The Marikit Magic: Author Chat with Caris Avendaño Cruz

The world has seen its fair share of magical girls — and to be completely honest? I think we need more. From the moment I first saw glimpses of this middle-grade novel featuring a Filipino magical girl in her trusty hand-sewn map dress setting off for an adventure in a world inspired by Filipino folkore, Marikit and the Ocean of Stars shot up to the top of my most anticipated reads for 2022.

Marikit’s story found me at the right time — this was the type of book my childhood self would’ve wanted to read, and this enduring story of familial bonds, magic, and self-identity is undoubtedly a love letter for every Filipino child and child-at-heart.

So, what’s this book all about?

A middle grade debut, inspired by Filipino folklore, about a ten-year-old girl who embarks on a quest in the world of gods and spirits to save her and her family from a sinister shadow god.

Marikit is used to wearing recycled clothes. Her mother, the best seamstress in the barrio, has become an expert at making do ever since Marikit’s father and brother were lost at sea. But for her tenth birthday, all Marikit wants is something new. So when her mother gifts her a patchwork dress stitched together with leftover scraps from her workshop, Marikit vows to never wear it. That is, until the eve of her birthday, when shadow creatures creep into their home, attempt to take Marikit away, and upend the very life she knew.

When she’s swept away from the human world, Marikit discovers that her dress is a map, one lovingly crafted to lead her to safety in the magical lands of the Engkantos. She trudges through the enchanted lands of mythical creatures, making friends out of monsters and challenging gods. With the help of her friends, including an exuberant firefly and a cursed boy, Marikit journeys through the land of the Engkantos to find the key to saving her family, all without being eaten alive.

I’ve had the honor of speaking with the author of this book and fellow magical girl enthusiast, Caris Avendaño Cruz, where we talk about the behind-the-scenes details and magic that went into creating the heart of Marikit’s story. Read on for more!

Please tell us about Marikit’s beginnings. What prompted you to write her story?

Marikit and the Ocean of Stars is my tribute to my favorite women in the world: my mom, and Inang — my grandmother. I grew up watching their beautiful bond; how they’d talk about everything under the sun while sitting in Inang’s old, floral-covered couches, or walking home from the market, arm in arm, sharing their recipes. We lived near Inang’s house, so we were there whenever she needs us to be. A big part of Marikit is my fond memories of that old house: the nostalgia of old pictures hanging on the walls, the sound of the creaking wooden floors, Inang’s sewing machine, the paneled Capiz windows that let the sun in whenever they’re fully opened, and Inang’s traditional décor on the shelves that I loved looking at.

How did Marikit and the Ocean of Stars transition from being an idea to being the first draft, and eventually into its final manuscript? What was the writing process like?

My original idea for Marikit was a treasure hunt; Marikit’s mother hands her a dress that bears a map only Marikit can decode, and this will lead her to a secret treasure. When her mother gets kidnapped, Marikit must find that treasure herself before someone else does. It’s a cool plot, isn’t it? Unfortunately, this didn’t come through.

I struggled with the first few chapters — some premises don’t really work the way we first wanted them to be. So I started playing around, inserting bits of magic here and there. I think the book liked it. The book chose its direction and it has become a joy to write since then. It’s so fun, weaving in our local folklore, sharing very Tagalog words — some less commonly used. By the time I was finished and ready to query, I looked at my manuscript and asked myself, “How Filipino do you want this to be?” (In this aspect, there are many glorious facets of being Filipino, and so I think this feeling came to me in the Filipino-ness I knew). I could remember thinking at that very moment that I had a possibility of a book in my hands, and perhaps my only chance to get published as an author, and I knew I had to give it my all.

Marikit’s world is set in the land of the Engkantos, and notably, they are one of the familiar figures along with other deities and creatures in Philippine mythology. With this, what was the worldbuilding process like and what kind of research did you undertake to flesh out Marikit’s world?

I started with the tales that I loved and remembered as a child — the scary Mangkukulams, the Tikbalangs that lurk behind thick, tall trees; and of course, the Aswangs. We grew up consuming iterations of these, from the thick books we’d read during our Filipino classes (do they still have those?) to teledramas and movies and comics. And can I forget the many times my older cousins scared the heck out of us by telling creepy stories?

I knew there was more to learn, so I began looking for sources. There were helpful sites online that gave me a headstart; I’m grateful to those who patiently compiled these precious stories and made them accessible for us to read. Then, I found books and anthologies that were treasure troves of lores and myths. I just love learning more about them! There is just so, so much to unravel and I hope our storytellers get the chance to
tell them.

Without giving any spoilers, what was your favorite part of the worldbuilding process of the book? And while we’re on the topic, could you share a childhood story featuring Filipino folklore that has stuck with you until now?

One of the pillars of Marikit’s enchanted world is an origin tale retold so many times: the story of Malakas and Maganda. Marikit’s version leans into the humor and the wonder of it, and I hope it brings you joy.

Funnily, this part of Marikit is inspired by the bamboo grove in front of our home. (That goes without saying, Marikit is inspired by that one word: home). When I was a kid, I used to stare at it through our window with a little tremble. I’ve always wondered if there were monsters in it. I mean, there could be! The bamboo stalks were dense and tall and could hide a Kapre. One day, when curiosity got the best of me, I decided to investigate (as far as investigating goes for an elementary kid). I walked close to the grove — slowly, carefully — but when I was within distance, I heard something. There were voices! Voices that talked and laughed inside the bamboo grove! I ran home as fast as I could and told my mom. And then, she answered, “Anak, those are people. There’s a small community behind that grove.” True enough, there was!

On Twitter, you’ve mentioned your love for magical girl series on there as well. How did you incorporate this love towards creating your own magical girl that is Marikit?

I was that kid who watched all the fantastic animes after school and on weekends, so writing a magical girl has been a dream. I think a lot of us went through that phase: when in a snap, we ordinary folk transform into someone braver, stronger, with a cool costume, and the ability to kick a monster’s butt. Stories like these moved Elementary Caris to aspire to be brave and to explore the different meanings of being pretty. I think Marikit is going through that phase, too — a dream of becoming more than who she is — little knowing that who she is is actually more than the magical girls she was dreaming of.

Illustration by Alexis Young

For you, what defines a ‘magical girl’?

The magical girls I grew up with had similar vibes: cutesy, gorgeously dressed, armed with powerful weapons, and above all, shiny — thanks to the glittery sparkles that surround them after their transformation. But, on very rare occasions, magical girls could also be running around in reformed clothes, old tsinelas, sundrenched disheveled hair, and an unexpected object in their hand that, if they only knew how to wield it, could stop their enemies and help save their friends.

Speaking of magical girls, what is/are some of your favorite magical girl series?

As your regular, anime-loving person, I’ll be shouting with my whole throat, Sailor Moon! I also adore CLAMP’s Magic Knight Rayearth, and even as a grownup, I still shoot my friends Cardcaptor Sakura memes. When it comes to books, I would like to point you to Julie Abe’s Eva Evergreen series, Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland, and Roshani Chokshi’s Pandava series!

Something a little fun: which magical girl/s do you think would get along best with Marikit?

I think Aru would make Marikit laugh—and hopefully rub off a little bit of spunk on her! I bet she’ll take Marikit on a trip to museums and explain more of India’s myths to her. While we’re at that, I wish Amari will also befriend Marikit! Both of them have brothers they admire, and I know they’ll share tips about vanquishing enemies that lurk in the dark.

If there is one thing you want readers to take away from Marikit and the Ocean of Stars, what would it be?

May we always remember that we have a life like stars, and I hope we shine bright in it.

Are there any projects we should look forward to?

I have another book coming from FSG BYR and I am grateful for another opportunity to let our colors and myths shine. Please watch out for it!

About the Author

May or may not be a 7,000-year-old spinster who lives in a small cottage hidden by overgrown Ipil-ipil trees, watching the world from her open windows while also waiting for cool air to pass by (it is very, very hot where she lives). She takes note of everything that happens and records them in a notebook whose pages never run out.

But really, truthfully, Caris Avendaño Cruz is a copywriter for awesome internet brands and cool businesses. Her favorite things to write, however, are magical stories led by kids of color. She lives in Bulacan, Philippines with her family of humorously named cats and a dog who loves to demand belly rubs. Marikit and the Ocean of Stars is her debut novel.

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Let’s Chat!

Have you read Marikit and the Ocean of Stars yet? Let me know what you think of it in the comments below!

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