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Linda Ty-Casper is a trail-blazing fictionist you should read if you want to unlearn textbook history

Linda Ty-Casper is a trail-blazing fictionist you should read if you want to unlearn textbook history

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  • Exploding Galaxies’ Mara Coson on the new edition of the author’s 1979 book “The Three-Cornered Sun” and why it’s still relevant nearly half a century after its publication
Linda Ty-Casper black and white photo by Bill Edmunds with a 2024 edition of the book “The Three-Cornered Sun” from local press Exploding Galaxies

Linda Ty-Casper was famously described as the best Filipina fictionist—something her readers, or at least those who are familiar with her work may find contradictory because her books are heavily founded on extensive research, using, in her words, “history as a plot.” 

As the story goes, Ty-Casper’s career as a fictionist began after a fortuitous trip to the library. Then a budding lawyer seeking refuge during a storm, she found herself at the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library at Harvard in the company of “erroneous and biased books.”

“[I] found the Philippine section in the Oceania area, four floors down in the basement of Widener. I had no idea such books existed. So I would take the time after that to go down and read,” she recalled in an interview with her friend and fellow author Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. “I found remarks derogatory to the Philippines and decided to answer them in essays. Then I thought essays would end up in the basement, too, so I started a novel.”

Photo by Bill Edmunds courtesy of Exploding Galaxies

I write about this [history] so the young will know what they cannot remember.

Linda Ty-Casper

At 93, the author has published a total of 16 books starting in the 1960s, all products of her meticulous research and commitment to humanizing history in lieu of just presenting it as cold hard facts. 

“The Peninsulars,” her 1964 debut novel set during the Spanish colonial era, was celebrated for its use of historical fact as a creative tool to advance a novel, setting a precedent for the genre of historical fiction. The late National Artist for Literature Bienvenido Lumbera writing in 1965 said that in spite of its flaws (some concerning Ty-Casper’s liberal interpretation of history), the book “deserves to be ranked among the five significant novels Filipinos have written so far.” The other four are N. V. M. Gonzalez’s “A Season of Grace“ and “The Bamboo Dancers,” Nick Joaquin’s “Woman,” and Kerima Polotan’s “The Hand of the Enemy.”

Once asked about the historical theme of her books, Ty-Casper told Manguerra Brainard, “I realize that I have been writing how it is to be Filipino in history, how Filipinos live in a country ‘ruined’ by the corruption and greed of its leaders. It didn’t used to be that way. There was honor among us.” 

She added, “I write about this [history] so the young will know what they cannot remember.” 

Her 1979 book, “The Three-Cornered Sun,” which has just been republished by the local press Exploding Galaxies, took her years to start and to revise as she wanted it to be right and true. “I’m so afraid of contradicting history that I research until my head bursts from all the information.”

I couldn’t believe that this book just existed as fifteen or so copies in the backroom of its original publisher New Day, still in its first printing from 1979.

Mara Coson

The book tells the story of the Philippines on the brink of revolution against Spain in 1896 through the recollections of Ty-Casper’s grandmother Gabriela Paez Viardo de Velasquez, who inspired her to be a writer.

In the new preface she wrote for the new edition, she recalled, “When we were growing up, she told us stories of the Revolution against Spain and of the Philippine-American War. Always, Nanay ended the stories with, ‘Someone should write these.’”

And write, she did. recently caught up with Exploding Galaxies publisher Mara Coson to talk about finding Ty-Casper’s 1979 book and adding it to their formidable stack of near-forgotten Filipino literary gems, getting to know the author herself in Massachusetts, and why nearly half a century after its publication “The Three-Cornered Sun” is still relevant as ever.

Hi Mara! Congratulations on Exploding Galaxies’ second book. Previously, in a Nolisoli interview, you said, “What I find really fun about this search for books is not only finding them but finding a strong personal connection to them—and somehow inexplicably life-changing.” How did you come about Linda Ty-Casper’s “The Three-Cornered Sun” and what personal connection did you have with the book discovering it for yourself?

I started thinking about Linda Ty-Casper at the recommendation of writer and critic Caroline Hau, initially for the novel “The Peninsulars” (1964). But it was “The Three-Cornered Sun” (1979) that I really felt compelled to publish and share with as many people as possible. 

I couldn’t believe that this book just existed as fifteen or so copies in the backroom of its original publisher New Day, still in its first printing from 1979. I felt like I had been the only pair of eyes on it for a long time, and that if we hadn’t committed to republishing it, it would have remained on the bottom shelf for decades more. For those who have started to read the book, can you imagine?

Also part of that quote from that previous interview is, “I feel almost instinctively which ones are ours to publish. Maybe it’s fate, or simply a love for literature,” which feels like a nod now to Ty-Casper’s grandmother’s belief in fate (“Nanay also said that things will happen if they are meant to happen”). I doubt though that reprinting this book through Exploding Galaxies is left to fate, as with the first book. This time, did you find it harder to acquire the book for reprinting? Who did you have to approach, especially as Ty-Casper is very much alive and sharp at 93 albeit living in the US? 

People always ask about the difficulty of acquiring these forgotten books—it’s true sometimes they’re stuck in hard places, and some I can’t publish because the authors have long gone. But when I do find them and republishing is possible, the initial difficulty doesn’t quite matter. And many people have helped me, including New Day. It’s not been a lonely journey. I’m also happy that Linda Ty-Casper and her daughter Kristina have been very supportive of Exploding Galaxies and we’ve become friends in the process.

There’s also this photo of you and her from your visit last year. I wonder what that conversation was like between you two.

Coson with Ty-Casper in Massachusetts

It was lovely to have been invited to her home in Framingham, about half an hour away from Boston, where she’d lived since the ’60s with her husband, the literary critic Leonard Casper. She spoke about her grandmother and her early life in Malabon, she showed me the educational books for children that her mom used to make. She also mentioned the portrait of her great-grandfather, whom the character Blas in the book was named after, and how she’d found a portrait of him inside a chicken coop and had it restored. Most of all, she really emphasized the need for us to remember. We encouraged her to write an introduction to this new edition, and I’m grateful that she did. Some of our conversation went into it so you can read it there, and I hope the reception she will receive through this book will encourage her to write her memoirs!

So far, with two books under Exploding Galaxies, the recurring theme is a microscopic look at the lives that Filipinos lived under foreign occupation, under the Japanese in “But for the Lovers” and under the Spanish in “The Three-Cornered Sun.” But while the former is more allegorical, Ty-Casper is more grounded in history and anchored by actual personalities who lived during that time. Were you conscious of this “theme” and even of the slight detour from your debut book? Or is this something that came naturally as a consequence of having to sift through near-forgotten books from that time, whose themes and subjects may be overlapping?

I never carry the expectation that the books in this series might ever connect to each other by either theme or sequence. If they do, it’s nature and coincidence. At most I think though because they are historical, they are both “big books” that fictionally record Manila at critical transformations—the 1896 Philippine Revolution and the Second World War. 

In our first book, the combination of his wordplay and his having written award-winning plays really gave the novel a theatrical stage and you could feel the scenes shift from the boarding house to Tomodachi Toni’s bar. In “The Three-Cornered Sun,” I often describe the book as more “cinematic,” because her unrelenting commitment to laying out history exactly down to the smallest details all together turned Manila of a hundred years ago into vivid, moving color.

Ty-Casper is a prolific author with a wide-ranging number of books and short stories. What made you pick “The Three-Cornered Sun” out of all her works?

I am still getting through all her writing, I read them when I can find them. But I did find this particular novel urgent, and whole—from the moment the book starts: “The carriages, hurrying on to the bullring, stripped the afternoon in August of its quiet. The wheels clattered over the cobblestones, rattling the windows of capiz”—for a moment was I right there?

I’d love to publish more of her work if it’s in my cards—or at least see them in new editions. 

Ty-Casper typed up her husband Leonard’s memoirs after his death and published “Will You Happen, Past the Silence, Through the Dark?” through Philippine American Literary House (PALH) and Ateneo Press just last year. I have no doubt that we’ll see more in the coming years.

The choice seemed particularly odd, because as she said in the new preface, “I didn’t think there were any new readers for it. I’ve never been widely read, for some reason.” (But the book was well-received by critics of the time, including Franz Arcellana). Did she ever expound on what these reasons were? Or do you have an inkling as to why she would say this of “The Three-Cornered Sun”?

I didn’t ask her, though I wondered what the reasons may have been, too. But that was so many years ago, and now I am just excited for new readers who’ve just started to read the book to finish it and tell me what they think! I’m confident in a few years, there will be no question how widely read she is! 

Exploding Galaxies hosted the launch of the new edition of “The Three-Cornered Sun” at the small press and bookshop Everything’s Fine in Makati last Mar. 16.

Other than her mastery of the genre and despite the plot (history) already spoiled for us having learned history in school, what other things can readers discover in this new edition?

That’s the thing—I realized what I had learned in school was black and white, with dates and places to memorize and a half-sheet quiz at the end. But as people lived it, it was so much more uncertain, much more complicated, and while it was happening there were so many things in the process of being felt and understood. As Manolo Quezon said in the introduction: “This reflects the memories of the participants as to what mattered—not a catalog of fixed dates but rather the swift tide of events washing over at first, a capital filled both with humid improbabilities and decadent absurdities, in an onrush of modernity suffocating in a stranglehold of cynicism, cruelty, caprice, and prejudice petering out in the hinterlands.” This wasn’t all in my textbook!

And as to this new edition specifically, or maybe for new editions of forgotten books—I hope it sends the message that this novel truly deserved to find many readers and that this is one of her many works to discover. 📖

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