I had the wonderful opportunity to interview E.P. Tuazon, writer of the Pushcart Prize-nominated short story, “Professional Lola.” We covered topics ranging from representation of culture in fiction to what it means to be a Pilipinx-American writer.
The following interview took place via Zoom and has been edited for clarity.
E.P. Tuazon is a Filipino-American writer from Los Angeles, California. Many of his works have been featured in various publications, such as Third Point Press, Peatsmoke Journal, The Dillydoun Review, In Parentheses, 3Elements Literary Review, and The Rumpus. Some of his books include The Superlative Horse and The Last of The Lupins: Nine Stories and The Comforters. The short story discussed in this interview, “Professional Lola,” can be found on Five South.
Art by Peter Frederiksen.
Berkeley Fiction Review: Can you give a little introduction about who you are?
E.P. Tuazon: My name is EP Tuazon and I write stuff [Laughing]
BFR: Why did you decide to be a writer, more specifically a fiction writer?
E.P. Tuazon: Well, I started writing poetry, because back in high school, I thought it was stupid but everybody else in high school was doing it and thought they were so cool and I thought, “It’s not that cool guys, it’s really easy,” and I was just writing stuff to make fun of them. But jokes on me because I fell in love with it. In college, I went through a whole revolution where I just couldn’t stop reading. I fell in love with reading and reading a lot made me want to write, and writing a lot made me want to read, so it’s like a cycle.
BFR: I totally get that [Laughing]. Yeah, I mean for me writing poetry was just the easier way of getting into writing and then I also kind of fell in love with it as well. And then that made me read more. At the Berkeley Fiction Review, we value and love reading various short fiction stories. Your short story, “Professional Lola” was just nominated for the Pushcart Prize, congrats by the way, and just by reading the title, I was both intrigued and humored by the concept. What was your inspiration in writing it?
E.P. Tuazon: Yeah, when I think about Lola and Lolo, I think of, well, my Lola specifically, both of my Lolas. I used to think about them as doing “their job” [makes quotes hand gestures], regardless of what’s going on, even if it’s hard, even if they’re having a bad day, they still took care of us. And I thought of that as something really endearing, but also professional. Despite who you’re dealing with, I always saw my Lolas give us 100% of their love, almost like a professional. Part of that kind of feeling went into the story. When you’re writing a lot of feelings, they don’t necessarily have anything, any tangible image to it at first. I mean, that’s where the writing comes in. For me, the spark of writing always comes from a feeling, and that’s where it came from: just thinking about the love and the professionalism [Laughing] of a Lola or a grandparent.
BFR: Yeah, my Lola is like that, a lot of what she is like and what she does comes from love. And I guess connecting to that, the line that really shows the love and the power that love has is “who and what we love didn’t matter as much as who and what we believed in.” It captures the themes of love and belief that you talk about a lot in the story and how they go hand-in-hand with each other. Did you come up with those themes before writing the story, or did it come as you were writing it or even after you wrote it?
E.P. Tuazon: Yeah, I don’t really think about a theme when I’m coming into a story. I actually think of something completely arbitrary that gets me into the story. The thing that started this story actually has nothing really to do with the story. There’s a part in the story where a guy is carrying a mattress in the street and, for some reason, that image in my head inspired the rest of the story [Laughing]. How that tied into creating that theme, I don’t know. But to me, real writing starts in revision. Writing is kind of like sculpting something from rock. The rock doesn’t have any real thing to it until you start chiseling away at it. For me, I start seeing the story as I continue to chisel away at it. That could include adding more rocks or chipping away other stuff, but I don’t really think about the theme until I see what I have and how to best represent that feeling that it began with.
BFR: I relate to that. When I write, I kind of just write, and then all of a sudden it’s like, “Oh, there is an idea here that I could play off.” As we read further into the story, we find that the main character is part of the LGBTQ+ community. Why did you decide to have this and did it influence the way in which you decided to go about the story?
E.P. Tuazon: See, this is a really interesting question to ask because initially, the narrator was a girl, but an editor misgendered the character while they were reading it. So when they were giving me feedback, they kept referring to the narrator as a “he” in the story and I had to clarify with her. Then, she showed me how thematically the character fits better as a gay man, because this story is about how you are as much as who you love. I created more depth for this character, and part of creating more depth for this narrator was introducing him as a gay man with his own issues in hiding who he really is from his family. Then, you find out at the end of the story that that doesn’t really matter, he’s the only one who thinks that it’s something that his family wouldn’t like. Everybody accepts him for who he is. That kind of goes along with the theme of this story, and I really appreciate that editor who made that suggestion because it created a lot more depth and really connected all the themes together. It was a knockout with that narrator because at first, the narrator didn’t necessarily have any stakes to the story, and then you have that thing at the end, the only conversation that he really has is with the actress who’s playing his grandma. And that reminds him of that connection he has with the person that he loves.
BFR: I also noticed that the main character was not named. Was there a reason why you decided not to name him?
E.P. Tuazon: Oh, that’s another interesting thing too. I like in my stories to have characters without names, because I want to give the reader something to cling onto. A lot of people who read, find themselves in the story and a nameless character allows them to have some sort of claim to the thing that they’re reading. You can name that character whatever you want.
BFR: Relating to names, I noticed that there is a lot of Pilipinx culture represented in your story, it just screams Pilipinx culture: the use of the Tagalog, the food, the nicknames, and essentially just including different experiences that possibly only those part of the Pilipinx community would understand. Why did you choose to include these elements?
E.P. Tuazon: This is a love story to my family. I love to incorporate a lot of that stuff not just to brighten a story and fill it with culture, but to include some sort of representation for where I come from. There’s writing out there by other Filipino-Americans and there are a lot of other Filipino writers that I really like, but not necessarily the kind of experience that I had growing up as a Filipino-American. I wanted to write a story based on those kinds of experiences from my point of view of what the culture is like. Everybody has a different perspective of the Filipino-American experience, but I wanted to share mine and there’s a lot of humor to it, as you know [Laughing]. There’s a lot to it, and that’s part of it too, building that connection with people. A lot of the people that I’ve shown this story to were not Filipino and they learn a lot about our culture, as well. I feel like writing these stories has truly been like a group effort— I’m not just writing to this by myself, I’m also getting help from my family or my parents. It’s been a really good experience. It has made me a lot closer to the people I love and care about and to my culture.
BFR: Stories about different cultures, or stories written by people of color, are very important and give glimpses into experiences that people actually have. For me, reading your story, it reminded me a lot of my family get-togethers and the culture. And it made me really happy to see. I know that you touched a little bit on this, but does your Filipino background influence some of your other writings that you have done or writings that you are working on right now?
E.P. Tuazon: Yeah. When I was younger, I wanted to avoid writing about myself as much as possible. I thought writing about my culture was like a cop out. I thought “it’s easy to write about my culture, it’s not easy to tell a story”. I was really naive when I was younger. I guess I wanted to be a purist in terms of writing a good story. But when I was younger, those stories were devoid of culture. I found out later as I wrote more and more, that culture is something that helps a story more than it hurts it. One of my favorite writers is Sandra Cisneros. She was probably one of the first people that got me into reading stories and writing stories just because of how beautiful her prose is. Same thing with Sherman Alexie, Sherman Alexie is really funny. Those two have culture to them. I didn’t get it when I was younger, how culture really elevated those stories, and it wasn’t until I was writing my first book that I realized that culture can really help me out with writing these characters. Whenever I think of these characters that I write from my culture, it gives me pure joy. Like, I’m really happy. I don’t have to manufacture that happiness, that happiness already exists in these stories. It’s really important to have this kind of representation for our culture, because there’s not a lot of it out there. I find a lot of Filipino writers now and then, and every time I find them, I read them. It inspires me to write something like theirs and to read their work and see their perspective about the culture and learn from them. There’re a lot of young writers who are not afraid to write about their culture and promote inclusivity and I think it’s an awesome thing, and I’m glad that continues to happen and I’m glad to do it in my stories. I try to do it as often as possible now.
BFR: Being a part of BFR, I’ve been reading a lot of different short stories and they could be from different cultures or just from different minority communities. It really opened my eyes to becoming more aware and learning about these different cultures, or what these communities go through. And it helps with visibility, feeling like you’re being seen. Reading your story added to that, and I loved that it did that. Moving on to you [Laughing], I’m not just here to ask about your stories. Can you tell us a little bit about your experience of being a Pilipinx-American writer?
E.P. Tuazon: Oh, yeah. My parents immigrated here in the ‘70s. And then, I was born here in Hollywood a long time ago. My parents didn’t want to teach my brother and me Tagalog, but we picked it up because they’re always talking. They just didn’t want their kids to be bullied or be stifled by having another culture other than the American one. A lot of immigrants fall into this kind of trap too about their culture. You have a lot of people who don’t know their language but, you know, it created a really interesting culture on its own, with the people my age and our perspective and growing up Filipino. The younger generations now embrace their language a lot more and embrace learning more about their culture. And I’m doing the same thing even at my age [Laughing]. My brother is my hero when it comes to my culture, because he was part of all these groups in college, the Filipino American Advocacy, educating other Filipinos about Filipino culture, and doing all sorts of things like that. He’s still part of these organizations today. I tried to avoid that as much as possible, because I’m an introvert and I hate talking to people [Laughing]. But now, in the past two decades, people have reached out to me about my writing. That’s how I’ve connected with other Filipinos and other Filipino writers, but there are very few of us out there. Trying to find different avenues to connect with other Filipinos and especially all the Filipino writers out there is very difficult. But I’m still hopeful. I stay open to meeting more people and I constantly get inspired.
BFR: Yeah, I mean I am definitely inspired by you. Seeing you make your mark as a Filipino-American writer makes me believe that it is possible.
E.P. Tuazon: You know, you inspire me because honestly when I was growing up, nobody was interested in the things that I did. Nobody was interested in reading. Nobody was interested in writing. But now I’ve, especially with “Professional Lola”, tried to get my family involved in it as much as possible. It’s been a really good experience, especially working together with them on the stories. If you’re writing and you write about things and you get your parents involved or your family involved, I recommend it, because it’s a really good experience. It’s really a kind of joyful experience.
BFR: I feel like it gets them pretty excited about it all.
E.P. Tuazon: That’s what these stories are about. For me, it’s about bringing the family together. Filipino culture is all about the family. You know, Kababayan, people that you share a familiar culture with. Every time I read a story it brings me into a community. Every time I write a story, I’ve become part of a community. Exploring a community like this, it’s been really rewarding. It’s been really fulfilling work and it’s been a really good experience.
BFR: Do you have any advice for those who want to become a writer?
E.P. Tuazon: There are two key pieces of advice. And it’s: don’t. No, I’m just kidding [Laughing]. I mean, you need to write that’s the primary thing. Don’t think about it anymore, just do it. And you also need to read what you want to write. A lot of people don’t read and they don’t know the kind of things that you could learn from reading for your own writing. You’re really putting yourself in a difficult position if you’re not reading and all you’re doing is writing what you think is good writing. How will you know what good writing is, if you haven’t even seen it yet? Some of the things that inspire me the most are the kinds of writing that make me think, “Hey, I could do that. I wonder if I could try to incorporate it in my own writing.” That relationship with writing and reading is really important. One more piece of advice about writing is don’t think about money. Only a few people make a lot of money from writing, but that shouldn’t be your primary reason for why you write. You write because you enjoy it. Never have money as your primary reason to be a writer.
BFR: Last question, how can our readers stay up to date about what you’re doing?
E.P. Tuazon: Oh, I have a website that I poorly maintain [Laughing] (https://ericptuazon.wixsite.com/happybivouac). I also have a book coming out in 2022 from House of Hash, it’s a YA novella called “The Cussing Cat Clock.” That’s my newest work coming out in 2022; look forward to that, it’s a crazy one.
BFR: I look forward to it. Thank you so much for letting me interview you!
E.P. Tuazon: Thank you so much for having me! This was a lot of fun!