Did you always want to become a writer? How did you start writing In the Country?
When I was young, trying to make up my own stories went hand in hand with learning how to read. Moving around so much created trouble for me when people asked, “Where are you from?” I could never come up with a short, simple answer to sum up all the cultures, communities, languages, and selves I identified with. Whenever I tried to talk about it, I felt I was always oversimplifying, always leaving things out. Writing became my way of exploring these messy, complicated questions more deeply than I could in everyday small talk.
Which writers have influenced you and your writing?
Four American writers who really shaped my sensibility when I was young and starting out are Sandra Cisneros, Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, and Junot Diaz. I love Chekhov and Tolstoy and many of their Russian compatriots. Among Filipino writers, Carlos Bulosan and Nick Joaquin are two of my giants: Though they worked on opposite shores, and from completely different class perspectives, both have inspired me in many ways. I love Jhumpa Lahiri and Mavis Gallant, who tell beautiful stories of characters in transit or otherwise far from where they expected to be. I also read George Saunders, Steven Millhauser, and Alice Munro obsessively.
In the Country is filled with Filipino characters. Which of them can you most relate to?
Believe it or not, I feel a special connection to Alice in “Legends of the White Lady”—the only non-Filipino protagonist in the collection. She doesn’t look like me, share my background, or do the kind of work I do; and it’s not easy to make readers sympathize with a blond fashion model who’s five feet and eleven inches tall. But in writing her story, I discovered Alice’s loneliness and grief, her struggle to make a living in a difficult business, the pressure she feels on a daily basis to look a certain way—and then she didn’t seem so alien to me at all.
Which story paints a picture that’s closest to your family’s experiences?
The stories include many details from my family’s experiences—balikbayan visits to a sick or dying relative, Filipino parties outside the Philippines, karaoke, food… But because I’m a fiction writer, I like to distort and exaggerate and reconfigure those “real” details to create something completely new. So I think the stories are all equally far from my family’s experiences, once I’m done with them.
Is there any one person that these characters have been inspired by? Are any of the stories in In The Country autobiographical in any way?
I borrowed a lot from real-life people but also changed a lot on the page, so there isn’t one story that feels really autobiographical. Bits of my mother’s personality and life appear in “The Miracle Worker,” “Shadow Families,” and “In the Country”—stories that feature strong, highly educated immigrant women who have worked hard to attain a middle class existence and appear to have it all together, but whose pasts—girlhoods in poverty, ghosts of personal tragedy— continue to haunt them. As for other characters, inspiration came from many sources. Baby in “Shadow Families” is a composite of women I encountered growing up, who raised eyebrows by not looking or acting the way “respectable” women were supposed to. Alice in “Legends of the White Lady” was originally based on the American actress Claire Danes, who once described her experiences shooting the film Brokedown Palace in Manila in surreal and disturbing terms. And anyone who knows recent Philippine history will recognize the family that inspired “Old Girl.”
Tell us about your writing process.
I start most stories by not writing very much at all: I just read a lot and think a lot about the subject I’m interested in. If I have a character in mind, I try to learn about him or her to the minutest detail: brainstorming what she might have in her purse or pockets, visiting the places where I think she works or shops or worships. These details almost never see the light of day outside my little notebook—but they help to build a world that, while imaginary, feels real to me. It’s only then that I can begin to write the story itself. It’s a long and painstaking process—I took a decade, more or less, to write In the Country, and in that time I threw out three to four times as many pages as ultimately wound up in the book.
Who do you imagine the filipino woman on your book’s cover to be?
She could be any one of the women in the stories. Her clothes, along with the cars in the background, belong to a very specific time period, during which the country would have been under martial law. The fact that she’s wearing yellow is such a great coincidence—perhaps this woman, like so many Filipinos in the ’80s, was swept up in the fervor of LABAN and People Power.
Part of me worried that a straightforward photograph on the cover would feel too literal; I didn’t want to limit readers’ imaginations in any way. But because she’s a nameless stranger, there’s still a kind of mystery around this woman that leaves room for questions and multiple possibilities—at least I’d like to think so. A few readers have written to me or approached me at events to say that she looks like “a younger version” of their mother or college professor or some other Filipina in their lives, and I love that too: the sense that this woman, and hopefully the characters in my book, might resemble someone you think you know quite well, someone that you’re perhaps now seeing in a new light.