Sometimes our heroes let us down. That's something many Filipinos who idolized champion boxer Manny Pacquiao learned in 2016 when he made homophobic comments during his senatorial campaign. Pacquiao won the election, but not without breaking the hearts of Filipinos all over the world. "Chasing Pacquiao," Rod Pulido's debut novel, explores the fallout of those comments through the eyes of Bobby Agbayani, a queer Filipino American teenager.
Samahan spoke to Mr. Pulido about his novel, the model minority myth, kare-kare, intersectionality, and, of course, ube.
"Chasing Pacquiao" is coming out in the midst of what has been a very difficult time for Asian Americans with the rise of hate crimes against our community — clearly, a lot of people would be well-served by the book's anti-bullying message. What is it like making your novel debut in such a tense period?
It’s both exciting and a bit daunting, to be honest. I feel very fortunate to be able to contribute my voice to the grand tradition of Asian American literature, especially during such a tumultuous period when it’s important that we control our own narrative. I think readers are hungry for stories with deeper themes and Asian American characters with agency that reflect our experience today. It’s a responsibility that I take seriously and a tradition that I’m honored to take part in.
Manny Pacquiao is a beloved figure in the Philippines, and some think he can do no wrong. What made you decide to tackle such a daunting subject?
After Pacquiao made his unfortunate remarks, my queer friends and family were understandably angered and hurt. We’d been such huge Pacquiao fans. We idolized him, and we felt betrayed by his bigotry. At the same time, many of Pacquiao’s straight fans shrugged and thought his comments weren’t a big deal. Essentially, they gave him a pass because he’s a great boxer. I wanted to give queer Filipinos a voice in the discourse and address what it means to be considered a hero.
One of the aspects of "Chasing Pacquiao" that really stands out is that it subverts the model minority myth. Asian Americans are often perceived as being wealthy, but we know that this isn't a universal truth. Bobby's boyfriend is also Filipino American, but from a far more well-off background than Bobby, whose family struggles to get by. What made you decide to explore class tension in the book?
Great question. I wanted to show that Filipino Americans are not a monolith, that our people’s experiences are diverse throughout the socioeconomic spectrum. I also thought it was important to show that not all queer people’s experiences with coming out are the same. Not everyone has a safe, supportive coming out story. Many queer teens still deal with bullying and hate crimes, especially if they come from poor neighborhoods. It’s important for me to deal with the intersectionality of race, sexual identity, and class. I think it makes my stories more realistic and immediate.
You have a background in film. Was it difficult to transition from screenwriting to novel writing?
Oh, definitely! When I used to write screenplays, it was so much simpler. I’d write, “Guy walks into a room,” followed by a few lines of dialogue, then break for lunch! Writing prose is much more involved. I have to describe the room, what it looks like—even what it smells like if relevant—what the guy looks like, what he’s wearing, etc. I love writing both forms, but the process of writing a novel can be more difficult. But, of course, a screenplay is only a blueprint and merely the first step in filmmaking.
Your protagonist, Bobby, learns how to box. Are you a boxer yourself?
Ha, not even close! I consider myself a casual boxing fan, and I knew very little about the actual craft and science of the sport before I started writing the book. This helped because I was writing a main character who was learning how to box just as I had to do the research in order to write about it.
Geek culture plays a big role in "Chasing Pacquiao." Which fandoms are you a part of?
I’m a Marvel stan through and through! My favorites are Spider-Man—both Peter Parker and Miles Morales. I relate to Peter Parker because I was quiet and bullied when I was a kid. It meant a lot to have a hero who was like me, and who tried to help others even when his real life wasn’t so great. I was also a big Uncanny X-Men fan. I love the diversity of Marvel’s band of merry mutants. As a person of color, I can relate to their mission of fighting for a world that fears and hates them. Both Spider-Man and the X-Men are underdogs, which are the types of characters I enjoy reading and writing about.
Foodies will no doubt be delighted to see Filipino dishes described in "Chasing Pacquiao." What are your favorite Filipino foods?
Like Bobby Agbayani, the protagonist in Chasing Pacquiao, I’m a huge ube fanatic! I love love love all things ube: ube halaya, ube polvoron, and especially ube ice cream. If it’s made from my favorite purple yam, I’m probably a fan of it. Also, if we’re talking main dishes, I love me some kare kare. I can’t get enough of the peanut butter goodness!
Is there anything you can tell us about any upcoming projects?
I can’t say too much about my latest work-in-progress, but it deals with Asian hate crimes during the pandemic. I’m excited to have the opportunity to tell Filipino and Asian American stories. I feel fortunate to contribute my voice to the narrative, and I appreciate every one of my supporters. Salamat for the love!