On Languages, Handwritten Novels, and ‘Dauntless’ and ‘Stolen City’ — An Interview with Elisa A. Bonnin

Launched by Your Tita Kate in the first year of the global pandemic, WIKATHON is a month-long reading challenge set in August committed to celebrating and uplifting Filipino-authored literature.

As one of the WIKATHON hosts for 2022, it has been my honor to help shine the spotlight on our homegrown talents — and we’re closing the month with Elisa A. Bonnin and her two Young Adult fantasy novels Dauntless and Stolen City.


ABOUT THE BOOKS

A teen girl must bring together two broken worlds in order to save her nation in this lush, Filipino-inspired young adult fantasy novel from debut author Elisa A. Bonnin.

“Be dauntless, for the hopes of the People rest in you.”

Seri's world is defined by very clear rules: The beasts prowl the forest paths and hunt the People. The valiant explore the unknown world, kill the beasts, and gain strength from the armor they make from them. As an assistant to Eshai Unbroken, a young valor commander with a near-mythical reputation, Seri has seen first-hand the struggle to keep the beasts at bay and ensure the safety of the spreading trees where the People make their homes. That was how it always had been, and how it always would be. Until the day Seri encounters Tsana.

Tsana is, impossibly, a stranger from the unknown world who can communicate with the beasts — a fact that makes Seri begin to doubt everything she's ever been taught. As Seri and Tsana grow closer, their worlds begin to collide, with deadly consequences. Somehow, with the world on the brink of war, Seri will have to find a way to make peace.

Dauntless is now available from Swoon Reads, an imprint under Macmillan Publishers.

Twin thieves attempt to pull off a daring heist in Stolen City, the sophomore fantasy novel from author Elisa A. Bonnin.

The city of Leithon is under Imperial occupation and Arian Athensor has made it her playground.

In stealing magical artifacts for the Resistance, bounding over rooftops to evade Imperial soldiers, and establishing herself as the darling thief of the underground, Arian lives a life wrapped in danger and trained towards survival. She’ll steal anything for the right price, and if she runs fast enough, she can almost escape the fact that her mother is dead, her father is missing, and her brother, Liam, is tamping down a wealth of power in a city that has outlawed magic.

But then the mysterious Cavar comes to town with a job for the twins: to steal an artifact capable of ripping the souls from the living--the same artifact that used to hang around the neck of Arian’s mother. Suddenly, her past is no longer buried under adrenaline but intimately tied to the mission at hand, and Arian must face her guilt and pain head-on in order to pull off the heist.

As Arian and Cavar infiltrate the strongest fortress in Leithon and Liam joins the Resistance as their resident mage, the twins find themselves embroiled in court politics and family secrets, and the mission becomes more than just another artifact theft. The target is now the Imperial rule, and Arian will go to any length necessary to steal her city back.

Stolen City comes out September 20 from Swoon Reads.


Recently, author Elisa A. Bonnin and I got to have a chat about writing Dauntless and Stolen City — and getting to pick the brains behind these two very exciting books was nothing short of an honor. This is the last in a three-part WIKATHON interview series with Filipino creators.

The interview that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Hello, Elisa! Kumusta ka? Read anything nice lately?

Hi, Ena. I’m doing well, thank you! Currently, I’m working through my TBR and finishing up some of the series I started years ago. I’m now working through S. A. Chakraborty’s The Kingdom of Copper. I’m only halfway through, but enjoying it so far!

August is always Buwan ng Mga Wika in the Philippines. Do you have any notions of this month, or of languages in general, that changed since you moved to the US and Germany?

I grew up speaking English and Hiligaynon, and learning Filipino in school — but moving to the US marked the first time in my life that I was immersed in English 24/7. While living there, I studied Spanish in college. Then when I moved to Germany, I found myself once again immersed in German, a language I’d previously had no experience in.

Languages have always fascinated me. I find it really interesting that different thoughts are easier to express in one language or another. For example, sometimes my mom and I would be sitting with our American friends, and we would try and convey something translated from Hiligaynon with them, and it just wouldn’t come out the same. The words would be accurate, but it would lose some feeling in translation.

I’m really not a linguist, so take this with a huge grain of salt, but I think, especially among people who speak only one language, there’s this idea that translation is something easy. That all you have to do is replace the words in one language to create a meaningful sentence in another. But actually, a lot of thoughts and feelings don’t translate well into other languages, so learning a new language is almost like learning a different way of thinking too, if that makes sense?

That’s quite a linguistic journey you’ve had! And yes, that last bit does make sense. Do you think your being multilingual has affected the way you write?

That’s an interesting question, and to be honest, I’m not really sure. I’ve always written in English, and I’ve been at least familiar with other languages for as long as I can remember, so I’m not sure if I would be a different writer without being multilingual.

Being multilingual does always make me aware that other characters might be speaking different languages, especially because I write a lot of fantasy set in secondary worlds. I try to remember what language my characters speak and what languages the people that they might run into speak. So languages tend to be built more into my worldbuilding — and this actually becomes a plot point in Dauntless. Other than that, where it comes up is usually when I have a snappy comeback for one of the characters to make, but it just doesn’t make as much sense in English.

Does your being in STEM affect the way you worldbuild, research, or write?

I’ve been a writer since before I started specializing in STEM, but one of the ways I think my career has affected my writing is that I’m much more logical about the way I build my worlds. I still rely a lot on fantasy, but I usually choose a few fantastical elements and start asking real-world questions from there.

For example, in Dauntless I decided I wanted the people in the world to live in cities set in impossibly large trees. That led me to question why they were living in the trees in the first place, and I decided it was because the forest floor wasn’t safe. That led to the development of the beasts, and when I started questioning what value the beasts had to the ecosystem, I realized they couldn’t simply be the villains in the story. I had to make things a little more complicated than that.

Speaking of Dauntless… Congratulations on having not one, but two books out this year! And one of them is your authorial debut at that. If you could sum up the first book Dauntless in six words — in the style of Hemingway’s six-word stories — what words would those be?

Thank you! And oh gosh, short summaries are definitely not my area of expertise! But how about “Girl meets girl and questions everything”?

Sounds great, but I’m afraid you’re not gonna like my next question, then. How would you sum up Stolen City, your second book, in six words?

Ha! That one’s actually easier! “Twin thieves steal magic from colonizers.”

Would you say your two books have anything in common?

Dauntless and Stolen City are very different books — with the former being more Filipino-inspired and focused on adventure, and the latter being a heist novel that doesn’t explicitly draw anything from Filipino culture.

Despite that, I do think there’s some similarities between them. While Seri and Arian are very different protagonists, their stories are both about how they define themselves in relation to the world and cultures they were raised in, and how both of them find their own paths in life. Both books have a strong focus on family relationships and community. Seri is an orphan, but a lot of her character arc has to do with her relationship with her mother and hometown, and uncovering certain truths about her family. Arian had her family and community shattered when her island was colonized, and she spends most of the book frantically trying to hold on to the pieces of her family she still has, while balancing her fear of losing them with her own wants and her duties.

Both books also end up touching a bit on colonization: Stolen City in a more direct way; and Dauntless more indirectly when the group of people who have been exploring without any consequences run into another group of people who claim the territory they’re exploring, and these two groups have to navigate that space.

This is such a thorough answer — definitely something for new readers of yours to look forward to. As a debut author, what’s one thing you always wanted to be asked in an author interview?

Well, I haven’t really talked much about my writing journey. I started writing when I was eight, but between my deciding that I wanted to be a published author and actually getting a book deal, a lot of things happened. So a question I’ve never been asked is: “What was the first full-length novel you’ve ever written?”

So what was the first full-length novel you’ve ever written?

It was a book I called Shadows Lie Waiting for some reason. (The title doesn’t mean anything; I just thought it sounded cool.) I wrote it when I was about twelve years old, and at the time I wasn’t that great at typing yet and I didn’t have a computer in my room, so I wrote the whole thing on lined pad paper. Teachers hated it! I wrote most of it in school at my desk, when I was supposed to be listening in classes — and because we used pad paper for tests, I was always out and had to borrow from my classmates.

Shadows Lie Waiting was the story of a teenage girl whose dead sister came back to life as a villain, and she had to become a warrior to defeat her. It had all of the things I was really into at the time: a story that had the protagonist moving from town to town across a fantasy world and picking up a steadily growing group of friends, eventually falling in love with the dark, broody assassin-type she picked up in the first town where she started her quest.

It was so much fun to write, and it was the first time I realized that I could actually write long stories. It’s also the last time I ever wrote a book by hand. My typing skills developed quickly enough after that.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Elisa A. Bonnin was born and raised in the Philippines, after which she moved to the United States to study chemistry and later oceanography. After completing her doctorate, she moved to Germany to work as a postdoctoral scientist. A lifelong learner, Elisa is always convinced that she should “maybe take a class in something” and as a result has amassed an eclectic collection of hobbies. But writing will always be her true love. Publishing a book has been her dream since she was eight years old, and she is thrilled to finally be able to share her stories. She is the author of Dauntless and Stolen City.


MORE INFORMATION

CONTENT WARNINGS FOR DAUNTLESS
Abuse (physical, implied emotional), animal death and cruelty (culling is mentioned and hunting is a common practice), violence and blood, parental death, death of a loved one, prejudice, illness, mentions of mind control, descriptions of poverty and homelessness, descriptions of starvation
CONTENT WARNINGS FOR STOLEN CITY
Colonization, military occupation, parental death, death of a loved one, murder and blood, mentions of decapitation and execution, mentions of mass death, alcohol, mind control, trauma, mentions of police brutality, implied sexual harassment
IMAGE CREDITS
Book cover illustrations by Sarah Gonzales. Book cover designs by Mallory Grigg. Author photo provided by Elisa A. Bonnin.

Let’s talk!

☞ Did you join WIKATHON this year? How did it go for you? I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

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3 thoughts on “On Languages, Handwritten Novels, and ‘Dauntless’ and ‘Stolen City’ — An Interview with Elisa A. Bonnin

  1. Omg I’m glad you brought up language!!!! It’s really something that’s been on my mind ever since I came back from my Bukidnon trip with you hahahaha. Loooove the questions and love Elisa’s answers!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

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