Young adult author Randy Ribay is Filipino American and says his latest book Patron Saints Of Nothing is dedicated to people like him: "The Hyphenated," he calls them. And not just Filipino Americans, Ribay tells NPR's Morning Edition, but also anyone else who would consider themselves more than one thing.
"The difficulty with a dual identity is just trying to figure out what does it mean to be more than one thing in a world where people want you to be one thing," he says.
Ribay explores these complex feelings through the lens of the bloody war on drugs that's been raging in the Philippines for the last three years.
Launched by President Rodrigo Duterte almost immediately after he was sworn into office in June 2016, the campaign has been heavily criticized for what human rights groups call extrajudicial killings. Some estimates by rights groups and opposing politicians say more than 20,000 have been killed, while the official statistics released by the Philippine police are much more conservative.
As the bodies of mainly poor people and low-level drug pushers pile up in the morgues and in the Philippine jails, the effectiveness of the crusade has been hotly debated (though Duterte remains popular.) It's a conversation that extends past shores of the Southeast Asian archipelago and extends to Filipinos, their families and descendants living abroad — including in the United States.
The Filipino American community's relationship with the drug war is complicated, and while Ribay says no one in his family has yet been affected by the violence, like many Filipinos who live in America, it's still on his mind.
"Ultimately the thing that draws me to the topic is fear for the people that I love," he says. "I do have a lot of family still in the Philippines and so whenever I think about this it's like: Could this happen to them?"
Additionally, Ribay wrestles with another question: Should he even be speaking or writing about this?
"I created [Patron Saints of Nothing], ultimately, as a way to confront that question: What's my role as a Filipino American who is at once connected, but also an outsider to what's happening in the Philippines," Ribay says.
He explores this question through the novel's main character, Jay, whose cousin is killed as part of the drug war. When Jay travels to the Philippines in an attempt to unravel the mystery of his cousin's death, Ribay says the teen must also face the realities about a place, a people and even a family he thought he knew.
It's a common immigrant experience, Ribay says.
"Once you leave [your country of origin] you have a different set of experiences and it's just a completely different realm," he says. "You can call people, you go back and visit every now and then, but it's not the same as living there."
On why he chose to write fiction about a very real war on drugs
As a Filipino American I'm always kind of keeping an eye on the news of what's happening in the Philippines. ... And so my initial reaction is that this is just a glaring human rights abuse, but it was kind of striking to me that most of my Filipino family — as well as, if you are to believe surveys — most Filipinos supported the drug war. And so I kind of had this moment where I was like, "Well, what right do I have to speak on this topic kind of as an outsider? As somebody who hasn't lived in the Philippines since I was a baby?"
On whether he feels qualified to write Filipino characters
That's a risk you take as a writer anytime you write something. I think it becomes especially poignant when it's a community that you care about deeply. Like I said, my intended audience is Filipino Americans, but then also Filipinos. And so I care about getting it right and I care about kind of representing things as accurately as I can. Of course, it's not an easy thing, right, because everyone has a different experience.
At my end it's kind of a matter of doing the research and trying to get the facts right. ... [And] considering how the differences between us might lead to different perspectives, and justify those different perspectives. As well as getting sensitivity readers — I had several Filipinos read through it and kind of give me their take on whether I was portraying things accurately. ... I went [to the Philippines] and visited some of the places that I mentioned in the story just to make sure factually that those places were accurately presented.
On what his main character's evolution says about the story of immigrants
I think it says that there is this connection, but if you are to foster that connection, [and] kind of make it something meaningful, there is this need to, one, acknowledge what you don't know and then, two, learn — and doing those things kind of strengthens that connection. ... I think one ends up with a stronger sense of who they are, especially as somebody with a dual identity, it can strengthen that; it can lessen or mitigate those feelings of not being something enough, right? Not being Filipino enough, or not being whatever the second piece of the identity is.
NOEL KING, HOST:
For the hyphenated. That's what it says on the dedication page of author Randy Ribay's latest novel. It's called "Patron Saints Of Nothing," and it comes out tomorrow. We talked over Skype, and he told me that the hyphenated are Filipino Americans. That's a group he belongs to.
RANDY RIBAY: But then also there's, like - any other layer to that, I think, applies. Like, anyone who would consider themselves, you know, more than one thing, which, you know, I think most people would. And also thinking about it in terms of kind of the drug war going on, the victims of the drug war are often kind of dehumanized and kind of thought of as one thing, you know, as a drug addict or as a criminal.
KING: He's talking about a violent drug war launched by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. It's not clear how many people have been killed. Human Rights Watch estimates it could be as many as 20,000 since the drug war started in 2016. But the police in the Philippines have much more conservative numbers. They say around 5,000 people. Ribay was watching this unfold from the United States and decided to write a novel about it. Ribay says his main character, Jay, a fictional teenager, helped him examine parts of his own identity.
RIBAY: My initial reaction is that this is just a glaring human rights abuse. But it was kind of striking to me that most of my Filipino family, as well as - you know, if you are to believe the surveys - most Filipinos supported the drug war. And so I kind of had this moment where I was like, well, what right do I have to speak on this topic kind of as an outsider, as somebody who hasn't lived in the Philippines since, you know, I was a baby? Jay's cousin's death kind of operates as this event that makes him confront that question. And so as the story goes on, it's about him trying to figure out what happened to his cousin. But it's kind of simultaneously about him trying to figure out his role as a Filipino American.
KING: At one point in the book, Jay's uncle, who's a policeman in the Philippines, tries to school his American nephew on how to be Filipino. He takes Jay to the National Museum in the capital Manila, which is a real place, and Jay's uncle tells him that the Western media misrepresents the Philippines, especially when it comes to the drug war. He read me a passage from the book.
RIBAY: (Reading) He gestures around us. Have they said anything about President Duterte making the museums free? Building bridges and repairing roads that have lay crumbling for decades? Making contraception free for all women, regardless of income? Banning cigarettes so we can breathe cleaner air? Reducing crime to its lowest rates ever so that people can finally feel safe walking around their own bongais (ph) at night? I stay silent. No, he continues, these people, the ones writing the articles you've been reading, they do not care about the Filipino people. They sensationalize the worst of what is happening here and ignore the best in order to sell copies or win awards. It is that simple.
It speaks back to the dedication page - for the hyphenated, right?
RIBAY: None of us are any single thing. And I think, you know, a vast majority of the people supporting the drug war, well, you know, they're not straight evil. They're not trying to support it because they're in it for personal gain. I mean, there's certainly some of that, I think, with some people. But I think with the vast majority, there is kind of that other side of it that can't be ignored. And just like with Duterte, some of that stuff that he's doing is good, and I think it's kind of worth acknowledging both sides of this.
KING: Jay, the Filipino American teenager, has a relationship with his cousin, Jun, in which they communicate by writing letters. But Jun is a great letter writer. He is faithful, and he sends letters frequently. Jay is distracted by girlfriends, by high school, and so he doesn't write as much. And eventually, he just peters out altogether and ends up feeling this enormous guilt when his cousin dies that he hasn't kept in touch. You make this very interesting point about the emigrant family who leaves, come someplace like the United States and says, of course, we'll stay in touch, you know, we're a family. But then they don't really stay in touch, and that gives them a flattened view of how things really are back home.
And I wonder, have you experienced that in your own family? Have you seen that happening in your community?
RIBAY: For sure. I mean, I think, you know, once you leave, you have a different set of experiences. And it's just a completely different realm. And you can call people. You can go back and visit every now and then. But it's not the same as living there still. And it's hard because we want to place a value judgment. You know, I find, at least, I want to place a value judgment on that.
RIBAY: But - to use a very common phrase - like, it is what it is. Like, that's the experience. And, you know, acknowledging that it's different from the experience of living there.
KING: You were born in the Philippines, but you grew up here in the U.S. And I wonder, when you were writing characters who live in the Philippines, who spent their whole lives there, who in some ways resent the part of the family who moved to the U.S., did you get anxious at all? Like, I'm not sure I know how to do this, how to write these people?
RIBAY: Yeah. I think that kind of comes up anytime you write anything. (Laughter).
RIBAY: I think it becomes especially poignant when, you know, it's a community that you care about deeply. (Laughter).
RIBAY: You know, like I said, my intended audience is Filipino Americans but then also Filipinos. And so I care about getting it right. And I care about kind of representing things as accurately as I can. And so, you know, at my end, it's kind of a matter of doing the research and trying to get the facts right at the very basics, kind of considering how the differences between us might lead to different perspectives and kind of justify those different perspectives, as well as getting sensitivity readers. You know, I had several Filipinos read through it and kind of give me their take on whether I was portraying things accurately.
KING: Has anyone in your family been affected by the drug war?
RIBAY: Fortunately, not yet not.
KING: Not yet has an air of menace to it, though, doesn't it?
RIBAY: Yeah. I mean, I think ultimately the thing that kind of draws me to the topic is, like, fear for the people that I love.
RIBAY: You know? 'Cause I do have a lot of family still in the Philippines. And so whenever I think about this, it's always, like, could this happen to them?
KING: I won't give away the end of the book, but Jay really evolves in terms of how he feels about the Philippines and what he wants his next moves to be after he discovers what's happened to his cousin. What do you think that character in particular says about the relationship between an immigrant, their country of origin, and then the country that they're expected to eventually go home to when the two-week break is over, the family visit is over?
RIBAY: I think it says that there is this connection, but I think also if you are to foster that connection, kind of make it something meaningful, you want to acknowledge kind of what you don't know. And then two, learn. And doing those things kind of strengthens that connection, and I think one ends up with a stronger sense of who they are, especially somebody with, like, a dual identity. It can kind of lessen or mitigate those feelings of, you know, not being something enough, right? Not being Filipino enough, or not being whatever the second piece of the identity is.
KING: Randy Ribay is author of the novel "Patron Saints Of Nothing." Randy, thanks so much for coming on.
RIBAY: Yeah. Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.