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Lila doesn’t work alone. To get the job done, she leans on her Tita Rosie, who owns a Filipino restaurant in town; her longtime best friend Adeena; and a flock of excited Filipino aunts and their children. Lila’s team includes her crushes: Adeena’s lawyer brother, Amir, and a handsome dentist named Dr. yeah
In the first book of the Arsenic and Adobo series, which will be released in 2021, the group tries to find out who poisoned Lila’s former flame. The continuation, “Murder and Halo-Halo,focuses on another murder connected to the town’s Miss Teen Shady Palms Pageant. The third book, Blackmail and Bibingka, has just been published.
Manansala recently spoke via Zoom about inspiration for her work and what readers should expect from Blackmail and Bibingka.
Q: How has your family influenced your writing?
A: [My mom] was happy when I pursued the writing. I got my love for cozy mysteries from her. She used to work at Walden Books when they were still around. One day she was putting books on the shelf and she was like, “Oh, ‘Chocolate Chip Cookie Murder.’ What is this about?” She texted me, “Hey, I found a book that has food and mysteries in it.” Mystery is our favorite genre. This was my first foray into cozy mysteries and mysteries involving food.
Much of Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery [series] comes from the idea of food as the language of love. It’s heavily based on my father. I learned from him how food connects culture, history and family and all that.
He passed away in 2018, so he’s not there to see that, but he was an old-school chef, so he didn’t share his recipes. He didn’t really have prescriptions. He cooked by instinct. Watching him cook is not [about] Measurements, just open a bottle of sauce and pour. When we were younger, we always thought, “You should open a restaurant. You’re so good.” And he said no because he had a family in the Philippines that owned restaurants: it was hard work, you don’t have a day off, you have a lot of responsibilities. He wanted to keep cooking as something he enjoyed or something he did for the family, but I wanted to find out what it was like growing up where that was their livelihood.
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Q: How has your cultural background influenced your writing?
A: I have a really hard time separating Filipino culture and family because growing up, my family was all I had as an introduction to the Filipino language [culture]. I grew up in a working-class, mostly Latino neighborhood. I had… occasional family gatherings because my parents’ friends all lived in the suburbs and they were a little wealthier. For me it was like stepping into a completely different world. And that’s part of how I came up with the protagonist, Lila.
Q: Why is food an important aspect to include in your work?
A: Food means different things to different people, especially if you are an immigrant or [part of the] diaspora. It’s like when [Lila] and her grandmother are arguing. Her grandmother, who had emigrated more than 30 years before her, [compared with] that she was born and raised in the States – her ideas of what Filipino food is are so different. But that doesn’t mean either of them were necessarily wrong. I wanted to examine the conversation the diaspora is having about authenticity: what does it really mean and who gets to create and work in this food space?
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Q: What do you want people to take away from your books?
A: It’s really important to me to have Filipino-American characters that just exist as they are. So much Asian American literature focuses on the history and trauma of immigrants, and these are all hugely important and beautifully written [and] very well used. But we’re not everything, and I wanted to write a story that would be entertaining and show us as main characters trying to live our lives.
One thing I always say to people is that Lila, being a Filipino-American, is shaping the way she sees the world, and it’s shaping the way the world sees her in particular. But it’s just a part of her.
We can be the heroes. we can fall in love We can solve problems. We can experience epic adventures. We can do the same things as everyone else [although] There are other things that color our perspective, but it’s no different than any other book out there.
Q: What should Blackmail and Bibingka readers expect?
A: This one takes place around Christmas time. I’ve tried to appeal to environments that feel inherently Filipino, although obviously also very American, and Christmas is a big thing in the Filipino community. In the book, Lila’s seedy cousin Ronnie, Tita Rosie’s only son, has returned to town after ghosting the family. And he’s taking over a winery in town. So he says, “I’m back forever. I’m back on my feet.” Lila doesn’t trust that. She knows wherever he goes, trouble will follow. When one of his main investors is murdered, he becomes the prime suspect. She doesn’t feel like she owes him anything, but for Tita Rosie’s sake, she’ll try to find out who the real killer is.
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