Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Essay: Finding The Philippines in Western Speculative Fiction

Every Wednesday, I have an essay on any topic that catches my fancy!

Growing up in the Philippines, one of the things I noticed early on was the clash of cultures. One part wants to be Asian, another part American, and a third part to be distinctly Filipino--whatever that means. This phenomenon could be seen in our language, our laws, our religion, our architecture, and in our entertainment (TV, Radio). When it came to literature however, I simply stuck to reading books from the West, mainly because I was more proficient with English than Filipino (and it seems that many Filipinos forget too easily that English was the national language of the country not too long ago), and because they were the books I found in the bookstore and in the library. It wasn't until high school that I realized that I enjoyed reading science fiction and fantasy and it was only then that my personal odyssey began.

My first foray into the genre would be the mass-market paperback authors (mainly because they were the only books available in the bookstore): Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind (who had just debuted at the time), David Eddings, Robert Jordan, etc. Perhaps because of the fact that the fantasy I was reading was disjointed from the real world (i.e. they're set in their own setting), I simply took it all in as a reader. Eventually though, as my reading tastes evolved and I swallowed the pro-Filipino propaganda drilled into me by the academe, I started to wonder if the fantasy and science fiction stories I read would forever be filled with Western constructs.

To be fair, Western speculative fiction has incorporated various cultures in its long history. There's simply a plurality of cultures in Frank Herbert's Dune. Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar Saga has a Japanese influence that was later expanded by Janny Wurts. Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light would never exist without the influence of Indian myth and religion. But as for the Philippines, even until now, I'm not quite sure how the Western world or the global world sees us. Are we part of history 101? Or are we simply some obscure third-world country that scholars are aware of? Is there more to the Philippines beyond World War II and People Power?

Luckily, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers had been adapted into a movie at the time. When I finally found a copy of the book, the text took on an unexpected "surprise" twist thanks to my heritage. For a brief time, Filipino science fiction fans rallied under the idea that they were oppressed because of the changes made to the movie, specifically changing the ethnicity of its protagonist. In retrospect, the Filipino reference in the novel is only cosmetic (I mean let's face it: whether Heinlein's hero was Filipino or Puerto Rica or Chinese, it would have little impact on the story) although I'm sure Filipino readers would get a kick out of the fact that the main character of a popular science fiction novel shared the same heritage as themselves.

This made me realize that as a Filipino reader, I was thrilled at the occasional Filipino reference. It's uncommon enough unlike ninjas and terra cotta warriors and kitsunes which have become overused (well, at least the ninjas part). Again, the reference doesn't have to be huge. For me, it's a big treat when I read stories like "Vacancy" by Lucius Shepard, "The Night Market" by Holly Black, or "The Occultation" by Laird Barron as they reference the Philippines or draw from its vast lore. Speculative fiction stories don't need to take place outside of my country and my culture has appeal to other speculative fiction fans.

One thing I'm starting to notice are the Australian speculative fiction writers. I enjoy Terry Dowling and Margo Lanagan's stories and they're not the only Australian writers of the genre. Sometimes, they incorporate into their fiction Australia as a setting or feature Australian protagonists--and it works perfectly with the story. I'm hoping one day the same can be said for Filipino writers and Philippine fiction. As it is, the only noteworthy stories (internationally) so far have been Dean Alfar's "L'Aquilone du Estrellas (The Kite of Stars)" and Kristin Mandigma's "Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-realist Aswang". Hopefully, more fiction will turn up in the future (mental note: stop writing these essays and start working on those stories!).

This makes me wonder: among other science fiction and fantasy fans, what other cultures haven't yet been fully explored in fiction?


Jess said...

Hon, Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.

Besides it being one of the most complicated, detailed, sprawlingly-intricate books ever written, it probably has Filipinos play the most creative role I've ever seen in an SF novel.

You know how in some stories a location itself is a character? Filipino culture is a character unto itself here.

"Filipinos are a warm, gentle, caring, giving people. Which is a good thing since so many of them carry concealed weapons."

To be honest, I doubt whether the portrayal of Filipinos here would fulfill your requirements for something that would given an insight to Western perspective on the Philippines other than WWII, etc. Stephenson's take on, well, everything, is so wholly original that he's basically describing the world and the Philippines on his own unique terms. But I thought that I should at least pass this recommendation along because it doesn't seem to be on your list yet :-)

banzai cat said...

Hehe. As you've pointed out in my last story, am constantly wondering about that question myself, i.e. if the Filipino element is central to the story. (I still think so but that's neither here nor there.) Still, I do think being Filipino should be both ends and means to your writing, not all-inclusive to either one.

Mike88 said...

In the 80s, I've read a short story by Samuel R. Delany about a Filipino, I think it's called Driftglass. This made me happy because somebody out there knows the word Filipino enough to put it in his writing.