EVERYTHING about Nikki Alfar is big. She’s physically tall, brassy and loud. She smokes a lot. Her voice booms. Her spoken sentences are rigged with exclamations, profanities and laughter.
Her written voice is just as expansive. There is nothing small about Alfar’s writing, whether one is a reader of her short stories or her tales for children. But from that expanse emerge the little details, the small struggles she had to overcome to become the big-time writer she is today. From flying as a flight attendant to writing tales of whimsy and revelation, being a wife to a successful writer and the mother of might-be writers someday, the 41-year-old fictionist has applied her iron will and resources of humor to whatever task is at hand.
Born Georgina Veronica Cepeda Go, Alfar is the youngest and only daughter in a brood of five born to Philippine Air Force general Cesar Go and Mina Cepeda, a Monterey, California native who worked for the United States Navy. The writer has four older brothers (including the actor Ricardo Cepeda) and a seven-year gap to her nearest sibling.
Growing up in Fort Bonifacio, she says she was a reader “almost since birth.”
“I remember when I was 7, I read my first novel,” she recalls. The book was the Stephen King demonic dog novel “Cujo.” “I thought it was a puppy book because it had a paw print on the cover,” she says. “I was very shocked.”
Because of her family’s unique circumstances, Alfar essentially grew up in a sitcom home. “It was a weird, little American slice of life in the middle of the Fort,” she remembers. “Everything we owned was PX goods. We celebrated Thanksgiving.” She picked up on what her brothers were reading, which enabled her to have a complete set of the Hardy Boys mystery books, as well as comic books. “I started comics because they had comics sitting around. But I think I went a little more artsy than they did because they were into X-Men and that sort of thing and I explored things like ‘Watchmen,’ ” she says.
The reading naturally led to writing which she started doing back in grade school. “But it was terrible derivative work,” she says with a laugh. “I was trying to be a Sweet Dreams author. It was my dream.”
In high school at the Colegio San Agustin, she continued writing, delving into more short fiction. “At the time I was feeling very environmental, so I wrote a lot of ‘Save The Whales’ stories. I worked for Unicef in high school so I was very idealistic.”
For college, Alfar enrolled at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, taking up social work because of her activist bent. But that soon changed. “I realized I’m not that sincere as an activist, because I only did it when it was easy so I ended up switching to creative writing. Which I did only because I had to take just one math subject,” she says.
College was a period of discovery and discernment for her. “College was mildly shocking,” This writer admits, adding that she stopped writing. “I actually stopped writing in college because when you go to college you think you’re this brilliant writer in high school and then, oh my god, there are all these talented people, and all this information you don’t know,” she continues. “It was difficult for me because my mom was Asian-American and my dad was Filipino, I grew up in what I thought were ordinary circumstances. I guess I’m kind of a third culture kid. I barely spoke Filipino until I entered UP. So when I got to UP, I got the impression that everything I had to say was not Filipino and not relevant to anything. So I stopped, I stopped for a long time.”
She did keep at least one lasting element from her college life. In 1990, she met Dean Francis Alfar at a literary organization in UP. She was a freshman while Dean was a super senior taking speech and drama. They were both seeing people at the time. “He thought I was dumb and I thought he was a jerk,” she recalls. They began dating in 1993 and got married in 1995. She was 22, he was 26.
It was also only in college that she began reading Filipino writers. She marveled at what Gilda Cordero-Fernando was about to whip up. Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo became a mentor. “I kept telling her I was her worst student ever,” she recalls. She loved the speculative fiction elements she found in the work of Nick Joaquin. Those were important influences, as were Stephen King (“I’ve read everything by him”) and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books.
During her senior year in 1994, Alfar dropped out of UP. “I had a lot of PEs and I didn’t want to do them,” she explains. She then pursued a very interesting mix of jobs. She was a flight attendant for Air Philippines, then a bank manager. “Apparently I did well, but I hated it,” she says of the bank job. “I thought it was about pursuing people to invest in products which weren’t good. So I left.” She then became an administration officer and copywriter for a graphics design company.
The Alfar couple then decamped to Hong Kong. While her husband worked, she did some, uh, unusual writing work. Someone offered her a gig writing pornographic comics. “I said yes,” she explains. “I’m not particularly embarrassed about sex and talking about sex. But after I had a baby, I thought it doesn’t go with my mom persona.” Because she got pregnant in HK, the Alfars returned to the Philippines in 2001. Their daughter Sage was born the following year.
Eschewing full-time work, she started doing freelance writing for ad agencies, marketing companies and other corporate communications gigs. “Generally a lot of the annual reports you read I wrote,” she says.
Then in her thirties, she had an epiphany about her writing. “I guess I got less self-conscious, less embarrassed and decided to write about what I really wanted to write about,” she says. “It’s more like I’m a wife and a mother, I’m doing pretty well in both so I don’t have to answer to anyone. I can write what I want.”
That’s how her focus landed on children’s stories. “It sounded like something fun to do, especially when you’re transitioning from porn writer to mommy person. I thought I’d try it out,” she remembers. “It was also a chance to use my lifelong interest in mythology into writing, which for some reason never occurred to me before. So I started writing about a little girl and a clairvoyant chicken.” That strange combination turned into the short story for children “Menggay’s Magical Chicken,” which won her her first Palanca Award. She would win another Palanca for the same category and one more for a one-act play.
Alfar then crossed over into the realm of speculative fiction, writing fantasy and other genre-heavy forms. This is where the elements of unfolding wonder and unexpected connections, real or unreal, truly injected itself into her work. She acknowledges her husband’s influence in this aspect: To a certain extent, he kind of opened the door for her to do the serious thing. “I was doing it as a fun thing. He influenced me because he paved the way and people like me followed him.”
Alfar describes his wife’s unique storytelling style this way: “Nikki’s stories are immediately recognizable by their tone. She has a strong voice that she deploys to successfully bring her characters to life. Her command of language is formidable, and her nuanced observations of real people in her speculative fiction provide amazing insights. In terms of themes, Nikki loves exploring the space of folklore and fairy tales, where discoveries abound but rules must be met, as well as secondary worlds of her own imagination.”
Since then, Alfar has been writing stories that have been published and anthologized locally and abroad. She has been editing books, including the “Philippine Speculative Fiction” anthologies and, for a time, the comic-book anthology series “Mango Jam.” Her first collection of short stories, “Now, Then, and Elsewhen,” published by the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House, just won the National Book Award for Short Fiction. She has a new book out, “WonderLust: Stories,” released by Anvil Publishing, Inc.
Alfar says she writes with a purpose, springing into action when editors ask her for stories. “Under pressure, I can do a story in a few days. I like parameters. I write at night when the little ones are asleep and I tend to write a short story all in one go, otherwise it doesn’t come together.” That’s great because she admits that she edits her work a lot. Actually, that’s an understatement.
“Oh my god, yes,” she says, remembering how she’s been this way since her mother corrected her when she was just 3. “So my whole life, I’ve been this grammar-obsessed person. I tend to be obsessive, sometimes going over the same paragraph over and over,” she says. “I have to force myself to go on and finish the thing.” As a result, she considers a story finished once she has submitted it or has let one person see it. Otherwise, she would theoretically go on editing it forever.
Even as her husband collected literary prizes and praise as the champion of speculative fiction in the Philippines, she has never been intimidated by the prospect of writing in his shadow. “We write very differently,” she says. “He tends to do that broad, lyrically sweeping thing and I’ve been described as surgical. We do very different things and I think we help each other because we become envious of each other. Oh, so you did that, well, I’m going to do it my way.” They write in the same room and don’t show their work to each other until they’re done. “We live together and we tend to write together in our bedroom because we have children and we can both smoke there. We’ve learned to be quiet and do quiet things while the other is writing. We try not to do it at the same time unless we have a deadline.”
Her husband says there are distinct advantages to being married to another writer. “Bring married to a writer is wonderful. We share silence when we write in the same space, laughter when we tell stories to our daughters, and catty comments when we talk about things that move us, or fail to move us,” he says. “She is the best editor in the world—and my first reader, fearless in telling me where my own work is flimsy and offering suggestions on how I can improve my stories. On my end, I give her the occasional push to produce stories, because most of the time we’d both really rather be reading.”
Alfar says she is writing by the moment, with no set long-term goals. “Thankfully, I had a great childhood with a mom who gave me great self-esteem that sadly has resulted in a general lack of ambition,” she says. “I’m a pretty content person. I should probably want to write a novel, but given that ‘I’m Miss-I-have-to-write-it-in-one-go,’ I don’t know how I’ll accomplish that. For now, I’m happy with short stories.” There is still quite a lot on her plate for the immediate future, editing future editions of “Philippine Speculative Fiction,” for one. “I have about half the stories I’m going to need for a third book,” she says. “I’m going to do that sooner or later, when I’m no longer sick of my own words, which is how I feel when my book is just out.”
She’s busy raising daughter Sage, now 12, and Rowan, 6. “We have a slight fear of raising them as writers although they both want to be that. Rowan says she wants to be a ‘bookmaker,’ so I’m hoping that means publisher and not writer, because you know it’s not a profession where you make a lot of money,” she says. “It would be nice if they pick something where they’d make a lot of money but I can’t blame them if they want to be writers obviously.”
She’s also finally coming to terms with her questions of identity. “Because of my weird heritage, I kind of feel fake. Only recently have I begun to feel properly Filipino. The experiential thing that a lot of people share, like eating sinigang, I don’t share. I think spaghetti should be made with tomato sauce and spaghetti made with ketchup horrifies me.”
One other thing that is keeping the Alfars busy is their latest passion: ballroom dancing. “I used to dance,” she says. “I started ballet when I was 4 or so and moved to jazz. I danced until I was 12 and then I was told to stop because I was going to be too big and busty so I stopped. But I’ve always had an interest in TV dance programs, so I would watch them a lot. One day, I decided to look into ballroom dancing classes. I suggested it to Dean and he was thrilled. He likes doing things together and he’s a bit of a showoff.” The Alfars go dancing twice a week and have been doing so for two years now. They take it very seriously. “As Dean likes so say, if I’m not going to ‘career’ something, I’m not going to do it,” she explains.
That rings true in her life as a writer as well. Alfar says that being a female fictionist in the Philippines isn’t that difficult at all. “Actually in some ways it’s more welcoming in a sense,” she clarifies. “Locally, the community is nice to us. If you are a female writer in the Philippines, they tend to be more helpful. But on the other hand, people generally feel they have the right to express their opinions, which they don’t do for male writers. I guess it’s a double-edged sword.”
She has discovered that she actually enjoys mentoring other writers despite initial misgivings. “I never thought I would enjoy it because I think I’m a terrible teacher and I feel awkward because I don’t feel I have the right to tell people what they should be doing. More and more, people want to be told what they should be doing. So when I see openness there, I’m pretty happy to be nurturing this community.”
Despite her gifts and achievement, Alfar easily owns up to what she has battled against all these years. “It’s the need for fearlessness,” she says. “I think if you want to be a good writer, you need a lot of the courage of conviction. I’ve struggled with the tendency to be a little hesitant in that regard. There are certain things I mine from my life, but there are certain things I’m reluctant to talk about. Among the female writers, many of them are ‘ladlad’ (uninhibited) with their feelings but I struggle with finding the guts to rip out your guts like that.”
With two books in the last two years, Alfar appears to have arrived at the bright moment of critical and popular recognition. In many ways, she is a worthy inheritor of the mantle worn by Gilda Cordero-Fernando and Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo in the past. “Nikki is one of the most daring female fictionists today. Her choice of imagery is fearless and her narratives are disturbing. As a person, I like her sense of humor and I hope she uses it more often in her fiction,” says Gwenn Galvez, marketing manager for Anvil. “Nikki is one of the most promising fictionists in Philippine literature today.”
It is all part of Alfar’s continued search for improvement in her life, both in writing and beyond. From would-be activist to literary writer, from flight attendant to wife and mother, from one world to the other, she has stepped from one dimension to the next with passion and precision. “I think the best part of my writing life is really working with people in different ways and learning from fellow writers, figuring out what they do and incorporating it into what I do,” Nikki Alfar says. “It is the long process of evolution that I find fun.” •