A few days later, the vacation ended. I flew back to pine trees, over-cast skies, and a Michigan winter that could sputter till May. My tan faded. My tongue forgot the taste of tocino and Tagalog. I stepped out of tsinelas and back into my suburban life as if I had never left.
This is how Jay Reguero, the narrator of Randy Ribay’s profoundly moving Patron Saints of Nothing, recounts readjusting to his life in America after a visit with his Filipino family. Though Jay was born in the Philippines, his parents moved to the US when he was a young child and he has only been back once. Jay’s life has been very comfortable, and very stereotypically American – now a high school senior, he is preoccupied with friends, girls, video games, and angst over his collegiate future.
This all changes in an instant, however, when Jay’s father drops a bomb in his lap. Jay’s Filipino cousin Jun has been killed. Jun and Jay are the same age and had been long time pen pals before eventually falling out of contact. Jay is upset to hear about Jun, but the circumstances surrounding his death make things far worse. His father explains that Jun had run away from home, begun using and selling drugs, and was killed as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s extreme, brutally violent “war on drugs.” Jay cannot reconcile this version of Jun with the sweet, caring young man he knew and is frustrated by his extended family’s refusal to divulge more details about Jun’s death. Jay decides to take matters into his own hands, travelling to the Philippines on his spring break to stay with his family and learn more about the last years of Jun’s life and the events that led to his death.
In Manila, Jay butts heads with his uncle, a powerful pro-Duterte police officer, and finds himself increasingly disgusted by how quickly his family has buried all memories of Jun. Jay is also haunted by guilt for letting his friendship with Jun fade away, and both ashamed and frustrated to discover how little he knows and understands about the country where he was born. As Jay makes connections and begins to untangle the mysteries of Jun’s life and death, he must also reckon with his own family history, his disconnection with Filipino culture, and his own role in deciding his future.
Ribay is a beautiful writer with the rare ability to immerse the reader in a specific time and place. In Patron Saints of Nothing, he deftly explores and illuminates many of the complicated, nuanced ideas connected to identity and perceived otherness that immigrants are forced to contend with daily. Jay, who has a Filipino father and a white American mother, must contend with the all-too-common microaggressions at home, yet is not “Filipino enough” in the eyes of his family in the Philippines. It is perhaps this feeling of being caught in the middle that explains why Ribay’s dedication for this book reads “For the hyphenated.”
Jay’s experiences returning to the Philippines reminded me of another incredible book I read earlier this year. Sabina Khan’s The Love & Lies of Rukhsana Ali is an intense, propulsive book about a young woman caught between cultures and the expectations they place on young people. Rukhsana is the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants. She is a talented student of physics, eager to attend a top university program in California even if that means going against the wishes of her parents who want her to stay closer to home. Rukhsana has gotten adept at balancing the pressures of her life and the demands of her traditional Muslim parents. Though it bothers her that her brother often gets preferential treatment, she plays the role of dutiful daughter while also making plans for her future and sneaking out to parties with her friends.
Rukhsana’s carefully constructed world crashes down when her mother catches her in the worst possible scenario – making out with her girlfriend. Her parents had no idea that Rukhsana is gay and they refuse to accept this reality. To say they do not handle it well is an understatement. They start with prayers, threats, and plans to arrange a marriage for Rukhsana, then push things further, sending Rukhsana to live with family in Bangladesh under false pretenses while they train her to be a dutiful wife and find her a suitable husband.
This is all traumatic and terrifying for Rukhsana, who has suddenly lost the girl she loves, her dreams for the future, and any illusion that her family supports her. But Rukhsana is extremely resilient and a bit of a bad-ass, and soon finds allies in Bangladesh as she searches for a way to stand up to her family, save her future, and thwart their wedding plans. While in Bangladesh, Rukhsana seizes the opportunity to learn more about Bengali culture and the things that her parents have endured and fought through in their lives. While Khan does not hold back when criticizing the violent homophobia and misogyny that persist in Bangladesh (and unfortunately are still mirrored here in the United States), she also uses Rukhsana’s difficult journey to highlight the brave people who fight to make society more equitable and accepting for all people.
Both Jay’s and Rukhsana’s stories are deeply upsetting at times. They also have incredible redemptive arcs that show the power of family and community to learn, adapt, and become more accepting in both small and large ways. Though not the primary focus of these two stories, both books also deal with the sacrifices that immigrant families make and the ways they face adversity and build community in a new homeland. At a time when language targeting immigrants is being weaponized to target our friends, family, and neighbors, I will be pushing myself to reinforce that the Library is a safe and welcoming place for everyone, and to read more stories about the people who strengthen our communities with their presence.