The first thing that caught my eye while looking at Kuwento: Lost Things: An Anthology of New Philippine Myths, co-edited by Rachelle Cruz and Melissa Sipin, is the beautiful, stunning cover art by Eliseo Art Silva, which was designed by Melissa Sipin and whose text was designed by Edwin Lozada. It’s the most striking cover I’ve seen in recent memory, perhaps of all time for me. And the content perfectly matches its exquisite front.
I’m a Filipina-American and I haven’t heard of many of these myths with the exception of the aswang, a vampire-like witch ghoul who flies in the night and leaves her human legs behind. It was thrilling to be drawn into these legends and learn about how modern day Filipinos deal with these creatures and past. Through reading creative non-fiction, poetry, visual art and fiction, you observe the wide range of stories about how these monsters affect the community and the individual. There are tales about colonialism, generation gaps, Catholic versus pagan religion, assimilation, and much more. I was drawn in by the different usages of these myths, from the creatures remaining a figment of a rumor being spread among concerned community members to a sufferer in the hands of a human. Like in the opening story, “The Maiden and the Crocodile“, by Dean Francis Alfar. I love how the sections go backward chronologically. It adds intrigue and you grow more sympathetic towards the crocodile this way. I never seen a story in print done in such an arc and I hope to see more from Alfar.
Another standout is the poem “Aswang” by Barbara Jane Reyes. The narrator is the aswang, taunting the reader and daring them to face her. Though there’s an aspect where she admits a human detail, creating a persona that’s not just a monster, but a social outcast: “I am the dark-hued bitch; see how wide my maw, my bloodmoon eyes,/ And by daylight, see the tangles and knots of my riverine hair./ I am the bad daughter, the freedom fighter, the shaper of death masks.” Here she’s a hero but is still ostracized and othered, taking the form of an animal, a family member, a creature of the night. I absolutely love this persona.
Not all of them are grim though thankfully, like Nikki Alfar’s “Tips on How to Run a Small Accessories Shop” which is great primer on how magic and spirits work in the Philippines. She breaks her story into sections with titles like “How to Confuse Spirits” or “How to Handle Unwanted Shoppers”, adding humor and playfulness to the narrative. The narrator, Nat Tan, talks of how she runs her magic talisman shop and cures her customers of spiritual ailments while dealing with a rival shop owner. A very funny take on the how to.
Another worthwhile short story is Almira Astudillo Gilles’ “Two Moons, Teen Angst, and a Tikbalang” whose opening paragraphs detail the well-cared for and worn Teen Glamour magazine left behind by the tourists. Here the adolescent Marisa goes into detail of photos of the affluent white teens who live in the United States while she lives in squalor in the Philippines: “What kept her eyes on the page were the tall buildings standing upright on the beaches of Miami, and the amazing lobster picnic spread out on the rugged New England coast. These seemed like apparitions, supernatural images from another world far removed from her village, Santa Isabel.” It was a knowing wink to the American readers who will no doubt find her home, as well as other places within this anthology, as otherworldly as she does theirs. Her descriptions were delicious and I wanted more, definitely someone I’m looking forward to read more of.
One nonfiction piece I enjoyed was Melissa Sipin’s “On Myth and Mischief” where the author worships her naughty older sister of a storyteller. To watch them spin tales and cause trouble and move around was fascinating for me. And then there’s “Lupa” by Aimee Suzara which is a “Modern day myth in one sentence” which pulls you in and leaves you breathless and wanting more “…Lupa followed these sounds in barefeet, wide soles clamboring over roots and branches and she folowed and followed muttering tabi po tabi po all along the way and she thought she felt bones underfoot and the angled finger joints of the dead tugging under her collar, this way and that, like she had read the forest did to Snow White when she ran through it;”. It makes me wonder what sort of magic Suzara can make when there is no limit to her writing.
There was a great flow to these sections and it makes me want to explore these myths in the original folklore. I was fascinated by the varied tones and styles in all these stories and I hope to read more of these fine authors. I can’t wait to get a physical copy so I can fully absorb and understand these tales. Well done.
(NOTE: The critic received a free copy from the editors in exchange for a review)
Eileen Ramos is a Filipina-American writer with a deep, abiding love for words. This passion drives her to read, create, and absorb all she can. Let’s hope it ends well. Read more by Eileen on her blog.