What I’m Reading: Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol 1-9

Speculative Fiction is more often being used as a genre label that transcends national borders so that Anglophone cultures can “write back” to western audiences. In the Anglophone Philippines, speculative fiction works have found audiences far exceeding that of previous Anglophone writing: the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology has found an international audience through selling ebooks and showcasing works in “The Philippine Speculative Fiction Online Sampler.”

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The presence of Filipino identity in the Philippines Speculative Fiction anthologies is made multiply queered, as the editors encourage open defiance of genre conventions not simply to explore new types of cultural “magic,” but to reinterpret this defiance of genre as an ability to push the limits to Filipino identity. As the anthology’s editor Dean Alfar writes in the Philippine Speculative Fiction anthology’s first volume, in order to “create the fantastic,”

We must write literature that unabashedly revels in wonder, infused with the culture of our imagination—which means being Filipino and, at the same time, surrendering that very same limiting notion—being more than Filipino, unleashing the Filipino of our imagination, divorcing and embracing the ideas of identity, nationhood and universality. We need to do magic. (viii)

Here I review a mere four of the 100+ speculative short stories that the anthologies have published. All are available online.

B.H. Batacan’s “Keeping Time,”

Batacan is a Filipino writer who currently lives in Singapore. Her story “Keeping Time” is a meditation on the commodification of the body. Narrated by a scientist working on a cure for a disease that he is certain will end the human race, the story depicts a miracle “fat-reduction” enzyme that becomes so popular consumers demand it is put in the water supply. Once the decaying side-effects of the drug becomes well known it is too late, as all the world’s population has been infected with the disease, each of them unable to eat as the drug hardwires them “for starvation” (12).

Mia Tijam’s “The Ascension of Our Lady Boy”

This story also comments on the value and decay of the body, as a young bakla (or lady boy) living near Los Angeles becomes ostracized from his family and begins to communicate with the chickens on his family’s farm. The lady boy learns that every 44th day of their lives the chickens hold an orgiastic party similar to a Greek bacchanalia, even though none of the chickens suspect that “they were all going to die after 45 days” (49). The speculative element of the chicken’s lives mirrors the narrator’s own when he escapes to Manila to be courted by rich Filipino men, only to be rejected as he grows older, and like many baklas, must live in obscure conditions after the value of his body has been dispelled. In both stories “Keeping Time” and “The Ascension of Our Lady Boy,” the western desire for an authentic Filipino experience becomes complicated by speculative elements of bodily decay, sexual aberrance and contagion—all the elements that continue to define foreign bodies.

M.R.R. Arcega’s “The Singer’s Man”

“The Singer’s Man” imagines a world unlike Western imaginings, but one that also seems to have little relation to Filipino myths or beliefs. Proper nouns of places and people, like “Derezn,” “Gomergin,” and “Harun” seem not to relate to any particular mythos. Indeed, the reasons for this seem embedded in the story itself, where a singing woman from a faraway tribe visits the Harun people, where the story’s narrator, Derezn, agrees to assist her on her travels. As he says “I loved her not, because her way was change, and change was not the way of the Harun…She knew songs from many distant tongues, and though I did not know the words, I listened” (85). Her songs are passed down myths from other cultures, yet when such stories travel, they produce revolutionary moments causing immense change. When she encounters the slaves of the “Black Flower people,” she sings “in their language in an otherworldly voice, of change,” inspiring them to rebel against their masters, invoking a revolution that is later called “The Singer’s War” (87).

Francezca C. Kwe’s “Ghost story” 

This story considers an apparition haunting a mansion of the American colonial-era, a female ghost who seems to represent the haunting of multiple colonial and imperial encounters in the past. While most of the village near the mansion speculate that the haunting began in the violence of American colonial presence, others insist that the haunting began with Japanese colonization, “on account of a girl being raped and murdered there by drunken Japanese soldiers, her parts cut up and scattered in the many corners of the ancient house.” The woman who lives alone in the mansion for nearly twenty years, Lola Concha, also becomes a subject of speculation by the village. When she emerges finally from her mansion, the village already speculates that she murdered her husband who was handicapped from World War II and died at home, likely due to her neglect. Stories of the ghosts flourish once Concha becomes a regular at church, spending most of her time

sitting with the other church grandmas, collectively embroidering altar cloths and doilies. It was in this relaxed circle–out of the Pastor’s earshot–that the intricate embroidery of tales inched out of her, tugging me over, out of Bible discussions or prayer sessions, ripe for distraction.

The dominance of the church, which convinces its members to give away their “jeweled rosaries,” becomes challenged by the many speculations of ghosts, but only in the everyday spaces of wandering and boredom. As Concha becomes more influenced by the church, she becomes convinced to sell her mansion “to a developer of apartment buildings” so she can live closer to the church. Once there, she “launches herself into church activities and chores with a fervid enthusiasm, changing the decor every week, trimming the bulletin boards with cut-out Jesuses [and] tending the stunted plants in the small yard.” Finally, once her mind becomes set on saving her soul, Concha “couldn’t see ghosts because, her husband’s relatives believed, all her energies were so centered on herself that even if the Virgin waved her hands before Concha, she would see and feel nothing.” The numbness of the church towards the haunting of imperial encounters seems to have run its course.

The Philippine Speculative Fiction anthologies have pulled the genre of speculative fiction into more critical terrain, garnering praise and awards that indicate a shift in Anglophone literature’s mode of expression. In the ninth volume, the editor Dean Alfar considers the impact of speculative fiction in Philippine Anglophone writing as having created “a venue for Filipino writing of the fantastic sort, even as we struggle against the labels [and] deliberately break the barriers of genre” (Alfar). While the critical attention has been successful in causing “science fiction” and “Philippine myths and legends” to become “sexy,” Alfar writes adds that “as prolific or talented [as] Filipino writers might be, one of my concerns is that their work doesn’t get read outside of the Philippines, or even Metro Manila for that matter.” Though the genre has found wider readership and accessibility online, and its stories have brought critical attention in the Philippines, it still lacks critical study in the United States, as the stories often seem illegible in their “non-genre” forms, and the desire to forget American colonization often supports any refusal to engage seriously with cultures produced through American imperial encounter.

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