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Han Ong on Slippery Professional Boundaries

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Han Ong on Slippery Professional Boundaries

Your story “The Monkey Who Speaks” revolves around the relationship between an old man and the home health aide who works for him. The story ends during the COVID-19 pandemic. Was it inspired by the pandemic?

Photograph courtesy Han Ong

No, with an asterisk, which I’ll explain.

Being from the Philippines, I’ve wanted for some time to write about an industry where Filipinos are well represented, even overrepresented. Enter the nursing and home-health-aide professions. Chances are, if you or your family have the means, you’ll have intimate relationships with a Filipina at two critical stages in your life: with a nanny, when you’re a child, and with a nurse or a home health aide, as a senior citizen. Both are hands-on jobs, where the professional can’t help but bleed into the personal. I was interested in that slippery border. Now, having decided to write a story about a health aide, a story set in the present, I may have been naïve to think that I could skirt, at the very least, mentioning the current pandemic.

Also, as writers, we are testing our stories one sentence at a time, experimentally setting down a plot point or a pivot in time, knowing that we have the luxury of the backspace key: erase, and start over. But, as soon as I wrote this sentence, I knew there was no turning back: “So the virus is here, obliterating swathes of work and also the meaning of work.” Both the sound and the sense of that sentence were, to me, incontrovertible.

There are many disparities between Roscoe, a wealthy inventor with a country house, and Flavia, who has immigrated to New York from the Philippines—age, wealth, race, and more. What makes them connect? And what keeps them from having a deeper connection?

I’m guessing that Flavia is not the first health aide Roscoe has employed. For whatever reason, he likes her the best, and she has worked for him for more than two years. I doubt that any of her predecessors lasted as long. Maybe it’s her good humor that Roscoe likes; maybe it’s her pliability, her anonymity as a person, aside from being his informal film student. Of course, there are boundaries. There are always boundaries. Where would we be without boundaries? I’m saying this both as a person within a circumscribed society, and also as a writer, who benefits from the tension, the paradox, the push-pull within a relationship like the one between Roscoe and Flavia. It’s fascinating to think about how you can husband your emotions in an exchange that involves, as the story puts it, “emotional outlay,” how to protect and not overextend yourself.

There’s a third point in the triangle—Roscoe’s daughter, Veronica, who manages his relationship with Flavia and is, inadvertently, perhaps, responsible for ending it. She’s grateful for Flavia’s involvement with her father, but is she also jealous of it? How does she view Flavia?

I don’t know about jealousy. Veronica is scrupulously fair toward Flavia. She talks Flavia into quitting the nursing service she works for and becoming an independent contractor (thereby not splitting her pay with the agency), and she also gives Flavia a raise; and when she finds out that her father has taken advantage of Flavia’s time without compensation, Veronica is quick to make up for the offense.

These sentences, which Veronica addresses to Flavia, illustrate the full range of her relationship with Flavia: “And we’ll work with you. With your class schedule, within reason.” The generosity of allowing Flavia to attend college at the same time that she is taking care of Roscoe is followed by the immediate setting of boundaries with “within reason.”

Flavia doesn’t talk to anyone about her past, about “the great unhappiness, the familial rift that had catapulted her to this part of the world, a runaway, a refugee, of sorts.” You also don’t tell the reader about it. Why hold that information back?

But I do tell the reader about it, albeit in Flavia’s style, that is to say, stealthily, and withholding any emotion in the telling: she comes from a family that forbade the children to go to the movies. I mean, can you imagine—the oppression, the stifling atmosphere, the drive to keep the children infantilized? Also: her parents never talked about family history in front of the children. The withholding, the secrets! What do you think dinner-table conversation in a family like that consists of? I’d flee that family, too! Flavia only seems not to talk about her familial estrangement; in fact, she reveals these details in answer to questions that don’t, at first, appear to be too personal.

Why did you choose movies as a focal point for the plot?

Frequently, I will meet somebody, say, at a dinner, who mentions some obscure film actress in an art-house movie, but can’t remember her name. And I’ll say, “Are you speaking of Alida Valli?” They’ll say, “Yes,” then add, “My God, your brain!” And I’ll crack, “If only I could find some way to monetize all the useless film trivia I know!” Now it seems that I have. Which is a way to say that I have a bottomless well of film knowledge, and it’s about time I used it!

Trivia: For the Japanese film night that Roscoe hosts in his home, movie No. 1 is “Ugetsu,” directed by Kenji Mizoguchi. Movie No. 2 is Yasujiro Ozu’s silent film “I Was Born, But . . .” And the last movie of the evening is, of course, Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai”—in my opinion, the greatest movie ever made.

The Apichatpong Weerasethakul film “Tropical Malady” plays a kind of symbolic role in the story (and provides the title). Did you have it in mind when you started writing?

Speaking of great films . . . Along with the desire to write about a health worker, “Tropical Malady” was a lodestar when I began the story. I wanted to fold that movie into the narrative, but had no idea how to when I started writing. IMDb gives 2004 as the year the film was produced, but I believe it was released in New York—where I saw it—in 2005. I wrote the story drawing on only that initial viewing. The movie had that kind of staying power with me.