Out of Print

Many Asked Me Not to Forget Them

by Jonty Cruz
Photos courtesy of Isa Garcia
Isa Garcia’s latest book, The Light Years: 100 Days of Everything, is an appreciation of her past that stands in contrast to her most difficult year.

Isa Garcia wonders of parallel worlds and parallel hers in the opening pages of her third and latest book, The Light Years: 100 Days of Everything. She discovers she is one of many, most of whom are indifferent. She finds a particular Isa later on who reveals to have more in common with her than all the others. “When she tells me her whole name my jaw drops to the floor,” she writes. “We don’t just share a first and last name, we share everything.”

It’s hard not to compare the Isa Garcia we read in The Light Years to the Isa of today. It seems unfair to even do so. To read of someone’s previous life back when they had no warning of what awaited them is to question the universe’s own morality.

In The Light Years, we see an Isa who sits right next to the warm campfire of her memories. She talks of love, anxiety, fear, and longing the way your best friend would. She guides us along from one brief moment to the next of what she calls a year of her “pedestrian life.” It’s an Isa that seems to have lived in a different world altogether. A world she didn’t know she’d lose in an instant.

“I think what makes all of this so special for me now is that one year after writing it, the world changed,” Isa writes in an email introduction to her book. “I had no clue that the pandemic would hit, that we would all be forced apart, that the beauty of last year would be replaced by the dark shadow of chaos, disease, and fear.

“But what I didn't know, most of all, is that my dad would unexpectedly die. This is still a wound I am nursing.”

Isa lost her father in January and has since been grieving amidst the pandemic. In an Instagram post she wrote on January 19 she says of her father: “People say I look like my mum but my heart and mind, for better and for worse, operate a lot like my dad. I say I can’t change it but perhaps the truth is I don’t really want to. I want the little things to remind me, for the rest of my life, of the privilege it has been to be Dennis Garcia’s daughter.”

The Light Years is a callback to all those “little things” and to a seemingly simpler life. The same way that it is also a reminder of those who are most important to us. It’s a book that deals and often plays with memory, of its subjectiveness, in some ways, but also its universality. It’s both a personal document as well as an exercise in catharsis. And perhaps most of all, it’s an escape not just from our present but to everything we’ve lost.

The following has been edited for publication.


“I just wanted it to be honest,” says Isa about her third book. “I think this was the first time I wrote a book that was really more for me than the reader.”
Out of Print: Hi Isa!  I’d like to start by asking what’s your earliest memory?
Isa Garcia: Isa Garcia: Hi Jonty! My parents had always been excellent memory keepers. My mom diligently filled my baby book with three years’ worth of milestones—from when I started walking to my first birthday party to when I began attending Sunday School. My father, on the other hand, always kept his trusty video camera by his side and so we are lucky to have an extensive collection of home movies that capture both the ordinary days as well as the big events.

My earliest memories are probably reinforced by the photos, videos, and diaries they put together for us. I grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and can still vaguely remember the apartment we used to live in. We had a balcony that overlooked a community pool and cool marble floors that I used to walk, slide, and dance on with my bare feet. I didn’t have my own room but I had a whole treasure chest of toys that I spent most of my waking hours playing with. You could often find me alone in a corner, creating made up worlds with my inanimate friends. My favorite toys were from the My Little Pony collection I had; I was deeply fascinated by animals that could talk and save the world.

As a kid I actually loved animals so much that I was sure I’d end up a veterinarian or professional animal petter. I’m sure younger me would be heartbroken to find that such a thing didn’t actually exist.

So the oldest memories that swim closest to the surface of my consciousness always have to do with Malaysia and that apartment. I know, for sure, that I was very happy.

Do you recognise the life you have now in any way from that memory?
I think I’m more aware now than I was back then of how deeply entrenched I am in love.

I am the youngest so I was never spared any care or affection. My parents were particularly good at making us all feel wanted. As a child I felt the safety of warm familial love. So even when I was alone playing with toys or reading my books, I never actually felt alone. I am 32 and that feeling remains as true now as it did back then.

You mention in your book that you’re a teacher. How long have you been teaching, and what has that experience been like for you?
I’ve been teaching for the last ten years. I teach Creative Writing, English, and Literature. I only recently gave up my teaching post to focus on my administrative role—I am currently the Senior High adviser of the kids in MINT College.

I love teaching. I love connecting with teens, finding ways to make language and literature accessible to them, creating a class that is both fun and educational, and just watching the next generation evolve in ways my own high school self could only dream of.

As an adviser, my main task is troubleshooting and crisis management. I get to be their advocate and I have seen how much it matters for young people to have an adult who takes the time to know and see them.

Being an educator has been such a beautiful and gratifying experience. It has shaped the best parts of my adult self and I continue to think of it as the best job in the world.

You also talk about teaching poetry in your book. Poetry is so personal and intimate. Could you talk about how you teach that?
I think people connect over poetry because it is personal and intimate. A writer named Elisa Gabbert recently tweeted this:

For me, essays are a way of processing information, poems are a way of preserving information in a semi-unprocessed state—preserving the feeling of the idea before I understand it.

I think many times we reach for poetry just so we know that we aren’t alone in the middle of all our messy feelings. It is wonderful that we have writers who know exactly how to capture the language of sorrow or pain or joy without having to expound too much. My students take so much comfort in this and I’ve found that poetry inspires them to articulate their feelings, to participate in honing the language of their emotions, in ways that prose cannot. 

Is there a particular poem or line that you love or keep going back to?
The poem I keep coming back to these days is Adrienne Rich’s ‘Diving into the Wreck’ and the line that I love, though simple, is “I came to explore the wreck.”

For me, it’s about taking a deeper look at the story and letting go of the myths that surround it. It talks about the courage it takes to hold your story up to the light.

This is what it means to remember something, to go back to it again with a certain sense of fearlessness and honesty.

The other line from a poem I love is by a spoken word artist named Laura Lamb Brown-Lavoie. The poem is ‘On This the 100th Anniversary of the Sinking of the Titanic, We Reconsider the Buoyancy of the Human Heart’ and the line is: “There are enough ballrooms in you to dance with everyone you’ll ever love.”

“It is hard to be soft and literary, to write your heart out without being seen as contrived, corny, or dramatic.”

I’ve been talking to someone about writing and how it can serve as both art and documentation. How do you balance both in your writing?
Writing The Light Years was particularly difficult because it compelled me intimately to explore all my feelings. I asked myself to be truthful, to pen down the unfiltered parts of my life that nobody really got to see. As an essayist it’s easy to assume that I am naturally vulnerable and that sharing parts of my life is easy. But my closest friends know the truth: I am private and quite resistant to being fully seen/known. I’ll tell them everything once I’ve processed everything on my own but I hardly let them in when the mess is actually happening. I have a hard time asking for help but I am learning. I came into 2019 daring myself to feel fully, to share these weird, complicated feelings with others, and to trust that this softness would not be rejected. It was a funny exercise in character development and I blame Brene Brown for it.

So with The Light Years I wanted to capture these tiny, unassuming moments, the banality of what it means to be a person in the world. I wanted to write my life down, not because it is special or unique, but because it is, in fact, so gloriously ordinary. And I wanted to find beauty in that ordinariness the way we used to back in the glory days of blogging.

But it is hard to be this way. It is hard to be soft and literary, to write your heart out without being seen as contrived, corny, or dramatic. I don’t know if I managed to strike the balance between good writing and honest writing but I try to remind myself every day, especially when impostor syndrome hits, that I put something out in the world that I’m proud of. And maybe that’s enough.

It doesn’t always feel like enough though and, to be honest, a part of me is always secretly suspicious that better writers are laughing at me behind my back. But maybe this is the cross all creatives carry and maybe this non-crippling self-doubt is better than an unchecked ego.

Could we talk about this line a bit more: “I don’t know if I managed to strike the balance between good writing and honest writing.” I’d like to ask what in your opinion constitutes good writing? I always thought good writing and honest writing go hand-in-hand.
I agree and I think this is my personal dilemma. When is honest too honest? When is it cringey, overly emotional, or hypersensitive? When does it become too soft? I can’t always make the distinction so I think I tend to tow the line at times.

I’ve been described by others as an ‘inspirational writer’ but that is something I’ve also been trying to break out of. I think ‘inspirational’ can sound contrived, can seem avoidant of depth the way highly religious people can seem out of touch with reality. At the same time, I can’t divorce myself from what is true about me: that I am stubbornly hopeful with a penchant for tenderness.    

So much of being a good writer is learning to have control over words, emotion, and language. I’m still learning.

There are probably literary giants who wouldn’t consider my writing good and this opens a larger, infinite discussion about what makes for good writing, good art, etc.

All I know is that I allowed myself to be very honest in The Light Years and the hope is that that honesty will be well-received.

This is your third published book.  How has your experience writing for print/books been so far?
Writing for print carries a bit more pressure. I feel more compelled to present myself as a competent writer because there are higher expectations when it comes to being published. Even though putting a book out there is now so much easier than it was years ago and you can do so without any management/representation, it still feels like something you have to earn.

To author a book or to have your own byline means that you have a relationship with language and the chops to back it up. It becomes less about telling a story and more about telling the story well enough to get paid for it. To be published carries a statement of worth and consequently makes you susceptible to the scrutiny of others. People talk about the beauty of publishing an article, essay, or book and, yes, it’s a wonderful feeling. But when the words are out of your head and finally on print, they suddenly belong to everyone else and you have to allow it. You have to give them permission to love, hate, critique, misunderstand, and befriend your work. You need thicker skin and a stronger backbone to give your words away.

As a side note: can I ask what writing offers you that reading can’t? And vice versa?
Writing gives you a chance to test your own relationship with words. It gives you the space and freedom to go ahead and build. Writing allows you to find your voice, your own special way of speaking an experience to life. It gives you agency and on some days you need that. On some days it feels like such a gift to be able to create something that came from your mind and your heart.

Reading, however, gives you a chance to fall in love. I both love and hate that feeling when you encounter such good writing that you wish it was you who had thought it up. When someone is able to accurately capture a feeling, an idea, a moment, or a scene? It’s magic! And you can only really experience that kind of magic from the outside. Reading opens you up to different styles, different ways in which a person sees or experiences the world. It then adds depth to your own writing. 

“I’ve been described by others as an ‘inspirational writer’ but that is something I’ve also been trying to break out of,” says Isa. “I think ‘inspirational’ can sound contrived, can seem avoidant of depth the way highly religious people can seem out of touch with reality.”

The Light Years is illustrated by Maggie Yoingco, a close friend of Isa’s. According to Isa, this is Maggie’s first time to ever illustrate a book. “She is often quite shy about her work but I'm grateful she was willing to take on my book as a project and the fact that she did a hundred of them is an amazing feat.”

What was life before you started writing what would become The Light Years? Where were you at that moment in your life and what were the things you were hoping to achieve with the book?
I think it happened at a time when I was feeling so unremarkable. I felt like my most creative and interesting years had passed, like I had gotten boring. At the same time I was consuming a lot of beautiful slice-of-life stories. From Netflix’s Easy to Sally Rooney’s Normal People to Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life to HBO’s Insecure. [They] showcased average humans (like myself) who simply found themselves in the middle of life. Their mediocrity was a bridge, not a crutch. I could identify with the protagonist who was both a heroine and a villain, whose uninspiring days could somehow still tell a story that was true.

I figured that the work I needed to do was to simply be a present witness to my own life, no matter how ordinary my moments were.

I started capturing snapshots of my ordinary moments simply because I wanted to remember what life looked like. There was also something about last year that carried such a fragile and ephemeral quality especially in the area of friendship—I just knew that things were bound to change in big and drastic ways and that there would be no stopping the tides of time. Of course, I had no idea how right I’d be and how many things 2020 was eventually going to take away from us.

How did knowing you would write about your memories in advance affect the choices you made?
I was initially scared that I would end up manipulating parts of my life just so I’d have better stories to write about—performative living, I suppose. In actuality, life just happened and I was too busy to be self-conscious about whether I was creating the moment or the moment was created for me. I think it’s always a bit of both.  However the day decided to play out, I’d come home and put it in my journal with zero embellishments. So some days, especially the sad ones, almost seem repetitive. There is a general sameness that shows up in the book which captures how real life often unravels.

The truth is that I was never 100% sure that the stuff I was writing would even see the light of day so I simply decided to write for the sake of writing, which turned out to be such a relief.   

I found some entries in The Light Years to be more abstract than others. Was that a conscious effort on your end?
Not a conscious effort. I think those pieces are representative of what I was feeling at the time—and how often I lacked the eloquence to explain what I was going through. Others are just thoughts and feelings, versus narratives that, in the moment, I needed to release.

Were some memories harder to articulate than others?
Walking through anxiety was particularly hard to write about because it was my first time to experience it that way. I had never struggled with my mental health before so I couldn’t understand what was going on. The whole experience was overruled by my own internal panic, which made it difficult to accurately capture everything in words. But that’s how it is for most first time feelings.

Sometimes the feeling of a memory is different from the reality of that memory, how do you bridge the two?
I know that memory is a faulty thing. In fact, a friend I had written about in the book told me that he needed to fact check me on a particular story. “That can’t be right because I didn’t own a metal bowl at the time,” he said. (He’s the dude in story #2.) But I insisted, and continue to insist, that my recollection of the event is more accurate than his.

It seems insignificant—after all, it’s just one detail that hardly takes away from the story—but it is also proof that memory, even after you’ve written it down, is unreliable.

In Daniel Schacter’s TED talk, he says that our memories are not ironclad representations of reality but subjective perceptions. I’ve had to accept that—I’ve had to accept that my feeling about the memory largely shapes the story in my head. I remember the afternoon with the metal bowl and how it was such a comfortable day and I remember us laughing about that same metal bowl days later but maybe I’m wrong. Maybe there is just a definitive feeling that comes along with the boy in those stories that my brain can’t help but take a few creative liberties along the way.

I don’t know.

But that was the real challenge in writing The Light Years—my feeble attempt to bridge the gap between feeling and reality so they could get as close as humanly possible.

Do memories stay the same for you as time passes? Are there memories you felt one way about then that has changed now?
I think it’s the feeling that changes, not the events that transpired. I guess when you’ve been given enough time and space to process something, your feelings towards that memory transform. It’s why someone can switch from being unbelievably angry at their ex to weepily sentimental.

Time and change account for so much of what a memory eventually becomes.

“I guess when you’ve been given enough time and space to process something, your feelings towards that memory transform. It’s why someone can switch from being unbelievably angry at their ex to weepily sentimental.”

I can only imagine the life you had in The Light Years to be completely different to the reality you have now. Can I ask how have you managed to carry or balance both aspects of your life?
I have not, haha!

I think our life in quarantine has forced us to reconcile what once was and what is. And that is never easy.

I’m still in the middle of graciously accepting my losses, still figuring out how to navigate through a world that has been overcome by enormous change, death, and disease, still coming to terms with the fact that I’m hurtling towards an unknowable future, and trying my best not to freak out in the process. Unsuccessfully, I’m afraid.

The memories from last year are a reminder that life was sweet and if there is any hope I hold on to, it’s that it can be that way again someday, not too far from now.

What do you mean by “graciously accepting my losses”?
When you lose someone or something, it is easy to become self-destructive. It is also easy, and quite comfortable, to stay in denial. I wasn’t sure which road my grief would take me on.

But, all things considered, I have been doing well. I binge ate and shopped the first few weeks after my father’s death and have had a number of emotional meltdowns but I always fought to pick myself back up. Even now my internal compass has stayed the same: I am not going to let grief paralyze me.

I know my father is gone and I know the future is uncertain. I know this pandemic is changing so much of what we know and I know that things aren’t getting better. But I am still doing my best to show up at work, connect with friends, create stuff, and find life in this very bleak season of death. That quiet resolve to not check out even though it would be the easiest thing in the world feels like grace.

I accept the worst things about this year. I am no longer angry. I get sad at times, a lot of times, but I also refuse to stop moving.

Is there a particular memory you never want to forget?
Not a specific memory but I’m trying really hard to preserve the memory of my dad: what he looked like, sounded like, felt like. The stories he told on repeat. The jokes he made. His big booming laughter. It has only been nine months but I can feel the memory slipping and it makes me really sad.

Would you mind sharing what he meant to you?
My father was this enormous pillar of love in my life. He was always the most excited person in the room to see me and his belief in all that I could be knew no bounds. Even his Facebook friends, the ones I eventually met for the first time at his wake, said it as a fact: “Your father was so proud of you.”

And he was.

My dad did many things with his life. He is known for the songs that he wrote, for the band that he co-founded, for the jingles and commercials he made, but his joy was his family. He’d tell anyone who’d listen just how brilliant his kids are.

To lose that, to lose the voice of your most ardent advocate, is devastating. Grief changes you. It’s lonely, it’s exhausting, and it has filled me with dread for all the people I will one day lose.

I think about death often now, not in a terribly dark way, but in a way that reminds me that everything is finite. It is the cross on my back, the impermanence of everyone I have ever loved, and I fear it.

My dad passed away unexpectedly. I was hoping for more years with him. We were all hoping he’d still catch our milestones. Weddings, babies, new ventures. He was so excited about my book. In fact, he was the first person I revealed the title to. I feel so sad that he didn’t get to read it.

I miss my dad all the time but I am grateful that I got to know a love so big and so certain. It is the only consolation to this sad story.

I think this year really forced us to accept the uncertainty of our future and what comes next but also think about what we’re leaving behind. If it’s alright with you, I’d like to ask how you would want to be remembered?
Generous, kind, and on her best days, brave. ︎

Jonty Cruz is a former magazine editor based in Manila.