Earworms and Mundane Horror: Interview with Saba D. Ha
Extras are bonus content supplementing the work in our issues. In this interview with Nastasha Rau, Saba D. Ha discusses her writing process and the grim circumstances that influenced the writing of 'The Affliction'.
Nastasha: I was lucky enough to peer review an early version of “The Affliction” when we were both enrolled in a course, Eco-fictions and Non-fictions, at Massey University. It was a delight to see the completed piece published in Issue 19 of Headland! Many writers spend a lot of time rewriting and revising their work, but what does the process from the inception of an idea to final draft look like for you personally?
Saba: Yeah, I remember you! I loved "The World Maker”! I still want to read it as a longer work, please hit me up if you ever add more to it??
I don’t really think about my process that much. I kind of want to say that my process looks different with every piece, but generally speaking I get an idea from reading or listening to other stories, or I’ll get a line of something stuck in my head like an earworm and I’ll write it down and go, okay, is there a story in this, or is this a poem or a song or something else.
I feel like I’m exposing myself as kind of a lazy writer here but I don’t revise a whole lot. I’ll write until I can’t write anymore or until I’ve said what I need to say and then I’ll keep the file on my computer until it’s completely mysterious to me and I don’t know what’s in it. Then I’ll read it and revise whatever I feel like needs to be revised but mostly I keep things as they are. I’ve tried revising things heaps before and I feel like I just revised the thing-ness out of it.
I guess I’m still learning my process. My energy and productivity levels vary every day and with every project and I’m not a scheduled “sit down and write/revise thirty minutes every day without fail” kind of person, so I don’t know.
Man, I really need to get my ish together, lol. It’s why I’m doing the grad dip in creative writing in Massey and join writing groups when I can—I need external motivation to get things done, or else the mysterious files just stay mysterious files on my computer/on GDrive forever.
Nastasha: Well, it’s great to be remembered by someone whose work I enjoyed so much! Speaking of external motivation, there are certain elements of "The Affliction" which are very reminiscent of the Covid-19 lockdown. This was a very challenging time for the whole world, but what did it look like for you as a writer and artist? Could you use that time and what was happening as something to draw on creatively?
Saba: I was in the Philippines at the time in the middle of the Duterte regime with Marcos about to get voted into office, so mostly I dissociated and self-medicated and avoided the news. I got a little obsessed with story structure, especially the story structure of horror and supernatural fiction, and I filled a lot of notebooks with a lot of plotting and preliminary writing and I finished absolutely nothing and wrote absolute crap. I played a lot of The Sims. I cried a lot.
There was a lot of chaos and fear in the Philippines, but it was also weirdly mundane. I mean there always is this weirdly mundane chaos and fear in the Philippines and probably around the world, but especially then when hospitals were so full, there were people on ventilators on the street, and no one was really sure when they’d get to see their families again or if they were going to be able to eat. Meanwhile all the shit politics and the culture of impunity and utter brutality of politics in the Philippines—so I mean yeah, it was a lot.
I lucked out; I’d already started working remotely. I dealt with it by not dealing with it. I guess for The Affliction I drew on that feeling of mundane horror and feeling trapped and what it feels like to be trying to hold on to something good, or at least normal, in a time when nothing feels good or normal.
Nastasha: "The Affliction" certainly captures the feeling of mundane horror. Reading your work had my skin absolutely crawling. You have the most amazing descriptive phrases, such as “water full of needles” and “neon red beef”. What appealed to you about the highly physical and visceral angle The Affliction takes on consumerism and misuse of resources?
Saba: I love horror. I don’t think what I write is strictly horror but I draw a lot of inspiration from horror and supernatural fiction and movies. I think being kind of anxious and easily overwhelmed and having sensory issues helps me tap into the AGH-GET-OFF-ME of it all, lol.
I feel like I’m coming across kind of angsty/edgy/ooo-I’m-so-dark, but I promise I think the world is cool and amazing and beautiful as much as I think it’s gross and brutal and scary. I don’t write about the cool/amazing/beautiful as easily because I kind of use writing as personal exorcism.
One day I’m going to write a nice, hopeful story, I swear.
Nastasha: I’ll be looking out for it when you do. In the meantime, I noticed that your writing has a very particular sense of rhythm to it. Is this something you strive for, or do you think it is a by-product of your work as a spoken word artist? Is reading aloud part of your writing process?
Saba: Rhythm isn’t something I consciously strive for, but I talk to myself as I write, I say stuff aloud as I type, and then when I hear a rhythm I go, Oh, cool, let’s keep that. I started writing and performing spoken word when I was pretty young, way before I started writing stories, so it probably does have something to do with it. Never really thought about that before, haha!
But yeah, it’s not something I sit down and go “this piece has to have so-and-so rhythm.” Kind of just happens.
Nastasha: If anyone’s looking for more of that amazing subconscious rhythm, they can also check out your reading from "The Affliction" on Headland’s socials.
But one last question before everyone rushes off to listen to that: You describe yourself in your writer’s biography as a “queer Bisaya/Filipino writer and spoken word artist from Cebu'' and mention that you only moved to Aotearoa New Zealand in 2021. How does your identity, and your experience between these different countries and cultures, inform your work?
Saba: This one’s stumping me. I mean we all write from where we’re from, we all write from a certain lens. I see the world how I see it because of where I’m from and my experiences as a queer, Bisaya, neurodivergent, Sims-playing, hip-hop-listening, meat-eating, whatever-whatever. So I guess, in every way?