Filipino-Chinese novelist Mae Coyiuto talks about her book ‘Chloe and the Kaishao Boys,’ published by Penguin Random House.
Until only a few years ago, Filipino writers published by international publishing houses were quite few and far in between. Sure, you’d see perhaps a Gina Apostol or a Miguel Syjuco novel in a major bookstore, but these gems are mostly sandwiched in between works written by white authors or those based in the Global North.
Recent years, however, have seen an increase in literature published by big publishers whose authors are persons of color or members of immigrant communities whose stories have largely remained untold.
The novel follows the story of a Filipino-Chinese girl in Manila whose father sets her up on a marathon of arranged/matchmaking dates—or kaishao in Hokkien.
In the US, for example, Filipino-American authors are starting to make a mark in the publishing world, with acclaimed novels such as Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay and Mia Manansala’s Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery series which is now in its fourth book, Murder and Mamon. Abi Balingit’s cookbook Mayumu, has recently made waves in the US culinary scene.
Even more remarkable is how writers who are based in developing countries, the Philippines for instance, are also already being published by big-name publishers. Among these are young PH-based authors Rin Chupeco, Eliza Victoria, Gail Villanueva, and Mae Coyiuto.
The Post interviewed the talented and bubbly Mae, with our conversation centered on her writing journey—from drafting love stories in a blue notebook to having her second novel, Chloe and the Kaishao Boys, published by Penguin Random House, one of the world’s biggest publishers.
A writer through and through
Mae has always loved writing. She has written stories for as long and for as far back as she can remember.
“I grew up writing stories, but I think a really pivotal moment happened around my third year in high school. During some classes, I’d zone out and write this love story on a blue notebook I had,” she shared.
After some time, a group of friends asked her if they could read her story and Mae felt brave enough to show them. “They kept on asking me to write chapter after chapter. I think that’s the first time I realized that stuff that I wrote could be what one person out there would like to read. I also realized I liked writing cheesy things,” the BA Psychology graduate from Pomona College added.
Her first novel, The Year We Became Invincible, was published by Anvil in 2015. Both of her novels are young adult or YA, which are primarily aimed at readers aged 12 to 18, although these are enjoyed by readers of all ages. YA books often feature protagonists who are teenagers or young adults and deal with themes and issues that are relevant to this age group, such as coming of age, identity, relationships, and self-discovery.
Despite her novels being YA, Mae admitted that she only “really got into” the genre later in high school and college. “The YA books that definitely inspired me and how I write are The Sun is also a Star by Nicola Yoon and Simon vs the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli,” she shared.
When asked who her favorite writer is, she said what most bookworms would: “I feel my answer to this question always changes since there are so many great books out there. The writers whose works really stayed with me this past year are Ann Liang, Elizabeth Acevedo, and Caris Avendaño Cruz.”
Avendaño Cruz is another young PH-based Filipino writer, whose debut middle-grade book Marikit and the Ocean of Stars, was published late last year by Macmillan Publishers, another huge international publishing company.
On being a journalist
Before being a published novelist, Mae worked for a few years as editor-in-chief of Young STAR, the youth section of The Philippine Star. She looks back with fondness on that stint, which saw her working with some of the most talented young Filipino writers and artists.
“I think what inspired me the most about being at YS was being surrounded by people who were so passionate about being creative. I used to send out an email to the writers about our planned theme for the following month like ‘Beginnings,’ and it was amazing how many ideas and pitches I’d get from that one word, she shared.
Mae, who has a master’s degree in Writing for Young Adults/Children from The New School in New York, feels that creative work often gets minimized in society, but places like Young STAR made so many aspiring artists and writers like herself feel like they were doing something valuable.
Celebrating the small wins
Mae started writing the first draft of Chloe and the Kaishao Boys back in September 2017 and the book was published in March 2023. “All in all, the process took about six years,” she said.
Since the publishing process is really long, Mae thinks it’s important to celebrate the small wins. “Even before I could announce the book deal, I would tell my close friends about things like getting interest from an agent, having a call with an editor, or even when I got excited about a new story direction,” she said. “Writers spend so much of their time keeping their ideas and stories to themselves that I think it’s also healthy to let people you trust in your journey, too.”
Chloe and the Kaishao Boys being published by Penguin Random House is a feat, with Mae becoming the first Philippine-based author to have a YA title carried by the world’s biggest publishing company.
On Chloe and the Kaishao Boys
The novel follows the story of the titular female protagonist, a Filipino-Chinese girl in Manila whose father sets her up on a marathon of arranged/matchmaking dates, or kaishao in Hokkien, in hopes of convincing her to stay close to home for college.
“So, in the book, Chloe’s main journey is torn between staying home and going to college in the US. When I was working on this plot, I really wanted it to be clear that the reason why she wants to leave isn’t because she hates her home,” Mae said.
There are so many layers to immigration stories and it’s not just there’s a ‘good country’ and a ‘bad country.’
She mentioned how we always read about the “American Dream” in books, fully aware of people who travel to the US in search of a better life and eventually succeeding. “But there are people like Chloe’s dad who feels lost in a new country and craves home. There are so many layers to immigration stories and it’s not just there’s a ‘good country’ and a ‘bad country.’”
Describing the novel as a “very light, fun romcom read,” Mae hopes that whoever picks up the book realizes that love stories and “happily ever afters” exist in the Philippines, too. “I that the Philippines in international media is rarely shown in a positive light so I wanted to show that this type of story exists too,” she added.
When asked to describe her writing process, she said that when she was drafting the actual manuscript, it had to be done on a computer. “But if I’m brainstorming, it’s always me handwriting on a notebook. I actually had the same notebook throughout writing Chloe and the Kaishao Boys, and it’s really cool that there are pages with notes from the time I was just first thinking about the idea,” shared Mae.
Many writers write characters that are partly, even fully at times, inspired by real people. When asked if Chloe was inspired by her own brushes with love, Mae said that her love life “was never as exciting as Chloe’s.”
“All the events that happen in this book are fiction, but everything is set in places that are very familiar to people who grew up in the same community that I did,” she said. “The characters are also not based on anyone in particular, but I guess some of them borrow traits and quirks from people I know and people around me.”
Interestingly, Mae has experienced being kaishao-ed herself, sharing that when she got a book deal, her mom’s first question was: “What’s the title?” “When I told her it was about kaishao, she was like, ‘See? It’s a good thing I set you up before, now you have a book!’ she shared.
Mae finds it funny, though, that people already start assuming that she’s a kaishao expert because of the book’s title. “Which is very far from the truth!” she exclaimed. She doesn’t have very strong opinions about the matchmaking custom widely practiced in Filipino-Chinese communities since the 1960s, but she thinks it works for some people.
Her mom’s first question was: What’s the title? When I told her it was about kaishao, she was like, ‘See? It’s a good thing I set you up before, now you have a book!’
“If there are friends or family whom you trust that want to introduce you to someone and you’re okay with it, I feel like there’s no harm in that! Maybe setting up a girl still in high school on kaishao dates is a bit too early though,” she enthused.
Building on the success of Chloe and the Kaishao Boys, Mae is currently working on another YA manuscript. “It stars different characters from those in Chloe and the Kaishao Boys, but it’s still set in Manila. I have a school visit at the end of the year, too, that I’m really excited about,” she shared.
Mae was part of a panel discussion at the recent Manila International Book Fairwith other Filipino authors like Caris Avendaño Cruz, Gail Villanueva, and Thea Guanzon.
“There was someone who DM-ed me afterwards saying that as a Filipino based in England, who had to fight for just being recognized as ‘good enough,’ seeing writers all from the Philippines was amazing,” she shared.
“I really hope that publishing’s interest in stories from other cultures and countries isn’t just a momentary trend, but something publishers realize is a want and need for so many readers.”
Chloe and the Kaishao Boys is available for P595 (trade paperback) in National Book Store and Fully Booked branches nationwide. It is also available online on their official websites and stores on Lazada and Shopee.