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Notes on Surviving Researching While Writing a Familial/Historical-Based Novel


This guest blog comes from Submittable’s inaugural Eliza So Fellow, Melissa R. Sipin, mid-residency, at The Writer’s Block in Las Vegas.

About the photo:

My fantasy garden. In Dr. Cristina Lope Rosello’s book, Disconnect: The Filipina Comfort Women, she worked with 30 of the Filipina “Comfort Women” in psychiatric healing. They all exhibited symptoms of C-PTSD. In one activity, she had the lolas draw their “fantasy garden,” after a brief exercise in meditation, as a way to peer into their subconscious. During a heavy research day, I did the same thing: I meditated, I imagined what my body was telling me, what memories, and then drew my own fantasy garden. I drew a huge banyan tree that connected to all the other trees, with my grandmother and me lying in the grass. In a way, I felt I drew a symbolic connection to all the women who suffered what they should not have suffered. It was a subconscious act of witnessing, of remembrance.

Notes on Survival

When I first learned of my grandmother’s capture in World War II, it was at her funeral. One of her sisters, the many matriarchs of the Dulay clan and my grand aunt, stopped the processional and confessed details about my own grandmother’s life—my adoptive mother—I did not know. I felt it in my body. The shellshock. The inaudible confusion. I felt in it my bones, my genes, in memories that I do not own but somehow inherited. The term is epigenetics: what your ancestors suffered or survived years before somehow has a direct effect on you, outside of your genes. The prefix is “epi,” which comes from Greek, means “upon,” “on,” “over,” “near,” “at,” “before,” “after”; so, appropriately, what’s affected is “beyond the genes.”

They say if your grandmother survived a war, what she survived or suffered through leaves an indelible mark outside your genes, an epigenetic expression, and thus affects how certain cells are translated. Here is a fact: “Human epidemiological studies have provided evidence that prenatal and early postnatal environmental factors influence the adult risk of developing various chronic diseases and behavioral disorders. Studies have shown that children born during the period of the Dutch famine from 1944-1945 have increased rates of coronary heart disease and obesity after maternal exposure to famine during early pregnancy compared to those not exposed to famine.” (What Is Epigenetics?)

The offspring of the Hongerwinter had their metabolic cells shifted because of what their parents went through, and even their offspring had those same indelible effects on their metabolic cells. Which is to say: trauma is inherited, even if one does not remember the famine.

This is how I’ve come here. The week of my grandmother’s passing was the week of my first MFA workshop at Mills College. I wanted to be a writer. But in the beginning, I didn’t set out to write a novel about my family’s history, or about the Second World War, or the atrocities the Filipina “Comfort Women” suffered during the war—systematic mass rape used as an instrument of warfare—or even about my family’s migration, origin myths about how my family got here, to America. All I knew was that I had wanted to write. Sometimes, I think it was fate that got me here. It’s what a psychic said to me during my very first residency at the MacDowell Colony: “You didn’t say, hey Mom and Dad, I’m going to write a book about our family! Fate gave you this story. You are birthing it.”

But when I began writing, at the adorable age of five years old, I wrote as every child did: for expression. I penned my first nonfiction essay entitled, “I’m So Only.” It was a typo. I was supposed to write “lonely,” that “I’m So Lonely.” I was supposed to write a cute class assignment about how much my parents loved me. Instead, I infused my childish pangs of missing my birthmother, Mercy, onto the page. I wrote over and over again: I’m So Only. It was my first creative nonfiction essay, the first time I ever tried to use expression to translate the brooding storm within. When my father read it, he laughed. At its cuteness. Its honesty. Its repetition. To this day, I hold this essay, this memory, as a badge of honor. I wonder if my grandmother thought this when she was confined in a makeshift garrison, in a room that she was forced in for months, a room that was not her own: I’m So Only.

To be honest, when I was a kid, my biggest dream was to become an animator. I didn’t want to be a writer; I didn’t think someone like me could become one—only because writing was suspect, writing was too revealing, writing was confession, and my family didn’t do well with confessions. I wanted to draw anime characters who looked like my sister and me, who wore Sailor Moon skirts and had wands that fought bad guys. I never wanted to write a novel about the war, about how my family survived it. Because I didn’t know about what we survived, what my grandmother had to do to live, who my grandfather — a war hero and major in the joint U.S.–Philippine army in Northern Luzon—fought on the mountain ranges of Bessang Pass to save the wife he had just eloped with, he had just married. My family doesn’t talk about these things not because we can’t, it’s because trauma is hard. When you live trauma, embody it, feel it in your bones, your blood—it’s not easy to recant what one did just to get by. You’re proof of it: your body is. That you survived.

But here I am, writing a novel about my grandmother, fictionalizing myself as my alter-ego, Dolores, and researching without end the Great World Wars and the countless atrocities and lives that were lost during that hellish period. Sometimes the research is vomit inducing, because we—no nation-state, especially America, I believe—have yet learned from the past.

What the Japanese Imperial Army did to prisoners-of-war in the ghastly Unit 731—human experimentation as biological warfare—they did to the Philippines in the south. Live dissections. Injection of lethal, manufactured bacteria. Vivisections. The burning of thousands of corpses. In the documentary I’ve finally finished watching, Riben Guizi (roughly translated as the Chinese phrase, “Japanese Devils”), directed by Minoru Matsui, about the mass war crimes the Japanese Imperial Army committed from 1931–1945, there was a line that hooked me to no end. It was said by an old Japanese soldier confessing and trying to understand why he did what he did:

“We used five Chinese prisoners for this experiment. No, let me rephrase this. ‘Used’ is the wrong term. We brutally murdered these people to test our vaccinations for the plague.”

He explained that after the patients died, they were ordered to dissect them and place the internal organs on glass petri dishes. Then, they threw them into the fire. He continued, slowly:

Bodies burn very quickly without internal organs.”

It was hard to write after watching this. I needed something to distract me from the horrors. I wanted to forget. I could not stop imagining a man who looked like my grandfather, my father, being held against his will on a platform, handkerchief on his mouth, arms strapped down. My grandfather was water boarded, constantly. He survived water torture. He was a guerrilla, and he was wanted. I wanted to forget. I needed to order Postmates for Milk Bar’s cereal ice cream—because unlike my first residency, where I was isolated in the woods, I was in Vegas for this wonderful residency and I needed the First World’s charms to help me forget what my body remembered. They say in epigenetics studies that memories are passed down for fourteen generations. I needed to erase the Japanese soldier’s face, now olden and aged and awash in shame, just to get bed.

For me, sometimes the act of witnessing becomes the burden of remembering, of mourning, too much. Too much.

Sometimes, I feel that I am in a perpetual state of grieving. As I write this novel, as I continue to research, I forget the words of my mentor, Micheline A. Marcom, words she said to me during that first MFA workshop I attended the week of my grandmother’s death: you must also remember to enjoy the writing; to have fun with the words, to experiment. Her very first novel, Three Apples Fell from Heaven, was about the Armenian Genocide, about her own grandmother, who survived the massacre. Trust thyself; every heart beats to that iron string. She gave me the words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, and I have tacked them on every wall of every residency I have attended or will attend, for guidance. For light in the darkness.

This past Saturday, June 10th, 2017, I was honored to have the inaugural Eliza So Fellowship reading at the Writer’s Block, the only independent bookstore in Las Vegas. It was the first reading I ever had where my family came. It was nerve racking. I was sick to my stomach, afraid of what they might say, what they might think, what they might feel. That same mentor, whose work I love so much, once said to us in workshop:

When a writer is born in a family, then the family dies.

This same mentor also once offered me this sage advice: in order for you to write this novel, you must research and write at the same time. Research and write. Research and write. That is the only way to get the work done. When an audience member at the reading asked a similar question during the Q&A session—how do you write and research at the same time?—that was my answer. Sometimes I wonder what answer I was searching for when I asked this same question. I phrased my answer with this disclaimer: sometimes, I feel like I’m drowning in what I’m learning about the wars. It’s never-ending. But this is the truth: in order to write a novel, one must write. In order to research for a novel, one must research. It is as simple and complicated as that: one must write and research, at the same time.


But here’s another truth: every morning of this residency, I write in my black Moleskine journal what I hope to do in that day. It is a confession:

RESEARCH FOCUS: WWII. Comfort Women. Case for reparations. Asian Women’s Fund. Current fight for an official apology.

WRITING FOCUS: Revamping Book One. Re-outlining plot for profluence. For desire. What does Dolores want?  

RESOURCES: Etc., etc., etc…

By the end of the day, when the clock strikes 1 a.m. or 2 a.m., I will only have completed half of what I wanted to do for that day. Sometimes it’s depressing, the weight of it all, and all I want to do is sit in that wonderfully white and comfortable bed of this comfortable Las Vegas apartment and erase all the atrocities I learned about hours before.

But instead, I focus on the act of remembering. I reread the testimonies from the lolas, the Filipina “Comfort Women” (“lola” means grandmother in Tagalog), about what they suffered during the war and after it. Over fifty years of silence. Over fifty years of living with that weighted wanting, for justice.

I remember the last words of one of the lolas. During a protest at the Japanese Embassy in Manila, the police and military blockaded the old women’s silent protest and forced them back to their vehicles. Lola Lorena was captured when she was only fourteen years old during the war. She was persuaded by a Filipino spy, which she called “bisi,” to walk up to a Japanese soldier and say hello. He was a collaborator with the Japanese Imperial Army, willing to have one of his countrywomen held captive against her will to save his own skin. She was taken alongside with her grandmother. They were raped side-by-side, over five, ten times a night in a makeshift garrison.

At the end of the protest, before she suffered a painful anxiety attack that led her to the hospital, where she passed a few days afterward, she said to the other activists:

“It’s the Kempeitai again and the bisi… They prey on their own kind. But I am not afraid to die.”

I rewrote that again, over and over, in my journal: But I am not afraid to die. These words define my fierce grandmother, my adoptive mother, a matriarch of eleven children, thirty-eight grandchildren, eighteen great-grandchildren, and two great-great grandchildren: she was never once afraid to die.

I believe this is the only way to write a novel like this, a novel that fate has given to you. A novel that requires the weight of research and memory. A novel fate wants you to birth, so that what your family survived will not be erased, whether you like it or not.

James Baldwin once said, in his interview, “Reflections of a Maverick,” with Julius Leste in The New York Times:

“I have never seen myself as a spokesman. I am a witness.”

When I am too tired to write, too tired to research, too tired to even get up and face the tiring day, I remember Papa Baldwin’s words: I am a witness. I remember my grandmother’s smile, her laughter, her silly innuendos, how she was not just a victim, not just a woman who was once captured in a garrison for over six months, not just a woman who once gave birth in captivity.

I write to remember, to help her come alive again. And to be honest, that is my main “tip,” if you could call it such, on surviving while writing a familial/historical-based novel. I should also add: writing a [traumatic] familial/historical-based novel. One must remember why they are writing. One must remember to not exploit the brave people who lived through these inhumane atrocities, things no one should suffer. I write to witness. I write, I research, I write, I take a break, I drink coffee, I eat cereal-milk flavored ice cream, I sometimes watch television to distract myself (nothing too difficult, most of the time comedies), then I get back to work. I write, I research, I write, I research, I write. I allow myself to cry. I allow myself to weep, because sometimes that’s the only response one can have after learning these stories. I allow my body to feel, to think-feel.

And then I remember the faces of my family. I think about how one audience member at the Eliza So Fellowship reading asked how the war is talked about in my own family, and then how the war is talked about in my culture, the Philippines. I think what he might have been asking is this: why don’t we talk about trauma in my family? I remember two of my female relatives scoffing, not out of anger, but out of burden, out of exhaustion. I wanted to laugh, too, out of comfort, out of solidarity, because I knew what our bodies felt. We don’t necessarily talk about trauma in my family because we feel it. Trauma’s function is to sever one’s connections to others, to oneself. It erases and eradicates one’s identity, a whole culture’s identity. The sociologist Kai Erickson once said that collective trauma is “a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together […] so that ‘I’ continue to exist, though damaged, and ‘you’ continue to exist, though distant and hard to relate to. But ‘we’ no longer exist as linked cells in a larger communal body.” Trauma–chronic trauma, intergenerational trauma–is an existential problem: it could eradicate the identity and connection of a whole people, of a whole family.

This is why my family scoffed in response. Sometimes the only other appropriate response to trauma is rage, is anger. The “Comfort Women” have historically been painted as victims and only victims after their narratives grabbed international attention. Eternal victims. Even the word “victim” is suspect; it is rooted from the Latin word victima, which literally means an animal sacrifice. A body laid to burn. A body without its internal organs. A body, and not a human. Victims, I believe, are hated so fiercely by this world because of the word—this erasure—we use to define them, as if what they suffered was sacrifice, was fate. Happened because we, the world, can learn from them. According to the Just-World Theory, we bend over backwards to believe that the world is just, that those who suffer deserve it, just so we can hold on to the belief that the world is good. Otherwise, we face despair. It is selfish. It is based on an individual’s sole need for survival, not a need that extends to a whole unit, a whole family, a whole culture.

My grandmother, a possible Comfort Woman, a woman held as hostage, as a prisoner-of-war, was not a victim. She was not “used,” as the old Japanese soldier corrected himself. She was held against her will. She was tortured. She was a woman who braved imprisonment, who, again, survived a war. As they say that trauma is inherited, so is resilience. Her genes are around mine; it is because of her that I live. That I remember. That I write.

In order to survive writing a novel based on one’s familial history, about trauma, to do the research and, yes, survive it, I believe one must remember the joy of writing, the rage in remembering, the laughter in commiserating, the anger in mourning. The death of the brilliant scholar Iris Chang, who documented the countless massacres that occurred in Nanking in her seminal book, The Rape of Nanking, still haunts me. I sometimes can feel her ghost. The despair is real. When I get to that blackness, this darkness, I remember the words of my other dear mentor, M. Evelina Galang, who has been researching the Filipino “Comfort Women” stories for over twenty years. Her necessary book, Lolas’ House, is forthcoming in September 2017 from Northwestern University Press’s Curbstone Books. In her interview with Jennifer Derilo in Kartika Review, she says:

“The death of Iris Chang moved me. I understood. I was working on the lolas’ stories long before she took her life. And her death confirmed what I knew—you have to take care of yourself in such a way that you bear witness but do not take on the stories. I don’t know what the circumstances were for Iris Chang, only that her death was so real to me. The way they described her—first generation American-born Chinese, loved by the survivors. Joyful. She must have loved them too. Promised them she’d help make their stories known. Their lives moved her in similar ways I was moved by the lolas. The experience I had with Ana Fe, where we were spent and swollen and aching from hearing 13 testimonies in one day taught me that I must bear witness but cannot take the stories on. When I went back during my Fulbright I made sure to keep a balanced life. I am a spiritual being. That first. I meditated. I prayed. I grounded myself. I spent Sundays with my families on both sides. I played with my tiny nephews and nieces and I made sure to laugh with my ates and kuyas. I maintain these practices to keep me balanced. Even now.

When I first started writing their stories, I would grow fatigued after two hours and I’d have to stop. It’s like my body was also protecting me. I am always reminding myself that I am only a witness.”

This is a cemented truth, one I believe steadfastly: I am only a witness. I am only a witness to my grandmother’s pain, but also her joys, her life. For me, writing is a practice that most resembles life. And we research in order to reflect with theory and context what is sometimes unnamable. It is hard, but it is the work we do. And it is healing, this remembering. It reconnects us despite the trauma that seeks to rupture, sever us apart.
To survive writing a novel such as this, we must remember: we are only witnesses. And as witnesses, we finally see each other again. We love. The only thing that is stronger than despair, as cliché as it sounds, is love. Because the despair is real. And though it is not enough, it is what we must do, just like my grandmother did. She loved my sister and me. She taught me what it really means to not only survive, but thrive.


Melissa R. Sipin is a writer from Carson, CA and Submittable’s inaugural Eliza So Fellow. She won Glimmer Train’s Fiction Open and the Washington Square Review’s Flash Fiction Prize. She co-edited Kuwento: Lost Things, an anthology on Philippine myths (Carayan Press 2014), and her work is published/forthcoming in Black Warrior ReviewPrairie Schooner, Guernica MagazinePEN/Guernica Flash SeriesVIDA: Women in Literary ArtsEleven Eleven Magazine, and Amazon’s literary journal Day One, among others. Melissa is a cofounder of TAYO Literary Magazine. Her fiction has won scholarships and fellowships from The MacDowell Colony, Poets & Writers Inc., Kundiman, VONA/Voices Conference, Squaw Valley’s Community of Writers, and Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and is represented by Sarah Levitt at Zachary Shuster Harmsworth Literary Agency. More at www.msipin.com.