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The truth about fictionalizing Filipinos with Caris Cruz and Mae Coyiuto

By Andrea Panaligan, The Philippine STAR Published Jul 28, 2023 5:00 am

Art and literature have always had the ability to live forever, through whoever. In a way, every single book is about every single person who’s ever been on earth, in that every book touches on the core of what makes us human.

Still, there’s a specific joy that comes with seeing your story reflected back to you. In the last year, two Filipino authors, both based in the Philippines, published books internationally—books starring young Filipinos, set in the Philippines, telling Filipino stories.

Mae Coyiuto is a Chinese-Filipino writer born and raised in Manila. Her debut novel Chloe and the Kaishao Boys was published by Penguin Teen last March. It’s a coming-of-age story about dreams, family, and of course, the boys you get Kaishao-ed with.

Caris Cru writes stories featuring Filipino young heroes. Her debut novel, Marikit and the Ocean of Stars, was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (BYR) last October. It features a young girl who travels throughout the land of engkantos.

They sat down with The Philippine STAR and talked about finding a home for their stories about home.

Authors Caris Cruz and Mae Coyiuto.

MAE COYIUTO: Marikit and the Ocean of Stars feels so Filipino. What was the reception like from people who weren’t Filipino? Did you ever have to filter or think, “This is too foreign to some people”?

CARIS CRUZ: That was my fear, (especially since) her name is Marikit. I was thinking, what if the editors switch the names to something more American? But I’m glad that they didn’t. I was happy that some reviews say that even though they’re white, they had fun reading it. It was really, really nice to have them read us for a change, kasi tayo yung nagcoconsume madalas ng work nila.

I was just really happy to have a book out since there are just so many mountains to climb to get published. Speaking of that, you had two books pala – you’ve published also locally. How different is getting published here from getting published abroad?

MAE: I was just really lucky when I was younger. When I was a kid, my mom saw me writing these stories and I don’t know what came over her, but she said maybe we could research how we can get it published. We met Ms. Gwenn Galvez of Anvil at the time, and she just loved the angle of a kid writing for kids. That’s how I got my first book. Anvil also published my second book in 2015.

“As Filipinos not in the US, this kind of opportunity is so rare, and we’re always feeling like nauubusan (tayo), parang mawawala na siya in the future.”

Some people see Chloe and the Kaishao Boys (and say), “Wow, you’re really a writer now,” and I get bothered when people assume that before (I got published internationally), it wasn’t real. For me, getting published locally, the quality is the same. There are so many good books published here. It’s only the reach (of an international publisher) that’s different.

As for Marikit, you borrowed so much from Filipino folklore and mythology. How did you decide when you’re staying faithful to how they’re represented in history and when to make them your own?

CARIS: I always imagined Marikit (as a) bedtime storybook na mababasa ng older Filipinos reading to their kids. I want them to connect those worlds, like, “ Oh, alam ko ‘tong story ni Malakas at Maganda or ni Juan Tamad,” and tell their children their own version of the story. It’s like a way for these stories to get passed on.

Mae with Xandra Ramos of National Bookstore for the Philippine launch of Chloe and the Kaishao Boys.

Same with you as well in terms of Chloe being about family. I really love that you tackled that theme in your book. I have so much respect for your characters. I also love the diversity; everything was there when I was reading it.

MAE: I read somewhere, you said you were scared that this would be the one book you would ever write. That was my feeling din with Chloe. This would be my one chance to get a novel out there so I put as much as I could, like characters who are dark-skinned or queer.

CARIS: As Filipinos not in the US, this kind of opportunity is so rare, and we’re always feeling like nauubusan (tayo), parang mawawala na siya in the future.

Caris Cruz with her book Marikit and the Ocean of Stars.

MAE: I read some blogs from those who are underrepresented in the publishing industry and they always say, while we’re always so grateful, it’s so hard to not think, out of everyone, why do I get to do this? When you get this opportunity, it’s hard not to feel like you have to do right by everyone in the Filipino community. How do you deal with that pressure?

CARIS: It’s like, can’t there be a space for all of us? Sabi mo nga, it pushes us to do our best kasi tayo yung nandito. But we hope we could also shine a spotlight on (more Filipino writers) because they deserve it. We hope one day, all of our books are going to be on the shelves together.