Troye Sivan has a song titled ‘Heaven’. One of my favorite lyrics is, “Without losing a piece of me / How do I get to heaven? / Without changing a part of me / How do I get to heaven?” Sivan is openly gay and this song can have different meaning, but I’ve always interpreted it as for religious queer kids who are struggling to come terms with their sexuality.
It’s no wonder while reading Another Word for Happy, this song came to mind. The protagonist of the story, Caleb used to be a sacristan. Heaven perfectly fits the plot and his character’s arc. While it’s not an #ownvoices when it comes to the gay representation, Agay Llanera who’s the author of this coming out novel is also a Filipino like the main character.
Today, we have Llanera to talk about representation, #romanceclass, and her upcoming projects.
I love #romanceclass, and I’m happy non-Filipino readers are starting to notice this genre. But I think a lot of them don’t know that most of the books only represent one facet of Filipino. The characters are mostly from Luzon, they speak Tagalog/English. They’re Catholic/Christian, thin, allocisheterosexual, the couples are m/f. As an author and one of the pillars of #romanceclass, what are you doing to make this genre more diversified?
I’m happy that a lot of #romanceclass authors are starting to write more diverse stories now, but you’re right, we need to make a lot more. I think more people are encouraged to write such stories because of the positive feedback the earlier ones got.
I have written two stories that are a bit different: Choco Chip Hips who has a plus-size heroine, and Another Word for Happy that talks about coming out. Admittedly, these two are both YA and not heavy on romance. I think my next challenge is to combine such diverse characters and a mainly romantic theme, which I plan to do for my next books.
You’re a multilingual author, and most of your books are written in English. What’s your advice to writers who are trying to break into the industry, but are scared of the limiting western barriers?
I may speak and write the language, but I still think it’s a different kind of English spoken in other English-speaking countries. I’m not so much conscious of limiting western barriers when I write my stuff; I think the more important thing is that your grammar’s solid, that you write the story in a way that’s easy to understand, and that you write what matters to you. If you write from the heart, I think it will resonate with readers even if the story’s set in a different country or contains a lot of local-culture references. That said, if you use local terms, best to provide a glossary!
Poetry and classical music are two of the main theme of Another Word for Happy. It’s my favorite thing! I can’t resist lyrical novels. What inspired you to make the college setting a positive art community?
It’s based on a real university—the University of the Philippines Diliman’s College of Music! I took classical guitar lessons there (which I never finished, ugh) and each time I’d pass by the building, I’d hear someone playing music. When I became a mom, my son’s pre-school (also inside the university campus) would hold their annual plays in the theater of the music building. The creative vibe of the place is inspiring. A piano is wedged under the stairs and there’s always a student playing it. Sometimes, I’d hear violins, horns, and drums from the rooms upstairs.
Another Word for Happy is a coming-out story, it’s not really a romance. Is there a possibility that you’d come back to this universe and write a love interest for Caleb? I think some readers might be interested, I for one.
I’d love to! I love Caleb so much that I think he deserves his own love story!
What are you reading right now? Any books that’s on your nightstand that you’ll recommend in a heartbeat?
Oh, I’m reading Mina V. Esguerra’s Better at Weddings than You. I’m halfway finished and I’m loving the banter! I have so many books on my TBR pile right now, but I’m prioritizing #romanceclass books. Next on my list are Keep the Faith by Ana Tejano and Waiting in the Wings by Tara Frejas.
What’s next for Agay Llanera? What are you working on right now?
It’s so challenging to write at this stage in my life (mommyhood stuff), but I’m slowly working on a romance with an older woman, younger man trope. When I used to binge-watch Korean dramas, this was my super favorite trope, so I’m excited to try my hand in this one. It will be set in Zambales, a PH province.
What does it take to come out of the closet? Since he was thirteen, Caleb has always known he’s gay. Now a college freshman, he falls in love for the first time. If it’s true that love conquers all, then will Caleb finally find the courage to reveal his secret?
In this tale about family, friendship and self-discovery, find out how Caleb discovers the path to the freedom he’s always longed for. Here’s a hint: it involves doing things outside his comfort zone, such as joining a spoken word group!