How long have you been writing and drawing?
I’ve been drawing since even before I could remember. A funny story my mother told me was how she’d gone to the market when I was around four. An older cousin was babysitting me and my sisters. While she was away, my sisters, rambunctious as they were, accidentally toppled a cabinet over the bed. When my mother arrived home, I ran up to her with a drawing on a sheet of paper that clearly depicted the situation – she dropped her huge bags from her hands and was ready to bolt into the house until my cousin came out to assure her everything had been arranged back. I don’t remember this at all, but I never doubted it, given that I’ve always had the memory of drawing with me.
As for writing—there had been instances in my teenage years that I’ve attempted to write, but I only took the attempt seriously at around the age of 19. It was a dream realized a little later.
You mentioned having a background in architecture. Are you working as an architect now? How does it lend to your creative practice as an artist and writer, if it does at all – and if not, how did that experience inform your work now?
Oh, no! I left architecture to study creative writing. I had three years of studying architecture under my belt, but I realized I loved writing more, so I had decided to change my degree program. I often think that perhaps I came too late into my “writing career“ but I don’t think I’d be the writer I am today without my background in architecture. My writer friends often remark about the vividness of my settings – whether it’s a specific house or a secondary fantasy world – and I would have to thank my architecture classes for that.
What has your journey been like, as both a writer and artist, personally and publicly?
There is a lot of self-doubt, especially since I didn’t grow up reading a vast number of books. I just read Harry Potter when I was 12 – my father worked for Nestle when they were giving away free copies of the fifth Harry Potter book here. But not enough people claimed them, so one was passed on to my father and thus to me.
And I thought, I’d like to do this. Except, I wasn’t confident enough, so I went to study architecture for university, because, hey, I’m an artist and I like math! It took me a while to realize I couldn’t not write.
Even as I’d switch to creative writing, I thought I was ill-equipped compared to others, who had decades of being immersed in the classics, which made me feel like I had to hurry up and get to a certain level of skill in both reading and writing. I guess I put a lot of pressure on myself, which isn’t something I’d recommend to do in any way. On the bright side, I learned that, despite how late you realize a desire to write, you can actually still learn how to write.
The unfortunate thing about being a writer in the Philippines is that it’s not a very lucrative market. A rich man’s career, so to speak. Publishing opportunities are limited and don’t pay much, and I have taken to publishing some of my works in independent zines with my writing organization, UP Writers Club.
My art usually goes online, however, to promote commission offerings, which I do on the side for extra income.
You build fantastic worlds with your writing that’s both engaging and culturally thoughtful. Do you consider yourself a storyteller? What does the act of storytelling mean to you, why do you think it’s important?
Thank you for saying so! Do I consider myself a storyteller? Yes, I guess. I’m a natural gossip, and I put most of those in writing, if not shared with friends.
Storytelling, for me, was initially a form of self-expression. I was a quiet kid, and the written word served as a venue for thoughts that I could not put elsewhere. It has a greater purpose, though, I’ve grown to realize. I use Rosario Cruz-Lucero’s book of essays, The Nation Beyond Manila, as a guide of sorts to my writing. In her first essay, ‘The Music of Pestle-on-Mortar,’ she says, “Creative writers are, or should be, speakers for our people’s daily lives, mediated by a historical consciousness, rooted in our indigenous concept of our cosmos and its laws.”
Storytelling serves not just the self, but the people, too. Stories are narratives that cannot be removed from society. They are always political, speaking for or about the cultures and histories that shaped them.
I think it’s awesome – and so important – that your stories have a strong sense of place and cultural history/myth. Was this always the case with your art and writing or was it something you had to consciously work at – to amplify certain stories and create representations that might be lacking in local and global English-speaking medias?
Having a strong sense of place is something I had incorporated consciously into my writing starting a few years ago. I myself have fallen into the trappings of a Westernized idea of society, how characters worthy of having a story should be white despite my having grown up surrounded by brown people, mostly in poverty, in a third-world country. I remember the first story I had ever written at the age of 13: It was about a girl—I imagined her to be white with light-brown hair and her last name wasn’t Filipino or Hispanic at all—living in a vaguely American suburban area, she goes to school in a yellow-and-black school bus. I have never lived anywhere that was anything like an American suburb, nor have I ridden a school bus.
This is due in part to globalization insisting on universality (the grand narrative that is straight, white, and male) and in part also to our historical experience with colonization and neoliberalism. I had to really look at my surroundings—in my case, a very rural town in the Philippines people almost always have never heard of—to find my context, especially since being a Filipino writer in English puts my writing in a removed space from the material realities here, mostly inaccessible to the rest of the country.
However, as a writer in English, there’s a fine line to tread. Poet and critic Conchitina Cruz, in ‘The Filipino Author as Producer,’ says, “What‘s worse than a Filipino poet in English who does not in her poetry speak on behalf of fellow Filipinos is a Filipino poet in English who does.” A writer must be careful in presenting something as “Filipino experience” especially while using English, which is the language of the educated and the elite, a language that excludes majority of Filipinos.
When did you realize that your writing and drawing practices were both important in your work as a storyteller? Do you see yourself predominantly as a writer who illustrates or an artist who writes? Where do comics fit into your process?
I’m not sure a realization ever happened. I mean, I’ve always been an artist so using drawing in my writing process was not a conscious decision. I want to see myself and be seen as a writer who illustrates, even though I know I’m both. This stems from my experience being seen solely as an artist by people around me. In a way, there’s a feeling of annoyance about that, since I worked hard to be a writer. It’s not something that came naturally, like being an artist did. And I enjoy writing more, which is why I do less comics nowadays, since I prefer describing a setting moreso than drawing it. I find that there’s a lot more to explore with writing, though that’s just me.
Do you use your sketchbooks to write, too?
I use an unruled notebook, which functions both as sketchbook and notebook, so yes, it’s a space for both my art and writing, especially if I don’t have my laptop nearby. I don’t have a very strict process, besides making sure bigger works are in a separate stand-alone notebook. Shorter and smaller works can be in a shared space.
Tell us a bit more about how you use your sketchbooks – is sketching a daily activity, do you sketch on-the-go, have you made any sketching/illustrating projects that didn’t involve comics or writing? Is working in a sketchbook part of a self-care practice and if so, how has it helped you in raising awareness or creating coping mechanisms to manage mental health?
I bring a notebook everywhere, in case I need to sketch or write anything down, since I develop multiple stories at the same time. Sketching isn’t a daily activity though, as opposed to writing, which I do almost every day, whether it’s just a few word or a whole scene.
I’ve done the cover and illustrations for a friend’s novel, does that count since it’s not my own writing? Haha!
Art that does not involve comic or writing… well, I usually do a lot of fanart of things I like. I’ve also done a series of posts about a character—I say character but there’s no story involved, just a half-bear, half-woman character called Bear Slut. In 2014, I met a creepy man who, in his poem, wrote the “beloved,” if you will, as a bear in a “dress so short”—since apparently all women do is look hot and hurt male feelings. It inspired me to create Bear Slut. I’ve been planning on making a Bear Slut art book in the form of “sexy calendar,” but never got around to finishing it.
Surprisingly enough, I’ve never used sketching as self-care. In fact, talking about mental health and, in turn, mental illness is rare in any art I do until recently, with my novel and a couple of poems – it is too immediate as an experience and hard to process.
What is the most difficult aspect of sketching or keeping sketchbooks?
The price of sketchbooks/notebooks, honestly. They’re kind of expensive. You have to buy something a little studier than the usual because that keeps all your best ideas.
What’s the best part about keeping sketchbooks?
I’ll just need to browse the pages to reorient myself whenever I need to. There’s also the concretization of ideas – like, it’s easier to describe details after drawing a house, an object, or a character.
In your novel-in-progress, ‘Bayan,’ the first chapter sets up the protagonist Kara as an instant outsider. She’s exiled from her family and her host thinks of her as a pest! Not giving too much away to the readers, can you tell us a bit more about Kara and how you, as a writer, are utilizing this character to talk about bipolar disorder?
In my novel, Kara is a bungisngis, a cyclops from the Philippine lower mythology. The word bungisngis is Tagalog, after the act of laughter. There are expectations of Kara to be happy all the time. The commune of bungisngis resides and conducts their business in the mountain range, and it involves harnessing happiness. Kara’s mood is unstable, mostly somber, which makes her not useful to the commune. I use this situation – along with Kara’s integration into human society as a monster – to talk about perceptions and experiences with having mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder which I also have.
Will this be your first novel? What’s been your process for it so far, and what have you learned about yourself as you’re writing it?
Yes, this is my first novel—at least, the first one to have gone beyond planning. A few years ago, I wrote a novella at 18,000 words. I try to edit during my free time, but it is not a priority. For ‘Bayan,’ it started with a drawing of a round tree house, created to be the opposite of the usual bahay kubo (cube-shaped hut). The idea was to make a short comic involving the character of Kara, but it grew much bigger than that, as is the case for me whenever I write fantasy. So I decided to do a novel instead. I created a small set of characters, then mapped out the setting and the culture that could develop within it—a secondary fantasy world based on pre-Spanish and Spanish colonial eras in Philippine history. The interaction of the characters within the setting created the plot, and I added other elements as necessary.
I have a notebook dedicated solely to this novel. It’s not organized in any way, with one page dedicated to the writing system, then cosmos the next. I scoured the library and online journals for research and bought related books, which I use for other stories, as well. The cosmos was inspired by an anthropological talk three or four years ago about weapons and folklore at my university.
I’ve also learned that the details I incorporate into my stories are from things I came across years ago, things I hadn’t thought were important. This happened very recently again in a historical fantasy story I’m currently writing: something my professor mentioned once in my history class four years ago became a major plot point now.
Basically, it’s very useful to expand beyond the act of writing. Get into history, anthropology, architecture.
Does your work involve collaborations with other artists and writers?
I’ve done the cover and illustrations for Rogelio Braga’s young adult novel, Ang Lihim ng Nakasimangot na Maskara and some zines with UP Writers Club. I’ve co-edited and wrote for zine anthologies. I’ve drawn for online writer friends, too.
What works, writers, and artists have had the biggest influence on you and your works?
My art has gone through a lot of transformations, but I think the biggest influences are Avatar: The Last Airbender, Meitantei Conan, Gakuen Alice, and this artist in deviantArt, Megan-Uosiu.
In the early days of my writing, J.K. Rowling, Eoin Colfer, and Philip Pullman. Now, writers Nick Joaquin, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Isabela Banzon, and Rosario Cruz Lucero, as well as the members of my organization, the UP Writers Club, who were the biggest part of my development as a writer. They oversaw my workshops and revisions, and I’d bother them to look at three to five revisions of the same work, much to their annoyance. Ha!
Where can we find your works?
Most of my short works are in UP Writers Club zines. My short story, ‘The Manananggal of Mayabo,’ is included in the women’s anthology, Danas: mga pag-aakda ng babae ngayon by the independent feminist press, Gantala Press. I also have a very short comic, Under her Coat, available here. My art gets posted at rayjinar.tumblr.com, both original and fan works. I’m starting a writer’s blog at rayjideguia.tumblr.com so I plan to post tidbits there in the future.
Thank you so much for your time, Rayji!
And thank you for having me!
Rayji de Guia is a writer and an artist. Her writing has appeared in DANAS: mga pag-aakda ng babae ngayon (Gantala Press), her illustrations in Rogelio Braga’s Ang Lihim ng Nakasimangot na Maskara (Balangiga Press), and both in various UP Writers Club publications. She resides in an eighty-year-old ancestral house in Maragondon, Cavite with her family and some ghosts. Her art can be found at rayjinar.tumblr.com.