a literary review
In the second of our interviews with Issue 25 prose contributors, museum prose co-editor Lauren Alwan talks with Marianne Villenueva about “The Walker.” The story is filled with contrasts—the bucolic remove of suburbia in Northern California, the national grief after the attacks of 9/11, the comforts of a middle class tract, the shock of deaths both distant and close to home. These disparate realities inform the speaker’s consciousness in “The Walker,” and here, Marianne discusses the genesis of the story, the challenges of plot, and how she knows when she’s found the perfect reader.
“The Walker” looks at the tragedy of 9/11, the capture of Osama bin Laden, and suburbia in Northern California. It’s also a character study of a man who’s troubled by losses both nationally and close to home. Can you talk a bit about the genesis of the story?
From the moment 9/11 happened, it was in me. But the memories were starting to fold into history and some detachment was beginning to settle into my memories of it. That’s why I found it so unexpected when Obama appeared on national TV and announced his death. I remember being so struck by the contrast between the president’s calm demeanor and the news he was announcing, which was momentous.
I don’t know if I started percolating the story right then, but I think the contrast between the public event and the quietness of the president’s demeanor led to me wanting to explore this contrast in some way. 9/11 profoundly changed the American psyche: it introduced despair and pessimism. These changes were small, almost unnoticeable—but no less momentous. The story was born out of me wanting to explore the sea changes that occur beneath the surface.
“The Walker” is set in fictional Sequoia, a suburban tract in Northern California, a setting that resembles areas outside San Francisco in its mix of old and new, of immigrants and longtime residents. Can you talk about the role of place in your work, and as it relates to the idea of insiders and outsiders?
This was a very interesting question. I always feel tentative when writing about place. My inner life is split: obviously I’m here, right now, in America, I became a naturalized citizen a long time ago. But there’s another part of me that belongs to the Philippines, and there’s also the insistent voice of my dear departed father, who said I should never become an American citizen, because I will never be treated as an equal. “I mean, just look at yourself,” my father said. And this was a man who graduated Georgetown Law.
Each of my stories is a balancing act between HERE and THERE. I am always, always aware of this disconnect, even though I seem, outwardly, to have assimilated. The place where I am now is a suburban neighborhood. I’ve lived in this same house since 1991. It is a predominantly white neighborhood. It is very much like the neighborhood in “The Walker.” But I began to wonder, what do my neighbors really know about me? Nothing, really. I don’t think they’re quite as accepting as I used to believe. Maybe that’s a result of 2016. There’s this sense of comfort, because the landscape is familiar and settled. But there’s also a wariness.
In this story, the precarious balancing act is there. Mr. Flores is like myself, seemingly assimilated. But the narrator is very aware of where Mr. Flores is from: “He’s from the Philippines.” Mr. Flores and the narrator don’t speak, they’re not really “friends.” But it’s the jumbotron that finally elevates Mr. Flores into someone the narrator thinks he would like to visit. It also shows the divide: it was there, for many years. Maybe it was the result of a mutual reticence. But it took something as huge as 9/11 and its aftermath to bring Mr. Flores front and center in the narrator’s awareness.
During the reading for Issue 25’s launch, you mentioned you felt the story doesn’t quite go anywhere, but we find there’s a lot happening in “The Walker,” though much of it is taking place in the speaker’s consciousness. Some writers find plotting more of a challenge compared to working with character or language. How do you view narrative arc and making things happen?
Ah! I say that because it’s a very introspective piece. In fact, as I was writing it, and putting all the pieces (the details) together, I felt tremendous emotion. So quite a lot was happening inside. It’s just that I didn’t know how to make a corresponding something happen on the outside. But then, I always trust that readers will “get it,” I’m not sure where this confidence comes from, when I’ve actually had readers comment, in the past: What the hell was THAT I just read? LOL
One thing that made me absolutely happy when my piece was selected by you was knowing that I had found someone who gets me! I don’t plot, ever. I trust that a plot will emerge. If it doesn’t, then I know the story didn’t need one. Ha! I’m so disingenuous. Truly, my short stories are born of flashes of insight, thought, memory, or emotion. They’re impulses, like lightning in a bottle, that I try to capture on a page. I want the readers to feel what I feel, and for me that’s enough of a purpose for a story.
With this one, there were so many overlapping layers of emotion, it’s actually quite complex. But it takes a patient reader to burrow down. THANK YOU, MUSEUM OF AMERICANA, for taking the time and effort. I know my stories are not the easiest to understand. But I really felt I’d jumped the shark with this one.
Writing, for me, even after all these years, still remains an essentially mysterious process. Nothing I write is complete. I always leave one or more parts hanging. I send my work out with the hope that somewhere out there is a perfect reader who will take the time to respond and say (like in the Jerry Maguire movie, how cheesy): “You complete me!” When I find that perfect reader, I know I’ve landed my punches. And I always experience a very intense feeling of fulfillment—even joy—as a result. Which is priceless.
Central to “The Walker” are themes of time and grief, and trauma and its aftermath. Can you tell us a bit about writing in this vein?
I am comfortable in my melancholy. It’s part of my personality? I’ve had a lot of unexpected grief: my only sister died, my father followed a year later. A sister-in-law I was close to died. Everyone dies, so why is my grief special? I don’t feel able to deal with my grief in my real life, I don’t see a therapist or anything, I wait to “deal” when I’m writing. And then it just bleeds out. But I’m honest with it: there are people who run away from it, but I seem unable to.
That said, I had a very, very happy childhood. But I was still the child who was sensitive about…everything? When I was five, my exasperated father said (I was crying over something, I forget what): “You are the only five-year-old in the world who is holding an ice cream cone and still crying.” LOL
Can you share a recent favorite read—and tell us what you’re working on now?
A favorite read: okay, that’s easy. It’s—unexpectedly—not fiction. It’s Anne Sebba’s Ethel Rosenberg: An American Tragedy. I read a review of it in The Economist, and thought I’d give it a try. I did not expect that I would relate. But the biography keeps the trial and execution way out of the picture in the first half. And I was fascinated by the life the author was able to excavate for her subject—who was just a very, very ordinary woman. Who was in love with this man three years younger, who gave up everything for him. By the time it came to the trial, I was a complete basket case. The cold mother, the brother who betrayed her (he perjured himself to get his wife off, laid all the blame on his sister), the cruelty of Roy Cohn and the like, and her final moments. Aaah, I could begin crying right now.
Other than that book, I’ve been enjoying noir. And have been reading true masters of the genre: Thomas Perry and Chris Offutt, whose The Killing Hills was the last book I finished.
What am I working on now? I have two historical novels: one on World War II in my father’s home province in the central Philippines. My grandfather’s house was the tallest house on the island, so of course it was appropriated by the Japanese High Command. And my father’s entire family shared accommodation with the Japanese High Command for the duration of the occupation. I’m full of family stories.
The other novel-in-progress, which is over 400 pages, (I should just stop adding to it), is about a 16th century Spanish priest who is sent to the Philippines to fight demons. I tell it mostly in epistolary fashion. Don’t ask me why I always have to choose the hardest way. But I’m having fun writing in florid 16th century epistolary style. That’s the thing for me: if it’s not fun, I’m not writing it.
FINALLY, I have a very spare, taut horror novel about ALIEN INVASION in, of all places, the Bering Sea. It is so spare, I only add a few pages a month. It’s over 70 pages, but the language has remained satisfyingly laconic. I love it! I love reading it over. Two characters fall in love, which is rare for me to write about.
Read The Walker in Issue 25, here.
Marianne Villaneuva’s work has been published in Chattahoochee Review, Crab Orchard Review, Western Humanities Review, Juked, Pembroke Magazine, Vice-Versa, and many other print and online magazines. Born and raised in Manila, she received a creative writing fellowship from Stanford University and now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Currently, she teaches writing through UCLA Extension’s Writers Program. Her three published collections of short fiction are: Ginseng and Other Tales from Manila, Mayor of the Roses, and The Lost Language. She writes a humorous book and travel blog, Kanlaon, and can be found on Instagram @iblieveindragons.