Thursday 24 September 2020

Danton Remoto Chats With Elaine Chiew About His Novel Riverrun: Proudly Gay, Proudly Filipino


Credit: PRH SEA


Danton Remoto was educated at Ateneo de Manila University, Rutgers University, University of Stirling and the University of the Philippines. He has worked as a publishing director at Ateneo, head of communications at United Nations Development Programme, TV and radio host at TV5 and Radyo 5, president of Manila Times College and, most recently, as head of school and professor of English at the University of Nottingham Malaysia. He has published a baker’s dozen of books in English. His work is cited in The Oxford Research Encyclopaedia of Literature, The Princeton Encyclopaedia of Poetry and Poetics, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Postcolonial Literature.



Riverrun, A Novel, deals with Danilo Cruz, a young gay man growing up in a colourful and chaotic military dictatorship in the Philippines. The form of the novel is that of a memoir, told through flash fiction, vignettes, a recipe for shark meat, feature articles, poems and vivid songs. The setting ranges from provincial barrio to cosmopolitan London. The grimness and the violence are leavened by the sly wit and wicked humour., the biggest independent platform for the publishing industry in the USA, has called this novel “one of the five most anticipated books by an Asian author in 2020.”


EC: Welcome to Asian Books Blog, Danton. Congratulations on Riverrun, a delightful and poetic read, lightly trodden but deeply impactful; and indeed, as intended, it reads like a personal, intimate memoir. Why did you decide on having this ‘memoirish’ cant?


DR: Thank you, Elaine. I really intended it to be written lightly, as it were, since the topic is the grimness and violence of a military dictatorship in the Philippines. The narrative form is that of a memoir, which is influenced by James Joyce in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and the stories in Dubliners. Even the title of my novel comes from Ulysses by Joyce. A memoir allows for a more personal, chatty tone, and the genre itself connotes memories. Talk is one of the things banned in a military dictatorship, so I tried to capture the hidden talk, whispered conversations, snide remarks and seemingly unintended jokes cracked in a dictatorship. I also experimented with Filipino English in this novel, trying to capture the way educated Filipinos spoke in English. I had written books of poetry and essays before I wrote the first draft of Riverrun at Hawthornden Castle, an old castle haunted by ghosts, in Scotland. This influenced the way the novel is written—lyrical in some parts, chatty in others. I wrote in longhand, on yellow pad paper, and I wrote from 9 AM to 5 PM, stopping only for lunch break or to take a walk around the chilly woods that April of 1993. When I found out the voice I would use – a slightly older and more cynical person recalling his bittersweet past – the words seemed to fall into place. 

EC: The book feels bifurcated by geography: the first in the Philippines, and the second abroad (or roughly, mainly in the UK). It also feels separated by time: Danilo Cruz, the protagonist, as a child, and him as a teenager going on adult. How do you feel these two parts of the book reconcile with or speak to each other?


DR: The two parts mirror each other, in a way. The child is brought up in a strictly Catholic and conservative society, where an official story is written and transparency of thought is not allowed. So, imagine his shock at arriving in the UK, where on Day One he is given condoms by the British Council as part of his, uh, package of necessary items as a scholar there. The first part of the novel is the mirror; the second part is how that mirror is cracked by his coming out and learning that the world is much bigger than his provincial upbringing.

Credit: Danton Remoto


EC: Memories can be a tricky thing, and often viewed through the lens of ‘nostalgia’. Do you feel ‘nostalgia’ can colour the truth? You handled this lens with deft aplomb, it’s tinged with feelings but refuses stalwartly to succumb to sentimentality. Can you share some of the conscious ways you navigated this?


DR: Thank you for pointing this out. I think my training in poetry helped me deal with sentiment vis-à-vis sentimentality. Bienvenido N. Santos, one of my professors in Creative Writing and a master of Philippine fiction in English, was often accused by critics of being sentimental. But upon closer inspection, his fiction is not sentimental but rather, filled with sentiment, or feelings. They are very Filipino works. The critics, who studied in the US in the 1950s and were brought up to see fiction as a dry verbal artifice, a well-wrought urn, were wrong to apply completely such an aesthetics. I also learnt a lot from the haiku and the poets of the T’ang Dynasty—Wang Wei, Li Po and Tu Fu—on how to write without succumbing to sentimental excess. The brilliant fiction of our Philippine National Artist, Nick Joaquin, also served as a model on writing without the glaucoma of nostalgia covering one’s eyes.


EC: Religion functions as an important backdrop throughout, from the self-flagellation witnessed by Danilo Cruz, the young gay protagonist, in San Fernando during Holy Week to eavesdropping on aunties comparing churches to his anger at Catholic hypocrisy when his cousin Naomi died.  What are some of the ways religion has shaped the makeup of a gay youth in the Philippines, or indeed, how does it wend its way into every bildungsroman? 


DR: Oh, the Philippines is a very strange country, indeed. I mean, we speak English with California accents and seem cosmopolitan as anyone in Paris or New York, but our childhood was shaped, even scarred, by our conservative and hypocritical upbringing. The editor at Penguin Books—and oh, boy, was she a sharp cookie—asked why is there no sex in the draft I submitted? She also asked me to add two sex scenes, which I did. She said that my novel is all pure longing. I explained to her that the setting is the Philippines in the 1960sa and 1970s when gay men were invisible. If they were seen at all, they took the form of the figures I wrote about: carnival entertainers who are objects of fun, closeted military men who prey on young boys, or high-school bisexuals who imitate the macho posturing of their elders, as seen in that initiation scene.  


EC: Politics also thread through the book, specifically Filipino politics, the American military presence, the Marcos regime, but in such a way the book feels political without being overtly political. Was this an important balance for you? 

DR: You know, I went to the university at the tail end of the Marcos dictatorship. We were reading the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the poems of Pablo Neruda. When I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude I was stunned. You can write a novel like this? This is like the Philippines. His novel sounded like the folk tales my grandmother told me, or the supernatural stories that our housemaid narrated to us before we went to sleep. But interleaved with these are scenes of political enemies being thrown off the train, into rivers and ravines. I lived in a mountainous suburb outside Manila, and sometimes I would see headless bodies dumped beside the highway, or men with hands bound with barbed wire, floating on the river. And Pablo Neruda! He wrote a poem where he compared a military dictatorship to a beast trapped in a quicksand, trying to rise again and again. These powerful images shaped me. They told me, in my waking life and in my dreams, that I can tell seemingly light stories, turning here and there like the lobes of a seashell, but there will be echoes, the whisper of sinister truths. When I was doing the final draft before I submitted my expanded novel to Penguin, I had to transpose some political chapters; I took out two that seemed heavy-handed. I always told myself this is a story, and it has to move. By the way, I also wrote an additional 75 pages for the international version of this novel; the slimmer Philippine edition was published n 2015. 

EC: Buried in the book are recipes for kinunut (which involves cooking with shark meat) as well as bopis (which utilises pig’s heart and lungs – a funny recount of how the butcher in London assumed it was scraps for the dog, I loved that), and I wondered if you really intended for readers to experiment with the recipes. Whether or not one does so, what function does a recipe serve in a novel for you?


DR: The recipes function the way a Greek chorus does in drama. They comment on the novel, again, in an elliptical manner. Shark preys on people, but here, the poor Filipinos are the ones preying on the predator. In an indirect way, I think it’s a commentary on power. The bopis anecdote came from my professor in Philosophy, Rayvi Sunico, who took a post-graduate degree on the History of Ideas at the University of Sussex. That was a true story and he gave me permission to put it in my novel. I also put it there as a commentary on how poor you are as a graduate student, whether in the UK or in the USA. Most of my scholarship stipend went to books, and when there was else something else left, then I bought food. I worked as a pizza-parlour cashier when I studied in the US. Every summer, I also walked the dogs of the rich at Central Park. These will show up in my next novel. The recipes are real and kitchen-tested; the readers can try them, if they want. 

Credit ©️Danton Remoto

Credit ©️Danton Remoto


EC:  One of my favourite stories happens in London, with Danilo gay-cruising and dancing and then meeting Angus. As in that episode, and the other far more bracing encounters he experienced, there’s a subtle balance of connection/disconnection. Do you feel that Danilo also deliberately held himself back, i.e. the foreign student who refers to himself as ‘the foreign student’?


DR: Danilo knows that some of the white boys there like him because of the colour of his skin. As one of my white friends told me, I hope with tongue on cheek, “Oh you, Filipinos. We really like you. You’re bright and funny and not too dark!” Because Filipinos are really a mix of Malay, Chinese, Spanish, Arab, Indian and American bloodlines, Danilo isn’t sure if Angus likes him as he is, or sees him as the Other, an exotic Oriental. Remember that in the first part, Danilo feels he is so ugly nobody would want him, so why do these gorgeous white boys now crowd around him? The effect on his psyche is, as my favourite Filipino politician would put it, “discombobulating.”


EC: What was the most enjoyable part to write in this novel, and by contrast, what was the hardest?


DR: The parts that flowed like water was the first part, the childhood scenes. Some of them are autobiographical; others are cobbled together from the experiences of various people. When I was a young boy, I was always surrounded by older people. When they wanted to talk about unmentionable topics like sex and scandals, they would talk in Bikol, my parents’ language, which I completely understand! I don’t like to speak that language because my accent is bad, but I remember the juicy morsels that they talked about—and most of that went to the novel. The difficult part was the political scenes. I have around 30 books on the Marcos military dictatorship and I read all of them. I also lived through that difficult and painful period in my country’s history. When I was at the university, the only thing we wanted was to leave the country; the taste of ashes was in our tongues. But what to put in my novel? How to sieve so it does not end up as dry propaganda, where People Power happened and life supposedly became happy ever after? In the end, I chose the stories that I heard. Stories, talk, whispers, conversations—they never fail you.


EC: Well, I think it sounds like there is yet another novel about to be written about this traumatic and also transformative time in Filipino history, and I look forward to your next book. How has the pandemic affected you either in (1) book promotions or (2) your daily writing practice or career, and what ways are you finding to cope? 


DR: My novel was supposed to be published in April, and the pandemic delayed that. That gave us time to proofread the novel better, because there are always nits to pick here and there. I wrote a comprehensive outline for my second novel during the lockdown in Malaysia. I have written around 10,000 words and I still need to write around 50,000 words. The setting is the USA, and Danilo Cruz goes there to study and to work. My contract at the University of Nottingham (Malaysia) has ended and I just returned to Manila a fortnight ago. All of my work here is done online—I teach Literature at San Beda University, one of the oldest and the best universities in the Philippines; I have an online school where I do tutorials in English and Creative Writing; and I am building my YouTube Channel as well, so I shoot three videos every week. Please subscribe to the Danton Remoto YouTube Channel. My training in TV and on radio is helping me with shooting my videos, where I write my script, choose my clothes, put on my makeup, and set up the lights. And just today, I began Aries Books, where I will publish the electronic editions of my books of essays and poems, in English and Filipino. Later on, I will expand and publish e-editions of books by other Filipino writers. Some Philippine publishers want to get my copyright, excuse me?, while others are slow in marketing. Since I am now a content creator, why not publish my e-books and sell them in my YouTube Channel and my website? I also have 32,000 followers in social media [Facebook, Twitter, Instagram], including the followers in Ladlad, the LGBTQ+ political party that I founded in 2003. That is already a good enough base for this new enterprise. The world, as Riverrun reminds us, does not stop even if that wicked virus is still with us. Life continues to reveal to us a world that, to quote Matthew Arnold in “Dover Beach,” is still “so various, so beautiful and so new.”

EC: Thank you Danton for your heartfelt and forthright sharing with us!



NB: Riverrun, A Novel (PRH SEA 2020) is available in the Philippines at

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