What one remembers the most about Cyan Abad-Jugo is her remarkable gentleness. There is a winning shyness in her eyes and in the quiet way she speaks. It’s like the lilting voice of a precocious child, and being able to see things from that angle is something she has always treasured. “The child’s voice is my default voice,” she says. “I like writing from a child’s point of view.”
That voice has long inhabited Cyan’s writing, particularly her polished short stories for children. Yet the daughter of the venerable poet and professor Gémino H. Abad now approaches a new threshold with the release of her first novel for young adults, “Salingkit: A 1986 Diary” from Anvil Publishing. In it, Cyan (pronounced see-yan) tackles a tumultuous time in Philippine history while showcasing a teenaged protagonist in the powerful process of growing up.
A heartfelt and original tale that mixes narrative with diary entries, “Salingkit” derives its title from the Filipino expression “saling-pusa” or someone who doesn’t really belong; “Kit” also being the nickname of the main character, Kitty Eugenio. The novel happens over 12 months in 1986, during which time the country momentously shifted from the Marcos era to democracy through People Power, as demonstrated by the Edsa Revolution. Caught up in these events, 12-year-old Kitty struggles with her own personal issues, especially the departure of her mother for the United States and the continued absence of her father, who vanished during a 1984 rally.
The shy, introverted Kitty finds solace in her friends—and in their music. Together with three others, she is part the New Wavers Club who revels in the songs of their favorite bands, Depeche Mode and Tears For Fears, among others, which were having their ’80s heyday. She even dubs herself Goro, the nickname of Depeche Mode songsmith Martin Gore. As the months go by, Kitty finds out more about herself and the rapidly changing world around her.
This is a world that Cyan knows all too well. After all, she lived it.
Now 40, Cyan was 14 in 1986. The eldest of four children of Abad and wife Mercy, Cyan was a polite, dutiful daughter but also had a more secluded life that she poured out in her journals, most notably when she was in high school at the University of the Philippines Integrated School (UPIS). Ostensibly “an obedient daughter,” she confesses to doing most of her cursing in her journals when she went through her teenage angst.
When she disagreed with her mother, she would turn to music. “I would borrow my mom’s Walkman and listen to songs. I think that gave me power over my mother, when I would listen to Tears For Fears song like ’Suffer the Children’ and ’Start of the Breakdown’ and sing them out loud, hoping she would get the point.”
Like Kitty, Cyan’s favorite band, however, is Depeche Mode. Though she loved the New Wave’s British invasion, Cyan didn’t really get to melt with the songs as social functions. “I didn’t get to attend those dance parties,” she says. “My dad was so strict!”
Entering college at the age of 15, Cyan took up English Literature at the Ateneo de Manila University. She would later earn her Master’s in Children’s Literature from Simmons College in Boston and her PhD in English Studies: Creative Writing from UP. She now teaches English at the Ateneo.
As she wrote one story after another, Cyan was never bothered by comparisons to her father. “I’ve never felt compared to him because we’re so different.”
She doesn’t really mind being compared to him, either. “I like being called the daughter of Jimmy Abad. I am the daughter of Jimmy Abad, and if I have to be in someone’s shadow then I am happy to be under his.” It was her father after all who bought her all those children’s books when she was growing up.
Aside from winning second prize in the 2003 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature for her short story “Behind the Old Aparador,” Cyan is the author of three previous books, “Father and Daughter: The Figures of our Speech” (co-authored with her father), the short story collection “Sweet Summer and Other Stories” and 2008’s “Leaf and Shadow: Stories about Some Friendly Creatures.”
“Salingkit” had its origins in one of Cyan’s grad classes at UP where professor Heidi Abad (no relation) required her class to produce a complete novel during the semester. It had to be either a historical novel or one set in the present day, and Cyan remembered she had all these journals from her adolescent days. So she decided to write about the ’80s, eventually focusing on the year 1986. “When I opened (the journals), they were useless,” she cringes. “As a teenager, I didn’t pay attention to what was going on. I was complaining about school and writing things like, ’yay, no classes!’”
So from there, Cyan basically rebuilt her adolescent year from the ground up, relying on her memories and the experience of her friends. Kitty takes a lot from Cyan. “Even (when it comes to) our grades, we were the same,” Cyan says. “But I really had to do her all over again. I didn’t want to be just autobiographical. I did have best friends who were a Duran Duran fan and a Tears For Fears fan. I wanted to factor that in. But it wasn’t just them. I had to invent their lives.”
There are details in the novel that do come from real, remembered life. The three kittens named after the singers who made up the girl group Bananarama was for real (for those keeping score, their names are Siobhan, Keren and Sara). Cyan would roll three actual persons into one character. One character was based on her crush from her UPIS days. She did get her first period during the Edsa Revolution. She even has a bit of barbed wire from there.
But here are some significant diversions as well. Kitty gets a boyfriend at 13; Cyan didn’t have an official one until she was 21.
She did make sure the music would be there. “I marveled at how some lyrics matched our situation. It was weird that way.” She was also excited to write about the decade. “I’ve been meaning to write something different and I’ve been reading a lot about the ’70s. I was too young to remember that so I thought maybe I’ll write about the ’80s, with all the songs I really loved.”
Even after her class (where she got an A), Cyan continued to tinker with the novel. The manuscript would eventually find its way to Anvil, where she was asked to write an introduction and re-write the first chapter. Because of her exacting nature, she took a year to do this as she wanted to get it exactly right. “I’m more worried about the history,” she says. “History was my Waterloo. I had such a hard time learning it.”
She also wanted to craft a nuanced, textured portrait of those times, where it wasn’t just the yellow crowd versus the Loyalists. Cyan thinks that it is particularly important for young adults to experience what that time was like. She’d also love to see more stories about that decade. “This is just one story. There has to be a lot more ’80s stories out there,” she says. “The young adults should know about this because it’s a big part of our history, a big turning point for our country. It was a time when there was so much hope for better things. Although there are a lot of problems now, you shouldn’t lose that hope.”
Even with her first novel out of the way, Cyan remains busy. She’s working on a new collection of short stories and would like to write a series of children’s books about the “Yaya Maya and the White King” stories she’s been writing for the Inquirer’s Learning section. “I’ve always wanted to write a series that would update the Maria Makiling story to the present time, sort of like a Nanny MacPhee or a Mary Poppins thing.” She also hopes to write a chick lit novel eventually.
Much of Cyan’s time away from teaching and writing is spent with husband Mike, who works for Ayala Land, and her 5-year-old twins, Megan and Colin.
Through it all, the writer continues to hone her craft. She can be ruthless with what she calls “facelifts” for her work. “I’m on my fantastical route right now but I do plan to circle back to the realist (route). I want to try everything, I’m greedy that way.”
Though thrilled and somewhat nervous about the launch of her first novel, Cyan says this is not an end-all moment. “I don’t think this is THE novel. It’s a novella, it’s not that long. It has to be longer, like 300 pages. I’m not there yet.” With “Salingkit: A 1986 Diary,” she emerges from a place of infinite shyness to send a letter to the world about a compelling and chaotic time she lived in and the people and songs that helped her through it. Cyan Abad-Jugo thinks about the other things that she wants to write about next. “At this point in my life, I really just want to be read.” •