During Yallwest earlier this year, we got to speak to author Randy Ribay about his book PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING, which centers on a Filipino-American teenager who goes back to the Philippines to seek answers as to why his cousin was killed. We also get to talk to him about what it’s like to be a biracial Filipino-American.
How did Patron Saints of Nothing come about?
I’m a Filipino-American and I was born in the Philippines but grew up primarily in the United States, and since I have that connection, I kind of keep my eye on the news and what’s going on in the Philippines, and of course, 2016 rolled around, [Rodrigo] Duterte was running for president and started hearing his rhetoric about the drug war and what he was going to do, so I was paying attention to that. And after he got elected and started carrying out those plans, I was just thinking about it a lot, and my initial impression, my initial judgment was, this is very clearly wrong. Right? It’s a violation of human rights, it’s abuse of power, it is — the Philippine Constitution guarantees right of due process. But then I was kind of shocked, because a lot of my — pretty much all of my Filipino relatives were supportive of the policy and supportive of the president. And so then I started to like take a step back and be like, well, as a Filipino-American who hasn’t lived in the Philippines since, like, the time I was a baby, what right do I have to hold that opinion?
And so I created Jay, who kind of is somebody who has a similar question. And then plot-wise, what happens to Jay is something that forces him to confront that question. Rather than being something happening on the other side of the world, it was very personal. It affected his family, it affected somebody that he loved in his family, and so it kind of forced him to actually think about that question and deal with that question. And by the end of the book, I think he comes out the other side with a much more confident answer than he started the story with. And for me, it was kind of an exploration of that question as well.
Did you have to do a lot of studying as far as writing the book? Dealing with the politics and stuff like that? How much did you have to study into that?
I think it’s like a combination of just — so, I go back to the Philippines every now and then, and so a lot of stuff is kind of taken from my own memories in terms of the setting and the family members and the main character and everything like that. But when it came to the drug war stuff, I had to do my research. I had to read articles, follow up on things, I spoke to a journalist over there who did some pretty serious work. And got her opinion, and kind of got behind-the-scenes kind of stuff from her point of view. Then when I was doing the final round of edits, I went to the Philippines and spent some time there and researching the place a little bit more and making sure that things I had mentioned in the book were accurate. Double checking a lot of that. And then on top of that, I had a few Filipino sensitivity readers to just kind of make sure that the way I was representing things was accurate and not offensive or ignorant, because that can happen as somebody who doesn’t grow up there. You kind of have these gaps of knowledge or you grow up with these things you think you know that are just wrong, right? Sometimes there’s foods, right? There’s Filipino foods that my family called something, but nobody else’s family called it that. So, it was kind of just double checking on some of that stuff.
So, I’m not the only one! (laughs) Because my mom says this is called that, but then nobody ever says these words, and then you go to certain Filipino restaurants and they have the same dish, but it’s something else named entirely different.
Yeah, and a lot of it’s regional, too. My dad uses terms for things from his region of the Philippines and sometimes I’m talking to other people, and we’re talking about the same thing but it’s like different [names] because he’s from a different region than wherever that person is from.
Obviously President Duterte’s war on drugs had major influence over the book, but did the socio-political climate in the states have any influence as well? ‘Cause I know that Trump was kind of in the same boat as Duterte and they agreed on a lot of stuff.
Yeah, I think for sure. I think a lot of artists, after the 2016 election, were like, y’know, I need to put something out into the world that’s maybe going to fight against some of those ideologies that are trying to dehumanize people, because to me, that’s ultimately what the drug war is about. It’s about dehumanizing the poor, it’s about dehumanizing people who are struggling with addiction, and what I’m trying to do a lot in the story is humanize somebody. It’s not about somebody leading a revolution to change their society, it’s about one person kind of struggling with what happened to one person that he loved as a family member. And just at that very, very micro level in a way that connects to the macro of trying to bring that humanity back to it. Not just these numbers that stack up.
Not very many teens are familiar with Filipino culture. What do you hope they can learn about the culture from reading your book?
I think just the deep love for family. It may not always be expressed or carried out in a great way, but that it’s there and I hope that they see that. And I hope that the Filipino-American readers kind of see — feel validation in who they are, and not really feel this need — people are going to struggle with the idea that, like ‘Am I Filipino enough.’ The answer’s yes! However Filipino you are, you’re Filipino enough. There’s no litmus test for how Filipino you are. But it is natural to have those feelings and kind of struggle with that, especially as someone who’s biracial, and my main character is biracial as well, you struggle with that a little bit more. But I hope somebody’s who biracial or somebody’s who’s Filipino-American kind of comes out the other end having thought through who they are a little bit more, and I hope they come out the end feeling more confident about who they are.
Growing up here in the states, did you experience a lot of that prejudice as far as being biracial?
The prejudice that I faced was a lot less overt, and a lot more just kind of like being the only person in the room who had the ethnic makeup that I had. When I was growing up, the question that I got all the time was ‘what are you?’ Because I’m not, clearly, white, I’m not, clearly, Filipino, and I was growing up, at the time, in the suburbs of Detroit and there were not that many Filipinos there. There were some, but not that many. I was like, one of two in my school, not counting my siblings. And so there was not this community for them to compare it to. Like, if you grew up in the Bay area or something, it’s kind of like, oh yeah. Filipino. But there wasn’t that context for people, so it like overt discrimination, but it was just kind of like this “othering” that I felt a lot growing up. Just not fully American – kind of that question over and over again – and it reminded me that I wasn’t fully American. I could never just like fit in to a room. And then when I was younger, going to the Philippines, like, I very clearly wasn’t fully Filipino, and kind of getting that question over there as well.
Do you speak Tagalog (national Filipino language)?
Like a toddler. When I was a child, the first language that I heard, the first language that I started to speak [was tagalog]. But then when I moved to the United States, when I was very young, my dad very much didn’t want us to have an accent, he knew that could set us back in the eyes of others, and so he spoke to us only in English. So that’s what I grew up with and only like the last several years, I’ve been working on learning Tagalog, and there’s improvement, but I think I’m at a toddler level right now. But it’s kind of a weird thing, though, because as I was writing this book, I was thinking about it more, and I was thinking like, maybe if I learned to speak it fluently, I will be fully Filipino, right? But then my family is from Bicol region, and they speak a different language there, and so Tagalog is not the language of my actual ancestors, per se. It’s the language of the group that was put in power after Spain left, or after the United States left. So, it’s kind of like this interesting layer of still a kind of colonialism, even in that mindset that ah, Tagalog is the Filipino language, when there are, like, over 170-something languages, and it’s like, yeah, I’m going to try to learn that, because it’s more commonly spoken, but learning a language is not going to make me feel more Filipino than it would otherwise.
Do you think that YA has been a more accepting community as far as like people who are not white to be able to write their stories and share it to the world? Do you think the YA community has opened the doors for that more than any others?
I don’t know how fully I can speak to that, because I do read adult literature, but I’m not like very heavily involved in that world. But I do think there’s been a great push from the YA community for this. I think part of it is just like, demographically, the generations that are coming up now. I think it was fairly recently actually that the majority of the children born, over 50%, were not white, so I think there’s that demographic shift that’s occurring, and I think it plays out a lot in YA, because that’s where we’re seeing it in the younger generations. And especially right now, I’m 35, I think a lot of creators who are in that generation are the people that grew up not seeing themselves on the page, and now that we’re old enough, it’s kind of “Fuck that shit! I’m going to put myself in some of these stories.” And that’s happening, I think, on the screen, that’s happening in music, all that stuff that we didn’t see when we were growing up. That generation is now coming of age and creating that art.
What books and authors have been influential in your writing process and in growing up?
A big one for me when I was in college, which was the first time I had read anything by a Filipino-American was the poet Patrick Rosal. He has two books of poetry out, but I remember reading that for the first time and that just blew my mind, he has beautiful poetry, and I actually used a snippet from one of his poems as the epigraph for Patron Saints of Nothing. It’s kind of like a nod to someone who helped me find my way into it. But I think beyond that, a lot of black writers, a lot of Hispanic writers, people who were like writing in the margins, writing in the other, that were like more represented than Filipino writers. Even now, there’s progress, but there’s still only a handful of us out there that are getting published by major publishing houses. And so a lot of times when I was looking for non-white literature, I was turning to James Baldwin, right? Or I was turning to Haruki Murakami, or Salmon Rushdie, or Alice Walker, or June Jordan. Sandra Cisneros.
All of those authors who are writing about the other experience in America that I can identify strongly with, from my experiences growing up.
What kind of message would you send out to those who are not sure of what their identity is, as far as growing up biracial? What would you say to inspire them?
I would say, you need to go through the struggle. Like you need to wrestle with that, you need to feel the pain, you need to think about it. I think you come out of that struggle with a stronger sense of who you are. It’s easy to avodl that struggle, especially if nothing happens particularly in your life to make you deal with it.
If you take the time to think about it, to talk to your family, kind of learn about their history, ready stories out there that kind of reflect your heritage. Watch movies that reflect your heritage. Try to learn that language.
Like I said earlier, I don’t think any of this stuff more Filipino or more whatever, but I think it helps you figure out who are you exactly, and that’s the thing that you can only figure out by struggling with it.
What would you recommend as a dish to those who have not experienced FIlipino dishes, not including lumpia, which is already very popular and familiar, but is there anything that you would recommend as far as like food goes, cause we [Filipinos] are a food culture?
Yeah, I would just recommend some tapsilog, which is just egg and rice and beef tapas with like a very — I don’t know what’s in the marinade, I forget. But it’s a very staple, breakfast dish in the Philippines, and I just love it. My wife doesn’t really understand why I would eat rice with eggs, y’know, in the morning. But to me, it’s always kind of weird to eat eggs without any rice.
I was like eight when, for the first time I was at a friends house, I was staying over the night, and they served spaghetti, and I was like, where’s the rice? (laughs) And I remember, like, ah, not everyone has rice for every meal. It was this moment for me of understanding.
Patron Saints of Nothing is out now, and you can order your copy by going to any of the links below:
About the book:
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 reckon with 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.
About the author:
Randy 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.