By Alaina Leary
Happy Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! Today we’re pleased to welcome Randy Ribay, Sandhya Menon, and Gloria Chao to the WNDB blog to discuss their work and their careers as authors.
Randy Ribay was born in the Philippines and raised in the Midwest. His novel Patron Saints of Nothingwas a finalist for the National Book Award and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. He is also the author of After the Shot Dropsand An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes. He earned his BA in English Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his Master’s Degree in Language and Literacy from Harvard Graduate School of Education. He currently teaches English and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Patron Saints deals with the reality of events that are happening in the Philippines and is also about the universal themes of grief and justice. Did you know from the beginning that you wanted to write about the drug war in the Philippines or did the story start with Jay’s grief and then you developed the plot from there?
It was definitely about the drug war from the beginning. The idea for the story began with my own questions as I watched and read about it in 2016 and wondered what right I had—as someone born in the Philippines but raised in the US—to speak/write about what I perceived as blatant human rights abuses occurring in the Philippines. Being a young adult writer and high school teacher, I then wondered how I might process all of it if I were a teenager now.
A major piece of Jay’s journey is in understanding his Filipino heritage when he travels to the Philippines, an experience many people have when they’re first able to see firsthand where their family is from. Besides the obvious plot reasons, why was it important to you to have Jay experience Filipino culture through travel?
Growing up as a biracial Filipino American, I struggled with understanding my place in the world. In America, I felt too Filipino. In the Philippines, I felt too American/White. Theoretically, that was my homeland, and I remember expecting to feel like I fit in whenever I went back. It some ways it felt more familiar, but for the most part, it didn’t, and that was kind of shocking. I remember this sense of, “If I don’t fully belong in America, and I don’t fully belong in the Philippines, then where do I belong?” So it was traveling there that really first made me confront this question.
I never talked about this with my family or friends, and it never came up in school. Art has the potential to raise and help us process questions exactly like this, but I didn’t see my particular struggle represented in any of the books I read or movies/TV shows I watched. I wanted to put this on the page for all those kids—and specifically for those Filipinx American kids—so that they feel less alone, so that they can have a space to process that part of themselves sooner than I did.
Tell us about a moment connecting with a fan of your work that really impacted you. What do you love most about meeting and talking to readers?
One of the most impactful interactions so far came when I received a message that Philippine Senator Leila de Lima was reading my book. She’s an outspoken critic of the Drug War who’s been imprisoned since 2017 on bogus charges, and I even mention her in Patron Saints of Nothing. When she finished reading it, she even handwrote me a beautiful letter, and then she posted an op-ed for a Philippine news outlet encouraging all Filipinos to read the book. It meant so much to me that someone dedicated to the cause I was writing about saw potential in the story’s ability to positively impact society.
There’s also a lot of smaller moments with Filipinx American or Filipino readers of all ages reaching out and telling me it’s the first time they’ve felt like they’ve seen themselves in a book that mean so much to me every time. It’s always interesting to hear peoples’ unique stories yet find the universal connections across those individual experiences.
All three of your books (Patron Saints of Nothing, An Infinite Number of Parallel Universe, and After the Shot Drops) deal with friendship, family, and the bonds that your characters create. Each story and its cast of characters are different. What was it like exploring these family and chosen family relationships from such distinct perspectives?
It feels very natural to me to do so. I’ve always existed between different worlds in a variety of ways—as a Filipino American, as a biracial person, as a kid who was part-nerd and part-athlete and part-artist, as someone who grew up middle class but was raised by parents who had come from poverty, etc. One of the advantages of crossing so many boundaries is that I think I’ve gained some insight into these different experiences, these different ways of being, through the relationships I was born into or the relationships I’ve formed along the way. It makes me appreciate the differences and the commonalities, the positives and the negatives, which I hope comes across authentically in my stories.
How does your work as a high school teacher influence your writing? Is there anything you’ve learned from working with students that shaped your novels?
Working with teens gives me an appreciation for all that they’re capable of intellectually and emotionally, how ready they are to engage with difficult topics if we would only ask interesting questions. It also reminds me of the struggles and experiences that remain constant no matter where and when somebody comes of age while at the same time seeing all the different ways that plays out in individual lives. I think that seeing this day after day, year after year, helps me craft complex, realistic, and relatable characters.
What other YA novels do you think Patron Saints of Nothing is in conversation with? Are there any upcoming or published books you’d recommend?
Ah, so many! To limit myself to a few, I’d say Adib Khorram’s Darius the Great is Not Okay, Erika Sanchez’s I am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter, Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, and Mitali Perkins’s Forward Me Back to You. A lot of interesting conversations could be had across these texts in regards to the complexity of diaspora identity.
What is one question that you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
Hmm, probably what video game I’m currently playing. To which the answer is the Final Fantasy VII Remake.
When you began writing When Dimple Met Rishi, did you already know you’d want to return to Dimple and Rishi’s world to write more books? If you didn’t, at what point did you realize this?
Absolutely not. I was told it was a standalone book, and that’s how I thought of it in my mind. When it came out and got such positive feedback from readers (thank you, readers!), my editor asked if I’d consider writing more books in the universe. Before she was even done talking, I told her I had to write Ashish’s story next! That book became There’s Something about Sweetie.
One of the reasons that WDMR is so compelling is because of the way it plays with tropes. Why did you want to put your own spin on these tropes and do you think there’s room for authors to continue using tropes in unexpected ways?
Gosh, I hope there’s room because I have lots of plans for well-loved tropes in my future work! I think tropes get a bad rap, but they’re present in virtually all popular fiction. Readers pick up a book within a genre with certain expectations—for instance, the happily-ever-after in romance, the idea that the mindless zombies will be killed by the good guys in horror, etcetera. There’s nothing wrong with that or with writers wanting to play to that reader need. Tropes are just familiar stories with the writer’s own unique world view shining through them (when they’re done well, that is).
I wanted to put my own spin on familiar tropes because these are ideas I loved (and continue to love) so much as a reader. I think it’s only natural that writers want to play with the tropes that brought them so much joy.
Is there anything you can tell us about any works-in-progress you’re working on or future dream projects you’d like to write?
Absolutely! The third novel in the Dimpleverse is called 10 Things I Hate about Pinky and will be out on July 21, 2020. It’s got the fake-dating trope set at a summer lake house and is just pure, summer fun.
The second novel in my St. Rosetta’s Academy series (fairy tale retellings set at an elite boarding school!) is called Of Princes and Promises and will be out January 12, 2021. It’s a loose Frog Prince retelling and follows a boy from the wrong side of the tracks, a millionaire heiress, and a very magical makeover!
Finally, my adult debut, a romantic comedy called Make Up Break Up will be out February 2, 2021. It follows two rival app developers as they go head-to-head and sabotage each other at every turn. Annika, the heroine, has an app that brings lovers together (called Make Up) while Hudson, the hero, has an app that’s been dubbed “the Uber for breakups”!
All three of the books that take place in Dimple and Rishi’s universe are takes on American romantic comedy films (When Harry Met Sally, There’s Something About Mary, and 10 Things I Hate About You). Were you directly inspired by these films while writing?
Not directly, but I was certainly inspired by the spirit of these films! I absolutely devoured romantic comedies as a teen and a young adult, and I desperately wanted to be able to convey that same feeling of sunshine and sparkling happiness in book form.
You’ve also written a standalone book (From Twinkle, With Love), and the St. Rosetta’s Academy series is underway. How is writing a standalone novel different from writing a series or books that take place in the same universe?
I’ve written two standalones—the other one being my crossover adult rom-com, Make Up Break Up, which will be out Feb. 2nd 2021! I really love both forms of writing. I think with a series there’s a feeling of comfort when you sit down to write. It feels like slipping on a pair of gloves that have easily molded to your hands and are soft and supple. But with standalones, there’s an energy and excitement that comes from the uncertainty of not knowing the world or your characters just yet.
Are there any upcoming or published books you’d recommend?
So many! In no particular order: Anything by Jasmine Guillory, Roshani Chokshi, Mackenzi Lee, Jenny Han, Alexa Martin, Stephanie Garber, Becky Albertalli, Julian Winters, Adam Silvera, Stephanie Perkins, Samira Ahmed, Sabina Khan, Dhonielle Clayton, and Christina Lauren, among so many others.
What do you hope most that readers take away from your books?
I hope readers have a sense of being seen after they turn the last page, whatever walk of life they come from.
How would you pitch Rent A Boyfriend to potential readers in one or two sentences?
Rent a Boyfriend is a dual point-of-view story that follows a nineteen-year-old college sophomore who hires a fake boyfriend from Rent for Your ’Rents to appease her traditional Taiwanese parents. But when she falls for the guy behind the role who her parents would not approve of, her carefully curated life begins to unravel.
Rent A Boyfriend plays with the fake dating trope by having Chloe actually rent Drew from a company that specializes in providing fake boyfriends trained to impress traditional Asian parents. Why did you take this approach instead of having Chloe use a friend or classmate to impress her parents?
The idea for this book came about when I learned that some women in some Asian countries were bringing home hired fake boyfriends to introduce to their parents to ease the pressure of finding a spouse their family would approve of. Surprisingly, my first reaction to this was: I get it. I knew that pressure intimately and wanted to explore what this situation could look like for an Asian-American girl.
I researched the real-life practice and learned that there are companies that specialize in doing this (as well as professional independent contractors who women can hire from classifieds). I decided to create a diaspora-version company for Rent a Boyfriend to parallel the real ones. I was fascinated by the idea that there were professional fake boyfriends in the world and I wanted to delve into what their training would look like, and what kinds of thoughts they would have on the job. There was so much to explore that I decided to include a second point of view in the story to flesh this out. It was one of the most interesting and fun parts of writing this book (as was the romance, of course)!
RAB is full of fun and romance, but it also gets at the heart of the challenges of living up to family expectations. How do your main characters, Chloe and Drew, deal with this differently and help each other along in their journeys?
Rent a Boyfriend takes a deep dive into family and community expectations and how that can affect your identity. Both Chloe and Drew are struggling with who they are and how they are perceived by their loved ones but in opposite ways. With her family and community, Chloe is constantly trying to live up to her Chinese name, Jing, which she was named so she would be “shiny, bright, and so successful others can’t open their eyes.” She’s only herself at the University of Chicago, without her parents or family friends around.
Drew, on the other hand, pretends to be someone else daily in his job as a professional fake boyfriend but is himself with his family—which is precisely why he lost them. When he told his parents he was dropping out of college to pursue his artist dreams, he was cut off. Since then, he’s been in purgatory, halting at the bridge connecting him to his family, terrified to stomp on the last, already-splintered wooden plank. In other words, he’s never shown his artwork to anyone because he’s too scared to go for it and break that final tie to his parents.
When they come together, Drew is further on the path than Chloe and helps her be herself more, whereas Chloe inspires Drew to actually go for his artist dreams. In the end, they need each other to move past the point they’re stuck in.
One thing that surprised me while drafting was how raw my own feelings were in regard to the challenges I’ve faced with my family’s expectations. My personal experiences made their way into Drew’s story. Many of the things he hears from his family when he drops out of college to pursue art are things my family said to me when I switched careers from dentistry to writing. His fear of actually going for it and breaking that last plank was a major obstacle I faced at the start of my writing career. And the revelations he has at the end of the book are things I needed to hear that, weirdly, I wrote for Drew before I heard them for myself. Who would’ve guessed I would shed so many tears while writing a romantic comedy?
Your debut, American Panda, is set at MIT and you’re an MIT grad. It can be a challenge to write a book that takes place on a real college campus, especially one as well known as MIT, which is often a YA character’s dream school. Did you include anything about your own experiences at MIT that brought the setting to life? Is there anything from Mei’s time at MIT that seems too unreal to be true that is based on reality?
I worked hard to include my favorite parts of MIT culture—MIThenge (when the Infinite Corridor is filled with rays from the setting sun); the parabolic bench in East Campus that amplifies sound waves; the specific way students refer to majors, courses, and buildings in only numbers; chair-surfing in the secret underground tunnels; and playing pranks on top of the iconic hundred-fifty-foot dome.
I also included places that have special meaning to me. For example, the secret courtyard filled with sunflowers that was a romantic backdrop for one of the scenes in the book was real, and a place my now-husband took me to on one of our first dates. Unfortunately, it’s no longer there, but I kept it in because it had been so special to us.
There are many things from Mei’s time at MIT that seem too unreal to be true but are based on reality (whose reality, I will not say, but it happened to me or someone I know!). The Taiwanese roommate accusing Mei’s family of killing her family when she learns of Mei’s family lineage, the other students making fun of Mei for not being familiar with Star Wars (okay, I will admit that one happened to me), the MIT Medical doctor telling Mei she had herpes when it was an allergic reaction, and finally, this one didn’t happen at MIT, but the frozen-pee-under-the-door prank was based on reality too. There are plenty more (you can safely assume 99% of American Panda is inspired by reality), but those are the more surprising ones that come to mind.
Your book Our Wayward Fate focuses a lot on the balancing act that your main character, Ali, has to do to be accepted as an Asian in her predominantly white Indiana town. What do you want readers to take away from her journey and the way she and Chase push back against racism and discrimination?
Above all, I hope that readers who have similar experiences know they aren’t alone. That those situations are difficult and gray and don’t have any right answers. I hope readers know that it’s okay if they can’t find their voices or if it’s a struggle just to get through it and that it’s also okay to try to find allies, to try to say something. And at the end of the day, the bottom line is: it’s terrible, it happens, and it’s unfair. A big, huge hug to anyone who has dealt and is dealing with this. I have to add that in this COVID-19 world, I’m especially sending love to my fellow Asian Americans. I hope humanity can do better than it has been.
What’s your favorite media (film, TV show, etc.) that deals with the fake dating/rent a significant other trope and why?
I love the Hulu original Plus One with the talented Maya Erskine, who had me laughing throughout! Humor is the best way to my heart! And of course, I’m a fan of the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before books and movies. Lana Condor was the perfect casting choice for Lara Jean!
What other YA novels do you think your books are in conversation with? Are there any upcoming or published books you’d recommend?
My books are often compared to Sandhya Menon’s wonderful romantic comedies (When Dimple Met Rishi, There’s Something About Sweetie, 10 Things I Hate About Pinky), which is a huge compliment! I’m also lucky to have been likened to the hilarious Maurene Goo (Somewhere Only We Know, The Way You Make Me Feel, I Believe in a Thing Called Love). My books also tackle identity and racism, and Samira Ahmed (Love, Hate & Other Filters; Internment; Mad, Bad & Dangerous To Know) and I often joke that, like us, our characters are friends.
One of my most anticipated upcoming novels is Parachutes by Kelly Yang. Some published and upcoming books I have loved (in addition to the ones mentioned in the previous paragraph): I’ll Be the One by Lyla Lee, The Perfect Escape by Suzanne Park, I Love You So Mochi by Sarah Kuhn, Picture Us in the Light by Kelly Loy Gilbert. What’s coming up on my TBR: The Summer of Everything by Julian Winters, Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon, This is My Brain in Love by I.W. Gregorio.
What is one question that you wish you were asked more often (and the answer)?
What’s the most disgusting thing you saw as a dentist? Just kidding. You really don’t want to know that, I promise, and I really don’t want to talk about it.
Out of all of the people, quirks, and events inspired by your own life in your books, what’s your favorite?
There are a lot—i.e., the mom in several of my books trying to set up the daughter with sons of family friends she’s never met but is sure they’re good because “his parents are good”; the parents from Our Wayward Fate driving forty-five minutes for Americanized Chinese food when they live in rural Indiana (my parents could sniff out the closest Chinese food restaurant no matter where we were); all the ridiculous things Mama Lu from American Panda says in the voicemails she leaves her daughter, like don’t use a teabag more than twice because it causes cancer but don’t use it once because it’s a waste of money—but my favorite is Mama Lu making her daughter drink papaya smoothies because of a papaya-eating aboriginal village in China that is known for big-breasted women. I have heard from so many readers that they relate to this and it has been so fun commiserating with others during events and panels and on social media over this wacky, very specific practice! There are no words for what it feels like when you talk to someone who grew up intimately knowing something you thought no one else would understand. This is just one small example of why representation matters are so important.
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