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Marianne Villanueva

Website: Kanlaon

Marianne Villanueva , a former Stegner Fellow in Creative Writing at Stanford, has been writing and publishing stories about the Philippines and Filipino Americans since the mid 1980s. Her critically acclaimed first collection of short fiction, Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Books 1991) was short–listed for the Philippines’ National Book Award. Her work has been widely anthologized. Her story, Silence, first published in the Three Penny Review, was short–listed for the 2000 O. Henry Literature Prize, and The Hand was awarded first prize in Juked’s 2007 fiction contest. She has edited an anthology of Filipina women’s writings, Going Home to a Landscape, which was selected as a Notable Book by the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. She currently teaches writing and literature at Foothill College and Notre Dame de Namur University. Born and raised in Manila, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Short story collections

Mayor of the Roses (Miami University Press,  2005) 

Reviewed by Steven Wingate

Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (Calyx Books,  1991) 

Interview with Marianne Villanueva

The Short Review: How long did it take you to write all the stories in your collection?

Marianne Villanueva: It took me over a decade. I began the first story, Lenox Hill, December 1991 the same year my first collection, Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila, came out. I finished the last story, Selena, in 2003.

TSR: Did you have a collection in mind when you were writing them?

MV: My first impulse is to say no, since I had no real idea what I was doing. I was snatching time in between a series of administrative jobs. Also, in between raising a son. But, looking back at my correspondence file, I see that I actually began trying to submit a few core stories to publishers in 1997. So I guess, once the stories had achieved a kind of "critical mass," probably once I felt I had around six or seven good stories, I began to think of the stories as a "product" -- that's a clumsy term, but what else can I call something I'm submitting to publishers.

TSR: How did you choose which stories to include and in what order?

MV: I always knew the "grief" stories were the heart of what I was writing, in the 1990s. Everything I wrote then, even the ones that didn't have a family member dying, even the ones that were about raising a family, were really about grief. So I knew those would be in the collection. The other stories that I had a harder time fitting in were the ones like Mayor of the Roses and Extinction that were written out of homesickness (Funny, they're not exactly loving depictions of the Philippines! But the impulse to write them came out of a love for the landscape, and anger about the ways in which that landscape was being destroyed). They should have been part of my first collection, Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila (if only I had written them sooner!), since that collection was all about landscape. Anyway, when I sent the manuscript to Miami University Press, it turned out that Brian Ascalon Roley, who edited the collection for Miami University Press, really loved Mayor, but there was this problem that it was so different from the other stories, so he made the decision to put the story FIRST. It couldn't be at the end, because it was too shocking. It couldn't be in the middle, because it would stick out like a sore thumb. So he said we had to get it out of the way as soon as possible. And the other stories -- Brian was really instrumental in determining the order in which they would go.

TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?

MV:  That is such a great question. My glib response would be to say "narrative." But it's got to have emotion, so maybe what I mean is it's "emotional narrative." It has to touch you, even if it's told in a completely documentary way. I also feel that a story has to show someone (the author or the characters) trying to get at the truth, whether it be a larger political, social, or cultural truth, or just a small truth like "this is what it feels like to get hit in the head by a paper airplane" or something like that. So, any story has got to have a connection to something larger than itself. Because if it doesn't have this larger connection, it doesn't touch me. And, what's the point then of the story if it doesn't touch (i.e., change) the reader?

TSR: Do you have a "reader" in mind when you write stories?

MV: I know I wouldn't have the heart or the courage to write the stories if I didn't believe that they could touch someone, anyone. But who this reader is, I don't really know. I'm not writing stories for a particular set of people -- say, for young women, or for Filipinos only. Actually, to imagine I was writing for only a particular or type of readers would be one quick way to make me lose the motivation to write! I feel that my stories have to constantly push outward, to find a way to touch people who are very different from me. And that's the real joy of writing, to know that you have touched people who don't necessarily have anything in common (at least externally) with you.

TSR: Is there anything you'd like to ask someone who has read your
collection, anything at all?

MV: I'd like to know if they have a new way of perceiving Filipinos and Filipino Americans, after reading my book.

TSR: How does it feel knowing that people are buying your book?

MV: Well, it feels good! But I know my books are a "hard sell," since they're not that easy to define. I mean, what would the pitch be: Dysfunctional Filipina trying to make it in America? I always want my "Filipina-ness" to be front and center, but it's not always obvious, when reading my stories, that I am very, very Filipina. So, how does one sell a collection that's set in such an ambiguous landscape? I don't know how to do it. I need a publicist!

TSR: What are you working on now?

MV: I just finished a 280-page collection, last year, and the collection includes a novella. It was an interesting experience/ challenge, trying to write the longer work. I deliberately sat down and tried to write something that would be at least 100 pages long. And I found that the only way I could do it was to write the novella in very very short chapters, and using a kind of hyper-lyricized language! So, each chapter is like reading a prose poem? That was interesting, a real learning experience. Now I'm writing something that feels like it actually might be a full-blown novel. Not sure yet, I've just started it. But I like the voice, and I like the main character, and I like the setting (which I've just decided will be 16th century Spain -- a period which, surprisingly enough, I feel I understand!)

TSR: What are the three most recent short story collections you've read?

DH: Joy Lisberger's Remember Love:  Samrat Upadhyay's The Royal Ghosts: The Best Philippine Stories of the Twentieth Century, edited by Isagani Cruz