By Fidel Feria
Happiness, Jessica Zafra tells me, is counterproductive.
“I actually like melancholy,” she says. Jessica had just come out with a new travel book, Twisted Travels: Rambles in Central Europe, late October. “Melancholy is the best emotional state in which to write. Because you have an emotional investment, your writing tends to be more intense, more insightful than happiness.”
I had inquired, rather sheepishly, about how and when she sits down to write stories.
“Writing is a lot of listening and pretending that this is your life,” shares the author. “If you go to a place like Budapest, it’s one thing to approach it as an alien—you’re going to write the same tourist crap that everybody else writes like, ‘Oh, I went to this place and I tried this thing I saw in 1,000 places to go before you die.’”
Instead, Jessica imagines what life would be like if she lived there. And having read through Rambles in Central Europe, it is plain as day that the author remains razor-sharp. “New things come out of that,” she adds.
Not unlike plenty of her readers, discovery of Jessica’s work came at the ever-turbulent juncture of young adulthood. It was through a college blockmate’s tattered volume of Twisted, a collection of her columns for the now-defunct newspaper Today. I read a piece entitled “Love is an ashtray in the pits of hell,” and was swept off my feet.
I don’t think you prepare for travel writing specifically. You write, period. All you can do to hone your writing is read. And hopefully you read good books.
Those who’ve read it will know that it is a hilarious, resonant meditation on unrequited love. I return to that column whenever I go grim about the mouth.
“I’ve been keeping a journal since I was in high school. I write whether or not I’m working on a book,” says Jessica, a comparative literature major from the University of the Philippines–Diliman. “I was organizing my files last year and I realized I had enough material for a travel book.”
In 2017, Jessica had gone to the Czech Republic with filmmaker Pepe Diokno to film their documentary series, The Flip Trip. She wrote most of the trip.
Rambles in Central Europe sees the author muse and reflect on Central European cities. The book is rife with her writing’s staples—biting wit, the invocation of popular culture, and observations rooted in a wealth of knowledge.
I ask how she enters the headspace to write, particularly when abroad.
“I don’t see much of a difference, really. I write as if it were a journal, I don’t have different modes of writing,” replies Jessica. “I don’t think you prepare for travel writing specifically. You write, period. All you can do to hone your writing is read. And hopefully you read good books.”
Rambles in Central Europe was published by Visprint with Discover Central Europe and the Embassies of Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary in the Philippines.
Jessica Zafra talks to herself, but quietly so she doesn’t alarm anyone.
“When you’re in another country, your conversations with yourself become more intense and you can hear yourself more clearly because, for the most part, you don’t understand what everyone else is saying,” she says.
She adds that her travels are dictated by books she’d read. With Central Europe, the writer cites the works of Gregor Von Rezzori and Curzio Malaparte as the authors who drove her to the region.
In a Twisted column from 1999, she even refers to it as “cannibalizing” her existence for stories.
This must take a fair amount of confidence, I ask, if not bravery. “Ah! You assume I write everything [about my life], I don’t,” Jessica illuminates. “Kumbaga, curated, that overused word. On one hand, it’s exposure. But on the other, it’s also curated and edited. I’ll expose what I feel comfortable about exposing.”
J.D. Salinger, a famous recluse who wrote The Catcher in the Rye, begins to figure in the conversation. “Salinger wrote about himself, but in fictional form,” avers Jessica. “With his case, it reminds you that the less you know about the writers you like, the better.”
I find this a bit odd. I had arrived about 20 minutes late to the interview. There was just about every reason to believe she’d bite my head off. She didn’t. I imagine fine writing wouldn’t be half as enjoyable decapitated.