Philippine past and present in two novels

LODESTAR - Danton Remoto - The Philippine Star

It is 1899 and the Americans are moving up north, in their colonization of the Philippines. Samkad lives in a tribe deep in the jungle and has never encountered anyone from outside his own tribe before. He’s about to become a man, and while he’s desperate to grow up, he’s worried that this will take him away from his best friend, Little Luki. However, Samkad’s world is about to change utterly. A strange man with white skin arrives in his village, and Samkad discovers Kinyo, the brother (a mirror image) he never knew he had. A brother who tells him of people called “Americans.” Americans who are bringing war, and burning, to Samkad’s homeland. The world, as Samkad knows it, is about to change.

This is the summary of Candy Gourlay’s novel, “Bone Talk,” a gripping young-adult novel that I had read before and recently re-read. I now live temporarily in Cebu City and found a copy of the Anvil Publishing local edition of the book at National Book Store. I promptly bought it so I could read again this wonderful novel. It was originally published by David Ficking Books in London.

“Bone Talk” has reaped the rewards it so richly deserves. It has received rapturous reviews and has been shortlisted for the prestigious Carnegie Medal and the Costa Book Award. The Costa Book Award judges called it “a powerful, complex and fascinating coming-of-age novel.” I first read the novel on the flight from Kuala Lumpur to Manila before the COVID-19 pandemic and was taken by its nifty narrative and well-drawn characters. It makes jabs at the American colonial enterprise and correctly touches the pulse upon which colonialism throbs.

Publishers’ Weekly wrote: “Touching upon timely subjects, such as cultural assimilation and prejudice, Gourlay writes with graphic frankness about the realities of war and violence (“I could feel the soft heat swiftly dissipating, turning the warm, living flesh into cold, unyielding meat... my knees were dripping. Blood”). Steeped in Filipino tradition, this richly historic coming-of-age novel shows readers a rare view of the Philippines on the brink of American colonization.”

The Book Trust notes that “Gourlay tells this brilliant adventure story from the point of view of a young Filipino boy from a time and place that most readers will know nothing about – and certainly from a previously unheard voice (most of what is written about the time is by Americans writing as tourists, anthropologists and conquerors).”

Samkad’s story is told so sensitively, so lightly and so truthfully that you are completely transported (heart in mouth) to another time and world – until Samkad’s concerns are your concerns and you’re with him every step of the way.”

Fiona Noble of The Bookseller, the Bible of the British publishing industry, noted: “A soulful coming-of-age story rich in Filipino myth and tradition, combined with a thrilling adventure of headhunters and invaders, asking powerful questions about community, colonialism and what it means to be a man.”

Sita Brahmachari, author of Artichoke Hearts, winner of the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize, points out the postcolonial lens of the novel: “Utterly engrossing. This sumptuously realized, age-old story of colonization transports in time, culture, landscape and history. It will lodge deep in the bone long after these pages have been turned.”

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I got my copy of Randy Ribay’s “Patron Saints of Nothing” from Gene Alcantara, whom I saw in London. I just made a visit to the University of Nottingham and dropped by London to see my friends. This excellent novel was nominated for a National Book Award and it comes from the imprint of Penguin Random House.

Ribay was born in the Philippines and raised in the Midwest. He is the author of After the Shot Drops and An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes. He earned his BA in English Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his Master’s Degree in Language and Literacy from Harvard Graduate School of Education. He currently teaches English and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The novel is a powerful coming-of-age story about grief, guilt and the risks a Filipino-American teenager takes to uncover the truth about his cousin’s murder. Jay Reguero plans to spend the last semester of his senior year playing video games before heading to the University of Michigan in the fall. But when he discovers that his Filipino cousin, Jun, was murdered as part of President Duterte’s war on drugs, and no one in the family wants to talk about what happened, Jay travels to the Philippines to find out the real story.

Hoping to uncover more about Jun and the events that led to his death, Jay is forced to face the many sides of his cousin before he can face the whole horrible truth – and the part he played in it. As gripping as it is lyrical, “Patron Saints of Nothing” is a page-turning portrayal of the struggle to reconcile faith, family and immigrant identity.

Ribay said in an interview at NPR’s Morning Edition that the novel is dedicated to people like him: “The Hyphenated,” he calls them. “The difficulty with a dual identity is just trying to figure out what does it mean to be more than one thing in a world where people want you to be one thing,” he says.

Ribay explores these feelings through the bloody war on drugs unleashed in the Philippines. Some estimates by human rights groups claim that more than 20,000 have been killed, while the official statistics of police show a lesser body count.

Does he feel qualified to write about Filipino characters since he didn’t grow up here? “I care about getting it right and I care about kind of representing things as accurately as I can… As well as getting sensitivity readers – I had several Filipinos read through it and kind of give me their take on whether I was portraying things accurately. ... I went [to the Philippines] and visited some of the places that I mentioned in the story just to make sure factually that those places were accurately presented.”

Both Gourlay and Ribay did thorough research before they wrote their novels dealing with colonialism and the drug war. Filipino – and global – readers should read these excellent works.

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Email: [email protected]

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