Sunday Brunch: Authors Laurel Flores Fantauzzo and Adi Alsaid Talk Powerful Characters and More

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[Note from Frolic: Our resident YA expert Aurora got the opportunity to interview authors Laurel Flores Fantauzzo and Adi Alsaid. Up first, Laurel Flores Fantauzzo!]

Aurora: What was your inspiration behind My Heart Underwater?

Laurel Flores Fantauzzo: I went to an all-girls Catholic high school, where I was closeted and consumed with anxiety. I also grew up with a Filipina mom and extended family, where corresponding with, telling stories about, and supporting relatives back home in Metro Manila was a lifelong, everyday occurrence, as were worries about salaries and safety. Cory’s voice came to me first: an insistent, funny, anxious presence that would not leave me alone. I took some years getting to know Cory’s family history, and I moved to Teachers’ Village, Metro Manila, where Cory’s brother Jun lives. I’ve had a FilAm consciousness in both California and the Philippines, so the settings, and their joys and complications, live in me all the time.

What character in this novel do you most relate to and why?

I likely relate most to Jun, Cory’s older brother. He’s the eldest child, prone to brooding, worrying about household finances, and grumbling about imperialism and hegemony. I also appreciate indie music like he does, and I like opening my home to friends. It could be that I just appreciate him, though; I definitely have none of his musical ability, though I hope I choose to be kind more often than not, like he does. 

Why do you feel novels with powerful and unique characters are so popular and have such a voice right now?

It’s a vibrant time for voices entering into readers’ awareness, especially those voices that publishing did not make room for in past decades. Readers are curious and open to internal worlds not their own, and characters help bring us there; I’m fortunate and humbled to enter into YA at this time, when so many new and necessary classics are coming to life. 

Please describe the content of My Heart Underwater and what can readers expect from it.

Cory, a Filipina American teenager, has her world ruptured twice; when her beloved father encounters a devastating work accident, and when she absorbs subtle and then overt abuse from a mentor. Her mother sends her to the Philippines with her half-brother, Jun, a guy she’s met on Skype but never in person. Cory first misunderstands this exile as punishment; in reality, this is a way for Cory to find her way back to safety and community, which she eventually does, through Jun and a new group of friends. Every character makes a pivotal mistake. It’s a story of a young person in diaspora, recovering from trauma and unhealthy attachments, and learning what real love means. 

What’s next for you in the bookish world?

I’m working on another project about two college-aged siblings with a Filipina mother and a white American father, dealing with the effects of rising white extremism in the US. I’m still getting to know the characters and how they react to family and national instability. 

Who is your current favorite writer? Why?

I always have several! I’ll name a few who’ve spoken to my heart recently: Zaina Arafat, Elaine Castillo, and Meredith Ramirez Talusan have written movingly about being of queer, multiple, international identities; Malaka Gharib and Grace Talusan recently wrote important books about Philippine American family in ways no other writers have before. Trinidad Escobar creates the most wonderful coming-of-age comics and zines, and will have a book out soon. I’m sure I’ll be fortunate enough to encounter more favorite writers soon!

Any writing advice for aspiring writers?

Believe in your own specificity. The small details make for enormous themes.

Up next, author Adi Alsaid!
Aurora: What was your inspiration behind your recent anthology?

Adi Alsaid: It started out first and foremost as a desire to helm an anthology. I’ve always been a fan of the short story as a form, and the uptick in YA anthologies inspired me to start my own. Originally, I thought of pitching a travel anthology, but then wanted to tie the stories together with a heartier theme. And since I was in the process of immigrating to the US, that theme emerged pretty quickly.

What story in this anthology do you most relate to and why?

Well, I have a contribution to the anthology, and the story very closely mimics my family’s multigenerational history of immigration (from Bulgaria and Syria to Israel, then from Israel to Latin America, and then onto the U.S), so it’s hard to pick another one out. But all the stories have something that I related to: from food to family dynamics to language to saying goodbye to a place to microagressions.

Why do you feel anthologies with powerful and unique characters and stories are so popular and have such a voice right now?

I’d make the argument that they’ve always been popular with readers. My guess is that right now there are so many talented and compelling voices in YA, with so many themes that readers are hungry for, that they’ve become easier sells for publishers. That’s just a guess though, not backed up by any actual data or research, so I could be completely wrong and you should not believe me.

Please describe the content of your latest read and what can readers expect from it.

I’m in the middle of reading Look Both Ways by Jason Reynolds. Like everything he does, it’s wonderful. I really admire how he plays with form and structure and just seems to nail it every time. 

What’s next for you in the bookish world?

I’ve got a book coming out in Fall 2021 called BEFORE TAKEOFF. It’s about two teens who meet at the Atlanta airport, and a green light that unleashes all sorts of hell on them.

Who is your current favorite writer? Why?

That’s tough. See above on Jason Reynolds. There’s also what I call the trio of white female authors that I seem to love everything they do: Lauren Groff, Ann Patchett, and Jennifer Egan.

Any writing advice for aspiring writers? 

I’m stealing this from another author’s answer at a panel, though I forget who it was. Possibly Libba Bray. Pay attention. Be observant of the world, and take note. You know how comedians point out things that you’ve noticed, they just frame it in a funnier way than you might have thought? Writing is like that too. Others will relate to your observations of the world, but you must be paying attention to capture them.

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