An interview by Angel Marie B. Mondia
Despite poverty and insecurity, Peter Solis Nery has proven that he is far greater than his obstacles. He is now a famous Ilonggo writer whose biggest achievement is his induction to the Palanca Awards Hall of Fame.
“Growing up poor, despite being children, I’m the oldest of five, of two public school teachers, no grandparents, aunties/uncles figures, we were like transplants in the town, although we have true Dumangas roots. Still, there were no financial or moral support from relatives,” Nery says.
He was bullied, though the concept was not in his consciousness back in the 1970s, by peers because he was not reckless and sporty like other boys. However, he was a good test taker.
“Perfect exams, consistent first honors, and pretty talented in dance, declamation and writing, which I think is my overcompensation for being poor, and for being humiliated and called ‘agi’ on a daily basis,” he says.
Moreover, in the midst of the negativities he faced in life, he began to discover his talents as a performer and writer when he was in grade school.
“As a performer, I started in Kindergarten when all of us were asked to do sing and dance acts. Then, when I was in Grade 1, I was always chosen to be a dancer, and I even choreographed Mom’s Grade 2 pupils,” he says.
He copied John Travolta from “Grease” and “Saturday Night Fever”. Around that time, he also saw “Jesus Christ Superstar” the movie musical.
“That’s what shaped my aesthetics as a theatre performer/director and filmmaker,” he says.
As a writer, he always went back to Grade 3, when he wrote his first poem, patterned after the haiku that was posted/published on his school wallpaper, though there was no school paper at that time.
“I fell in love with the idea of seeing my name in print. So, I guess I wanted to be a writer even at that time. Having been published like that while I was in Grade 3, I gained confidence to write essays, and competed against Grades 4, 5, and 6. And mostly, I won those because I also have a great vocabulary from being a voracious reader,” he says.
When he was in college, Nery went into Sciences because his family figured there was no money or good career in the Arts. He wanted to be a ballet dancer, but there were no ballet schools in Dumangas in the 1970s and 80s; not even now, 40 years later.
“I think talents should refine our goals. But because I grew up poor, I had to consider practical considerations. I was supposed to take up Nursing after high school in 1986, but I got lucky to top the UPCAT, top 10 nationwide, so I enrolled in Biology,” he says.
However, he realized he wanted to be a writer, even just “on the side”, when he was in second year college.
“I wrote literary and journalism stuff in my sophomore year and became editor of the college paper at UPV on my third year. And I just never stopped writing since then,” he says.
At that same time, he was hired to edit nongovernmental organization publication in Iloilo City. He kept the job for three years.
“I did not have a straight path to my writing career. But after college, I knew that I had it in me, the gift to write,” he says.
“They published my first book in 1993, although the manuscript was approved and accepted in 1991. I knew that being an author is what I want to do, but I knew better not to depend on writing for my livelihood. I’d like to say I approached my writer’s dream with unbridled passion, but the truth is, I’m also as practical as you can get,” he adds.
He took up Biology in 1986, and eleven years later, as a second course, he took up Nursing in 2001.
When asked what were the obstacles he faced, he says, “My greatest obstacle as a writer is my insecurity. Just because I did not formally study writing, no MFA’s or PhD’s, or even BA in Literature or Creative Writing, or language, I feel I don’t measure up to most Filipino writers who are almost always in the academe.”
However, despite his insecurity and lack of formal education in writing, Nery won national competitions with big money. He was the only Ilonggo winner at the Centennial Literary Prize, in 1998, who won P500,000 prize; and at the Cinemanila International Film Festival Script Writing Contest, in 2001, who won P200,000 prize.
“In addition, I have 18 Palanca awards as of 2016, and was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 2012, when I was only 43 years old,” he says.
Nevertheless, in spite of all his literary successes, his works were not discussed in colleges and universities.
“I still feel this insecurity and envy, but I don’t focus on them. Instead, I just devote my energy to do good in my writing, and in Hiligaynon literature and language promotion,” he says.
When he had the money from his nursing career in America, he established The Peter Solis Nery Foundation for Hiligaynon Literature and the Arts, Inc.
“Do you know of any other Filipino writer, including our National Artists in Literature, who has a literature foundation?” he asks.
He moved to America, where he lived for 11 years now since 2006. He married a gay man and they were together for eight years. However, in 2014, his husband died.
“These events have a most dramatic impact to how I am now as a gay man, a gay activist, a pursuer of happiness, and an advocate of seizing the day. I mean, I’ve always been the carpe diem guy, even if limited by lack of money and sexual conservatism in the past. But after my husband died, I no longer had reservations,” he says.
“As a gay person, I feel I have some respectability because I was married. With a little money now, people also seem to listen to me more. Add to these my writing success, and I am more confident and self-assured more than ever, even if I still tremble before a blank page/computer screen when on a writing project,” he adds.
In 2014, Nery was inducted to the Palance Awards Hall of Fame. In 2015, he was the first Filipino author invited to the Sharjah International Book Fair in the United Arab Emirates.
“Also, I am the ‘king’ of Creative Writing workshops whenever I am in the country and online, too. In fact, I even wrote the Creative Writing textbook for Philippine Senior High School published by DIWA/UPFA: 2016-17. Plus, if you Google ‘famous Ilonggo writers’, you’ll probably find me at number one,” he says.
“How did I get there? By just writing, and ignoring all my insecurities, and all those envious writers who want to pull me down,” he adds.
When asked how does he find being a person who has marked his name in the history, he says, “I find that totally amazing! Like, I know I can die happy and content right now. Literary goal achieved, wouldn’t you say? But I also feel I have a responsibility to keep being creative while I’m still alive, and while I still can. The kind of person that I am, I don’t rest on past laurels. I know there are other heights to conquer. I just wish my critics and detractors would see that I’m not competing with them, but only with myself. Better still, that they see I’m not competing, I’m just creating.”
“To retire at 45 is my greatest success. So I say at age 45,” he says, when asked when did he personally consider himself successful.
“I don’t think I would have been a successful writer if I just concentrated on writing. Maybe too much poverty would have killed my creativity! I know I wrote brilliant pieces when I was poor, but it was when I had some money, and finally, influence, that I was able to share my art, and create more art because I felt people were already listening to me. I don’t think people should stop at early signs of success. I feel that I am where I am now because I let my small successes feed my next projects,” he adds.
When asked what he wants to tell to the world, he says, “Life is too short to be lived just working at being rich. I think that people should realize that we cannot all be rich or famous, or big successes. Thus, it is more important to learn how to be happy and content. Do not be lazy, but do not be consumed by greed and social status. Learn from The Little Prince, the biblical Jesus Christ, the comic hero Peter Parker/Spiderman, and maybe even the boy who never grew up, Peter Pan.”
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