“The thing about the book is you don't finish it in two hours. You have to work through it. That's why it's become a deeper, more meaningful experience,” Raymond Alikpala said when we sat down with him to have a conversation about his novel, his writing process, and his career.
A trailblazer who has fostered change and encouraged acceptance for the LGBTQ+ community in the Philippines, Raymond has elevated this experience of reading and literature through his book, God Loves Bakla, a memorialized narrative of self-discovery and sexual identity amid religious upbringing. It is difficult to imagine how one would navigate themself through personal, spiritual, familial, and societal trials in the latter half of the 20th century, but reading Alikpala relay his own journey with a brutally honest voice takes us a step closer to living it.
Your book was first published around 2010, and now years later, it’s 2021, we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and you’re still marketing it. Did you expect this kind of longevity for your book?
Well, no one really expected the pandemic. But when I wrote the book, it's the same for many authors: when you write something, you really hope that the book will outlive you. Especially if it's something that is very important to the author. And if it's not important to the author, then why write it at all? So I’m really happy that 10 years later, there is still a demand for the book.
I mean, it's a very niche market. When I wrote it, I was thinking about myself. Because when I was growing up, I had no such book. There was nothing in the Philippines at that time that I grew up, which was in the 70s and 80s. At that time, there was no internet. There was very little guidance that a young gay man could find on how to live his life as a gay and a Christian, especially the Christian part was difficult. So that was the reason why I wrote the book—to help young people, to inspire them, and give them hope.
And it has worked! Young people have told me how it has really helped them navigate this difficult period of their lives. From the closet and coming out, that has been very helpful for a lot of people. I'm just happy that my vision for the book is actually coming true, that people many years later continue to find it helpful. More than helpful, I think a few have really told me that it has helped them significantly with their lives as gay men. That was the intention naman with the book in the first place when I wrote it.
Considering that values change as time passes, do you think readers from the 2020s would take away something different from readers in the 2010s?
Certainly, it will be different. Looking at our situation now in 2021, there are so many things that are different for a young person who’s just dealing with his sexuality. So iba yung issues, but certain things haven't changed, like the elder generation becoming judgmental or the quiet condemnation that young people feel from their elders about their being gay, about their choices, their lifestyle. That hasn't changed.
God Loves Bakla will still be helpful because my book ultimately tells you that God made you who you are and God loves the person that you are. So no one can tell you who you should be except yourself. It’s between you and God.
At the same time, I really hope other people write their own stories. Because we need to have more stories. I mean, having books about something legitimizes and creates a space in our public discourse for the subject matter.
Actually, that's something I found very interesting about your book is that you were able to reconcile God and your sexual orientation. How exactly do you do that? How do you kind of come to that conclusion?
It's very clear to me that I was a child of God. God is our Father and I was conscious of my being a Christian before I was conscious of my sexuality. So my being Christian is more important than my being gay in terms of my cognitive development. So I always try to reconcile both.
It wasn't a choice of having to reject the church. What happened is eventually I rejected the institutional church, but not God. Because I developed a personal relationship with God, an intimate relationship with Christ, and then in the Holy Spirit, these concepts became true to me beyond what we just read about in the Bible or in the textbooks. That became a real thing.
My effort to try to reconcile all of these important things in my life—my sexuality, my being an Atenean, and my being a Filipino,—took a lot of effort. I went through the same things that you get angry about, like what the priests have been saying, but it really also requires a dedication to one's religion. You want to give religion every possible benefit of the doubt. You want your religion to be a real guide in your daily struggles. So you don't just reject your religion like that.
The book is pretty long because I keep on going back to the same issues. Trying to struggle and trying to reconcile, what really helped for me is leaving the Philippines. When I left the Philippines and I worked in Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, etc. Being exposed to different cultures really helped me because religion is not just Catholicism; religion can be Buddhism or Islam. We’re not exposed to these religions, but these religions are also valid ways of understanding the world. That's what made my experience a little different because, by God's grace, I was exposed to other religions. I was given the great privilege to live and work in other countries where I could expand my view of life and religion and spirituality. I tried to detail all of that in the book.
Do you read the responses of your readers?
Yes, so when my book first came out, I was really curious how it could be received by readers. It's gratifying that people appreciate what you've done because writing the book takes a long time. The actual writing was six months, but the process of just going through it was years. I thought about it in something way back in 2004. It was a seven-year process to write that book. So to be able to read a review that appreciates your work is really very gratifying.
Do you have any advice for young writers?
I'll give you advice that I received from my Japanese friend who's a Literature major in Japan. I wrote the first draft of my book. It was a quick draft, beginning to end. It was around 32 pages long only.
So she read the whole thing, and she said, “You could throw this in the trash. It's worthless because your heart's not in it.” She said, “In Japan, we have a saying: ‘When you want to write, you cut a piece of your heart and put it in the book.’”
It’s so real. It has to be there—this image of your heart being in the book. Because people who've read my book have come and told me that they could feel my heart in the book. They could feel it; they’ve never read something just so personal before. It is too honest, and people will react to that and respond to that.
So I think if you want to be a writer, you have to find something that you really feel passionately about. You can’t be writing about stuff that you are just marginally interested in it as it doesn't give any real substance. Especially if you're a new writer, if you want to write something, you really have to feel strongly and passionately about it. There has to be something there, a theme of sorts, that really engages you. It will allow you to squeeze the best out of yourself.
Otherwise, you’re just writing nice sentences and describing sceneries. It has to be worth the reader’s time. You can write the most beautiful sentences, but what if there's no real truth that you're trying to share with your audience? People don't react to that. What people react to is our feelings.
That's what you need. So find something that you really feel passionately about, and then put it on the page. I promise you, you're going to get published that way.
In your writing process, do you write without an outline, or do you meticulously plot and outline your book before actually getting into substantially writing it?
I think that it's a mixture of both. You need to have an outline or a beginning, middle, and end. You need your scaffolding. But then in between, from A to Z, how it gets from point A to point B to point C etc., you start to become more creative. I mean, look at JK Rowling. Can you imagine? She plotted the whole thing from beginning to end. We can't write like her, but it's a very simple discipline to just know what you’re going to write.
Also, you don’t give up, and you just keep on going. I remember when I told my friends that I'm going to write a book about my coming out. At that time, no one has really written about their coming out in the Philippines. In other countries, meron. But in the Philippines, no one has written about the experience. All you could see are TV shows. So I told my friends that I was going to write the book while we were having beers, and they were just laughing because it just sounds funny. But I believed in it, snd then several years later, I had the book.
It takes effort to really believe in yourself. Just don't give up. If something about the book has been bugging you, just put it on the shelf maybe and then come back to it and then you might see the topic or the subject in a different way. Then you'll be able to unravel the mystery.
If God Loves Bakla ever became a movie, who would you want to star as you?
Actually, my friends and I have been thinking about this. I've been joking around about this because a movie is not so far-fetched. It doesn’t have to look exactly like me. I want someone who will sell tickets, so kailangan gwapo [laughs] but at the same time, he has to be insecure. So I can say, for my best friend, who is one of the guys, we’ve agreed that Jerome Ponce should play my best friend. But for me, he might be too old now, si Carlo Aquino. He’s really a good actor eh. He might be too old for the book, but I think he’ll be great.
Is there anything that you're working on right now? Or is there an idea in the works that we should watch out for?
I’ve really been wanting to write a second book. I came up with another book from Dulaang Sibol, our high school theater group. But I've always wanted to write about and I had a plan to write a book of other gay stories. I wanted to interview other gay men and give them the God Loves Bakla treatment. Because I don't want my experience to appear like it's so unique.
There are very many experiences that are similar and I want people to be able to see that. But it’s difficult because it takes a lot of time to interview people and get them to open up, and not everyone wants to be known or open up as that’s very personal. So if you don't open up, then it won't work. It's just gonna be another cliche picture of a gay man that we all know already.
What I'm thinking of doing now is writing short stories about the life of gay men, not just here in the Philippines, but even in Cambodia and Laos because I worked there. I also worked in Egypt for a short time. So to set my stories in those environments and look at the intersection of Christianity and Islam, for instance, with the life of a gay man. I already have a story I want to write there. It's simpler because you just write the story, and then after you finish it, you move on to the next one, unlike a novel that requires such a huge commitment of time and effort. So I hope I'll be able to do that. I just decided to do that a few weeks ago so I'm still working on the stories in my mind.Grab a copy of Raymond Alikpala’s God Loves Bakla here today!