A rush of joy from complete strangers: An interview with Monica Macansantos

By

When Monica Macansantos and I meet through our laptop videos, not only are we in different places, but different days. I am in New England on a cold, dark evening while Monica is in the Philippines on a bright and sunny morning twelve hours into the future.

For me, it is still All Souls’ Day, when Catholics remember our dead. This holiday did not register for me in America. Life didn’t stop so that I could gather annually with my clan at the family cemetery plot where we feasted and celebrated our dead ancestors. When I learned about this tradition, I mourned another loss that came from leaving the Philippines for America. But is it even possible to lose something that you don’t even know is lost?

Ever since books by Filipinos became available to me, thanks to the University of California library system, I’ve been drawn to writing by Filipinos. These writers showed me the Philippines. I am transported home, even if my kababayan, fellow Filipinos, write about the places outside of our archipelago. So many of us are overseas working, not at home. Reading connects us to each other and to home.

Reading the first story in Macansantos’ collection, “The Feast of All Souls,” transported me to a Baguio cemetery where a mother and daughter look for the grave of a blood relation’s baby, dead now for almost two decades, but still remembered, still cared for. The pair pay a man to lead them straight to the baby’s grave; they pay another man to clear the mud and detritus piled on the grave since last year’s visit; they pay for the tomb to be whitewashed. In my experience of the Philippines (as well as in other countries still traumatized by colonization), there is always someone hungry; someone who needs work. They are always orbiting, close enough to touch. While they wait for the paint to dry—another act of care, waiting—they snack on taho—tofu and sugar syrup—bought from the man who wanders the grounds with a bamboo pole balanced over his shoulders from which hangs twin sloshing pails. Even though I’ve only had taho from a man, each mouthful reminds me of the love of my lolas, my titas, my ate, and mother (my grandmothers, my aunts, my older sister, and my mother). As an adult who has returned to the Philippines a few times, I’ve learned to listen for the taho man the way I trained my ears for the joyful songs of the ice cream truck during the summers of my American childhood.

The care that the mother and daughter give to the baby’s grave is one of the many acts of love that the characters perform in Love and Other Rituals (University of Melbourne’s Grattan Street Press, 2022). Set in the Philippines, the US, and New Zealand, the author raises and engages in questions about relationships and the power dynamics of money, labor, and colonialism. What does it mean to express love authentically versus automatically, or even begrudging obligation? Between passion and jealousy, which proves your love more? Throughout this exquisite collection, Macansantos explores what it means to love.

The following interview is based on an edited version of a conversation celebrating Macansantos’s virtual launch event with Jhoanna Belfer, owner of Bel Canto Books in Long Beach, California.

***

The Rumpus: What was the genesis of this collection?

Monica Macansantos:  I worked on this story by story. I wasn’t really thinking of this work as a book until later. I started writing fiction in 2006 so most of these were written between then and 2016, when I finished writing what became the final story in the collection. I guess I maintained a similar frame of mind when moving from one story to the next, and by that I mean I was pining for different homes as I wrote. When writing “The Autumn Sun,” I was feeling nostalgic for Delaware, a state where I spent five years of my childhood. When writing other stories in the collection, I was living away from my hometown of Baguio, and sensing that writing fiction was a metaphorical means for me to return to another imagined homeland. When writing “Stopover” and “Leaving Auckland,” I was living in Texas and New Zealand respectively, and mulling over my place as a Filipino immigrant in these two vastly different places. And so while working on these stories, common themes and obsessions emerged, allowing the collection to come together naturally.

Rumpus: What was challenging about putting together your story collection?

Macansantos: It’s funny because when I began to see these stories coming together as a collection, one person read two stories I had just written and told me, “You write too much about children.” I began to wonder if this feedback meant that I was immature because I was writing from the point of view of children. But I also began to see that not all of my stories were written from the point of view of children, and that choosing at times to write from a child’s point of view was in fact a sign of maturity. Oftentimes, children, more than adults, can see the truth of a situation more clearly because they haven’t yet fully accepted the social norms that prevent adults from acknowledging the naked truth. I do think that it helps for writers to maintain a childlike perspective to see through the self-deceptions that adults often tell themselves, which can also become the wellsprings of our stories.

Rumpus: Publishing a first book of short stories seems difficult these days. What was your publishing experience like?

Macansantos: Initially I had an agent who sent it out to the Big Five, but the feedback was oftentimes, “I don’t feel transported to a different place,” perhaps because my stories didn’t present this “different place” in the way they imagined it to be. But after listening to Filipinos in the diaspora telling me about how they felt transported by my stories, I’m beginning to wonder if “being transported” for a white editor wouldn’t mean being transported to the Philippines that most Filipinos know, but to a Philippines of their imagination that doesn’t really exist, but which fits neatly into an othering, colonialist gaze. While writing these stories, I made a conscious effort not to exoticize, but to write about the homeland that I knew, because I didn’t want to turn the people I wrote about into objects for consumption and entertainment. These characters aren’t animals in a zoo. Yes, they are different from white Americans, but not different in a way that sends them flying around or performing all sorts of magical feats.

While living overseas, writing was the only way I could go back to the Philippines. I wouldn’t have felt transported if I felt pressure to transport these white editors to this place that they expected the Philippines to be. I’d be performing my culture rather than rendering my experiences of it in the most honest way I could. Sometimes the truth is boring, but I don’t think it’s that boring. Sometimes you just have to pay attention to people’s stories, to the minutiae of their day-to-day lives.

Rumpus: Can you tell me more about the part of your book called, “Notes on the Text?”

Macansantos: Originally, I didn’t want it there. I felt that the non-English words should explain their place in the text, but my publisher told me that there could be a tendency, especially among non-Filipino readers, to assign different meanings to words, which may not be accurate. What happened was that they also wanted to italicize all the Filipino words in the text, and I’m personally against italicization, because I really don’t like the idea of applying a highlighter to the aspects of my language and culture deemed “foreign” by a white readership. My feelings about this became especially strong when I got their first round of edits back and saw that all the Filipino words were italicized, while certain French and Chinese words that I had used (such as “cheongsam”) weren’t italicized just because they were now “accepted” words in the English lexicon. Just who determines what becomes “acceptable” enough for the English language, and what should be marked out as “foreign” or “other”? Especially when these are terms that belong to the English I grew up speaking, which is an English that is widely used among Filipino immigrants in Australia, America, and elsewhere? So we had a heated discussion about this, and the editorial team, composed of students enrolled in a publishing course at the University of Melbourne, decided that I had a point, but that a glossary would still be necessary, especially if we decided not to italicize all foreign words. I still have mixed feelings about that section of the book, but I do see the argument for the writer being in control of definitions and deciding what something is. (Then again, when I read Chekhov, I don’t feel lost when I encounter the word “samovar” and don’t exactly know what that is until I see his characters pouring tea out of it. Nor is the sentiment of the scene lost on me.)

This book was published in Australia and there aren’t that many books about the Philippines being published in Australia at the moment. Though these “Notes on the Text” may be of help to readers who are unfamiliar to our culture and have no prior experience of reading books set in the Philippines, I was also talking to an interviewer in Australia who said that she understood what the words meant without going through the “Notes on the Text.” Which ties in with my belief that literature should speak across these differences without having to explain or apologize for itself.

Rumpus: Who do you imagine your reader is? Do you think your Philippine audience is different from your New Zealand or American readership? Does thinking about a domestic or international audience change how you write?

Macansantos: Filipinos are my primary audience whenever I write, and I think that it’s helpful to imagine your own people as your primary audience even when you are also writing for an audience that doesn’t necessarily belong to this community. That way, as you write, you’re not constantly explaining yourself to an imagined outsider or turning yourself into a tour guide for your culture, which isn’t our role as artists. Our role is to shed light on the human experience, regardless of our cultural differences. If my stories aren’t speaking to Filipinos, I am doing something wrong. I’m not speaking to the truth of our experience as a people.

Rumpus: People from the Philippines might speak many languages outside of Filipino and English, two languages that they may have in common. There’s a striking passage from your short story, “Leaving Auckland,” that expresses this attention to language so well:

A word of Tagalog slipped from him as they walked on a narrow street to where his car was parked, and she reassured him as they climbed inside, that he could speak the language again if he wanted to. “You speak such good Tagalog, I’m envious,” he said to her on the drive home, wondering how she could hold onto the grammar of the old language while speaking English without the usual trepidation of a new immigrant. He couldn’t admit to her that he once spoke Tagalog fluently, but had been teased in school for his halting English. He had decided to release himself from all those familiar expressions and cadences of speech that were holding him back, preventing him from expressing his thoughts in the language of his new home. How had she mastered English without losing her footing in their native tongue?

Macansantos: Thank you for reading that passage because it’s one of my favorites. One of my editors couldn’t quite understand the sentiment of the passage and her interpretation of it was wildly different from mine. She didn’t quite understand what white supremacy demanded from these characters around grammar and language. How they had to shed all the markings of their culture from their language. If I remember correctly, her response to this passage was that learning English would be freeing for a young immigrant like him, but what she completely forgot was that this process also required that he unlearn his first language, which isn’t a “freeing” thing at all. I wanted to explore the contradictions of the kind of “freedom” one attains when letting go of one’s heritage during the process of assimilation, because in fact, it’s the opposite of freedom. You’re allowing the dominant culture to subjugate you, to the point that you feel that there are certain parts of yourself that are “wrong” and should be cast off. It’s a painful process that many young immigrants undergo, and which others may not fully understand. But literature can force people to imagine what it must be like for people like Paolo, the main character of “Leaving Auckland,” whose struggles are made invisible by the very forces he contends with as a non-white immigrant in New Zealand.

Rumpus: Tell me about the title, Love and Other Rituals, which is also the title of one of the short stories. I wonder where love ends and ritual begins. Or how love is a ritual. Every story made me consider the title.

Macansantos: I’m pretty bad with titles, but this is one of the few titles that I got right on my first try and that’s a fluke for me. Not to give too much away, but it’s a short story about two men in a same-sex relationship. They are on unequal footing with one person who is more educated with more money and the other person who is younger and belongs to a lower socio-economic class. Because their relationship is taboo, they find themselves unable to completely express their affections in the open, instead couching them in ritual. I remember lying in bed after knocking out a draft of this story for one of my MFA workshops, and the title, “Love and Other Rituals,” just popping into my head. I liked it. And as the story collection was coming together, I realized that the title was relevant for the other stories.

We as Filipinos often couch our love in rituals. I’ve heard Filipinos complain about how this sometimes gets in the way of true affection and sincerity, but I think we need rituals when words and other modes of expression fail us. However, the affections we express through these rituals are complicated by the sense of duty we attach to them. In “Inheritances,” there’s this little girl who is asked to press the back of the hand of an uncle she hardly cares for to her forehead. She’s just doing it because she was told to do it.

Rumpus: Mano po! My parents taught me to do that with my grandparents and other elders to show respect.

Macansantos: It’s funny. Sometimes we do this out of genuine caring, but other times we mask the lack of caring through ritual. I’ve met old people who demanded I do mano po, even when I was an adult woman. They held my hand and I thought we would just shake hands, but they asked me, “Why won’t you just do it?” And I wondered why they would want to demand mano po when it’s so obvious that I’m being forced to do it. This is just one of my reactions to our traditions on a personal level, although witnessing the enactment of these rituals makes me wonder how our gatherings would be without these rituals.

After spending five years of my childhood in the States, I became very Americanized. When I came back home to the Philippines, I was about to turn nine. I was taking a values class where we were all told that these rituals such as “mano po” were what defined the Filipino character. Then when I attended Filipino gatherings, I watched these traditions and gestures being enacted in the most awkward ways. Sometimes people wouldn’t even be talking to each other, but would still perform a ritual out of politeness. It was interesting to read about customs in a textbook and then compare to how they played out in real life, which is so complicated.

Rumpus: While you were earning your MFA as a James A. Michener Fellow at the University of Texas at Austin, you lived in the US. You lived in New Zealand while you were earning your PhD in English and Creative Writing from the Victoria University of Wellington. In what ways has where you’ve lived impacted how and what you write about?

Macansantos: I think that living overseas made me more aware of how people can live in isolation. America is a very lonely place. You have to go out of your way to see people. For Filipinos, new immigrants, and people of color, you’re different and you stand out. Living in the States and also in New Zealand made me more aware of this feeling of alienation that people carry within themselves, and this is something that I am interested in as an author.

But even in the Philippines, you can feel alienated because there’s this push towards conformity. You have to be in a group all the time; you can never be alone. It’s generally frowned on to take trips alone and even to eat alone at restaurants. When I came back to the Philippines from New Zealand, where it’s okay to do things on your own, I was taking a walk inside this park and the Filipino guard asked me, “Why are you alone?”

But you can also feel lonely within a group. You can feel unheard. You can feel that your true self isn’t being seen. I think that feeling alienated overseas made me more acutely aware of this condition of alienation in general, which is also prevalent in Philippine life.

Rumpus: What are you working on these days?

Macansantos: I recently completed Returning to My Father’s Kitchen, a collection of essays revolving around my decision to come home to the Philippines after my father’s death. I’m very proud of that as a collection. I think that I leveled up as a writer while working on these essays, which I mostly wrote during the pandemic. While being forced to stay at home, I turned inwards and examined myself and my beliefs, becoming stronger as a writer through this process.

I also wrote a novel about the Marcos dictatorship entitled, People We Trust. The novel is about two very ordinary middle-class families in Baguio who have to deal with the trauma of the dictatorship. I’m also working on another novel about two young people growing up in the Philippines in the ‘90s. My father is making his way into that novel as a heartwarming, sympathetic character.

Rumpus: How are you feeling about the new government in the Philippines and how does this impact how you feel about your writing or how you are writing? Do you feel something has shifted in the country politically or for writers/artists since the change in regimes?

Macansantos: Ooof this is a big question that I could write an entire essay in response to! I’ve always felt, even after we pushed the Marcos family out of power in 1986 and began the lengthy and complicated process of restoring our democratic institutions, that we as a people never fully reckoned with the wounds that the dictatorship inflicted on our collective psyche. I feel that there may be some self-blame involved in the ways we dealt with these psychic wounds, and that is because we didn’t openly reckon with the aftermath of the dictatorship but instead allowed these wounds to fester in private. It’s one of the reasons why I felt compelled to write my own martial law novel, to confront this denialism and inability to come to terms with the moral dilemmas we all faced while trying to survive the dictatorship’s violence. And as I was writing it, I already felt that the Marcos family was making a comeback due to our inability to reckon with our past—it was frightening, to see Duterte come to power in 2016 while I was writing the second draft of the novel.

I think that for me and many writers in the Philippines, our writing has acquired a new sense of urgency with the return of the Marcos family to power. That our writing isn’t just a means to wrestle with the past (which was never really “past”) or our problems as a nation, but to speak the truth as the present administration continues its efforts to rewrite it through films that appeal to those who have already been brainwashed by fake news. As a fiction writer, I believe it’s our duty to create work that speaks truthfully to the human condition, and which enables people to take an honest look at themselves and the people around them. This is very different from the “historical fictions” that the Marcos family wants to feed us with right now, which are basically meant to steer us away from the difficult but necessary task of self-examination.

Rumpus: I’m sorry about the loss of your father, poet Francis C. Macansantos. You write about how you inherited your “love of writing, laughter, and life” from him.

Macansantos: I feel very sad that my father didn’t see Love and Other Rituals as a published book, but he read it in manuscript form and it was already a book to him. That’s what matters to me, more than the critical reception. You have to lean on those private triumphs to keep going in this business. If you keep waiting for a publisher or a critic to give you affirmation, you’re not going to last long.

Rumpus: What has the response to your collection been so far? What is surprising? Publishing a first book is a big deal. How has the reality differed from what you imagined it would be?

Macansantos: The response has been overwhelmingly positive so far, which is heartening because putting out my first book was one of the most terrifying experiences of my life! I wrote about my misgivings for Lit Hub, how something so intimate to you is now out there in the world, and must survive on its own without your protection. But Filipinos and non-Filipinos alike have been treating my words with care. There was one Filipino-Kiwi who reached out to say how much my stories haunted her—it’s the kind of feeling I’ve had as a reader when recognizing myself in a character or story, and what she said gave me more confidence that I’m doing my job in making us feel more seen in the books we read. What has been especially heartening for me are the enthusiastic responses from librarians in Aotearoa (the Māori-language name for New Zealand) who are acquiring my book for their collections. It means a lot to me when the librarians of a country that’s close to my heart, where Filipino immigrants remain underrepresented in literature despite our hyper-visibility, make the effort to help our stories reach the larger community.

What I didn’t fully expect was the rush of joy I’d feel when reading reviews by complete strangers who generously took the time to honestly engage with the book and see things in my stories I hadn’t previously seen. It’s a true gift to have one’s words read and thought about with so much care, and it’s probably one of the greatest rewards of putting out a book. If we as writers employ language to facilitate truth, and not to misrepresent or mislead, our work can foster understanding in the truest sense of the term.

 

 

 

***
Author photo by Lydia Blaisdell


Grace Talusan is the author of the memoir The Body Papers and teaches in the Nonfiction Writing Program at Brown University. More from this author →