FEATURE: Laurel Fantauzzo may be the country's most important writer

ALWAYS RIGHT NOW - Alex Almario (The Philippine Star) - March 11, 2017 - 12:00am

In these politically charged times fraught with conflicting readings on race and patriotism, Filipino-American author Laurel Fantauzzo may be the country’s most important writer. Humble and soft-spoken, Fantauzzo would probably object to such claims, but in her explorations on what it means to be mixed race, she has, through an outsider’s lens, grazed upon what it really means to be Filipino. In her 2015 New York Times essay, “In Manila, Two Seasons, No Regrets,” it meant feeling welcome, being abandoned, and then persisting. In her 2012 essay for Grantland, “An Open Letter to Manny Pacquiao From a Gay Filipina American,” it meant holding on to a familial bond in a community that excludes you. In her pre-US Election essay for CNN Philippines last year, “I am both countries, and I feel sanctuary in neither,” it meant being in constant fear. At once a foreigner and a compatriot, she writes with an objective distance most of us who are too mired in the chaos cannot afford, but it is the distance of a conscience, outside the body but of the soul. And perhaps more telling than anything she has ever written, Fantauzzo, born and raised in California, chose to live in the Philippines.

“Love is, always at its heart, a choice,” Fantauzzo quotes Slovenian film critic Nika Bohinc, whose Filipino-Canadian boyfriend, Alexis Tioseco, a fellow film critic, chose to live in the Philippines. They were both murdered in Tioseco’s home in Quezon City in 2009, a year before Fantauzzo decided to fly to her mother’s country in an attempt to find herself. What she found along the way was a kindred spirit in Tioseco, or at least in the stories she heard, the words she read, the memories he left. Her nonfiction book, The First Impulse, is an attempt to tell, not only the story of Alexis and Nica, but also of the Philippines, and what it’s like to inhabit its strangeness. We sat down with Laurel Fantauzzo and talked about her book, her writing career, and being a Fil-Am in the age of Trump and Duterte.

What drew you to Alexis and Nika’s story?

A new acquaintance at the time, (RockEd Philippines founder) Gang Badoy, was doing an outreach at Bilibid prison where she was teaching a creative writing class. She asked them about what they thought actually happened with this crime. She started describing these two people, Alexis and Nika, and how Alexis was Filipino-Canadian and his girlfriend moved here because she loved him. And then she started demonstrating places where they had been shot on their bodies, and it was so strange to me and also very disturbing.

It felt very close for some reason because I was also in the Philippines trying to build an affectionate relationship with the place. For something like that to have happened to two people who were in love, and also for Alexis to have been the only one in his family to remain in the Philippines and champion a part of it that he felt a lot of love for, it felt like a very incomplete story. And I kept meeting more of their friends and hearing more of the details, and it almost felt like the story started following me. At first, I didn’t really want to write about it. I thought it was a very sensitive story that I had nothing to do with. But I found it very haunting and I thought, “Why don’t I try to make this a really long and focused story?” Because I think it’s not just about these two people. I think it’s also about love. I think it’s also about what wounds the Philippines so deeply in the contemporary, and it’s also about friendship and the after-effects of violence and of injustice.

Would you say that you learned more about the country while studying what happened to them?

Yeah. The Philippines is a study in contradictions. There’s so much to love and so much to connect with, and at the same time, there’s tremendous danger in it because of very old wounds, because of very old, systemic injustices. So I think that their story reflects those sides; the very beautiful side of the Philippines and also the very tragic and enraging side that causes a lot of sorrow.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in writing this book?

The two people that it’s about, I can’t consult. I can’t interview them, which I would’ve loved to. But what’s so interesting is even when you’re gone, you leave so much of yourself behind in other people. So I guess the biggest challenge was to gain the trust of some interviewees who are also dealing with their own pain, their own trauma, and gathering the stories of what made two people who they were and constructing the context in which they lived. Because something like murder just completely rips people from their context and I wanted to do my best to try and restore pieces of their lives into something more than violence.

How did you get into writing?

I don’t read very widely but the books that I do read, I reread over and over again. So there were certain books that I was obsessed with when I was younger and I just kept picking them apart and seeing what made them work. One was called The Light In The Forest by Conrad Richter. It’s about a young European-American boy who is kidnapped when he is about two years old and then raised by a Native American tribe. When he’s 12 or 13 he is, for all intents and purposes, Native American, but due to a treaty he has to go back to his white family and he’s just completely in turmoil. I guess being mixed race, Filipino-American, I wouldn’t have known it at the time, but something about his complete discomfort and rebellion against everything and this constant longing to go back somewhere else that ends up sort of in disaster was something I related to. I think stories like that spoke to me only in books and not really in any other medium.

I wrote little poems that seemed to make people laugh in grade school. When I was in New York City, right after college, I would take the longest train ride so I can just sit and draft observational essays. I read them for a feminist Filipina group called Fire, who held regular readings for a Filipino-American audience and that’s how I started building a non-fiction essay portfolio. I studied journalism at UC Santa Cruz with these great teachers, Marco Mendoza, who is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Associated Press reporter, and Conn Hallinan, who writes about foreign affairs. They were very encouraging teaching me the basic principles of journalistic ethics and methods. I carried that on to University of Iowa when I got my masters in non-fiction. The First Impulse is my thesis in Iowa. Robin Hemley, who is also passionate about the Philippines and wrote Inventing Eden about the Tasaday, was my mentor in this.

What was the essay that made you think that you’ve finally made it?

I don’t ever feel like I’ve made it (laughs). Even if I have something at somewhere fairly prestigious I guess every once in a while I still sort of look back and be like, “I have no idea how I did that,” you know? I did my best, thank you to the editor for saying “yes,” but every time it’s over, I always feel like I’m starting from zero, like every piece is going to school me. It doesn’t feel easier, sadly. For me, maybe for some writers it feels really easy.

One of the things that make your writing so distinct is your very warm voice. Reading your prose feels a lot like listening to an old friend. Where does this come from?

I guess I’m guarded but also fairly self-revealing. And I tend to be allergic to cruelty. I get angry and I get upset about things but I don’t like ad hominem attacks or easy terminology. A lot of language in politics I find sort of empty because it’s so repetitive. So I guess I try to speak to people as if we’re trying to relate in basic human terms. Although “basic human terms” might not be specific enough, but I try to relate in a narrative way that reveals something deeper than I hope whatever surface discussions might be taking place.

The title of your book is taken from Alexis’ open letter to Nika, where he wrote: “the first impulse of any good film critic must be of love.” Do you feel that this is true for all kinds of writing?

I wrote in the book that there were a couple of friends that were kind of skeptical of what Alexis wrote. They were like, “it’s not just love, it’s also pique, and rage, and outrage, and sadness, and there are other emotions to write out of.” And Alexis was just like, “don’t be so cynical.”

But I try to at least be aware of my impulses and motivations in my writing and try to reveal them as much as I can or as much as column space will allow me. Sometimes it’s love and sometimes it’s confusion or sorrow, which this country provides aplenty (laughs). But I try to write with clarity. Even if I’m not feeling clear about something, I try to communicate that confusion clearly.

Sometimes getting angry or indignant can still come from a place of love, right? If you’re mad about something, it means you care.

Yeah, I mean love is not a simple phenomenon. It encompasses many conditions.

In the four months since you wrote “I am both countries, and I feel sanctuary in neither,” a lot of alarming things have happened in the US and in the Philippines. Which country do you feel more hopeful for at this point?

I guess I feel equally sad at both. When I wrote that essay, I was not optimistic. It was not an optimistic essay. As soon as Duterte entered the race, I knew he would win. I thought it was a foregone conclusion. What surprised me was (Bongbong) Marcos. I did not know he would get that close. Early on, I never felt certainty that Trump would lose. I had friends who thought it was impossible for him to win. It’s better said by a Filipino-American artist named Josh Luna, and he said that America took off its mask. I felt like so much of what makes me frustrated with America was revealed quite dramatically. The things I tried to articulate in the past sort of came to life in one nightmare of a leader.

So you won’t be going to the US any time soon?

I go back about every two years. I’ll go this summer because a friend is getting married, but otherwise, no. I was actually offered a job in the States but I turned it down. It was only a year-long job and it’s a good one, but I don’t want to see what happens. I don’t want to live through what happens. I have friends who are much braver who are going to resist what’s coming, but I guess I just don’t feel physically safe enough. Not that this country doesn’t have its problems. I guess Singapore (where she currently teaches) has become an unexpected neutral zone.

For Alexis, it was Philippine cinema that made him stay. What keeps pulling you back to the Philippines?

I guess it really is like nowhere else in the world in ways that are joyful and in ways that are sorrowful. And there’s a lot that I am still learning from Filipinos and from the country, about how to survive, about how not to survive (laughs), about community, about being with whoever you feel affection for in a very present way over food, how to turn almost any gathering into a party, or almost any event into something to laugh about. It can be a cause for admiration or a cause for mourning, that ability to laugh. It’s a place that will teach me for the rest of my life. There are only so many stories I can write with the energy that I have, so why not the ones that are here? (Filipino novelist) Gina Apostol says, “Other countries have very nice people writing about them, but I’m gonna write about the Philippines.”

What led you to be curious about this country and why do you think few Fil-Ams share that curiosity?

Maria P.P. Root is a mixed-race scholar and she says that if you’re of mixed race or mixed culture, you have the freedom to self-define as you like. Although I do think it’s sad if your reasons for disassociating with a certain culture are because you hold some unconscious contempt for it or you want to be a part of a race with more power. That to me is sad.

My mom is mostly the source of all my curiosity. I was the only kid she took to the Philippines when I was 12 and I really didn’t want to go. I was here for three weeks and she took me around on this very confusing tour of aunts, tita this, tita that (laughs), who I very much respect and who I realize are very powerful women now. But I didn’t expect to come back to the States and feel this life-long curiosity, to come back on my own, which I did in 2007. She would leave books about World War II survivors in the Philippines on my bed or novels about Martial Law without saying anything like, “here, just read this.”

She used to put up flyers for rallies against Marcos. Her father was not happy about that. She had to go into hiding for a little bit from the Philippine Constabulary and ended up following her sisters to California in 1979. So that legacy was very rich and interesting to me, but at the same time, my mom is not a very cuddly mom (laughs). I respect her story greatly but she’s not the most cuddly mom. I didn’t get a lot of answers or back-and-forth conversations with her so I just came back here to find certain things out for myself.

What’s your next book?

I’m working on two other books. One is a Young Adult novel about a young queer girl in 2010 in a Catholic school in California who has a crush on her history teacher, who’s also a woman, and gets into a little bit of trouble. And the second one is called “Archipelago Sleepovers” and it’s a memoir on forming a relationship to the Philippines through my most important sleepovers. Both of those projects are initially for American audiences.

Is the YA novel your first attempt at fiction?

It’s my first attempt at a novel. Maybe it’s because of my connection to young adult novels when I was growing up that were very important to me but I’ve always wanted to write a novel for teenagers that I wish I could have had. I think the voice of that character is very different from mine. She’s much more good-tempered (laughs). Much friendlier than I was, I think, at that age.

Writers tend to exaggerate their fictional persona.

My agent actually asked to see both projects at the same time to make sure my memoir didn’t sound like the YA book. She was like, “No, they’re very different. You’re right, this fictional character’s much friendlier” (laughs). So it’s not just me.


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