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One-on-one with San Rafael Author, Leila Rispens-Noel

The sunlight brings life, but we cannot get too close to the sun. For people like us, it is safer to stay in the shadows.

Isabel, a seventeen-year-old living in a poor rural village, longs for the chance to go to college and make a difference in her community. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes and takes away her parents and crushes her ambitions.

Meanwhile, Gabriel—the son of the wealthy San Rafael Plantation owner—is attracted to Isabel as conflict between his father and the workers intensifies. But when Marcos declares martial law, their relationship is doomed.

Though separated for eleven years, neither has forgotten the other. Will they reunite and be able to fulfill their hopes and dreams?

What will become of the workers on the sugar cane plantation?

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1. Isabel and Gabriel’s love story is set during the Martial Law. How does this turbulent period define their relationship?

Countless love stories unfolded during the Martial Law era, some with endings as heartbreaking as Glenda and Jasper’s. Gabriel and Isabel faced societal barriers that made their relationship seem doomed from the start, but I couldn’t bear to give them a tragic fate. I wanted to give them a fighting chance to overcome all obstacles and fulfill their love for each other.

2. Your first book is nonfiction. What made you write fiction this time? Was there a change in your practice and/or discipline? How would you describe such a transition?

The main reason I wrote Beyond the Bansalan Skies, was twofold: 1) to memorialize and honor the people I met during martial law so that they are not forgotten, and to describe the world I lived in when I was young; and 2) to share factual stories with my children and those who are interested in knowing about Bansalan and what happened that era.

It was easier for me to write a memoir using my own memories and journals as inspiration, rather than creating fictional worlds. At the time of writing Beyond the Bansalan Skies, I still did not have an idea to write fiction. It was a good preparation though since I learned a little about what it takes to write. I got courage to write fiction after the two books were published.

Besides, my childhood dream was to become a fiction writer.

After the publication of Diaspora Journey: Stories of Philippine Migration to Hong Kong and Beyond the Bansalan Skies, I realized it was time for me to write San Rafael. The ideas for the plot, setting, and characters had been floating around in my head for some time now. Besides fiction, I am also open to pursuing non-fiction writing if the opportunity arises. Ultimately, my goal is to become a versatile writer in both genres.

3. You have always been vocal about your stance against dictatorship and abuse of power. Modesty aside, would you call San Rafael an eye-opening instrument?

San Rafael serves as a reminder rather than an eye-opener, I think. My previous memoir, Beyond the Bansalan Skies, opened many people’s eyes to my life during the 1970s. Even my closest friends during that time were unaware of some events I included in my book, particularly for those who only knew me after Martial Law was declared.

San Rafael delves into events that occurred between Martial Law and EDSA, and I joined other historical writers in documenting them to ensure they are not forgotten. However, others think San Rafael cannot be classified as a true historical novel. Those who are familiar with Martial Law, might say San Rafael was inadequate. For people who do not know or have distorted ideas about Martial Law, the book might be an eye-opener.

I leave the judgment to the readers.

4. What words best describe « San Rafael » and what does it aim to accomplish as a literary work?

It’s a tough question to answer since readers may have varying perspectives. Some may see it insufficient to be called a historical novel, even though I do not claim it to be one. Others might find interest in it because the struggles faced by the main characters are relatable.

As a work of literature, I hope that readers will find enjoyment in reading my book while also gaining insight and being reminded of the events that took place during martial law. The younger generation may have a different understanding of what happened during this period. This was my motivation for writing San Rafael: to remind them what exactly transpired.

In my future writing, I plan to continue exploring social issues as a theme and how ordinary people navigate through them.

Leila Rispens-Noel is the author of Beyond the Bansalan Skies, a memoir, and co-author of the award-winning anthology Diaspora Journey: Stories of Philippine Migration in Hong Kong. She also writes and contributes non-fiction articles especially on migration and development.

She is a development worker and a social entrepreneur. She co-founded the WIMLER Foundation Hong Kong, a charity organization (2011) and the WIMLER Philippines, a non-governmental organization (2006) which work with Filipino migrant workers and the Bagobo-Tagabawa in Davao del Sur area.

Leila returned to Bansalan, her hometown, after living for 32 years in the Netherlands and four years in Hong Kong, fulfilling her dream of becoming a writer. San Rafael is her debut novel.

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