While there were a few re-reads for me in 2021, there was one novel I picked up that was so good I read it twice in 10 days: Mia P. Manansala’s novel Arsenic and Adobo (2021). Not only does the story have a fantastic whodunit plot throughout it, it also has a protagonist you want to root for and drool-worthy food descriptions . When I finished my second reading of the novel, I couldn’t help but want to ask Ms. Manansala about her craft and the themes in the book.
So, I reached out to her publicist! Below are the questions and answers I received back that dive a bit deeper into the themes of justice, sexuality, weight stigma, and how Arsenic and Adobo reflect an inclusive world.
Mia P. Manansala is a writer from Chicago who loves books, baking, and badass women. She uses humor (and murder) to explore aspects of the Filipino diaspora, queerness, and her millennial love for pop culture.
Question: Setting out to write your cozy mystery, Arsenic and Adobo, did you know you wanted all the restaurants under suspicion to represent "cultural microcosms"?
Ms. Manansala: Yes and no. I knew I wanted the general setting to reflect the world I know and don’t often see in cozy mysteries, and that extended to the restaurants. There’s a huge amount of diversity in the Chicagoland area (which leads to a LOT of amazing food), so even though my story takes place in a fictional town a couple hours away, I wanted Shady Palms to feel like a typical Chicago suburb where there’s often pockets of what you’d refer to as “cultural microcosms.”
Q: Arsenic and Adobo begins with an author’s note that is essentially a content warning for a number of topics, particularly President Duterte’s anti-drug campaign in the Philippines. Was this something that crept into your writing unknowingly or did you intend to echo this issue? If you did, why?
A: This was unintentional. The drug aspect evolved as I started to build the world of Shady Palms and the character of Derek Winters–the more I knew about his backstory, the more research I had to do on things like the opioid epidemic. I was doing this from a very American and mystery writer point of view. However, I hired a sensitivity reader from the Philippines to give me the outside perspective I needed, and she was the one who pointed out how triggering certain aspects were for her as someone living under that particular regime.
Q: Given the suspicion around the police in the novel—and the reoccurring references to Ronnie—Lila does dole out her own form of justice with Mrs. Long at the end of the novel. Is this a result of the feelings towards Detective Park and the police force? Or something else?
A: It’s less about Detective Park personally and more about her feelings of the police force in general. Justice means different things to different people, and justice from the courts in particular is not applied equally–it was only natural for me to have a character who may not have done the “legal” thing, but in her mind, it was the right thing.
Q: The novel is explicit about Adeena’s sexuality, and the lab tech is only referred to as “they/them.” How important was it to you to represent not only various cultures in the novel but also sexual identities?
A: As I mentioned above, it was important to me to reflect my world. People will sometimes ask what the “point” is of including characters from various ethnic, gender & sexuality, religious, etc. backgrounds if those backgrounds aren’t “important” to the story. And my answer to that is always the same: Because we exist.
Q: Lila’s weight is commented on very early in the novel; however, her running is mentioned more frequently throughout the plot. Are we to infer that she has succumbed to her ninang’s comments and has lost weight (or is attempting to curb their criticism)?
A: Absolutely not. One’s size is not an indicator of one’s health. You can believe in body positivity/be against fat shaming and still enjoy exercise, sports, and/or other physical activities. Running is an activity Lila enjoys because it helps clear her mind. Nothing more, nothing less.
Q: Often white authors are (rightly so!) encouraged to research and fact check characters that are outside their personal experience. Was this something you felt you needed to do when including so many cultural groups in Arsenic and Adobo?
A: Of course! Just because I’m a person of color doesn’t make me automatically qualified to write about other people of color–we’re not monoliths and we all have internal biases. I hired a sensitivity reader from the Philippines to make sure I was presenting a well-rounded and accurate representation of Filipinos. Some of my beta readers were people from those particular backgrounds I included. And the friends whose last name I stole included in the story were happy to answer questions that I had. You don’t have to make a big to-do about it. It’s just like researching any aspect of your story, but you have to accept that there’s no one right way to “be” that particular background. I would never presume to be the representative of all Filipinos or even Filipino Americans, so while there are definitely certain things to avoid, no one can give you a pass on what you’ve written. You do the work, you try your best to do no harm, and if you mess up (which we all will), apologize, mean it, then learn from it and do better.
Q: The mentions of Lola Flor’s gambling is an undercurrent of concern for Lila and Tita Rosie. However, this aspect of the plot doesn’t lead to a clear confrontation. Why did you choose to include this detail?
A: Because it’s a reality for a lot of people I know. It doesn’t have to be a plot problem or something to be fixed—people have flaws and that happens to be one of hers. It might be a plot issue in a future book, but for now, it’s just part of who Lola Flor is.
The second novel in the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery series, Homicide and Halo-Halo, comes out next month on February 8, I have already pre-ordered mine from my local independent bookstore!