Catherine Torres

Cathy TorresWriter and diplomat Catherine Torres is this year’s runner-up of the Scholastic Asian Book Award (SABA), a biennial recognition of the best fiction for children and young adults in Asia given by the National Book Development Council of Singapore and Scholastic Asia. Her winning manuscript is Sula’s Voyage.

And we are lucky to have Ms. Catherine here with us to answer some of our questions about her young adult novel.

XZN: Your entry for SABA is entitled Sula’s Voyage. Can you tell us more about it?

CT: Sula was born in the middle of the Sulawesi Sea on a perilous voyage by her hippie parents. Now in her teens, she finds herself a loner after moving from school to school because of their nomadic lifestyle. When she is bullied by some classmates, something protects her, something she couldn’t explain. It also gets her expelled for witchcraft. Luckily, she finds safe harbor in James, a music student who attends one of her father’s classes at university. But when he breaks a promise to her, she flees with her mom to Urchin’s Cove, the seaside villa of her parents’ friends from their hippie days. There, amid the unusual Mexican-Filipino family, she grows more confused about herself and her feelings for James. When he meets an accident, she must decide if she is ready to relive her parents’ sea voyage to save him, and discover her true identity.

XZN: What was your inspiration in writing Sula’s Voyage? Are some of the elements based on real-life experiences?

CT: I think when you write from a place deep inside of you, it’s inevitable that elements of your experiences would manifest themselves in your writing, not necessarily in the same form that you experienced them, but metamorphosed. For instance, most of Sula’s story unfurls at a seaside villa in Mindoro called Urchins’ Cove. You wouldn’t find it on any map of the island, but it was inspired by an actual resort with a different name that I stayed in a few times with my loved ones. But don’t go there expecting to find the exact same landscape I described in the story. One of fiction’s blessings is that it lets us to give free rein to our imagination, and it’s a gift I don’t want to waste by simply transcribing things as they are.

XZN: How did you first hear about SABA? Can you tell us Sula’SABA journey?

CT: I first heard of SABA in 2010, when it was newly launched. I was one of the more than 100 people who sent in stories to that inaugural run, and my story didn’t even make it to the shortlist. With good reason—it was my first attempt at children’s or YA writing and I got everything wrong. I was ready to abandon children’s and YA writing after that, and focus on writing for grownups, until I got a short story published in Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction, a charity YA anthology that aimed to support teens affected by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami.That got me thinking that maybe, I could give it another try. Besides, Sula had been knocking around my head for some time, asking her story to be told, so I gave in.

I wrote the story in three frenzied months, just as I was about to finish my diplomatic assignment in Singapore. After I dropped off the manuscript, I got caught up with the preparations for returning to Manila, and getting settled back there. Aside from my work at the DFA, I’ve also been working on a collection of my short stories, so it was a pleasant surprise when I got word that Sula’s Voyage was shortlisted for SABA.

XZN: How did you start writing? What are the challenges you face?

CT: I started writing regularly when I was in fifth grade, when I joined the school paper. But I think my formation as a writer began much earlier, when I fell in love with books and words, and realized how you can weave a spell by telling a story. I remember when I was in second grade, my Reading teacher, Ms Nayve, held a reading contest in our class. She divided us into groups, and each group had to have a representative who would stand in front of the class and read a fable aloud. My group picked me. When all the contestants were done, the one who gets the most applause would be the winner. I didn’t get enough claps to make it to the top three, and when Ms Nayve saw that, she asked for a second round of judging-by-claps. When I still didn’t make it, she said she was so impressed by my reading that she would give me a special prize. I kept waiting for her to give me the prize, and only when I grew up did I realize that she had given it to me the very instant she acknowledged my voice.

The biggest challenge I face is juggling the writing with my work as a diplomat and with being a mother. But then again, I don’t think I would be any good as a writer if I don’t have those two other aspects of my life to draw inspiration from.

XZN: When are we seeing Sula’s Voyage in print? And what projects are we expecting from you in the future?

CT: Under SABA’s rules, Scholastic Asia has right of first refusal on the manuscripts of the runners-up. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they will choose to publish Sula’s Voyage. Otherwise, I’m ready to do what it takes to find another outfit who will, so I can share Sula’s story. I’m also putting the final touches on Mariposa Gang and Other Stories, a collection of twelve short stories I have written over the last five years, many of which have appeared individually in journals and anthologies here in the Philippines as well as in Singapore and the United States.

XZN: And any piece of advice for aspiring Filipino writers?

CT: Our archipelago is a goldmine of stories waiting to be dug up and told. So take that pickax and start digging.

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Catherine Torres’ works have appeared in magazines and journals such as The Philippines Graphic, Likhaan, Flyway, As Us, Escape Into Life, TAYO and Ceriph, as well as anthologies such as Motherhood Statements and How Does One Dress to Buy Dragon Fruit. She was part of Write Forward, an online writing workshop by Birbeck College Writing Programme and British Council Singapore, and had several works of flash fiction published and included in an art installation as part of British Council’s Writing the City.

Her work in the Foreign Service has taken her to postings in New Delhi and Singapore, together with her husband, Sohn Suk-joo, a Korean scholar and translator, with whom she has collaborated in translating key works of Korean literature into English. They have a five-year-old son, Samuel.

During her spare time, she enjoys photography and playing the ukulele.

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