As Jacob Camacho recalls, it all started when he got “Goosebumps” – that is, the popular children’s horror fiction novels – when he was 7-years-old. Growing up in his native Guam, Camacho voraciously read every Goosebumps book he could find, requiring his mother to keep buying more, along with new shelves to amass his growing collection.
“My mother would say, ‘Jacob, money doesn’t grow on trees,’” recalls Camacho with a laugh.
Camacho’s older brother, Keith, soon challenged him to write one-page summaries of what he had read – sparking in him something much greater. “That lit a fire in me; I wanted to write stories of my own,” recalls Camacho, who was soon trying his hand at his own brand of horror. “One thing is for sure, from the time I was seven years old, I wanted to be a writer.”
Nearly 20 years later, Camacho is inching closer toward his dream – word by word, line by line – as a student in Rutgers–Camden’s master of fine arts (M.F.A.) in creative writing program.
Almost 8,000 miles away from his island home, he draws much inspiration from his Chamorro heritage. He still carries his culture’s overriding sense of family, and the importance of being a good neighbor. However, he adds, he also carries the weight of nearly 500 years of foreign rule, oppression, and dependence.
“I have all of that in me,” says Camacho, who arrived at Rutgers–Camden in August.
As he explains, the Chamorro – Guam’s indigenous people –have been subservient to foreign powers since Ferdinand Magellan’s Spanish expedition landed on the island in 1521. Even today, much of the island’s economy is still largely dependent on the U.S. military. Camacho has a torn view of the military’s presence, believing that it offers the promise of education and benefits, but often at the expense of Guam’s poorest and most desperate citizens.
The struggles – and resilience – of Camacho’s native culture now provide the impetus for many of the characters and storylines that he creates. In his poems, short stories and two novels in the works, Camacho poignantly touches on the underlying themes of racial, gender, class and socioeconomic issues. Nodding to his own experiences, Camacho’s stories are set primarily in Guam, Japan and the Philippines, although he notes that the issues he addresses apply to regions and societies throughout the world.
“I write to speak my voice,” says Camacho, who especially enjoys crafting horror and psychological thrillers. “I want to disrupt the discourse.”
Camacho recalls that, as he matured as a writer, he increasingly turned to his pen and pad as a way to express his thoughts and feelings. In his high-school days, he added poetry to his repertoire, and often retreated to the solace of his poems. He and his friends soon formed a creative writers club and gathered on weekends to play guitar and share their poems.
Camacho decided to pursue a dual career as a writer and teacher, and earned a bachelor’s degree in English literature at the University of Guam. He then worked as an intern reporter for the Pacific Daily News. “It was great to write, but it wasn’t creative writing,” he says. Camacho subsequently worked as a tutor for Sylvan Learning Center, and organized a local creative writers group, which included University of Guam faculty, as well as reporters from the Pacific Daily News and Marianas Variety.
Hungrier than ever to find his voice as a writer, Camacho says that he is now prospering from the insight and guidance of the Rutgers–Camden MFA program’s esteemed faculty. He notes that Lisa Zeidner has been instrumental in helping him to develop his story structure, while Patrick Rosal has worked with him to cultivate his characters, and to explore the works of other Asian-American and Pacific Island writers. On Rosal’s recommendation, Camacho recently attended a reading at the Asian-American Writers’ Workshop in Brooklyn. “It was a great experience to see such a tight community of writers who are interested in pushing one another forward,” Camacho says.
Just as importantly, Camacho adds, Rosal has offered just the right words of encouragement. “He has helped me to believe in myself,” says Camacho. “That has helped me to be the best writer that I can be.”
Likewise, Camacho says he has benefited markedly from the camaraderie and constructive criticism shared amongst the students in the creative writing program. He appreciates the opportunity to hear feedback from so many gifted writers, all with their own unique life experiences. He likens the constant give-and-take among students to his weekly kickboxing regimen, a hobby he recently picked up at Body Arts Muay Thai in Philadelphia.
“When you are doing drills, one person is kicking, while their partner is holding the mitts and giving that constant feedback,” says Camacho. “The key here is that it’s constant, and that’s what I love about this program. It can be very humbling, but in the end, we are all trying our best to bring out what we want to say.”
Still growing accustomed to his new surroundings, Camacho maintains that the MFA program has already had a profound impact on his work ethic. While he used to write two hours a day, he now spends entire days crystallizing his thoughts. “The way that I see it, I may not be the best writer, but I can be the best that I can be,” he says. “Here I am today at Rutgers–Camden; it’s a blessing.”