M. Evelina Galang is the author of Her Wild American Self (Coffee House Press, ’96); the novel One Tribe (New Issues Press, ’06); and Angel De La Luna And The 5th Glorious Mystery (Coffee House Press 2013). She has edited the anthology, Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images (Coffee House Press, ‘03). She is currently writing Lolas’ House: Women Living With War, stories of surviving Filipina WWII “Comfort Women” and is at work on a new novel, Beautiful Sorrow, Beautiful Sky. Galang teaches in and directs the Creative Writing Program at the University of Miami, is core faculty for VONA/Voices: Voices of Our Nation Arts Foundation and has been named one of the 100 most influential Filipinas in the United States by Filipina Women’s Network.
Galang’s novel, Angel de la Luna and the 5th Glorious Mystery, is forthcoming with Coffee House Press this fall.
What led you to invent Angel de la Luna’s story of teenaged immigration and family conflict?
As always, stories come to me from the experiences I witness and from the questions that baffle me. When I began my work researching the lives of surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII, I brought eight young women of Filipina descent with me from the Chicagoland area. We wanted to meet the women who had survived this atrocity of war, the “Comfort Women” called Lolas, the Tagalog word for Grannies. And I wanted to see the interaction between these two generations of women. Teens are teens no matter what country they come from. And families can love each other and never understand one another. Is there a way to understanding and forgiveness despite these generational barriers? I meant to use this research to write a screenplay, but I began to see another story emerging. The life of an aktibista, a nationalist, a Pinay—the story of the organizers and the youth marching on the streets. And then the question presented itself: What would happen if someone devoted to the Philippine fight for social justice was yanked right out of it against her will in order to pursue the “American Dream”? And what if that someone was a teenager who was mad at her mom for doing it?
Angel’s experiences combine the dislocation of the immigrant with the anger and alienation many teenagers go through. How did you find a way to combine both these elements in such a complimentary way?
Aren’t all teenagers perpetually dislocated, alienated and searching for their place? What happens when the body changes and you are not changing with it? What happens when what you think is perfectly normal sane behavior is seen as alien? How are these questions any different than learning to live in a culture that is not yours? We are all alien at sometime. We are all looking for connections. And who has the power when you are the foreigner? Who has the power when you are a teen? It seems to me that working with Angel as a character and giving her specific traits and desires in a specific situation, the act of migrating to America or migrating from girlhood to womanhood — to personhood — ride in tandem like to two subway trains in a tunnel, running parallel, always nearly colliding.
Angel despises the “American dream” as an illusion, yet her mother works very hard to come here. What in the relationship between the two countries explains two such varied responses?
Angel and her mother, Milagros, are working for the same thing: a better life, an opportunity to be the best persons they are and to do it well. For Milagros, Angel’s mother, the answer is to leave the Philippines, a former territory of the United States, in pursuit of “better” opportunities in our U.S. melting pot. For Angel, a teenage activist who has protested at the U.S. Embassy in Manila with surviving Filipina “Comfort Women,” her better life has to do with social justice and national pride. The relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines has been complicated from the start when the U.S. occupied the islands after the Spanish-American War and Spain relinquished the Philippines for $20 million in the 1898 Treaty of Paris. During WWII, many Filipinos (and “Comfort Women” too) were grateful to American soldiers, but after the war, U.S. military presence at Clark Airforce Base, Subic, and more recently the Balikatan exercises is controversial—especially in a family as political as Angel’s. One person’s dream is another’s nightmare.
Although Angel de la Luna and the Fifth Glorious Mystery is your first young adult novel, is it also an extension of your earlier novel, One Tribe, and your short story collection, Her Wild American Self?
Yes, of course it is. Like so many writers, the material began with my own experiences. In Her Wild American Self, those women and girls in the collection are not only American born Pinay, but Midwestern too. Much of those stories are about establishing an identity that belongs to an individual, not a Midwesterner, not an American, not a Filipina or an American Filipina, but to a specific character. When the story collection was released in 1996, so many of my readers were also American born Pinoy and Pinay and I got to know another kind of Filipino community. The second book, One Tribe, focused on the generation raised in the Tidewater area. Many of those kids in that book are first generation college-bound kids, Filipinos who had fathers, uncles, and grandfathers in the U.S. Navy, not as seaman but as cooks and janitors (because the Navy did not historically allow them to be sailors, but helpers). That book and those girls and girl gangs were also looking for their space on this planet, looking for a way to tag themselves and shout out to the world. And here we go again, my obsession with identity and family and young girls growing to be young women. This time in Angel de la Luna and the Fifth Glorious Mystery, Angel is an immigrant, a reluctant immigrant. It seems that with each book of fiction, my characters grow more conscious of their political state, of their capital as young women of color, and their own girl power to choose their destinies. And so yes, my books and my characters are growing up with me, finding our identity in different ways, claiming our heritage from American and Philippine soil too.
You are a leading Filipina-American novelist and short-story writer, raised her by immigrant parents. Does your experience inform Angel’s?
My experience as a first generation American born Pinay is different than Angel’s. My parents are part of the historical third wave of Filipino immigrants to come to the United States after the passage of the immigration act in 1965. They came as professionals during a time when there was a dearth of U.S. doctors in urban areas and remote rural areas. My father was part of a group of physicians who were welcomed and needed in these areas. So the struggles and obstacles my family faced were different than Angel’s. Angel comes to the U.S. when the sentiment toward immigrants is not so welcoming, though her mother is a nurse. And she comes as a Filipina, an aktibista, who is all kinds of politically aware. Each family’s experience coming to the U.S., assimilating and fighting for that American Dream is really different. So yes, on some level, yes. But this novel has asked me to go beyond what I know and what is comfortable and so on another level, no. My experience cannot possible inform what Angel knows, feels and wants. As an immigrant, anyway. As a teen? Of course. I was a rebellious, hard-headed, idea-dreaming teen who always “knew” better than her parents.
Did you grow up with an awareness of your dual heritage? Is it possible to wear both identities comfortably at the same time?
I grew up Filipino inside the house. I grew up thinking I was American when I was outside that same house. My parents inculcated me with our rich heritage and made “back home” my American Dream—to travel to their homeland and be among a people and a huge family where I did not stick out. I heard rumors of Marcos and his awful Martial law. I listened to my parents tell me stories of their very different experiences growing up in the Philippines. I didn’t realize until I was an adult, going back to Manila, that I stuck out there too.
At the same time I was Filipino at home with my family, at school, I wrote for the paper and the literary journal and I waved pom-pons and had crushes on boys and my friends were the Kowalcyzks, the Rozowskis, the Schaefers, the Littmans and yes, the Starrs. Not a Latina in the group. And no Filipinas. I was that perpetual alien, not because I was born outside of America, but because I felt like I belonged to two countries and at the same time, I did not really belong. It took growing up, getting challenged and treated like I was invisible, or like I was weird (Galangorangotango), and learning how to deal with it, or ignore it or challenge it to realize how lucky I am to be an American-born Pinay. As an adult, I get it and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
What first drew you to writing and to experimenting with form?
I love words and I was told early on that I had a way with them. I knew how to draw people onto the page. My problem was I didn’t know how to shape a story. I wrote down one word after the other without giving thought to tension and form and even though the masters (and by that I mean the cannon I was reading as well as my traditional writing teachers) were trying their best to get me to conform to Freitag’s Pyramid, I couldn’t do it. Well that became my writing challenge, to learn how to shape a story. I read all kinds of books—including A Pale View of Hills, Mariette in Ecstasy, Dogeaters and Running in the Family—and read them to see how the content of the story was arranged to form “story.” I found out that stories did not have to be linear. They could be associative. They didn’t have to stack up alike a pyramid either, they could go in circles. I took what I did not know how to do and I did my best to tackle it. And then I was obsessed with it. Now my favorite class to teach is called “The Shape and Substance of the Book.”
In your work, you give underrepresented and marginalized voices a chance for fully-flowered expression. Tell us about your literary—and other—commitments to this.
My literary commitment is to tell a good story and to tell a story that matters to me, a story that I have a passion for. The stories that move me come from voices I did not hear when I was reading stories as a girl. I was a voracious reader. I looked forward to Friday afternoons when the teacher handed out the Scholastica book forms and I ordered lots and lots of paperbacks. I ate up all those books, and I didn’t notice that my stories were not among the ones I was reading. I didn’t miss the stories of the underrepresented or the marginalized. I loved reading that much. I loved stories that much. But when I started looking for stories of Filipinos in America, I realized I couldn’t find them. And if I came upon them (Bulosan, Santos, Hagedorn, Rosca) it was because I had to search high and low for them. So that when I was given the opportunity to turn it around, to be the writer creating good stories, I decided to write the stories I could not find. To write the stories of Midwestern Filipina-American girls and young women who came from third wave generation Filipino immigrant doctors, to write of teenage Pinay girl gangs from Norfolk, or surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII and now, the activistas from the streets of EDSA, and the overseas mothers, the women and girls I have met and listened to as I have journeyed back and forth to the Philippines each year. I wrote the stories I never got to order on Friday afternoons in the 1970s.
What does ‘hero’ or ‘heroine’ mean to you and how do you relate this to Angel de la Luna?
I think the hardest thing to do is to stand up for yourself and speak up when the room is crowded and the voices are loud and the people around you traditionally have the power. I think the second hardest thing is knowing how to stand up for yourself. To me, a hero or heroine is somebody who knows how to honor himself or herself and does it. So in the case of Angel de la Luna, she is finding a way to forgive her mother—at least she thinks so. But really, she is finding a way to love her own self and to forgive her own self. And without spoiling this book, let me say that she is my heroine because she learns that it isn’t enough to fight for justice when you are standing in the way, when you won’t let down your anger and learn how to forgive. So she is learning to stand up for herself, I will say that.
You beautifully integrate Tagalog in Angel de La Luna. How and when do you decide to do this?
The characters decide. And by that I mean the flow of dialog between the characters and how I hear them speaking. What feels organic and natural to Angel, her mother and sister, and her Lola Ani. Tagalog is the language they speak to one another in Manila, Taglish too. So I let them have conversations the way I have heard conversations and have had them with people in the Philippines.
Does your lyricism emerge from voice, or does its embroidery come in later drafts?
I hear the words coming from the characters mouths, I hear them falling on the page in certain ways. To me it’s all music and every word counts—not just word choice, but placement, juxtaposition, pacing. Arrangement of words, lines, paragraphs and white space is just as important as content. They come out in the early drafts this way. In later drafts, I pull threads out. I simplify. I tell myself, less is more.
Your main character, Angel, literally traverses the globe and constructs her identity from dislocation, like so many immigrants. Can you talk about how she coalesced for you?
Angel has always been a strong girl in my mind, a girl power girl. Much of what drives her comes from anger with her mother. Her father dies, she feels abandoned by her mother, who moves to the U.S. to start over. To compensate, Angel joins a national revolution, and for the first time has a purpose bigger than herself. When her mother forces her to immigrate to America, she feels doubly betrayed, abandoned yet again. In this way she personifies the teen experience, and the immigrant experience, but on a larger stage. Angel is the kind of young woman who will not be brought down. And so like many immigrants (and this one is forced to migrate against her will, I might add), she finds ways to fight back, to stand up and to make it work. She finds she can fight for social justice here, too. She’s so mad though, she can’t hear and she can’t see what’s really happening. And I wanted to get at that too. That sometimes we’re so hurt, we’re really the ones holding ourselves back. Not her mom. Not her dad. And not the (real or imagined) loss of either one of them.
This novel, I understand, will be aimed at young adult readers. Was this your initial intention? How do you think it differs from your previous work?
I never set out to write a novel or a short story with any audience in mind except for myself. I have a story that desperately wants to be told, and I have a need to tell it to the best of my ability. It was only when other people began to read and respond to the book – good readers, such as other writers, and my editors at Coffee House – that I began to hear that a natural audience for this book might be young adult readers. I don’t know if that’s true or not. Look at Catcher in Rye and To Kill a Mocking Bird. They were published as adult books, but are widely read by young people. On the other hand, The Hunger Games was written for teenagers, but has found a huge adult audience. To my mind, this book is an extension of my earlier work. It has a teenaged heroine, and it engages some familiar coming-of-age themes, and I imagine some young adult readers, at least, will find it. But that’s true of my earlier novel, One Tribe, which was not categorized as young adult. I write about family, and I like to think that readers of any age will find my books and stories worthwhile.
The plight of the comfort women also plays an important role in the novel. Why did you decide to include their story? How is their legacy crucial to the generations of women and girls who’ve come after them?
I’ve been researching the lives of surviving Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII for 15 years and much of that research has found its way into the novel—first in the lives of Angel as a working teenager and activist and secondly, in the cause she is involved in—a grassroots feminist practice eradicating violence against women. I’ve worked with the organizers of Liga ng mga Lolang Pilipina-Gabriela first hand since 1999. I’ve spent many days over the past 15 years with youth activists like Angel who were supporters of the Lolas and their fight for justice. We rode jeepneys together, raised our banners at the U.S. and Japanese Embassies, marched down EDSA Boulevard and chanted in front of Malacañang Palace. So while I was researching the “Comfort Women” I was also living with the organizers and I saw a story there.
But the reason that the Lolas’s fight for justice is Angel’s fight is because I wanted to share the women’s stories through this novel. It is also my fight. Of course I want Japan to make a formal apology, but my personal fight is to educate where I can and integrate their stories, document their experiences, make record of what happened so we will not forget. The Japanese government has been working to eradicate this history from their textbooks and if people know the stories, then nobody can erase this historic crime against humanity.
I wonder if we can stop the violence on women, on children, on our bodies and our collective spirits if we are aware of our history with war? I wonder if knowing their stories will shape how we respond to the stories of other women—like the women in the Congo who are also battling physical, emotional and sexual abuse to the body because of “war.” I wonder how we stop it if we don’t know about it. So the plight of the “Comfort Women,” the 200,000 women and girls all over Asia during WWII, and the 1000 Filipinas and the 173 Lolas of LILA Pilipina, that history will somehow always find a way into my narrative. That’s my fight. Laban ko. To educate.
What project is next for you?
I have just finished a book of essays documenting the plight of 15 Filipina “Comfort Women” of WWII. I call it LOLAS’ HOUSE: Women Living with War.