Hey YA Readers: I’ve got a really special interview today for you between two incredible YA authors.
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Happy Monday — or whenever you’re reading this newsletter. I’ve got two incredible authors interviewing one another today. Best-selling and award-winning author Jason Reynolds (you know him, right?) sat down with author Randy Ribay, whose book The Patron Saints of Nothing just hit shelves. Jason and Randy are talking not only about the book, but also about identity, family, religion, and more.
I’ve had a copy of The Patron Saints of Nothing on my pile but haven’t yet gotten to read it, but the reviews are raving and I cannot wait to dive in. This interview makes me even more convinced to pick it up sooner, rather than later. Here’s the description via Amazon:
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 Filipino 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 horrible truth — and the part he played in it.
And now, without further ado, Jason Reynolds and Randy Ribay!
Jason Reynolds (JR): My first question is probably the most important, at least to me. There are only a few Filipino writers (that I know of) in children’s literature, and I’d argue in (American) literature on the whole. Why are these stories important? Also, I know some of the interesting history of the Philippines. Can you talk a bit about the complexities of that history and the effect they have on Filipino culture, and how these stories are told? (I know, it’s a big question but…lol)
Randy Ribay (RR): Filipinos have been in North America since about 1587. We’re the third largest immigrant group in the United States and the second largest population of Asian Americans. A lot of people might find this all surprising because we’re so disproportionately underrepresented in American literature and media. So I’d say our stories matter for the sake of visibility. To borrow some wisdom from Rudine Sims Bishop, Filipinx Americans need more “mirrors”—stories that allow us to see ourselves—while non-Filipinx Americans need more “windows” and “sliding glass doors”—stories that invite readers into our world. Having a healthy quantity of stories that depict the diversity of Filipinx American experiences will help build empathy and solidify a sense of connection and belonging.
As to the second part of your question, the complexity of our community’s history makes for an especially deep well of diverse experiences. The Philippines consists of over seven thousand islands and over one hundred and seventy languages. Early in its history, the indigenous peoples interacted with China, India, and Islamic missionaries, so you can see those cultures interwoven into our own. Then there was over three hundred and fifty years of Spanish colonial rule, forty years of American rule, and four years of Japanese occupation. As an American commonwealth, English spread and our status allowed for a wave of working class immigrants to enter the US at a time when the Chinese Exclusion Act prevented other Asians from doing so. Of course, that didn’t mean we were welcomed with open arms. Jim Crow and anti-miscegenation laws also applied to Filipinos, especially as our presence expanded and anti-Filipino sentiment grew in white communities.
All that said, while there certainly are some shared experiences—not only between Filipinx Americans, but also with other minority groups in the US—there’s also infinite nuance. I’m glad to see an increasing number of Filipinx American writers in kid lit like Melissa de la Cruz, Erin Entrada Kelly, Marie Cruz, Mae Respicio, myself and others, but there are a lot of untold stories in our community still waiting in the wings.
JR: You chose to write what, to me, feels like hyper-contemporary work. Like, this is a story about a family, but it’s framed around a political moment that’s playing out in real life, day-by-day. Why choose this, and was there any apprehension around the decision and execution?
RR: Issues like the extrajudicial killings in the Philippines’ drug war get at the core of what it means to be human and to been seen (or not seen) as human by society. But these issues can often feel abstract and distant when only reading articles and statistics which then leaves a lot of room for apathy or complacency. Initially, I wrote Jay’s story to try to make it more real for me. The deeper I got into the story, though, the more I realized Jay & Jun’s family was becoming a microcosm for what’s happening at the macro level and I began to cultivate the story with that in mind, understanding that the novel could make the abstract real for a lot of other people as well.
There was—and will always be—for me the concern that since I’m FIlipino American and not Filipino I have no right to broach the topic. However, instead of avoiding that issue, I leaned into it. It’s intentionally written from the perspective of a Filipino American, and Jay grapples with this on the page. I didn’t want him to be a savior, so I focused on positioning him as a learner. I felt a responsibility to get the facts right in doing so. Granted, the facts can be elusive, so I tried to do my due diligence in researching and speaking with people about what’s going on. I also tried to present different perspectives in a way that didn’t dehumanize anyone. I believe there is a very small percentage of people who support the extrajudicial killings for the sake of personal gain, but I believe a vast majority of Filipinos who support it really do want what’s best for their family, for the country. At the same time, I wanted to make clear the human effects of the policy and the ways it’s abused.
JR: Family plays a huge role in this story. Can you talk a bit about duality of identity, and how it often comes to a head when dealing with the duality of family, as in your protagonist Jay’s case, a family in the United States, and a family in the Philippines.
RR: Family is always complex, but in the case of someone like Jay (and me) who is biracial and has family in two different cultures/countries, there’s a whole other layer to it. Neither parent/side of the family fully understands what it’s like to be part of the first generation that is both, so many of us are left to navigate what that means on our own. At its best, you feel like you have a foot in both worlds. At its worst, you feel like you don’t truly belong anywhere. In situations where you’re surrounded by one side of extended family or the other or when you’re visiting your homeland, these feelings can’t be ignored. I always felt pretty firmly American growing up, but I was always keenly aware that others didn’t think of me automatically as such because of how I looked. People asked me “What are you?” all the time. But then when I traveled to the Philippines, I’d feel this connection because people looked more like me and ate many of the foods my family grew up cooking, but I didn’t speak any of the languages and wasn’t familiar with a lot of the customs. Some people choose not to think about this too much, electing to simply weather the temporary discomfort. But I think it’s always healthier to confront those feelings, struggle with them, and then come out the other side with a stronger sense of identity.
JR: There’s also an element of this story that felt like a bit of a mystery, in the best way. Like a whodunit. Expound on how secrets can be both an incredible literary device, and the cornerstone of a story about family.
RR: As a literary device, it’s a great technique for automatically hooking the reader. A secret asks a question, and it’s in our nature as human beings to answer questions. So, it automatically gives the plot a trajectory. Then the challenge as a writer is to craft a story that follows a believable and engaging journey for your protagonist to uncover the truth and to offer an answer that’s going to feel satisfying or meaningful or logical.
Now, family secrets can be a particularly powerful storytelling device because of the emotional stakes. Secrets are secret for a reason. If a family member is hiding something, it’s probably because it has some real potential to fracture the deepest of relationships and cause some legit lasting trauma. Family secrets are also very relatable. A vast majority of us are never going to try to solve a murder, but we probably all have some family secrets lurking in the shadows.
As a side note, it’s funny to me that it sometimes gets pitched or marketed as a mystery novel because I don’t think of it that way at all. To me, the family piece is absolutely the central element of the story even though a mystery drives the plot. As I wrote, I was thinking primarily about how to capture the nuance and complexity of Jay’s family dynamics.
JR: The title, Patron Saints of Nothing, alludes to the patron saints of the Catholic church. How does faith play into Jay’s story?
RR: Religion is something Jay’s grown up with but hasn’t given much thought to. I believe that about 80% of Filipinos are Roman Catholic (Thanks, Spanish colonialism…), but in my experience, it’s often a cultural thing. People go to Mass and celebrate the holidays and basically just go through the motions because that’s what they’re supposed to do. But how many are really thinking about these things deeply? His cousin Jun is one of those careful thinkers, though, and Jay reads about that in some of his letters. The more Jay considers Jun’s thoughts and the more he digs into the drug war, the more dissonance he feels. Like, one of the Ten Commandments is not to murder, and Jesus speaks about loving your neighbor as yourself—it’s contradictory to embrace those teachings while supporting extrajudicial killings. He begins to understand this hypocrisy in a way I think is common to teens. Adults might have already resigned themselves to ignore or justify certain inconsistencies of principle or to hide behind the “it’s complicated” excuse, but teens will call bullshit. They’re still figuring out the world, and they’ll be honest about when they notice adults telling them one thing but doing another. Jay works through a lot of this internally throughout the story, and I made one of his uncles a Catholic priest because I wanted to give him the opportunity to confront someone about this, to try to untangle it on the page, externally. I admire the way Kelly Loy Gilbert’s Conviction and Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X do this, and I know there are others confronting the topic as well. But I wish more MG and YA showed us kids processing their relationships with religion
JR: This is your third book. How are you feeling about it all?
RR: Amazed people keep letting me do this. For real. I love creating worlds and characters with nothing but words, and it’s wild to think I have three stories out in the world for anyone to read. Any time I see my books in a bookstore or a reader comes up and tells me they loved one of them, there’s still this feeling of unreality to it all. It’s also kind of different to move out of the debut mentality to thinking about my books forming a body of work.
To be honest, though, at the same time I feel a lot more pressure than I used to. Not many people knew about my debut, An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes, when it came out in 2015 so the only expectations I was dealing with were my own. After the Shot Drops got some good reviews and has maintained some steady momentum. Patron Saints of Nothing has also received some really positive reviews, and there has been a lot more chatter pre-publication about it compared to my previous books. At a practical level, the longer I’m in the game and the more readers I pick up along the way, the more requests to do interviews, school visits, festival appearances, etc. I receive. I’m grateful for all of these chances to meet and interact with readers, but at the end of the day, fielding those requests and doing that stuff takes time away from writing-—as I’m sure you know. And as a full-time teacher, time is not something I have an abundance of. At a deeper level, having more readers familiar with your work and having positive reviews creates a constant expectation that the next thing is going to be even bigger and better and more profound than the last. While I’d like to think that the more I write the better I get at it, that line of thinking falls into the trap of assuming that quality is objective. But there’s a significant subjective component to art, so different readers are going to connect with different stories. I try to keep that in mind and focus on the story at hand and telling it as truly as I can.
Big thanks to Jason and Randy for this fabulous and insightful conversation and big thanks to you all for hanging out this week!