Recently, I combined a visit to National City where I grew up and where my mother and older sister still live with an appearance at the FilAm Fest in San Diego to teach a workshop and participate in a reading. My workshop was titled “Homegrown Heroes—Writing Fiction from the Family Album.” It was created to reflect the festival theme of Unsung Heroes—community and family members who make a difference in our lives often without recognition. Like my father.
In the workshop, we talked about how writers often base their fictional characters on real people, how in order to give our characters realistic and believable ways of behaving in our stories, we need to observe real people. In my own novel, the main character is a Filipino man who left his homeland by enlisting in the United States Navy after World War II and earning American citizenship. Like my father.
It’s been twenty years since my father died. Had he lived, he would’ve been in his eighties. His October 14 birthday makes him a Libra, the typical characteristics of which include diplomatic and urbane, romantic and charming, easygoing and sociable, and idealistic and peaceable. The darker traits include indecisive and changeable, gullible and easily influenced, and flirtatious and self-indulgent.
Really, I knew my father hardly at all. Still, I’m pretty sure that he fit few of the above traits, though easygoing and peaceable are more or less apt. He was a quiet, more often than not reasonable man who avoided or tried to diffuse conflict.
I saw him as shy, often awkward in social situations, and rather closed off emotionally. He expressed his opinions in a dogmatic fashion and while he seemed pretty entrenched in his own opinions, he didn’t flare into anger over political discussions. What he couldn’t express readily was affection. Sometimes it would be a pat on the head or the shoulder that was too forceful and felt punishing rather than tender and friendly the way it was more likely meant. A hug was a rough clasping between his sinewy arms.
What I observed and what I think I knew about my father, of course, is different from what others around him observed and knew about him. I moved 1,200 miles away when I was in my twenties. I visited once a year, if that. I used to write letters home. They were long and carefully crafted. I learned later that Dad really liked the letters, found them lively and humorous.
My father never knew I wanted to be a writer. That’s because I myself didn’t really know until I was thirty-nine. I took my first writing class nine months before he died. I don’t remember telling him about my writing classes or my desire to be a writer. I began writing what would eventually become When the de la Cruz Family Danced while waiting for a flight out of Seattle to attend his funeral.
I made a daily commitment to writing despite an already crowded schedule. There came a time, though, when beset by the obligations of family and job, I felt pressure to suspend my writing until sometime in the future when life was less complicated—when the kids were grown or I was retired from my job, both of which seemed eons away. I stopped writing for a while, but that only superficially eased our jumbled family life. I was restless and more than a bit resentful. My father appeared to me in a dream and told me to keep writing. The dream was no doubt triggered by my own needs and desire. And yet, I believe my father spoke to me.
Were he alive today, he would’ve liked that I had the opportunity at FilAm Fest to read with Lysley Tenorio, whose stories in collection Monstress were described as “impeccably constructed” and “refreshingly off-kilter” by the New York Times Book Review. He would’ve liked that I read with the accomplished M. Evelina Galang whose fourth book Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery is described by Edwidge Danticat as “a beautifully told, and at times, heartbreaking coming of age and coming to America story.”
He would’ve liked that I read with young up-and-coming writers Jen Palmares Meadows and Bridget Crenshaw Mabunga. And of course, there’s Jennifer Derilo, the charming dynamo who when not teaching her classes at Southwestern College, reading and selecting non-fiction submissions to Kartika Review, or organizing literary events, she is working on a memoir which juxtaposes her treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma with her grandfather’s survival of the Bataan Death March.
He would’ve liked all of it. Maybe we would’ve talked about his past, his boyhood in the Philippines, his early years in America, his dreams for himself. I lack a lot of knowledge about my father. I do know that he made a difference in my life.
On the last night of my stay at my mother’s house, I dreamed about my father. I was turning a key, unlocking something, freeing my father from some sort of confinement. When he hugged me, there was no stiffness or awkwardness, just tenderness the way he’d always intended.