June 12, 2015

Mabuhay! Interview with Dahlia Adler


Today is the Philippines’ Independence Day and during this time last year, Alexa and I put together a week long event called MABUHAY, as a way to celebrate Filipino culture in literature. We’re bringing it back for the day (and probably every year on this day!) because it’s something we should always be discussing and mindful of. We often feel that our culture is under-represented in many of the books we read but there are authors, Filipino and not, who do make a point to include a diverse cast of characters and it doesn’t go unnoticed by readers like us. One such author is Dahlia Adler, author of the Behind the Scenes and Last Will and Testament, the book she’s going to be discussing today. We absolutely love what she wrote and are excited to share this guest post with you all!

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All characters start with some partial vision—a name, or a feature, or sometimes even a fleshed-out picture. Very rarely, one of my characters even gets directly inspired by an actor or actress. This was the case with Lizzie, the main character of my debut NA Contemporary, Last Will and Testament. Why did Lizzie come to me as half-Filipino? Two words: Cassie Steele.

Cassie Steele is an actress most famous for playing Manny Santos on Degrassi: The Next Generation, but when I wrote Last Will and Testament, it was actually on the short-lived The LA Complex where I was watching her regularly. In both roles, she was exactly the fiery, sexy, struggling, hard but vulnerable young woman trying for independence but not without reliance on others that I imagined my Lizzie to be. And once I meshed her in my mind with Cassie Steele, who has a Filipina mother and white father, I couldn’t see her any other way.

And then I kept thinking about it, and it struck me so hard when I was writing how tremendous the Filipino YA/NA community is—so incredibly passionate and supportive—and yet I couldn’t think of a single YA or NA with a Filipino character. So many readers supporting books in which they never see themselves—how was that okay?

Well, I decided it wasn’t.

On the shows on which Cassie Steele appeared, her background wasn’t discussed much, although the line about how Lizzie’s mother would’ve sent her to a convent was a total shout out to a similar line on Degrassi. While I felt Lizzie would only be so affiliated with her own culture due to her personal circumstances (her father being American, her grandparents not being in her life—more on that in a bit), a person’s background is more than a line or two. It’s the food we eat, the attitudes we take, the microaggressions we face, our language, our history… However backseat those things might be in Lizzie’s life, I wanted them to be ingrained in her, even if primarily in the way she remembered her mother. I knew she would’ve instilled Lizzie not just with knowledge on her culture but with its values. (And clearly her mother had to be excellent at making lumpia, because that was the first Filipino food I ever ate, and yum.)

At the same time, it didn’t feel true to Lizzie’s character to me to make her culture a major plot point, and I know that disappointed some readers who wanted to see more. I’ve seen people really upset at the idea that Lizzie’s grandparents would’ve cut off her mother, because family is such a strong Filipino value. (Which is sort of the point of the rest of the book—Lizzie’s desperately trying to make it work to be her brothers’ guardian, and her parents specifically making the decision to name her as such because they wanted him to be with family, even when it wasn’t terribly realistic, but I digress.) And I absolutely understand that, too; especially when your way underrepresented culture’s being depicted, you really want that depiction to show your culture’s best sides. But Lizzie’s not meant to represent the Filipino experience; she’s a Filipino experience—specifically a biracial Filipino-American experience—and we’re all individuals within our own cultures. We make individual choices. Sometimes those choices align with our people’s greater values, and sometimes, they’re overridden by our personal feelings and passions.

But like or hate my depiction—and I’ve definitely seen reaction all over the spectrum—I love to learn from how people respond. As someone who writes a lot of characters who don’t share my ethnic background or sexual orientation, there’s nothing more important than listening to how your depictions are being received by the very people you’re representing. You will always learn from doing so, and I definitely learned a lot from this experience.

Though Lizzie is relegated to a secondary character for the rest of the series, you can actually glimpse her working on reconnecting to her Filipino roots in the background of the next two books, and trying to make it more present in her brothers’ lives as well. I look forward to continuing to research Filipino culture as she does!

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Thank you Dahlia for doing this guest post and for writing
a book like Last Will and Testament!
If you haven't read this book yet, add it to your TBR right now!

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Now, check out Alexa's post which features a blogger roundtable!

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Last year's MABUHAY posts:
[On Hello, Chelly]
A Celebration of Filipino Culture in Literature
Let's Get Personal
Book Recommendations
[On Alexa Loves Books]
Blogger Roundtable
A Virtual Tour of My Philippines

3 comments:

  1. Dahlia's post is the bee's knees! I loved hearing about her thought process, inspiration and execution, and I would happily read more Filipino or half-Filipino characters she writes <3

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  2. Cassie Cassie Cassie, I freaking love her. <3

    The convent scene<3 I remember, so painful…

    I love how Dahlia has main characters that don't share her same ethnic background or sexual orientation. It helps with the diversity. :) I like how she says that the character's filipino isn't "the" experience, but "a" experience.

    I'm going to definitely be checking out this series, especially since the character's slightly Cassie Steel-ish.

    Great post

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