Academic Nook: [Some of] The Books that Make up the Life of Ninotchka Rosca

It is truly an honor to welcome the one, the only, the formidable Madam Ninotchka Rosca here in GatheringBooks for our Academic Nook as we explore books/literature related to Girl Power and Women’s Wiles – our theme this March until the first week of May.

Madam, we send you our warmest welcome and we thank you dearly for finding the time to answer our questions. I know that you have been asked countless of questions related to your involvement in activism and feminism. Our questions are a tad different as it looks into your journeys as a reader.

What are some of the books that you read when you were a child? How were girls/women portrayed in these books?

Oh my, I read a lot of books when I was a kid; I actually can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to read.  Yes, reading/writing for me go that far back.  The one book I remember vividly is DON QUIXOTE by Miguel Cervantes.  The family house had an excellent edition, one illustrated by Salvador Dali, if my memory serves me.  So the combination of the excellent text & visuals left an enduring impact on my life.  The women in this book were a motley lot.  Some were supportive of Quixote’s mad quest;  some were against it;  others were as strange as he was.  The one thing though was that they were always “props” in the drama of central character, who was an old man.  They were peripheral.

Artist Salvador Dali's etching of author Miguel de Cervantes: Part of Dali's series, "The Five Spanish Immortals." - Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

What are your thoughts about fairy tales?

When we speak of fairy tales, what we refer to are the Western ones.  I’m not sure if we do have fairy tales in the Philippines;  or at least they’re a different category of fairy tales.  In the Western fairy tale, the ending is usually a happy one.  Our legends, myths, etc., are not always happy:  Maria Makiling betrayed and sinking into a coma;  Bernardo Carpio buried under a mountain, etc.  Then there’s the asuwang, tiyanak, multo, tikbalang – creatures calculated to create fear and trembling.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

My favorite fairy tale to this day is The Snow Queen.  I liked the Queen’s detachment.  And it was the sister who saved the brother, rather than the other way ‘round.  There was no prince or king in it, if memory serves me.

I think we need to create fairy tales with happy endings, but they must be based on our own narrative forms.  A lot of the new created ones sounds so artificial.  The best still for me is Ang Mga Kwento Ni Lola Basyang – probably because this was by way of oral tradition.

What are the books that you read when you were a teenager? How would you describe the female characters in those books?

You’re kidding, right?  I read everything I could lay my hands on.  When I got to the University of the Philippines, I thought I was a stupid one in a sea of geniuses.  So I spent one whole summer in the library, reading one-two books per day, going through the literature section alphabetically.  Got to Lagerkvist before I gave up; I must have been the only one to have read him then.

Before that, from the age of 12, I read many, many books:  The Dream of the Red Chamber (Chinese classic novel), The Book of the Dead (Tibetan),

Genji Monogatari (Japanese), Siddhartha by Hesse (German), The World’s Illusion (can’t remember the German author now), The Razor’s Edge by Maugham, Anna Karenina by Tolstoy…

Then I really went haywire and began reading entire bodies of works:  all of Dostoyevsky, all of Henry James, all of F. Scott Fitzgerald, all of Francoise Sagan, all of Thomas Mann, etc.…  in addition to reading all of Perry Mason, all of Agatha Christie, and odds of ends of other authors, including just about every Filipino novel available.  I devoured entire libraries, you might say.

I learned the most about women’s situation from, first, Maupassant and Flaubert – how, in stories like Ball of Fat, a woman’s most noble impulses can be used against her;  then of course, the two tragic novels about women, Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina, how the very stuff of love and romance carefully nurtured in women, when given full vent, can lead to their destruction.

Do share with us your literary journeys as you explored authors and literature that influenced the body of your work and the way you think about the world.

I cannot say with certainty which of the authors actually influenced my body of work.  James Joyce, of course, in the exploration of language;  Thomas Mann, in the exploration of techniques;  the Russian novelists, in the exploration of passion and those big questions that lift the narrative to resonate with truths immortal.

James Joyce - Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Thomas Mann - click on the image to be taken to the websource.

What are the books that significantly influenced and shaped your thinking – as it relates to feminism and activism? How did the books come to you?

The Second Sex, by Simone de Beauvoir, was my first encounter with politico-historical analysis of the women’s situation.  It just helped me sum up all the women I’d read and all the women I’d known.  I also reached activism by way of books, reading Sartre, Malraux, Hemingway, Katherine Ann Porter and Dorothy Parker, whose short stories made me hyperventilate for days and tons of other books.  I read Gilda Cordero Fernando, whose People In The War is a classic.

How the books came to me – they were always there, in a strange way, lying across my path and whispering, “read me,” like the cake in Alice in Wonderland.  My journey through books, which continues to this time, is like going through the looking glass mirror.

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

What are some of the children’s books that you would like to recommend for girls to be empowered to dream big and to slay their own dragons and conquer vast unknown spaces?

This is hard because I barely read children’s books and  jumped directly into adult books.  Being weird, I’d tell them to read Steinbeck’s short stories… and when they’re a little older, his Grapes of Wrath and the Log from the Sea of Cortez.

But certainly, they should read Gilda Cordero Fernando.

Once again, our deepest thanks, Madam Ninotchka for taking the time [amidst your busy schedule] to answer our questions and share your thoughts with our GatheringBooks readers. Hope to see you soon! :)

Ninotchka Rosca is a Filipina feminist, author, journalist, and human rights activist who is active in AF3IRM, the Mariposa Center for Change, Sisterhood is Global and the initiating committee of the MARIPOSA ALLIANCE (Ma-Al), “a multi-racial, multi-ethnic women’s activist center for understanding the intersectionality of class, race and gender oppressions, toward a more comprehensive practice of women’s liberation” (source here). She is also the author of critically-acclaimed novels State of War and Twice Blessed, the latter winning her the American Book Award in 1993. She currently lives in New York City.


  1. Ninotchka Rosca

    I forgot to include how I read all the Tagalog komiks and Tagalog periodicals — because it was a quasi-job for me. The domestic workers of the neighborhood discovered I could read and write, at the age of 5, and each paid me 5 centavos to read aloud the komiks (when they’d be behind me to follow the illustration) and Liwaway (when they’d be seated before me), I did not read only English language books. And actually, the Tagalog periodicals ensured that I had no cash flow problems.

  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Wonderful interview and inspiring list of works read, thank you so much for sharing them. I would love to know what you are reading now? Who inspires you currently? And what other women writers coming from the Phillipines should we look out for?

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