Process Notes: Gail Villanueva on My Fate According to the Butterfly

Once in a great while, I come across a middle grade novel that moves and shimmers in time to the beating heart of its young protagonist, while at the same time picking me up and planting me squarely in a place I’ve never been. That’s what My Fate According to the Butterfly, Gail Villanueva‘s beautiful debut novel set in Metro Manila, accomplishes.

This tender, funny middle grade novel, set in the Philippines, is narrated in the first person by young Sabrina “Sab” Dulce. Sab’s parents are separated, and she misses her father. The day her ordinary life changes is the day she sees a giant black butterfly alight on her very own heart-shaped silver locket on its braided metal chain.

Gail D. Villanueva is a Filipino author born and based in the Philippines. She’s also a web designer, an entrepreneur, and a graphic artist. She loves pineapple pizza, seafood, and chocolate, but not in a single dish together (eww). Gail and her husband live in the outskirts of Manila with their dogs, ducks, turtles, cats, and one friendly but lonesome chicken. Her debut novel My Fate According to the Butterfly was named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Reviews and was selected for the 2020 Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People by the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council (CBC).

I asked Gail if she’d answer some of the questions her novel raised for me.

[Uma] How did you pull together this perfect confluence of butterflies, looming death, and family relationships?

[Gail] I’ve always believed that we adults tend to underestimate kids. They understand certain issues more than we think they do—and sometimes even understand issues better than we do. While I get the need to “protect” them, I believe easing kids into these difficult subjects in an age-appropriate manner will equip them with knowledge when they encounter these later in life. Because these issues aren’t just issues. They’re realities that people have to live with, not just here in the Philippines but everywhere in the world.

I hope that with my book, kids will find both a mirror and a window that can introduce them to these subjects that they’ll later face one way or another. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t expect it’ll have an impact on every kid who reads it. But maybe—just maybe—it’ll give them something to think about and/or empathize with.

[Uma] There’s so much in this book that made me smile. Ate Nadine’s postcolonial take on history and life, the separated parents, the dad in a same-sex relationship. None of these is a plot point, and yet together they make for a complex, lovingly drawn portrait of a family and the community they live in. Can you talk about those craft choices and how you came to make them?

[Gail] I’m so glad you mentioned this! Yes, you’re right—every character’s backstory is a microcosm of different realities many Filipinos face. I figured that there is no better way to represent these realities but to show them through human experience. Not just Sab’s experience, but the experience of everyone around her as well.

You see, Butterfly isn’t the first book I wrote. I have an unpublished middle grade novel in the drawer, waiting for the day I’ll be ready to revisit it. Before I even wrote that one, I had a chat with a friend who studied psychology. Through her, I learned that it’s not enough to rely on personality types to create a character. I also needed to consider their past experiences, present circumstances, and dreams for the future, in order to come up with a believable cast of characters. I used this knowledge while brainstorming primary, secondary, and even peripheral characters for Butterfly.

Since socio-political issues are human experiences, I was able to weave them into the characters’ backgrounds, which I think helped in making everyone just be without the need to become a plot point in the story.

[Uma] Every novel teaches a writer something. What did writing this book teach you?

[Gail] I did a lot of research for My Fate According to the Butterfly—from reading journals, articles, blog posts, etc. to chatting with and interviewing people and experts with different perspectives about the Philippine drug war. I definitely learned a lot about the political and social aspects of the issue. It also gave me a deeper understanding of addiction and its effects on families, as well as the importance of rehabilitation.

In terms of writing as a craft, writing Butterfly helped me come to a realization that unlearning ableist language is an ongoing process. I tried my best to make sure that I didn’t perpetuate ableism by using “lame,” “crazy,” or “dumb” in a negative sense, but I still slipped one time and I was so ashamed. Thankfully, my editor and the production team caught the ableist word. It just goes to show that I still have a lot to learn.

[Uma] Gail Villanueva, thank you for these heartfelt, honest replies! I wish you butterfly gardens–and I absolutely intend to try cheese ice-cream the very next chance I get! Here’s hoping our paths cross in real time someday.

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