Monday, December 19, 2011

Interview with TOMO Contributor Catherine Rose Torres

Catherine Rose Torres (author of the Tomo story “Song for Benzaiten”) is a Filipino diplomat and writer based in Singapore. She is a Palanca awardee for fiction, and her works have appeared in Ceriph, TAYO Literary Magazine and The Philippines Graphic. She takes part in Write Forward, an online writing course by Birbeck College Writing Programme and British Council Singapore. She stayed in Japan during a cultural exchange sponsored by JAL in 1999 and was an exchange student at the University of Tokyo from 2000 to 2001. 

You are from the Philippines, currently working as a diplomat in Singapore and you have spent time in Japan. Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Catherine Rose Torres writes during breaks in diplomatic talks
I used to describe myself as a diplomat and writer. Then I read this essay by Joyce Carol Oates where she says something to the effect that she feels pretentious when she calls herself a writer—Oates, who has written and published hundreds of works. It was a chastening moment. So now I say I’m a diplomat who writes.

Another word I love applying to myself is ‘nomad.’ It’s true that there are lots of people out there who are better travelled than I am, but it’s a title I’d like to keep anyway. Because I think that being a nomad isn’t about how much frequent flier miles you’ve racked up. I think it’s more about how comfortable you are moving around and immersing yourself in other places and cultures, which I dare say I am. 

You first came to Japan as a teenager. How did this experience influence you?
I was 19 when I first visited Japan on a summer cultural exchange program sponsored by Japan Airlines. I think, apart from my age—that limbo between youth and adulthood, it was the circumstances of that trip that allowed it to leave such a deep impression on me. I was with 35 other young people from different parts of Asia and Oceania then, one of whom, a Korean, eventually became my husband. I’m still in touch and good friends with most of the rest. So Japan definitely means something special to me. After that summer, I came back to spend another year in Tokyo as an exchange student, which merely reinforced that feeling. 

The character Rain/Aya in the story is a musician. Did you study music? Do you play the violin or hegalong? 
That thing about Rain/Aya being musically gifted is probably a form of vicarious wish-fulfillment on my part. I’ve always loved music though I can’t play a single instrument. I actually bought a hegalong from Lake Sebu in the southern part of the Philippines, but it’s just been hanging up on the wall of my bedroom back home, like a talisman of sorts. 

The character was also partly inspired by a colleague of mine at work who used to play the violin. She wanted to join an orchestra but she had to give up that dream to join the foreign service because it’s supposed to be a more stable, more ‘real’ career.
What inspired this story? Can you give some background? 
Girl at Inokashira Koen
When I lived in Tokyo from 2000 to 2001, I fell in love with Inokashira Koen. I would always go there on weekends just to soak in the young, bohemian vibe. Once, I saw this pretty girl perched on a stile by the lake, playing a strange-looking instrument. I don’t remember how well she played, but the image has stayed with me since. I actually took a snapshot of her that I unearthed recently after “Song for Benzaiten” was accepted for Tomo. 

How does fiction writing fit into your life as a full-time diplomat? Are you working on a novel? 
There were many well-known writers who served their countries as diplomats, Octavio Paz and Pablo Neruda being two of the best known among them. More recently, there is Vikas Swarup, who wrote Q & A, the novel that inspired the film Slumdog Millionaire, who is now, incidentally, posted in Osaka-Kobe as the General Consul of India. 

I think that being a diplomat goes well with writing because of the kind of experiences we are exposed to (it’s not all parties and receptions, contrary to what some people think), the moving from place to place, plus the fact that diplomats have always been expected to possess a certain fluency in and delicacy of language. 

Of course, the challenge is finding enough time to write. Diplomats nowadays have grueling schedules because our portfolio of responsibilities is so much broader. 

Do you have any message for teens in Tohoku? 
I wish I could come up with something profound and moving to say, something beautiful and concise as a haiku, worthy of the Japanese, who are the most refined people I know when it comes to speech and manners. But what happened in Tohoku truly defies expression. So let me just say to the teens of Tohoku, and the Japanese people in general: Thank you for showing the world that the greatest hardships can be borne with grace. That, and ganbatte, kudasai! We are all here behind you.


  1. Catherine, this is so inspirational. I think a lot of us (foreigners), who currently live in Japan, think of ourselves as nomads. I guess diplomacy is the most "stable" path that we can take and still get out nomadic yearnings in.

    Looking forward to reading your story.

  2. Many thanks, Claire. Like the bureaucracy, diplomacy is indeed relatively "stable" (read: boring, by some). Yet given how dynamic the world is right now, even we have to keep reinventing ourselves to stay relevant. Cheers! :-)