Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: In “How to Master Shapeshifting,” we read HIV as a major theme, although it is only addressed by name once in the piece. Can you talk about how you approached balancing the different threads of the narrator’s experience?

Gershom Mabaquiao: “How to Master Shapeshifting” was written as part of a collection centered on a person trying to live with HIV. It is heavily autobiographical and expands on what it actually means to “live with” the virus.

As I wrote that collection, I realized that the best way to tell the story is to treat the virus as a catalyst rather than the singular driving force of the entire collection. I made explicit references to the condition here and there, but mostly I wanted to tell more about a PLHIV’s unique, nuanced, human experience. I did not want to use the stories as didactic tales or a crash course on what HIV is, because we already have a wide selection of sources for that.

The collection, then, became the story of a person who deals with all these universal yet personal defeats and triumphs while trying to be at peace with his HIV status. It’s through this that I hope readers will be able to see parts of themselves in the narrator, even though they don’t share the same physical condition.

In particular, “How to Master Shapeshifting” details the narrator’s struggles with the sudden changes in his body due to lipodystrophy (a common side effect of his type of antiretrovirals). But more than that, it’s a narration of his issues with self-image and body dysmorphia, and how these affected his attitude toward finding love.

Since I started conceptualizing this story, I knew I wanted it to be a listicle of sorts—something that harkens to experimental stories like “How to Talk to Your Mother” by Lorrie Moore and “A Primer to the Punctuation of Heart Disease” by Jonathan Safran Foer.

Something about this form makes each part emotionally charged. The narrator does this by depersonalizing his own experiences. By turning the human experience into a step-by-step list, “How to Master Shapeshifting” illustrates the weight and tragedy of detachment—a coping mechanism used against overwhelming emotions.

RR: The essay is broken up into thirty-three sections with the numbers being out of order. What made you decide to structure the story in this manner? 

GM: The idea behind this is actually kind of simple. I was merely problematizing how better to portray the act of shapeshifting through the story’s form. 

Originally, I did not plan on having the numbers out of order. I also started writing the story chronologically, with the original, proper names of the “boyfriend,” “ex,” or “he” included.

But as I wrote each “item” in the listicle, I experimented with using common nouns and pronouns to substitute the identity of each person. I wanted the story to be more about the author’s struggle with his self-image than all the men he dated.

When I tried that out, I noticed a pattern. And I noticed how, if I tweak the phrasings of each “item” strategically, I can rearrange them to form a completely different story. One that is ideal, sanitized, and perfect. The epitome of a short story.

Rearranging the numbers created that effect, that “fantasy” of a linear narrative.

Most of the time, we kind of do that with our memories and experiences, in order to make sense of the chaos of real life. We try to rearrange sequences of events in our life so things could make sense.

It’s a defense mechanism. And a disservice to one’s life story.

That is what I’m trying to portray through the story’s form.

RR: In your author’s bio, you mention that you often use local mythology as a central metaphor in your writing. What local mythology would you say you used in this particular story, if any?

GM: I mentioned the collection that “How to Master Shapeshifting” was a part of. This collection is actually my love letter to the Filipino aswang, a demonic creature in Philippine mythology.

Each story in that collection alluded to something about the aswang—its features, its habits, and its political history. There is a story about using aswangs as cautionary tales (much like how the stories of PLHIV in the Philippines are used to caution the masses instead of encouraging them to show support.)

There is another experimental story about countermeasures against an aswang such as salt, holy water, and a stingray’s tail. These countermeasures were metaphors for religious corporal punishment in the Philippines.

Meanwhile, “How to Master Shapeshifting” features an aswang’s ability to change its form in order to appear human. Religious leaders consider this ability to be “evil” and a means for an aswang to camouflage in order to prey on humans.

But this particular story problematizes how when the body shifts and changes, it, more than anything, causes detrimental effects on a person’s psyche and sense of self.

RR: You have a bachelor’s degree in Communications and are currently pursuing a master’s degree in Clinical Psychology. Do you feel like your studies in these areas influenced your writing, and if so how?

GM: Absolutely! A lot of people pursue academic interests out of an innate need to solve something in their personal lives. And that’s what I’ve been trying to do with these fields of study, too!

Studying Communications has helped me deal with translating processed thoughts into words. And now, Clinical Psychology is helping me process all the other thoughts into ideas I can eventually translate into words.

So it’s only natural that the new ideas and information I learn from my studies will pour into my writing. To be honest, I’m even hoping for exactly that! Not just in content, but also in the language that I use.

Ultimately, what I really want is to use the things I learned from these fields in order to be as effective as I can with my writing. Because there is still so much I want to write about, which can only be realized if I learn more about the relationship between language and the mind.

RR: We love that your dog is named Zuko–if you could be friends with any character from Avatar: The Last Airbender, who would you choose and why?

GM: Oh, wow! This is by far the hardest question.

I most likely would be friends with Toph. And that’s because of so many reasons. But I’ll try my best to choose just the most significant (and hopefully interesting) ones.

First of all, I have a soft spot for badass characters with disabilities. There is something so defiantly amazing about someone expected to be weak but can still give the strongest person in the room a run for their money.

Also, I am naturally drawn to people with strong personalities. That is actually how my boyfriend and I first became best friends! He’s a Scorpio-Sagittarius cusp and an ENFJ. Like Toph, he’s small (only five-foot-five) but he has a strong, dominant personality that can make a six-footer cry. And like the blind earthbender, he’s also kind of a prodigy. At twenty-six, he’s a marketing manager at an Australian company helping PWDs. So, based on this particular experience, I feel like Toph and I would get along well as friends, too.

Another thing: Toph decided to leave her family to be true to who she is. That is something I can relate to on an eerily personal level. She then went on to defy any semblance of expectation thrown at her. I’d like to ask her for tips on how to do that for myself.

Lastly, we both have a crush on Sokka.

Read “How to Master Shapeshifting” by Gershom Mabaquiao.