Many thanks to Ana Campos, Acting Principal Librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library for hosting a virtual program, A CONVERSATION WITH AUTHOR CECILIA BRAINARD: SELECTED SHORT STORIES. Writer, Actor, and Buddhist pastor Noel Alumit was the interviewer/facilitator.
You can watch the program on Los Angeles Public Library’s YouTube site. Don’t forget to like it!
Noel had sent me some questions before the program, and while the actual one-hour interview covered more topics than just these questions, I’m sharing my notes to answer his questions. The taped interview is much richer and more detailed, so do try to view that one.
NOEL How do your stories explore the complex history of the Philippines along with history between the Philippines and America.
CECILIA I should mention that I wrote many essays that look at the Philippine-American connections. For instance I interviewed Marina Espina years ago about the Manilamen in Louisiana. They were the Filipinos who jumped ship from the Spanish galleons of the 1700s and settled in the bayous of Louisiana.
I also wrote an essay about Chino, the Filipino who joined the Spanish/Mexican expedition to Los Angeles back in 1791.
Some of my short stories and all three of my novels When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, Magdalena, and The Newspaper Widow, look at the relationship of the US and the Philippines. My first novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept, the coming of age novel of a young girl during World War Two, involves alliance between the Filipino guerrilleros and the Americans in their fight against the Japanese. This alliance however is lopsided and in the novel, my character Nando realizes that Filipinos have to decide the destiny of their country.
My second novel, Magdalena, is a fragmented piece about the lives of three women affected by the various wars in the Philippines, including the Philippine American War, World War Two, and the Vietnam War.
My third novel, The Newspaper Widow, is set in Ubec during the American period, the time when America was testing the waters at being a colonial power.
I have also written stories inspired by what I call my Filipino American experiences: my arrival here as a student at UCLA, my life in San Francisco as a pregnant wife, and so on.
While my stories are anchored in specific time frames, I do not set out to write “historical fiction” but focus on character under stress and how they negotiate their conflicts. Having said that some critics have referred to my two novels in particular – When the Rainbow Goddess Wept and The Newspaper Widow – as historical novels.
NOEL: How do you research these stories? What is it about the past that interests you?
CECILIA: The beginnings of my stories revolve around characters that I find interesting. These characters are in my imagination. In my head they walk and talk and do their thing. When I find there are gaps in my imagination, I will do research. For instance, when writing “The Black Man in the Forest:, I had to find out what sort of guns the Americans carried when they were in the Philippines in 1901; I looked it up, and they carried Krag rifles.
In other words, I will gather information to get the images clearer in my head.
Another example is how I had to do research for my third novel, The Newspaper Widow. The protagonist is loosely based on my great-grandmother who lived during the American period in Cebu. I had some information about here, but I didn’t know how the street lights looked like, and I had to see that in my imagination. I had heard that the Americans had built a train station in Cebu, and I also looked that up and found exciting bits of history about that.
The past, especially that of the Philippines, interests me because when I was growing up, information given me or that I accessed was Western oriented. Philippine history as I was taught had one chapter about pre-Spanish Philippines; it seemed Philippine history only began when Magellan “discovered” the Philippines. That was how I learned it: Ferdinand Magellen discovered the Philippines.
I had to relearn and rearrange facts in my brain when I became conscious of these things. The writing, the imagining, the research, all serve to give me another point of view of how things were.
NOEL: Let’s discuss your history of writing. How did you become one? What are some stories that you’re hoping to write?
CECILIA: I had a late start in writing fiction. It wasn’t until I was a wife and mother when I found the time to write with some kind of seriousness. I was always writing in journals, and one Christmas, many years ago, my husband gifted me with an electric typewriter. This was very expensive and novel at the time. I felt some obligation to use the typewriter and I arranged to write a bimonthly column with the Philippine American News. Then I decided to take my fiction writing with some seriousness. I had had a few short stories published in The Philippine Graphic and Focus Philippines, but they were hit and miss. I didn’t really know how to do it. When I look at those early stories I cringe at the clichés. Again, at the prodding of my husband, I started taking fiction writing classes at the Writers Program of UCLA Extension. The children were young and this was like therapy to me. Once a week, Wednesday, I had some time for myself. I would leave my husband with the kids and race off to UCLA for the fiction class.
I’m truncating the story, but I learned the craft and business, and bit by bit, I got more stories published. At some point, I felt I had enough short stories for a collection. The writer Ben Santos himself wrote his publisher, Gloria Rodriguez about me and my work, and she accepted and published my first book, Woman With Horns and Other Stories.
What are some other stories I’d like to write. I started sketching three or so years ago and have become very interested in Art. I have in my head a book project that involves my drawings with personal essays. I don’t know what will happen because the art keeps on evolving and the drawings I am making now are different from what I made last year. We’ll see what happens.
Another project I’m working on is Growing Up Filipino Book 3. You recall that I edited and collected the first volumes of Growing Up Filipino: Stories for Young Adults, which have been successful. These books have been reviewed by Booklist, Library Choice and other mainstream reviewers; the books were featured in the National Georgraphy’s recommended summer reading as well.
Now, I’ll start production of Growing Up Filipino Book 3 for an expected release date in August 2022.
Questions and Answers
1: There was a question from a teacher about books for his students, and I recommended the two volumes of my Growing Up Filipino 1 and 2. In fact my Selected Short Stories can be read and appreciated by young adults, but Growing Up Filipino 1 and 2 are tailored specifically for young adults.
- There was a question from Dr. Luisa A. Igloria, Poet Laureate of the Commonwealth of Virginia: Would you talk about how female characters in your stories reflect some of the complexities, changing roles, and identities not only related to femaleness, but also to gender in general — in the Philippine context as well as in the context of the Filipino diaspora?
Many of my stories have women protagonists, and many critics have commented on these women characters are being strong. Dr. Jack Wigley for instance wrote a research paper on “Fictionalized Bodies: The Representations of the Female Body in the Short Stories of CMB”, Dr. Rhodora Magan wrote a paper “Cecilia Manguerra Brainard’s Oriental Oriental “Magdalena”: A Linguistic Reinvention”
There are many more academic papers about this.
Many of my female characters have been inspired by women I knew –Angeling in my novel, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept” has traits like my mother; Petra Santiago in the same novel and in the short story, “The Virgin’s Last Night” is similar to my one of my old maid aunts; Ines Maceda in The Newspaper Widow has traits like women I knew in Cebu.
Like the real people I patterned them after, these female characters are tough and resilient and have had to deal with the so-called “double standard of morality” in the Philippines, that is husbands having mistresses or girlfriends; they had had to live and negotiate a male-dominated society but they are smart and stand straight and are now cowed and are quite brave, just like the women I knew.
I will tell you a favorite story: When I was newly married, my mother talked to me one-on-one. “Day, she said, tell your husband what he wants to hear, but you do what you want to do.” This reveals a lot to me about how Filipina women, in the Philippines, or in any part of the world, probably say that not only to their husbands but to their communities: Sure, sure, I won’t make waves;’I’ll tell you want you want to hear, but I will do what I want.”
In some unfortunate cases, however, some Filipinas do end up bullied in a bad way. We have heard of Filipina maids being abused, even killed in the Middle East or in some Asian countries.
But overall, Filipino women have a toughness that seems almost contrary to the image they present.
My husband and I were in the Hongkong airport once, enroute to the Philippines, and he got to talking to a young American man who was on his way to the Philippines to meet his fiancée. He said, he wanted to marry a Filipina because they are passive and obedient. My husband’s laughter filled the airport.
- There was a question from Professor Ralph Semino-Galanof the University of Santo Tomas: If a reader has only the time and/or opportunity to read three of your “Selected Short Stories”, which ones would you recommend from each of the books previously published as “Woman With Horns and Other Stories”, “Acapulco at Sunset and Other Stories”, and “Vigan and Other Stories”, and why?
All the stories my Selected Short Stories are strong. They are all published and even anthologized several times. Some really popular ones, used by educators and beloved by students include: Woman With Horns, Flip Gothic, Romeo, When the Rainbow Goddess Wept. There are student films on YouTube about some of these stories.
So, what I’m saying is that this is like “Sophie’s Choice” because I do love each story.
But perhaps if one can only read three stories, the best would be to get a story from each part of the book. The first part are stories set in Ubec; the second part are set in other parts of the Philippines; and the third part are stories set outside the Philippines.
So here goes Sophie’s choice:
From Part 1 – “The Black Man in the Forest” – this is set in 1901 during the Philippine American war. A Filipino general and his men are retreating in the forest when they come across a Black American soldier. The general kills him and what follows is the softening or the humanizing of the general as he deals with the body.
From Part 2 – “Romeo” – This is a story inspired by a dog I owned named Romeo. This story is about the dog and the mother who are in Manila during the Marcos years. It’s a mournful piece that I wrote this after I learned from my brother how my real pet Romeo had died.
From Part 3 – “Butterscotch Marble Ice Cream” – this story is about a Filipino American young woman, who is pregnant and uncertain about her new life in America. She and her husband live in the Mission district of San Francisco and they set out one night in search of Butterscotch Marble Ice Cream that the husband hankers for.
Cecilia Brainard’s website has information about her and her books
Selected Short Stories by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard is available in the Philippine from Lazada and Shopee; in the US, it is easily available from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. Check also Eastwind Books for Berkeley.
Tags: #FAHM2021 #FilipinoAmericanHistoryMonth #Philippineliterature #Filipinoauthors