The Importance of Telling It as It Is

Featured Image: Aidan Un/The Philadelphia Inquirer

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Spoilers for Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay up ahead!

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This pandemic, I’ve been revisiting a lot of my favorite books from when I was a kid. I know I’m not alone in this pursuit: I guess we’re all holding on to remnants of our past to remind us that we’ve experienced better days and that they’re sure to come again soon despite our current situation. In the process, I’ve noticed that most of these books are centered around white, cisgender, able-bodied, conventionally attractive characters.

Their experiences obviously did not reflect my own and so I had to live vicariously through these people, which gave me false expectations of what my life should look like. I was terribly disappointed when I entered high-school and realized that throwing huge house parties when parents went out of town was not the norm. I also glamorized the idea of having detention, saw it as a creative epiphany in the making or a chance to meet my soulmate. I was alright with this, though. I saw these as things I was meant to aspire towards but never achieve, solely because I didn’t know nor think that there were any other options.

Thankfully, literature that featured minorities has taken center stage in recent years. With novels like Crazy Rich Asians and the To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before series, Asians were no longer confined to being the kid whose lunch money gets stolen or whose homework gets copied, no longer required to suffer first to be given a distinct voice. Despite this, I saw that Western media was still incredibly lacking in authentic Filipino coming-of-age stories. The closest I could get would be Fil-Am YouTubers, whose content eventually grew repetitive and annoyingly stereotypical. One can only watch a man imitate his immigrant mother by butchering the pronunciation of words and hurtling a slipper in his direction so many times.

I longed so badly to see a spot-on portrayal of my everyday life within the pages of a book. So when news about a mainstream young-adult novel tackling a distinctly Filipino issue as told by a Filipino author broke out, I was obviously over the moon. Patron Saints of Nothing revolves around Jay, a Filipino-American who finds himself traveling back to his homeland after the sudden and mysterious death of his cousin Jun. After much investigation and introspection, it is revealed that he was a victim of President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, his mission to eradicate all addicts through extrajudicial killings.

The mere fact that author Randy Ribay even considered creating this was already groundbreaking in itself: it was the first known attempt of any author to bring the incompetence and abuses of the current administration, as well as our country’s rampant drug problem, to light. And so I waited (im)patiently for its release until I managed to get my hands on a copy when I was vacationing in the States, long before it would hit stands back home. Sadly, it failed to live up to my expectations.

In fact, I found it rather strange that it garnered so much critical acclaim, with most of the praise unsurprisingly coming from outsiders with no firsthand experience of what it’s like to live in Duterte’s Philippines. Most reviews called it an accurate, touching, and gripping portrayal of an issue that doesn’t get enough media coverage: this reads more like a game of Two Truths, One Lie to me. I had a couple of stylistic issues with it from the beginning — very often, there would be lengthy paragraphs so dense with information, they felt like copy-pasted snippets of several articles about the issue. The voice of the protagonist was inconsistent as well, with Jay poetically describing the visual elements of his surroundings in one paragraph then proceeding to speak about how talking to his dad on the phone reminds him of a goat he saw on an episode of reality TV. And don’t even get me started on the completely unnecessary romance that bordered on emotional cheating.

But perhaps what I was most frustrated with is that in his attempt to cover so many facets of Philippine culture (American colonialism and local folklore included) and cram them in a digestible number of pages, he merely glossed over the subject of substance use and abuse. He chose to take on this issue without acknowledging that it is as multi-layered as it is relevant, thus tackling it without giving it the treatment it deserved and getting to the root of the problem: poverty.

Drug addiction in the Philippines finds its roots in the wide disparity in the living conditions of those in positions of power and the people they are meant to serve. Our government is deeply entrenched in corruption: it is somewhat an unspoken truth that most officials — from presidents all the way down to barangay captains — end up pocketing insane amounts of wealth allotted for projects at some point of their political careers. Because this greed comes before the welfare of their constituents, a lot of societal ills are left untreated: we have yet to implement a functional public transport system, our health services are not streamlined across the country and our unemployment rate is at an all-time high. Our society has become inextricable from the tentacles of poverty, so much so that sustainable economic growth remains an elusive concept. The problems that greet politicians at the start of their terms are the same ones bidding them goodbye when it’s time for them to step down and hand over the throne to someone else.

Because of this lack of access to services, opportunities, and support, those at the lowest rungs of society are most affected by this display of poor governance. Often times, they end up turning to the strange kind of comfort induced by narcotics. Drugs help them get by, even cope with their tragic and even traumatic circumstances: for example, shabuor what is touted as “the poor man’s cocaine” — is known as a hunger suppressant. It is much easier to gain access to kilograms of this than to buy actual nutritious food on the daily. The same goes for street children often seen with plastic bags of rugby in hand: by taking a whiff of the aromatic solvent, their problems are momentarily out of the picture and life isn’t as hard as it seems. At the end of the day, they are stuck in a merciless trap where they can never emerge as the winner. If they get caught up in drugs, they will eventually die due to overdose, rot in a prison cell, or be hunted down by a vigilante. But if they don’t, starvation and disease could get to them first.

In fact, the government is partially to blame for the burgeoning drug industry in the country: corrupt officials grant the entry of huge drug shipments from big-time cartels, most probably in exchange for large sums of money. Maybe the reason why they’re so quick to condemn anyone who falls into the trap of abuse is so they can cover up their complicity in the crime. Sure, drug addicts commit their own fair share of both petty and heinous crimes, some of which are done simply to fund their addiction. This served as the very impetus behind Duterte’s campaign to kill them, no questions asked. I am fully aware that these cannot be excused and if a loved one fell victim to one of them, I doubt I could find it in my heart to ever forgive them. But this doesn’t erase the fact that at the end of the day, they remain victims of a system that benefits from their destitution, a system that would rather have them killed before they could be given the chance to reform.

Because of the book’s rather myopic view of the whole situation, Jay is left with a surface-level understanding of the issue that plagues our country. We are guided through his elaborate, unnecessarily long thought process, where he tries to reconcile the Jun he knew from scattered childhood interactions and exchanged letters he didn’t even bother answering, with the criminal he is made out to be. I wanted Jay to spend less time trying to convince the reader that his cousin was not a user or a pusher, and more time emphasizing that even if he was, he shouldn’t have been killed. That even if he was, there must have been deeper reasons as to why he turned to substance abuse. That even if he was, there would have been a way to get out of it, that it wasn’t the end of the road for him.

It’s clear Ribay wrote this with the intention of giving a voice to Fil-Ams around the world, as well as educating foreigners on our national situation — these are good intentions, and he has succeeded on those grounds. But issues of this complexity cannot afford a mere briefer, a half-hearted attempt, a simple laying down of facts.

As for me, the search for an authentically Filipino young-adult novel that captures my own lived experience as well as the issues that define my generation is still on.

I want to see the youth of my country — people who actually look and speak and act and think like me and my friends — living their lives, solving their problems, making sense of the national situation, growing dissatisfied by what they realize, and revolting against it. I want them to be an active catalyst for change, people who don’t just willingly comply with what’s given to them but actively question the system and put in the work to make the Philippines a better place. I want to see them dethrone the dictator in power too! Even if it sounds daunting in real life, at least we’ll have the satisfaction of doing it on paper.

I want to see a group of students from a top university unintentionally get tangled in a murder mystery, with a professor accused of sexual harassment as the primary suspect. I want to see a Lumad teacher struggle to give her students the education they deserve even after the government red-tags them and proceeds to shut down their school. Heck, I’d pay to see a celebrity trapped in a love team they don’t want to be in yet can’t get out of because of the impositions of their rabid fanbase. I want the nitty-gritty of everything they’re going through and why that came to be.

I want as many iterations of the Filipino reality written about, deemed for publication, mass-produced, critiqued in high-brow publications, dissected then discussed lengthily in book clubs, deeply embedded in the brains of readers around the world — so much so that it compels them to take action. Because this is the very reaction we deserve. Because we deserve to be the protagonists of our own stories.