By Jeff Walsh
My first exposure to Noel Alumit was seeing him onstage, performing his one man show "The Rice Room: Scenes From A Bar" that explored the lives of gay Asian men. His second show "Master of the (miss) Universe" explored his gay identity as well as the world of beauty pageants. In between those two shows, Alumit became an accomplished novelist.
His first novel, "Letters to Montgomery Clift," has young Filipino protagonist Bong Bong Luwad searching for his mother. As he goes through hardship, Luwad begins to interact with dead movie star Montgomery Clift as a coping mechanism, writing him letters, seeing him appear during periods of crisis, and even making love to him. The character expresses his innermost thoughts to Clift, but not to the people in his real life. Until Luwad finds out what happens to his parents, who disappeared during the Marcos regime after sending him to America, he seems unable to move forward with his life.
His second novel, "Talking to the Moon," shows the effect of a hate crime on a Filipino family in Los Angeles. The book is based on an actual incident where a Filipino postman was killed, although Alumit's book uses the notion of a hate crime as a jumping-off point to explore how tragedy affects a family. The rotating narrative shows the courtship of Jory and Belen Lalaban, as well as the relationship of their son Emerson to his Taiwanese boyfriend, Michael. The story explores how the family moved from the Philippines because they were "cursed," and examines the fragile tendrils that keep people connected to one another.
Alumit also maintains a blog, The Last Noel, which tracks his eye through the literary world, his writing process, and his life.
I recently spoke with Alumit about his career to date, his exploration of the gay Filipino experience through his performance and writing, and what inspires him as an artist. Here's what we said:
Do you define yourself as more of an actor? More of a writer? Or do you really not get into all of those distinctions?
It changes, depending on my mood. I think I just sort of say I'm an artist, which is all-encompassing.
And when you were doing theater, was writing always a goal?
Writing wasn't the goal. I didn't know I was a writer, actually, until my mid-20s. I started off in drama, in theater, as a performer and actor and, of course, you're never performing enough, so what's great about being a writer is you get to write as much as you want or as little as you want. And you can do that every single day if you want. You can be creative every single day. That's the cool thing about being a writer.
So, it started with you writing your solo shows?
Yeah, I started writing for the stage. The Rice Room was the first thing I felt that really... well, that's not true. I wrote a play called Mr. and Mrs. La Questa Go Dancing that has only been produced in San Francisco, actually. I went up to see it, and it was a terrific thing to see. I said, 'Hey, this can work. I can do something with this.' So I began to write my own work. "The Rice Room: Scenes From A Bar" was my first major accomplishment, I felt, as a writer. I loved doing it. It was truly a labor of love. I really felt like I knew the subject. Did you see the show?
I felt like it was a complete experience. It felt artistically satisfying. But even when I was doing that, I didn't necessarily consider myself a writer. I felt more of the performance end of it. I felt like more of an artist than a writer, even though technically I could be considered a writer even then, but it wasn't until I started writing books that I thought, 'Hey, I think I'm a writer.' The moment I realized I was a writer was when I was accepted into the Emerging Voices Fellowship at PEN Center USA West. It's a mentoring fellowship. When I got accepted into that and went through it, I thought to myself, 'You know what? I think I'm a writer.'
Since you'd already had two successful one-man shows before that, were you pretty confident going into the novel? Or did you respect it as a whole new art form that you had to master?
Letters to Montgomery Clift came after the Rice Room and Masters of the (Miss) Universe, my second show, came in somewhere after that. On a linear scale, Masters of the (Miss) Universe feels like my third project, and Letters to Montgomery Clift was my second. But, yeah, gosh, I'm sure you know... writing a novel is a bear.
Yeah, I have the 760-page Word document on my hard drive. The issue is how to bang that into a small, tighter, more manageable version of what it should be. Now, it's just this beast of a thing. There's so much wrong with it, but at the same time, I know there's enough that is also right with it. So, I'm just trying to tip those scales in my favor.
Yeah, trying to figure out what works and what doesn't. When I was working on Letters to Montgomery Clift, I didn't know what the hell I was doing, you know? What really helped, once again, was that mentoring program. Unfortunately they don't have something like that in San Francisco, but it paired me up with a seasoned novelist who was able to look at my book and say, 'This is what's wrong with it. This is what you need to fix.' Getting that kind of feedback was really important to me. It also allowed me to take classes at UCLA Extension, which introduced me to an array of people who were very beneficial to my career. All of those things helped me put Letters to Montgomery Clift together. It was a combination of people, places, and things that somehow managed to work, which I think ultimately is what needs to happen when writing a novel: the stars need to align somehow.