Sometimes the best—and only—answer to difficult times is to embrace a big, beautiful imagination. In The Land of Forgotten Girls, 12-year-old Filipino Soledad lives in Louisiana with her little sister, Ming. Abandoned by their father, they live in an ugly subsidized apartment with their evil stepmother, Vea. Both Sol and Ming inherited a lively imagination from their mother, who passed away long ago, and they surround themselves with stories when everything seems hopeless.
Filipino-American author Erin Entrada Kelly grew up in Louisiana, and her mother was the first in her family to emigrate from the Philippines. In The Land of Forgotten Girls, as with her previous novel, Blackbird Fly (2015), Kelly offers a tale of hope for Filipino-American misfits.
Blackbird Fly also featured a young Filipino girl moving to Louisiana. As an author, in what ways are you drawing from your own childhood as a Filipino-American living in Louisiana?
Living as a Filipino-American in the South is much different than living as a Filipino-American on the East or West Coasts. I grew up in an area with a small Asian population and was the only Filipino in my school through college. That being said, Blackbird Fly and Land of Forgotten Girls depict very different immigrant experiences. Neither of them are direct interpretations of my personal journey—for one thing, I was born in the States—but they each draw from my life in various ways. I think that’s true for most writers, no matter what they’re writing.
How do you feel the Filipino immigrant experience is unique from other immigrant experiences?
The long and complicated relationship between the U.S. and the Philippines play an important role in the dynamics of the Filipino experience. Also, the Philippines is the third-largest Catholic country in the world and one of only two predominantly Catholic nations in Asia. According to the Pew Center, there are about 76 million Catholics living in the Philippines—roughly the same as the number living in the U.S. I’ve always found that fascinating.
The Land of Forgotten Girls isn’t your first time writing about orphans or abandoned children. Why do you think you continue to return to these types of characters?
In both books, the children nurture gifts left behind by their parents—in Blackbird Fly, Apple’s father, who died when she was three, leaves behind a cassette tape of Abbey Road, which inspires Apple’s love for the Beatles; in Forgotten Girls, Sol cherishes the power of imagination left behind by her mother, who died of cancer.
In many ways, it’s far more powerful to appreciate the gifts of people you love when they are no longer around to offer them.
Sol is forced to grow up a lot faster than most girls her age, which results in a bit of an attitude, and she even throws a pinecone at an albino girl from another school and hurts her. Why did you write a character that sometimes isn’t so likable?
Because no one is perfect.
What do you think readers will connect with most about Sol?
Her hope for something better. Her love for her sister and family. Her imagination.
“It’s far more powerful to appreciate the gifts of people you love when they are no longer around to offer them.”
Sol feels a lot of pressure to play the role of strong older sister for little Ming. But Ming’s hopefulness is one of the many positive influences that keep Sol from losing herself in the bleak conditions of their life in Louisiana. Why did you want to emphasize the power of sisterhood with this book?
Sisterhood has its own unique dynamic—complicated, beautiful, tender, frustrating. I have an older sister and the face of our relationship has changed in many ways over the years. We’re very different, but we’re also very close. I have such admiration and love for my sister. She taught me how to blow bubbles, she taught me how to roller skate, she tattled on me when I irritated her, she put a sign on her door that said No Erins Allowed, and she was there any time I needed her. Basically, all the moods a relationship can experience. I wanted to celebrate that.
Stories and the imagination play major roles in shaping Sol and Ming’s life, but the line between reality and fairy tale is sometimes blurred. Is Aunt Jove real? Does Sol really see her dead sister as a ghost? Even evil stepmother Vea isn’t all evil, as she continues to be the guardian for these two girls. Does this reflect your own experience?
In many ways, yes. I’ve been a writer all my life. I’m pretty sure I was born holding a pencil. As a little girl, I had an active imagination and spent a lot of time in my head. (And still do!) I believe the truth has many voices.
This book deftly handles issues of both race and class. What do you hope young readers take away from this book?
My goal is to write the world as it is. Although the book doesn’t overtly tackle issues of race and class, it exists on the page in many ways—subtle and not-so-subtle—which is just how it is in daily life. What I want readers to takeaway is a deeper understanding of their own world, whatever their world or that understanding may be.
What do you love most about writing for young readers?
At the risk of sounding anti-adult, I find young people to be far more interesting. They’re honest, generally unfiltered and full of lively stories and imagination. They read the books they want to read, and they’re honest about how they feel about them. No pretention. I love hearing from young readers, and I especially love hearing from young writers.
What’s next for you?
More books! My third novel is just about wrapped up and will be released by Greenwillow next year. Right now I’m hard at work on my fourth.
Author photo credit Laurence Kesterson.