That was when she quit writing columns to focus on her first novel

EVERY generation has a designated wit. For Filipinos of the 1990s and the 2000s, we’ve unofficially recognized writer Jessica Zafra as that period’s wit.

For 25 years, Ms. Zafra wrote columns for many media outlets, including The Philippine Star, Today, BusinessWorld, and Interaksyon. She also had stints as a host on TV and radio, and  published her essays and columns in the book series Twisted. Ms. Zafra is known for her dry and dark humor, and could bring this flavor to any situation (read her sports feature on society scion and then-rugby player Jaime Urquijo Zobel).

Recently, Ms. Zafra published her first novel, The Age of Umbrage. She appeared on a webinar with boho favorite Baguio bookshop Mt. Cloud on Oct. 22 to discuss the novel. A summary of the novel from the Ateneo de Manila University press reads: “Guadalupe, 15, is confused. She grew up in the house of one of the richest families in the world… in the servants’ quarters with her mother, the family cook. The life of luxury is all she knows, but it isn’t really her life. Unhappy in school, invisible at home, she lives inside her head, in a world made of books and movies. Outside, Manila is in turmoil: protest rallies, a bloodless revolution, coup attempts, and the Web hasn’t even arrived yet.”

Ms. Zafra introduces her main character, Guada, like so: “You have this very sheltered girl, living in this very sheltered, privileged environment, but outside, the world is in turmoil. Her security is completely artificial.”

Many of the young people who had grown up reading Ms. Zafra have been waiting for her to write a novel for a very long time. So has she, apparently. “I’ve been trying to write a novel since I was in high school. When you say you’re going to be a writer, that means a novel, right?”

It took her only three months to write the novel — if you only count the actual writing. “But you know, that’s three months and three decades. That was three decades of attempting to write a novel. I had to learn the whole process. Having written columns for 25 years, whenever I write something, my brain automatically stops at 1,000 words.” She also wrote the novel first in longhand: “I won’t let years of penmanship lessons in St. Theresa’s Quezon City go to waste,” she quipped.

She started and finished the novel back in 2016, which she considers as the year of the “actual beginning of the apocalypse.”

“That’s when the world ended. The morons won. Everything that I believed in was under siege,” she said.

This was when she quit writing her regular column: “I don’t think I can write a column anymore when I don’t understand the reader. The point of writing a column is you have to understand what’s going on, and explaining it to the readers. I couldn’t understand what was going on.”

She used this time to write the novel, saying, “I guess the combination of confusion, fear, and having nothing to hang on to sped up the process.”

The backdrop of the novel, the unstable 1980s and ‘90s in the Philippines, might be reflective of the times we live today. Ms. Zafra gave her reasons for using that period as her setting. “Those were the years when I was at school, and I have very fond memories of the ‘80s and ‘90s. I always say that the ‘90s were the last time I understood what was going on. When the digital age set in, it was chaos; I no longer know what’s going on,” she said. “At the same time, historically, it was the year of the parliament of the streets, the EDSA Revolution, and then the season of coups. I thought it made a very interesting backdrop to the life of a very sheltered girl.”

For the novel, Ms. Zafra takes the voice of a teen: just like many of her readers who related to her columns. “I always thought that I would be writing in the first person. It bothered me because I didn’t really have a story to tell. I’ll write about something I understand, which is being an adolescent, who grows up alone, and alienated and bullied.” She then decided to switch to a third-person omniscient narrative, which she said freed up the process.

“Somebody told me, and I had to agree, that all first novels are thinly-veiled autobiographies,” she said. “The sad part is, I don’t think I’m that far-removed from my narrator. I still am, in many ways, like that.”

The Age of Umbrage is available through Mt. Cloud Bookshop, the Ateneo de Manila University Press, Shopee, and Lazada. — Joseph L. Garcia