“Magnifica Angelica Superable” is a whirlwind story of revelation, renewal, and possibility. The prose and narrative voice dance across the imagination with unapologetic glee. Can you tell us a little about what inspired this tale?
“Magnifica Angelica Superable” was born out from a moment of superb glee. I was visiting with Aliette de Bodard and on one of the evenings, her husband and a group of friends sat down to play a game. Watching this group of men around the table woke up a mischievous spirit inside me. The image of men seated around a table absorbed in a game made me think of a number of instances where men sit down to discuss something they consider a man’s province. I thought of how surprised men get when a woman inserts herself into their space and how that insertion often leaves them somewhat discombobulated—and in particular when the insertion is in the form of a woman who engages and embraces her own power.
Magnifica Angelica herself was inspired by my memory of my grandmother, Rosalina Ramirez Castro. She was a big-bodied woman who took and occupied the spaces she was in. She passed on early in life, so I only have my childhood memories of her, but in my child’s mind, she was someone who could make or unmake a world if she wished it. The stories told about her are of a woman who never backed down when she was in the right, not even from the governor himself. And yet, she was very much loved.
I thought to myself: What would happen if I inserted a woman like my grandmother into a space men had claimed for their own? How would my grandmother enter and occupy such a space?
I then thought of how women are often pressed by societal expectation into a certain kind of role, sometimes to the extent where a woman feels compelled to erase the self. I believe that for each of us who slumbers, there is a moment in time when we are woken up. What triggers that awakening? How does the awakening change us? How does that awakening impact the world we live in?
What first struck me was your masterful use of sensory detail to keep the reader grounded in the otherness of the story: the table painted shiny white; Magnifica’s red face; salt crackers; the fire of Magnifica’s kiss; the fragrance of dreams. As a writer, how important is it to you to establish a strong sensory framework to support your work?
First of all, thank you. It always pleases me to hear about what works well in a story that I’ve written. When I am busy with a new work, my entire self can become so immersed in it. I try to visualize the world inside my head and I try to capture and make that world as real as possible on paper. I think to myself, how can I make this story as real to the reader as it feels to me? I’ve often wished that I could paint what I see inside my head, but since I can’t, I try to bring the world and the story into being on the page as best as I can. Creating a sense of texture and an almost sensual feel to the story pleases me because it makes things feel much more real. I ask myself about sounds and tastes and smells, and I try to evoke these sensations on the page.
With a single line (“I mean, no decent woman—no woman in their right mind—would swear so.”) you both lay bare the heart of the story and skewer the image of a “proper” woman. How aware were you of such attitudes growing up in the Philippines? Do you feel the presence of male privilege and bias influenced your writing?
Growing up, I came to realise that Philippine society is so soaked in unspoken expectation with regards to proper womanhood. I don’t know if readers have heard of it, but a lot of Filipinas grow up hearing about the Maria Clara image and how we are supposed to conduct ourselves in a certain way. A woman must not be bold (for instance); speaking up and speaking out is viewed as being unladylike. As a young woman, I struggled with this unspoken expectation because my body was inconveniently large and I was also inclined to speaking my mind. I don’t think I ever quite fit into the mold of what a proper woman should be. Coming to The Netherlands was a relief, because I didn’t have to work so hard on being a proper Filipina anymore. Although . . . the pressure to be a proper housewife came in its place. I think that I also don’t quite fit into that square of being a proper anything.
For a period of time, I did try to fit into what was viewed as proper, but after trying and failing many times, I thought: To hell with being proper. Let me just embrace being improper about everything. Giving myself permission to break away from imposed expectations was very freeing. It marked, for me, a coming into my self. As I matured as a writer, that willfulness and refusal to conform to expectation became more pronounced.
I’m not sure what you mean by your follow-up question with regards to how male privilege and bias influenced my writing. I do know that I have had to struggle against the temptation to conform and to write to expectation. I played very briefly with this idea, and then decided that it was a bad idea and that I should simply go ahead and write what I want to write, the way I want to write it.
The divine feminine has long been a favorite topic in genre fiction. Here, Magnifica reflects aspects of the Hawaiians’ Pele, the Hindus’ Maya, and the early Celts’ Brigit, including a male “helper” aspect/god in the last two instances. Was the multi-cultural blend of images and symbols intentional or pleasant happenstance?
Wow. I have to say that I’m quite blown away. As I hadn’t delved deeply into these cultures, I find myself quite stunned by the aspects of these cultures that appear in my story. I think that there is a certain resonance in various cultures and it pleases me to see that pure happenstance brought these resonances to light. Or perhaps it wasn’t happenstance, but a certain intuitive recognition of something belonging to all of us.
Your fiction embraces the varied facets of the people and cultures of the Philippines, sharing them with readers around the world. If you could reach out to young writers of color who worry their stories are not interesting enough to tell, that their voices will go unheard, what would you say to encourage them?
First of all, always be curious. Always ask questions and don’t look for easy answers. Be true to your story vision and be true to your self. Worry about whether it’s interesting for others after you have written the story. I believe that the writer who writes from a place of vision and a place of wanting to create a wider space for other stories to be heard is a writer whose stories will always find their space.
I know that we wish to live from writing, but we also have to ask ourselves how we want to live. The burden for the writer of color is much different from that of the white writer. Whether we wish it or not, we still carry the burden of expectation. Still, rather than succumbing to expectation, I would say, find the story that makes you feel and come alive. Write that story. It doesn’t matter if the story doesn’t seem to have any social or political “value” (a thing we often find ourselves burdened with). Ask yourself: Does this story make me laugh? Does it make me cry? Does it move me as a writer? There is nothing more deadly than writing a story you’re utterly bored with.
A discerning reader can easily tell if the writer was nodding off while writing a story. If your story doesn’t interest you, why are you writing it? If you’re not interested in finding out what happens next, how can you possibly expect your reader to even be interested?
Try to look at all sides of the story you’re writing. There are no one-dimensional heroes and there are no one-dimensional heroines. Also . . . a little humor is always a welcome thing.
When you look to get your speculative fiction on, what authors treat your imagination? Who stirs your blood with every turn of the page?
Ooooh. I have a long list. I’ve read a lot of authors and I’ve read a lot of work that just inspires me and blows me away. This is like the ultimate difficult question to ask a bookworm.
I am thankful to the authors who became my gateway into science fiction and fantasy, and I am also thankful to the authors whose work became a source of challenge and encouragement to me. Nalo Hopkinson, Kelley Eskridge, Nisi Shawl, Octavia Butler, Aliette de Bodard, Zen Cho, the brilliant Karin Tidbeck, Elizabeth Bear, Angela Carter, Pat Cadigan, Claire Light, Joanna Russ, Nnedi Okorafor, Jeff VanderMeer, Ray Bradbury, Jack Vance, Iain M. Banks (I think I’m forgetting a slew of names, but those are among the toppers on my super long list, and I admit that I read more women writers than I read male writers). One of the newer authors I follow writes with a fearlessness and an energy that never fails to draw me. I’m talking about UK-based writer Tade Thompson. I’m not just saying this because I know Tade, but if you follow and read his available short fiction online, it’s quite easy to see what it is that makes the work jump and crackle. It also says a lot that his first novel, Making Wolf, won The Golden Tentacle for best debut. I’m keeping my eyes open for what’s coming next.
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