Writer Wednesday: Isabel Yap

Isabel Yap writes fiction and poetry, works in the tech industry, and drinks tea. Born and raised in Manila, she has also lived in California, London, and Boston. She holds a BS in Marketing from Santa Clara University, and an MBA from Harvard Business School. In 2013 she attended the Clarion Writers Workshop, and since 2016 has served as Secretary for the Clarion Foundation. Her work has appeared in venues including Tor.com, Lightspeed, Strange Horizons, and Year’s Best Weird Fiction. Her debut short story collection, Never Have I Ever, is out 2/23/2021 from Small Beer Press. She is @visyap on Twitter and her website is https://isabelyap.com.

Isabel Yap. Photo courtesy of the author.

Today we’re chatting with Yap about her forthcoming collection, writing while Filipino, and believing in yourself (or getting out of your own way) …

Cover for Never Have I Ever. Art by Alexa Sharpe.

Spells and stories, urban legends and immigrant tales: the magic in Isabel Yap’s debut collection jumps right off the page, from the joy in her new story, “A Spell for Foolish Hearts” to the terrifying tension of the urban legend “Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez.”

Without context, what’s one of your favorite sentences in the book?

Humans make up wonderfully intricate rituals, pretend to have such control—but they easily devolve into animal longing, just heartbeats flaring in their cage of skin and bones.

What will readers learn about you as a person from reading your debut collection?

Well, this is a terrifying question! And the kind of thing that I’d love to turn back on the reader, as in: well, what do you think you know about me? Generally, I was trained to critique stories in terms of formalism: the author is dead. I believe authors should be taken at their word, and I’d like people to read these stories not really thinking about me at all. But one thing that did come to mind, looking at this question, is: I hope a lonely reader will feel a kindred spirit. A deeply felt, persistent loneliness is something I live with, even if I have the best family and friends anyone could really ask for. The struggle with that, and the different resolutions I see regarding it, are threaded all through the veins of this book.

What makes this book different from anything else you’ve done?

In some ways, as my debut collection, this book is a retrospective of all the short fiction I’ve done til now. I hesitate a little to frame it that way, because I don’t think this necessarily contains all my strongest stories, but it does form a cohesive whole, which I think is important when you’re creating a short story collection.

I’ve been publishing original fiction for twelve years, and publishing in pro magazines for seven. I recognize that I started pretty young, though there was a downside: publishing in my teens definitely gave me expectations that took years to untangle, deconstruct, and develop better habits from. The oldest story in the collection was written when I was 21. The latest was written last year, during lockdown, shortly after I turned 30.

In this sense, I feel it’s somewhat fascinating to think that all these stories could cohere into a single book. I grew up over the course of writing these stories. I almost want to say I became a person, but teenage me would be annoyed at that. Most books I publish after this one will be written by me as a fully-fledged (? still questionable, tbh) adult, with all my concerns and baggage and lived experiences; those words won’t be living side-by-side with the me that was a newly-immigrated, mind-boggled college student.

How does your version of the world, seen through the stories in this collection, differ from “reality”?

This is a collection generally rooted in reality, setting-wise. Most of the stories take place in Manila, which is where I grew up. I lived there for the first twenty years of my life. I’m conscious that the Manila I describe is sort of in a freeze-frame from the 90’s and 00’s, because that remains my primary experience of it. I go back every other year, so I’m always fascinated by what has changed and what has stayed the same, but I’m also hyper-conscious of how I’m different now.

To be honest, writing about Manila—even Manila as I’ve known it—makes me anxious. I can say I’m only one Filipino, representing one certain, limited perspective, and that’s true…but of course I worry. I have diaspora neither-there-nor-here fears, and they’ve intensified the longer I’ve been away. I want to always be honest with and through my work, but my nervousness about handling and depicting my own culture has increased over time. I do think, though, that if I’m always striving for integrity and sincerity in my writing, even fictionalized, that makes a difference. It’s my hope that the market keeps expanding and diversifying so that opportunities can be given to more writers and creators. I would love for more Filipinos to get to tell their stories, their versions of Manila and our islands.

What was the hardest thing about taking your book from an idea to the finished product?

The simple answer is I needed to get my shit together, but that’s a very flip response to a more nuanced situation, and unnecessarily harsh—to myself. Haha.

I first seriously talked to Gavin and Kelly about the collection in early 2018, after some encouragement from Kelly on Twitter. I was coming off a year of extremely challenging work in my tech career; I had just been accepted into an MBA program, but it was actually my second attempt, so essentially I had been applying to B-school for the last 18 months, which was an extremely involved endeavor. I had barely written since finishing Hurricane Heels in late 2016, and I didn’t feel like myself.

It would have been easy for me to use the “No time” excuse for the rest of my program, until mid-2020. Grad school was extremely busy, and productively so. But I didn’t want to let the writing languish for too long. Every day in my program they were bringing in inspirational speakers who encouraged us to shoot for our dreams, work hard towards success, etc. They were talking about this in a business context, but writing and publishing has always been one of my dreams. I knew I needed to press on with writing, no matter what. So, coming back from Christmas break in the winter of 2019, I decided to focus and pull together the collection. I looked at the stories I had available, selected the ones that I thought were strongest, and sent them to Gavin.

So the hardest thing, really, was prioritizing the work even without a firm deadline—which I guess is a typical experience for a lot of first books. It was finding a way to say yes to the work, to believe it was worth pursuing, in the face of all the (actually very) valid excuses I could have used.

What did you – specifically and maybe only you – know or had experienced that influenced how you wrote some of these stories?

Most of these stories are a blend of things that are heavily fictionalized and things I know/believe to be true, but there are three stories in particular where I draw deeply from personal experiences:

Taken at Dolores Park during SF Pride in 2016, by Isabel Yap.

“A Spell for Foolish Hearts” takes place in San Francisco, and the protagonist is a product designer for a tech start-up. In coming up with scenes for this story I basically drew on my personal experience of being a millennial tech worker in SF: Pride, the Embarcadero, taking the 38, dancing in the Castro, SantaCon. Patrick, my protagonist, is important to me for a lot of reasons, not least because his particular anxieties (or lack thereof) about being in his late twenties and not having a love life was a story I didn’t see often enough.

“Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez?” and “A Canticle for Lost Girls” take place in two different fictional Catholic girls’ schools, but they are basically the same place: my elementary/high school, where I studied for thirteen years. I was pulling mostly from memory for those two pieces. The gossip is almost all verbatim, which is slightly horrifying. I have the benefit of being able to pick the brains of my high school barkada, too—I can just ask my friends what they remember, and suddenly all these fascinating details will resurface for me. I didn’t have time to put in all the weird things we remembered. Eventually I’ll write a story with a tampipi mission!

Isabel Yap during high school, taken at a retreat, which is the setting for the final story in the collection, A Canticle for Lost Girls. Photo courtesy of the author.

We’re often told that we’re either writers, or we’re not, and it’s easy to think that if we’re not already “there” we’ll never get there. But more often, writing – and publishing – is an evolving path. What needed to change about your life in order to make this book possible?

Besides prioritizing this project, per my answer above, I had to disagree with advice I’d heard years before: that collections weren’t ideal for debuts. This was from a very well-meaning person and someone I admired. They said, You do the novel first, because that generates more buzz and gets more attention; then you use that success to negotiate a collection. I know they meant this advice kindly, and it is true in most cases. I was so in awe of this person that I took it to heart. It turns out, as with all writing advice, that this didn’t necessarily apply to everyone.

It is a good recommendation, and probably works that way for most people. But the reason why it wasn’t the right path for me is because it’s taken me extremely long to figure out how to write a novel. If I made a novel the first step I probably wouldn’t have a book for another five years. I’m still not there! I haven’t done it yet! Though I’m more optimistic about it these days, so maybe it’ll happen sooner than I think. In the meantime I had this amazing opportunity to work on a collection with two editors I highly respect. I didn’t pursue the initial subtle invitations for about two years because I thought I wasn’t ready, and that it wouldn’t be a good career move.

I also needed to believe I was good enough. I’ve been thinking a lot about impostor syndrome these days, and how it manifests for me. I’ll share a very specific one: I did not think I was good enough to be published by Small Beer Press, because I am not an award winning writer. I’m not a major award nominee. I looked at the authors they’d published collections for, and it seemed like everyone had either won or been nominated for a Nebula, a Shirley Jackson, a World Fantasy Award, a Hugo—something. Without really being conscious of it, I’d felt inadequate to the legacy of my amazing publishers—even if, of course, that meant I was basically self-rejecting, which I always tell other writers not to do. Actually putting together a manuscript was my way of saying fuck it, if they think I’m good enough, I might as well trust their judgement. I can’t help the impostor syndrome resurfacing, constantly, but I am trying to suppress it enough to survive the publication cycle.

I love short fiction, and Small Beer Press books in particular. I can’t wait to read Yap’s collection next week! If you’re ready to dive in too, you can preorder it directly from Small Beer at https://smallbeerpress.com/forthcoming/2020/03/04/never-have-i-ever/.

Once it’s released (Feb 23, 2021) you’ll also be able to get it from IndieBound here: https://www.indiebound.org/book/9781618731821

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