From short stories, to features, to hard-hitting columns, to erotica. These comprise journalist and book author Lakambini Sitoy’s unique body of works that span over two decades of her professional writing career.
An award-winning disciple of the pen, her achievements since finding the calling to tell stories at a very young age of six, is duly earned. And up to this very day, she continues to express herself through the written word with unrelenting passion.
Proof of this is her latest accomplishment as a contemporary Filipina author. Her first-ever novel titled Sweet Haven was finally published internationally in 2011.
This new year, she proudly brings her book home to the Philippines from Denmark where she is based, and she found no better place to share the good news with than The Manila Times offices where she spent many years as desk editor and a prized female columnist at the turn of the 20th century.
Find out more about this soft-spoken but hard-core author in this exclusive interview with The Sunday Times Magazine.
Her time at ‘Times’
Sitoy joined The Manila Times in 2000 right before its present management, headed by Dr. Dante A. Ang, acquired the paper from its previous owners. She served as a deskman for the general news department, working both as Opinion editor and columnist.
With vital responsibilities to fulfill, Sitoy’s passion for writing was fuelled all the more with her experience at The Times.
She recalled, “I joined The Times in 2000 but I’ve been a features writer and a features editor for another newspaper for four years before that.
“I was writing about other people—with little political overtones but without the mess. And that was a lovely experience, but the Times was even more wonderful because it gave me the opportunity to find and develop my personal voice.”
Specifically, Sitoy had her column to credit. Titled “Quirky,” it aptly described her perspective for the world back then.
She continued, “By the time I started writing [my column], there were already female writers doing columns that sought to describe the way we lived. What our customs were, our beliefs were [and]maybe the tension between how we should live our lives and how we wanted to live them, as opposed to how we actually live them. It’s a departure of the normal lifestyle stories that choose to show the ideal. We were trying to describe the actual, and also the nasty and the awkward.”
One of her contemporaries was noted writer Jessica Zafra, whom she recognized to be more than that. She explained, “At that time, if you were a female columnist and you had a lifestyle bent, your reference was Jessica Zafra—in what way were you different or similar.
That was the profound influence she had on women’s opinion writing at that time. She paved the way and there were a lot of us compared to her.”
She also shared how “great” it was working for The Times’ central desk then. Besides editing and “Quirky,” she would also take turns with former publishers Fred dela Rosa and Rony Diaz in writing editorials.
There further came a time when her column was moved from the Opinion to the Lifestyle section. Of this, she said, “It was in line with the vision of then lifestyle editor Chit Lijauco to be more analytical of how we actually live our lives rather than just products and shows. I think at that time they wanted someone who would go beneath the surface and the propriety.”
By 2003, Sitoy temporarily left The Times to pursue the David Wong Creative Writing Fellowship granted by the University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom.
After her studies, she came back to desk briefly in 2004 but her return was short lived as she met her would-be Danish husband, and flew back and forth between the Philippines and Denmark.
In 2006, she also started writing columns again but was unable to sustain her submissions as she spent an academic year as guest student at Roskilde University also in Denmark. Eventually, she took her MA in English and Cultural Encounters from the same university, which she completed in 2012.
She finally bid farewell to The Times for good in 2010 when she decided to settle down to a new life in Denmark with her husband, who happens to be a publisher with “quite a mission,” as his wife intriguingly put it.
“He is a publisher of fiction from Asia, Latin America, Africa and Oceania translated into Danish. These are the parts of the world that don’t normally get heard in Europe and US. . .” she shared. “He brings all these ignored writers to the Danish consciousness by publishing their work. Really, [it’s] a labor of love.”
This year, she hopes to write columns for The Times again especially now that she has a new topic worthy of discussion: the life of Filipinos abroad.
As the perfect example of an immigrant, she related, “To leave your country when you are a fully formed individual, it’s difficult. Because then, you have to change so much of yourself as you adjust to the new country.”
To be strongly influenced by Americans—as with most Filipinos —was apparently something that Sitory discovered was a concern around the world.
She lamented, “Because I have an American accent, they thought I was American [in Denmark]. And when I told them I was Filipino, I could see the prejudice and barriers came down [upon me]because sad to say, they don’t have a very positive image of us. We are who we are but they don’t know how good we are.”
And this is what she has sought to change ever since. “I would really love [to have]the opportunity to find out ways of overcoming that negative image foreigners have of us as individuals and as a country,” Sitoy expressed.
Does she believe she can achieve it with the power of the pen? “I think so. I think that’s going to be my mission for a while. That’s what I’ve been trying to do and it’s a long process.”
With new plans set in her journalistic career, fiction nevertheless remains to be Sitoy’s first love. Before becoming part of The Manila Times, she had already published countless short stories and essays for various magazines and different publications.
“I knew I wanted to do fiction when I was six years old,” she said again.
Asked how she realized her calling at such a tender age, Sitoy started off making stories through drawing. She said, “This idea of telling a story through pictures, and eventually stories through language was part of my persona very early on.”
While she never pursued visual arts as her profession, she remained a frustrated artist as portrayed by the many heroines in her stories, whether a novel or a collection of shorts.
She also considers her teenage years of fiction writing as a “long apprenticeship” despite the fact that she finished BS Biology at the Siliman University in Dumaguete, from where she hails.
Finally choosing the path she had wanted to pursue all along, she took MA courses in Creative Writing and Comparative literature in the early ’90s at the University of the Philippines.
By 1994, her works started to be published in anthologies and magazines.
During this time, she was able to observe how marginalized women writers were. She explained, “The only narratives you can find of contemporary women were foreign narratives. [Moreover], there were very few short stories by women and they were far between because they weren’t very many opportunities to publish.”
Despite this reality, her work spoke for itself and Anvil published her first book Mens Rea in 1998. The collection of short stories even won the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award for Fiction the following year.
Happily, the landscape began to change in the 20th century when newspapers opened up for female columnists, giving Sitoy and her contemporaries another chance to express themselves.
She enthused, “The beauty of column writing was that immediately, it was a platform where I could use the techniques of fiction that I had already developed. Column writing was a culmination.”
Her next book Jungle Planet and Other Stories was published by the University of the Philippines Press in 2005. It was shortlisted for the Manila Critics’ Circle National Book Award in 2006.
Throughout her years of publishing in the Philippines, she had also received a total of nine trophies from the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards.
And then there was erotica.
An unlikely author of the genre, Sitoy is not one to hide her sexuality as a woman and she willingly shares stories to show it.
Asked how she started writing erotic stories, the author replied it was simply an expression and recording of her feelings. “I realized the importance of merging the sexual aspect of my personhood with my writing. And that’s just how it came about. Basically a writer of fiction had found the means to translate her sexuality and sexual experiences into words,” she elaborated.
One of her most memorable erotica is titled “Arriesgada” included in Jungle Planet, and intriguingly placed in between two short stories for children.
“That was the decision of the UP Press. I would have told them, ‘No, please separate them.’ Now I couldn’t mark [the book]for children. But we were so avante garde those days,” she noted with a knowing smile.
She also used to contribute erotic stories, translated by her husband to Danish, for Cupido, the leading “sex magazine” in Denmark and Norway. One story titled “The Remedy” even won a contest in 2006.
She recalled, “It is set in the Philippines of the 19th century. It’s about a typical figure you may find in Noli Me Tangere bringing his wife to a doctor and saying, ‘I am afraid she does not respond to me. She needs to experience orgasm otherwise she will never be pregnant.’ So of course, the doctor helps him.”
Unfortunately, Cupido eventually stopped publishing her stories, and she has come to
terms with their decision. “It’s maybe because [my stories]are too mild now. The erotic industry [in general]is making a calling to get more hardcore, or X-rated. I’m not too comfortable with that.”
She finds it very positive though that people are now more open about their sexuality, thanks to the Internet. “I found out that with the Internet, everybody is a sexual person. We just really did not show [it before], and we just covered it up,” she said.
As for her latest published work, Sitoy’s Sweet Haven, was originally printed by Albin Michel in Paris, France in 2011, and then by the New York Review of Books in cooperation with Random House in 2014.
Just before the end of 2015, Sweet Haven went full circle as Anvil Publishing—Sitoy’s first ever publisher—bought the book’s rights to print it in the Philippines. Officially launched in December, the author is excitedly promoting the book for more Filipinos to read.
And a must-have it is indeed for it took Sitoy seven years—from 2003 to 2010—to finish the novel. This level of difficulty, from creating an entire world to weaving the lives of the characters, is what makes the book different from her previous ones.
She explained, “As a short story writer, we very often stop at the moment of epiphany when the character has a realization, and the moment a conflict is resolved. In a novel, you’re very often telling the story of at least three people, and they are in an alternate reality to your own. And they also have conflicts in their world that may or may not be resolved in the course of the novel.”
The book follows the life of a female lifestyle journalist who abandoned her illegitimate daughter to pursue her career in Manila—which according to Sitoy mirrors her early struggles in writing.
One day, Sitoy’s protagonist discovered a pornographic video featuring the daughter she left behind.
“So she goes home to try and perform an act of rescue, and also to find out what it was that led the girl to do this, and also to heal the wounds between them—basically, get her sh*t together!” she said giving a peel into the novel.
In parting, The Sunday Times Magazine asked Sitoy to her opinion on the current state of Philippine literature.
She replied, “There’s a lot being produced in [news sites like]Rappler and [blogsites like]Wordpress and Wattpad. But I think Philippine literature is in a tension now. We are trying to find our position in a global world of voices.”