When Mia Manansala returned to the U.S. after traveling abroad and teaching in South Korea, she found herself stuck in a rut, stumbling through the next steps in her life and career. It was 2014, and Manansala, who was then 28, settled back into west suburban Forest Park and decided to move in with her boyfriend, her adventures now folded into memories.
As Manansala drifted into a routine, she decided to unpack a childhood passion and began writing.
“I thought, ‘Maybe, now’s the time,’” said Manansala, now 35, during a Zoom call, sitting inside her lavender-colored office.
She took a mystery writing class through StoryStudio Chicago and never looked back.
In some ways, this part of Manansala’s life runs parallel to Lila Macapagal, the lead in her latest book, “Arsenic and Adobo.” Manansala, who still resides in Forest Park, drew from her past and feelings of being a “big fish in a small pond” when she built Macapagal. The difference between the two women lies in the details that make up the cozy mystery novel, which was released May 4 through Penguin Random House. “Arsenic and Adobo” is the first of a three-book series.
As the story goes, Macapagal moves back to her hometown after a bad breakup but is quickly roped into helping save Tita Rosie’s failing restaurant. Along the way, Macapagal runs into her ex-boyfriend, who happens to be a mean food critic – and dies, after the two meet. Amidst the murder, family drama and chaos, Macapagal spins into an investigation to solve the mystery.
Manansala described cozies, a subgenre of crime fiction, as Hallmark movies “with dead bodies.” There’s no graphic sex, violence or what some may consider “bad language,” she said. Cozy mysteries require authors such as Manansala to find the lightheartedness when there is murder.
For Manansala, there are pieces in “Arsenic and Adobo” that touch on issues such as drug use, police intimidation, domestic violence, and fatphobia, which means fear of fatness or hatred of fat bodies. While some of these issues were implied throughout the storyline, Manansala said she tried to be sensitive around the hard issues, making sure to not dismiss them or make unwarranted jokes.
“The humor is not about death. It’s not about the tougher things,” said Manansala. “It’s the things surrounding it. That’s how I try to balance the tone. I didn’t want to be flippant, but I also needed to be real.”
She added family, food and community are at the heart of the story.
My voice, my story
Manansala started writing “Arsenic and Adobo” about three years ago. She wrote in her free time, which was mostly after her full-time job and late into the evenings. Manansala, who was then an English teacher at a school in downtown Chicago, drafted the blueprint of her novel after class, slipping away into an empty classroom. Other times, she’d head over to the nearby Harold Washington Library to continue.
By the time the coronavirus pandemic came, Manansala was homebound working on the book’s revisions.
Manansala opened up about being among the few authors of color in the cozy mystery genre and what it means to be a Filipina-American author and create a Filipina protagonist. Manansala said her favorite genre of literature is fantasy, but when the pandemic hit, she dove into romance and found herself among these characters who were “women of color finding love and joy and realizing that they deserve happiness, too.”
When it came to developing Macapagal, Manansala was candid. Macapagal happens to be a Filipina-American in a murder mystery, she said.
“Her identity shapes her,” Manansala said. “It changes how she sees the world, and it definitely changes how the world sees her, particularly in this small town – a small Midwestern town at that! But she gets to just be. It’s part of a bigger story.”
Manansala reflected on her childhood and growing up in a multigenerational home in Chicago’s Hermosa neighborhood, a predominantly Latinx community.
“I didn’t really have a Filipino community growing up other than my family,” she said. “I didn’t, I can’t speak Tagalog. I can understand it, but I can’t speak it. My connection to my culture is through my family.”
The latter proposed a small challenge for Manansala while writing “Arsenic and Adobo,” and she often thought about the way she portrayed Macapagal and her family. At times, Manansala was writing from her perspective, the way she understood her Filipino culture and what she saw as “normal” in her own family. As she looked at those experiences, Manansala was careful to not perpetuate stereotypes but constantly danced in this gray area of “when am I leaning too hard or relying on certain things for comedic effect?” and “when is it like, I mean, this is real?”
“Am I leaning too heavily on my American perspective?” she asked. “Am I not being fair to some of these other characters and what they’ve gone through and why they have this particular point of view?”
Manansala said one of the characters in “Arsenic and Adobo” is a grandmother who is harsh and judgmental, a stickler for tradition, and faults Macapagal whenever she changes a traditional recipe on Tita Rosie’s menu. Manansala said she worked with a reader who offered more insight into the grandmother’s behavior.
“For immigrants, food is the only real tangible connection many of them have to their homeland,” said Manansala of what she learned from that reader. “For her, a plate of food is not just a plate of food. There are maybe reasons that she is as strict and why she holds on to certain traditions the way she does, despite Lila thinking it’s outdated.”
That’s the challenge of writing about cultural identity, and that’s what makes representation, at times, complicated. Manansala said more authors of color are writing their narratives and literary fiction but dive deep into the heaviness of immigrant experiences. But Manansala is trying to pave her path as a cozy mystery author.
As she thought about her most recent work, Manansala asked, “Will people accept this as my experience, and my voice, and the way I tell it?”
“I feel like because there’s so little representation, people put their own hopes and expectations into it,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Oh wow, a Filipino book,’ and they’re hoping to see themselves on the page. I understand that because that’s why I wrote this book. I wanted to see myself on the page, but not all our experiences are the same. We’re not a monolith. We all have different points of view.”
For more information on Mia Manansala, visit www.miapmanansala.com. “Arsenic and Adobo” is now available online or in stores, including The Book Table in Oak Park.