Title: Patron Saints of Nothing
Author: Randy Ribay
Published: September 10, 2019
Genre: Young Adult, Contemporary
July 24, 2020 | Before you read this, please take a moment to read this important blog post by the author of the book, and learn about how you can take action against the new Terror Law in the Philippines.
Growing up, I was reluctantly proud of being half-filipino.
Even though I was also half-Indian, my mom was undoubtedly more successful than my dad at ensuring that my siblings and I were connected to her homeland and Filipino culture (sorry, dude ✌️). We used Filipino honorifics like “Ate” and “Kuya” in our household, regularly went to fiestas and novenas organized by family in the area, and visited the Philippines every two or three summers.
While I lived in a bubble in the United States predominantly populated by Asian Americans, I could count the number of Filipinos I knew outside of my family on one hand. I delighted in telling my classmates where the Philippines was when asked, and I was more than happy to be the designated lumpia supplier during parties with friends 👈👈.
Still, I was always bothered by certain things in regards to my Filipino heritage. For starters, no amount of Ates or Kuyas I uttered in a day would erase the fact that I didn’t fully speak or understand my mom’s language. And sure, I went to fiestas and novenas, but when was the last time I actually prayed in a church like my fiercely Catholic Titas and Titos?
There were more things that nagged at me, but the thought that unsettled me the most was the undeniable truth that I didn’t actually know the history or current affairs of the country I was pointing to on the map for people.
In Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay, the main character was a familiarly ignorant, half-filipino American teenager named J. Ensconced in his suburban town in Michigan and raised by parents who wanted him to grow up “American”, J never gave much consideration to the country he was born in: the Philippines. The only thread he had to his father’s homeland and family were the letters sent back and forth between him and his Filipino cousin, Jun—until those eventually stopped too.
When Jun was murdered for being allegedly wrapped up in President Duterte’s War on Drugs, a disbelieving J traveled to the Philippines to uncover the truth behind his cousin’s death. There, he realized the extent of his disconnect to his Filipino side, butted heads with passionate pro-Duterte family members, and grappled with the idea of having opinions about a country he cared about, but did not live in.
Patron Saints of Nothing was an unmistakable Filipino story written with striking tact and accuracy. In *a book talk that I filmed with some of my best friends from the Philippines, my friend remarked that Patron Saints of Nothing “wasn’t Filipino in the really corny, exaggerated type of way… it was just Filipino, period”. I thought this statement described how it felt to read the degree of care Ribay gave to the Filipino representation in the story. Ribay’s careful attention to detailing the subtleties of the Philippines and its people was apparent in every instance of the story—most notably in the way he directed the discussion on the War on Drugs.
“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.”
Writing about something as controversial as a drug war couldn’t be easy, especially when you’re constantly questioning the validity of your representation as an outsider and Filipino-American. Yet, Ribay exhibited a commendable sensitivity in sharing different perspectives on the subject (something international news outlets often fail at doing). Through J and his other characters, Ribay was further able to explore Filipino expats’ roles in discussions about homeland politics.
There were some aspects of the book that I stumbled over. At the beginning, I found that direct definitions of common Filipino terms designed to paint the story’s setting took me out of the story instead of bringing me in, but I could see how they could benefit readers unfamiliar with Filipino culture. Additionally, there was a romantic subplot that I felt was random and quite questionable 😬.
Patron Saints of Nothing was a quick and digestible read, but in retrospect, it was brimming with themes and conversations that should extend beyond the last page of the book. Drug addiction as a mental health problem, macho man culture, homophobia, and religion were some other touchy topics that the story broached, and for these reasons, this book may not be for everyone. But if this important story about current Filipino events interests you in the slightest, I highly recommend it.
i really liked it
Thanks for reading! Have you read Patron Saints of Nothing? Would you want to if you haven’t? Let me know 🙂.
*Originally, this review was much longer and included a portion where I reflect over and overshare about the four years I lived in the Philippines, but I decided against it for now 😅. To be clear, I do not support the War on Drugs.
If you’ve read Patron Saints of Nothing already or want to hear some more about it, I filmed a more in-depth book talk with some Filipina friends that contains non-spoilery and spoilery sections 🙂: