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An Interview with author
Nadine Sarreal on
Vimi in a Tree

Editor's Note: Nadine Sarreal’s short stories have found their way in most Philippine and Filipino American anthologies. A critic once said that ''there is a matter-of-factness to her voice that gives her stories an understated pathos that moves more than any emotion.'' Sarreal resides in Singapore for the present and is working to complete a novel. Vimi has been translated in French.

Even in the heavy air, she is thirsty. With each inhalation, the air steals moisture from her throat and nostrils. It is like a dry fire to draw breath but this is what she must do. Stay in the tree. Breathe. Hide from the men and their hunting dogs. Breathe. She breaks a slender branch and crushes its leaves against her skin, to smear the smell of this tree on her, camouflage the treacherous odors of her sweat, blood and body oils. The acrid stench of fear will carry farthest on the wind. Only when she presses the leaves on her belly does she realize she is wearing nothing, she has no shield of decency. No dress, no shoes, no white underwear.

She knows her name is Vimi.

OOV: Can you share with us the genesis of Vimi?

NADINE SARREAL: This particular story began in a dream. I had one of those truly vivid dreams that seemed so real that when I woke up, it took a while to re-orient myself back to reality. I had my writing journal next to me on the nightstand so I wrote down quickly what I could remember of being pursued. I tried to capture the feeling of life-or-death, the situation of Vimi who didn't even have a moment to understand why she had to hide in the tree.

OOV: How long did it take for you to draft the story?

NADINE SARREAL: Vimi was written very quickly. I think it went through 2 drafts, maybe 3. This is one story that I didn't create so much as mid-wife. I think it just came to me, fully-formed, like an adult child instead of a baby.

OOV: How did you create Vimi's character? Why the name Vimi?

NADINE SARREAL: I didn't really create Vimi, except to name her. Vimi? I don't know, maybe because when we were children and my parents woke us up in the morning, they would say, "Rise and shine! Move forward with vim and vigor!" And I saw Vimi moving at a ferocious speed, scrambling up the tree, hanging on with the tips of her fingers, her toes, every cell in her body, just to survive.

She squats on a stout tree limb, perhaps twenty feet above the ground. She ignores the pulses of pain where she scraped her knees and arms scrambling up the uneven bark. The tree seems to beat in rhythm with her fear, although she knows this cannot be, that her heart is working hard and hammering the same blood over and over through her body.

OOV: How does the beginning premise come to you? Based on what?

NADINE SARREAL: Most of my stories don't spring up whole like this. More typically, I'll notice observations are clustering around a theme, a story line, reshaping my memory of things. I try not to focus on the story line in the early stages of writing. I don't want to risk the story becoming self-conscious, but rather something that springs from a less objective level, more visceral, based on sensory input than carefully plotted scene.

OOV: In one article, you have been called the chronicler of the OFW struggle. Why do you feel drawn to this theme?

NADINE SARREAL: I suppose my focus on the Filipino overseas worker started back in Desert Storm. In particular, I remember seeing a TV news broadcast about the stranded Filipino workers in Kuwait. They needed to get out for their personal safety but were unable to book flights. I think the Philippine government even tried to send a plane or two, but it was a tiny gesture in the face of a huge need. From that point on, I became more aware of Filipino contract workers. They form a whole new category of migration. They're not permanent in the country where they are working and yet they need to become culturally adjusted and learn basic phrases in the new language(s) to do their work. When they return to the Philippines for their home leaves, they often find things have changed so much. The dynamics in the family have shifted and re-settled in their absence so that the husband/wife and children can cope. A new type of financial dependence forms that basically forces the contract worker to keep returning overseas to earn money and support the new level of income that the family has come to expect. How many domestic helpers have I talked to in different places who have worked there for 10, 20, even 25 years? They live on the fence, not really part of the host country, and having lost their footing back home.

OOV: Do you have an audience profile?

NADINE SARREAL: I don't consciously have an audience profile for my work, but if I stop and think about my Reader, I think of an adult, most likely a woman, and this person has some understanding or intuition of cultures outside the one she's most comfortable in. I think about my mother, my sisters, close friends, even those who aren't really readers, but women who have shared their thoughts and feelings with me. It might be the pastor's wife who was my classmate in the MFA program who was so certain of herself and her values at the start of her first semester and then became more tentative and uncertain as she progressed. I don't think my Reader would be an OCW, ironically, because my stories aren't readily available to them.

OOV: Who influenced your writing?

NADINE SARREAL: I think the fact that my mother read to us regularly as children really influenced me towards writing. And then once I started reading on my own, I found myself pretty sure of what I liked to read or try to read. I remember going through an Agatha Christie phase in the early 80s because I needed definite solutions to mysteries during that time in my life. Now, I find myself savoring Nick Joaquin's work, first draft material from the online writing workshop I belong to, Joyce Carol Oates (what frenetic energy that woman must have!), and Jose Saramago (I've read his novel, Blindness, four times...each time has been just as painful but yet I plan to re-read it soon). Sometime ago, Reme gave me a first edition copy of Lady by Thomas Tryon and I finally read it late last year. How did she know that the book would speak to me, would make me nostalgic for my own childhood? Also, Howard Norman's novel, The Northern Lights, brought many early memories close to my skin.

I read a lot of fiction and I know now to direct my reading towards my ongoing writing projects. If I'm focusing on a novel about family, I immerse myself in novels about other families. If I'm working on a short story, I try to read work by an author who has achieved the voice I'm trying to sustain.

OOV: How do you find your voice?

NADINE SARREAL: How do I find my voice? I think writers have many voices. Each of us decides whether we want to write always in the same basic voice and tone, or if we're going to switch throughout our body of work. I don't find my voices so much as they find me and decide to stay inside. A voice might come to me from eavesdropping on a conversation and that will evoke memories of some early life experience that already resides inside me. The resonance between the present conversation and the past starts vibrating and attracting observations that I can cluster together to shape into my story. I hear my voices particularly well when someone whose judgment is important to me as a writer says something genuinely encouraging about an aspect of my writing. Perhaps my egoistic glow brings out the voices more clearly!

Writing can be scary and it's easy to be lazy about it. Sometimes I feel like I'm building a bridge with a story. I'm starting out on a riverbank and trying to span a large body of water, only to have the destination, the final stretch of bridge, keep shifting on me. I might start out building a wooden foot-bridge and end up with a concrete structure that can accommodate two lanes of cars. I wish I could be more of a planning type of writer—I'd probably save myself a lot of agony and tearing down and rebuilding.

Vimi in a Tree appears in Our Own Voice Literary / Arts Journal (Firstfruits/PWU 2003) and in Exactly Here, Exactly Now (Giraffe, 2001)

© Nadine L. Sarreal

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