A Writer for Children | An interview with M.J. Cagumbay Tumamac (Xi Zuq)

Xi Zuq

M.J. Cagumbay Tumamac, or popularly known as Xi Zuq, is one of our authors of books for children and young adults in the region. He wrote the storybook, Ngumiti si Andoy (illustrated by Dominic Agsaway; Adarna House, 2013), and the Supremo chapter book-trilogy (illustrated by Al Estrella; Adarna House, 2014-15, 17). He has also edited and translated more than fifty stories for children. Currently, he works as a staff for the Cotabato Literary Journal and heads an independent publishing house. He divides his time among General Santos City, Maitum, and Lake Sebu.

In this interview, he talks about his life as a writer for children from SOCCSKSARGEN (SOX).

Yadu Karu: We seldom hear of writers for children in this part of the country. How did you become one?

Xi Zuq: I guess it’s mainly because I was exposed to books as early as preschool. Those books were all foreign though, so I had the impression that only foreign authors could create books. It was only after reading the storybook, Alamat ng Ampalaya (by Augie Rivera and Kora Dandan-Albano; Adarna House, 1995), in the first grade that I learned there were accomplished Filipino writers too—but reading and writing were not my priorities then. As a chubby, chink-eyed, fair-skinned child, I was busy playing with my siblings and friends. I only began dabbing in the art of writing when I was already in high school. Sure, I played football, table tennis, scrabble, and computer games, joined track races, and was updated on the latest episodes of cartoons on TV, but I spent most of my free time at the school library. There, I had written poems, stories, and even my first novella entitled “The Lost Library Card” (patterned after my favorite detective series, Hardy Boys). 

It was in one of my classes in college that I was introduced to the world of children’s literature and to more Filipino writers for children. It was because of that class, I think, that I found myself striving to become a children’s book author. And to fulfill that dream, I took my classes in literature and creative writing seriously. I also joined writing organizations (one is even for erotica writers). On my fifth year, I became a probationary member of the premier group of fictionists for children, Kuwentista ng mga Tsikiting. It was a very exciting moment for me—I discovered that Augie Rivera was one of the founding members of the organization. I felt I was on the right track!

But being a creative writer was (and still is) not a profitable venture here in the Philippines, so I had to take a regular job. For four years, I taught children from the first to seventh grade in a small progressive school. My time there gave me an insight and understanding about children and childhood—a trait that writers for children should possess.

Then in 2012, I tried joining and miraculously won the Salanga Writer’s Prize, a writing contest organized annually by the Philippine Board on Books for Young People. Part of the prize was a publication offer; so in 2013, my first book for children, Ngumiti si Andoy, came out.

YK: Can you tell us about your writing process?

XZ: I follow a procedure in finishing a manuscript. In writing Ngumiti si Andoy, for instance, I started with an objective to write a three-page story about Andres Bonifacio for a storybook format (since the organizers of the contest wanted to release a book in time for the hero’s 150th birth anniversary). In order to come up with an idea for the story, I used a graphic organizer (spider web diagram works best) and had to do extensive research about Andres Bonifacio’s life. I also read plenty of related literary works. I then created an outline, drew sketches of the characters, and visualized a setting to help me imagine the world that I was building around my story. Only after these steps were completed that I finally began writing the draft—and these preliminary preparations took me weeks. When the draft was finally completed, I asked my friends to comment on my work (the craft and content of the story). Then, based on their comments, I revised the manuscript and finally submitted my work.

Unfortunately, this process has made me a mechanical writer. A lot of readers tell me that they appreciate most of my works because of the craft or freshness of the idea but not because they were moved. This is an aspect I still have to work on.

YK: How do you handle rejections and criticisms?

XZ: Hearing criticisms and getting rejections are all part of being a writer. All of my submissions before joining the PBBY Salanga Writer’s Prize, for instance, were rejected primarily because they did not fit the publishers’ visions or the publishers had issues with the craft and content. Even now that I am a published author, I still get tons of rejection emails. Notice also that I released the third installment of the Supremo trilogy two years after the previous one. It is because my publisher rejected the entire initial manuscript for the third book. Nothing remained from that initial manuscript that can be seen in the published version—well, except for the characters. It was tough scrapping an entire work and redoing things over again but that’s how things go—at least in traditional publishing.

Meanwhile, I welcome criticisms in the form of comments in revising my manuscripts. Fortunately, I have been in a lot of manuscript critiquing sessions with fellow members of my organizations and with my writer friends. The bulk of criticisms that I receive though comes after the book is published. In the children’s book industry, people from many different backgrounds scrutinize your work—teachers, librarians, reviewers, book bloggers, parents, child psychologists, reading and literacy experts, literary scholars, etc. (It is interesting to note how their reading and understanding are influenced by their profession.) The most important criticisms for me, however, are the ones that come from my target audience—the children. I get a lot of emails and messages from students telling me which parts they like and things that I should revise and do for the next books. Some even ask me to answer their assignments for them!

YK: How has your life in SOX figured in your works?

XZ: I have included some of my childhood experiences in my previous works. The postcards of heroes and the Heroes’ Park in Ngumiti si Andoy, for instance, are part of my grade school life. In the Supremo series, I also based the mechanics of the school elections, the papaya language, and the school Christmas party on my own experiences. But these elements are not easily recognizable as unique to SOX, and two forthcoming works—a Filipino translation of a science fiction novella for teens and a horror trilogy for kids—are still along this line.

My other works, however, that will be released or that I plan to submit for publication this year have strong SOX elements. These are a short story about the Sangir as part of a collection of “radical” fiction for children (should have been released last year), a children’s novel that features the musang or civet cat (four years in the making), and a chapter book about the kinilaw.

YK: Part of being a writer is reading other works. What works have influenced your writing?

XZ: I have read most of them during my formative years. In the early grades, I read board books that teach basic concepts, storybooks, verses (especially those by Dr. Seuss), and encyclopedia for kids. In the middle grades, I got engrossed with the Archie comics, some horror series such as Philippine Ghost Stories and Goosebumps, sports novellas, modernized and abridged versions of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and other classics, and Hardy Boys and other detective fiction series. In high school, I finished the Harry Potter series, the first Bob Ong books, and the Lord of the Rings series, among other books.

Since college, the types of works I read have become diverse but can be grouped according to the following categories: children’s and young adult, comics and graphic novels, poetry, Filipiniana, social sciences, and literary studies. If I have to name five though that moved me as a writer, these would be Agay Llanera and Farley del Rosario’s storybook, Sol (CANVAS & UST Press, 2009); Rio Alma and Sergio Bumatay III’s poetry picture book, May Darating na Trak Bukas (Adarna House, 2010); Neil Gaiman’s novel for children, The Graveyard Book (with illustrations by Chris Riddell; Bloomsbury Publishing PLC, 2009); Mado Michio’s poetry book, Dobutsu-tachi (The Animals, translated into English by Empress Michiko of Japan and illustrated by Mitsumasa Anno; Margaret K. McElderry Books, 1992); and Mac Barnett and John Klassen’s picture book, Extra Yarn (Balzer+Bray, 2012). These books are well written, present fresh perspectives on certain themes, provide meaningful entertainment, and have art, design and layout that perfectly meld together.

(You can also check out a list of “essential” books for Filipino children I made for the Buwan ng Akdang Pinoy campaign last year.)

YK: What are some of the problems you have encountered as writer for children?

One problem I always encounter is the misconception that writers for children don’t create “real” or “serious” literature. Some of my friends even have to mention that I also write poetry on the side (which constitutes a tiny fraction of my entire body of work) as a way to legitimize my status as writer. But I don’t get offended really; I guess everyone is entitled to their own tastes and view on writing and literature. Though I always seize every opportunity to encourage other writers to try children’s and young adult literature.

I think the misconception stems from the idea that children are simple-minded creatures that will soon become complex and fully-realized adults. For us, writers for children, we recognize that childhood is a complex social construction influenced by physiological development. Children are, therefore, humans that have unique characteristics, interests, skills, experiences, and contexts. They see the world differently than adults.

YK: Can you tell us more about your independent publishing house, Aklat Alamid?

XZ: Aklat Alamid is an independent publishing house based in General Santos City that aims to create books for Filipino kids and teens in the different Philippine languages. It is our own little solution to the lack of quality literary books for children in the regions. Since its organization two years ago, we have partnered with individuals and groups in holding contests, book launches, storytelling sessions, book donations, and workshops. This year, we are targeting to launch books for early graders in Iloko, Ibanag, Hiligaynon, Binisaya, and Sinama. We will also conduct workshops on bookmaking, writing young adult fiction, conceptualizing picture books, storytelling, and illustrating for children. 

YK: You are also a reading advocate. How do you continue to push for your advocacy?

XZ: I’ve been part of several advocacy groups when I was still living in Metro Manila. Their thrusts vary from establishing functional libraries to promoting the art of storytelling, but all are in one way or another related to reading. So when I decided to go back here in SOX, one of my initial plans was to replicate and contextualize some of the groups’ projects to the communities here. It must be noted though that there are a bazillion advocacy organizations here too in SOX. So, it was somehow easy to convene a group of individuals who would be willing to advocate reading. A big shout-out to Tarie Sabido, Beau Ideal Florenosos, Genory Vanz Alfasain, the members of Ramon Magsaysay Memorial CollegesThe Story Book Project, John Oliver Tablazon and the youth volunteers of Sarangani, Rossel Audencial and Mindanao State University’s Valoræx, and the few fellow writers who partnered with us in some of our events. We call ourselves the SOX Reading Advocates, and right now, it is a loose group that aims to promote the love of reading among children and adults in the region. Some of the activities we have accomplished so far are storytelling caravans, book launches, author talks, book donations, storytelling workshops, reading discussions, and book exchanges.

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