An Interview with Paul Randy Gumanao

Interview by | March 25, 2018

Paul Randy Gumanao has been one of Dagmay’s most prolific contributors since 2009, when he was still a student at Ateneo de Davao University. Paul writes across different genres, from poetry to fiction to social commentary, and is as evocative in Bisaya as in English. He is, however, best known for his poetry, which is rich with concrete and lush imagery. (Read Paul’s past works on Dagmay.)

Paul Randy Gumanao giving a lecture at Taboan literary festival.

D: When I first met you, you were a BS Chem student at Ateneo. What have you been up to since you graduated?

PR: After my graduation in 2012 and after I got my license as a chemist, I had a brief stint as a chemistry instructor in one of the colleges in my hometown. I did not stay long in the institution because I wanted to explore opportunities outside my comfort zone. I landed another job in a third-party quality control laboratory in General Santos, where I was in-charge of the chemistry department. It was also during that time when I decided to pursue graduate studies, so I enrolled in the MS in Chemistry program at Ateneo while being employed at the same time.

D: The quality control lab sounds like a seriously technical job. What did you do there, specifically?

PR: The bulk of my job in the lab was analyzing toxins in products of the different fishing and canning companies in the region. At first, I relished the experience, but I eventually got bored as the procedures became very familiar and plainly mechanical as the days passed. Examining whole tunas weighing as heavy as 50 kilograms was a very taxing job for my 45-kilogram body!

D: I didn’t know tuna grew to be that big! Sounds very taxing indeed. Is that why you left that job eventually?

PR: Being exposed to hazardous chemicals daily began to affect my health, so I decided to leave my job in Gensan in 2015. I transferred to Philippine Science High School SOCCSKSARGEN Region Campus in Koronadal City, where I am currently teaching chemistry.

D: How was teaching been for you?

PR: I find satisfaction in teaching because of the opportunity to constantly expand my knowledge. It is very different from my previous work. There in the quality control lab, I would wake up everyday already knowing what to look for at work – the toxins in the fish!

In teaching, everyday brings a new surprise! It could be a stupefying question from a student, or a profound insight and sense of accomplishment after checking piles of papers.

D: At Ateneo you were also editor-in-chief of Atenews. Were you also likewise involved with the school paper in high school?

PR: I was editor-in-chief thrice: in elementary, in high school, and in college. I attended press conferences. I was able to join the National Schools Press Conference (NSPC) twice in elementary, and twice in high school. I was even awarded the Most Outstanding Campus Journalist in 2008.

D: So writing was always an avocation? What were your first inklings down this path?

PR: I have three hypotheses why I am naturally inclined to writing. The first has something to do with my name. At an early age, I was curious why my parents named me Paul. I suspected it was after St. Paul, the writer of most of the books in the New Testament. And so I tried to live up to the examples of the good saint. Later in college, I found out that in Latin, the name Paul means “small or little boy”. Those who have seen me would surely say that the coincidence is just so perfect.

Another hypothesis traces back to the time of my birth. My mother told me that she had always wanted her firstborn to be good at writing. As a staunch believer of superstitions, she wrapped with a newspaper her placenta with my cut umbilical cord. She and my father also had a big dictionary readied, and they made the book my first bed. She was able to do that because I was just delivered at home with the help of a “mananabang”.

D: Indeed! How quaint and amusing!

PR: Of course, as a man of science, I know the two previous hypotheses hold very little merit. I would like to believe that my affinity to writing stems from my early exposure to reading. At home, we were lucky to have lots of reading materials. I learned to read short words before I was even enrolled in preschool. And I learned to read spontaneously at the age of four. I could not forget that particular reading material from which I first learned. It was a Bisaya advocacy comics about a child named Dodong who could transform himself into a superhero. Dodong had the ability to animate trees, make them speak, and drive terrified illegal loggers away.

Almost every night as well, our father would read to us at least one story from a treasury of fairy tales, or from folklore. We had ample time to read because we did not have a television set at home to distract us. My parents bought a TV set only when I was already in first year high school so that they could watch my sister and me on TV as awardees for Best Children’s Radio Program in the 14th KBP Golden Dove Awards.

D: Hold on, you were also in radio when you were younger?

PR: Back in 2003, the Sangguniang Panlalawigan of North Cotabato legislated its Child and Youth Welfare and Development Code. As a way to popularize the legislation, a weekly radio program called Usapang Pambata, funded by UNICEF, was created to reach the constituency. The board member who sponsored it wanted it to be really responsive to the call of genuine children’s participation, so she thought it was best to have a child as a co-host of the radio program. To make the story short, I was taken in as a co-host when I was still in Grade 5.

The program was aired every Saturday over two stations of the Notre Dame Broadcasting Corporation. Eventually, the program management decided to invite more kids in the show, and so my sister became one of the later hosts. We talked about the salient points of the legislation, and how they address specific issues of the children and youth sector such as child abuse, children in conflict with the law, internally displaced children, and other related issues.

The program took a talk show format, and we would invite key personalities in the province as resource persons. The show included other segments such as reading of children’s stories, sharing of fun facts, and important tips for kids, and replay of our actual outreach activities. The program ran for almost a decade, and I remained a host of the show until my graduation in high school in 2008.

Usapang Pambata won as Best Children’s Radio Program in the 14th, 15th, 16th, and 17th KBP Golden Dove Awards.

D: Wow. Going back to talking about your roots, when it comes down to it, it was really the influence and guidance of your parents….

PR: Yes. Because of the environment my parents encouraged, I would say we had our imaginations and musings honed early.

When I had already read a fair number of materials, I started to feel the urge to write, and enjoyed the idea of being able to share to others. The school publication was a promising vehicle for this.

But, there is something about writing that I could not find in journalism – the power to recreate the reality. It kindled my interest in literature. In journalism, one has to be faithful to the facts in order to tell the truth. In literature, one can be creative while letting the truth speak for itself.

D: What are you reading these days? Any favorite authors?

PR: I read whatever interests me, regardless of the author. But there are authors who have left a very good impression in me. For fiction, I like Arundhati Roy and Kazuo Ishiguro as much as I like Tolkien and Kafka. For poetry, I admire Pablo Neruda and Marjorie Evasco. And of course, for Binisaya literature, I owe a lot to Don Pagusara and Mac Tiu.

D: One of your earlier poems which really impressed me was “Pieta”. So very moving because of its imagery and its dramatic parallel structure. What was the genesis of the poem? When you wrote it, did you have any specific person in mind, or was it a fictional amalgam?

PR: Pieta is so precious to me. It is autobiographical. I wrote it when I was in the height of my activism in college. It was addressed to my mom who was always anxious about my involvements, and it was a subtle assertion of my conviction. The title was inspired by one of the famous sculptures of Michelangelo. I attempted to allude to Jesus Christ who left His home only to find a larger family among those He served.

D: When I think of your poetry, I generally think of it in two categories, the first, of course, being your activist poetry to which “Pieta” belongs. Can you tell us how you became involved with progressive groups?

PR: I believe I had been an activist even before I officially became one, maybe because I was raised to be one. As a young child, I was encouraged by my parents to reason out especially whenever I was made to answer for my wrongdoings. I remember, my mother would still allow me a couple of minutes to explain my side or to express my plea before I would get spanked. They had developed in me a fervent sense of justice.

My parents also taught me to be critical. To the best of their abilities, they never surrendered giving answers to my questions however silly they were. This made me comfortable to ask about anything my fragile mind had observed.

This attitude developed further after I started to get involved in journalism.

In college, I became a member, and eventually the national vice president, of the College Editors Guild of the Philippines (CEGP). It was, however, the only progressive group that I got myself involved in, because I was a campus journalist. Our primary advocacy was genuine press freedom, but we learned that the fight for press freedom is not detached from the greater scheme of the people’s struggle against systemic oppression. I was with CEGP for three years, and still had involvement even after I graduated from college. From time to time, I would be invited by the younger members of the guild to be a resource person on certain topics about journalistic or literary writing, and on socio-political issues.

D: Then there’s the other side of your poetry, your heart-achingly longing love poems. Too many to choose from, so I’ll just pick your latest published in Dagmay, “Sa Higayong Ako Angoangohon”. From whence comes this depth of feeling?

PR: As to my other poems, especially the love poems, most of them are not necessarily about real persons. Many are just products of my ruminations about love and life. But of course, when I wrote those poems, I was in love.

D: A-ha! And your foray into erotic poetry…?

PR: Ah, yes! Sometimes we get overflowing energy. What better way to exhaust this energy than to spill it on paper?

D: Your poems in English and Bisaya are equally masterfully written. In which language did you start writing in earnest? How did you transition into the other?

PR: I actually started writing poems in Filipino back in high school. I joined in some school-level poetry writing contests organized by the Filipino department. I think my first poem that got published in Dagmay is “Kapag ang iniibig mo’y isang makata”. I like the musicality and the gravitas of the Filipino language.

Then, I ventured into poetry in English. I only began writing in Binisaya after my fellowships in literary workshops, where I learned about the thrust to promote other languages from the regions.

D: Yes, I remember “Makata.” A very musical poem. Now, aside from poetry, you also write fiction! You won in the 2011 Satur Apoyon Tigi for “Sa Kalsada“. Do you still delve into fiction? Are there other works of fiction that we can read?

PR: Yes! I am also equally interested in writing fiction. I actually have two pending short stories that I find very difficult to finish because of limited time. I can only manage quick scribblings to form a poem. I am experimenting on a dystopian science fiction set in the Philippines. But I don’t really know when I could get it done.

D: You’re currently involved with the Cotabato writers group. Can you tell us more about the organization?

PR: It was Karlo David who introduced me to Jude Ortega. The two guys are the originators of the Cotabato Literary Journal (CLJ). I was invited by Jude to replace him temporarily as one of the editors of the journal while he attended to some personal concerns. I accepted the invitation, and I got virtually introduced to the two other editors of the journal, MJ Tumamac and Andrea Lim. I was corresponding regularly to them even before I personally met them on a later occasion.

The group has a very noble intention, which is to gather writers in the SOCCSKSARGEN (Sox) Region, mentor the aspiring ones, and develop the literary scene in the region. The group intends to showcase the diversity and distinctiveness of the cultures in the region through literature.

The CLJ web site serves as the virtual repository of the literary works of the group.

The group is active in holding local mentoring workshops, poetry reading events, book swapping, book reading, and other related activities. We partner with NGOs and LGUs to nurture not just the writers but also the readers. The group also has its counterpart readers’ circle whose aim is to promote the patronage of the literary works of the writers in the region.

D: Where can we find your most recent works? Other than Dagmay and Cotabato Literary Journal, where else have you been published? Any literary projects in the offing?

PR: My latest work is just a compilation, a ‘zine, of some of my poems under the theme / title “Hiwa laya n”. It was a collaborative effort with an artist friend who did the illustrations, and the design and layout. We were able to sell copies at the Iloilo ZIne Fest last year, and at BLTX Davao earlier this year.

Some of my Bisaya poems have been published in Kabisdak. Pieta has also been published in the website of Philippine Center for International PEN.

At present, I am working on a new collection of poems for an upcoming collaboration with another poet friend, which we will launch in a ‘zine format later this year.

And if only you would consider the short verses scribbled on its margins, my unfinished master’s thesis would be my greatest work in progress.

D: Well, I hope that sees publication soon, your master’s thesis and the scribblings! Thank you very much for the interview.

PR: And thank you!

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