Isabel Yap on writing Filipino fiction and the comfort of being sad together

This interview was published in the June 22, 2018 issue of The Slant. Want more Asian American news, media and culture? Subscribe for free to get The Slant’s newsletter every week, right in your inbox.

When it comes to writing from the Filipino experience, Isabel Yap is definitely one author that comes to mind. A Filipino writer of speculative short fiction and poetry, Yap’s a Clarion Writers Workshop alumna, and her work has appeared in Tor.com, Uncanny Magazine, Year’s Best Weird Fiction and more. She also runs a Twitter account chock-full of writers’ advice.

We caught up with Yap over the phone, and chatted about the difference between Filipino and Filipino American experiences, why she writes speculative fiction, and why Twitter makes it comforting to be sad together.

Andrew Hsieh: Can you give us a quick introduction before we start?

Isabel Yap: I am a Filipino writer — I write short fiction, mostly of the speculative variety, so sci-fi, fantasy horror. I really like doing all the genres, and I also write poetry, although not very often recently. Outside of that, I work in tech, most recently as a product manager.

AH: You’ve mentioned you’re a Filipino writer, and in the past we’ve talked about how you might not consider yourself a Filipino American, necessarily. How do you identify?

IY: It’s funny. On my Twitter profile, I used to put “Manila girl” as one of my “brief things people should know about me.” [laughs] I recently changed that to just “Filipino,” because I thought, “maybe I don’t want to use ‘girl’ as a descriptor for myself.”

But I mean, I was born and raised in the Philippines. I moved to the States when I was 20, so I was already an adult when I moved here. And I think of myself as an immigrant, but I am not a U.S. citizen, and I don’t know what the threshold for calling myself an American would be. I don’t know where that is in my future.

But I was talking to another writer yesterday, who immigrated here from Hong Kong, who’s ethnically Thai, and she does a lot of work with Kundiman, which is an Asian American writing foundation. And I asked her, “so do you identify as an Asian American?” ‘cos she and I kind of moved around the same age. And she said, “not really, but kind of?”

And we both — I like that we were both having, this sort of like — ostensibly we live in America right now. We’re probably going to live here for the foreseeable future. We care about Asian American issues. But are we? I don’t know. [laughs] I don’t know if I would call myself that.

I identify as Filipino, and I grew up in — oh, here’s one thing she said that I strongly identify with. She said she hasn’t — she doesn’t have the same inherited angst that Asian Americans who grew up in America feel. It just wasn’t present for us. We were in our dominant culture for most of our lives thus far, so we don’t have the same feeling. The things that we worry about and stress about and inherited from our parents or whatever, are very different from people who grew up here.

AH: So what are some of the ways that — how do you see that being evoked in your life?

IY: I had a thought, immediately, which is that I never used to think of myself as a minority, or as a person of color. Obviously in the Philippines, most of the people around me are Filipino, so it was just me, whatever. I didn’t even really think of myself as particularly Asian, like I didn’t think about it, because everyone is like me.

And when I moved to the States and I moved to undergrad here in Santa Clara, I realized oh, I’m an Asian student. I’m like a foreign student. The people that I hung out with are the foreign Asian students. And that was what got me thinking more consciously about race and being a person of color. And when I got into the writing community, that was emphasized so much.

And it’s sort of like — in my first fiction workshop, I wrote a story using Tagalog words, and I italicized them, because that’s what I was used to even back home, because I write in English. And it became a huge discussion for the class. Like, “why is she italicizing her words? Is that othering? Is that intentional? Is she writing for a white audience?”

And I was like, “oh my god.” [laughs] I never thought about these things. I used to be like, I write what I write. So I have been made to recognize myself as an other [laughs] in the context of moving here, and also living in London for a year.

That was also weird, because when I’m in other countries now and I talk to people, they all assume I’m from America, and I tell them, “no, I’m Filipino.” And they say, “but you sound like an American?” [laughs] And I feel weird about that, but I know why they say that. Because I calibrate my English to sound more like an American, now when I’m speaking English.

I think also, in California specifically, I’ve had people comment on my accent, with everything from “you don’t sound Filipino at all” to “you sound Filipino.” To me, it’s super interesting, because I can’t hear my own accent. But when I meet someone from Manila, I can hear it. Like, the way they talk is the way I talk, so that’s the only time I know what kind of accent I have. To me, it’s interesting in California, where there are more Filipinos, I get that full range of “you don’t have an accent at all” to “you sound very Filipino.”

AH: You mentioned the class you had that discussed whether you were othering yourself for a white audience — has that affected how you write today? Has that forced you to think about what audience you’re writing for?

IY: The main takeaway I got from that conversation was that I probably shouldn’t italicize my words anymore. And you know, because of where I’m coming from, even in the Philippines, that’s what we do, I don’t mind if an editor asks me to change it, but I won’t do it to start with. And that’s sort of like a response to people saying, “who are you writing for?”

‘cos the point of my teacher, who was really amazing, was when you italicize, it draws attention to the text. This is a word that’s not in English, and therefore it’s sort of like you’re catering to a white audience. Whereas if you just leave it in there, it’s more like whatever your background is, you can just read this and take the text as it is, and you may recognize this word or not. It’s a small adjustment for me, because I don’t have a super strong opinion on it, but now that’s what I adhere to in my story.

And you can’t escape that question of who is my audience, and who do I write for, especially if you’re like, any type of minority, quote unquote. [laughs] If you’re a person of color, if you’re a queer person, you might get asked that, especially if your story isn’t always coming from your own perspective.

But my answer to that question has always been, “I write for whoever wants to read my stuff.” I don’t really want to choose who I’m writing for. If someone can read my work and take away something from it, then I’m really happy. But I have to qualify that with, if you have to force me to pick a group, I’d be writing for Filipino students. Like, that’s the audience that makes me happiest, when someone tells me they’ve read something that I wrote. ‘cos it’s essentially me writing for myself. I’m able to write these stories for kids in the Philippines now, or for Filipino kids elsewhere in the world now, and they now have that story where before there wasn’t that story.

AH: How have people responded who aren’t necessarily Filipino students?

IY: Yeah, I mean, when people who are not Filipino read my work, they do say, “this is really interesting, it’s really different.” I have gotten the word exotic a couple times.

AH: Oh boy.

IY: Yeah. And I do read my reviews, even though a lot of people say you shouldn’t. I just want to know. And I know some people have said, especially the stories that are very Philippines-centric or take place in the Philippines, “it was hard to follow, it was hard to understand, I wish she had explained this word more, or like this cultural thing a little bit more.”

I wrote a story once about this festival called the Pahiyas Festival, and that was a story that readers who are not Filipino maybe struggled with a little bit more. ‘cos it’s an actual festival that happens in the Philippines, and I set it in the near future. And I used the description of the festival as it is today, and a lot of people who read it said like, “it was such an exotic world, almost like a fantasy world.” Whereas it was reality, essentially.

That’s very different from Filipinos who have read my work, and say “this is very realistic. This reminds me of the Philippines. This is how Filipinos talk.”

AH: That’s such an interesting response, because you’re writing from experience, but nobody tells Hemingway when he writes about the running of the bulls that it’s too exotic.

IY: Mmhm.

AH: Do you read Asian American literature, or other Filipino writers? Do you think your works have been colored as a writer who didn’t consider herself foreign until she got to America?

IY: That’s a good question. I grapple with that question a lot more now than I used to. To put it concretely, every time I write a story, I stop and ask myself, “hey is this okay? Should this protagonist be Filipino?”

Like, I am trying to write a space opera. And my protagonist there is Filipino, but the rest of the crew is not. This takes place — in my head, I want it to be a Cowboy Bebop world where the Earth is still around but nobody lives there anymore. And I thought, “what if I make the whole crew Filipino?” Like, you know, there are books where the whole crew is American. Why can’t I make it so the whole crew is Filipino?

And there’s something in my gut where I want it to be a diverse cast. I don’t want them to all be the same nationality, even if they’re in this world where countries aren’t the same way they are now. That’s still a decision I’m weighing. But I have this weird feeling of responsibility. That maybe I should make them all Filipino.

And that’s just because there’s not enough representation of Filipinos, is how I feel. And there’s increasingly more, and I think Filipinos have an advantage over other Asian countries where we do have a lot of writers who write in English. And there will be more. I know there’s a growing number of students in the Philippines who want to write spec fic or just fiction, and I’m optimistic that there will be a lot more of us and a lot more publishing locally and internationally. Right now, there still aren’t that many. And I want to add to that, and I want to make sure we’re more visible.

And it’s a responsibility I do carry and want to do, but at the same time, I also just want stories to be fun, you know? [laughs] And I don’t want to have to think about the race questions every time. One of the stories I wrote this year was like a fairytale story, with ostensibly Red Riding Hood, ostensibly Beauty from Beauty and the Beast. So totally not Filipino. Everything in that story is coded like a European fairytale. And I was like, “I’m not going to feel bad about this. I have other stories where the characters are Filipino. So let me write my fairytale.”

And I do read other Asian writers. There are things in their stories that I connect to more in some cases — it depends on the author. But an example of an author who I really like is Zen Cho. She is a Malaysian author who lives in the UK, and she writes science fiction and fantasy. And her short story collection, Spirits Abroad — it’s Malaysian, it’s Southeast Asian, and so reading that collection felt like home. It felt very familiar in a way that reading other great short story collections by American authors hasn’t felt that familiar to me. Even if I love everything they’re doing prose-wise and story-wise, her collection was one of the few where I was like, “I feel like I’m reading my story.”

AH: You’ve mentioned that speculative writing is a pretty small world. Is that world made even smaller because you’re a Filipino writer, or is it just small in general?

IY: I think it’s just small in general. [laughs] What I mean by that world being small is, especially in short fiction — I don’t know. I didn’t know much about the writing or publishing community, or sci-fi or fantasy within that broader community, until 2013 when I went to the Clarion Workshop. Prior to that, all I knew was sort of, “books happen somewhere in New York.” And my context was like, in the Filipino community that writes in English that writes speculative fiction. Which is its own very small group, primarily centered in Manila, which has its own biases, because it’s a specific place in the Philippines.

I sort of knew most of the names of Filipinos writing speculative fiction, and that’s a very small group of people. And after Clarion, I started publishing stories in the space. And I started going to conventions here, and I realized that the community is very small in the sense that once you start meeting a couple of people, they’ll introduce you to other people. And ostensibly after that, when you go to the bookstore and see sci-fi or fantasy fiction, you start seeing names of people who you’ve met or become acquainted with, or who is a friend of a friend.

And that really blew my mind. I was like, “oh that’s this person, I know this person now, and I shook this person’s hand.” And if I wanted to get an introduction to this other author — and it was sort of realizing how small the community is, and how everyone is just on Twitter, and you can reach out to them and befriend them if you’re persistent enough and nice enough.

So I think it’s small in general, but within that small community, if you wanted to know who are the Asian writers, or Asian immigrant writers, or Asian American writers, the list is short. So you could get to know who they are pretty quickly, I’d say.

AH: Tell me a little about Twitter, because I know you’re part of, I don’t know if it’s Asian Twitter or writer Twitter, or what communities would you say you’re a part of there?

IY: I am not part of Asian Twitter, I don’t think. [laughs] I see the issue and I sometimes make a conscious decision not to participate. And I feel guilty about not participating a lot of the time, but I also don’t often feel the same, like — I think it’s that inherited angst thing, like, I’m just not mad about it. So should I jump in and pretend to be mad about it? No. I want people who feel strongly, who have more considered views on these issues, to be the ones whose voices are amplified. I do try to amplify the voices of those I agree with, but sometimes I just — for self care reasons et cetera — I’m like, “I’m not gonna — I’m not going to join that fight.”

So I think I’m most part of spec fic Twitter — largely because of Clarion and people I’ve met through conventions. And it’s only recently that I’ve started to realize there’s a much larger bucket of aspiring writers on Twitter. [laughs] A lot of people want to be writers, and a lot of them are on Twitter. And I’m the same way, I think I kind of belong in that group, even if i’ve been publishing short stories for a pretty long time. Again, that’s a limited pool of people who read short stories. It’s just a very small part of the market, to be honest. So even if you publish a short story, you’ll get some attention, but it’s very different from like, someone publishing a novel.

But I like Twitter, and I think I’ve made some good friends through Twitter, and I’ve strengthened relationships with the community through Twitter. But at the same time, I’m always like, you don’t really know people on social media. So I try to meet people offline if I can. So I‘ll reach out and get coffee with them, and get to know them that way. I feel that face to face, meeting a Twitter friend, is hugely valuable and different from knowing someone from public Twitter. I think you can recreate that through DM chats, but it’s still different.

And also I have been on semi-hiatus from Twitter for like three months this year. And it’s actually been really good. I don’t know, I feel like Twitter can also make someone feel like shit. There’s a lot of great, encouraging stuff on there, but there’s also so much trash.

And so much potential for artistic envy. Everyone is getting — it’s the usual social media thing of people only sharing good news. So if you’re feeling shit, and everyone else is saying their good news, then you feel extra shit. [laughs] So there’s a shitty part of social media, and I recognize the hit it gives when your tweet goes viral, and you’re like “yay, I feel so seen.” But the next day, you know, does it even matter? How much time did you spend fretting about all this stuff? It’s more important to actually have genuine friendships. And also just do the work, you know, go offline and work on the creative thing. But that attention zing of having a notification is very real.

AH: So my last question is about something you’ve described before, which is how comforting it is to be sad together.

IY: Yeah.

AH: And I don’t know how to segue into that, but I’d love to ask you about it.

IY: I think we can go back to Twitter, because the thing that made me say that was that maybe 70 percent of the people who follow me on Twitter do because I talk about writing a lot. I haven’t published in two years, though I do have a publication coming out this year which is dope. And I sort of have this existential worry, like “why should anyone listen to me?” I haven’t published in a long time, I’m not widely published — all these things you tell yourself when you’re a sad writer. [laughs]

But like, people like what I have to say about the shittiness of writing, I think. And I do recognize that I’m very gentle about it, but I also find that it’s very important to talk about the sad parts of being a creative, or the stressful parts. Depends on if you feel not good about it, to kind of counter all the good news that people say. And I try to write from a gentle position, but also an honest position.

And I’ve found that that resonates with people. A lot of people have reached out to thank me for saying that writing is hard. [laughs] Like we all know it in our heads, but it’s nice to have someone else verbalize it, and for someone to be like, “that’s how I feel too, I guess I’m not alone.” I think most writing and most creative process is just trying not to be alone.

Like I don’t know about other people, but for that’s why I write. Because when you write and your story finds the right reader, then you make that connection. They may never reach out to you, and you may never know that they read your story. But if it happens somewhere, then that makes everything worth it. And I feel that way as a writer because this whole time, throughout my life but especially when I was younger, you get that connection with a text and you feel less alone, as a reader.

And so it’s me recreating that for others that makes me want to write, and I think that’s true for a lot of people. And that’s why as shitty as writing is, you keep doing it. And when you know that the process is shitty for other people too — even people who you think have done good writing — then you feel a little less alone.

AH: I don’t want to call this a trend, but I think right now, with writers like Jonny Sun or Rupi Kaur, there’s almost a trend of being more genuine. Do you feel that’s true?

IY: I do think it’s true, yeah. It’s sort of — like, posting a sad, deep, meaningful quote is very attention-grabbing. You don’t have to spend a lot of time looking at it. You glance at it, you’re like, “yes, I felt the feels.” And again, it’s like that hit. People like sad stories. People love it when stories end sadly, and they’re like, “oh my god, my pain.” I think whatever that is, it’s calling to the same part of us that’s drawn to the catharsis of sad experiences.

But I also think it’s not as deep as it once was. Yes, you can see a sad poem and retweet it, and you’ve sort of done the thing, and you’re like, “moving along now to the next meme.” And I feel like before, there was a little more digging. You didn’t just see the thing, you kind of had to read the thing and spend a little more time with it. I think stuff was a little more quiet before.

I think now — I don’t know if the default is to be genuine. Because I think you can construct that thing too. You could figure out how to produce that and reproduce it. That’s how I feel. And I do think that you are rewarded for genuineness, always. I prefer that as my mode of communication, and I think that’s a better way to be.

But I also think that now on the Internet, people have to think about how to be genuine without hurting themselves. You don’t have to be super — how should I phrase it? I think right now, there’s so much info about everyone online, and it’s all there, and you should think about the things you want to keep to yourself.

And some of that I think, if I were to boil it down to advice, if it’s not good for you to be on social media from an emotional or mental perspective, then don’t. Don’t feel like you have to be, just ‘cos that’s what the cool kids are doing, or that’s how you build an audience. Honestly it’s better to take care of yourself and focus on the work. And if it’s good, it’ll eventually find the right audience for it.

So I feel there should be more of a balance now that everything’s so easily available online. And also protect yourself, you know — be genuine, but not so much that it’s too painful for you

AH: What’s a question you’d like to ask the next guest?

IY: What’s something that made you happy recently?

Isabel Yap writes fiction and poetry, works in the tech industry, and drinks tea. Born and raised in Manila, she has also lived in California and London, and studied abroad in Tokyo. In 2013 she attended the Clarion Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in venues including Tor.com, the Hugo Award-winning Uncanny Magazine, Year’s Best Weird Fiction, and Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. Find her on Twitter and her website.