Mia P. Manansala’s first murder mystery cozy Arsenic and Adobo came out on May 4, 2021. In this delightful series, Lila Macapagal returns to her small town outside of Chicago to help out in her family’s Filipino kitchen after she has a terrible breakup. But when her ex-boyfriend—a nasty food critic—ends up face down in their food from poison, Macapagal has to investigate to save herself, her family and the business from suspicion. The book is the first in a series known as the Tita Rosie's Kitchen Mystery Series.
Manansala’s work shows a real love of Filipino food; the book will have you wanting to find the closest Filipino restaurant and bakery. It’s also a testament to Manansala’s own love of murder mystery cozies and romances with a dash of humor. It’s a delightful addition to the world of cozies. Kirkus Reviews called it, “A debut that embraces its lightness.”
Murder & Mayhem: Why did you decide to write a murder mystery cozy? Are you a fan of the genre?
Mia P. Manansala: I've kind of always loved mysteries, cozy Mysteries in particular. It's something that my mom introduced me to; she got me reading mysteries from a very young age. I grew up with my parents and my grandparents. As a child, I was watching Matlock and Murder She Wrote. And my mom used to work at Waldenbooks—you remember those?—She would bring home Mary Higgins Clark novels and things like that. And now she's a library worker and while there she discovered cozy mysteries... So I started reading the books she was [so] we had something to talk about.
I love the fun and escape that you can have with cozy mysteries. I noticed most of the publishing in general, there was not a lot of representation, [not] a lot of characters that looked like me. This book was me writing what me and my mom always wished we could find on the bookshelves. It was primarily for me [and] it was primarily something that my mom could read because it's a cozy; there's no sex, violence or anything graphic. The fact that other people seem to be enjoying it just means so much because it really is personal in so many ways.
I was so enthralled and so hungry. It made me want Filipino food so badly. What made you decide to set it in a Filipino restaurant?
Culinary cozies are my favorite of the genre. That's always my mom's favorite [too]. Food is hugely important to me. As a diaspora kid, my parents are Filipino immigrants but I was born and raised in Chicago. So food is like a shorthand for culture. For those of us who haven't been to the homeland and don't know the language, and so [food] is hugely important to me and my family.
It's also an interesting way to explore different ways to show love. I wrote this for my mom, but I also wrote it for my father, who sadly passed before this book deal happened, but he was the cook in the family. He was a prime example of “food as love;” you don't have to say the words. but you know it’s there.
It's not only Filipinos or only Filipino Americans who have these ideals, but it's so kind of embedded in the culture that it would feel strange for me to not have that aspect.
You chose to set it outside of Chicago. What was behind that decision to do that?
It was me playing around with the Cozy Mystery tropes. The whole first page was me just having fun. I love this genre but I also realize how ridiculous it can be and how much it is pulled from Rom Com tropes. So I wanted the idea of a big fish in a small pond; the protagonist who leaves a small town to experience the big city and has to come back. I felt that was a big part of her character. And I wanted it to be fictional, I'm gonna get something wrong. I've been in Chicago for almost my entire life. And I'm still like “Oh, I bet you if I set it here, there's going to be all these people pointing out mistakes.” It's just fun creating my own ridiculously named Midwestern small town.
Arsenic and Adobo
I appreciated that this book gets into topics that you don't usually see in cozies like issues about race and the police. How did you decide to tackle these difficult but necessary topics even though cozy has its tropes?
It was really a fine line to walk because I respect that these are supposed to be fun and escapist because that's why I like them. At the same time, if I was going to write about a Filipina protagonist, it would be insincere to pretend that that's not a part [of their lives]. In the bigger books that features a character who is non-white, it's about that, right? It's about the struggle. I didn't want that.
She's a character who happens to be Filipino. It is not the story, but it informs who she is and how she moves [in] the world and also how the world views her. There were aspects that I kind of had to go back and tweak a little bit. Little things where she's having that interrogation with Detective Park and she has a realization that the way she's moving and speaking can come off really aggressive. So she has to physically take a step back.
It's those little things that maybe wouldn't occur to a white person in this kind of situation. I remember reading a cozy by an author—I otherwise really enjoy her work— where her protagonist got upset with this police officer, and she threw a handful of peanuts at him. [It] felt like the height of privilege. That would never happen to me; I could never get away with that.
You can acknowledge these things exist without making it about that necessarily. I want to stay true to the genre and what the expectations are. But I also want to stay true to who the character is and how she would really have to move throughout the world.
What else do you want readers to know about the book?
I want readers to learn about and be interested about the cultural aspects I brought in. But I also want them to understand that I'm just one person and this is not representative of all Filipino and Filipino Americans because I feel that is a weight that a lot of marginalized creators carry. If you are the one voice, people assume “Oh, that is the way all Filipinos behave or how they all think or what they all care about.” No, this is from my perspective. [Macapagal]’s not me. Everyone was kind of an amalgam of the experiences I've had growing up and people I knew growing up.
If it makes you more interested in reading other Filipino authors or trying Filipino food— our food is amazing—that's amazing. But also know that I'm just one voice and I really hope they take the time to find other voices that are out there.