The Kulaman Writer: An Interview with Jude Ortega

Jude Ortega during the #HugotMarbel event 

In a rare moment, Jude Ortega shares a glimpse of his life as a writer, his fascination for Dulangan Manobo and his new novel Rajah Muda.

Yadu Karu (YK): Can you describe to us what the life of a writer is in today’s Philippine society?

Jude Ortega (JO): It is a difficult life. Only a very few make a decent living out of their writing, especially among fictionists, poets, and playwrights. You need to do copywriting or web content writing to be able to put food in the table, or have a day job that doesn’t involve writing.

YK: You have been to many writers workshops in the country. From your experiences, what are the advantages and disadvantages of joining in these workshops?

JO: One good thing about workshops is you get to learn from the best. Many veteran writers in the country sit as panelists in writers workshops. When you become a fellow, you get to meet your idols, and they have many valuable lessons to teach you that they won’t be able to if you’re merely reading their works. Maybe one downside to workshops is that many panelists don’t pull punches. Their standards are high, and if you’re not prepared for criticisms, your ego will be shattered and you might be discouraged to continue writing. In my case, however, workshops have been quite beneficial overall. Maybe because I was already in my mid-twenties when I started joining and I had written considerably a lot. I wasn’t just prepared for criticisms. I was looking for them.

YK: How do you conduct your own research as part of your writing process?

JO: I’m quite grateful to the World Wide Web. I do most of my research online. From where I am staying, Sultan Kudarat Province, going to libraries with good collections is time-consuming and expensive. The Web is a blessing, but of course, I have to be discerning and patient in sifting through information because there’s a lot of trash on the Web.

YK: What motivates you to write stories about Moro and IP especially Dulangan Manobos?

JO: I love to read, and there are many stories that I want to read but not written yet. When that happens, I write the stories myself. I belong to what you may loosely call “Christians,” so I write about “my own people” first and foremost. I write about Moros and IP because they’ve been part of my life, as usually the case is when you’re a Mindanawon. I write about Dulangan Manobos in particular because they are the indigenous people in my hometown—Senator Ninoy Aquino, Sultan Kudarat—and they’re one of the least documented tribes in the country.

YK: What part of their culture has fascinated you?

JO: What fascinates me most about indigenous people is not how different they us from Moros and Christians but how similar, historically speaking. Before Islam and Christianity were introduced to our archipelago, everyone lived almost the same way. If we remove modern Western influences in our lives, we will be so much like the indigenous people. I began doing personal research on indigenous people when I wanted to know how my own Visayan ancestors lived in the past.

YK: How do you handle criticisms about appropriation and (mis)representation?

JO: I answer questions about what I do in the right forums. I openly talk about my own struggles and doubts in literary events and writers workshops, and sometimes even in personal conversations with other writers. But not on social media. Many sensitive matters are better discussed outside social media.

YK: So far, what comment/criticism has helped change your perspective in terms of storytelling/writing?

JO: I’ve been a fellow to six writers workshops, and in those workshops, I’ve received dozens of criticisms in all, and one way or another, each criticism has helped me grow as a writer. Perhaps the most important was Butch Dalisay’s words at the 2013 Iligan National Writers Workshop. When my story was being discussed, he told me that the story was already good as it was but I should not settle with just creating a good story. He said I should always push the narrative, and push myself as a writer as well.

YK: You are currently writing your first novel entitled Rajah Muda. Can you tell us what it is all about?

JO: I’m done writing the whole novel, and it has been accepted for publication by a university press, but I still have to make some revisions. The novel is about the sultanate of Maguindanao and the age-old battle for the throne between rajah mudas (first in line, usually the firstborn sons) and watamamas (second in line, usually the second sons). It is set in what is Cotabato City today in three periods—the present; the sixteenth century, when Islam was introduced to mainland Mindanao; and the ancient times, when there were monsters that attacked villages and ate human beings.

YK: In your opinion, how important is this story to the young generation, especially to Moros?

JO: I hope the novel will help readers become interested in our own stories, our own region. We consume so much Western and Manila literature, but we ignore local literature. We fail to realize that our own stories are as rich, and if we want to grow as human beings, we should trace our roots first and understand our immediate environment.

YK: What’s your advice to the aspiring writers of SOX Region?

JO: Read a lot. Write a lot. Write about our own region, our home.

Leave a comment below and let me know what you think.