The Spark Interview Series: Inside The Writer's Journey
The story begins with a phone call...

The story begins with a phone call...

An interview with novelist, essayist, and interpreter Marivi Soliven

Before we begin

Have you ever needed someone to translate or interpret for you? Have you ever interpreted or translated on behalf of another person? Or, have you ever been a situation where everyone spoke a different language and you needed to make yourself understood? How did it go? What was lost or gained in translation? What feelings were you left with after the moment passed?

Leave a comment

Welcome! You’ve reached Spark.  Learn more here or just read on. If you received this from a friend, please join us by subscribing. It’s free! All you have to do is press the button below.

If you have already subscribed, welcome back! BTW, If this email looks truncated in your inbox, just click through now so you can read it all in one go. Better yet, just click on the sound link above and listen!

First, a voice in her ear, now a story on the screen

Marivi Soliven thought that, at least from a commercial perspective, her debut novel The Mango Bride was dead, done, kaput. Now a decade after its launch, it is being made into a full-length feature film. Meanwhile, a film based on her essay “Pandemic Bread” is making its world premiere next month at the Los Angeles Asian and Pacific Islander Film Festival

Both of them were inspired by the voices coming through her phone as she worked her day job as an interpreter for Tagalog speakers. For nearly twenty years, she has been a calm voice on the phone who bridges the communication gap between English-only speakers and Filipinos dealing with banking problems, navigating government agencies, or struggling with any situation when one human being needs to be understood by another. Sometimes, a life may depend on it. She drew upon this experience when she wrote The Mango Bride which won the Palanca Prize, the Philippines' equivalent to the Pulitzer, and again when she wrote “Pandemic Bread” 


The Mango Bride is a delicious feast of a novel that spans three generations and two countries. Funny, often poignant, always engaging, the story explores class, home, and the secrets that have the power to bind or destroy. It follows two women who leave the Philippines for the United States: Amparo, the wealthy daughter who has disgraced her family and takes work as an interpreter, and Beverly, a mail order bride. Although they are connected in ways neither realizes, they don’t cross paths until Beverly becomes a voice on the other end of the phone as she seeks a way out of an abusive marriage. Set in both the Philippines and the United States, this novel underscores the clash of cultures, hopes, and how immigrants are often caught between two homes, the place where they were born and the place where they live. 

In “Pandemic Bread” , the voices on the other end of the phone are Remedios, an elderly woman and her English speaking doctor who needs her to make a decision about going on a ventilator. The interpreter in the story is in her kitchen, headset on, baking bread, working her hands as she struggles to remain neutral and do her job. Marivi wrote the story as part of the San Diego Decameron Project, a collection of 100 stories from San Diegans inspired by Boccaccio’s The Decameron.

I recently spoke to Marivi about The Mango Bride, “Pandemic Bread” , and her journey as a writer which began in the Philippines where she was born and raised in comfortable surroundings. She shares how her own experience as an immigrant to the United States has informed not only her writing but her efforts to support women-at-risk as well as other writers, particularly writers of color. The Mango Bride, for example, is required reading for students of immigration law at California Western School of Law. She speaks to the classes every year to share with future attorneys the stories she has encountered as an interpreter. She collaborated with a team for the Saving Beverly Literary Fundraising Adventure which raised money for a legal-aid organization focusing on domestic abuse victims. Another collaboration resulted in conference Centering the Margins: Conversations With Writers of Color when she realized that the inaugural San Diego Festival of Books had no writers of color in its lineup. While leading a flash fiction class in Tagalog at UC Berkeley last month, she discovered that “Pandemic Bread” is being taught in a literature class there which leads to the kinds of discussions about food, death, and family she hopes the film will spark at next month's premiere. 

Our conversation touched on all of this as well as how her own experiences as an immigrant to the United States has informed her writing and her understanding of class and race, and the importance of making art for its own sake, like this focaccia bread:

Focaccia Bread and Photo by Marivi Soliven

To listen to our conversation click the link above. For a few of the highlights, read on. 

Highlights: Conversation with Marivi Soliven

The genesis for The Mango Bride

“I was always looking for a story… I just happened to be flipping through the classifieds and I saw this ad for “Filipino Sweethearts.” And back in the early nineties, this was before the advent of eHarmony and all the online dating things.. But it did have pictures of the women online. So I think the deal was, you could pay per address of each woman you wanted to write to, but if you bundled twelve, you got all twelve for like five bucks . So really for the price of a six pack, you could find the love of your life. 

So I kept thinking about it. Then right around the time of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis in my day job, I began to take a troubling number of calls from the National Domestic Violence Hotline… in times of economic crisis or natural catastrophes, the incidents of domestic violence shoot up. I'm sure many of these women whose calls I translated weren’t mail order brides, but they were immigrant wives and victims of domestic violence.”

Real life informs “99%” of the novel

“Beverly clearly was inspired by, you know all those women I read about in this “Filipino Sweetheart “ website, and Amparo, to some degree, was inspired by my situation. I come from a family of doctors and lawyers, and my grandfather was a congressman. In the Philippines, I was living the life of a privileged person.

Then the story of her (Amparo’s) abortion is based on an ordeal that a friend of mine was put through. And the father of that unborn child is now some politician somewhere in the Philippines. And the train accident that killed Beverly’s mother, a friend of mine died this way. I wrote that as a memorial to him. I would say 99% of the novel is based on people and real things I knew.”

On culture, connection, and shame

“One of the worst things a Filipino can say to another Filipino is ‘Have you no shame? Don't you care about what other people think?’ In the Philippines it's not like the United States where everyone's a self-made man and the rugged individual and all of that, which is great if that's what you believe in. But in the Philippines, we always have to have a connection. When two Filipinos meet, they ask you what your last name is and what province you are from. By those two points, they can triangulate if they knew if they were related to someone, or they're by marriage or by some distant, like, familiar relationship, or if they had lived in that province. Even when I'm on a phone call, people will call me “Big sister’ because they need to establish that relationship. If you have an investment in being in these relationships with people who are either intimate or even casual acquaintances, shame becomes really important because you can't lose face. 

So that's why the idea of keeping up appearances is such a crucial part of the novel. I mean Senora Concha [Amaparo’s mother]  knew that once word got out of Amparo's abortion, she would be ruined. The family would be thrown into scandal. She would lose standing in society. She just wanted to make everything go away. So she sent her daughter [Amparo] away to a country where nobody cares.” 

Beverly did not have a father and her mother died tragically so she didn't understand her provenance. She didn't have wealth, but she did have her own self-respect and she wanted to better herself. 

I wanted to follow the trajectory of these two women [Amparo and Beverly] who were immigrants and how their provenance informed everything they did in the United States, where basically all of those rules fall away and it's this wild, wild west. They have to reinvent who they are, Amparo no less than Beverly.”

On class, race, power and that opening scene…

“In grad school in Boston one of my classmates was from El Salvador. I was whining about some stupid thing, and she just looked at me and she said, "you know, it doesn't matter how pale you are, you'll always be colored in America. That’s when I began to understand the dynamics but I did not grow up with that.” 

“In the same way that race informs the way people think and act and speak in this country, in the Philippines both class and colorism – the lightness of one's skin – inform one's decisions and motivations and in many ways, one's destiny. Amparo’s mother, Señora Concha is from landed wealth. She has a social reputation as a matriarch, and she has an elevated status as a mestiza. That's, that's very much a Filipino thing, whereas Marcella [her cook and the aunt of Beverly] is from the provinces. She grew up impoverished and she's a servant, but she holds all the secrets of Señora Concha and that gives her power in a society where reputation is everything.”

The Mango Bride went out of print, Marivi took back the rights and then…

Since then Marivi has been working with the filmmakers on the script.

“It’s a big novel with three generations. And to compress that into 120 minutes is a real task. They ask, what are the absolute things that you cannot have removed? I said, well, the main themes need to be there. There needs to be an abortion. There needs to be a death. When they suggested maybe someone else should die, I said, no, only this person can die. Because otherwise the logic of the novel doesn't make sense. It falls apart. They do listen to my feedback.”

“Pandemic Bread”: lived, written, and baked in San Diego

The much shorter story, “Pandemic Bread” , was brought to the screen in collaboration with two other members of the San Diego community of writers and artists: Screenwriter Marc Chery who directs programming for the San Diego Public Library, and director Zeinabu irene Davis. All three have worked together before to bring more opportunities for writers of color together here in San Diego which remains a priority for Marivi. 

“I remember how I began to insert myself into the writing community in San Diego. A friend of mine took me to DimeStories, which Amy Wallen ran back in the early two thousands in South Park. So it became this thing. It was the only time I could be around other writers. Judy Reeves was wonderful and asked me to be on the board of San Diego Writers Ink. Wherever I was, I was still, for the most part, the only writer of color, sometimes one of two or three. 

I'm gonna get on my soapbox here. Some years ago, the first time San Diego decided to have a book festival modeled on the LA County Festival of Books. They somehow forgot to invite any writers of color. I mean, there are several of us and somehow the people in the circles who made these decisions didn't know any of us. And so in response to that, I decided to organize a conference only for writers of color called Centering the Margins: Conversations with Writers of Color. Marc Chery said he would partner and we had two days of panels. There were poets and publishers and publicists and agents and writers and screenwriters and directors. They came from as far away as Michigan and Seattle. We planned to do it again but then Covid happened. We’re hopeful we can do it again soon.”

Three things she would tell other writers 

  • Find other writers even if they don’t look like you. “If there is no other show in town, then you just have to show up it is helping your writing.” 

  • Something that M.F.K. Fisher stuck with me:  do whatever you most want to do whether or not it is of value to anyone else. I know that's like a fool's journey, but that's what I'm doing.”

  • Make every day a creative day. That’s why I cook so much. If I can’t write something that is worth reading, at least I know I can cook something worth eating.  I was in Bali many, many years ago, and an Indonesian man told me they didn’t have a word for artists. It's just assumed that everybody creates art.”

Who she’s reading

“I haven’t read a lot of novelists lately but I’ve been reading the stories of Noelle Q De Jesus.” 

Where to find Marivi Soliven

  • San Diego Public Library Local Author Showcase, May 9, 2023 - She and others from San Diego Decameron Project will be reading. Event is from 6 to 7:30 PM at the Central Library in downtown San Diego. 

  • Website and Books

  • Instagram: @marvisoliven 

To hear from the team behind Pandemic Bread AND see Marivi make the bread that was used in the film, check out this event from Adventure By the Book: Food, Fiction, and Film in the time of Covid. 

More from “The Spark Interview Series: Inside The Writer's Journey”

We’ve been talking with writers about the ideas that drive their work, how they do what they do, and their books. We will spotlight writers from all over beginning with San Diego writers. Click here to listen to all the interviews so far or on the links below:

You’ll find more interviews with writers at all stages of their journeys here

Spark is Yours: Chime In

Have you just finished a book you loved? Tell us about it.  Got a great resource for readers or writers? Share away! How about sharing your book stack with us, that tower of tomes rising next to your bed or your bath or wherever you keep the books you intend to read – someday. And if you stumbled on a Moment of Zen, show us what moved you, made you laugh, or just created a sliver of light in an otherwise murky world. 

We don’t ask for money but we would love it if you would share. Here’s a button to make it easy!


Thank you and Welcome

Thank you to everyone who shared Spark with a friend again this week. Welcome to all new subscribers! Thank you so much for being here. If you would like to check out past issues, here’s a quick link to the archives. Be sure to check out our Resources for Readers and Writers too.

That’s it for this week. Let me know how you are and what you’re thinking about. And of course, always let me know what you’re reading. If there’s an idea, book, or question you’d like to see in an upcoming issue of Spark, let us know!

Remember, If you like what you see or it resonates with you, please share Spark with a friend and take a minute to click the heart ❤️ below - it helps more folks to find us!

Ciao for now!



P.S. And now, your moment of Zen…a web of water pearls

Found on a morning walk, after a rain, in the spring. Photo: B. Marro

Calling for Your Contribution to “Moment of Zen”

What is YOUR moment of Zen? Send me your photos, a video, a drawing, a song, a poem, or anything with a visual that moved you, thrilled you, calmed you. Or just cracked you up. This feature is wide open for your own personal interpretation.

Come on, go through your photos, your memories or just keep your eyes and ears to the ground and then share. Send your photos/links, etc. to me by replying to this email or simply by sending to: The main guidelines are probably already obvious: don’t hurt anyone  -- don’t send anything that violates the privacy of someone you love or even someone you hate, don’t send anything divisive, or aimed at disparaging others. Our Zen moments are to help us connect, to bond, to learn, to wonder, to share -- to escape the world for a little bit and return refreshed. 

Thanks for reading Spark! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.

And remember,If you like what you see or it resonates with you, please share Spark with a friend and take a minute to click the heart ❤️ below - it helps more folks to find us!

Thank you for reading Spark. This post is public so share away!


The Spark Interview Series: Inside The Writer's Journey
We talk with writers about the ideas that drive their work, how they do what they do, and their books. We will spotlight writers from all over beginning with San Diego writers.
Listen on
Substack App
RSS Feed
Appears in episode
Elizabeth Marro