Jan/Feb 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Evelina Galang

Interview by Susan O'Neill

Anita Starr rained words upon her daughter. "Ka ka hiya, naman!" Here was another lecture on ladylike behavior, respecting her elders, and tonight her mother added a special bonus, her homage to shame and gossip. "Walang hiya!" But the louder Anita's voice got, the farther away Lourdes traveled. Her eyes turned into glass. Her hands numbed like long and slender icicles. She drained all the color from her complexion. Soon, the mother leaned an angry face into hers, but Lourdes saw only the tunnel, black, skinny hallway shooting off like the viewfinder of a telescope. Lourdes hummed to a radio down the street, and soon she sang out loud. "I'll make love to you, like you want me to..." When the sting of her mother's hand crossed her face, Lourdes turned away. Did not blink.

M. Evelina Galang is the author of two books of fiction—Her Wild American Self (Coffee House Press, 1996), a collection of short stories, and the award-winning novel, One Tribe (New Issues Press, 2006). In addition to writing fiction and nonfiction, she has edited the anthology, Screaming Monkeys: Critiques of Asian American Images (Coffee House Press, 2003). 

Galang is the recipient of numerous awards, among them, the 2004 Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Awards Advancing Human Rights and the 2004 AWP Prize in the Novel, for One Tribe. She is currently writing Lolas' House: Women Living with War, stories of Surviving Filipina Comfort Women of World War II and is at work on her second novel, Angel de la Luna. She has taught at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Goddard College, and Iowa State University, and now teaches in the MFA Creative Writing Program at the University of Miami.


SYP     Please tell me about your new novel. How is One Tribe an outgrowth from and different from your first book Her Wild American Self?

EG     One Tribe tells the story of Isabel Manalo, an American-born Pinay who struggles with a past that she perceives has been silenced by her family and community. She believes her need to speak her personal history has been denied, and so she moves to a new community to begin a life where she can work towards acceptance, approval, and reputation. Of course, once she gets there, she learns new things about herself, her family and her community. It is through her story, and her work as a community activist and teacher of Filipino myth and history that the novel explores the importance of history—recording, naming, and speaking it. In addition, the book examines the role of the tribe—the family, the Filipino-American community, youth gangs, and the American community at large.

The Manalos are first introduced in two stories in my collection Her Wild American Self "Baby Lust" tells the story of Isa's miscarriage and her relationship with her boyfriend Mark. "Miss Teenage Sampaguita" explores the expectations that family and community have on Filipinas—American born as well as Filipino born when Isa's younger sister, Millie, joins a beauty pageant to please the family. During that time, a visiting auntie witnesses the relationship between her brother Frankie and her niece Millie—and sees a reflection of her own relationship with him and the roles she has accepted in her life. 


SYP     What was your process for researching and writing the novel. How did the plot line grow throughout the project's incarnations and how did the characters develop?

EG     One Tribe is about Isabel Manalo and her life with the teens in Virginia Beach. In graduate school it was a short story about the Manalo family and their three adult children. When I moved to Virginia, it was a slim novella about Isa, a young Pinay who has grown up outside of the Filipino American community, coming into a community where her Filipina-ness is called to question. The book has always been about family, tribe and unity and disunity. Isa has always been the main character from which the other stories stem. The story is told from Isabella's third person limited narrative view.

The publication of Her Wild American Self in 1996 introduced me to the youth community around the country. Readers responded in letters, emails, and conversations at conferences around the country. I began to hear about other women's stories. I heard their words, and the way they arranged those words, and the way they used those words to convey a history, a life, a struggle.

I found out that like me, all their lives they had been looking for their stories in books. They shared their stories with me about being American-born Pinay. It didn't matter that the girls and women talking to me were in California, or Virginia, or New York. They recognized the families in my stories. They recognized the experiences and found versions of themselves. 

This feedback propelled me to spend time better developing and researching One Tribe, by spending more time with the youth community. As I wrote, I found myself drawn to their stories, imagining what their voices might sound like and what they might do if given the time and space in books.

In terms of the process, I have six very different drafts of One Tribe. My readers have been many and have given different sorts of responses. The older the draft, the tougher the critics. I actually have all my journals and versions—including a photograph of all the scenes broken down into a storyboard—that would have been the second draft—and once a year I haul the three cartons on a hand dolly into my grad seminar and I talk about process, and passion, and commitment.

SYP     The book employs a number of jumpcuts in time and narrative perspective. Photography is used as a device to explore the flashback. How did your experience in the film industry influence the writing of One Tribe?

EG     I worked in the film business for seven years, as a script and continuity supervisor for commercials and film. It was my job to watch all the action and make sure that the dialogue and the action matched from one take to the next, from one angle to the next. I had to know what was going on at all times and to record it. I can hear 20 conversations at one time and tell you what's going on. I can remember action and words verbatim. I can locate the action and even filter where the lights are coming from. 

This experience has had a large impact on my writing, on the way I see the world, on the way I move shapes about, and the way I hear stories being told. If you look at my journals, you'll see storyboards. If you look at the notes on the third draft of the book you'll find script notes. I had such an overwhelming number of pages that I had to find an organizing principle to keep me going. I thought, "Yes! Treat the mess like spools of raw footage." So I assigned a scene number for every scene and I made notes in the same way I'd make notes on a film shoot. In terms of organizing the structure of the book, I was extremely conscious of cutting the book together like a documentary film. The history of Filipinos and of Filipinos in America is so fragmented. Even our conversations at parties are constantly interrupted by other conversations and children and members of our community—that the use of photos, of phone messages and cutaways interrupting the narrative flow seemed like an organic way to organize the book itself.

SYP     The novel features a complex and colorful cast of characters. Can you address the portrayal of white vs. Filipino characters in One Tribe? Isa's white lover Eliot is portrayed as a good man, but throughout the book, Isa tokenizes him as the other Filipinos do. Other portrayals of white characters seem undeveloped in comparison to more fully-developed characters like Tita Nita or Ferdi Marmaril, who evolve in complexity. Why the decision to cast certain characters in a stereotypical light?

EG     Eliot is seen through Isa's eyes. In my mind Eliot is a good, kind and compassionate man. He really loves Isa. And he loves his students. He's not clueless in the least. But Isa sees her relationship with Eliot as an obstacle to getting into the community. It's her wrong understanding of how he may or may not be affecting her relationship with the community that makes her see him as clueless. It's her own frustration with her life that makes him undesirable to her. It's not Eliot. It's her. Even Isa's attraction/repulsion to JoJo—the Filipino co-worker with whom she falls for—is, at first, misguided.

The other characters are minor and don't play an important role in Isa's life. Tita Nita's husband, Louie Starr, is that white soldier from Clark Air Force Base who marries the Filipina beauty queen. Their daughter Lourdes is Isa's student. Louie is the only one to welcome Isa into their home, when Isa attempts to visit Lourdes. Tita Nita throws Isa out the door. Both Tita Nita and Ferdi Mamaril play integral roles in Isa's life and in the community. Since the book is about the Fil-Am community, I chose to develop the players in that community.

SYP     Simultaneous to working on the novel, you were also developing the screenplay for another project centered on Filipino youth culture. Was that related to One Tribe?

EG     One Tribe took longer than I thought it would. I have a whole treatment ready to go. But now I'm realizing that the story I want to tell about this young woman and the comfort woman is much bigger and more intense than I had first envisioned it. I want the space of a novel to flesh out the story. That screenplay is now the draft I'm working on for my novel Angel de La Luna. Instead of beginning in Chicago, the story begins in Manila and moves to Chicago. The heart of the story still explores the relationships between the girl and her grandmother(s) but there is much more to it now. The screenplay and film are on hold indefinitely. Maybe a film will come from the book.


Angel de La Luna is about a teenage girl who turns sixteen and starts her own revolution. A drummer in a rock-and-roll band in the Philippines, she struts about Manila like she owns the city, protesting corrupt governments, fighting for the poor, and using her gift of healing to support the wounded bodies of surviving comfort women. Just as Angel comes into her own, her overseas working mother, summons her to America. Forced to live the "American dream" against her will, Angel de la Luna rebels anew, banging drums, calling overseas and refusing to acknowledge her mother's toddler son. Only when Angel de la Luna meets the little boy's babysitter, an old lola from the Philippines, and learns the old woman's secret, does the teenager come to accept her new home, to love her little brother and to forgive her well intentioned mother.

SYP     Shifting gears, let's talk about your editorial work on the Screaming Monkeys anthology. What was the process of organizing that collection?

EG     A collective editorial board was assembled to cast a diverse range of artists and scholars. The final content mixed image, text, history, culture, poetry and fiction to give a voice to a community traditionally lumped together to show that we are in fact diverse, disparate, and ever-changing. The Asian American community does not fit together in one cohesive package. That book was a community's response to the way dominant culture continues to cast us—and by us I mean all the various communities of differing ancestry and nations and spiritual backgrounds­ as one people. What the Asian American community has in common is that we are Americans. I'm proud of the work that the editors and artists and scholars have done to begin an important dialogue.

SYP     As an activist, you have also worked on a community-based project with some of the surviving comfort women of the Philippines. In 2003, you were awarded a fellowship from the Fulbright Foundation to travel to the Philippines to research a book on this subject. Can you talk about your work with the lolas?

EG     I first learned of the comfort women issue in 1996, shortly after Her Wild American Self came out. I was at a conference of Filipina-American women. Dancer and activist Pearl Ubungen introduced me to the beautiful Lola Amonita through her dance performance, Bamboo Women.

Pearl used Lola Amonita's haunting testimony as the muse and music of her movement. Her performance inspired me to learn about the plight of the comfort women. At first, all my research was based on small articles and documents I found in the archives of the MacArthur Memorial in Norfolk, Virginia. The lolas (grandmothers) did not have names, they were numbers and the numbers as well as the details were unclear. I couldn't find any books about the issue, and I certainly didn't know any comfort women. To date, little is written about experiences outside of the Korean comfort women issue. 

As I continued to research and exhaust U.S. libraries and archives, I knew that I had to meet the comfort women myself. That was the only way to get the true story of what happened back then. 

In the summer of 1999, I brought five of my Filipina-American students to the Philippines to research the lives of the World War II comfort women for a screenplay project. Three of the women were in their early 20s and two were high school students. Out of the five young women only three spoke Tagalog, the national language. We worked with LILA-Pilipina, an organization of surviving comfort women through Gabriela Network, a feminist organization. I did not want to hold formal interviews, because that felt cold to me. I wanted us to get to know the women and for them to get to know us and bond with them and then learn their stories. So we created all kinds of activities that ranged from letter writing campaigns, to dance lessons, to language lessons, to accompanying them to protests in front of the Japanese and U.S. embassies and dramas reenacting their kidnappings, their imprisonment and their rapings. The students and I fell in love with the lolas and they fell in love with us. In the end they wanted to know when we were going to sit them down for formal interviews. So that's what we did the eighth week of our stay, we sat down and interviewed 13 women.

Three years later, I returned to the Philippines as a Fulbright Senior Research Scholar and lived there for eight months. I conducted a second round of interviews with the lolas and to visit their homes, their sights of abduction and in some cases, their former garrisons. When I came back to the United States, I took a tenure track-position in the University of Miami's MFA Creative Writing Program.

I am now in the process of reviewing and processing and coming to terms with the stories I collected during my eight-month stay in the Philippines. I have about 30 hours of interviews. I've written three of the 15 essays for Lola's House: Women Living with War, a book of essays and portraits that focus on 15 surviving Filipina comfort women, the spirit of each woman and the lessons they shared with me.

They are so hard to write because each one requires my whole heart, my devotion and also an attention to my own body, mind and spirit. You don't just write the stories like they're a report or fiction or a task. You have to be mindful. You have to be responsible in ways I have not had to be in writing fiction. Last semester, when the University of Miami survived three hurricanes, it was impossible to focus my attention on the essays. So I put the project on hold until this summer. 

SYP     Growing up—how connected were you to the Philippines? How aware of the culture and issues of your parents' homeland were you?

EG     I was just under one when my parents brought me to the Philippines for the first time. I now suspect that Tagalog was my first language. When I was testing out my mouth and putting meaning to sound and object, that must have been the language... but we left just as I was turning three. So I didn't grow up there. I grew up in America and for an immigrant daughter that makes the culture and the issues pretty intense. Not for me as an artist, but for me as the oldest daughter of six children in a mostly white community. There was most certainly a love-hate thing going on... love won out. The second time I went back I was already 33 years old and what I found out was that my memories of my life there have been kept alive in the way I taste things, the way my skin feels when I am there, the way the ebb and flow of my large Sunday gatherings with several generations of my family feels so familiar to me. After 33 years of being gone, I found out that I felt quite at home.


SYP     One Tribe won the AWP Fiction Prize. Why the decision to take this non-traditional route towards fiction publication? Why not just go through an agent? Do you recommend the contest route to your MFA students?

EG     I was shopping the book around to some of the top agents and I had the strangest response. The book has its own life and structure and while it's largely linear, it is also non-traditional in structure and content. So I had a lot of agents reading the work and telling me they loved it and couldn't put it down, but how were they going to market it? I didn't want to lose the way the form and content were working together. I think its an important part of the story—­ the way the fractured nature of the community within American culture is perpetuated and mirrors the history of a people constantly under imperialist/colonial rule (what my dad calls three hundred years in the Catholic Church and 50 years in Hollywood). So then I thought that contests—such as AWP—focus not on marketability but quality and artistry. So I figured this was the best way for this book, for One Tribe to be born, to be given the freedom to take the form I felt it needed to take—to let it be chosen for literary merit and not for marketability. Would I recommend it to my students? It depends on what my students are trying to do in the work, what their intentions are. I think each book has its own path. This was the path for One Tribe.

SYP     The importance of mentorship in One Tribe is a major theme throughout the book. Who have been your mentors? Was there an Asian American or literary mentor early on in your aesthetic development?

EG     I owe everything to my mentors. They saw something in my work when I did not. I was just going on hunger and drive and intuition and they forgave me and saw past that to encourage me, put me on notice, push me. My teachers who mentored me in school were Lorrie Moore, Kelly Cherry, Jay Clayton, Steven Heller, Steven Schwartz, David Milofsky, Marjorie Sandor, Judith Ortiz Cofer. None of them were Asian American. But once I was writing and traveling and meeting other writers, the writers who sought me out and mentored me were Ben Santos, Ninotchka Rosca, Maxine Hong Kingston, Helena Viramontes, Isabel Allende, and Jesse Lee Kerchavel. And there were more. Sometimes these writers really took on the work of reading books in progress, giving me feedback or opportunities. But other times, these writers made time to have a cup of coffee. They made me see in their interactions with me and in their support of the work I was hoping to do how important this is—to pass this legacy of how to live a writer's life on to the next writer.

SYP     Your influence and mentorship played a strong role in shaping a place for Asian American writers in Chicago to share, nurture, and cultivate their work. Have you found the same sort of community in Florida?

EG     It's a small and scattered community, but we're starting. Last summer there was a group of young Asian-American women from Orlando and some from here in Miami, and we'd get together every Tuesday night and cook a meal together and write and eat ice cream. 

When I moved to my new apartment they insisted on helping me unpack one box of books and wouldn't you know it, it was a box of Asian-American literature. That was an amazing experience to see their delight and energy as they discovered each book and paged through it and insisted on placing those books on a prominent place on my shelf—at eye level—so that people would see these great writers' books and maybe stop and pick one up and page through it. I still get messages from those young women who are now in grad programs in L.A. or finishing up at Florida State or struggling through bio-chem here at the University of Miami. They write to tell me they miss our Tuesday night writing sessions and our company together.

And we actually have a recently established student organization called UM Screaming Monkeys. Their mission is to use art and spoken word to pursue social justice. So, community is happening slowly. 

But to be truthful, a lot of that energy I have has been going to my undergraduate fiction writers this. These students are among the most earnest and hungry and passionate readers and writers I've seen in a long time. They are a diverse group of individuals with good will who are constantly engaged and carrying on wild discussions. On two different occasions someone has said, "Yeah but what's that mean to be white? Am I white?" And I know sooner or later this discussion is going to fly right out of their mouths and it will lead them to laugh and pound their fists on their desks and to mutter, "Hell no, he did not say that!" And then, then it will lead them to write. We read Eduardo Galeano's Book of Embraces, and they were so impressed by his honesty and his sense of humanity that when I challenged them to write risky, to write for things that they'd die for, they said collectively said, okay. And now that's what we're striving for—writing short shorts to die for.

SYP     Who are you currently reading or teaching?

EG     I love Toni Morrison. She was just here in the fall and I had the honor of hosting her question and answer session. Also, I've been enchanted by Rattawut Lapcharoensap's Sightseeing. I am always teaching Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy. I read Jhumpa Lahiri's stories and I can't wait for Nintochka Rosca to finish her next novel. I love State of War . I've been exchanging books in progress with Daniel Chacón and I think his writing and capacity for storytelling is just brilliant. I know it's controversial, but I am so drawn to the voice and the sadness in Blu's Hanging.

SYP     In a post-James Frey world (Million Little Pieces), can you talk about the intersection between fiction and non-fiction? Why the decision to write One Tribe as a work of fiction when so many events in the book were drawn from real life?

EG     In everything we do there is an intersection between fiction and non-fiction. It simply depends on how much play you give one or the other.

One Tribe is fiction born of seeds of reality. There is no Isa, no Lourdes, no Ferdi Mamaril. But the issues for American born Pinay/Pinoy youth and the issues of community and the issues between parents and their kids are very real. The problems that the teens face are problems many have shared with me—but none of it is a recording of events. I've taken things I've seen and blown them up and I'm asking hypothetical questions and I'm going there. It is a whole different experience than writing my Lola essays which are non-fiction. That project is about using the little truth (facts) to get at the big Truth, whereas One Tribe is pure machination.

I suppose that for me, in fiction, it is not about an event or a detail that may or may not have happened in real life, but how the artist draws on it and redefines it, interprets it or gives it meaning. The point is that reality is so subjective. What I remember happening you might never recall or think that upon hearing it, it never happened. I am a teacher, but have I have never taught Filipino myth and history. I have taught creative drama to elementary school kids before. I mix fiction and nonfiction to create another reality. As writers I like to believe and to teach my students that we can do anything on the page as long as we somehow teach the readers how to read our books using structure and craft and cues. I recall reading Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior in grad school and disagreeing with my literature professor when she insisted that the book was fiction. But look at the back cover, I insisted. The publishers are calling it memoir. Doesn't it matter what the author's intentions were? And then years later when I had the honor of meeting her, Ms. Kingston laughed and said she didn't know what it was—fiction or memoir—it just was. She didn't want to label the book one way or the other—but it was the marketers who refused to leave the book undefined. The whole point of writing for me is the play between reality and illusion—and how they merge in the making of any art. Of any story. Even a story that is told in conversation. And while it's an interesting conversation to have—I think we give James Frey more credit than he deserves. This is an old old conversation and a question that comes up every time we write. Sometimes truth (little t or the "facts") is stranger than fiction and truth can be an obstacle to the story we are trying to tell (Truth as in capital T).


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