Filipina expat’s book of short stories wins raves, awards
SAN FRANCISCO — Filipina author Noelle Q. De Jesus, author of Blood: Collected Stories, which includes a Palanca award-winning story, recently was in town for a quick trip to accompany her 18-year-old daughter, the older of her two children, to UC Berkeley. She generously carved out time from a parent’s emotional rite of passage–leaving a child to attend college away from home–to launch her collection of fictional short stories about multiculturalism, family relationships and immigrant experiences, with a reading at the at the San Francisco Main Public Library, hosted by the Philippine American Writers Association.
Blood was published by Ethos Publishing in Singapore in 2015 and received excellent reception both in Manila and Singapore. Among the stories De Jesus read at the Main Library were the title story, “Blood,” which garnered a Palanca Award in 1995, and “Passport,” which was recently translated into French for the fourth edition of Jentayu, a literary journal. Jentayu devoted the issue to Asian writers, including well-known authors Gregorio Brillantes, also of the Philippines, and Haruki Murakami of Japan.
More recently, De Jesus’ book won the U.S.-based Next Generation Indie Book Award for the short story category, a recognition that elated De Jesus. “The awards series helps small and independent publishers find a larger audience, so that was incredibly gratifying.”
De Jesus took a circuitous path and 25 years to finish her collection. She started writing some of the stories in college at Ateneo De Manila and others at Bowling Green State University Ohio, where she did her MFA in Creative Writing. Then she got married, had a daughter and a son, and moved three times – from the Philippines to the U.S., from the U.S. to the Philippines and from the Philippines to Singapore, where she and her family have lived for the past 16 years.
To help support her growing family, De Jesus got a job in advertising and contributed to women’s magazines, putting her book into hibernation. Notwithstanding the challenges of being a wife, mother and working woman, she has managed to balance her creativity with multiple demands on her time.
De Jesus edited an anthology of flash fiction, titled Fast Food Fiction Short Short Stories to Go, for Anvil Publishing in Manila in 2003. She wrote a chick lit novel Mrs MisMarriage (Marshall Cavendish International Editions, Singapore, 2008), published under her married name Noelle Chua, and co-edited another flash fiction collection, Fast Food Fiction Delivery: Short Short Stories to Go, also for Anvil in 2015.
De Jesus studied flash fiction at Bowling Green State University and fell in love with the form. Explaining her admiration for writing fiction of a few hundred words or less, De Jesus said, “The form is very Pinoy – the matter-of-factness that we make “kuwento” – short and punchy with a takeaway. A whole novel can be encapsulated in a piece of flash fiction and unlimited genres can be explored.”
As she approached turning 40, she had a wake-up call — she realized that she had put her passion project in the back burner for far too long. Finding herself at a crossroads at midlife, De Jesus decided that she had a sufficient number of stories for a book even though she still had doubts whether they were good enough. Ethos Publishing, a key player in Singapore’s publishing industry, picked up the manuscript for Blood, banishing the author’s remaining concerns about the collection, and published the book to rave reviews.
“Carefully crafted and richly observed, these stories are filled with unforgettable women – devoted, deceitful, deluded, and so real, they might have been someone you once knew,” said F.H. Batacan, author of Smaller and Smaller Circles.
Michael Carroll, author of Little Reef and Other Stories and Lambda Literary Award Winner in 2015, said De Jesus’ voice is evocative of writing legends such as Somerset Maugham and William Faulkner. “At the start of each compact narrative in this collection, Noelle Q. De Jesus places a cunning tiger of thrilling tension ready to spring. Thematically cogent, these stories are about the lives of the displaced – displaced of home, of generation, from both modernity and tradition.”
Rina Jimenez, a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer stated that De Jesus “takes the seeds of her experiences and lets them flourish into full-blown characters – figments of her imagination, true, but fully realized, multidimensional, complex and contradictory.” She further noted, “Blood also augurs a growing body of exile literature written by Filipinos who are themselves dislocated and thus knowledgeable about the emptiness, the loneliness, the sense of alienation that assault those cut off from home and the familiar.”
De Jesus has a firm grip on the lives of many of her immigrant characters. She describes herself as multinational. She was born in the U.S. and grew up in Metro Manila, where she attended Saint Theresa’s College High School in Quezon City. She did her freshman year at the University of Michigan before deciding to go home to live in a free, post-Marcos Philippines, following the EDSA Revolution in 1986. She majored in Interdisciplinary Studies at Ateneo de Manila, where she met her husband, Nathaniel Chua, who is now working in finance in Singapore, their current home base.
De Jesus considers all three countries “home” but identifies primarily as Filipino. “I am not typically Filipino and may seem to others perhaps more ‘American’ than Filipino, but my soul is intrinsically Pinoy.” While her international background often has made her feel like an outsider looking in wherever she lived, she believes that it has helped expand her writing. “It allows me to step into anyone’s shoes fairly easily and write from all and any of these three cultures.” Undoubtedly, her provenance has also played an important role in nurturing her writing talent and social consciousness.
Her mother, Melinda Quintos de Jesus is the executive director of the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, based in Manila. During the Marcos dictatorship, she joined other women journalists in writing critical pieces about the abuses of one-man rule. Her father Edilberto C. de Jesus writes for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and was a member of the Peace Commission under President Cory Aquino. He served as Secretary of Education under President Gloria Arroyo until he resigned from his post. Her sisters are also writers.
De Jesus, who started writing at an early age, is now carrying on a cherished family tradition within her own family. Her husband, who was a college paper editor, has published poetry in Singapore and is fully supportive of his wife’s burgeoning writing career. Her daughter, who is a freshman doing Political Science at U.C. Berkeley, has published poetry and fiction, and her 17-year-old son, a senior at the Singapore American School, is a promising screenplay writer.
Following the success of Blood, now in its second reprint, De Jesus is hard at work on her first full-length novel that will be titled Another Sky. The protagonists are two Filipino Americans, a brother and a sister living in New York, who are sent to the Philippines while their parents are dealing with their divorce. The visit allows them to discover their roots and opens their eyes to the turbulent Philippine politics, in the wake of the violent assassination of Senator Ninoy Aquino. She is also working on a second volume of short stories.
Asked the stock question if she had any lessons to share with aspiring writers, De Jesus said, “People say this all the time, but I really think if you want to be a writer, you have to read and read widely. Keep reading and then always try to write the kind of work you want to read. Fill a gap. Don’t try to be the next…whoever. Be the writer that only you can be. And also, set a time limit for social media. That’s an advice even I should follow. It’s very difficult for me to get off social media, considering what’s happening in the Philippines in terms of politics, and certainly interesting with the coming elections in the US.”
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