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Annabelle Tometich on her memoir 'The Mango Tree'

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Annabelle Tometich's memoir, "The Mango Tree," begins with a sentence that is arresting in all ways. Let's ask the author to read it.

ANNABELLE TOMETICH: (Reading) Rows of orange people sit handcuffed in a beige room. One of them is my mother.

SIMON: Josefina, her formidable mother, is at the heart of "The Mango Tree." She's been arrested and charged with shooting a BB gun at a man she says was stealing mangoes from her tree in the yard. Her daughter recalls growing up in a mixed Filipino American household in Florida, roiled by loss, regret, love and sometimes frightening anger. Annabelle Tometich was a longtime writer for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., where she joins us. Thanks so much for being with us.

TOMETICH: Thank you so much for having me. I'm thrilled.

SIMON: Tell us about your parents.

TOMETICH: (Laughter) Where do I start? Yeah, my mother is from the Philippines. She was born in San Andres Bukid in Metro Manila, so she was a city girl. My father is a white guy from Falmouth, Mass., and I'm their byproduct.

SIMON: Your mother kind of had a life plan, and your father, not so much. What do you think brought them together?

TOMETICH: I mean, happenstance. My mother came over when she graduated from nursing school in the Philippines, which is a very traditional route for many Filipinos to get to the United States. She had a choice. She was top of her class. She could go wherever she wanted to go, and she chose South Florida, because she didn't want to be cold. And they met in the hospital. My mother was an RN, and my dad was an orderly at the time. My mom needed a green card. I think she also loved my father to some extent. And my father was in his late 20s and ready to settle down.

SIMON: Well, you invoke the word love, but there was violence too, wasn't there?

TOMETICH: Yes, yes.

SIMON: Well, can I get you to talk about that?

TOMETICH: I mean, it's funny 'cause, you know, growing up, you don't think that your house is all that different, right? Like, I just thought, like, parents fight. And it took a while to realize, oh, like, this is not how everybody lives. Not everybody's parents scream like that every single night. Not everybody's parents slam each other into the walls. And that realization - once that clicked, it was, you know, kind of that next part of the book where, like, we are so not normal at all. Like, not only aren't we white - you know, we're half-brown Filipino people - but we're also not normal in the fact that, you know, our house is getting kind of torn up every few nights in these kind of massive fights that my parents had.

SIMON: Boy, I got to ask you about your father. When you were 9, your father died. There's some disagreement in the family as to whether it was an accident or his own hand. But, boy, the circumstances are unusual, aren't they? I wonder how you put that together when you were young.

TOMETICH: Yeah. It was, you know, in this already - I think at that age I was starting to understand. I had friends, who I would go to their houses and realize that their parents didn't interact the way my parents did. And then my dad goes and dies. And, you know, it was just one more thing in my head of, like, why can't we just be normal?

SIMON: What kind of shadow does that put on a young life?

TOMETICH: That's a question I'm still figuring out, Scott (laughter).

SIMON: I mean, is that part of why you wrote the book - to figure it out?

TOMETICH: Oh, for sure, yeah. And just to not forget, you know? I mean, I was 9 when my father died. My little sister was 5. Our brother was 9 months old. So a big part of that was just kind of, like, recreating my dad to the best of my ability, just so they could kind of get a sense of who he was.

SIMON: What an enormous responsibility for your siblings.

TOMETICH: Oh, yeah. They were the people I was most worried about reading the book. Everyone has asked, you know, has your mother read it? Has your mother read it? Unfortunately, our mother is - her health is not well. She has vascular dementia, and I don't think she could physically read the book, nor does she seem to care to. She thinks it's very funny that I wrote a book, but she doesn't seem to care what's in it, which maybe is a blessing. But my sister and brother - I was very concerned about if I did justice to this - you know, this collective family story of ours. Honestly, I was worried that they would think I took it too easy on our mom.

SIMON: Well, when you talk about possible anger at your mother, who I find incredibly formidable and charming and dynamic in the book, she also has - I don't want to finish the sentence for you - what we would now call an anger management problem.

TOMETICH: Yeah, yeah. My mother - I just feel like rage was, like, part of her. You know, when our mother was angry, that was definitely the version of her you didn't want to cross, you didn't want to be in the way of.

SIMON: You would find yourself in the direct line of fire.

TOMETICH: Right. And that was kind of the interesting thing of after our father died, we always thought that, you know, their fights were just what they did, you know, that that was like our mom and dad thing. And then I started to understand that that's actually just a Mom thing, that she's angry a lot. There's kind of a dark hole in my mom's childhood that I think that's where this rage comes from. I'm still curious what that full, bigger picture is, if we ever get to zoom in that close.

SIMON: Let's get back to "The Mango Tree."

TOMETICH: Yes.

SIMON: What did that mango tree mean to her?

TOMETICH: Oh, it's the big question (laughter). The book opens, after the first couple sentences that I read, in a courtroom. And, you know, my mother has just been arrested for using her BB gun to shoot at a man she claims was stealing mangoes. And the breaking news reporter from the newspaper where I'm working calls me and says, hey, is this your mom? And, you know, he says, you know, did your mom really shoot that guy over mangoes? And I wanted to be like, of course. You have no idea.

But, you know, I mean, the truth was that it was complicated. And the tree meant everything to her. Growing up in inner city Manila, that was her dream, was just to have a little bit of property and be able to grow her own fruits. And, you know, it took a 9,000-mile move and some pretty awful events, but she got that. And she was willing to defend it.

SIMON: When somebody grabbed a mango off of her tree, wasn't a matter of just taking a piece of fruit. It was a little more complicated than that.

TOMETICH: Exactly. Yeah, I think it's - it gets into issues of race and class and she herself never really fitting in and never being accepted in Fort Myers, Fla. And I think that was just, you know, the proverbial straw that broke her.

SIMON: Your powers of recall are extraordinary. I wonder what it was like to relive it.

TOMETICH: Yeah. Diving into these memories, there was times where it just kind of played out like a film in my mind. And, you know, it was almost like, OK, let's hit pause for a second and, like, sit with my childhood self for a little bit, which is weird but comforting, you know - just to kind of look at her and, you know, be like, it's all going to be OK.

SIMON: As you replayed that film in your mind to write the book, did you ever want to change the outcome of a scene?

TOMETICH: Yeah, right (laughter)? I don't know. I think the journalist in me says no. Like, it was what it was, you know? There's, like, a temptation to soften some edges and stuff, but I don't think you can change it.

SIMON: Annabelle Tometich's memoir, "The Mango Tree." Thank you so much for being with us.

TOMETICH: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF SVET STOYANOV'S "ROTATION 4") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.