Where fiction ends and reality begins: Marivi Soliven on her debut novel, ‘The Mango Bride’

Literary figures have an air of mystique about them, perhaps brought by the many worlds and lives they’ve lived — besides their own — through the stories they’ve read and written. Marivi Soliven arrived at the Writers Bar at Raffles Makati with that very air, looking every bit of a dignified author out to pen the next visceral novel. One couldn’t help but peg her as someone minding an important business. Because she was. That day Soliven stopped by two TV networks to talk about her new book before going to Raffles Hotel for one-on-one interviews with the press.

Soliven’s The Mango Bride follows Amparo Guerrero and Beverly Obejas, Filipinas who left Manila for Oakland in search of greener grass. Strangers to each other in the beginning, the two crossed paths and in the course of their encounter shared a life-changing secret. The novel in English earned the Palanca Award before it was published in 2013 by Penguin Books. It was then translated in Spanish in 2014 and this year in Filipino by professor Danton Remoto.

The mystery quickly died when I opened our conversation with a question about falling in love with fiction. “The Mango Bride is a fiction story but I would say about 95 percent of it is true,” she said, explaining that her work was a product of calls she had to take in her job as a phone interpreter in California, where she currently lives. She heard accounts of domestic violence among other immigration woes that eventually found their way in her first novel.

Her answers were straightforward, her views practical, and her tone matter-of-fact. She caught me off-guard till I figured that that’s where her charm lies: in refusing to dwell on the romanticism of literature. Because guess what, there’s real, gruelling, sometimes mundane work that goes behind it.

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Marivi Soliven carrying the Filipino edition of her debut novel, ‘The Mango Bride.’

Read on and learn about Soliven’s newly translated novel, her thoughts on young writers, and how she’s making a difference.

GIST: When did you realize that the stories you discover from your job as phone interpreter would make for a worthwhile novel?

MARIVI SOLIVEN: It seemed like such a big topic. It wasn’t just domestic violence, it wasn’t just immigration. There were so many experiences of immigration that I felt like a short story wouldn’t do it justice.

The Mango Bride was originally called In the Service of Secrets. What were the considerations you took when revising the title?

In the process of editing with my editor, she said that it seemed like a really abstract title. And I wasn’t really happy with it because it sounded like a secret service and didn’t seem to have captured the vibe of the novel, so we settled with The Mango Bride after many weeks of going back and forth. I think it worked.

How important was it for you to have the book translated in Filipino?

There is a large portion of the country that doesn’t speak English or if they do, they don’t read it as well and I thought it’ll make the novel more accessible to a wider audience, the kind of audience that Beverly represents.

Whose decision was it to call Danton Remoto to translate?

He’s a friend of mine and he had read the novel and enjoyed the characters. He was like, “Kapatid, ako na lang.” And I was like, happily, “Sure.”

What’s the most enjoyable part of writing The Mango Bride?

Getting to know the characters. And I really like editing. I like editing better than I like drafting. Because with drafting, you’re really creating things. I want to have something already to work with.

Your Penguin editor asked you to be more active on social media. How’s that going so far?

It adds more things to do in a day. It’s one more chore to do and I’m happy to do it. I’m happy to have a website. It’s another skill to learn. And I understand that it’s necessary to have an Internet presence. But I don’t do Twitter very well. I’m not as good at it as I’d like to be, and I also don’t have the time. Some people can do it in ten seconds, but I have to really think about it, I can spend a good half hour writing a good tweet.

You’ve taught Creative Writing in the past. What have you observed about the young writers? What are their bad habits?

I think that because of this culture of instant gratification, I notice that with a lot of writers, their first goal is to have an audience then get published rather than to write a good story first. So I guess I’m kind of old-fashioned that way. I’d rather write a good story then have its audience find it.

Advice to young writers?

I definitely am a supporter of the routine. If you make writing a part of your daily schedule, along with exercising or brushing your teeth, then it becomes something that you regularly do; instead of going, “Oh I’m gonna wait until I get inspired, then I’ll write.” Because that never happens. It sometimes happen but if you get inspired once every two weeks then you don’t really have much of a writing practice. To write good stories, like with anything else, you have to do it every day. Then you get better. And to be a writer, I think the best thing you can do is just read. Read, read, read. Read whatever catches your fancy, everything from the best stuff to the worst stuff. Eventually you’ll figure out what good stories are.

The Palanca Awards is happening tonight. You yourself have won several. How important are awards?

I think that they are good in terms of getting you noticed. They can get you published here in the Philippines. Even in the United States, many of the award giving bodies have prizes that include publication. So it does help. But I don’t think people should focus on winning contests as the main reason for writing.

Who are you reading now?

I just finished The Devil in the White City — about the Chicago World’s Fair. I recently read Lysley Tenorio’s Monstress. I was also reading Toni Morrison’s’ Jazz for a while, I should get back to it.

What are you most proud of about The Mango Bride?

It gave people who were suffering from domestic violence a chance to come out of their situation. After the novel came out I got letters from survivors or victims of domestic violence who said that the story resonated with their own experience. I took that as a sign that I needed to do something to help them. So I worked with an event planner. I found a non-profit that provides legal aid services for immigrant survivors of domestic violence called Access, Inc. and we put together a fundraiser. Last year we raised nearly 10,000 dollars, which was enough to give legal aid services to nine women. One day they’ll be free of their abusers and have legal residency in America.

How does it feel to create change as concrete as that?

For me that’s really important. Because it’s great to write a good story, it’s great that people like it. but if that story then leads to making a difference in someone else’s life, then that’s… (lost for words).