In The Mango Bride, Marivi Soliven illustrates the beauty of the Philippines while also covering issues such as immigration, domestic abuse, and class. In this novel, Soliven uses her real life experience as a phone hotline translator and incorporates it into this book in a thoughtful yet devastating way. Told as a dual narrative between two women from different economic backgrounds, this story explores each of their journeys immigrating to the United States and the shared history that unravels between them. This novel is also a great starting point to learn more about Filipino culture and understanding the dynamics of class in their society. - Sachi Argabright
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Your book started as a project for NaNoWriMo. When you began writing The Mango Bride, did you plan on getting it published? How much did the novel change from your original idea that you started with for NaNoWriMo?
I actually joined NaNoWriMo to get over my fear of writing a novel, because up until that point, I’d only written flash fiction, short stories and essays. Publication was definitely the goal because years earlier, Taryn Fagerness, a wonderful literary agent, read Spooky Mo, my collection of horror stories. She liked it so much, she wanted to take me on as a client. Unfortunately, her literary agency at the time believed debut authors needed begin with a novel, so I was out of luck. But that gave me the incentive to finally write the novel.
The Mango Bride always had its basic plot elements: two immigrant women linked by a secret and domestic violence. Through multiple drafts, the novel’s first sentence remained pretty much the same from NaNoWriMo to the published version. “Marcela was barely thinking when she took a knife from the plate of mangoes and stabbed Señora Concha in the chest.”
The initial title of this book was In the Service of Secrets, and the book has a heavy focus on secrets and hiding shame. What drew you to this title and to including elements of secrecy and hiding shame in your book?
In the Service of Secrets was the working title, which played on the ideas of servants and secrets, but it sounded like more like a spy thriller. When Sandra Harding, my editor at Penguin, pointed out that mangoes and brides were recurring images in the novel, I came up with The Mango Bride.
Shame is a big part of Filipino culture because so much of our lives depend on maintaining good relationships with neighbors, in-laws, business associates etc. These are built over generations and reputations are as valuable as money in the Philippines.
One of the worst things you can say to someone in the Philippines is “You have no shame,” meaning you don’t care what people think of your behavior. I think the concept of shame as a mechanism for preserving the status quo is related to Catholicism, whose edicts are most effectively inflicted by employing guilt, that insidious first cousin of shame. I was raised Catholic, but having retired from organized religion, I can now take an ironic view of it.
Fun fact: Apart from the Vatican, the Philippines is the only country in the world that does not have legal divorce. There’s something called “civil annulment,” but that’s much more difficult to get through and not quite the same as divorce. So wives put up with a lot of nonsense in the Philippines—physical and emotional abuse, adultery, the husband’s second family—because it is virtually impossible to leave a lousy marriage.
Your book features a dual narrative between two women, Amparo and Beverly. Sometimes writers begin writing about one character, but further into their writing process, the narrative and the perspectives change shape. Did you know from the start you wanted to incorporate dual POVs from these two very different women, or did the novel start out about one character?
The novel always had two characters because the plot couldn’t have worked without a dual narrative. I wanted to portray the different nuances of immigration—how one’s provenance in the old country influences or colors one’s destiny in the new country.
After immigrating to California from the Philippines, Amparo becomes an interpreter who works with individuals over the phone, which happens to be your occupation as well. What about your experience as a telephone interpreter made you want to include it in Amparo’s story?
I noticed a spike in calls about domestic violence right around the time that the subprime mortgage crisis happened. Eventually a social worker explained why this was: when the economy goes down, domestic violence goes up. Men who are get laid off or have their pay decreased tend to take their rage out on the wife. And because immigrant wives depend on their husbands to support, their actual presence in this country, they are particularly vulnerable to abuse.
The Philippines plays a large role in this story, and almost feels like it’s a character of its own. What drew you to highlighting the food, weather, and culture in such descriptive detail?
I grew up in Manila. By the time I moved here, I was in my early thirties and—I like to say—“fully formed.” So I identify as Filipino, not Filipino-American, which is what my husband is. One is not better than the other, just different. So all the descriptions of the food, weather, the university, are a way to remember and honor my country of origin. It’s my love letter to the Philippines. Then too, food is such a big part of our culture that I use it as a metaphor for love. One of the ways folks greet a visitor to their home is “Kumain ka na ba?”—Have you eaten?
I don’t know if you noticed, but Marcela the beloved mother figure, is always cooking the food Amparo loves and Señora Concha, the antagonist, never eats.
Your book also illustrates the effects of class privilege and how the weak are often silenced. While race is a common theme highlighted in many American books, class is something that isn’t covered as often. Was the choice to discuss the issues of class an intentional decision or did it arise in your story organically?
Class is to the Philippines, what race is to the United States. It’s what distinguishes people from each other—who they associate with and marry, where they go to school, even how they speak. If you notice, the English spoken by the characters in Manila varies in its register depending on whether whether a servant or an employer is talking.
The Philippines is largely homogenous in terms of race, so race and ethnicity are not discussed as much as they are here. Oddly, I didn’t become a person of color until I moved to the United States and in some ways that required a real paradigm shift in the way I perceived myself and my writing. So likewise, race isn’t really addressed in the novel until Beverly moves to Berkeley.
The Mango Bride covers many heavy themes including domestic violence and how women are treated in the practice of mail order brides. For you, why was it so important to write about these issues, and what resources do you recommend for people who want to learn more or provide support to these female victims?
Domestic violence (DV) as a social issue doesn’t get as much news coverage as say, the opioid epidemic or gun violence, even though it is endemic in this country and around the world. Did you know that every nine seconds, a woman in this country is beaten? Every 9 seconds. It’s the leading cause of injury to women, more than muggings, car accidents or rape combined. (Here’s a link to those horrifying stats.)
After The Mango Bride was published, so many women wrote to me saying they too had suffered from domestic abuse, that I organized the Saving Beverly fundraiser, which raised money for a nonprofit that supports immigrant victims of domestic violence, Access.
That first Saving Beverly event raised nearly $10,000. The money enabled Anne Bautista, the legal director at Access, to rescue nine women from their violent marriages and gain them legal residency in this country.
Now The Mango Bride is required reading at the Women and Immigration Law class she teaches at the California Western School of Law. I guess the novel helps law students understand the human consequences of the immigration laws they study.
One way immigrant wives can escape abusive marriages is to apply for the U Visa, which enables them to self-petition for legal residency, find jobs, and receive public benefits.
Even though mail order bride marriages continue to increase, mainstream American culture seems not to know what to make of it. A couple of years ago, a major TV network actually tried to produce a sitcom called My Mail Order Mom—about a mail order bride and the stepchildren. Can you imagine?!
The Asian Pacific American Media Coalition submitted an official protest and I, as well as other community groups started online petitions to stop it from happening. There were so many complaints that four days after the sitcom was announced as being in development, the network backed down and canceled the project.
What other books would you recommend for readers who are interested in learning more about the Philippines?
There are so many! The newest titles include Insurrecto by Gina Apostol; Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay; The Body Papers by Grace Talusan; In the Country by Mia Alvar; The Hour of Daydreams by Renee M. Rutledge.
The Mango Bride was picked up for a movie by Regal Entertainment. How did this come about? Do you have any input or involvement in the film (casting, distribution, vision, etc.)?
When the novel was first released in Manila back in 2013, National Bookstore, the largest bookseller in the Philippines, flew me home for a week of book events. At one of these, a movie producer named Girlie Rodis asked what I thought about having it adapted to film and naturally I said it was an intriguing prospect. Six years later the film is in production.
I plan to visit the Bay Area when they film there this fall. The movie will be in Tagalog with English subtitles, but because half the novel happens in California, I imagine those scenes will be in English. Domestic violence is a problem that cuts through all ethnic and socioeconomic lines, so I’m hopeful that The Mango Bride film will be screened in multiple cities in the US, especially those with large Filipino populations. (I’ll post updates on the film on my website and other social media.)
More than anything, I hope folks who watch the movie and/or read the book can use both as a way to open up that difficult but necessary conversation about domestic violence.
Marivi Soliven’s debut novel The Mango Bride (Penguin, 2013) won the 2011 Carlos Palanca Memorial Award, the Philippine counterpart of the Pulitzer Prize. The novel has been translated into Spanish and Filipino, and a film adaptation is in process. Stories and essays from 16 earlier books have appeared in anthologies in Manila and the United States. When not writing or organizing literary events, she works as a telephonic Tagalog interpreter.