MANILA -- “What are you?”
This is the one question that Filipino-American author Randy Ribay was asked the most growing up in the United States. Born in the Philippines to a Filipino father and an American mother, his family moved to Detroit when he was still a baby and would visit the country periodically.
Ribay's latest visit to Manila was for the launch of his new young adult novel "Patron Saints of Nothing," which was organized by Bookworms Unite PH.
Speaking to the audience comprised of book lovers and family members, Ribay explained why he dedicated his latest novel to people like him -- the hyphenates.
“There are a lot of us in the US, but we are very underrepresented when it comes to movies, TV shows, and books," he said, noting that this hyphenated identity is "something that is very unique but pretty confusing because you have a foot in both of these worlds, but at the same time, a lot of times you might not feel like you belong fully in either world.”
At first glance, readers might think the novel revolves around President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war, but upon closer inspection, the story is so much more personal. At its very heart, "Patron Saints of Nothing" is a deeply moving coming-of-age story of protagonist Jay, who goes on a journey halfway across the world to Manila to solve the mystery of his cousin’s death, and in the process comes to terms with his identity as a Filipino-American.
Ribay shared that just like Jay, he has always felt that he’s not fully American. He feels the same way about being Filipino because he doesn’t speak Tagalog well -- “Kaunti lang,” he said shyly to an amused crowd -- and he neither grew up nor lived here. He admits that it was kind of a “cool thing” belonging to these different worlds, but it can be very limiting and can create a lot of discomfort and insecurity.
This struggle with identity and the feeling of isolation form part of the cornerstone of "Patron Saints of Nothing," a novel he describes as something “I wish I had growing up.” As a young reader, Ribay did not have any stories on the Fil-Am experience; as a result it was difficult for him to figure out and reconcile what it means to be both Filipino and American and not entirely one or the other.
This is where the power of stories comes in. “Stories help us figure those kinds of questions out, they allow us to experience and think about them alongside someone else,” he said.
Stories as mirrors and windows
As a storyteller, he sees the need to put stories that matter out there. Ribay stressed the importance of getting his readers to think, read, learn, and ask questions about salient issues.
“Stories are interesting entry points into issues. Stories humanize the abstract. We are built to connect to each other and that’s the beautiful thing about stories, they build those connections. My position as a writer is to put stories that people can connect to and build empathy,” he explained.
Ribay shared that he sees stories as mirrors and windows. “We need to see ourselves in literature like mirrors, but we also need to see other’s windows or sliding glass doors that we can sort of walk through to connect. To grow up healthily a child needs to have both of those. If they don’t have windows their experiences are not validated and they think they might be alone in the world. If they only have mirrors, they would think that they are the only ones who matter in this world,” he said.
That’s why he wants his novel to act as a window into the Fil-Am experience and the Philippine drug war. He reiterates: “Reading fiction is an exercise in empathy. Stepping out of yourself and stepping into someone else’s story, even more so than you are with movies because there is nothing more direct than language.”
The teacher as writer
A full-time high school English teacher, Ribay spent a year in college as an Aerospace Engineering major. At the end of his freshman year, he shifted out to English Literature after taking an elective that “reminded me of just how much I loved stories, and studying stories and talking and thinking about them.”
After a few years into teaching he rediscovered his earlier passion for writing.
Ribay shares that working closely with teenagers as a teacher taught him how to respect them not just as students, but also as readers. “I’m familiar with all different kinds of kids. Having them in class, hearing their intelligence, their passion, their interest in the world and appreciating that. I think people who don’t work directly with teenagers tend to stereotype them and think that they don’t care about anything but phones,” he shared.
He intimated that in this age of social media, we can influence young people to read by writing books they would be interested in and can connect with. He also emphasized the need to give young readers the power to choose which books they will read.
“Unfortunately a lot of times the books that we make kids read in school end up causing them to hate reading. Sometimes we get hung up on the literary canon. Not to say there’s no value in those books, but YA books coming out today have a lot to offer,” Ribay said.
Going beyond the written word
Ribay admitted that he feels a sense of responsibility to the victims of the drug war and to the community he is writing about. “It always feels strange being congratulated on the book knowing it’s a story based on the deaths of thousands of people, knowing that it's ongoing. I feel the weight of the situation,” he said.
That’s why if he can, he tries to plug organizations like Rise Up for Life and for Rights in the Philippines and the US-based Malaya Movement.
And at the end of the day, he just wants “to present a story wherein hopefully somebody will feel seen and connected to and could help him feel less alone and help him navigate the world.”
"Patron Saints of Nothing" is available at Fully Booked and Pandayan Bookshop branches nationwide.