Anthony Ocampo: When reading and , I noticed something. When talking about Filipino food, you provided succinct descriptions. For example, sinigang is “a delicious, tangy soup that manages to be both comforting and refreshing” and lumpiang shanghai is “meat-filled fried spring rolls.” Other times though, you left Filipino vernaculars—Ninang (godmother), tsismis (gossip), or phrases like “Diyos ko!” (My God!)—undefined. I’m wondering how you navigated the choice to explain or not explain these terms.
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AO: I mean, even as a person who grew up eating Filipino food, there were some foods I’d never heard of. There are, after all, over 7,000 islands in the Philippines. How can any one person know them all? Like I didn’t know kwek-kwek were deep-fried quail eggs! I did notice in both your books though, there were some creative experiments with Filipino food—ube crinkles, a pandan-infused latte. Where’d those come from?
a lotWhat would be a great combination? That sounds amazingHow can I put my own spin on it? What can I fiddle with to make it more like my own taste?
AO: It’s clear you have a lifelong love for Filipino food. But in media outlets, we always hear stories about Asian children of immigrants and their “lunch box moment,” the childhood memory of bringing a traditional ethnic dish to school and getting made fun of by their white friends. Did you ever experience the lunch box moment that so many consider to be a quintessentially Asian American experience?
AO: Other Asians have their “lunch box moment,” but I feel like Filipinos who grow up around Latinos all have their “puto moment.” Speaking of moments, you hear a lot of media outlets talk about Filipino food having its “moment” or becoming the “next big thing.” There’s ube ice cream at Trader Joe’s and chicken adobo at Whole Foods. What do you think about the mainstreaming of Filipino food, or this idea that Filipino food has “arrived”? Do you find it validating or annoying?
AO: Yeah, it been here. It’s nice to see all these Filipino chefs and food writers like Ligaya Mishan of the and the James Beard-nominated author and restaurateur Nicole Ponseca making a name for themselves. You wrote a culinary cozy, but I’m wondering how much you keep up with the broader Filipino food movement?
AO: Did you have a “crying in Seafood City” moment?
AO: I love how, in your books, you write about how there’s more to these Filipino food sites than meets the eye. Like how Tita Rosie’s kitchen—the family restaurant in Shady Pines where Lila works—is more than just a restaurant. It’s a community center. It’s where Tita Rosie and other characters get to educate people about Filipino culture.
AO: Another thing I love is that your books center strong female characters. These past two years, so much about Asian women was about the awfulness—the violent attacks, Filipino nurses disproportionately dying from COVID-19. Yeah, your books have dead bodies, but it was comforting for me to exist in this space where the narrative about Filipina women—like Lila, her ninangs, her lola, her tita—wasn’t just about tragedy. They got to be all sorts of things. They got to be fully fleshed out human beings.
MM: Okay, first of all, thank you so much. I really appreciate that. It’s really important to me that I get to portray Filipinos as just human beings, with all our good things and all our flaws. So much of Asian American literature is trauma-based. The publishing industry really loves to push that narrative. I think they’re hugely important stories with very beautifully written prose, but I’m not trying to be that. There’s trauma and pain in the immigrant experience, but that’s not all that I am. It’s not all that we are.
It was really important for me to show Filipino American characters that just exist. Like with Lila, her story is about trying to pick up the pieces after her life falls apart, about finding her way home again, while trying to solve this murder mystery. I leaned very heavily into [cozy] genre tropes on purpose. I wanted to show readers that we do belong [in the genre].
In my household, the only women in the house were me, my mom, and my maternal grandmother. My grandfather and dad were there, but growing up, it always felt like it was the women who were holding it together. My dad made the money, and he was the cook, but my mom and my grandmother were the ones on the front lines taking care of us. There is that narrative of Asian women being weak or submissive or docile or dragon ladies or really sexual, but I wanted you to know that Asian Americans, specifically Filipina American women can be full human beings with agency.
They can be flawed and still deserve love. Like the Calendar Crew—Lila’s ninangs—they can say really hurtful things about your romantic relationships, your weight, but they truly think they’re helping. They’re not trying to be hurtful. I was trying to let them be 3-D characters instead of flattening them into caricatures. I’m always scared of doing that, and so I have to try to balance it to make them feel as real as possible.
There’s trauma and pain in the immigrant experience, but that’s not all that I am. It’s not all that we are.
AO: What has been the reaction from readers to your books?
To be completely 100% honest, I was really scared of whether Filipino American audiences would accept the book. Because we—not just Filipinos, but people of color and any marginalized community—tend to judge our own community the hardest. In some ways I get it because we have so little mainstream representation that you get excited about [any Filipino representation], but then it’s not what you expect. It’s such an unfair burden to have to be everything to everyone. There’s no way I could represent everyone’s experience in a way that feels real and meaningful to every single Filipino American. That was a huge worry for me early on.
But I’ve been very lucky. The people who reach out to me have been so, so kind. A lot of them are like, “This is the first time I feel seen,” or “This is the first time I’ve ever seen a Filipino American character.” I’ll get messages from people on my website, and I’ll just start crying because they’ll say really wonderful things.
There was one person, a Korean American, she was telling me she wanted to be a mystery writer. And she was telling me that she hadn’t realized until she read my book that she was unintentionally making her characters white. Because she thought that’s what she was supposed to do. She said my book was the first time she saw Asian main characters in crime fiction. She was like, “Oh, we can do that!”
AO: Okay, now you’re gonna make me cry. Whew.
MM: Yeah. You know, I have this weird thing where I’m super confident. I genuinely believe I’m a good writer. But never in a million years would I have imagined that I’d have an impact on anyone. I thought, You’re gonna read my book, and you’re gonna have fun. If I’m lucky, I made you laugh. And if I’m really lucky, I will have distracted you from the shit show that is the world right now. And that’s all I could ever ask for. That’s how I want it to be. That’s what books were for me. They were that escape. When life was tough, books gave me a few hours of peace. That was the highest hope I had.
So getting some of those messages about making people feel seen or making them realize they can make it as a writer and that they can make it as a writer writing characters like themselves—it’s amazing.
Anthony Ocampo is the author of two books, "The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Break the Rules of Race" and "Brown & Gay in LA." His writing has appeared in GQ, Colorlines, Gravy, Life & Thyme, and the Chronicle of Higher Education. He has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, VONA, Tin House, and Jack Jones Literary Arts. He is a Professor of Sociology at California State Polytechnic University-Pomona. Twitter: @anthonyocampo | IG: @anthonyocampo.phd