Proust Questionnaire: 17 questions with Jim Pascual Agustin
By Yeow Kai Chai
Born in March 1969, Jim Pascual Agustin grew up in the shadow of the Marcos dictatorship in "a rural area on the outskirts of Manila with rice fields and small vegetable farms by the river," as he recalled in a 2022 essay titled 'Various Histories' for The Johannesburg Review of Books.
In October 1994, his life took a dramatic turn when the then-25-year-old moved to Cape Town to join a South African woman he had met a year earlier on top of a bus on the way to the northern mountainous region of the Philippines.
Little did he know that Cape Town would become his home. In his adopted country, where he has spent more than half his life, he recounted instances of strangers approaching him, "often not in a friendly way," assuming he was "from somewhere else."
The émigré's ambivalent experience has richly informed his pursuit as a poet, writer and translator. Writing in both Filipino and English, he has published about a dozen books of poetry primarily in the Philippines and in the United Kingdom. His first South African title, Bloodred Dragonflies, was published last year (2022) by Deep South, and a South African edition of an earlier collection, Sound Before Water, is forthcoming from Minimal Press.
He has recently returned from Seattle where he attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference in March 2023 and launched his first American title, Waking Up to the Pattern Left by a Snail Overnight (Gaudy Boy).
As a judge for the 2022 Gaudy Boy Poetry Book Prize, I had selected it from an estimable shortlist to be the worthy winner. With range and depth, it has an exquisite sensibility which enlivens entirely believable scenarios filled with people and creatures finding themselves in everyday moments and extraordinary circumstances.
Comprising 16 poems addressing the Martial Law period in The Philippines, the rest of the 55-poem collection contains references to "the Duterte fake drug war, Jacob Zuma, Maria Ressa, Mad Max, Björk, and Taylor Swift, among others," as Agustin has described in his blog.
1. What are you reading right now?
I'm also in the middle of reading the Collected Poems of Paul Auster. Dark, exhausting poetry. Disturbing and brilliant most times, definitely worth it in bits instead of one full go.
I've also started reading the first books by Zosimo Quibilan (Pagluwas) and Marianne Chan (All Heathens).
2. If you were a famous literary character in a novel, play or poem, what would you be and why?
3. What is the greatest misconception about you?
4. Name one living writer and one dead writer you most identify with, and tell us why.
Living writer I would have said – until a few days ago – the Polish poet Adam Zagajewski. I was a bit shocked the other day when I found out that he had died in 2021! I thought I would still have a chance to actually meet him one of these days. So for a living writer then (though he is more in documentaries, but I've read his books, too) it would have to be David Attenborough. His eye for detail, for what makes up the whole, for how fragile things are, resonate with my own work. His influence on how I view the world is enormous.
5. Do you believe in writer's block? If so, how do you overcome it?
Even when I was still a student I would find time to write in a cramped and crowded jeepney while stuck in epic Manila traffic. I don't remember ever getting writer's block.
6. What qualities do you most admire in a writer?
7. What is one trait you most deplore in writing or writers?
8. Can you recite your favourite line from a literary work or a piece of advice from a writer?
9. Complete this sentence: Few people know this, but I...
10. At the movies, if you have to pick a comedy, a tragedy or an action thriller to watch, which would you go for?
11. What is your favourite word, and what is your least favourite one?
Phlegm – Just the spelling alone, even if you didn't know what it was, is awful. Then throw in onomatopoeia and the actual thing. Yuck.
12. Please compose a rhyming couplet with the following words: cocoon, bobotie, saudade.
Sweet-sour spices in the bobotie's layers of mince,
13. What object is indispensable to you when you write?
14. What is the best time of the day for writing?
15. If you have a last supper, which three literary figures, real or fictional, would you invite to the soiree, and why?
Elizabeth Bartlett, British poet who became a long-distance friend while I was a student in Manila. She sent me her books as they were published, but we lost touch when I came to South Africa. I only learned of her passing two years after it happened. I'd like to ask her what she meant when she included my name in a poem she wrote.
Jeanette Winterson, just to know a bit about her in person, see if she's as exciting as her early writing (I haven't read her later books). I'll introduce her to Bien and Elizabeth. If I she declines, I'll invite John Berger.
16. As someone who writes from a binational and bilingual space, has distance – time and space – from your birth country the Philippines clarified your views on events and people you know from your earlier life? And how have your nearly three decades in your adopted country South Africa changed you and your writing?
I saw that I didn't have to bow to anyone to be considered worthy of an open door. In South Africa, for example, when they say blind judging in a literary competition they usually mean it (until perhaps the final round sometimes, in certain cases). It's a smaller market than the Philippines, but there is a genuine openness and acceptance to my writing.
My only regret is that because no one speaks Filipino to me here in Cape Town, I have somehow ended up writing more poetry in English. I would prefer my output in both languages to be more equal. So I've told myself that I must find time to at least keep translating my own writing in English to Filipino, to "catch up" so to speak. Although for a while I did write a series of new poems in Filipino in response to the publicly shared poetry of a friend who praised the murderous Duterte regime. That friend cut all ties with me after that interaction, sadly.
Some readers have pointed out major differences in my voice and subject matter when I switch between languages. I suppose it's proof that there are really many voices inside us, stories and poems that wish to spring forth if we allow them.
17. What would you write on your own tombstone?
Nothing to see here. Move on. Read my books. Any book. Get a life.QLRS Vol. 22 No. 2 Apr 2023