“Song of the Mango” was not the first short story I’d first had workshopped at the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop. But it certainly was the first one I’d written there. It took over two weeks and much stalling to write. The first version was over 8,000 words long, and I thank the class of 2014 for bearing with me and reading it all the way through even though we had two other stories to read for that day.
This story marks a turning point in my writing, I think. Everything I’ve written after this acquired more depth, more attention to detail, more…”Filipinoness,” for want of a better term.
Initially, I wanted to write about a woman who was forced to become a deadly, trusted assassin-chef for a triumvirate of tyrants. She then realizes that they could easily get rid of her once she displeases them even just a little bit, and so poisons their food before running away. Some elements of this idea made it into the final draft, at least.
At the same time, I was back in the US after seventeen years. I was on my own without my family in Obama’s America, barely two months after the Isla Vista shootings. Even if no one was being maliciously, overtly racist to me and I had an accent that ensured I fit in perfectly, I could still feel how different, how Other I was. And for the first time in my life, I was badly missing the Philippines. I understood, then, the impulse that diasporic writers feel when reaching for home. In trying to incorporate Filipino elements into the story and using it to retell not one, but two Philippine myths about the origins of the mango, it completely transformed the beast.
I understood for the first time, too, the overrated advice of “write what you know.” I poured into this story my unwavering devotion to my sister. I tried to imagine what I would do, what I would say, if I lost her and had so few options and no safety net left to me.
Meanwhile, Catherynne Valente was our instructor for that week. She gave us a list of words that we were forbidden to use in our stories, preferring that we write around them instead of using them unless absolutely necessary. This, in part, is what prompted me to set in a precolonial Philippines-inspired secondary world—so that I could get around the thorny forbidden word problem in some cases.
Finally, I just let the story surprise me and it certainly did—Tila’s being pregnant was a stroke of brilliance in my sleep-deprived, 4 a.m.-brain state.
The class (and several instructors after) was divided on whether it should be a short story or a novella. I did turn it into a novella after I came home to the Philippines some months later, though I have been unable to sell it anywhere. Still, it was a great comfort to me while I dealt with sexual abuse and misogyny at work in the pre-#MeToo era, as well as a deepening depression. I still hope to sell it someday. This was also, I think, the point that Saha stopped simply becoming a character in a story but her very own force; I definitely went on to write more stories that only worked once I used her voice, such as “Voices in the Air.”
In the meantime, after getting bounced around the few markets that would take a story of this length, “Song of the Mango” in its current novelette iteration found a home in the final double issue of Lontar: The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction. Very fitting, considering everything about the tale. I’d say that the story marks a turning point toward maturity in my oeuvre.
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