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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Dean Francis Alfar

[Interviewer’s Note: This is a series of interviews featuring the contributors of The Apex Book of World SF edited by Lavie Tidhar. It’ll run every Monday to Friday until I run out of interviews. Two of these interviews will be reprinted in Apex Magazine but the rest are exclusive to SF Signal.]

Dean Francis Alfar (born 1969), is a Filipino playwright, novelist and writer of speculative fiction. His plays have been performed in venues across the country, while his articles and fiction have been published both in his native Philippines and abroad, such as in Strange Horizons, Rabid Transit, The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror, The Apex Book of World SF, and the Exotic Gothic series.

His literary awards include ten Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature — including the Grand Prize for Novel for Salamanca (Ateneo Press, 2006)– as well as the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Awards for the graphic novels Siglo: Freedom and Siglo: Passion, the Philippines Free Press Literary Award, and the Gintong Aklat Award.

He was a fellow at the 1992 Dumaguete National Writers Workshop as well as the 20th and 48th UP National Writers Workshop.

He is an advocate of the literature of the fantastic, editing the Philippine Speculative Fiction annuals, as well as a comic book creator and a blogger.

Alfar is also an entrepreneur — running several businesses. He lives in Manila with his wife, fictionist Nikki Alfar and their daughters Sage and Rowan.


Hi Dean! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with speculative fiction? What’s the appeal of the genre for you?

I’ve always loved speculative fiction, fantasy in particular. I was exposed to it when I was a child, in the form of fairy tales. As a teen, fantasy novels and comics keep the sense of wonder alive. As an adult, short fiction from writers around the world both sate my appetite for the wondrous and encourage me to tell stories of my own.

The multiple genres of speculative fiction are trapdoors to other places that I willingly fall through.  The appeal lies in the marvels of another author’s imagination, in their capacity to articulate observations of what it means to be human – but through different lenses than the real.

What made you decide to become a writer? How about an editor?

Growing up, there was a dearth of spec fic written by Filipino authors. During that time, realism was valued more. I decided that I would attempt to write the kinds of stories I wanted to read. Eventually, I was able to get my stories published in various venues. I thought that if I could do it, then so could other Filipino writers, especially the younger ones. I put together an annual anthology and put forth a call for submissions. To my delight, stories came in from across the archipelago. That’s how I began editing speculative fiction. “Philippine Speculative Fiction” will have its 5th volume out next year.

How would you define speculative fiction? Why is there much resistance to the term in the Philippines?

Speculative Fiction is an umbrella term we use that encompasses the genres of fantasy, science fiction, horror, magical realism, interstitial fiction and other non-realist genres. The big flaw of the term lies in its being imprecise, too encompassing. However, given the fact that few of these genres are represented strongly in the Philippines, it functions to describe particular kinds of stories.

How would you describe the speculative fiction field in the Philippines?

Spec fic, per se, is young. While sporadically there have been published stories that can be considered spec fic retroactively, it is only in the recent past that authors have begun to deliberately construct stories to contribute to or help own the term. The field is growing and every year there are new authors and wonderful stories. But we also need champion publishers, more venues to access these new works, and a reading public who will support genre writing by buying the books.

Do you think Filipino fiction has qualities that make it distinct from the fiction of other countries?

Yes, of course. After 300 years of Spanish rule, followed by a stint under America, we are a nation in search of our identity, our voice. Post-colonial concerns exist side-by-side with questions about what makes us different, what makes us unique. Ultimately, it is a combination of the author’s personal character and his national character that help describe the Filipino voice. We cannot help but imbue our fiction with who were as people – and part of our identity is who we are as Filipinos.

Why do you think there isn’t much awareness of Filipino fiction internationally until recently?

I think the international book publishers are guilty of exoticising various nationalities. From time to time, some nation or ethnicity becomes hot. Fiction from Iran, fiction from China, sooner or later they’ll get to us. But part of our struggle as Filipino writers is this need for outside approval. It is more important for us to be read by our people first, whether in native languages or in translation.

Going back to your own writing, which is more challenging for you: writing a novel or writing short fiction? Which is more viable in the Philippines?

The novelistic space is initially terrifying, but is actually manageable. Unlike short fiction where I need to focus on certain elements more, with the novel I can exercise my craft in other ways. I can be more descriptive, pay more attention to details, hone the setting, create circumstances for characters to shine.

With a short story, the challenge is telling a story the best way I can – but telling it briefly. It is as challenging as the novel, but takes less time.

Sadly, neither is financially viable in the Philippines. We cannot live off our fiction. Every writer has a day job (and sometimes, a night job) or a business.

You’re also a gamer. How has your experience as a Game Master and roleplayer affected your writing (and vice versa)?

It is mostly one way. From writing to gaming. My training (and ear) as a playwright helps greatly with game characters in scenes, for example. I don’t write about the games I run.

Currently, you’re shifting away from being the editor of the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology series. What made you decide to hand the reins to someone else?

I believe in a plurality of voices. The danger of me having the final say every year the anthology is published is that ultimately only my poetics are represented. It is vital to get other editorial perspectives, to be able to describe a broader range of stories written by Filipinos. I firmly believe that it is healthier for all of us this way. I’m still involved in some way (I’m the publisher) but will be hands-off with the story selections. it should be an interesting volume.

What are the challenges in being a publisher in the Philippines?

The rising cost of publication, rising cost of marketing, the terms charged by bookstores for placement – basically, money first. Then marketing.

For unfamiliar readers, where can they find more of your work?

The latest anthologies with my stories include Exotic Gothic 3 edited by Danel Olson and The Farthest Shore. My fiction has also been published in The Year’s Best Fantasy & Horror Vol. 17 and Rabid Transit.


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