Reading until the sun rises

A few days ago I started to read Randy Ribay’s novel, Patron Saints of Nothing. I was about half-way through when something compelled me to read even though it was already way past a decent hour to go to bed. I ended up reading the novel to the end, closing the book as the sun started to rise, beams of light chasing away the need for a lamp light.

I couldn’t stop reading it. In my hands was the first book I had ever read that mirrored the experiences I, myself, could not write. About the times I went back to the Philippines, the contradictions many of us who were born on the archipelago but grew up in the US feel but can’t describe. The guilt we feel sometimes, the judgments we so easily think and speak, the times we fall silent, the awkwardness as we try to connect with cousins whose life experience feels so separate and strange from our own. The recognition of—or is it the yearning for—belonging in a place we barely remember. I cried and not just because of what actually happens in the novel, but because of how real it was to me, how it took thirty years to read about myself. (Let me confess now: I do have shallow tears when it comes to films, but not with books.)

It was similar to the first time I read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. I was in high school, I think. My sister had brought the book home after reading it for a college class. I connected to it as an Asian American woman, fighting battles with your family, finding the worth of your own voice. But Patron Saints of Nothing hit me on another level. I’m still trying to find the words to explain. Maybe I don’t have to. I know how much it means to me. I know the moments I stopped briefly, to nod in acknowledgement. Yes, this happened to me too. Yes, I felt this way too.

I will carry this novel with me for a long time. I will carry it with me.


Earlier this week I went to the funeral of a dear family friend. Growing up in a tight Filipino American community, my generation called him “Lolo” (as we do with all elders of a certain generation). It means “grandfather.”

I was holding back tears throughout the day and I couldn’t help but think back to six years ago, July, when my own maternal grandfather died weeks before my parents were set to travel to the Philippines to see him. He was the only grandfather I knew. My dad’s father died decades before I was born. Yet I probably spent more time with Lolo than I did with my actual grandfather (whom I called Itay which means “father”). It’s not his fault–or anybody’s, really. That’s the nature of a transnational family. People get left behind. Decades pass until you see each other in person. Technology may advance and be readily available but not in every corner of the world.

My fondest memory of my grandfather was in 2006. I had just graduated from college and the family went on a long-awaited trip to the homeland before I had to start my first professional job. By this time, his health had already deteriorated and he was mostly blind. We really couldn’t understand each other. He was a Waray speaker through and through. Me: English. Maybe a little Tagalog.

I was sitting on a bench outside of his house when a stray cat jumped on the table and I screamed in fright. He was sitting across the table and immediately turned towards me and began to ask where the cat was, waving his arm from side to side to dissuade it from returning. This gesture of protection was one of the rare times I felt so loved by a grandparent. Here was this person who didn’t know me that well and could barely see but none of that mattered. I was scared and he was by my side.

Thanks, Itay.