Cozy mystery novel set against the backdrop of Filipino Christmas

Chicago-born Mia P. Manansala: Instead of Tagalog, she learned the language of Filipino food.  Photo: Jamilla Yip Photography

By Lynn Topel

The “-ber” months have arrived, and that’s Filipino-speak for the beginning of the Christmas season.

FilAm cozy mystery writer, Mia P. Manansala, cleverly works the Filipino love for Christmas in her latest book offering called Blackmail and Bibingka where her lead, Lila Macapagal deals with the return of the prodigal cousin, Ronnie, whose mom runs Tita Rosie’s Kitchen. As Ronnie tries to prove that he is not just a schemer and a swindler and tries to regain his family’s trust, a mysterious death takes place at Shady Palms Winery, where he had hoped to start producing lambanog. Now accused of murder, Lila has to help clear up the family name and hope that Ronnie is truly innocent for Tita Rosie’s sake. Hopefully, she gets to do this before the Simbang Gabi and the Shady Palms Winter Bash rush begins.

I had the opportunity to correspond with Mia with regards to her unabashed display of Filipiniana in her stories. Though her parents hailed from Cavite and Quezon City, Chicago born-and-raised Mia did not grow up with a lot of stories from “home”. She sought out information on her Filipino heritage as an adult. She can understand some basic Tagalog now, but she and her brothers were encouraged to speak English growing up.

“My parents and grandparents spoke Tagalog to each other at home, but they never taught me or my brothers the language,” she said. “My parents worried that we’d struggle in school, so they only spoke to us in English when we were younger. My mom regrets it now, but I’ve gotten to the point that I can understand a basic Tagalog conversation and respond in English if I need to.”

Despite that, Mia never lost sight of who she is. Though not fluent in Tagalog, she has learned the language of Filipino food instead and this was her bond with the homeland. She has mentioned in previous interviews that food was her father’s “love language”. In fact, her favorite Filipino food is kare-kare with LOTS of rice and bagoong, and her favorite sweet treats are ube crinkles.

‘Parol’ on the cover speaks of the Filipino-ness of this book.

Mia also lets us in that it was her mom who introduced her to the culinary cozy mystery genre—a food-themed mystery subgenre that features lightheartedness (none of the gore) and an amateur sleuth.

“She’s the one that got me into them, starting with Joanne Fluke’s Hannah Swensen series. Later on, Vivien Chien’s Noodle Shop Mysteries showed me that it was possible to have diverse culinary cozies and I knew I had to write my own.”

Mia has been rolling out one book after another. And, it seems the public cannot get enough! In fact, Mia happily announces that she had been signed on for three more books with Berkley after Blackmail and Bibingka.That means the adventures in Shady Palms, IL are not quite over yet. Mia elaborates on where she gets inspiration for her stories: “Arsenic and Adobo plays with cozy mystery/rom-com tropes, Homicide and Halo-Halo was me wanting to understand the Filipino obsession with beauty pageants (and also because I love the movie Miss Congeniality), and Blackmail and Bibingka came from an online news article about a particular incident that happened in the Philippines around Christmas.”

With so much Filipino-ness in her books, does she ever wonder if non-Filipinos would be able to get the little quirks and idiosyncrasies?

She has carved a special niche in the culinary cozy mystery genre.

“Not really,” she replied. “I was more concerned with making sure that I wasn’t holding the reader’s hand and explaining too much—I rely on a mix of context clues and direct explanation, and anything they still don’t understand they can just Google. For me, it was all about the narrative flow and figuring out when/why/how to explain a particular food or concept since there are many different ways to handle it.”

And the response had been overwhelmingly positive. Readers who’ve never tried Filipino food before are suddenly ready to try them, and are learning more about the culture. Mia has added glossaries and pronunciation guides to help with readers when they come across the Filipino words sprinkled here and there throughout her books. These do not just include food-related words, but concepts like utang na loob and balikbayan box. Even her characters’ names are characteristically Filipino with Lila Macapagal as the main sleuth in the series and a cousin named Bernadette Arroyo (no relation to the political dynasty of the Macapagal-Arroyos!).

Blackmail and Bibingka is set for release on October 4th! You can’t miss the parol on the cover of her latest book (another “calling card” that you’re a Pinoy!). Blackmail and Bibingka also gives you a sneak preview of her next book in the series called, Murder and Mamon coming out summer of 2023! Mia has truly carved a special niche for herself and a name in the culinary cozy mystery genre.

Lynn Alejandrino-Topel is a teacher based in Maryland. When not teaching, she does book reviews and is busy checking out the food scene around the Maryland/Pennsylvania area. Find her on Pinterest as @themamatravels.

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© The FilAm 2022

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