by Daphne Lee
I’ve chosen to write about two books by a Filipino author, Joel Donato Ching Jacob, which I edited for Scholastic Asia. They are the first two in a trilogy set in what is now known as the Philippines. The era is pre-colonial (before 1521, which was the year Ferdinand Magellan came to the islands in 1521 and claimed it as a colony for the Spanish Empire) and, as such, pre-Christian/Roman Catholic, steeped in indigenous mysticism and animist lore. It is an imagined world, based on fact, the society feudal and ruled by the Maginoo class.
The first book, Wing of the Locust, introduces Tuan, a young man of the slave class, who is chosen to be apprentice to the barangay (akin to a borough or district) mambabarang, a healer, diplomat, spy, and assassin.
Because he has always been treated as an outcast, Tuan initially embraces his new role as an opportunity to improve his social standing and gain power over those who shunned him when he was a weak, awkward youth. Nevertheless, he soon finds himself wrestling with his conscience over the dubious morality of a mambabarang’s duties, while reeling in horror at the extent of the personal sacrifices that must be made to master the craft.
But it is only when Tuan reconnects with his childhood playmates, Liksi and Gilas, that he is forced to seriously consider the implications of his newfound status and power. And when his friends’ lives are threatened, Tuan must quickly decide if saving those he loves is worth the loss of his humanity.
Wing is essentially a coming-of-age story and deals with the themes that are commonly found in such tales, like the search for identity; societal and inner conflict; and self-realisation. On being told that the protagonist learns a kind of magic, readers raised on Western fantasy fiction might respond by thinking of him as an apprentice wizard, while positioning him in pre-colonial Asia, might suggest that he is a ‘witch doctor’. Neither term quite cuts it.
In the world Jacob has created/re-created, mambabarang are slaves, albeit of a high status, employed to do the bidding of their owner, usually the head of a barangay. Their name refers to the barang or locust, which they call upon to assist in their work.
Other kinds of insect life are also used in the art pambabarang (sorcery), and a moth acts as a familiar. In order to harness the power of these insects, a mambabarang must give their physical body over to the creatures. An eye socket becomes a hiding place of their moth familiar; a lung, a nest for locusts; and so on.
While the mambabarang of Filipino folklore is often identified as purely evil, in Jacob’s novels things are not so clearcut, hence Tuan’s struggle to reconcile his duties with his personal ethics. His teacher, Muhen, is also presented in a sympathetic way, and is by far my favourite character in Wing. Although he is shown to act ruthlessly, he is also seen to have an almost mischievous sense of humour and seems sympathetic and gentle in his dealings with Tuan.
Teaching the boy to dance and seeing his discomfort from muscle strain and cramps, the mambabarang remarks, ‘And please, smile. All that grimacing is terrible! You are dancing, not giving birth.’
The sequel, Orphan Price, is set shortly after the events at the end of Wing, and sees Tuan, Liksi and Gilas travelling to a neighbouring barangay to investigate a murder. Like in Wing, the setting incorporates gods and goddesses, as well as magical objects and fantastical beings from Filipino mythology and legends, in a manner that makes them natural and accepted parts of life and place. Even when it comes to a literally larger-than-life figure like the mesmeric snake goddess Banig-banig, her appearance in the world, while inspiring equal amounts of love, awe, and fear, is greeted more with speechless assent than incredulous amazement.
Orphan Price delves further into what it means to be a mambabarang and its effect on Tuan’s identity and self-worth. It also explores the novels’ feudal world, in particular debt slavery and the way the slave class is complicit in the perpetuation of the practice.
And Jacob gives more space to Liksi and Gilas, allowing for a deeper understanding of their ways of thinking and acting and the dynamics of their relationship with Tuan. These characters challenge modern social norms in terms of gender and sexuality, each in different, even unexpected ways. Liksi is blatant and aggressive in her defiance; Gilas subtle and almost silent; Tuan awkward and conflicted. Jacob’s choices in characterisation may seem predictable at first sight, but they really add layers and shades to ideas of strength and beauty, compassion, and attraction.
These are books that I feel are so important to the health and integrity of Asian, especially South-east Asian, fantasy fiction. As editor at Scholastic Asia, I have read submissions from many aspiring writers. Those who write fantasy fiction are invariably heavily influenced by Western fantasy tropes, their characters based on the kinds of creatures that J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (LOTR) and, more recently, J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series have
made familiar and popular with readers and movie goers everywhere. Therefore, I can’t stress how important it has been for me to champion the publication of Wing of the Locust and Orphan Price, and to ensure that their indigenous Filipino content is not compromised or whitewashed.
The author often says that he grew up loving LOTR and how, as an adult, he’s a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. These, however, are not his stories. They don’t reflect his reality, culture, or history as a Filipino and as a South-east Asian. Nevertheless, these stories are wholly familiar to Asians. Elves, dwarfs, and European dragons are creatures we know, thanks to Western cultural hegemony and European folklore, often by way of Hollywood. Do we know the sigbin? The pontianak? The krasue? Shockingly, many Asian readers are unfamiliar with creatures from their own folklore. Hopefully, in ten or twenty years, Asian mythological beings will also be household names to readers, not just abroad, but at home too.
I feel there is the thinking that stories published in Asia are not as good. However, I think that those who feel this way need to consider that a story thought to be written poorly may simply be a story written differently. As readers we should not be too quick to dismiss writing for which mainstream fiction has not prepared us. Fantasy fiction opens doors and windows into new worlds, yet, from what I have seen as part of the publishing industry, there is strong resistance from readers as well as publishers against anything unfamiliar. While readers of fantasy seem to be open to the idea of strange new worlds, there seems to be a limit to what they will accept. If only they would explore further and venture into fantasy that comes from unfamiliar lands and cultures.
If this post has got you curious and you wish to start your journey into Asian fantasy, here are my recommendations for the journey – fantasy/speculative fiction work written by authors of South-east Asian origin, but available in the West:
• Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho (Small Beer Press)
• The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water by Zen Cho (Tor)
• Apple and Knife by Intan Paramaditha (Vintage)
• The Singing Hills Cycle, 3 books by Nghi Vo (Tor)
• Tensorate series, 4 books, by Neon Yang (Tor)
• The Girl and the Ghost by Hanna Alkaf (HarperCollins) (Tor)
• Nothing But Blackened Teeth by Cassandra Khaw (Tor Nightfire)
• Man Tiger by Eka Kurniawan (Verso Books)
Daphne Lee (https://daphnelee.org/) is consulting editor at Scholastic Asia. She is also a writer of speculative fiction. Bright Landscapes is her first short story collection.