Why Isabel Yap keeps coming back to fan fiction

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In her debut story collection “Never Have I Ever,” Isabel Yap borrows from mythology and fan fiction conventions to craft narratives that remind readers of their humanity. Portrait by MEG WHITTENBERGER

In my conversation with the U.S.-based Filipino writer Isabel Yap, I found myself confessing to not pursuing personal writing projects. That all I could do after a long day of work is watch an episode of the volleyball anime “Haikyuu.”

“I love Haikyuu!” she says.

Yap, who is currently juggling writing (both fiction and her occasional Substack posts on her practice) and product management at a start-up in California, started watching “Haikyuu” during the second year of her MBA program at Harvard Business School — a period where she had to grapple for time to write.

Indulging in “Haikyuu” at the time was perhaps a good decision. A perspective on the anime she passes on to me: “I feel like ‘Haikyuu’ has a lot of parallels for writers or any other creative, because so much of the storyline is about working hard and persevering. Even if you don't have natural talent, even if you've been burned in the past, even if you know the odds are so slim. It's hard work, in the end.”

Yap has always loved anime, but what drew her to “Haikyuu” was a piece of fan fiction that she read about it. And as much as fan fiction is an inevitable part of anime and other fandoms, it, too, has become integral in her writing practice.

“I'm really not shy about how much fan fiction informs what I write and how I write. I've been writing fan fiction since I was eight. It's so much a part of how and why I write.” Yap says. “For me, reading fan fiction was where I learned writing. If I wanted to write a good sentence, I just reread the stories I liked over and over. They made me feel something and then I kind of copied what they were doing in my own stories.”

Over 20 years since she started writing fan fiction, Yap’s work not only exists in fan forums; both her fiction and poetry have found their way into literary journals, magazines, and anthologies like Philippine Speculative Fiction. And just recently, Yap’s debut collection “Never Have I Ever” was released by U.S.-based publishing company Small Beer Press, which has also published books by award-winning authors like Ursula K. Le Guin, Kelly Link, and Ted Chiang.

“Never Have I Ever” is a compilation of 13 stories Yap wrote over the past 10 years. Here, she writes about traumatic experiences in all-girls schools, an immigrant manananggal who goes to therapy, young victims of the drug war who find themselves in the presence of the underworld deity Mebuyen, among others. In her stories, the supernatural perturbs the otherwise quiet life of her protagonists. But what these forces, whether borrowed from fascinating characters in mythology or invented through imagination, ultimately do is ground her characters (and the reader) in their humanness.

Cover art by ALEXA SHARPE

In this interview, Yap talks about a story from her new book, navigating identity in her work, and why she still writes fan fiction.

My favorite story is "A Spell for Foolish Hearts." I think it’s one of the lighter stories in the collection. And I have to say that it did convey kilig well. How did that come to be?

I knew that I wanted to write a story about the San Francisco fog being a person, but I wasn't really sure what the story was. I don't know why, but one time, I was just thinking that maybe I'll write a story about a boy who's a witch. To me, that was kind of interesting because we usually think of witches as girls. But what if you're a boy who's a witch? And then, I thought maybe it can be in the same story as the one where the fog is a person. And then maybe they can fall in love. You know, usually my stories start that way. It's combining different things and then finding a way into it.

I worked at this startup for four and a half years, so it was very close to my heart at the time. If I [were] to write a story set in San Francisco, it had to be in a tech startup because that was my world for almost five years. The other thing was, I thought it would be interesting to write about a demisexual character. I didn't really know that term until a friend of mine said, "you know, I read one of your stories and I feel like the character was a queer demisexual." And I was like, "What is that?" Then, she was like, “Oh you don't know?" And then she sent me a Tumblr post about it and then I read it and I was like, "Oh, I think this is me." And the definition — this isn't a precise definition but you're basically on the spectrum of asexuality, meaning you're not interested in sex but you can have those feelings. And you feel them for someone that you're friends with or someone that you care a lot about. I've been in an experience like that. How Patrick feels about love is a lot of how I felt about love. I'm not stressed about it regularly but when I was 23 to 25, I kept having these thoughts na maybe there's something wrong with me because I've never had a crush. So, when it finally happened to me, I was like, "Oh, this is so weird." I'm analyzing it a lot and trying to understand what I was feeling. A lot of the feelings in the story are feelings that I had.

And here’s another thing about the story: I don't mention Patrick's nationality. He's not Filipino. I mean, he's not not Filipino either. There's no marker of his nationality, but he doesn't call his tita tita; he calls her aunt. There was a point where I was debating with myself if I should make him Filipino. But parang for this story, it's not relevant so I won't just put that there. And I wrote him that way, not as a Filipino but some guy in San Francisco. But I had a moment where I was like, "Is it my responsibility to make him Filipino?" Ultimately, I decided not to because his identity is not relevant to the story.

I noticed that! At first, I was like maybe he's a Filipino because Gemma is a really Filipino name. Now that you've mentioned it, I want to ask you about the identities in your stories. A lot of times, their nationalities are clear. In the first story, we know that the character is Filipino because manananggals are Filipino and a portion of the story is set in Manila. In the second story, it's clear that the character is Japanese because it's set in Japan. How do you navigate the identities of your characters in your stories?

As a kid growing up until I was in high school, I didn't think of writing Filipinos because why should I? Like, every book I read then was about a British person or an American person. I was also really, really into anime so parang the only protagonists that I see are white or they're Japanese. This changed a little in high school. I wrote a little bit of original fiction in high school for my school folio. Then, I went to Ateneo for two years. While I was in Ateneo, I was more focused on poetry but the fiction that I wrote, I would do two kinds. I would do a lot of retellings of foreign stories like “The Little Mermaid” or Loki from Norse mythology. I stuck with the mythology because of my background in fan fiction.

I was actually thinking about it this morning. I've written so many fanfics but I've never written a Filipino in a fanfic because there's no Filipino in the media I consume. I've written fanfics for so many different things — books, movies, anime, video games — but there's never been a Filipino in them. And I think this started to bother me when I was in Ateneo, when I was part of Heights, which is the literary folio. Every story that we read for class if it was written by a Filipino, it was very depressing. The only story that I'd read up until that point that wasn't very depressing was Gilda Cordero-Fernando's “The Dust Monster.” I really loved that and "May Day Eve" by Nick Joaquin. Those are my two favorite Filipino short stories. The second kind of story I wrote was Filipino spec fic stories because those were the stories where there were open anthology calls.

“I'm really not shy about how much fan fiction informs what I write and how I write. I've been writing fan fiction since I was eight. It's so much a part of how and why I write.”

Writing Filipinos in my fiction was not a totally conscious choice until I moved to the States. It wasn't advocacy. I just wrote what I knew as a college student who didn’t have a lot of life experiences to write about. Well, I know what it's like to grow up in Manila. I know what it's like to talk about white ladies, as in ‘yung multo. I know what it's like to be in a Catholic girls’ school. Those were the things that were easy for me as a writer to draw from. But then, I realized when you start publishing in the States or abroad, you get asked the identity question a lot. People are like, "Oh, you're Filipino? Do you see yourself furthering the Filipino agenda? Or representing the culture?" And then, I realized actually it is important for me to write Filipinos into my fiction and to write queer stories because we don't read them enough. That’s when it became important to me in my writing.

In the collection, the original draft that I sent my editors actually had more stories that were not from a Filipino point-of-view. So there's another story that got cut that was also from a Japanese perspective. It was a historical fantasy set in Japan. There was another story that got cut that was like a European fairytale. My editors switched those for two stories that are Filipino. Initially, I thought those stories they cut were better. We had a conversation about it because I was unsure. In fact, they didn't include the second story, “A Cup of Salt Tears.” And I was like, "Oh, can we talk about it? I really think that a lot of people liked that story. And I would feel weird if it wasn't included." Of the 13 stories in the collection, 10 of them have a clear Filipino protagonist. It was important to me, but then also I don't think I only need to write Filipinos. I think we shouldn't put that constraint on ourselves. If you want to only write Filipinos, that's fine. But I don't think we should limit ourselves in the perspectives that we write. It's just that you have to have good reasons to write a different perspective.

Why shouldn't we limit ourselves from writing outside our own cultures?

Again, the question goes back to why you want to write that story and why you think it needs to be told from a certain perspective. I write in genre fiction, so in a way, I should be able to do whatever I want. Obviously, certain perspectives are going to be really hard for me. I think it's especially tricky when it comes to race. But if I want to write [about] a white person, why not? They've been doing that to us for years, right? If my story needs a white protagonist, why should I not do that?

But to me, the question is, "does this story necessitate a Filipino or not?" For example, the fairytale characters that I wanted to write were “Little Red Riding Hood” and Beauty from “Beauty and the Beast.” It would completely change the story I wanted to tell if Red Riding Hood is Pinoy. It would just change the setting, the language, everything. And that’s not the story.

Another example in my mind for this question tends to be “Call Me by Your Name.” To me, as a queer person, it was very good. I needed that story and I'm so grateful that it was told. I cried a lot while reading it. The author Andre Aciman has said he’s not gay. Does that mean he shouldn't have told this queer story? To me, as a bi person, I feel like I needed it, so I'm grateful to him for telling it even if he's not claiming this identity. I know that some queer people will feel differently. I know some queer people will say that he shouldn't be writing our story. And because publishing is unfair, I understand that feeling and that perspective. Just simply for me as a person and a reader, I'm grateful that he wrote it even if it doesn't come from a lived queer experience. I think art has a gray area, right? If we're too limited in what we think people are allowed to write, then I don't think that's a good thing.

But how do you make sure that you’re doing it right? This question is particularly about the Japanese story, “A Cup of Salt Tears.”

I think it's always a challenge. If a Japanese person were to call me out on that story and say that it's inaccurate, then I don't have a lot to stand on. I’ve studied Japanese language and culture for a long time, I went to Japan for study abroad in 2012 and I wrote that story in 2013, so my experience of being in Japan was kind of fresh at the time. When I was thinking about what story I want to write, I was like, "oh, I want to write a story about a kappa and I want a story about onsen." Onsen was an experience I really loved when I was staying there. I was still in touch with some of my Japanese friends whom I met abroad, so I asked them for their opinion. I was also very new to publishing so I wasn't aware of the politics around it.

In the years after, I have asked myself, "Am I allowed to write a Japanese story?" It's a real issue that potentially I could be taking that slot from a Japanese author. There’s probably some excellent writers who are not getting recognized outside of Japan because their work is not in translation, for example. Or there could be Japanese writers who write in English who haven't had the opportunity. I can fall back on my idea that it's all about the integrity of the story and the story that I'm trying to tell. I guess I'm lucky that it hasn't happened, that someone's like, "you got this completely wrong." I mean, I did research. I researched this and I researched the other Japanese story I wrote, “The Oiran's Song.” Those stories were written in 2013, 2014, and I haven't done it since.

There are still stories I want to do that are set in Japan, but I have become more aware of identity politics and it has become more of a challenge for me to be able to write from a place where I'm not interrogating every experience. Part of me is like, I'm just going to go crazy if I try to think of all these identity politics and what I'm allowed or not allowed to write especially because I'm a diaspora writer. And so, if I think about everything too much, I will just not write because then I will just be terrified, so I have to find that common ground. And the place that I stand on is, What does the story need? And can I tell this in a way that I believe is still respectful and truthful?

But I fully recognize that if I insist on writing these stories and I publish them, then I should also be completely accepting of whatever criticism comes my way, especially from people who actually come from that culture. I think if you're going to do it, you should be aware of the possible consequences.

I guess related to the topic of identity is the way you write dialog in your stories. It’s in English, but you casually drop Filipino phrases, which is understandable because the characters are Filipinos. One thing I noticed is that you don’t italicize the Filipino words. As a Filipino reader, I think I got so used to reading Filipino words in italics when I see them within an English text. But you know, people say that formatting words that way feels othering. What are your thoughts on that?

Until 2013, I thought the same as you. If you look at my early published stories, there were a few stories in the collection where the Tagalog was originally italicized and I had to change it. My approach changed when I attended the Clarion workshop. Nalo Hopkinson, an author from the Caribbean who was an instructor there told us not to italicize the words. Who’s to say that the word is foreign, right? It assumes that your audience is white.

As a default, I don’t italicize it because I like Nalo's idea that you should just leave the text as it is and just let the words stand for themselves. That way, you're not default assuming that your audience doesn't know that this is a Tagalog word. There's already an embedded assumption there. To me, italics is now for emphasis but it's not about the language, and I like that idea that it's a neutral zone. Why not try and see what happens if I don't call attention to those words in the text, right?

Isabel Yap. Photo by MEG WHITTENBERGER

I want to go back to “A Spell for Foolish Hearts.” I’ve never been such a big fan of anything that drove me to read or write fan fiction. But being exposed to the BL fandom and the culture of shipping, I felt that the story is what fan fiction would read like. Were you aware of that?

Yeah, completely. There's a fan fiction trope called sex pollen where people drink something or there's pollen in the air. I think it came from Batman and Poison Ivy. The trope is that something happens in the air and then the characters in the fic have sex. Then, there are complications after that: They don't know if they really have feelings for each other or if it's just the pollen. And it's not always sex. Sometimes, it's just a kiss or whatever. That was the trope that I was thinking of. What if you think you have something with someone but it's not real? So, I wrote “Fog Boys” — that's what I call it — as a sex pollen fanfic except without the sex and the pollen. It was actually not what he thought it was. It was real, but the character thinks it's not real. I was really drawing from fan fiction conventions. It was a conscious decision for that one, but I didn't even know if it would work until I finished writing it.

Now that you’re publishing, how do you view fan fiction?

I still write it. There was a period of time when I wasn't writing it because I didn't have a fandom and I didn't have time in between work and my writing. In 2019, I started writing it again. It's been amazing. I just love it so much. First of all, you're anonymous and I like that. I can just write what I want without worrying about, for example, all of these identity questions.

I quit for a while in grade school because I felt I wasn't good and the reason why I felt that way was because my fanfics weren't getting a lot of comments. My mindset was, if I don't get comments on my fanfic then it's not good. I needed to get out of that mindset and write again for the joy of writing. There was a long period of time when I was writing simply for the joy of writing. Then in college, when I started getting recognition for my poems and getting into national workshops, my expectations for myself and my writing went up again. And when I didn't get into the Siliman Writers Workshop in Dumaguete, I freaked out because again I felt like a failure. Again, somehow I had fallen into this mindset that if I don't have the external reward of people telling me I'm good, then I'm not good. I needed to get out of that. Eventually I had a blank slate again. No one knew who I was when I went to Clarion and then started publishing. The thing that I've tried to do after that is to hold on to the belief that yes, publication and other things are great but I always have to remember that it's always about the writing in the end. And I never want to be the kind of writer na because I got recognized, people assume I'm good when I'm not really good; I want the works to be actually really good.

"...a lot of people think fan fiction is training and when you start getting work published then you're done with it. That's cool and that's true for a lot of people. I think not everyone who writes fan fiction wants to write professionally."

There are definitely periods where I'm focused on what other people are saying. Every year, in the genre writing community, there are multiple awards. I have always hoped that one of my stories would get nominated. It came close to being nominated for the Hugos. In the end, though, it wasn't nominated for a major award. I saw myself falling into that mindset again. I don't like it but it's hard to avoid it. And my friends are so talented. They regularly get into the awards list, so then it opens up this horrible comparing mindset. If I let myself think about it, I'll start to feel bad about myself because I've never been nominated. It's entirely my mindset of “all I want in life is to get a Palanca.” But why? Actually, it's not about the Palanca or the Hugos, it's about writing a good story and writing a story that's real and hoping that even one person will find it good. That's what it's all about.

In fan fiction, I'm anonymous, there are no fan fiction awards. Once in a while, I'll get a comment that says, “I'm crying.” That's the whole comment. That's what it's about. To me, fan fiction is such an amazing reminder that what it is in the end is the story connecting with the reader somehow. There's no pressure. I can do it when I want. I can publish it as soon as I want to.

I think fan fiction produces the most diligent writers, but I think it is also often looked down upon.

I hear you on the stigma. That's why I don't say what my fan fiction name is. I get asked sometimes and I’m like, “Don't tell people because they're going to go to the fanfic I wrote when I was 15.” I don't want to expose myself to that. I've seen it happen to people where they get criticized for their fan fiction along various weird dimensions. But I'm never going to disown what I've done in fan fiction because it's its own space. I think there's also a mindset — and this is totally fair — that a lot of people think fan fiction is training and when you start getting work published then you're done with it. That's cool and that's true for a lot of people. I think not everyone who writes fan fiction wants to write professionally. Sometimes they just want to write fan fiction and that's fine. Sometimes, like me, you start publishing professionally, but fan fiction still gives you something and you keep going there. I think a lot of the criticism about fan fiction is that it's bad writing or that it's only about sex. Neither of those things are true, but it doesn't mean that all fanfic is good. You know, it's like any kind of writing. Some of it is just not good, and you’ve got to find people that you think are good and learn from them. I think the blanket criticism is unfair.

The way I operate in fandom is very like, I write and then I post. I don't engage as a fan because I don’t have the time or energy. But I know my stories reach some people and that's what matters to me. And a lot of my favorite writers have mentioned that they've written fan fiction and I think that's partly why I like their writing. Zen Cho is a Malaysian writer who has written fan fiction; I think she's amazing. There’s Tamsyn Muir whose book “Gideon the Ninth” is super popular. I actually knew her when we were both writing fan fiction. I think the stigma is going to come down because so many of us started there. But it still exists for sure.

What makes a story great?

For me, I really like when a story makes me feel something. I can appreciate a lot of stories for being technically very good. But if it doesn't move me, it's not as successful. I can think “That’s impressive,” but I won't really feel anything. The works that stick out for me are the ones that make me feel. It is really a feeling. It's an emotion, a sensation, or maybe sometimes even physical. If you can make me laugh out loud or if you can make me cry, that's really good. What specifically in the writing achieves that effect? It's hard for me to describe but I think when the emotions are very real in the story, that's when I say, “Wow, ang galing!”

What's the last great story or book that you've read? And why?

I really like what I've been reading this year. I liked “Less” by Andrew Sean Greer and “Upstream” by Mary Oliver. I'm reading “Cleanness” by Garth Greenwell right now in audio. It's not easy to listen to. It's very brutal in some ways, but it does the things I described incredibly well.


You can request a copy of “Never Have I Ever” from Fully Booked by emailing [email protected], or get an e-book version from the publisher here.