Beverly Parayno: Strength in Subtlety: Mini-Interview with Veronica Montes

When I first heard of Veronica Montes’ collection Benedicta Takes Wing and Other Stories (Philippine American Literary House, 2018) through a friend, I got excited about reading prose from a Pinay writer from the Bay Area—especially one that published with an indie press. The last books I’d read with familiar settings are Janice Sapigao’s Microchips for Millions and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Refugees, who share my hometown of San Jose. As I waited for Montes’ book to arrive, I imagined intimate stories of Pinxys with backdrops of the gloom and fog of Daly City, where she is from. The collection offers this and more, traversing geography and time.

Montes’ work is graceful, subtle at times, and also shocking, commanding and authoritative. I want to call her a realist, but she also works in myth and mystery. The fourteen stories in this collection address themes of love, loss, beauty, immigration, disconnection, saving face, silence and violence. What I admire most about Montes’ work, and recognized from the first pages of the book, is the confidence with which she drops the reader into each story with little or no backstory. This effect drives the narrative forward, and her careful observations and brief descriptions of character provide all the information we need to know exactly who we’re dealing with. A mother’s “string of cuss words under her peppermint breath,” and the description of an aunt in mourning: “She looks tragically lovely, what with her hair a little mussed and her eyes brimming with tears. She has planned it that way; she is brilliant that way.” It’s not easy to convey so much about a character with so few words, and Montes does it quite naturally.

We had an email conversation to talk about her writing style, her comfort as a Filipina American writer in setting stories in the Philippines and the silence between generations in Filipino families.

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Beverly Parayno: In the title story “Benedicta Takes Wing,” the stranger who visited Benedicta’s grandparents’ house leaves behind a box filled with stuffed birds. That image stayed with me for a while after I first read this intense, violent story. Where did the idea of the birds come from?

Veronica Montes: My stories are usually made from a handful of facts and a truckload of fiction, and so it was with Benedicta Takes Wing. One set of my grandparents did, indeed, have a box of stuffed birds in the storage room of their garage! Those birds have haunted me all my life, and over the years I tried and failed several times to write a story about their origin. I wrote an essay about this intersection of life (and death) and story and this haunting box of birds.

Parayno: I admire how you handle violence in this collection. The restraint and control of the language heightens the impact for the reader. Examples of violent scenes include the sexual assault of Benedicta in the basement by the stranger in the title story, the houseboy who breaks the skin of the narrator’s cheek in “Lamentation,” and the father’s attack on Anna in “Why Tonton Is Slow,” among other violent scenes. Can you talk about your use of violence in the collection and the process of writing these difficult scenes?

Montes: There will always be two Benedictas: the Benedicta who walked down into the basement, and the one who came back up. I think this is true for the other characters you mention, as well. I find this idea of sudden transformation very, very scary, and writing about these moments helps me to deal with that fear.

I often write under noisy circumstances (my desk is in the kitchen, heart and soul of the house!), but when I write these difficult scenes, I need quiet and I need to be alone. I have a natural tendency to underwrite, and though it doesn’t always serve me well, I think it works for these scenes because—this is what I like to believe, anyways—the reader needs to engage a bit more to fill in the blanks. I guess what I’m asking the reader is, “Can you help me, here? Can we deal with this together?”

Parayno: Several of the stories in your collection are set in the Philippines. How comfortable are you in working with Filipino characters from the Philippines? Personally, I find this setting challenging since I’ve only been there twice. Related, you seem comfortable jumping around in time, with stories going back to the Spanish colonization to 1920s laborers in California to present day Daly City.

Montes: We’re similar—I was born and raised in California, and I’ve been to the Philippines just three times. It’s always a little daunting for me to try to do right by Filipino characters and to do justice to the Philippines as a setting, but I enjoy every part of the challenge, especially research. I talk to my family, look up native birds and trees, check out vintage furnishings, clothing, and other details that I hope contribute to making readers feel like they’re in trustworthy hands. Although I love to read historical fiction, I’ve never purposely set out to write it. These particular stories—”Bernie Aragon, Jr. Looks for Love,” “Lamentation,” and even “My Father’s Tattoo”—naturally grew out of the reading I was doing about points in Filipino and Filipino American history that I’m particularly drawn to.

Parayno: Who or what influences your writing?

Montes: This collection represents the first half of my writing life, so the stories were heavily influenced by the sticky, fascinating web of relationships that exists within Filipino families—mine and others. To some extent I’m sure this will always be the case, but my recent work has also been impacted by my personal understanding of (as opposed to observation of) marriage and motherhood; the idea, borrowed from Arnold Weinstein, of “redrawing the map of the self”; the loss of several loved ones; a deeper interest in speculative elements, fairytale, folklore, etc.; and, as always, by my favorite books and writers and artists.

Three books that directly influenced the stories included in my collection are Brown River, White Ocean: An Anthology of Twentieth-Century Philippine Literature in English (Luis H. Francia, ed.); Flippin’: Filipinos on America (Luis H. Francia and Eric Gamalinda, eds.); and The Philippines Reader: A History of Colonialism, Neocolonialism, Dictatorship, and Resistance (Daniel B. Schemer and Stephen R. Shalom, eds.).

Parayno: Throughout your collection, there’s a consistent theme of silence—an absence of oral histories being passed down from one generation to the next. In the story “Beauty Queens,” Zeny is frustrated that the only story her Lolo shares about her late Lola is that “she was a beauty queen in the Philippines.” In “The Ones That Were Lost,” when the narrator asks her Lolo for stories about his life, “he deflected her inquiries with his usual silence.” In “Apollo and Jr. Grow Up,” the narrator must make up stories when her son gets disappointed about her lack of knowledge of family history. Can you talk about this notion of silence and lack of continuity between generations in Filipino culture?

Montes: Between the ages of eight and eleven, I was constantly being shooed away from the grown-ups and their conversation. This was so maddening to me because I really, really wanted to know what was going on. What was with the hand gestures, the rapid-fire talk, the raucous laughter? What were these things that I simply was not allowed to know? It was all so tantalizing.

I think a lot of that curiosity made its way into the stories. The pockets of silence in my family seemed to come from a combination of our elders not wanting to upset the apple cart (everything’s fine, nothing to see here, move along!) and perhaps not fully grasping that subsequent generations would—as children of immigrants—grapple with their identities and be semi-desperate (or maybe that was just me?) to hear and know more. I don’t think it was an intentional silence; more like an accidental one.

Parayno: Do you think language is/has been a barrier in communication between the generations in Filipino families? Many (most) Filipino Americans, including myself, aren’t fluent in Tagalog and/or our parents’ dialect(s).

Montes: I’m fluent only in English (as is my mother, who is also American born and raised), so there’s no doubt I would have picked up more information if I spoke or understood Tagalog. I remember my family, in its entirety, as speaking English more often than not, though. They slipped into Tagalog only during what seemed like moments of either great hilarity or solemnity.

Parayno: I wanted to thank you personally and also on behalf of my sisters, female cousins and friends, and all Filipinas out there who have ever had to interact at parties with that creepy white uncle or family friend who has visited the Philippines numerous times, speaks Tagalog more fluently than we do and knows (and can cook) every dish and dessert that we have yet to master. Your story “Beauty Queens” is a story I’ve been waiting to read all my life! What struck me about this story is the dissonance between the aunties who cater to the white man and the young cousins who see through his character and are bold enough to call him on his fetishization of Pinays. Where do you think Zeny’s character gets the courage to confront her auntie’s white husband the way she does?

Montes: Ha! You’re welcome! These aunties are trapped inside a colonial mentality escape room, but they’re napping instead of actively searching for clues that might help them make a break for it. Meanwhile, Zeny and Girlie are grieving (a grief annoyingly eclipsed by the theatrics of their mothers and aunts), and it manifests in a kind of recklessness and the need to release some of the feelings stirred up by the death of their Lola.

I meant to convey that under normal circumstances they would never have confronted Mark; they’ve put up with him for years already, after all. But more importantly, the bond between cousins can be a special one, and I wanted to show that the girls’ courage comes from standing together.