A Portrait of a Nation

In all seriousness, I don’t know what saint I would be. St. Nothing I guess,” introspects Jun in his letter to his favorite cousin Jay who was residing in Michigan, United States. It was Jay’s favorite letter, chosen from a pile of letters he received from Jun but never found the time to respond to.

Seventeen-year old Jason “Jay” Reguero’s family migrated from the Philippines to fulfill the proverbial American Dream. Born in a progressive middle-class home, his future was cast in stone. He lived the typical American teenage life – the predictable cycle of home, video games, school with some distraction on the side. But with his senior high school graduation looming, it is imperative to pursue a lucrative college course in a prominent university just like his older brother Chris.

Jay’s gently sailing life would soon be rocked by a devastating news from the Philippines. Just when he planned to spend his spring break playing video games with his best friend, he learned that his cousin Jun fell prey to President Duterte’s infamous campaign against illegal drugs. However, something doesn’t add up. Jay’s memory of his same-aged cousin was in stark dichotomy to the fate that befell him.

Jay remembered Jun as soft and kind-hearted, an old soul that would one never accuse of being involved in any illicit trade. Adding insult to the injury is Jun’s family’s reluctance to talk about it openly. To uncover the truth and to restore some semblance of dignity to his fallen cousin’s memory, Jay flew to the Philippines. Or perhaps this trip is to apply balm on a wound of guilt that made Jay seething? As the ubiquitous phrase goes, truth is stranger than fiction.

“None of us are just one thing, I guess. None of us. We all have the terrible and amazing power to hurt and help, to harm and heal. We all do both throughout our lives. That’s the way it is. I suppose we just go on and do the best we can and try to do more good than bad using our time in Earth.” ~ Randy Ribay, Patron Saints of Nothing

Rodrigo Duterte’s populist campaign against illegal drug skyrocketed him to the highest position in the Philippines. Promising to solve the country’s drug problem in six months, he has earned the admiration of his countrymen. But as one person after another turns dead after dark, the drug war drew the ire of the world, especially amongst human rights advocates. It reached the highest level of irony when policeman shot a young teenager, Kian De Los Santos, dead, citing that he resisted arrest, or in local parlance, “nanlaban.” CCTV footages, however, tell a different story – Kian was indiscriminately shot whilst pleading. Inevitably, Kian became the poster child for insurgents who have long been voicing their opposition against the notorious drug war. Kian’s, and several other victim’s stories inspired Philippine-born US-based author, Randy Ribay, in composing his latest work, Patron Saints of Nothing.

From being teenage victims of the Drug War, Jun’s and Kian’s lives diverge. Whilst Kian was stuck in the quagmires of poverty, living in the slams of Manila, Jun was the son of a prominent policemen who ranked highly in the law enforcement hierarchy, and living in the comforts of a home that ran air-conditioning units twenty-four hours a day. But even though Jun was a figment of Ribay’s playful imagination, he spoke in a tone that evokes sympathy but invites understanding as well.

Contrary to initial impressions, Patron Saints of Nothing goes beyond the drug war. At its core, it is a young adult novel, with the concerns of youth interwoven with the current Philippine atmosphere to produce a rich and stunning tapestry. The undertones of romance and infatuation gave the story an interesting side story, without wandering from the main theme. The interjection of homosexuality, homophobia and homosexual relationships also added a different complexion to the story.

“But it seems to me that maybe it is because there are so many problems in the world, many of which are out of control. People want to feel like they can do something, so they pray to saints. I can understand that. And even if there are not actual magical spirits listening and waiting to fulfill our wishes, maybe just the act of thinking about these things changes us in some way.” ~ Randy Ribay, Patron Saints of Nothing

Ribay, at heart a Filipino, couldn’t resist drawing a portrait of the Philippines, its people, culture, and social mores. Ribay vividly and ably captured his countrymen’s love for karaoke and music, their respect for the elderly, and their art of courtship – particularly of the Kundiman. Filipinos also place an unhealthy value on education, that studying in a prominent university is the only means of getting to a decent station in life. Art courses are frowned upon. These small ventures into Filipino culture gave readers deeper insights of the country. It provided a credible backdrop to a promising story.

A portrait of the Philippines wouldn’t be complete without its rough fringes. In an uncanny but subtle manner, Ribay highlighted several of the country’s major concerns. He underlined the country’s vicious view on the media and journalism. When Mia was asked by Jay why she chose to take journalism, she answered that she was inspired by the Maguindanao Massacre that happened in 2009. A political candidate’s convoy was gunned down by his prospective opponent’s private army. Amongst those who perished where thirty-two journalists. To cover their track, the murderers tried burying the murdered in a mass grave.

Destitution, child trafficking and prostitution are heavy and dark themes that Ribay underlined in his work. These unending problems were belied by the Philippine’s sense of resilience. They may be hampered by different challenges, but Filipinos remain high-spirited. As depicted by Ribay, Filipinos have strong family values, a passion for basketball and a generally happy disposition. Philippines is beset by many social and political issues, but it remains to be a nation of optimists. Ribay’s commitment to portray a nation he once left behind – both its bright and dark sides – was relentless.

Patron Saints of Nothing was reeking of allegories. One major allegory is Tito Maning, Jun’s father. He represented many of the Filipino’s toxic traits. He is the epitome of the Filipino’s false sense of nationalism, that a true Filipino will never exchange his nationality for an “American Dream” or any kind of dream that drives him away from his birthplace. His veneer shows a religious man but, ironically, he supports the Drug War as though it will solve all that ails the nation. Like most close-minded individuals, he possesses a pervasive and toxic view of masculinity.

“It strikes me that I cannot claim this country’s serene coves and sun-soaked beaches without also claiming its poverty, its problems, its history. To say that any aspect of it is part of me is to say that all of it is part of me.” ~ Randy Ribay, Patron Saints of Nothing

However, the biggest allegory lies in the book’s title itself. President Duterte, big-mouthed and vocal, was heard many times lambasting the Catholic Church. One time, he even mentioned that people can forget about the Church and pay homage to him instead. He was later, either literally or farcically, referred to as “Poon”, or God by both his fanatics and his critics.

Another important layer to the narrative that gave further substance to the story is the unending search for one’s identity. This was portrayed mainly through Jay, who, at the start of the story, was unsure on how to proceed with his future. However, after his transformational experience in the Philippines, he unlocked a die to his persona that he never expected to exist. His development through as the narrative progressed was one of the novel’s better facets. In an empowering concluding remark, Jay broke expectations of his parents:

“All my life, I assumed I’d graduate, go to college, and then get a job. But I realized I don’t have to follow that path. I mean, what’s the point if I don’t understand why I’m doing it beyond the fact it’s what I’m supposed to do? We have one life so we should live it in a way that makes sense to us.”

By presenting his story as a young adult fiction, Ribay spoke to a wider range of audience. In retrospect, he gave voice to believable characters in Jay and Jun. The story’s upbeat tempo ensured that the reader’s attention stays riveted to the story. His story flowed in diaphanously. Ribay wrote about a complex subject effortlessly and in a straightforward manner. He managed to avoid the hole of over sensationalizing the main subject. He did a credible job of portraying the Drug War by balancing the discussions and the discourses. He stayed simple and direct to the point.

“I am not truly Filipino, so I don’t understand the Philippines. But isn’t this deeper than that, doesn’t this transcend nationality? Isn’t there some sense of right and wrong about how human beings should be treated that applies no matter where you live, no matter what language you speak?” ~ Randy Ribay, Patron Saints of Nothing

Multifaceted and multidimensional, Patron Saints of Nothing is more than just a work of fiction, It is a vivid depiction of a country – its colorful culture, its diverse traditions, and its hardworking people. Jun’s story and Jay’s growth made the narrative blossom. Ribay made slits for light of hope to seep through the dark and heavy theme. Tito Maning, in the end, showed a different side to him which proved that beyond his domineering façade, he has a softer side.

Tackling the Drug War was a challenge an ordinary writer would be daunted by. But Ribay never balked from this Herculean task. he came out with an exemplary novel. Whilst having teenagers as primary protagonists sounds a questionable choice, a Filipino reader wouldn’t miss the candid reference to the Philippine National Hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, who famously said, “Ang kabataan ang pag-asa ng bayan.” “The youth is indeed the hope of the motherland.”

Patron Saints of Nothing is, without skipping a beat, a towering achievement of fiction.

Ratings:

97%

Characters (30%) – 28%
Plot (30%)
 – 29%
Writing (25%) – 25%
Overall Impact (15%) – 15%

Book Specs

Author: Randy Ribay
Publisher:
Kokila
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 318
Genre: Young Adult Fiction, Asian Literature

Synopsis

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 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 truth – and the part he played in it.

As gripping as it is lyrical Patron Saints of Nothing is a riveting portrayal of the struggle to reconcile grief and guilt, faith and family.

About the Author

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(Picture from Goodreads) Randy Ribay was borin in the Philippines but was raised in the American Midwest.

He studied at the University of Colorado at Boulder, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Literature. He earned a Master’s Degree in Language and Literacy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

His first novel, An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes, was published in 2015. His second novel, After the Shot Drops was published in 2018 with his latest work, Patron Saints of Nothing, published a year later.

He is currently an English teacher at a private school in Palo Alto, California. He is also a reviewer for The Horn Books. He is currently residing in Stanford, California with his wife.