Six Questions for Charlson Ong
Updated: Jul 15, 2021
Charlson Ong talks about his new novel White Lady, Black Chris
t. Looking at mass gatherings, he questions class divisions within Philippine society. (Image by Javier P. Flores)
1. What is the inspiration for White Lady, Black Christ?
The stampede in 2006 of people massing for a show business event disturbed me a lot. It was such a needless loss of life, where 73 people were killed and 400 were injured. Yet, I suspected that after a brief period of blame mongering the whole bloody, blundering business would quickly fade from public memory, the victims forgotten, maybe deemed complicit in their own misfortune. Perhaps a novel that kicks off with such a scene might serve as a remembering of sorts.
2. In this novel, you juxtapose a stampede in the beginning with events like EDSA 3 and the massive crowd of devotees of the Black Nazarene. The image of the crowd is very strong in the novel. Why?
Thinking about the tragedy one realizes how mass gatherings are so much a part of our public lives from religious to political to entertainment events. ‘People power’ has shaped much of our present day affairs conflating religious and political discourses. Yet, perhaps, the most iconic mass gathering, at least in Metro Manila and Luzon, is arguably the annual, Traslacion of the Black Nazarene that draws almost a million devotees. Not even the ongoing global pandemic could totally shut down the event in January, 2021. The traslacion says tons about Filipino religiosity and concept of masculinity and for all the countless miracles attributed to the icon I’ve often maintained that the biggest
one may be the fact that it has not caused any tragic stampede as has occurred in some events abroad. That too says much about us. And how many traslacion regulars were also present at the mass events in EDSA in 1986 and 2000? Or for that matter at the entertainment gathering (mostly women this time) that cost so many lives?
3. The moral purpose of the novel, according to Henry James
, is its responsibility to represent life. What is it about mass gatherings and the Filipino psyche that you wish to point out with this novel?
The first two People Power events are often described as middle class uprisings and the latter pro-Erap event as an underclass mob riot. Can there ever be a national ‘awakening’ or consensus or are we irrevocably divided along class lines? Is the continuing, perchance growing, devotion to the Black Nazarene a result of deepening poverty or hopelessness or a sign of something deeper? Will poverty alleviation necessarily reduce relig
On the other hand, the ‘white lady’ phantasm, also present in many other cultures, is conflated hereabout with either a ghostly, or malevolent presence, or with the Virgin/Mother Mary who provides everlasting mercy and succor.
The novel is an interplay of these two significant tropes in the Filipino imaginary.
4. What advice can you give the young author in portraying Filipino life through the novel?
Young writers should do research by reading up on PH history/studies as well as going into the field, meeting interesting people, and going beyond one’s comfort zone. Of course it is also important to know one’s own family and roots. By knowing your family you begin to know your society.
5. The book feels very cinematic. Does your work as a director and screenplay writer have a role to play in the way you formulate story and put scenes together?
I am a cinema enthusiast and am much influenced by movies. I have many ‘movies in my mind.’ I often suggest to writing students to think of their stories as ‘scenes’ they have to link up. In fact my novel Banyaga was first a screenplay that I decided to ‘novelize.’ Of course once you do this the material transforms. Somehow the ‘spirit’ of the language takes over and you have to go with the flow, it becomes more interior, psychological. The play of language is then the play of light and shadow and tonality. It is a form of performance on the page, as it were. Therefore it is important to master whatever language you intend to write in. The main purpose of writing is always clarity.
6. What are you working on now?
I am beginning work on what might be a next novel. It has the global pandemic as backdrop, which I suspect many writers will reference these days. It might be a sort of sequel to my first novel An Embarrassment of Riches.
Visit www.milflorespublishing.com to get Charlson Ong's new novel!