Books on the Philippines

Patron Saints of Nothing

By Randy Ribay

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“Maybe you haven’t developed a passion yet because you’ve spent your entire life doing what others wanted you to do.”

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I think I’ve found it—the perfect novel for you during the beginning of hopefully a better 2021. Patron Saints of Nothing has got every element a book needs to be perfect. Perfectly developed characters. Perfect setting. Perfect dialogue. Perfect plot. Perfect pacing. Perfect themes. Perfect social commentary. Perfect beginning. Perfect middle. Almost a perfect ending.

And never in a million years would I have expected the perfect book to be one written for teens. Except for the Harry Potter books, I don’t usually read young adult novels (YA novels–books written for people ages 12 to 18). But I was looking for a good book on the Philippines, and Patron Saints of Nothing had such a high rating (4.35) on Good Reads that I couldn’t pass it up.

Purchase: Amazon | Bookshop.org

A Summary of Patron Saints of Nothing

Patron Saints of Nothing is about a 17-year-old boy named Jay, who’s just been accepted into the University of Michigan but doesn’t seem all that excited to be going.

He’s a smart, kind, and good kid. His friend, Seth, smokes pot, but Jay somehow has the willpower to not succumb to peer pressure. This last part is a bit far-fetched so maybe not so perfect, but I’ll let this one slide.

Jay is Filipino-American. He was born in the Philippines but moved to the United States when he a year old. He hasn’t been back to the Philippines since he was ten. His mother isn’t Filipino, but his dad is.

Jay gets news that his cousin, Jun, has just died, but in typical fictional world fashion, his father refuses to tell him how he died. Would your parents really leave you hanging like that? A minor criticism of the book.

Eventually, his mother does tell him the official story: Jun ran away from home, got hooked on meth, and then got shot by the police during President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war. If you don’t know much about Duterte’s drug war, don’t worry. The book will give you loads of background info on it. But I do suggest reading up on it as well.

Jay is deeply affected by Jun’s death. They used to be really close. For years, They exchanged letters revealing all of their inner most secrets to each other. Jay says that Jun was like his best friend. Except Jay pretty much ghosted his cousin three years previously when Jay stopped writing back to him. Eventually, he lost track of Jun and forgot about him. Jay’s got some flaws, which is what perfect developed characters should have.

Jay doesn’t believe Jun was a drug addict and that there is more about his death than what’s stated in the official report. He convinces his parents to let him travel to the Philippines. He doesn’t tell them his real reason, which is to investigate what happened to his cousin.

My Thoughts of Patron Saints of Nothing

I was more than pleasantly surprised about how great Patron Saints of Nothing was. It’s so different than the teen romances I read as a teenager. I don’t think the teen books I grew up with would cover a drug war let alone have characters who weren’t white and straight.

Another thing that makes this so different from books when I was younger was how much agency the author gives these young characters and how much he focuses this agency on social justice issues. When I was younger, the only characters with any agency were ones like Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown who solved mysteries like the case of the missing cat. Characters in books from my childhood were more concerned about what to wear to prom than how many people died in a drug war.

Even if you’re an adult, I think you’ll enjoy this book a lot. It doesn’t feel juvenile at all. It’s a deep novel that looks at questions of identity, human rights, poverty, drug abuse, family, the history of the Philippines, and freedom of the press.

Let’s talk about all the perfect elements that I touched upon at the beginning of this review.

Perfect characters

Jay and Jun are great characters. Both have admirable qualities but also some qualities that are less so.

There’s also lots of diversity in the book. Jay is Filipino-American. His father is from the Philippines. His mother is white. His brother is gay. His aunt is gay. There’s more, but I don’t want to give too much away.

I loved the character, Mia, a journalism student, who helps Jay find out what happened to Jun. I loved how they’re relationship was portrayed as equals. The book had their relationship develop naturally

Jay’s uncle and Jun’s father, Tito Manning, was also the perfect antagonist in the story as well. He’s written in a way that makes you not like him but at the same time feel sorry for him.

Manila skyline at sunset
Manila skyline at sunset

Perfect Setting

Have you been to the Philippines? One of my greatest reading pleasures is reading about books set in faraway places that I’ve been to.

The book takes place mostly in Manila and the characters visit a lot of the tourist places that I’ve been to. The characters also travel to Legazpi near Mount Mayon, a place I haven’t been to yet, but I would love to visit some day.

Ribald captures the sense of place perfectly here. You can imagine the wealthy community of Tito Manning, the more intimate middle-class community of Tita Chato and Tita Ines, and the slums of Manila.

Perfect Dialogue

There’s nothing awkward or cringe-worthy about the dialogue. Even in the scenes where people are expressing a lot of emotion and drama, the dialogue feels authentic.

Perfect Plot

The plot centers around the mystery of Jun’s death that Jay goes to the Philippines to solve. Was he indeed a drug addict? Did the police really kill him? Why did he run away? What did Jay’s uncle have to do with Jun’s death? Who sent Jay that cryptic message and those photos of Jun before Jay left for the Philippines? What happened to Jun?

Throughout the book, I was never sure what the ending was going to be. As the book progressed, the mystery of what happened to Jun is peeled away until we finally in the end learn what happened.

The book never seems at any time to move too slowly or too quickly.

Mount Mayon in the Philippines
Mount Mayon

Perfect Immersion into Filipino Culture

Family is really important in Filipino culture. But like everywhere around the world, family is complicated. Jay’s extended family is also this way. You’ve got the family that stayed behind in the Philippines and the family that left. There’s tension within the family, and that felt real to me.

One more thing I liked about the culture of the book. I finally know the name of those big boxes that Filipinos bring with them when they fly back home to the Philippines. They’re called Balikbayan or “one returning home” boxes. They’re filled with pasalubong (gifts) for those in the Philippines.

Themes: Perfect Social Commentary

The book is jam-packed with themes: identity, history, family, drug abuse, poverty, Duterte’s drug war, and freedom of the press. I’ll just cover some of my favorites. These are the ones that involve social and historical commentary about the Philippines.

President Duterte’s Drug War and its Extrajudicial Killings

What I think makes the book shine for me is the discussion of such a contemporary, relevant, and controversial issue: President Duterte’s drug war.

When I was traveling for two months in the Philippines, I talked with a few people about Duterte. Almost everyone I spoke to loved him. I’ve heard Duterte has an 80% approval rating in the Philippines. Even the white older American and British males who lived in the Philippines thought he was a great president who was finally doing something for the people of the Philippines rather than for the wealthy. The two people who didn’t like him argued that the drug war is aimed at the poor and not at the ones in power who are also the ones bringing the drugs into the country.

Ribay explores the controversy of the drug war in a non-preachy way. He tries to present both sides. On the one hand, you’ve got Uncle Tito’s opinion on why the drug war is good for the Philippines. The other side represented by Jun, Jay, and the media, the extrajudicial killings are wrong and are not the right way to solve the issue:

“He said that those suffering from addiction needed to be helped, not to be arrested, because their addiction was as much genetics as it was a choice. And those pushing needed to be employed, not to be killed, because most of them were only trying to survive. He also said that none of these drugs could even make their way into our country to begin with if not for corrupt people in power—so they needed to be replaced, not reelected.”

Freedom of the Press

The other issue that is raised in the book that has a lot of importance is the role and freedom of journalists to report on the crime and corruption of the government and the police.

We learn that journalists in the Philippines have not had it easy. We learn about the Maguidanao Massacre, the disappearance of hundreds of journalists during the Marcos regime, and the arrest of journalists that dare criticize or uncover the crimes of the Duterte regime.

A conversation between Jay and Brian Santos, a journalist and Mia’s professor highlights the risks journalists must undergo in the Philippines if they’re truly dedicated to exposing the truth about their country:

“Do you know how many death threats I have received in the last two years?”

  We step over a stray dog sleeping in the middle of the narrow street.

  “I don’t know.”

“Hundreds,” he says. “Every time I write an article that can be construed as critical of our Dear Leader, my in-box is inundated with vile messages. They call me a traitor. They say they will beat me if they come upon me in the street. They say they will rape my wife and slit my children’s throats as I watch.”

What’s happening to Filipino journalists sounds a lot like the death threats and harassment that American journalists have been facing over the past four or five years.

Passing Judgment On Other Countries

Discussions about these last two themes leads to the next question this book raises that I found to be thought-provoking: Does Jay or anyone who isn’t Filipino have the right to criticize or comment on what is happening in the Philippines?

How can privileged Americans possibly understand what drugs, especially meth, have done to the people of the Philippines?

Is freedom of the press important in every culture?

What right do Americans have to pass judgment on other countries?

Jay and his mother discuss these same questions:

“Jay, it’s easy for us to pass judgment. But we don’t live there anymore, so we can’t grasp the extent to which drugs have affected the country. According to what I’ve read, most Filipinos believe its’ for the greater good. Harsh but necessary. To them, Duterte is someone finally willing to do what it takes to set things right.”

“So I’m not allowed to have an opinion? To say it’s wrong or inhumane?”

She puts her hands on her hip and flashes me a look that signals I should check my tone. Then, in a low voice, says, “That’s not what I’m saying, Jay.”

“What are you saying?’

“That you need to make sure that opinion is an informed one.”

There’s obviously no way to argue that point without sounding like an idiot, but knowing that doesn’t dissolve my newfound anger. “So what’s your informed opinion?”

“That it’s not my place to say what’s right or wrong in a country that’s not mine.”

Jay’s mother has a point. I’ve often hated how Americans think that the rest of the world has to think like them and act like them. If they don’t have the same government or love of guns or free markets, then there is something wrong with them.

On the other hand, this conversation between Jay and his mother reminds me of the famous words of Martin Niemoller, a German Lutheran pastor when he found himself the target of Adolf Hitler’s government:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

Of course, you might say that drug addicts and drug pushers are not socialists or trade unionists or Jews. They’re the dregs of society. They’re pariahs who prey on the weak and poor for profit and power. True. True. But then again I wonder what people in the 1930s said about communists and Jews. They ended up in concentration camps. 6 million Jews did at least.

Sometimes I find that governments like to defend the reprehensible things they do by convincing their people that the United States or another country is interfering in their country. Instead of becoming an issue of a person’s rights or of a government’s abuse of power or corruption or mistreatment of a group of people, it becomes an issue of American interference. People are easily duped by these words. Not just in the Philippine but everywhere, including the United States.

How should governments deal with a drug problem?

I don’t have the answer to this, but I do know that sometimes what seems like a good idea at first turns out to have been a terrible idea later. And when dealing with complex social problems, the easiest solutions often turn out to the be worst in the end.

I like Jay’s summary of Jun’s views on the drug war:

“He said that those suffering from addiction needed to be helped, not to be arrested, because their addiction was as much genetics as it was a choice. And those pushing needed to be employed, not to be killed, because most of them were only trying to survive. He also said that none of these drugs could even make their way into our country to begin with if not for corrupt people in power—so they needed to be replaced, not reelected.”

It’s easy to lock people up or kill them. It’s much harder to solve the problem that leads people to use drugs. Governments, though, like to turn to the easiest and most visible solutions because it looks like they’re doing something to solve a problem.

Drugs have devastated certain communities in the United States. In the 1990s, it was crack cocaine. And what did the United States do? They incarcerated people for years and years for using crack (but not for using cocaine). And now we realize that it was a mistake. There could have been a less harmful way of dealing with it. Nowadays it’s heroine, meth, and oxycontin that are affecting white rural populations more than anyone else. I’m not sure what’s being done about it or what this pandemic is doing to people’s drug habits.

San Augustin's Church in Manila, Philippines
San Augustin’s Church

Conclusion

There’s a lot in this book to think about. I don’t have the answers, and no one knows the future. I’m not sure if anyone has the answers. And I definitely know no one can truly predict the future.

But I hope you at least take the time to read this terrific novel.

Leave me a comment or question in the comment section of this post. I’d love to hear your thoughts on Patron Saints of Nothing. Did you find it as good as I did? What did you think of some of the themes that Ribay raises?

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More Great Books on the Philippines

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About The Bamboo Traveler!

Julie Krolak

Hi! I’m Julie, the Bamboo Traveler!  Travel addict and bookworm! This blog is devoted to helping the inquisitive traveler explore the history, heritage, and culture of Asia and beyond. On this site, you’ll find itineraries to help you plan your trip, reviews to help you make better-informed decisions, lots of history and cultural information to help make your travels more meaningful, and book recommendations to help you understand your destination more deeply.

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