St. Montgomery Clift: An Interview with Noël AlumitC. Adán Cabrera
Noël Alumit's first novel, Letters to Montgomery Clift, relates the story of Bong Bong "Bob" Luwad. A series of circumstances - the beating and "disappearance" of his political activist father and the violence perpetrated against his mother - prompt seven-year-old Bong Bong's voyage to Los Angeles to escape the horrors being raged upon the Philippines by the Marcos regime. Once in the United States, Bong Bong begins writing to his own personal saint, at the behest of his guardian, Auntie Yuna: "Praying is not enough," she claims. "Better to put it on paper. Especially in America…Letters are solid proof to the saints, to our ancestors that what I was praying just don't disappear. There are too many prayers floating around. They get tangled up like balloon strings. The spirits don't know which string belongs to which balloon." Bong Bong longs to reunite with his parents, but soon realizes he needs divine assistance and begins writing to his personal saint. Bong Bong's saintly choice, you ask? Troubled, bisexual, and long-deceased Hollywood film star Montgomery Clift.
Switchback caught up with Noël at a Los Angeles café on a cloudless Saturday afternoon.
Switchback: Noël, thanks so much for taking the time to sit down with us today. Religion and faith play a major role in your novel. What role does religion and/or spirituality play in your own life?
Noël Alumit: Well, I'm a practicing Buddhist. Meditation has been particularly helpful to me. It quiets the mind. As a novelist with a million things running through my head, this spiritual tool has been most helpful in keeping me sane.
SB: Writing plays such an important part in Bong Bong's life, most obviously in the form of epistles to his love, Montgomery Clift. What role does literature and writing play in your own life?
Noël: Books are my way of connecting to the world. When I first started to write, I was recommended a book by the an Arab writer, Abdellah Taia. Through his book, I felt connected to the Arab world in a way that I hadn't previously explored. I still very much think of literature as serving in this regard. Consider, for example, the Chinese writer and recent Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Liu Xiaobo. Because of his writing, the corruption of the Chinese government is being exposed. In this regard, not only are books important, but writers are, too. Becoming a writer is a very brave thing to do.
SB: Why become a writer, then?
Noël: Well, as I said, the decision to become a writer takes courage. Along with the financial difficulties there's also all the psychological burdens put upon us. It's incredibly taxing to see a novel, a story, a poem through to completion. To choose this life, and to dedicate it to creativity takes courage and is a noble thing to do. I write because I feel I have something to offer the world, and unlike acting where you have to wait for someone's permission to take the stage, you can write all day, every day.
SB: Given your take on living a literary life, how did your family react when you told them that you wanted to be a writer?
Noël: You know, I'm thankful that they were supportive. My family's big enough to "absorb" the idea of there being a creative type among my siblings. In fact, I'm here because of my family. They gave me the foundation I needed to develop the confidence to be a creative person.
SB: We'd like to turn now to the novel itself. In some ways it's a classic bildungsroman, in that you trace Bong Bong's coming of age as a gay Filipino in the Los Angeles of the 1970s and 1980s. Before we dig deeper, can we ask what the inspiration was for Letters to Montgomery Clift?
Noël: There was no Filipino person one that wasn't impacted by the Marcos regime [ca. 1972-1981], especially when you ask any Filipino born after 1965. I wanted to talk about this dark time in our history, but I also wanted to touch on other cultural aspects related to the Philippines. I was raised having a strong connection to my dead ancestors, for example, a topic that I tackle in my book. I also wanted to explore queer Asian identity in a way that hadn't really been done before.
SB: And the crux of the novel, namely your use of the long-dead movie star Montgomery Clift?
Noël: (laughs) Well, much like Bong Bong, I, too, have been a huge Montgomery Clift fan since I was a little boy, though I'm not as a big as a fanatic as he is, that's for sure!
SB: A lot of our readers are emerging writers and MFA students who are perhaps working on their own book-length projects. Can you tell us more about your process of writing the novel?
Noël: It took me eight years - on and off - to write Letters to Montgomery Clift. During those eight years, my book looked much different than it does today. For starters, in terms of structure I had intended for my novel to be completely epistolary in nature, à la The Color Purple. As it wound its way through the publication process, it was suggested that I turn it into the more standard, narrative format that it takes today. It just flowed better, it seemed, and I was open to this suggestion.
SB: What obstacles did you encounter while writing your book?
Noël: I was miserable at times while I worked on the production of each scene. It was difficult to get to the point where I didn't care about what the outside world thought and was free to just write. This is when my family and literary community were absolutely indispensable. They helped me see that yes, finishing my novel was possible.
SB: Letters to Montgomery Clift deals with some pretty heavy issues: race relations, torture, the immigrant experience, and coming out, just to name a few. How was the book received when you finally did publish it? In particular, how did the Filipino-American community react?
Noël: The reception was overwhelmingly positive, both by the LGBTQ and Asian/Pacific Islander communities. Young Filipinos who had no previous knowledge about the Marcos regime came up to me and thanked me for giving these issues a space in literature and for sparking dialogue in their communities. Interestingly enough, my mother still shushes me whenever I bring up the Marcos regime. She still seems to think that mentioning the Marcoses in public can cause a lot of trouble.
SB: In some ways, would you say that Letters to Montgomery Clift is a cathartic novel for you?
Noël: In some ways, yes. I looked at writing this novel as a challenge to myself. I was trained as an actor, and being a writer seemed impossible to me. Psychologically-speaking, writing a novel that has been well-received as commercially successful did wonders for my artistic confidence. I gave myself permission to write about controversial things.
SB: How do you manage articulating these controversial things in your work?
Noël: In some ways, I'm still figuring it out. I depend on a rich and varied test audience to tell me what needs more development, and what needs less. I liken this to the discipline a painter must show in his or her art: sometimes the oeuvre needs a few more brushstrokes of red, sometimes it needs a heavy dabbing. I figure it out as I go along.
SB: Noel, thank you so much for this fascinating conversation. As a closing thought, what advice would you give emerging young writers?
Noël: Find that story that you and only you can tell. What stories do you have to tell? I also want to stress the importance of establishing a literary community. This community has been vital to my development as a writer, and I highly encourage any serious writer to establish his/her support network as soon as possible, both for the emotional support we need as writers, but also for readers. And on this note: pick varied, trusted readers. Some of the best readers in my writing group have a life experience way different from my own. Be careful who you lock out.
Noël Alumit is the author of Letters to Montgomery Clift and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Talking to the Moon. His work has also appeared in Tilting the Continent, DisOrient, TakeOut, and Subterraneans, as well as The Huffington Post. Among his many accolades, Noël was awarded an Emerging Voices Fellowship from PEN Center USA West. Letters to Montgomery Clift also garnered him a prestigious Stonewall Book Award for literature in 2003. Noël earned a bachelor of fine arts in drama from the University of Southern California and has also studied playwriting at the David Hwang Writers Institute at East West Players. Follow Noël at http://thelastnoel.blogspot.com/
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