AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Isabel Yap, Author of “Only Unclench Your Hand”

What were your thoughts when you first encountered the concept behind this anthology?

That’s interesting! I mean – I truly thought it was a very unique concept, and I liked that it left the specific horror elements entirely up to the author. As long as it could realistically evoke that kind of statement within the text, everything was fair game. That made it both challenging and fun.

With the theme in question, you could have taken your story in any number of different directions.  How did you come up with your particular idea?

I definitely wanted to write something set in the Philippines, because we have such a rich culture of horror stories and mythical creatures. A lot of our monsters fit the WTF-is-that category, but I wasn’t really sure which one to tackle; I just knew I didn’t want to write something I had seen before.

I decided that rather than focusing on which horror element to use, I could start by deciding what themes I wanted to grapple with. When I realized that Macky was going to be a law student, the rest of the story became a lot easier. I wanted to discuss the tensions between city life and the province; justice, and the different forms it can take; helplessness and agency. It was important to me that what constituted horrific was complicated by the storyline. The ending scene then fell into my head – that creepy-crawly moment – and I tried to work backwards from there.

What challenges if any did it pose having to incorporate a particular phrase into the flow of your story and making it seem perfectly natural?

I knew it had to be spoken. Setting it up so that the main character could believably say that was the challenge for me. Macky isn’t really the type to scream or shout in a panic, so I needed to have her say it in a different scenario – maybe in shock, or anger. I wanted it to be a distinctive moment, but I also didn’t want the scene to be too conspicuous. Hopefully it turned out okay!

What kind of research did you have to do for your story?

Researching for this story was really fun. I started off with the internet, reading about faith healings, mambabarangs and how they differ from the typical Philippine witches and summoners. I read some great accounts of people traveling to Siquijor (known for its spiritual healings and other mystical occurrences), and also some message boards where people personally encountered mambabarangs.

Then, since I was staying in Manila while I wrote this story, I asked my manongs and yayas what their thoughts were on mambabarangs. One of them replied when I asked – “Bakit, sinong nabaram?” In English: “Why? Who was cursed?” They were amused that I was asking, but also dead serious. These stories were true and ordinary to them. It’s a lot more powerful to hear it direct from people; it reminded me that these tales are real to us Filipinos. I learned about the village mambabarangs: how to tell them apart from normal people, how they torture their victims, and how to survive a curse from one (hint: find an even stronger one to help you out!).

What else are you working on right now?  Anything coming out that you’d like to talk about?

I’m working on a high-tech space opera involving former military academy graduates turned mercenaries-for-hire, and an epic fantasy about a runaway princess and an exiled sorceress on a quest to find a magical healing bird. Also something I’ll just call “Steampunk Noli me Tangere.” I’ve been struggling with the length of all these pieces, but hopefully they’ll warp into sensible forms soon!

My short story series about magical girls living in New York, entitled “Hurricane Heels,” will be released by Book Smugglers Publishing. It’s got Jell-o shots, blob monsters, cool weapons, and everlasting friendship, in case any of those are your jam. I also have a story in Cyber World: Tales of Humanity’s Tomorrow, a cyberpunk anthology by Hex Publishers that will be out in November.