Your next great read: a young adult novel about a queer Filipina American teenager
There is an often used metaphor in coming-of-age literature and life: turning a new chapter. Or turning a corner. Or something else involving turning towards something, simultaneously suggesting that there will be parts of us left behind. I argue that that isn’t exactly accurate. Coming-of-age is more like a process of recognizing how the various facets of who we are intersect. All of our experiences, the good, the bad, and the ugly, still there, still part of us. But we realize how all of it together give us our unique identities that we learn to love.
That is what I took away after reading Laurel Flores Fantauzzo‘s debut novel My Heart Underwater. Fantauzzo previously wrote the non-fiction novel The First Impulse and is a Carlos Palanca Memorial Award winner.
My Heart Underwater follows 17-year-old Cory Tagubio, who, like many other 17-year-olds, is going through the process of recognizing the various facets of who she is. She is the daughter of hard-working Filipino immigrants looking to give her the best life possible. She is a minority living in California, going to an all-girls Catholic school where she feels out of place. She is coming to terms with her attraction to other women.
Without giving too much away (because you’ll just have to read it for yourself), after an accident leaves Cory emotionally fragile, a line is crossed. But she does not immediately realize that she holds a misconstrued notion of what “love” is. It is discomforting to read of Cory’s pain, how she believes nobody understands her except the one person that we, the readers, know is unhealthy and unethical for her.
By the second half of the novel, Cory is sent away to live with her half-brother in the Philippines. She barely knows him, barely knows the country, and, at that point, barely knows herself. It is here where the novel shines. Fantauzzo tenderly shows Cory’s journey of self-discovery with the help of some of the most wholesome supporting characters young adult fiction has ever seen (her cousin Bea and kuya Jun really grew on me).
“I wrote this book for international audiences, with special attention to young people in the Philippines,” Fantauzzo humbly shares in an interview with Manila Bulletin Lifestyle. “I’m grateful for the attention and engagement of readers during a stressful time.”
Scroll through to read the rest of our interview with Fantauzzo about her debut novel My Heart Underwater.
How did you come to decide that your debut novel would be a young adult/coming-of-age novel? And how did you overcome that first hurdle of just getting started on a debut novel?
Fantauzzo: Cory’s voice was what first guided the novel! I heard her anxious, frantic, funny, hard-to-contain voice before the rest of the novel came to be. It became my duty to listen to her, and to follow her destiny, and reveal her own discoveries of family, emotional awakenings, community, and country.
To write a novel, you have to spend time with all the emotions and logistical challenges of a particular world and a particular narrator. So I tried to do that amidst all the other duties of my day-to-day life. I wrote by hand, first, to reduce distractions, and then typed a final draft, revising as I went.
What young adult books and which authors inspire you (and who you would recommend to readers who enjoyed My Heart Underwater)?
Fantauzzo: Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son was the first teenaged narrator I found who resembled me: a character with a white, American father and a Filipina-American mother. It came out in 2000 but it’s incredibly resonant today for both the Philippines and the United States. More recently, I enjoyed the emotional journey of the narrator in Darius the Great is Not Okay by Adib Khorram, which gives an intimate look at a family in Iran and a young narrator living with depression.
How did you settle on the story, specifically, dividing it between Cory’s life in California and then Cory’s experience in the Philippines? You mention in the acknowledgements of the book that some of the experiences were drawn from the stories of others who helped you in your process. But which part, or parts, would you say were drawn from your own life?
Fantauzzo: Cory’s personality, world, and family are all her own, not mine! But I am familiar with the settings of a mostly white, American California suburb. And I was the only child of three siblings my mother took the Philippines in 1997.
Like many readers, I’ve also known what it is like to feel my heart underwater, overwhelmed by inner and outer forces beyond my control. And I know what it is to have a Philippine community buoy me up during lonely and difficult times. I wanted to convey the feeling of going from uncertainty and isolation to safety and accompaniment as a queer Fil-Am, which is a journey I’ve been lucky enough to take many times.
The novel is set all the way back in 2009, which feels like ages ago. What sort of differences could you imagine would happen if it was set more recently (pre-quarantine, of course), both in the American and Filipino scenes?
Fantauzzo: Though the book is set in 2009–a difficult year for the Philippines–many of the struggles of that time resonate today. The economic outlook causes suffering and uncertainty for many families, particularly OFW families. In America, the alienation Cory feels is still the experience of many queer students of color: visibility doesn’t automatically mean acceptance and safety, even 11 years later. Technology has advanced; I imagined I might have had more platforms across which Cory would be communicating her emotions, and her brother’s Internet connection in Teacher’s Village might have been more stable! But I think 2009 and 2020 are not as far away from each other as they might seem.
Laurel Flores Fantauzzo currently lives with her wife between Honolulu and Metro Manila. www.laurelfloresfantauzzo.com