I was so excited to read a book with Filipino representation! It feels like I’m always on the hunt for books from marginalized voices and Filipino was one I haven’t heard in a while (or at all). And for the first book with Filipino rep, it definitely delivers a fantastic story that’s unafraid to be real and reveals some truths about what’s happening in The Philippines.
Patron Saints of Nothing starts off with Jay. He’s your average American teenager living in the Midwest, playing video games with his buddies online, and having no clue what he wants to do with his future. When his parents tell him his cousin, Jun, in The Philippines died, Jay wants to find out more. Being pen pals and friends from when Jay visited The Philippines as a kid, he was saddened by the news and determined to find out what happened. But his father isn’t the kind of person who likes to talk and doesn’t want to go over the details of how his cousin died. In fact, no one in his family was willing to talk about what happened.
With the strength of his love for his cousin and his curiosity to how this could happen to someone at such a young age, Jay convinces his parents to send him to The Philippines on spring break. They agree and he goes off to spend a week with his family there and learning about what happened to Jun.
As Jay slowly learns the truth about Jun through pieces of info he gathers with the help of a friend he makes, he also learns he doesn’t know much about The Philippines and what’s going on there. It’s not until he’s really in the thick of his search that he sees that President Duterte’s policies on drugs are targeting addicts and sellers without trial or a chance. It’s a multi-themed story that will make you google everything and make you reconsider the “truths” you’re told as a kid.
I’m going to be real with you, I cried. It was one specific moment right at the end when I did but if a book brings me to tears, then it’s a good book. I don’t cry often. I was most definitely pearl-clutching for sure and having my heart break over and over again.
For the most part, this book reads like a mystery or a thriller without the suspenseful parts. There’s no creepy murderer. The story is very much steeped in real life and the horrors of reality. There’s only the suspense of finding out the truth in a place that wants to forget just as quickly.
Randy Ribay doesn’t pussy foot around the reality. He doesn’t dumb it down with magical realism or make you go on this journey his cousin left behind for him. He literally walks into the slums of The Philippines where homes are made of corrugated cardboard, pallets, and metal sheeting. He hears about women being raped just because they walked down the street and a president who hides behind his belief he’s saving his country. This is not the beautiful tourist photos people see. This is the reality of a place that I believed to be a beautiful country and a place many of my IRL friends are from.
Themes are all over this book, so I decided to break them down and what I felt about them.
Being American and Being Filipino
I think this is something a lot of us Asian Americans feel. We’re American because we immigrated here when we were super young or we were born here, but we also are Asian. It’s tough when you’re not accepted in certain areas and then you go to the country everyone tells you to go back to and you don’t fit in there either. The displacement is real for any kid who’s grown up with immigrant parents and I love that we read this book from Jay’s point of view and see what it’s like from that particular lens. The insecurities of not keeping up with your culture, knowing what’s going on in the news, and not even being able to speak the language is a feeling I know much too well. Nicely done.
Coming to terms with the fact that adults aren’t always right
I thought this was a little more subtle, but there’s some subtext around growing your own opinion and beliefs that aren’t quite the same as your family’s. I really liked the juxtaposition of Jay against his Tito Maning. Tito Maning plays as the voice of many Filipino people who voted Duterte into office. He believes that despite the number of losses his drug policies have caused, Duterte’s done “good” for the community and country at large. Randy Ribay brings up often how many people are complacent with the losses because a few dead drug addicts means safer streets. It’s a really good topic to bring up and I loved that Randy Ribay wasn’t afraid to share this point of view as well.
Tito Maning is legit everyone in my family that’s told me I needed to be a doctor, married with two babies all by the time I was 30. These are the people who made it difficult for me to be myself because I had to follow these ridiculous rules of behavior. I understand respecting your elders and all that, but come on. Something’s gotta give sometimes.
But I think this is a valuable lesson for folks who are just getting to the adult ages. Please keep in mind that your parents don’t know everything and that adults can be wrong too. You don’t have to be disrespectful about it, but understanding their view and then comparing it to your own allows you to see the full breadth of opinions and make a much better opinion on your own.
The War on Drugs in The Philippines is very real
If you’re going to read this book, I strongly STRONGLY advise you to google “Rodrigo Duterte” and what’s happening in the Philippines right now. While the story Randy Ribay wrote here is fictional, the events taking place are real. I can’t do the topic justice and I strongly urge you to read his Wikipedia article at least to know what he’s doing. Basically, what’s written in the book is true. Duterte’s has encouraged police and vigilante groups to kill any drug dealers and drug addicts they see. This is in an effort to “clean up” the streets of The Philippines and make it safer.
However, we have to keep in mind the fact that not every drug addict is a criminal. Everyone has their story and reasons for getting to the place they are. I highly doubt they’re all doing illegal things and while I don’t condone drug use, I also don’t believe someone should be judged based just on the fact that they use drugs. Where’s the human aspect to this? It’s nowhere because the death tolls are in the thousands and they can’t even pin down an accurate number.
The fact that Randy Ribay incorporated this into his story is legit what makes this book one of my favorites. He’s unapologetic and he does a good job sharing both sides of this massive debate, so it’s not just one sided. The theme carries throughout the novel and really you can’t finish this novel without googling the events that take place. It may make people a little uncomfortable, but that’s what makes this book special. You have to give it credit for that. You can go on about how he didn’t dive into more, but also keep in mind the fact this is a fictional story and not the oral history of The Philippines. It encourages you to research and google and I strongly advise you do.
The final thing I want to mention, which is touched lightly but made a huge impact while I was reading is the number of rapes happening there. There was one scene in the book (and this doesn’t spoil the overall story) where a woman wasn’t okay with having a male adult in her home because she doesn’t know his intentions and worried he’ll rape her. I tried to do some research on this and found this article where the same President Duterte speaks about the rape cases. He says “as long as there are beautiful women, there will be rape cases.” Jesus, take the wheel.
All of these themes take place while Jay continues to be a teenager who likes girls and just wants to play video games with his bros. Randy Ribay is such a prolific and efficient writer that it really boggled my mind how he fit so much into about 300 pages.
I will say the only thing I had issues with is the believability of Jay’s story. For all intents and purposes, the events taking place in the story lead Jay closer and closer to the truth, but at some points it felt too easy. Information too conveniently falls into Jay’s lap. While I don’t know how hard or easy it is to find someone who runs away from home, I felt like Jay didn’t come across enough road blocks. It doesn’t take away from the book at all because the themes in the story carry you throughout and honestly, this didn’t bother me and doesn’t take away from my 5-star review. I just wanted to bring it up.
Ok, I’m done reviewing and ranting. This book was amazing and doesn’t read like your typical YA novel. Even though there was the average “oh I’m just a teenager who doesn’t know what I want from life,” it opens your eyes.
I received a copy of this book from Penguin Teen for free in exchange for an honest review. My opinions have not been influenced by the publisher or the author.