This Fil-Am YA novel takes on Duterte’s drug war

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Randy Ribay’s third book, “Patron Saints of Nothing,” is a harrowing story of a young Filipino-American returning to the Philippines after his cousin is brutally murdered in the wake of the drug war. Photo courtesy of PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — “Patron Saints of Nothing” might just be one of the few young adult (YA) books to have a brown Filipino boy on the cover, perhaps even the only one from a major publisher. It didn’t occur to me right away until author Randy Ribay pointed it out after we finished a brief chat before his talk at a coffee shop in Quezon City. The event is a bit low key, considering how rare a happenstance his book is: it is one of the first books published under Penguin’s newly launched young adult imprint Kokila; and that this already critically acclaimed book (it is already considered as one of the best YA novels of 2019 so far). Perhaps, it’s a bit understandable considering it touches on a controversial issue that affects both Filipinos and Filipino-Americans: President Duterte’s war on drugs.

“Patron Saints of Nothing” is Ribay’s third book and contains a few details that hew closer to his life. Like the book’s protagonist Jay, he is a Filipino-American who left the Philippines to immigrate to the U.S. The direct comparison stops at that, although bits and pieces of Ribay is scattered in many characters of the novel, particularly because of how he confronts the realities of the deadly drug war. You can see him in Jay, flying to the Philippines from his comfortable life in the U.S. to find more about the circumstances of the death of his cousin Jun, said to be a drug user — a mere notch in the casualty of the drug war. But he’s also in the menacing figure of Jun’s father, Tito Maning, a supporter of the current administration who offers a perspective of why the drug war, and by extension, Duterte’s policies, are still popular among many Filipinos.

In one of Jay’s confrontations with his uncle, Tito Maning says, “Our country’s history is full of invading foreigners who thought they knew us better than we knew ourselves. And many of us believed them over and over.” He frequently admonishes Jay as an outsider, looking to intrude on the country’s business, a country where he has only has set foot occasionally as a tourist, not someone who has to live in its reality unlike “real” Filipinos.

“For me there’s this guilt from being a part of a family that moved to the United States and doesn’t have to worry about the drug war,” says Ribay about this ‘outsider’ perspective as a Filipino-American. “I worry about my family who lives here, particularly my young male cousins who, demographically, fit the description of most of the victims of the drug war. I worry about anyone in the family who chooses to speak against the drug war. But there’s a guilt that I feel because I can write this book and I realize that as a Filipino-American, I am safer than a Filipino who would write a book like this. That I am protected to some extent of my citizenship as an American.”

Ribay adds: “I don’t know if that will ever go away [Laughs]. That guilt feels like it could always exist but I guess I try to use that to do something with it rather than feeling that guilt and be like 'Ah that’s too bad.' It’s a matter of realizing this privilege of safety so I can put this book out into the world, I can put it for other people to read and talk about and continue that conversation.”

Randy Ribay. Photo courtesy of PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE

“Patron Saints of Nothing” proves to be a gripping read. It may initially seem like a lot of things that we already know if you’re a Filipino who has followed the news (Ribay has said his main audience for the book is Filipino-Americans since he can only write from that perspective) but eventually, the book presents some uncomfortable truths and holds conversations that we are to have concerning the war on drugs, the supposed ‘collateral damage,’ and how complicated this issue is when it involves someone we love.

That this harrowing yet essential issue is tackled in a YA novel only heightens its impact even more, considering many of the drug war’s victims are as young as the novel’s lead characters. Young adult fiction is targeted for readers from 12 to 18 years old, which Ribay, a full-time high school teacher in the U.S., feels such a formative time to develop sensibilities for topics like this.

“That time of life is key because you’re learning who you are outside your family, on your own,” he says. “As you do that you start to become different from your family, you start to form your own opinions, and that’s what’s always been interesting to me. That’s the core of young adult literature: people are figuring themselves out, their racial identity, their sexuality, maybe their working, thinking about their socio-economic class. I think later in life there are certain things that can happen that can cause us to re-evaluate, a divorce or a death of somebody close to you but I think most people they become who they are as a teenager and they kind of stay that way.”

Ribay is part of a generation of Filipino-American writers who write for young readers. “There’s many of us now,” he says, listing authors such as Melissa De La Cruz, Rin Chupeco, Gail Villanueva, and Erin Entrada Kelly. Villanueva has also released a middle grade novel “My Fate According to the Butterfly,” which tackles the drug war.

I recently sat down with Ribay and discussed writing for younger readers, bringing complicated characters to life, and setting a scene against Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium.” Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

How did you decide that you’ll be writing about the drug war?

I’ve seen [the story of the drug war] in the news a lot. It was making a lot of headlines in the United States. Partially because the Philippine elections happened and the U.S. elections happened shortly after. A lot of people were drawing parallels between Duterte and Trump. And so that was coming up over and over. When I was reading those stories, my initial reactions [were] absolute rage, it was a violation of human rights, there’s no due process, there was so much room for abuse of power, so that was my snap judgement. But then I would see surveys that most Filipinos support these policies. It caused me to take a step back and be like, OK what right do I have as a Filipino-American to judge policies in the Philippines? And so that was kind of the starting question of the book.

A lot of times I work through these large questions I have with my fiction writing. So I created the character Jay and I created a situation where he had to think about the drug war. His cousin is killed and when he gets that news it becomes very personal and something that he can’t ignore anymore, he can’t let the headline fly past because he has an intense personal connection with it now. So as Jay works through that, that was essentially me working through that question as I was writing the story. As I came out the other end of it, I don’t think my opinion changed on the drug war at all. I think I have a more confident position now.

But as I was writing it, I definitely saw the need to sit back and listen and learn as much as possible first. I wanted to position Jay as a learner, I didn’t want him to go and be this American savior who’ll go and fix the Philippines [Laughs].

At the same time I realized that he might have that urge too. That’s an American individual thing, to go and be the hero. I wanted him to confront that as part of the story as well but ultimately, having him go him and be called out on that and be forced to listen to people and see what’s going on.

“There’s a guilt that I feel because I can write this book and I realize that as a Filipino-American, I am safer than a Filipino who would write a book like this. That I am protected to some extent of my citizenship as an American.”

Some people argue, at least online, that if you don’t live in the country, you don’t get to have a say in what’s happening, especially about the drug war. How did you confront that kind of thinking especially with your novel’s perspective?

I put that position in the story through Jay’s uncle. Coming out at the other end of it, one, you do need to learn first, you need to learn the facts, what’s going on, to hold that opinion, second of all, just kind of acknowledging that some people are always going to think that and [Laughs] you can’t do anything about that. You can’t change everyone’s minds who has that opinion. You’re going to have that opinion, that’s fine, here’s my opinion [Laughs].

I think if you are too close to something, you can have a different bias. But if you’re too far away, [you can form] a different bias. It’s like learning as much as you can to get these different perspectives and making up your own mind for it, not letting anyone tell you you can’t have this opinion because you don’t live here — you listen to that you acknowledge that. “Okay I don’t live there, what might I not know…” and then go out and try to learn that information.

There is also an undercurrent of guilt about not knowing enough about your Filipino heritage, something that Jay is confronted with from the moment he set foot in the Philippines. Was this guilt also something that you had to contend with being a Filipino-American?

I had to learn about Filipino heritage more as I grew up. It’s been an active learning process. Even now, I’m still working on my Tagalog. It’s not very good, I’m better at reading it than speaking it. But it’s something that when I was growing up, my parents didn’t speak to us in it because we moved to America, they didn’t think it was necessary, they didn’t want us to have accents I guess maybe seen rightfully so in a way that something that could hold us back in America. So it’s something that’s lost, language is lost.

We didn’t really live in areas with large Filipino populations so I was disconnected from the community in that way. But as I got older, I found that community in books, literature, online. That’s always been there but there’s always this guilt of having lost that piece and trying to reclaim it through self-education.

Photo courtesy of PENGUIN RANDOM HOUSE.

The novel is also rife with the ramifications of U.S. colonization, from the presence of billboards, even down to the pop songs that some of the characters listen to.

My dad met my mom, a white American, my dad’s a Bikolano, they met while he was attending the Air Force Academy. The military in the U.S. chooses one Filipino a year as part of the, 1903 the Pensionado Act, which sponsors Filipinos to go to the United States. So on the one hand, it’s the idea that without that colonial relationship, I would not exist. It’s that colonial program that allowed my dad to be educated in the United States and meet my mom. It’s a funny thing that I exist in between that colonial relationship between the two countries. I think the more history I study, the more I understand the lasting damage that colonialism has also cost: the depletion of resources, the dehumanization of Filipinos, the Filipinos that were brought over to the United States for the World’s Fair exhibit, like a human zoo.

Reading about pre-colonial Filipinos, a lot of times we’re not as binary as the Spanish patriarchy was, right? There was not as much distinctions between male and females, same-sex relationships, there was not that kind of judgement that existed until the Spanish brought it over. [Laughs] Light skinned is better, all that stuff. I still see that effect today, it’s still shocking to me, going to the drug store and the beauty product aisle and seeing all the whitening cream … that’s very shocking to me.

How far deep you think you can go when writing heavy topics for a young adult novel?

I think I will go as far as I want to go. Teenagers are not afraid of these things. It’s the adults who are afraid. Especially being a teacher, my students want to talk about these kinds of stuff. They want to talk about this very heavy, real topics because they’re important and they’re curious about them. They want to figure them out and learn them out, and discuss them. It’s oftentimes it’s the adults who say… ‘we can’t talk about that it’s too controversial…’ and I think we’re doing kids a massive disservice when we don’t have these kinds of conversations.

Schools, libraries, and other spaces should be a safe place where people can learn about these things and figure them out because we need to teach kids how to engage in different topics, not necessarily what to think about them but how do you think through it.

From a teacher’s perspective, you can look at this at a multiple angles depending on what subject you’re teaching but how do you learn about it? How do you have a good discussion? How do you listen actively? How to handle different opinions. I think when we shy away from those conversations, then kids aren’t learning. They become adults who don’t know how to talk about or learn about difficult conversations; they become adults who are afraid of their kids talking about [these topics]. It’s a cycle that goes on and on. So when I teach I try to bring in these important topics through the books that we study.

One of my favorite scenes in the book was the confrontation that took place between the protagonist and his pro-drug war uncle, while Juan Luna’s “Spoliarium” was in the background. How did you set on making that scene with such a pivotal work of Philippine history in the background?

It’s one of my favorite scenes. It’s a great painting. When I initially wrote it, I haven’t been to that museum yet. When I looked online, I just saw the pictures and saw some research on it. I thought it would be an interesting place to put that conversation. Putting it in the center of this history, right? As an author, one of the things I was taught was to use your setting in multiple ways, it’s not just a place where they are, it can also increase conflict. So for me putting that conversation in that place was meant to make Jay feel less insecure as possible because he’s having this very direct confrontation with his tito surrounded by the history of the Philippines which he’s overwhelmed by and knew so little of going into that. So for me it was a way to make him feel as small as possible [Laughs].

It’s a wide open space, a wide open painting, very violent, the gladiators being dragged from battle to being killed. A lot of what Tito Maning was saying in that conversation is coming from my own insecurities. I think if I want to write a character that feels true, feels real, there needs to be something of myself in them. So even though he holds opinions that are not my own, those are things that I am asking myself, all the time and even wondering about. So sometimes [ask] which character are you most like? People think it’s a cop out but all of them, there are all different pieces of me in these characters and Tito Maning has my insecurities [Laughs]. He’s kind of like the shadow self .

“As I was writing [the book], I definitely saw the need to sit back and listen and learn as much as possible first. I wanted to position Jay as a learner, I didn’t want him to go and be this American savior who’ll go and fix the Philippines.”

I didn’t realize that Jun and Jay almost share the same name until someone called Jay as Jun. How did you decide to draw parallels between them?

Yeah. They’re both three letters, they start with the letter J, I was very much trying to set that up to be almost foils of each other at a narrative level but also kind of like an alternate version of each other. I don’t know if Jay ever voices it in the novel, I don’t remember anymore [Laughs]. But the idea of if he didn’t move away, what would his life be like? And kind of almost looking at Jun’s life and wondering would that have been my life if I didn’t move away? They are almost the same age. And they had this connection by exchanging letters. Being this kind of dual representation of being Filipino/Filipino american, the disconnect, the initial connection and the growing disconnection and the attempt to reconnect.

Finally, the letters from Jun manifesting his anxiety, depression, and existential crisis. How did you set on creating such a character through those letters?

So when I initially wrote the book, in my first draft, it was all letters. [Laughs] I think I made it 30 or 40 pages in where it was written from the perspective of Jay, just like writing letters to his dead cousin. After that [I thought], ‘I don’t know if this really works.’ [Laughs]. It was hard to establish the immediacy of a narrative with just the letters. So I just decided to do a traditional first-person narration. But I still liked the idea of letters because I feel like there’s this openness, confessional tone that letters can strike.

Personally, I’m a lot more open in my writing. Even though Jun is dead at the start of the story, it gives him that voice that makes his character live. I wanted to humanize his character. For a lot of people, the drug war is an abstract thing. It’s a statistic, it’s something that they see in passing on a headline. So I wanted them to feel the humanity of a victim, of a specific victim. Having a character who’s already dead, that’s probably the best way I could have done him by just giving him his voice and I’m always interested in bringing in different voices. My first book had four different perspectives, my second book had two, so the letters were a way of giving him a voice and allowed him to tell his own story, and as well as allowing the reader to glean his emotional state as they progress throughout the story.

“Patron Saints of Nothing” is available at Fully Booked and Pandayan Bookshops.