SPECIAL ISSUE: INTERVIEWS

Marianne Villanueva

By Melissa R. Sipin & Bel Poblador


Photo: Stella Kalaw

Photo: Stella Kalaw

Marianne Villanueva, who held a Creative Writing Fellowship at Stanford, is the author of Jenalyn (Vagabondage Press, 2013), Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Books, 1991; finalist for the Philippines’ National Book Award), The Mayor of the Roses: Stories (Miami University Press Fiction Series, 2005), and The Lost Language (Anvil Press, 2009). Her work, which has appeared in Isotope, PANK Magazine, ZYZZYVA, The Chattahoochee Review, and Puerto Del Sol, has been short-listed for the O. Henry Literature Prize and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She has edited an anthology of Filipina women’s writings, Going Home to a Landscape (Calyx Books, 2003), which was selected as a Notable Book by the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize.

Villaneuva was a two-time recipient of a California Arts Council Artists Fellowship and a Margaret Bridgman Scholar at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference. She was awarded residences at the Fundacion Valparaiso in Mojacar, Spain; the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, California; the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts; the Hawthornden Writers Retreat in Scotland; and the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig, Ireland.

She currently teaches at UCLA Extension's Writers Program. Born and raised in Manila, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.


Tell us how you started writing—what was your arc?

My mom said to me that I would be a writer, because when I was six she gave me a typewriter. Who gives a six year old a typewriter? It was an Olivetti—it wasn’t just an ordinary typewriter. It wasn’t even a baby toy, pretend typewriter. I was such an obedient girl, and I wanted to show my mom how happy happy joy joy I was about the typewriter—I wasn’t actually excited about that present, but it seemed like a sign from God.

But when I was twenty-one, I had never heard of Creative Writing. I had grown up in the Philippines, so I went for something else in the beginning—Asian Languages in Chinese. I thought of going for the PhD, because I was accepted for the Masters. Everyone else was going for the PhD, but I had a moment of truth—every chance I had I would audit for the English department, so there was something in me that was already searching. I took this Creative Writing course where we had to write short stories. The one who chose it, by pure luck, was the director of the Stanford Creative Writing program—and do not ask me what the director of the Stanford Creative Writing program was doing teaching a summer workshop in the short story, but what can you do? I didn’t even know you could get a course of study in Creative Writing!

I took this workshop, and my first story he made me read it to the class. Then he came up to me afterwards and he goes, “I really like that story. Have you ever considered applying to the Creative Writing program?” And I was like “OK!” And he goes, “Well you’ll have to submit fifty pages of your best writing.” I have to say that the fifty pages I wrote was just for the application, and I don’t even want to look at those fifty pages—please hide them from me because I didn’t even know what I was doing.

It’s crazy, I did not set out to apply—that was the first Creative Writing program I had ever heard of. I didn’t even know there were others, I didn’t even submit an application anywhere, and I got in the first try. It’s like someone is constantly putting me in a position where I just have to receive.

Do you have a writing routine or process?

Ugh! I have no routine, but I’m not being honest. The writing goes on in my head, and that’s my process. By the time I’m obsessed enough with a story or a subject, it’s almost all complete in my head. Then, because I don’t have a routine, it comes out in a whole rush. It starts with of course my wanting to communicate an emotion—my writing’s pretty emotional, so it’s very emotion-driven. But I don’t sit down to write every day. So only when I feel like I can’t stop it anymore, it’s like I have to write, then it just comes out really complete.

I do a lot of things in my head because I grab my inspiration from whatever. I am fascinated by anything, any kind of text. I am even fascinated by tweets, and I’m totally into the Internet. My son, I forget how old he was, was so into video games. So I started to read his video game manuals, and they were constructing a world. I could enter into that, I could see the power of video games. He was crazy about this game, and he was so excited that that’s all he did. I had a hard time prying him away, but when I picked up the manual, I was like “Is this really a game manual?” It was that detailed. That was the start of my writing science fiction type things. I’m so willing to embrace whatever, maybe I’m a parasite, because I can suck any experience. Truly, I’m such a cannibal.

What draws you to the short story as a form?

I’m very interested in moments—in being hungry and grabbing because you don’t want to let it go. I think I’m really good at that moment where there’s an insight. Personally, I had to separate writing life from family life, which meant that I could never be caught writing. I had to do it in very compressed moments—so I’m not sure if I developed my style because I had no time? It’s kind of like the chicken and the egg—I don’t know which happened first.

The process you have for writing—having these stolen moments of creativity and epiphany—seems to be mirrored in The Lost Language stories with these quick moments of realization for many of the female characters.

Yes! And it’s so precious, these moments of clarity, because everything is confusion. I feel like women have a completely different set of pressure on them. There’s this constant, constant pressure. And those moments of clarity, there is such a sense of urgency.

Many of the women characters in The Lost Language are often silenced or enacting that silence, living with the pressures that women have. If you could talk a little bit more about your female characters struggles?

You know I never thought of my characters as victims. Never. I think they are powerful people. Because the neglect, they can turn it to their advantage. And the fact that they can lead that double life, and they have that inner life which no one knows about—that’s completely theirs, they own it. The marginalization, living in the margins, is actually powerful. I like it on the margins, but it also makes me very interior. Because I want to protect that part of me, and I don’t want it exposed very much. I try and keep it hidden, because that is the way I view the world, and I’ve always done it since I was a child. I tend to keep it inside—that’s actually another reason why the women appear stoic is because I appear stoic.

I would start a story and it would be all made up of unconnected scenes, and I would be like “What the hell is that?” But I decided to just trust my instincts. I don’t know what it is—no one put it in me, no one in my family is a writer, nobody even knew what a Creative Writing Program was. When I told my parents “I got a fellowship,” they were like “Oh you got a fellowship, like in business school?”

As I get older it’s easier to be myself, but when I was small there was too much at stake. I look back, and I realize that I actually haven’t changed. Nothing changed me—even being in America! Everything that happened to me was just a way of peeling, and every year more and more gets peeled. The way I am now is actually more my truer self. But it took a long time to reveal it; I couldn’t reveal it at first, but I was like a stealth bomber and then voilá, I have four books!

Can you tell us a bit about your publishing journey?

I had an agent [for The Lost Language], and she took me on because she thought I was writing a novel, but hello: I wrote a collection of short stories. But after she read them, she just fell in love with the manuscript, and she worked her butt off for two years. And to show how much she loved the stories, she approached every single major publishing house on the West Coast, on the East Coast, and I came close but nobody could classify the book. I feel like publishing is risk averse. It’s so frustrating because I knew those stories were good, but it’s never really been about money for me, so in the end I took on Anvil.

But I think that the Internet saved my life. Because at a certain point you do want to get read, and about the time I started posting my stories online, literary magazines started to move online because they didn’t have the money. I felt like me and these online literary magazines were growing hand in hand. When the Internet grew, so did my fiction. Writers have approached me directly through the blog, they would leave me messages. Editors would actually approach me and say, “Hey, do you have a story?” After The Lost Language, I got a second wind, and it was because of the Internet.

Your book, Mayor of the Roses, begins with a short story of the same title. The grief was so moving, broken, and fractured, yet there was also agency and reclaiming. And to start with that story, it just felt it was a slow spiraling down from there of how someone experiences grief.

I felt that my power as a writer was recognizing the fact that I didn’t have to make this story big, it could just focus on details—that the material was powerful in itself. It’s so powerful because it’s about grief, and every grief is particular. We experience grief as many different ways as there are people. Nobody experiences grief the same way.

And that whole book was about grief. The stories from The Mayor of the Roses captured a period of time when I was really in grief. How it just sort of stays, and there’s no way you can say, “Oh, I’ve moved beyond.” Grief is such a universal emotion. But then if you also write it as general it won’t work; it’s gotta be specific.

In relation to the specifics of grief, we felt that Mayor of the Roses was very Filipino—could you speak to that?

I’m so glad you said that. My friend teaches in New York, and she taught that story. But there were two women in her class who did not like it at all who were Asian-Americans, and they said, “This story is not Asian-American.” I feel like people can decide for themselves what it means, but since I am Filipina and I am Asian-American, I don’t have to worry, I don’t have to convince anyone. I’m not assuming a fake voice so I don’t pay attention to that.

But what I didn’t expect was that the longer you stay in the States, it does feel like the connections are starting to fade. It’s not amnesia, but it’s for survival. And I was fighting that process tooth and nail. And to give it up, because you have to, was a secondary grief. So it did come, that questioning.

What do you feel is the difference between the domestic and the historical?

I feel a sense of urgency about both because I feel like history is so very important because I grew up in the Philippines. Because my dad was a lawyer, we had the Encyclopedia Britannica complete set, the Highlight books complete set, and so I got the importance of learning from him.

But the domestic—I love angst. It’s like warring impulses, and Filipino families are such good incubators for angst. I can knock off ten domestic angst pieces in one week.

We wanted to know a bit more about the book you edited, Going Home to a Landscape. What was your process and what did you look for in the stories?

I wanted it to be from the Philippines. I wanted to discover voices from the Philippines, and so I started asking around first on emails. I didn’t have the funds to put big advertisements in Poets & Writers or anything. The Internet made Going Home to a Landscape possible, because I had a full-time job at Stanford, so all of that had to be done at like four in the morning. I had finished the book first before approaching a publisher, so in other words, I didn’t pre-determine the form.

And initially, I did it as a way to not have so much pressure to write myself, because at a certain point it can be very isolating. And so I did it to communicate with other Filipinas and to discover. I didn’t approach anyone, I didn’t solicit anyone—I put it out there, and I waited for them to send me their work. And then when I chose, I realized that the domestic was so primary. It’s the cradle of everything, and it’s strong with Filipinas. It was important for me to put Filipinas here together with the Filipinas from there. And I’m so proud, because I think I did that. I actually didn’t send a finished manuscript to publishers until five years later. But just because I’m slow, it doesn’t mean a thing.

We definitely understand that—it takes time to write a great book.

Right, and I had this confidence. I don’t have it many other spaces of my life. There’s only one area where I never doubt myself. I felt that it would be valuable no matter what, because it would create a space where writers from many different places could co-exist, like what you’re doing.

Do you have any advice for us as editors for a magazine like TAYO trying to navigate the literary and publishing worlds?

We women start off from this need to negotiate, but I’m so sick of that. I also try to negotiate my way out of tight spots, but it doesn’t get you anywhere, that trying to negotiate. Because actually you have the power, you are the stronger person because you are the one who actually knows. But I think because you’re young and women, they sort of have colonized your brain. I hate when people try to colonize your brain, but at the same time we also accept that position of weakness. But it’s so fake, it’s not even true. And once you realize that they’re colonizing your brain, they lose power just like that! That is what makes them retain power over you if they can convince you that those are not the right way to say things. And they convince you, they expect you to be afraid of them. When you realize you have to say it, then nobody can have power over you anymore. But you girls have a lot of power. Yup, you do.

Thank you, because that’s what we really want to become—a space to review Filipino books, to bridge the gap between generations of Filipino writers and readers, to bring diasporic writing and art to our communities and to highlight emerging writers of color.

And that’s what’s interesting—people who are operating with discovery, because that’s my life. And that’s my middle name: Marianne Discovery Villanueva. That’s who I am.


Above photos were provided by author