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Non-Belonging and Eternal Adaptation: An Interview with Laurel Fantauzzo

Her artist statement reveals this: “much of her work finds her studying appetites, identity, the signals for real love, and the search for home.” Born in Southern California to a Filipina mother and an Italian-American father, Laurel Fantauzzo has lived in Brooklyn, Manila, and Iowa over the past few years. Currently, she calls Quezon City, Philippines home and teaches at Ateneo de Manila University. She is well-acquainted with starting over and telling stories from the margins. Largely a nonfiction writer and an essayist, Laurel also writes young adult fiction. Poet Hossannah Asuncion describes Laurel’s writing as “lyrical and technically elegant—what makes it glorious is the kindness that is imbued within it. Her writing is always human and empathic.” Laurel is also as funny as she is tenderhearted and has compelling observations to share from multiple thresholds. Undoubtedly, she is the kind of writer you’ll want to get to know on the page and in person.

-Nita Noveno

Your writing is at the threshold of memory, language, and identity. Your most recent essay in the The Rumpus, “The Animals in My Home” like your other pieces is a haunting, beautiful intertwining of tales from your present life in the Philippines and memories of your childhood and family life in America. Can you talk about your move to the Philippines and what life has been like so far?

I decided to move to Manila because I’d been spending half the year there every year since 2010. I tried to envision myself putting down roots in another city; Los Angeles, perhaps, or New York; but when I thought of anywhere besides Manila, I felt a pang of panic and wrongness. So I just followed my instincts and came here. In a selfish capitalist sense, it’s easier for me to be a teacher and writer and still afford to go to the doctor, live with some measure of privacy, take cabs, and eat at sit-down restaurants. In a personal sense, I’ve given up on the idea of ever feeling like I belong anywhere. In the Philippines, my sense of non-belonging feels more obvious, and more honest. I’m paradoxically at home with my outsider status here. And the contradictions and stories and characters of the Philippines fascinate me endlessly, which is good for a writer.Laurel.Fantauzzo.Interview.Pic

How has your identity changed (or not) in the Philippines?

I’m now at peace with not identifying as fully Filipina or fully American. I am mixed and forever on the periphery. I’m trapped in American English as my language. Emotionally and instinctively, I know how to move between cultures. That sense of non-belonging and eternal adaptation is where I write and work from.

You say you’re trapped in American English, yet you’ve included Tagalog words in your pieces here and there, which gives a sense of adaptation-in-progress in your writing. Have you become more fluent in Tagalog? How has living in a country that speaks multitudes of dialects affected you as a writer? Have you included more puns (typical Filipino humor) in your prose? Have you read any stories written in Tagalog?

The works I read in Tagalog are usually news stories, poems, and, most frequently, Facebook status updates, smartphone texts, and Tweets, which give the most current puns, slang, and wordplay, at least among the educated folks I spend time with. My comprehension of Tagalog has improved, but I feel a deep sense of unease in trying to speak it around my fluent friends. When you’re learning a new language, jokes are the final frontier: I still struggle to keep up at a table full of laughing Filipinos, though I’m delighted in the rare moments when I catch the puns. I have a few friends who urge me to practice without making fun of me, which is a gift, but I still hesitate. I’ve spoken about this hesitation with other Filipino Americans. We wonder if it’s internalized shame about not having grown up with the language, or if we’re simply so used to our parents speaking in another language over our heads, we become passive, accustomed to the expectation that we’re not supposed to understand. In any case, Tagalog will be a lifelong work in progress for me. I text in Tagalog, and try to keep up small chats with taxi drivers and shopkeepers, but I wonder if I’ll ever really overcome my hesitance and shyness with the language.

Tell me about the book your writing.

I’ve completed one book project, my thesis at the University of Iowa, called THE FIRST IMPULSE, about the murder of two young film journalists, Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, who were in love in Quezon City. It’s a work of literary journalism with elements of memoir: a mystery, a love story, and a critique of the contemporary Philippines, with many of its wounds and its hope. I’m not sure what will come of the book, but it’s under consideration at a few places right now.

I’m also working on a young adult novel and a memoir. The YA novel is about a Filipina American kid who has a crush on her English teacher at her all-girls Catholic school, then gets into all sorts of trouble. (Not autobiographical; all my high-school crushes were boringly age-appropriate!) My memoir, however, is indeed autobiographical, and it’s called ARCHIPELAGO SLEEPOVERS, about forming a relationship to the Philippines through my most important sleepovers. The last few essays I’ve published, including my Modern Love essay, have been excerpts from that project, which I expect (hope and pray!) to finish within the year.

Who influences (has influenced) your writing?

Junot Diaz, R.A. Villanueva, Hossannah Asuncion, Gina Apostol, Jennifer Egan, Zaina Arafat, Jennifer Egan, Robin Hemley, Elaine Castillo, and Eric Gamalinda are a few authors I think everyone would be enriched by knowing.

Otherwise, I used to be part of the sketch comedy scene in New York City until I finally accepted I was far too introverted to be in such a raucous domain. But I still watch Parks and Recreation, Comedy Bang Bang, Upright Citizens Brigade, and other comedy shows for their dialogue, their movement of scene, and their accumulation of character through small choices and gestures. I know, as a writer, that I’m competing with everyone’s smartphone. How do I be more interesting than your smartphone? Sketch comedy still helps me answer that question.

So wonderfully too. This sense of comic timing is evident in your NY Times Modern Love essay, “In Manila, Two Seasons, No Regrets”, a disarming, poignant love (and loss) story. Can you talk about what it’s been like for you as a queer writer living and teaching in the PI, a conservative Catholic country that also airs television shows like “My Husband’s Lover”?

There is a definite visibility for LGBTQ identified individuals here. But visibility does not equal power. Yes, you can be out here, but it’s rare to be considered as an equal shareholder in legal and economic matters; to be an out CEO or lawmaker, for example. Mind you, straight Filipinos don’t even have the full range of rights they deserve: the right to divorce, to have access to reproductive health services, or to plan their families with every option available. That said, I am out in all arenas of my life, from my Jesuit University to semi-annual lesbian gatherings, and I do not keep homophobic people within my circle of friends. And I have a very wide and diverse circle of friends.
Laurel with Contemporary Fiction of Filipinos Abroad undergraduate students 2015
Typhoons are a regular occurrence in the Philippines since the archipelago of more than 7,000 islands is located in a typhoon belt. In November 2013, one of the strongest storms ever recorded, Typhoon Yolanda, also referred to as Typhoon Haiyan, landed in the Philippines. You’d been living in Manila at the time and wrote about the storm in your NY Times article “Notes From a Storm-Wrecked Land”. Yolanda tore though the southern Philippines and devastated towns like Tacloban in the Visayan islands, claiming over 6,000 lives and displacing 100,000 more. It was horrific and tragic. Your piece in Buzzfeed, “How to Survive a Super Typhoon”, is a more extensive look at how an indigenous people in the northernmost islands of Batanes have adapted to these cyclones, the effect of climate change, and the compelling calls for development in this isolated area coming at a potential cost of tradition and heritage. Can you talk about this. How does one live in the face of these difficult realities? Also, what have these typhoon seasons been like for you?

I’ll answer with a variation on something the director Lav Diaz has said. As Catholic and animist and diverse as Philippines culture may be, the archipelago’s true deity is the weather. Philippine societies may be divided by differences of class, region, language, and physical appearance, but the storm is our true equalizer. This is not to be cynical: it’s simply a reality of life here. The reality of violent weather does not excuse us from the obligations of healthy preparation and protection of our most vulnerable communities. It should instead be our galvanizing motivation to be ready. And there are promising signs in several communities who are evolving and bettering their sense of readiness and preparation.

Being in a high-ground neighborhood of Metro Manila, I have not been personally hard hit by storms; I only have friends and colleagues who are much more affected. But Haiyan made me look at the megalopolis with a renewed sense of its fragility and temporality. For the capital, it’s not a matter of if a super typhoon strikes, but when.

Has your perspective of the United States altered in any way since you’ve lived in the Philippines? How?

Laurel in Batanes. Self-portrait in motorbike miror
The tragedy of American racism is much clearer to me now, living outside of it. Whenever I encountered racist or prejudiced moments in the United States, I would feel crazy with grief and anger, and most people around me would tell me I was being oversensitive. Of course, as in cycles of abuse, that accusation of oversensitivity is a way of redirecting attention and responsibility away from the perpetrators and vicious structures, and back onto the sufferer. The Philippines has its own intersectional issues of race and class, but these issues are different from what I was steeped in for most of my life.

What thresholds have you encountered or crossed over in the Philippines? In your writing?

In writing, I find myself steadily more able to write about growing up in a house filled with violence and the threat of violence. As far as living here, I can visit places in Metro Manila alone that I never could have in previous years. The other day I went to Quiapo by using two jeepneys, because I wanted to find a new pair of glasses on Paterno Street, which has optometrists and dental supplies. Such a journey and errand would have overwhelmed me in the past, but now I find it fun. And I found the glasses I wanted.

How are you dealing these days with the vermin in your home?

I was in a very bad mood one day a couple years ago, so I called my friend Petra and told her we should go to the Philippine Animal Welfare Society, to pet cats. One cat jumped into my arms and wouldn’t leave. So I adopted her and named her Basil, since my last name is Italian. I don’t buy her toys because she likes chasing cockroaches, especially the flying ones. She got a rat in her mouth once, too, and was very proud of herself, while I yelped. In her less predatory moments, Basil still likes human hugs.

You’re also teaching in Manila. What has your experience been like? What advice do you give to students of literature and/or to young writers?

There are incredibly passionate young writers in Metro Manila, and I’ve enjoyed jousting with them about notions of truth, the different meanings an author might be juggling, and the strange, uneasy complications of studying and mastering English in a postcolonial era. I teach one course on Contemporary Fiction of Filipinos Abroad, which covers novels and short stories written by Philippines-identified individuals who live at some distance from the country, or were born abroad. My students brought in a discussion question after reading Eric Gamalinda’s “English is Your Mother Tongue (Or, Ang Ingles ay Tongue Ina Mo):” (Tagalog speakers will guffaw at that particularly clever wordplay.) Anyway, the question my students brought was: “Is using English automatically an oppressive act?” I like to challenge the premise of questions themselves; question the question, I suppose; so I asked my students, “Well, which English do you mean?” In the Philippines there is a vast constellation of English, so we spent the next hour listing them and having students demonstrate what each were. Barok, Taglish, Jeje, and Conyo were a few, all having to do with variations on class and identity. As the writer Gina Apostol says, I like for all my teaching to help engender a healthy introspection in students, so I advise them not to rest in easy assumptions we might otherwise carry all our lives. In short: teaching here is very, very fun.

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