“I’ve always felt that my role in society is to be critical of social conventions that leave most of us disenfranchised, or else lead many of us to feel dismissed or invisible to others.”
Love and Other Rituals (Grattan Street Press, University of Melbourne, 2022)
A question from Anna Laura Reeve: Do you understand your role in society—as a writer—to be influential, critical, observant, or something else?
I can only hope for my role in society, especially in Philippine society, to be influential, but the size and power of my influence is not something I have any control over. It’s not for me to say who will read my book or engage with my opinions in the articles or short stories I publish. What I do have control over is what I put forth in my articles, stories, and interviews, and I’ve always felt that my role in society is to be critical of social conventions that leave most of us disenfranchised, or else lead many of us to feel dismissed or invisible to others. As a writer, I have always been fascinated with power relations, and how these make their way into our everyday interactions. I’m interested in the gestures we use and the things we say (or leave unsaid) that determine a person’s place in our social hierarchy, or else the things people do to quietly assert themselves when made conscious of an injustice dealt to them. I believe that as writers, we can’t help but be critical of the injustices we witness. It is my hope that the observations I make in my writing have a ripple effect on my readers, however small.
A question from Megan Nichols: what books do you return to when you feel uninspired or disillusioned?
I find myself gravitating towards poetry collections when I feel that I’m losing interest in my work, since poetry reawakens me to the full potential of language to capture the everyday miracles of existence to which we have grown inured. A favorite collection of poetry I’ve returned to for this purpose is Philip Levine’s The Simple Truth, because he does this so well—and he makes you listen to the hush that we are so eager to fill with distractions provided by our gadgets. I also read my father’s poetry, and the short stories of Alice Munro to remind myself of why it’s important to record the quiet tragedies that ordinary people experience, which would otherwise go unnoticed. I also read Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford for laughs, when I know that my own writing could use a little lightening up.
How do you decorate or arrange your writing space?
My writing desk is a joyous mess, with piles of books, notebooks, and random objects surrounding my laptop. I am strangely better at dealing with clutter at residency programs, where my desk is usually spic and span.
Could you share a representative or pivotal excerpt from your book? Perhaps something that that invites the reader into the world of the book?
This was a difficult choice for me, but I’m going with this passage from “Leaving Auckland”:
After he and Maya had made love in her loft for the first time, he descended her stairs, looking out her window and into the deepening summer night before exclaiming, “This is paradise!” From her loft, Maya laughed – she was a writer, unimpressed by clichés. She was used to this view and its foreignness, in the same way that she had become used to other views in other foreign cities far away from the land of their birth. Paolo hadn’t even left his adopted land to visit her and yet these quaint Victorian homes – so different from his parents’ squat bungalow in Auckland – taunted him with their permanence, with the stories they possessed but didn’t tell. Tonight he felt as though he floated above these pitched rooftops, sailing above the wind that crashed into windows and howled through cracks that had been left unrepaired. As much as he tried to feel the ground beneath him as he walked these city streets, he felt as though he were invisible even to this town’s ghosts.
Why did you choose this excerpt?
It’s one of the passages in my book in which a character recognizes the alienation he feels in his chosen home, while simultaneously feeling the need to connect with someone to alleviate his alienation and loneliness. The desire to connect is one of the core themes of my book, since it allows us to feel a sense of acceptance wherever we are. I had completed my first year in New Zealand when I began working on this piece, and I wanted to create this character who, like me, felt ambivalent about New Zealand and unsure about his place in it. I felt a particular thrill when writing this excerpt, because it was my first time to write about New Zealand (I was there to work on a novel about the Marcos dictatorship for a creative writing PhD) and I had no prior models for writing fiction about Filipino immigrants in New Zealand. I almost felt like I was breaking an unspoken rule that I couldn’t quite articulate, but which I had to violate if I wanted to create something that fully represented my experiences. When I think of it now, there was no rule that barred me from writing about Filipinos in New Zealand, only my own fear of making mistakes. Seeing Wellington’s famous gale-force winds come to represent my character’s feelings was another exciting and unexpected moment in the process—those winds are so loud, they’ll make their way into your dreams at night.
What obsessions led you to write your book?
It’s an obsession I only began to see as the book came together, but I guess that my own desire to find a sense of home in the places where I’ve lived has guided the motivations and desires of my characters. I’ve been called a “third-culture kid” as someone who was born in the Philippines and grew up in America, and came back to the Philippines when I was about to turn 9 to find myself struggling to readjust to the ways of this country I had grown up calling “home.” Writing this collection of stories has helped me explore my fraught relationship with the place I’ve always called home, which is the Philippines, and to understand fellow Filipinos who have made other countries their homes while still feeling the strong and undeniable pull of the motherland.
Can you name one story that catalyzed or inspired the rest of the book? What do you remember about writing it?
“The Feast of All Souls” made me feel that I was onto something, that what I was writing wasn’t just a random collection of stories to hone my craft, but an actual book that was a response to my experiences growing up in the Philippines, and my experiences as a Filipino abroad. It’s not the oldest story in the collection, but it’s the first story that appears in the book and there’s a reason for that. I remember writing it during my first year of my MFA, after a particularly disastrous workshop that left me unsure about what I wanted to write, and whether the stories I had within me were worth telling. I knew that despite my misgivings about my place in an MFA program as an international student living so far away from home, I still had to turn in at least one more story for this graduate workshop. I was there already, and I had to make the best of the situation. And there was a memory that had always nagged me, of me and my mother, and sometimes both my parents, visiting the grave of a deceased cousin during the Catholic holiday called the Feast of All Souls, in which observant Catholics pay their respects to the graves of their dearly departed. I had so many questions about that memory that I sensed could only be addressed if I wrote a story about it. And so I did, and it surprisingly had positive reviews at workshop. It’s also the story in the collection that was accepted by a literary journal the fastest (the Masters Review, with Lauren Groff as editor). As a young Filipino MFA student, it was often difficult for me to believe that I could tell a story about life in the Philippines without exoticizing my culture or pandering to the Western gaze, that would still find an audience among non-Filipinos. So if anything, that story taught me not to second guess myself.
Which story in your book has the most meaningful back story to you? What’s the back story?
I wrote “Stopover,” a story about two friends from the Philippines who meet in Austin, Texas, only to realize just how much they’ve drifted apart from each other, after I had a falling out with a female friend who visited me while I was living in Austin. It was a friendship breakup that was particularly troubling for me, since we went to the same college in the Philippines and were both student writers, and it seemed at least then that we were following similar paths. It was when we both moved to America (she to become a permanent immigrant, me for graduate school) that this rift between us began to emerge. As I tried figuring out what went wrong between us, I began to wonder if America and its demands on new immigrants had something to do with it. At this point, I had already spent two years in America as an adult, and I was beginning to think more deeply about my place as a migrant in American society, and how living in America had shaped me. Writing fiction was the perfect way for me to work through these questions.
What was the final story you wrote, and how did that affect your sense that the book was complete?
I wrote “Leaving Auckland,” the final story in the collection, after I had already been querying agents with the collection for a few months. It had gotten lukewarm responses until then, and as I wrote this novelette, I had the feeling that it would round out the collection by completing something I had wanted to say in the book, but was unable to achieve any finality for until then. It’s hard to sum it up in one sentence, but I guess my book poses the question of whether you can choose the place that you can comfortably call “home”. Many of the characters in this collection accept the flaws of the homes they’ve chosen or were born into, sometimes with renewed understanding, sometimes grudgingly. I think it’s Paolo from “Leaving Auckland” who is groping for this sense of home more than any other character in this book, and who rejects the easy solutions offered by his family and community. He wants to assimilate and call New Zealand home, but like Cathy in “Stopover,” he knows just how much of himself he has already sacrificed to become a good immigrant. He struggles with these questions even more than Cathy, and I felt that the novelette’s closing scene didn’t just wrap up the particular piece, but the entire collection as well.
Is there a question you wish you would have been asked about your book? How would you answer it?
Do you feel haunted by your stories after finishing them? My answer is, yes—I can see my characters going on with their lives long after my time with them has ended. However, I still believe that it’s best for me to let them live their lives without my authorial intervention, as I’ve already taken a lot from them.
If you could choose another artistic path (painting, music, dance, etc.) what would it be and why?
I’ve been told that I could dance tango professionally if I wanted to. I danced tango as a hobby before the pandemic, and the one thing that held me back from practicing every day and joining tango milongas three or more times a week was my writing. I think I could’ve made a go of it if I weren’t a writer, because I love how craft-based dancing is, like writing, and how mastering one’s craft allows you to disappear in it completely. With dance, you’re fully inhabiting your body, letting go of all the anxieties brewing in your mind and letting your body guide you towards bliss. What makes it similar to writing is the moment of transcendence when you fully lose yourself in the performance. “How can we know the dancer from the dance,” as W.B. Yeats would put it. I guess the other thing that turned me off from becoming a full-time dancer was the drama of the tango community—not that we don’t have drama in the literary community, but it’s so much easier to step away from it while still pursuing your craft.
What advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
Focus on your craft, even when the publications and recognition begin to roll in. And even when these are slow to come, let the writing be a source of sustenance and joy.
What question would you like to ask the next author featured at Speaking of Marvels?
Do you ever find yourself inspired or guided by your childhood in your work?
Monica Macansantos earned her MFA in Writing from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow, and her PhD in creative writing from the Victoria University of Wellington. Her story collection, Love and Other Rituals, is out from Grattan Street Press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colorado Review, the Hopkins Review, Bennington Review, Literary Hub, and Electric Literature, among others, and has been recognized as Notable in the Best American Essays. Her honors include fellowships from Hedgebrook, the KHN Center for the Arts, the I-Park Foundation, and the Storyknife Writers Retreat.