Investigation as Love Letter

Singapore Unbound presented the panel “Innovations in Southeast Asian Narratives” at the Association of Writing Programs Conference in Portland, Oregon, 2019. We are pleased to publish in a series of three blog-posts the talks given by the panelists Gina Apostol, Alfian Sa’at, and Laurel Fantauzzo. You can read Gina Apostol’s talk here, and Alfian Sa’at’s talk here. Below is the talk by Laurel Fantauzzo.

The moderator Lawrence Lacambra Ypil framed the talks and subsequent discussion with these opening remarks: “Innovation" is a concern with newness of form, yes, but really the newness of a relationship to subject matter. When I think about our panel, I think about what it means to continue to write—in spite of and because of everything that our region has gone through and is going through—and the ways you as a writer have chosen to position yourself in relation to our region—a relation that is political as it is aesthetic. I'm interested to know in what ways you are attempting to "innovate" in your own work. In general, I think it would be great to hear how you see your work in relation to the our region’s literary, political, and cultural history.”

Laurel Flores Fantauzzo is the author of The First Impulse, a nonfiction mystery and love story set in Metro Manila. It was shortlisted for a 2018 Philippine National Book Award. She currently teaches creative writing at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

My book, The First Impulse, was published in the Philippines in 2017. It opens with this news article:

 Sep. 3 2009

10:10 AM ET

. . . Four suspects are wanted in the slaying of a Filipino-Canadian and his Slovenian girlfriend, both film critics, who were shot dead in the home they shared in suburban Manila. . . Alexis Tioseco, 28, and his 29-year-old girlfriend, Nika Bohinc, were killed late Tuesday, in what police believe was a botched robbery at their home in Quezon City.  Alexis Tioseco was born in the Philippines in 1981, but his family moved to Vancouver when he was two. His family moved back to the Philippines in 1997. Since returning to the Philippines, Tioseco became a well-known film critic. Tioseco met Bohinc, who was also a film critic, at a film festival in the Netherlands about two years ago.


I wrote this book prior to the Philippines’ ongoing horrific epidemic of homicide, precipitated by the 2016 election of the country’s current president. Alexis’ and Nika’s unsolved murders occurred in 2009. The present violence is an amplification of the dangers individuals in and of the Philippines have lived for centuries, through and beyond multiple colonizations.

In approaching this book, about the lives and deaths of Alexis Tioseco and Nika Bohinc, I initially wanted to make it an entirely third-person whodunit—a formal investigation in which the narrator’s personal history is entirely absent.

But in my research, and in my drafting, I needed to talk about the role of young people of the diaspora, in the Philippines and abroad. Eleven percent of the Philippine population flees the country’s economic injustice each year, making its diaspora one of the largest in the world; about 11 million people depart annually. That is the context in which I live and write.

Like the main character of my work, I am also mixed race. I say this recognizing “mixed race” as an imprecise term, because the terms we have for racial identity carry very little precision. And race has, historically, been a difficult metric by which to determine who is Philippine.

Of course, the lived effects of skin color, of citizenship, of imposed and self-determined identity, are real, buffeted by lived history. Mixed race people occupy disputed, privileged, outsider/insider positions in the Philippines, depending on our composition, our class, our languages, and our appearance.

In my writing, and for most of my life, I found my own racial and national specificity—Filipina Italian American—alternately amusing, isolating, intriguing, and a liability. Until recent years, I did not know my racial and national specificity, and multiplicity, could be a site of connection, or community, or rich narration.

One thing I tried to do with The First Impulse was to partially restore, in narrative, someone I saw as a lost brother: Alexis Arellano Tioseco, Filipino Chilean Italian Canadian—a young man who had tried in the Philippines and abroad, to define himself as Filipino, to champion the archipelago’s cinema to the world, and whose singular devotion to the country had been answered with violence.

I found that the particularities of my characters, and of this story, and of my own subjectivity as narrator, demanded innovation in my approach. The book remained narrative nonfiction, yes, but instead of a traditional whodunit, it is also epistolary; a love letter. For a diaspora, the letter, the dispatch from afar, is essential for connection, for resisting the imposition of distance.

The book is thus partially in the first person, partially in the second person; it quotes films, news clippings, emails, Livejournals, handwritten notebooks. In order for readers to connect to the story, I realized I had to make explicit the connection I felt with this story. I had to reveal its nuances not only of violence and mystery, but also of identity, affection, and belonging. The book had to be as nuanced and multiple as our origins are.

The following short section shows this attempt; my revealing some of my story to address this story. In an early chapter, I address Alexis in the second person, describing the year his strict father forced him and his brother Chris to move from Canada to Manila in their teenage years.


When your parents are from Chile and the Philippines, you’re presented daily with a set of choices. You carry both of your parents in your face: your father’s dark eyes, and the gentle curves of your mother’s nose and mouth. Will your worlds make space for you to be of several places, of several origins? Should you identify as one race, from one place, casting the other parts of you aside? If so, which heritage do you choose to align yourself with? Are you really divisible in so fractious a way?

Neither parent will ever fully understand the small maneuvers you and your siblings make as you move through the world—though in a gentler world, perhaps understanding is no prerequisite for love.

On a typical early weekend morning, you sleep in a twin bed. The air conditioner hums. In the second twin bed beside you is Chris, a year older, his face nearly a mirror of your own. Down the hall, Sarimanok News Network morning shows play from a television in your parents’ room, the tinny music of the repetitive music themes making up your alarm clock. Your dad enters your room without knocking, like always. “Get up,” he says, and turns off the air conditioner.

You and your brother look at each other in the growing heat, the pain passing between you with just your eyes.

The twin poles of Philippine society, between which all interpersonal interactions seem to spark and jump, are Family and Class. If you are of the Philippines and you are considering schooling, employment, love, destiny, or sin, your obligations to both your family and your class supersede all. You deny your responsibility to the public good. You deny the tenacity of your own private longings. In return, you have your family and the comforts of your station.

But in 1997, you and Chris don’t know how to be Filipino. You’re confused by the offspring of your father’s friends—teenagers who turn up the collars of their polo shirts and scold maids and drivers without hesitation or shame. You don’t know how to speak Filipino to your own maids and drivers. Your mother chafes at the presence of household help, missing her own singular authority over your home in Canada. Without any duties to cook or clean or drive, she lingers in the house or accompanies you on trips to buy laserdiscs and videos and comics.

When you arrive in the Philippines in 1997, you have no choice but to obey your father, who enforces strict curfews and offers paltry peso allowances. Friends warn you not to take public transit. Crime syndicates have been kidnapping Manila residents who appear Chinese or otherwise foreign, holding them for ransom. Your narrow eyes mark you as valuable. While your mom worries, your dad doesn’t mind the risk: he tells you to take the buses, trains, and jeepneys. “You have to learn,” he says.

When your sisters call, your father refuses to put you on the phone. But sometimes, when your father is out of the house, you call Vancouver. You sit, crying as quietly as you can into the receiver, while your sisters talk gently to you from Canada.

To soothe yourself in Quezon City, when you can’t reach Canada, you turn to the two solitary pursuits you loved in Canada: basketball and films. You play pickup games on the small court near your house. Your mom takes you to Greenhills, the shopping center where migratory vendors sell films on videotapes and laserdiscs. With your new pickup teammates and local movies, you quietly improve your Tagalog language skills. In time, you begin to practice within your father’s earshot.

Your father rarely compliments you directly, but he murmurs to Chris. “Oh, your brother is speaking Tagalog now. Why don’t you try?”

I was twelve in 1997, four younger than you, Alexis, when my mother forced me to return with her to the Philippines. My mom often thought out loud about sending me to the Philippines for high school. Maybe I could go to Miriam, the private girls’ school next to her alma mater, the Ateneo de Manila University. Maybe I’d learn more respect, get better at math.

Like you, I panicked at the thought of being exiled to a country I could hardly spell, much less imagine. After one of her many arguments with my angry, fearful Italian American father, my parents placed me in an all-girls’ Catholic school in Southern California.

But my mother interrupted my first semester of seventh grade by announcing that I would be returning to the Philippines with her.

“For how long?” I would ask her over and over again, in the days leading up to our departure. “Don’t ask questions,” she snapped. “Don’t act spoiled. Just be grateful you’re going.”

I didn’t understand the history dragging me back. I didn’t know that she had been a student activist protesting against the Marcos regime of Martial Law, or that she had moved to California in 1979 only because her own father had died suddenly in Los Angeles. 1997 was the centennial of Philippine independence, and it was the year when my mother finally felt prepared, and had enough money, to return and face her past.

The Philippines was my chain-smoking grandmother who swore in Filipino. It was my mother occasionally switching to Tagalog on the phone with friends from far away, then refusing to teach me her language when I asked. Confined to English, I did not understand the Filipinos of my family, the relatives who scolded me as spoiled for not knowing the hardships of migration as intimately as they did.

Like your dad, Alexis, my mom was tightfisted with money and severe with gifts; I grew up never to expect clothes I picked out or food that I craved. But she was generous with books about World War II in Manila, Philippine folk tales, or novels set during the Martial Law period.

But my mother wanted me to have a connection with the country she left behind.

So in 1997 she pulled me out of school so we could travel to Manila for December. I missed three weeks of school in California, and I would fail math that year, unable to catch up.

Once we arrived in Manila, I didn’t know what to make of my mother’s friends with money, who kept their chauffeurs in small rooms the size of closets and never seemed to look maids in their faces. The traffic overwhelmed me, the heat sickened me, the Philippine spaghetti was sweet, and when I ate it I felt I was betraying my Italian American family.

When we took cabs, my mother always told me to keep quiet. With my pale, mixed-race face, my American accent, she said she might be charged more for taxi fare, or we might become the targets of thefts.

Despite my confusion, I never wanted to disappoint my mother. I didn’t want to fail her as the too-American child. But I did not know my place in the Philippines. I only felt its difference. I only felt my own longing to be somewhere else.

In 1997 I could not have known that, not far from me in Quezon City, you and your brother were being forced to make a home of the Philippines, too. Could we have befriended each other, in our shared longing?