‘Capitalism is arbitrary and often cruel to artists and writers’

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Author and educator Laurel Flores Fantauzzo talks about her upcoming queer YA novel “My Heart Underwater,” the Filipinx conversation, and her mentor, the late Susan Quimpo. Photo courtesy of HANNAH REYES MORALES/Illustration by JL JAVIER

Creative's Questionnaire is an interview series where artists, writers, filmmakers, and other creatives talk about their work, the challenges that they face, and their inspirations.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Many artists and writers work with a creative philosophy in mind; a system of core beliefs that guides and informs their work. For educator and author Laurel Flores Fantauzzo, there isn’t so much of a creative philosophy as there is “an emotional drive.” “If I observe a silence or a public confusion around an issue, sometimes I feel the urgency to address it, to attempt some clarity, especially if an injustice is taking place.”

This drive, she says, was the impetus of her first book, “The First Impulse,” a nonfiction investigation on the unsolved murders and love story of Filipino Canadian film critic Alexis Tioseco and his partner, Slovene critic Nika Bohinc, whose lives were taken in Quezon City in 2009. “Theirs is a terrible, unresolved injustice that deserved more,” says Fantauzzo. “My writing is not driven by ideas and intellect so much as it is driven by emotion, and a sense of duty to construct meaning,” she adds.

In October of this year, Fantauzzo will be releasing her debut novel, “My Heart Underwater,” which follows Cory Tagubio, a teenaged Filipino American from a lower middle-class background, studying in an all-girls Catholic school in California. As her handyman father suffers an accident that leaves him in a precarious state, Cory must also reckon with her attraction to her history teacher, Ms. Holden.

For some familiar with the abundance of queer literature and film, the premise may seem unnervingly familiar. The novels “Call Me By Your Name,” “The Price of Salt,” feature romances between queer characters with questionably wide age gaps, and lesbian films like “Loving Annabelle” and “Bloomington” problematically approach the teacher-student relationship with very little nuance. But it should be made clear that the relationship between Cory and Ms. Holden is not a romance. In fact, “My Heart Underwater” stands to be something of a breath of fresh air, not only as a queer story, but a young adult novel.

The novel weaves themes of isolation and placelessness — from growing up brown and lower middle-class in America, from the other-ness of being queer, from being thrust into your home country where you’re seen as an outsider and the rules, the social dynamics, don’t seem to make any sense. And, most strikingly, from the darkness of an abuse so subtle that it burrows under your skin.


“I wanted to explore the effects of subtle abuse on a young person's psyche — what it means to be longing for someone who hurt you, to be attached to someone who behaved cruelly and unethically and left you feeling taken apart, without laying a hand on you or saying an unkind word to you,” says Fantauzzo.

The result is a novel that is painful in many ways, yet unendingly tender and hopeful. A reminder of the entanglement of our personal histories with the people that surround us, and the way our own histories — from the things we can’t control like our parents’ hometowns to the things we can like the choices we make — can affect what lies ahead of us. It is, I must say, an important novel.

We spoke to Fantauzzo about “My Heart Underwater,” her mentor, the late Susan Quimpo, and why the conversation around the term Filipinx “pains her.” The interview has been edited for clarity.

What do you think are the essential traits of a creative person, especially in your field?

You must have unreasonable faith in the effectiveness of your own voice, or, if you do not have faith, your cynicism must be an engine for you somehow. I am more of the latter camp. You must also remember that there is your writing practice, and there is a publishing industry: the two do not often meet. The lack of material reward is not a referendum on the value of your work; capitalism is arbitrary and often cruel to artists and writers. Of course a human existence without art and story is one without meaning. So keep making meaning.

Also, be kind to assistants and secretaries. Be generous to cleaners, to food preparers, to landscape gardeners, to public works employees, and especially to domestic workers. Be kind to all the workers who make your own work possible, often in circumstances more cruel than your own. And if you are a writer in any of those industries, know that your perspective and your labor is one of the most essential and valuable that we have.

And how does that relate to your most recent project? You have a new young adult novel coming out this October. Can you tell me about "My Heart Underwater" and how the book came about? What was the writing process like, and why explore the themes that you do in the novel?

For my fiction, the character Corazon Tagubio was her own entity, a beloved voice that wouldn't leave me alone. I began writing from her point of view in a workshop in 2010. She's a 17-year-old in 2009, in an all-girls Catholic high school, with a massive, secret crush on her white American history teacher. Her parents are both Filipino, members of the lower middle class during the 2008-2009 economic downturn. She has a half-brother that her father Skypes with, Jun, a guy she's never met. She doesn't have many friends, but she's mostly happy chilling with her parents, especially her father, a funny, good-natured landscaper and handyman. But her father suffers a head injury and coma, and things go wrong between her and her history teacher. So Cory's mother forces her to live in the Philippines with her half brother, Jun.

Sometimes — not always, but sometimes — you have to get a little older to finish a project you begin. I needed to learn, over the years, that though I was closeted in an all-girls Southern California Catholic school, I was not Cory, and Cory was not me. She was her own entity with her own emotional range. I also had to get closer to her parents' ages to understand them, and their roles; they came from different economic classes in Manila, and fell in love in California. I had to understand that her mother sent her to Manila to save her, not to punish her.

A rule in fiction, to keep a reader's attention, is to build a character's world and then break it. See what the character chooses, how the character copes with their safety and security removed from them. So it also took me some time, since I sympathized with the characters, to break their world in a convincing way. I wrote very slowly, and finally imposed deadlines on myself to finish a draft. I was lucky to have a supportive agent who saw, before I did, that the book was ready for the publication process. And I was doubly lucky to have the faith of an editor and team at HarperCollins.

The themes here are the nature of real love, queer identities, restorative friendships, family secrets, the tensions and bonds of half-siblings, migration, the Philippine diaspora, and subtle abuse. These are all themes that resonate in my own life, and a way to be in conversation with readers who might be moved by them as well.

Recently, there has been some debate online about the term “Filipinx” and its validity. Have you heard about that? And if so, why do you think the term is such a point of contention?

I have indeed witnessed many debates. After doing so, I know I am not qualified — no one person is! — to render a final verdict on the term.

The punitive aspects of the conversation around the term Filipinx pain me, though. I'm troubled by the imposition of the term on peoples who feel it to be a negation, and I'm troubled by the mocking of those who need the term Filipinx. When the instruction around identity terms becomes dogmatic and contemptuous, pain, rancor, and the fear and anger of erasure will inevitably follow.

The people of the Philippines — itself a name imposed by a plundering outsider — have historically struggled to claim our own names. I believe we must see each term as a step in a process, not a final, settled verdict. It is healthier, I think, to be multitudinous, rather than excluding, in our own naming. Our various ways of coping with the effects of repeated colonialism is as much a legacy and day-to-day reality for us as colonialism itself, and we should be open-hearted to each other as we continue to grapple with terms.

In my own novel, I do not use Filipinx, since it takes place in 2009; it would be an inaccurate imposition to insert the term into the story from a 2020 perspective. But I have accepted the term Filipinx as another of our varied lexicon. I would take into account the feelings of my audience, and my listeners, as to whether I should use it in a certain moment or setting.

Do you have a mentor? Do you think it's important to have one?

I have been blessed with several writing mentors, whose generosity has been essential to me.

It gives me deep sorrow to refer to the chiefest of my mentors in the past tense: Ate Susan Quimpo. She began a program in 1997 called Tagalog On Site, which brought FilAms to the Philippines to immerse them in culture, history, contemporary issues, and above all, the Tagalog language. I was part of the batch of 2007, the last batch of Tagalog On Site, before Ate Susan turned her attention to writing her family memoir, becoming an art therapist, and bearing witness against the poisonous, violent Marcos legacy. I was the second-worst Tagalog speaker in the class by the end of the program, but Ate Susan saw that I ached to connect to my mother's country and was willing to give my writing energy to it. She introduced me to members of the Metro Manila community who would support and educate me up until this day; she was instrumental in encouraging my first book. She twice helped me return to the Philippines to live and write there. Her faith in me as a writer, and a person of the Philippines, was much stronger than my own. And in 2013, when I was ill with a third virus for many months, she would not hear any of my objections; she took me to her home for over a week, and made sure I ate and slept. As I have become an educator myself, and continued in my writing, the extent of Ate Susan's energy and generosity continues to amaze me.

She also made gentle fun of me every time she saw me, and would laugh if she read this; she'd flap the end of her shawl at me and say I'm giving her too much credit. She would then drink a Coke. I raise a glass of Coke to Ate Susan, now and always.

What skills do you wish you had?

Staying committed to a steady, daily routine. Screenplay writing. Swimming with proper form. Doing my own home and bicycle repairs.

What do you think are the biggest challenges faced by people in your field today? How do you overcome them?

Journalists in the Philippines have always been required to be unusually brave and terribly underpaid. They face unique bodily harms, small salaries, and little logistical support. In teaching, the humanities have been generally devalued by profit-minded administrators, to the deficit of our moral and ethical consciousness as a people. I don't know that any individual can overcome these challenges. Writers and artists must continue to point out what is possible for our people, who deserve better. And then we must participate in the movements that will earn us better.

What myth(s) about your field of work would you like to debunk?

Finishing a published work is not the end of the work; it is the beginning of another process of public engagement. Also, a work is not finished when it's perfect. It's finished when it's finished.

What have you learned from work that you've applied to other areas of your life?

I have learned that, for me, writing involves deep thinking more than drafting. I have tried to give myself time and space and peace to think.

How is this pandemic changing how you approach your work?

The pandemic has encouraged my spouse and me to get houseplants — calathea, bromeliad, spider plants — to soothe us while we work from home. But we miss her family and our communities in Metro Manila, and we're worried for everyone. There's no real upside to the disconnection, and I cannot force optimism on a dreadful time.

I'm thinking through a new young adult novel; this time about university-aged FilAm siblings, with a white father and a Pinay mother, in the midst of violent white extremism in the US, mid-pandemic. I'm not sure yet how it will work. But I will see what the story wants of me, what it needs to be.