After an autumn scarred by Ebola, profound injustice in Ferguson and the death of beloved writing mentor Drusilla Campbell, some good news arrived in time for Thanksgiving. I am most grateful for this first review of The Mango Bride’s Spanish edition. Equally grateful that they let me answer interview questions in English rather than forcing me to flounder in my meager Spanish.
And for those who don’t speak Spanish, here is the transcript of the interview:
Hola ExPerpento! (Lo siento pero mis respuestos seran en Ingles para puedo respondar mas rapido.)
First of all, let me tell you I loved your novel. I cannot believe this is your first one! So thank you very much for your talent and for your time!
I am delighted that you enjoyed my novel. It is my first, but I’ve written other books of short stories and essays. Thank you for reading it.
Amparo and Beverly are living in two different ways of submission. They both live between appearances and poverty. It seems that Philippine society is polarized. Is that correct? Is there a mean between these two sides?
Filipinos take great pride in their personal reputation, their honor, what other people think of them and in this way we are somehow controlled and shaped by how we think society expects us to behave. Sometimes it makes us appear hypocritical – we are always trying to smooth things over, to “put a good face” on conflict even under duress, rather than saying what we think. One of the worst insults a Filipino can receive is to be told s/he has no shame – “walang hiya” which essentially implies s/he doesn’t care what other people think of his/her behavior.
Philippine society is polarized in socioeconomic terms. I would think there is a middle point between both sides, but the gap between the rich and poor or educated and uneducated is so great that you notice more of those polar opposites than the midpoint.
What could you say about ethics? In the rich world, there are men buying wives and in the poor world men sell women. I do not know what is worse… What’s your opinion?
That’s a really interesting point you make. I cannot say which is worse. Whether one likes to admit it or not love — or more precisely sex –is a commodity that is traded for wealth, status, a secure home. I suppose the beautiful woman who is already rich or financially independent can at least enter into a marriage as an equal partner to her husband.
However if the woman is poor, and an immigrant to boot, she begins the marriage from a severely disadvantaged position. The power dynamic is severely skewed in favor of the husband. In the United States, legal residency is not instant nor is it guaranteed when an foreigner marries an American citizen. The process takes several years. In the beginning, the foreign born spouse is issued conditional residency status that lasts 2 years. If the marriage survives past 2 years, the couple files papers, goes to an interview at the Immigration and Naturalization Service and if all goes well, the foreign spouses’ conditional residency is upgraded to permanent residency. American citizenship is a separate thing that permanent legal residents can apply for after several years.
As you can imagine, that two-year period is a virtual window of opportunity for abuse. A malicious spouse could commit all manner of abuse – verbal, emotional, financial – against his foreign born wife while threatening to have her deported if she complained.
Critics have said that the central topic of the novel is the Filipino diaspora. In my opinion, we are in front of a complex novel, but the main reflection is about social differences, because it is not the same starting from 0 than starting from 5. Which do you think is the most important subject?
I think each individual reader decides what the most important subject is for him/her in The Mango Bride. After the book was published, several women wrote me to say that the domestic violence Beverly suffered was the central plot point that most resonated with them, because they had suffered similar crises. Another (male) friend told me it was Amparo’s return to visit her family in Manila that most affected him – the journey of immigration ending with reunion.
For my part I wanted examine the ways in which the experience of immigration is colored by the immigrant’s provenance: what she is leaving behind, why she is leaving, what she hopes to find in the new country.
The Philippines has for so long been the source of immigrants -10 per cent of our population live outside our country – but one usually only hears about the impoverished, the destitute immigrants hoping for prosperity in the Western world. I wanted to show that there are also wealthy, well-educated immigrants, for whom, despite their relative advantages, dislocation is still an ordeal, but for entirely different reasons.
Immigration is not just one journey, it is many journeys, each one unique to the immigrant who embarks on it. I wanted to capture that through the many conversations that Amparo has to interpret over the phone. Like Amparo, I work as a phone interpreter in my day job and I hear immigrant stories all the time.
For me it is also a novel about motherhood. The ubiquitous character in the novel is Marcela. She is not anyone’s mother but, at the same time, she is the mother of all of them. How do you start to know her and to write about someone so human?
Marcela is a composite personality drawn from all the loyal servants I knew growing up. We were raised by nannies, because my mother, like many upper middle class women of that generation (and to this day) had a full time job. It was just one of those situations dictated by social class and education.
My mother did not mean to abandon her four children, but as an educated person, she believed that it was her right to have a career. By the same logic, because our nannies did not have college degrees, they were naturally destined to take care of her children. Yaya Esther (from the first chapter) is a real person. She lives now in Bern, but she comes back to visit my mother in Manila every year. She’s practically a member of our family now. Last year she bought a copy of The Mango Bride. She knows and loves us so well that she came flew home from Switzerland for each of our weddings.
I am especially fascinated by the non-verbal language descriptions of women of high society in Manila. They are rich, but for them the most important thing is to let everyone know about it. I think you must know someone like “la señora Concha”… Who is she?
Por supuesto, I know Doña Lupita and Señora Concha! Those characters are based on my mother, her mother, all the women in that generation of my family. The Guerrero home is a much larger version of my home. The art on the walls is art my mother selected, the clean and dirty kitchen…even the chandelier is there as described.
Friends have come to me and said that Concha and Lupita sound exactly like their own aunts and abuelas and mothers. Those two are among my favorite characters. Some of the things they said in the novel are direct quotes from my elder female relatives. Luckily my mother has a sense of humor about these things…but I dedicated the book to her family just to make sure they would not disinherit me when it came out!
The novel is dramatic, but at the same time it is very funny. Is it a way to soften the hardest scenes?
I find that some of the most dramatic or difficult scenes – even in real life – also have the element of the absurd in them, so yes, I inserted humor to leaven the sorrow. Unremitting tragedy is exhausting.
For someone who had never read about “mail-order brides”, it may seem like science fiction, but actually this is an old problem in Philippines… so important that the government legislated about it. How did you know about it? Is it something everybody talks about or is it a secret matter? Why did you write about it?
It is a problem not only for the Philippines but also for Vietnam, Russia, Thailand, other poor countries in Asia. To answer the question how I found out about it, please click on the link below:
To see how the mail order bride issue has impacted mainstream consciousness in the U.S. please click on this link:
Below is a webcam discussion on the topic that the Huffington Post aired this past Monday:
After interpreting so many calls for the National Domestic Violence Hotline, in 2008, I realized that these women needed to have their stories told, that their voices needed to be added to the debate on immigration that is reaching fever pitch now in the United States. Domestic violence is a problem that cuts through all classes, all races in the U.S. However, when you add the element of an immigrant wife being abused, the situation becomes even more dangerous because the victim’s primary link to her adopted country is her abuser:does she leave him and risk deportation, or does she stay and risk being killed?
This is why the Violence Against Women Act now offers expanded protections for immigrant victims of domestic violence. Now a DV victim can apply for legal residency without having to go through her husband, as long as her spouse is an American Citizen or legal permanent resident, as long as she married him in good faith and as long as she has no criminal record.
I read that there is a webpage where the “marriageable” women appear with a shopping card next to their picture, like books in Amazon do! This is very symbolic (and disgusting). How do you feel about it?
It is horrifying. You can google mail order bride and find those websites easily.While researching the book, I even found video testimonials from “satisfied customers.” Obscene.
As Amparo and Beverly, you are Filipina and you live in the United States. Reading the book, I think you love more Filipino style than the American way of life. How someone who leaves his home town to go to a foreign country feel about his original roots?
The fact that half my novel takes place in Manila, and the other half in California speaks to a sensation of fracture, that splitting apart of a life/an identity that immigrants experience when they leave the home country and start over somewhere else.
I remain ambivalent about living in the United States, but my life, many close friends and direct family are here now. Even as I miss Manila, I also realize that it would be very difficult to return home and make a living there as a writer. Everyone makes choices, every choice involves sacrifice. This was my choice and for now it seems to be working out.