Chatting with Monica Macansantos about Love & Other Rituals

Monica Macansantos’s debut short story collection, Love and Other Rituals, announces the arrival of a deft, sharp-eyed storyteller. Macansantos’s characters trace the author’s own path through the Philippines and abroad, revealing the universal in the particular and the singular emotion—love—that connects us all.

In Love and Other Rituals, a man navigates a new relationship while failing to fall out of love with an old one, and another man, imprisoned by taboo, learns the price of love. A child visits the grave of a cousin she has never met, and another child strives for parental affection that will never be given. A fractured friendship ruptures beyond repair and a schoolgirl, walled in, discovers how much escape costs. The themes of homesickness, lovesickness and longing reverberate throughout Love and Other Rituals

We spoke with Monica Macansantos ahead of Love and Other Rituals’ release, discussing alienation, her writing process and influences, and her late father.

Grattan Street Press: Is this a collection of your favorite stories or did you specifically consider how these eight stories came together? Like ‘Maricel’, that’s one of my favorite ones—it’s got this YA feel to it compared to some of the other ones that are a bit older. But I see things connecting them, and I was wondering if it was things like yearning or love or those sorts of things that made want you to draw these eight stories together.

Monica Macansantos: It is interesting that you pointed that out about Maricel, because I wrote the first, horrible draft of that story for a YA workshop in my undergrad and then I wrote a much a better draft when I was in my MFA program. With ‘Maricel’, I was trying to do something different, trying to step out of my social class because I’m a very privileged middle-class Filipino with very educated parents. And I just wanted to do something different; I wanted to write about a young woman like me but someone who was much less privileged. It was very loosely based on a friendship I had with a girl who I met in elementary school who had a rough family life, and I wanted to sort of get into her shoes.

I wrote most of these stories when I was living away from home. ‘The Autumn Sun’ I wrote when I was living in Manila but I was recalling my childhood in Delaware, so I was missing another home. It wasn’t really intentional, but when I wrote it I felt like I was returning to some sense of home.

I wrote ‘Inheritances’ when I was living in Baguio actually, between my MFA and PhD. I wrote the previous draft during my MFA and I wrote the final draft when I was living in Baguio, but what’s that saying—you can never really return to your hometown. So even when I was back, I felt sort of alienated, like it wasn’t quite home anymore and I guess I was wrestling with those feelings when I wrote that story.

GSP: Did writing a collection of short stories told across three continents provide opportunities to revisit these locations? And was there any sense of catharsis in re-exploring these places?

MM: I wrote a lot of these stories as a means to revisit my hometown. And I’m not sure what you would mean by cathartic, but I think that standing afar or standing outside and having that distance between myself and my hometown helped me see my hometown for what it was, and I think it was just easier for me to write about my hometown from a distance. As for stories set in other continents, I actually wrote them when I was living in Austin, for instance, or when I was living in Wellington.

If you read literature that’s set in a certain place or watch movies that are set in a certain city like Austin you don’t see Filipinos in those movies, or if you don’t read about Filipinos in those stories you feel that we, Filipinos, can’t have stories take place in these cities or in these countries. With ‘Leaving Auckland’, it’s not that I’m the first Filipino to write about Filipinos in Aotearoa, but when I was writing that story I didn’t have any previous material about Filipinos living in New Zealand to fall back on. I felt like I was writing in a vacuum. I’m not sure if ‘catharsis’ is the right word for it, but all these stories helped me find my place in the world.

In the case of the stories set in Baguio, well, it’s a popular tourist destination in the Philippines, but there aren’t that many stories that are set there specifically. When you’re from a small town you don’t think that your hometown has any literary value, but there are tons of stories that can come out of your hometown.

GSP: I suppose because catharsis has this implication of finality, but what you were doing was getting the conversation rolling.

MM: I write in order to ground myself in the present. I feel the same way about my non-fiction, since I’ve been recently writing a lot of essays. In fact, while being quarantined in the Philippines during the pandemic, I wrote a lot of short stories about Filipinos in New Zealand or Texas, so I was doing what I was doing in the 2010s, but the other way around. Instead of reflecting on my memories of home, I was reflecting on my memories of being in exile and reflecting on my memories of the people I knew in these places. It’s always an interesting experience.

GSP: Would you say it’s easier to write about somewhere where you’re not currently?

MM: Oftentimes I think that distance is freeing. When you’re living in the same place you write, you feel that you can get things wrong and that you could offend people who live in the same town or live in the same community. But if you have that distance, it’s definitely freeing. On the other hand, when I was recently writing about Filipinos in New Zealand, I wished that I was in New Zealand because sometimes I have a hard time remembering things.

GSP: In your short stories, do you find yourself navigating themes of decolonisation and third culture? Is this an active consideration during your writing process?

MM: When I write, I don’t really think about these things. My personal experiences inform my work, and I’m a product of colonialism and I come from a country that has struggled to gain any sense of stability after our colonisers left. So it’s there within me but it’s not something I’m conscious about. But it’s there.

I want to write more about people having complicated relationships with each other, and I think what may set me apart from a lot of Filipino American, or Filipino Australian writers, is that I spent much of my early years in the Philippines, so I didn’t see myself as a marginalised person. I wasn’t completely conscious of my Filipino-ness growing up. Maybe when I was in Delaware as a kid, but not really when I was in the Philippines. I just saw myself as a person.

GSP: How has your writing developed throughout your education? Did it change from your PhD compared to the MFA?

MM: I think that although I was writing quite well during my undergrad, after my undergrad I spent some time teaching at the university level. I didn’t have any time to write and it was during my MFA that I developed a work ethic, I think because I was attending a top program in the US and because it was fully funded. So there was a culture of competition, but of friendly competition; there were people getting like six figure book deals and getting into The New Yorker. And of course, there was jealousy coming out of that but you felt that, because you were sharing the same space as these people, that you could do that too. I think I also developed a lot of confidence in my writing and my identity as a writer during my MFA, and these were things that I didn’t necessarily have before the MFA experience.

In my PhD, it was interesting because we didn’t really have classes. We only met once every six weeks to discuss each other’s work, but we were on our own, so it didn’t feel like a community as much as the MFA did. And I think that being on my own also helped me. In my PhD, I had space to grow as a writer and discover my own voice . . . I finished it on time, but I also, because there were no classes, spent that time meeting people and taking a lot of tango lessons and travelling.

So it was great for me as a human being; it helped me grow. An important part of being a writer is to have a life and not just be a writer. Because when you’re just a writer, your sense of self-worth hinges on that, and that can be a good thing if your ego hinges on just your writing, but there’s so much bullshit involved in the writing life, like all the prizes. You’ll get tons and tons of rejections and there’ll be years when you won’t get a single acceptance letter from a literary journal. When that happens, you have to develop other aspects of your life too, and that goes into your writing.

GSP: Do you have favorite authors that influenced your writing or these stories?

MM: Alice Munro is a huge influence because she writes about ordinary people facing insurmountable obstacles while sitting in front of, for instance, their husbands. She’s able to mine all these heavy emotions in ordinary moments and it’s something that I am yet to master; she’s the benchmark for me.

I was recently re-reading Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress. He’s a Filipino American writer, and I was doing that for this reading list I’m making. I remembered just how much he influenced me too and how much I loved his writing. It’s interesting to go back to a book that you loved, or sometimes maybe not necessarily loved, but a book that you held onto after a decade. He’s up there on my list too.

Mia Alvar, who wrote In The Country. I just really love how quiet her writing is and how she doesn’t have to exoticise Filipino culture or Filipino stories to make us interesting. Because prior to her book—well, apart from Lysley Tenorio, who pushes back on that gaze too—a lot of what I read by Filipino authors who were published internationally tended to exoticise our culture to make us interesting to the white gaze, and it’s something I really push back against.

So there’s her, and then Elizabeth McCracken, both as a mentor and human being and as a writer and as a twitterer. She’s instrumental to my career. She was such an inspiring presence in the classroom; she just brought out the best of us and our work in workshop. She’s so funny and she’s so warm and you can see that in her fiction too. I love how she writes about outcasts and oddballs, and how she’s funny on the page; being funny is something I haven’t mastered yet. I think I can be funny in person but when I’m writing it’s a challenge. She’s funny both in person and on the page.

And my dad, Francis C. Macansantos. I think without him I wouldn’t have been a writer. I’ve written about this before, but I know so many children of writers who were shut out of the artistic lives of their parents because their parents felt that ‘Oh, children get in the way of art’, but my dad was different. He felt like I was part of his art and part of his practice.

GSP: If he considered you a part of his practice, I’m guessing he was inspired by you for some of his writing.

MM: He wrote a lot of poems about me and about him being my dad. It’s one of the gifts that he left behind. I’m not sure if I’ll be the best writer in the universe, but I want to replicate the generosity that he showed me very early on, and which others have shown me too, like Elizabeth McCracken. It’s that spirit of generosity that I think should be part of both my life and my writing.

Love & Other Rituals can be purchased online through our store, and is available through select bookstores.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Feature photo shows Monica Macansantos, author of Love & Other Rituals. Picture by Lydia Blaisdell, used with permission.