“The biggest misconception of all in books is that we don’t exist,” says Randy Ribay.
By “we,” the 35-year-old author is talking about mixed race characters in literature—characters who are like him. “I’m here to tell you that we do exist. People of mixed races exist,” he emphasizes in a video for Writing in the Margins. “It wasn’t even until 2000 that the census allowed people to select more than one race. That year, about 6.8 million people did. Then in 2010, nine million did. I think we’re growing, and I think more of us are out there.”
Other books written by Filipino authors:
Ribay was born in the Philippines to a Filipino father and an American mother. He had what he defines as a “multicultural experience” growing up in suburban Michigan and Colorado. “I lived a very suburban lifestyle in a mostly white school. At the same time, we ate rice and Filipino food for most meals,” he shares. “We would go to parties of Filipino families we barely even knew on the weekends. I played in a Filipino basketball association in Detroit while growing up.”
He says these experiences are what set him apart, and because of this he always felt like an outsider. “I didn’t really identify as a Filipino growing up. It wasn’t really until college that I did, and then even then it kinda felt a little fake to say that I was Filipino because there’s this whole other half of me that I was ignoring when I said it. And so it wasn’t really until the last few years that I started to embrace that multi-cultural identity, coming from different worlds and being part of different worlds.”
A high school teacher, Ribay is a big believer in diversity in literature—especially for authors who aim to write for a younger audience. “People will come to terms with this multi-cultural identity when they see themselves in books more. Children in children’s books. Young adults in young adult books,” he says. “The more you understand who you are and where you’re coming from. The better, the more confident person you will become.”
Saints and sinners
The author pulls from his multicultural background once more for his latest novel, Patron Saints of Nothing, which is published by Penguin Young Readers Group. A powerful coming-of-age tale, the book is winning raves from both peers and the reading public. Ribay traveled to the Philippines and spoke to everyone from activists and journalists to his own relatives living here to be able to paint an accurate backdrop for the novel.
Patron Saints revolves around Fil-am high school senior Jay Reguero, who learns of his favorite cousin Jun’s mysterious death. Perplexed by his family’s silence over what happened, he travels to the Philippines to find out the truth, and comes face-to-face with a seething mass of grief, guilt, and faith all enveloped in a bloody drug war.
“I can’t stop thinking about this beautiful book that left me in tears,” says Alex and Eliza author Melissa De La Cruz. “A searing, soul-searching novel about grief and identity. This book makes me proud to be Filipino-American.” Fellow Fil-am author Erin Entrada Kelly agrees, calling it a must-read for exploring “race, class, identity, and truth in a world that few readers have experienced.” It’s an Amazon Best Book of the Year So Far, and on the bookselling site, the page of Patron Saints is dripping with praise. Just a few examples: "Brilliant, honest, and equal parts heartbreaking and soul-healing,” said Laurie Halse Anderson, author of SHOUT. "Powerful and courageous," raved Kirkus Reviews. "Deep, nuanced, and painfully real," wrote Booklist, starred review
Jason Reynolds, the New York Times bestselling author of Long Way Down, says that Ribay seamlessly takes the cultural texture of the Philippines, the complexities between ethnicity and nationality, political tensions and the propaganda that buttresses it, and “most importantly, teenage life, and weaves them all into a thick braid that asks on questions: what is the truth? And the necessity to know the truth—the fight it takes to find that truth—somehow gets right to the core of who young people are,” he says. “This is nothing short of a tremendous feat and will certainly solidify Ribay as a singular voice in the world of literature for years to come.”
A better world
Ribay cannot stress enough the importance of seeing oneself in published works. “I think when you don’t see yourself you feel alone. When you feel alone you feel inadequate, you feel like you need to change who you are to be like other people that you do see in those books around you. That can be really damaging, I think.”
On the other hand, he says that when you do see characters who look like you who have similar experiences, it makes you feel connected, and that you are good enough. “Seeing those characters navigate their world, it can actually help you navigate your own experiences. Not that you will necessarily do what they do. But it might inform the way that you act, the way you respond to things that happen to you in a way that might not otherwise happen.”
Ribay says diversity in literature should exist because we need to see other people realize we are not the center of the universe. “Fiction specifically gives us that chance to experience life as somebody else experiences it. It helps us see what they go through. The more characters you read about, the more diverse experiences you read about, the thousands of lives you end up living.”
In doing so, it develops something the world needs in unlimited supply, especially in the past few years. “When you are forced to see the world through another character’s eyes, one who is different from yourself, you come to understand what they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. And then it opens up that world to you,” he explains. “And when you add that up, the domino effect, the snowball effect, you end up with a much better world when more people read more diverse fiction, don’t you think?”