I have been waiting for literal months to write this review, you guys. I first saw the cover of Patron Saints of Nothing on Twitter at the start of the year, and just from that magnificent photo complete with the Philippine flag stars behind the main character’s head, I already knew I wanted to get my hands on this book. I would honestly, legitimately kill for an ARC of this book. Really.
The bookish gods smiled down on me and influenced the kind hearts (lmfao) of the good folks over at Bookworms United PH to allow me to be a part of the #PatronSaintsPHTour, the blog tour promoting this awesome, amazing book. So huge thanks to them, and of course to Penguin Teen, Penguin Random House International, Kokila Books, and Randy Ribay for getting this whole thing off the ground.
Quick little story before hopping right in to this review: I read this book in the space of four hours while I was lying on a deserted beach on an island south of Cebu, and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I was surrounded exactly by the unbelievable beauty that is so very often the first thing that comes to mind when you talk about the Philippines, but reading that book right there was a stark reminder of the lesson that Jay learns: if one is to claim being Filipino, then you have to claim the poverty, the hardship, the starvation, and all the difficulties happening in the country, and not just the beautiful beaches and mountains.
Title: Patron Saints of Nothing
Author: Randy Ribay
Age Range: Young Adult
Genre: Contemporary, Coming of Age
A powerful coming-of-age story about grief, guilt, and the risks a Filipino-American teenager takes to uncover the truth about his cousin’s murder.
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.
Content warnings: Drug use and addiction, discussion of human trafficking, violence
☕ Quotes ☕
“Sometimes I feel like growing up is slowly peeling back these layers of lies.”
“I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be around so many people who look like me. I feel like I belong in a way I never do back in the States.”
“That’s not how stories work, is it? They are shifting things that re-form with each new telling, transform with each new teller. Less solid, and more liquid taking the shape of its container.”
“I will try not to judge because I have no idea what you were struggling with in your heart, what complicated your soul. None of us are just one thing, I guess.”
“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 a part of me is to say that all of it is a part of me.”
☕ Plot ☕
I’ll be honest. While I was very much so excited for this book, part of me was still very wary. I was eager to read an internationally-published book set in the Philippines, but also not too crazy about the fact that a Filipino-American who didn’t grow up here wrote it – especially considering that the book was about the drug war, a hot-button issue that everyone and their grandmother has an opinion on.
Here’s what I was afraid of, in a nutshell: the American savior narrative, and the demonization of Filipinos. As much as I appreciated an internationally-published book set in the Philippines, I wasn’t about to sit here and read a book that portrayed an American swooping in to come save the day while Filipino characters sat around either being villainous or else idly twiddling their thumbs.
I was pleased to find my suspicions proven wrong.
Jay Reguero is a Filipino-American teenager merely waiting for his summer vacation to end before heading off to the University of Michigan, but his relatively carefree existence comes to a screeching halt when he receives word that his cousin, Jun, was murdered. He manages to find out that Jun was murdered by the police in an extrajudicial killing in the Philippines, allegedly for being a drug runner and user. Jun manages to convince his parents to let him visit the Philippines for the summer under the guise of reconnecting with the Filipino half of his family, but Jay has other plans: he wants to get to the bottom of his cousin’s death.
Contrary to my earlier fears, this was absolutely not an American savior narrative. Jay arrives in Manila with all these grandiose notions of solving the mystery and confronting his cousin’s murderers, only to be told straight-up by characters who grew up there that he knows nothing. Jay chafes at this assessment, but comes to accept that it is true. While he does have good intentions, the work he wants to do is already being done by people who have a better idea of what the situation is or needs. This was an excellent way to turn the usual ‘American comes into the picture and makes it better’ plot right on its ear, and automatically lets you, as the reader, know that this journey of Jay’s is one of learning and growing rather than saving.
Honestly, I have a massive problem with Fil-Ams who, when talking about poverty or other issues here in the Philippines, respond with sentiments like, “they need our help”. No! No, we do not need your help! We need your support and your empathy, we need the spread of awareness beyond the borders of the Philippines. But we do not need you with your hot takes and your Western education to come in and save us from ourselves. And this book is the perfect response to that deeply classist notion.
Part of what made this book’s plot work so well I believe is Randy Ribay’s genuine desire to portray everything with great love and respect. I know he hired sensitivity readers who grew up and live here in the Philippines and were able to give the book more nuance, so I am very appreciative of how Randy took that extra step to ensure respect and authenticity.
☕ Writing ☕
Man, this whole book was just one massive tear-fest for me, let me tell y’all.
Randy’s writing is so very evocative of Jay’s struggles to find where and who he is in the midst of his two identities; one part of him being white and American, and the other being Filipino. This is a difficulty that I’m sure tons of diaspora folks can relate to: you don’t look like the white people around you, being brown or black or East Asian or Latinx, but then you also can’t relate to the people who do look like you since you didn’t grow up in their countries, don’t speak their languages, or share in their customs. I can’t speak to these experiences, being that I’m not diaspora folk myself, but I’m glad that it was put onto a page, into words, for you guys to read and know that you’re not alone. Jay’s journey in discovering that middle ground of who he is while still respecting the experiences of those who did grow up in the Philippines was just absolutely fantastically portrayed.
Another thing I adored about Randy’s writing is the gut-wrenchingly real portrayal of poverty and addiction. One of my favorite quotes from this book is the very simple statement, none of us are just one thing. It’s a stark reminder that behind every circumstance surrounding a person’s life are dozens of other circumstances that all contribute to the entirety of that person. The portrayal of the poverty suffered by so many juxtaposed against the wealth of the upper class reminds the reader, whether Filipino or otherwise, not to judge: drug addiction and drug pushing are both complex things that come about as a result of lack of access to basic resources. It’s an important lesson that Jay learns, and one that I hope other Filipinos – whether here or abroad – can learn as well.
Also handled very well was the portrayal of what a Filipino family is like. Filipinos are a very collectivist society, let’s be honest. Family, as many say, is everything. But sometimes, that connection is only skin-deep. For a lot of Filipino folks, it’s more important to keep up appearances of togetherness and normalcy, rather than actually addressing anything in a healthy, significant, emotional way. Its this cultural norm that often leads to kids wanting to remain in the closet, not talk about their mental health, or otherwise share their struggles with their parents or other family members. This is addressed very beautifully in the book, and comes to a head toward the end when Jay finally discovers the truth about what happened to his cousin, and confronts his family with it.
☕ Philippine Politics ☕
Confession time: this section of my review was the hardest to write. I had to stop several times, walk away from my laptop, and take a moment to breathe and – honestly – cry a little bit.
If you’ve been following any sort of news about the Philippines, then you probably know we are in the midst of a brutal regime under the current president (of whom I could say a shit ton about, but this is a review of Patron Saints of Nothing, and not a rant about Duterte’s bloodthirstiness, corruption, and just general incapability of being a functioning president). Although currently the hot topic is the fact that our president seems to be
selling the country to China bowing to foreign superpowers, one of the first issues to rise out of Duterte’s presidency is that of the extrajudicial killings, where cops would kill poor people under the guise of “nanlaban”, which is a Filipino term that means “fought back” (black folks in the USA can relate, I’m sure). Accusations run the gamut from “drug pushing/drug using” (usually small fry in drug cartels whose rich, powerful bosses have friends in the halls of the Senate or in the Palace) to “destabilization” (a.k.a. human rights activists or journalists trying to get to the bottom of things).
It’s not many authors that are willing to get into the thick of topics like this (Gail D. Villanueva, who wrote My Fate According to the Butterfly, is another one), and mad respect to Randy for being willing to portray the horror of the regime we are currently experiencing in the written word. It’s important that we remember what is going on here in the Philippines, and the general attitude of walang pake (“I don’t care”) being displayed by our supposed leaders.
The sad truth of the matter is, some of us are so inured to this news of death that comes every single day. Think about it, my fellow Filipinos. When was the last time we didn’t see news of farmers being shot by soldiers, or human rights activists being gunned down? When was the last time our social media feeds and newspapers didn’t have articles about children being murdered by the police even as they scream, “‘Wag po, ‘wag po.”? (“Please don’t.”) It’s a difficult reality to acknowledge, but it’s one that needs to be.
I hope this book can serve as a wake-up call, especially to young Filipino readers. This is the Philippines we live in now, and I for one don’t want it to remain that way forever.
☕ Overall ☕
This book turned out to not just be a fierce and accurate indictment of the current administration’s anti-poor drug war policies, but also a poignant study of what it truly means to be Filipino. I cannot recommend it enough, both to Filipino readers and to anyone else who wants to know how a simple youth can contribute to the betterment of a nation.