Q&A with Poet, Writer and Translator Jim Pascual Agustin

12 Aug 2015
Jim Pascual Agustin

Jim Pascual Agustin grew up in the Philippines and moved to South Africa in October 1994. His main intention in coming to Cape Town was to be with the enchanting girl he met on top of a bus the previous year during the monsoon season in the mountainous northern region of the Philippines.

Jim writes and translates poetry in Filipino and English. His first book, Beneath an Angry Star (Anvil, Manila 1992), was followed by a group collection, Salimbayan (Publikasyong Sipat, Manila 1994), with poet friends Neal Imperial and Argee Guevarra. His most recent books are all published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in Manila: Alien to Any Skin (2011), Baha-bahagdang Karupukan (2011), Sound Before Water (2013), and Kalmot ng Pusa sa Tagiliran (2013). His new collection in English, A Thousand Eyes, has just been released in Manila and copies may be made available in South Africa later in the year. Forthcoming is a short story collection in Filipino, Sanga sa Basang Lupa.

Jim’s poetry was included in Denis Hirson’s anthology In the Heat of Shadows: South African poetry 1996-2013, which was published in 2014. His poem “Village Potter’s Wife” won second place in the 2013 DALRO New Coin Prize and his poem “Illegal, Undocumented” won third place for the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award 2014. Jim blogs at matangmanok.wordpress.com.

Favourite South African novel / poem?

The first time you read something that captures your whole consciousness often stays with you. Years before I ever thought of coming to South Africa, I was a member of the British Council in Manila where I found Age of Iron by J.M. Coetzee. And even before that, as a university student, I was struck by Letters to Martha by Dennis Brutus. Recently I chanced upon The Soul of the White Ant by Eugène Marais – meticulous and lyrical – and now I want to read his other works.

What are you working on at the moment?

I guess I should be more organised so I can finish one thing at a time. But I’ve always been sort of a juggler (a bad one, my wife and kids will swear), so in no order and depending on the way my mind is swayed or persuaded, these are my current projects:
– Revising two poetry manuscripts (tentative titles How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter and The Man Who Wished He was Lego or Sky for Silent Wings).
– Selecting and translating my poetry from English to Filipino for a manuscript entitled KaLaman at DayuHan: mga sariling-salin (roughly meaning “of the same flesh and yet from another land”).
– Rewriting and enlarging essays from my blog to see if a book is a possibility.
– Trying my hand at short fiction again.
– Finding contemporary poetry and fiction work by Filipino authors that I might be able to translate to English for an international audience.

Favourite part of the writing and publishing process?

When a piece seemingly writes itself with little intervention from you or anyone else. Some people think it’s like a gift that just falls on your lap. Most of the time it’s something that’s been brewing in the back of your mind for much longer than you’ve been aware of, and it’s just that the time was right for it to surface. I also have this silly idea that such pieces, if left ignored for too long, would just abandon you for someone else. Getting a letter of acceptance is always fun. Receiving a rejection letter is also welcome, ending the painful wait, but also giving you a chance to either revise the work or send it off again somewhere else that might be a better home.

Any characters (yours or another writer’s) that have stuck with you?

The pilot in The Little Prince, the child in The Famished Road by Ben Okri, the voices in works by Jeanette Winterson and John Berger.

Any advice / tips for writers starting out?

I don’t like giving advice because I see writing as a unique journey for each person. I can only say something to reflect how my journey has been. Show, don’t tell. That’s the most basic thing about creative writing that Danton Remoto, my first real mentor, taught me back at university. Dump your ego as often as you can. It’s the only way to be really open. Learn to just listen to the world around you. Observe. Let insects, animals, the weather, people, places, dreams, movies, books you find interesting or disgusting, everything and anything you can experience enter your consciousness and unsettle you, until you can no longer ignore the urge to respond through images – words – that demand to be wrestled down. It’s often a lonely road, writing, but there is kindness out there along the way, sometimes from unexpected sources. But be wary of those who say only good things about your work, as well as those who have nothing but harsh judgments. They can easily extinguish what is essential about your writing, about you. Learn to let go of your work and let it come back to you as if it was someone else’s. Avoid the easy and predictable.

Hardest part of the writing and publishing process?

Revision can be brutal. The first and final cut should come from you. Finding the right readers and editors who feel your work is worth their while.

South African writers, poets or books that have made an impact on you?

Robert Berold, Eugène Marais, Antjie Krog, Gabeba Baderoon, Jeremy Cronin, Christopher Hope, and many more.

What are you reading at the moment?

Always reading and re-reading John Berger’s poetry and prose. Recently I went back to Arthur C. Clarke, found my first Haruki Murakami, and have been dipping in and out of Antjie Krog’s new poetry book. I also keep going back to The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry edited by J.D. McClatchy – I love this anthology, but it sadly left out poets from the Philippines!

If you had to pick one book or poem to give to all South Africans to read what would it be?

Cry, the Beloved Country.

Any other genres that you’re interested in trying your hand at?

Long fiction, drama for radio, lyrics for music (if I ever get around to the last one, major influences would be Bjork, Massive Attack, Gorillaz, Nina Simone, Nick Drake, Peter Gabriel, Sufjan Stevens, Iron and Wine).

Any Filipino books or authors that you’d recommend as an entry point to the country’s literature?

That’s not easy, but just off the top of my head: José Rizal, Emmanuel F. Lacaba, Luisa Igloria, Benilda S. Santos, Bienvenido Lumbera, Marjorie Evasco.

Proudest moment of your writing career?

Never thought about that. When my first book was launched and I had no idea what would happen next. All I knew was that I had never been that dizzyingly happy. I was 22. Very close to that would be the awards ceremony for the Sol Plaatje European Union Poetry Award 2014.

Favourite quote from a book / poem?

“Trust me, I’m telling you a story.” or it could be “Trust me, I’m telling you stories.” – from one of the novels by Jeanette Winterson. I’m not too sure right now if it is from Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, The Passion, or Written on the Body. I’ve had it stuck in my head for over twenty years now. I think it’s time I read her books again to be sure.