly widespread phenomenon by then, and one of the first things I asked my class (after "Am I in the right room?") was if they all had internet access. When they answered in the affirmative, I created a group blog instead of assigning the usual reading journals. This way everyone could read everyone else's reactions, and there would be more give-and-take, more discussion.

I was happy to learn that it's still up. (In fact, there was even a somewhat recent entry dated September 4, the first in four years -- possibly posted accidentally.)

Here's the first post, my intro to the class:

Hello, all. This is our CW 111 blog. I am your supposed teacher, Mr. Luis Katigbak.

According to the course description from the English Department, CW 111 teaches one how to write "experimental fiction," and involves forms such as magical realism, metafiction, and 'sudden' fiction. Rather than refer to the material as "experimental" -- which somehow conjures notions of unreadable prose, of soulless demonstrations of technique -- I will call it, simply, "stranger fiction," a term vague and evocative enough to encompass Auster and Atwood, Barth and Barthelme, Gamalinda and Garcia-Marquez, Murakami and McCormack.

Stranger than the mainstream, stranger than the CW 110 stuff, these are stories that contain entire worlds, that are told in mobius strips and phone conversations, stories where a businessman can befriend a giant talking frog. The idea is to explore the possibilities embodied in stranger fiction, to learn that no subject matter is too ambitious or unusual, that no technique is off-limits, as long as the writer knows what he or she is doing. It is also hoped that we will develop a sense of when certain techniques are appropriate or unnecessary, and that we learn that "stranger" doesn't mean "easier" -- that there are stories written this way because there was no other way to adequately tell them, and not because it's a hassle to write "realistic."

Welcome aboard!

Clicking through the archives reminded me once again of how lucky I was to get a class full of great students. Lines like "Paul Auster is wicked" and "Dan Rhodes seems to be addicted to biatches" would leap out at me and make me laugh all over again. I had fun reading through the reactions to Bender's "The Rememberer" and John Cheever's "The Enormous Radio," among other stories, as well as witnessing someone quote Eddie Vedder to illumnate Banana Yoshimoto and Martin Heidegger to react to Jonathan Carroll.

I gave my students a lot of writing exercises to do. One of them is recorded in this blog, in the early July 2004 archive. It was called "Impossible Objects." Basically I asked each of my students to come up with a real, mundane setting and an unreal, impossible object, and then write them down on pieces of paper. (We had just finished discussing "The Enormous Radio" in class.) We jumbled them up and reassigned them randomly so that each student had a setting and object to work with. Then I asked them to write the end of a story involving those two factors. The results were on the whole well-written, often highly amusing and occasionally even touching.

Gabby's, for example: "For my mundane environment, I got a posh bathroom, the ones usually found in five-star hotels. For my strange object, I got a headband that answers all questions that come to mind anytime it's worn." The result is here.

And then there's Kurt. "The impossible object I got: a spinning wheel that creates smoke and tells the future. The mundane place: Seattle's Best Coffee, Katipunan Avenue." Click here for the full post, but allow me to quote the very beginning: "The two friends hobbled out of the coffee shop, one supported by a crutch, the other dragging his twisted, bandaged right leg. They had it with trying to be superheroes. Finally, after everything that happened, reality sank in on them: the future was not for them to change." Fun stuff. (Kurt, where are you, and are you still writing fiction?)

I may teach again someday. I had a good experience with my students. And besides, I got a kick out of being called "Mr. K."


banzai cat said...

Thanks for sharing this post, Luis. :-)

Though forgive me for asking (cats are naturally curious), but did the scope of the class also include SFF/genre stuff or was that part of Emil Flores' subject?

A last question: off the top of your head, what 'strange fiction' (i.e. books) are your favorites?


Perhaps the only other class that I enjoyed as much as I did yours, Sir, was my Contemporary American Lit course under Prof. Thelma Arambulo.

You really should teach again.

Luis K. said...

Hi BC! Thanks for dropping by :)

CW 111 included all 'non-realist' modes in its scope, so yes, sci-fi/fantasy as well. The difference between that and Emil Flores' class was that Emil's class concentrated on sci-fi.

One of the English courses -- forgot the course number -- also concentrated on the study (though not the writing) of science fiction. I took it under Tina Cielo.

My favorite strange fiction! Fun question. :)Off the top of my head:

From the Teeth of Angels by Jonathan Carroll

The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders

Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy "Trilogy" by Douglas Adams ;)

Hard-boiled Wonderland and The End of the World by Haruki Murakami

...lots more, but those are the ones that come to mind first. :)

Luis K. said...

Shan! :) Aw, thanks. I will, someday. :)

Thelma Arambulo rocks! :D

banzai cat said...

Thanks for the answers also!

George Saunders! I read one story of his, thought that if a Filipino could use 'strange fiction' with a political agenda for good effect, Saunders is the way to go. As for Jonathan Carroll, I love how he writes but I never got into Land of Laughs (but am setting myself on a quest to find his short story collection).

P.S. I don't know if you know him but Doug Candano had really good recommendations of fantastic literature in the European vein like Dino Buzzati and Milorad Pavic (Dictionary of Khazars). Too bad he went abroad again.

Luis K. said...

BC -- Carroll's short story collection (The Panic Hand) is a little uneven, but on the whole wonderful. :) I found my copy in, of all places, a spinner rack in a tiny Hong Kong airport newsstand (after searching for it in several 'proper' bookstores!). Unfortunately since I keep lending it out I have no idea where it is now. :p

Don't know Douglas Candano... We did take up Dino Buzzati's "The Falling Girl" in Butch Dalisay's CW 111 class though. :)

NanoSpeaks said...

I was trying to look for the Stranger Fic blog my classmates and I posted on some years back, and whoa! I find Mr. K's blog! :)

I enjoyed that class so much, and I distinctly remember the story "The Grasshopper and the Bell Cricket" by Yasunari Kawabata, and the movie you had us watch, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind". Memories...

A friend and I started a site where we can post lots of random useful deluded stuff, including our fiction (here: Hehe, just letting you know your former student still remembers most of the things you taught back then. ;) ~rica

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