Hunting for Stories in the Philippines

There is a story of a woman who gave birth to a shard of porcelain that grew into the image of the Virgin Mary and her son. This image was guarded carefully by the woman’s family and handed down from mother to daughter, from aunt to niece. The image became a source of strength for the family, and the women into whose hands it came were gifted with the ability to heal people.

This story was told to me by a fellow Filipina, and the woman who gave birth in this story was her great grandmother.

Truth or Fiction? You tell me.

Cattle caller from the Ifugao Museum*

When Ann and Jeff VanderMeer came to Amsterdam in 2010, they told me about a project they were engaged in: a search for fantastic and weird stories in their original languages. The conversation we had stayed with me, and when I went back home in 2011 I decided that I too would go on a hunt for stories told in the vernacular.

In recent years, we have seen the rise of speculative fiction in the Philippines. We have many young and wonderful storytellers writing and getting published in English. I see this as a positive thing and am happy that young writers are choosing to embrace the genre and challenging themselves to delve deeper and look beyond what is available at the local bookstore.

Looking for fantastic fiction in English is not a difficult task. The local bookshop has quite a broad choice of English language books in the sf/f section. Some of these are written by Filipino writers, but the majority of novels in that section are penned by American writers.

I want to note here that there is a better selection of novels today as compared to when I was in high school and college, but what’s available on Filipino shelves cannot be compared to what’s available in the English-speaking part of the Western world. You can buy George R.R. Martin here, but searching for Catherynne Valente or Jeff VanderMeer might mean going on a long, frustrating hunt.

Nevertheless, fantasy as a genre has increased in popularity, and it seems that it is selling well enough for bookshops to stock up on titles.

But what about Filipino-languaged fantasy?

One thing I immediately learned was this: horror is alive and well in Filipino language publications. I found tales of hauntings and possessions. Murdered spirits come back to avenge their deaths, beautiful white ladies turn into monsters, and creatures of the night feed on innocent flesh. These stories are familiar to every Filipino, for who doesn’t know of the aswang or the tikbalang? What Filipino is unfamiliar with the kapre and the nuno sa punso? Who hasn’t heard of hauntings and blood dripping down the walls?

No matter that these are familiar tales; the shelves bear witness to the fact that these pulp magazines are selling well and being read, perhaps because of the shock value or because they are in Filipino.

One of the commentaries I brought home with me talks of how the masses look at Filipino-authored fiction in English as coming from academia, whereas fiction in the vernacular is more accessible and less intimidating. I don’t know to what extent this is true. It’s also possible that the magazine form is less intimidating for the Filipino reader.

While I already knew it was hopeless, I continued to browse the shelves in the hopes of finding more than the horror publications. I wanted to find the stories that connected me to my nation’s indigenous heritage.

My interest stems not only from the fact that I grew up in the mountains, but also from knowing that while the lowlands were colonized and lived under the influence of the Spanish for close to four hundred years, they had failed to colonize the mountains because of the fierceness of the Ifugao warriors who lived there.

It was not until the coming of the Americans that the mountains were colonized, and even then “civilizing” efforts did not totally erase the original culture. I hoped that this also applied to the stories from the mountains.

Of one of the stories I wrote at Clarion West, someone said that it was hard to believe there was a place as uninvested in technology as the tribal region I wrote about. This made me think hard and long. I realized my mission to look for stories was compounded by my desire to find out if my perception was false — perhaps I was writing from an obsolete memory. I also considered if it was possible that I had romanticized my childhood home.

A bulul, or carved wooden figure.

The mountain terraces are guarded by spirits. They sit there in the form of the bulul (carved figures) to whom offerings of rice wine and the first bundle of harvested rice are made. Unlike other cultures, the Ifugao do not believe in reincarnation. The body returns to dust and the spirit occupies the ground, the trees, the stones, the earth — the spirit becomes part of the mountains.

There are spirits who work for good and there are spirits who must be appeased. The mumbaki (native priest) plays a major role in communicating with the spirits who are consulted during engagements, weddings, the harvest, and the planting of rice. There are other things, of course, and in the old days when headhunting was still rife, it was believed that taking the head of a valiant enemy and setting it to stand guard over your house was sure to keep bad spirits away.

Headhunting has long been outlawed in the mountains, but practices like canyao and baki still happen – where the spirits of the ancestors are invoked and divinations and auguries are performed.

Stories abound. Cautionary tales, magical tales, frightful tales, the beautiful, the strange, and the weird — reason and logic tell us that these are fictions, and yet all too often fiction crosses over into the real world.

The modern world lives there as well, but it is not as rooted or as valued as in the lowlands. Young people have mobile phones and laptops; they go on the internet and watch television. The government has ensured that there are places people can go to for medical care. The roads are paved and there are efficient means of transportation. Yet, for all of this, some things in the mountains remain unchanged.

I want to believe it is the proximity to nature that allows some of the Ifugao to remain in touch with the invisible world. But, as one of my elder aunts said to me, the modern world has made more of an inroad than the eye can see. Not many young people know the old stories and songs, and the effect of Christianization on Ifugao culture has resulted in the rejection of tribal practices, since these have been depicted as evil and undesirable.

But all is not lost. In the 1960’s, the government amended the constitution to include the Protection of Indigenous Cultures, Traditions and Institutions. Places like the Ifugao heritage center have been put up and celebrations like the tri-annual Imbayah and the annual Ifugao Day take place.

With the tireless efforts of Ifugao culture bearers like Manuel Dulawan, awareness is slowly being raised. Books are being written by native Ifugao about the Ifugao culture and their lifestyle. More youngsters are coming to an understanding of how rich and wonderful this heritage is and how much we should be proud of it, study it, and own it.

Books by Emilio D. Pagada

Aside from trudging up and down the mountainside and visiting with elders, former teachers, old friends and acquaintances, I spent my summer sifting through piles of Bannawag (a pulp magazine in the Ilocano language), going through the stacks in the National library and the local bookshops, and chasing down publications brought to my attention by fellow Filipinos.

My harvest of vernacular Filipino reading included Oral Literature of the Ifugao by Manuel Dulawan, Masferre’s A Tribute to the Philippine Cordillera, two books on my hometown Banaue by Emilio D. Pagada (my industrial arts teacher in grade school), a book on the history of Ifugao by former Governor Gualberto B. Lumauig,  a box of musty-smelling Bannawag magazines donated by a former Elementary school teacher, a slim volume of the first and only anthology of speculative fiction in the Filipino language, some commentaries on Ilocano writing, discussions of women’s writing in English, and a commentary on the fabulous in Filipino writing.

In contrast to all this writing, the Ifugao tradition has always been an oral one. I remember sitting together with my friends and parents, listening to the storytellers chant the stories of Bugan and Wigan. There would be stories about weddings and hunts and wars that had been fought. The stories were told in chant or song and accompanied by the gong or nose flute.

By the time I was old enough to go to Elementary school, everything had been Christianized and the customs and traditional dances were taken out only during special days, special cultural events, or school programs.

I can only speculate about the loss of so much knowledge. My godsister told me that the original culture was no longer present where I had grown up, but it was still preserved in Kiangan where Manuel Dulawan was and where the Ifugao heritage center was located.

Time constraints prevented me from going to Kiangan, but Dulawan’s book, Oral Literature of the Ifugao, is a treasure. In it, Dulawan records not only the history of cultural loss, but also myths, folktales, songs and chants both in the vernacular and in English.

Some of the stories are familiar, and some of them are new to me. There are stories of transformations, cautionary tales, and stories told simply for fun and enjoyment. Many of these stories contain elements that are magical and fantastic. A good number of the cautionary tales are darkly fantastic, sometimes brutal in their nature and their telling.

One dark tale tells of the marriage between a goddess and a human. In this story, the goddess takes the human to live with her in the skies, but after a time, the human desires to return to earth. The goddess then decides to divide their son. The upper portion she keeps with her in the heavens and the lower portion she gives to her husband, admonishing him to take care of his portion of their child. After a while, the goddess discovers that her husband has been neglecting the portion she gave to him. The goddess descends from heaven and is grieved to find the lower portion of their son in a decaying state. In order to release their son from his suffering, the goddess transforms the rotted lower portion of their son into all sorts of flying and crawling creatures.

Some of the stories in Dulawan’s book bear a resemblance to fairytales from ancient Europe and China, but these are stories told to the writer by storytellers who have lived in the tribe and never travelled beyond the Philippines.

It is encouraging to know that the government actively encourages programs meant to perpetuate and ensure pride in our indigenous culture. Imbayah, which is held once every three years, is one of the activities that brings together tribes from all over Ifugao. During this time, they perform both modern and traditional dances; they recite the old stories and chants and receive recognition if they have done well.

Back issues of Bannawag magazine

Three months seems like a sea of time, but when it comes down to it, it is only a drop in the bucket. It is not enough time to go around the country and uncover everything that I want to uncover. I need more time to satisfy my desire to know more, to learn and absorb as much as I want to.

I have to satisfy myself with books. The commentary on Ilokano literature has proven to be insightful and relevant because Ilocos and Ifugao are close neighbours, and in Banaue, where I grew up, Ilokano was a second language.

If the Ifugao were fierce warriors who held back the Spanish by dint of their expertise in hunting for heads, the Ilocanos are well-known for being among the first to successfully revolt against the Spaniards. Diego Silang and his wife Gabriela were Ilocanos. The youngest Filipino general, General Manuel Tinio, was also Ilocano. There are more names, but these will have to suffice for now.

In terms of literary accomplishments, many respected poets and writers come from the Ilocano region, which also has a tradition of writing as a form of political and social protest. But, as I recall, protest was not the only subject of the Ilocano stories I read as a child.

Bannawag is one of the oldest and most long-lived magazines published in the vernacular. Back in the day, there used to be another Ilocano magazine called Liwayway which seems to be defunct (some people told me it was still in print, but I didn’t see any evidence of this being true).

Reading through the magazines that were given to me, I marveled at the richness of the language. Bannawag still contains a hodge-podge of articles ranging from politics to gossip about celebrities, and, just as I recalled, there was still a huge section dedicated to a serial or short story, as well as a section dedicated to short stories for children.

Reading Bannawag as an adult, I realized that my recollection of reading fantasy in Ilocano must have come from reading the children’s section. Here were stories about fairies and talking vegetables and animals. Most of the issues had a drama serial or a fiction piece that was political in nature. Among the fifty plus magazines I read, there was only one story for the adult reader that was vaguely fantastic in nature.

In a conversation I had with my godbrother, he told me that Bannawag was called the Bible of the Ilocanos. This was because the stories in Bannawag are truly Ilocano in nature and sentiment, and reading Bannawag was something most Ilocano elders did first thing in the morning.

Someday, I will go to Ilocos. I will sit with the elder women and ask them questions and listen to them as they tell the stories they have to tell.

After all, it is from the Ilocos region that the epic tale of Lam-ang originates. And before speculative fiction became known in the Philippines, Ilocano writers like Juan S.P. Hidalgo and Reynaldo Duque were employing speculative tropes in their work. Most of these works are in Ilocano, and while it is possible that some of these have been translated into English, they are not easy to find.

The deeper I delved, the more frustrated I became. I realized that the one thing that stood between the Filipino people and our heritage is this: the books relevant to our heritage are the hardest to find and often the most expensive to buy.

In my search for books, my best bet has often been to go directly to the publisher, as most of the books I look for are not available at local bookshops in Manila. Whether the fault lies with the bookshops or the publishers, I cannot say.

Ifugao carving of the myth of the magic flute**

There are still more stories that I want to discover. I have not yet ventured further down South, where I am sure there are many more fantastic stories told in the vernacular.

It is from visiting my grandmother’s home in the South that I became acquainted with the stories about the wak-wak (the visayan vampire type) and the tiktik. It was also there that I learned about the enkantos.

A Filipina friend from the south, who heard of my quest for stories, told me this story about her grandmother who was courted by an enkanto, a spirit being. Her grandmother had already been married for some years when she encountered this enkanto. He became enamored of her and asked her to marry him, but she refused.

I have a husband and I have my children,” she said.

The enkanto insisted that he would wait, and so he came to see her regularly. My friend’s great – great-grandfather was gifted with sight and he could see the enkanto each time he came to visit my friend’s grandmother. During these visits, the grandmother would fall into a trance which she would snap out of once the visitor departed.

The ending to this supernatural courtship is somewhat bittersweet, but that is the way the best stories go.


Notes on the Museum Sculptures:

*Cattle caller — Ifugao’s carvers are animistic artists who take their inspiration from the form provided them by nature. In 1944, a carver from Bugnay, Lamut, Ifugao, came upon a molave tree which bore an image of his own face at a younger age when he was responsible for caring for his father’s cattle. The carver, Hapi-jo, refined what nature had provided and later had it ritualized as a bulul.

**Myth of the magic flute — A story is told about a hunter who went out to hunt to no avail. When he sat down to rest, a spirit gave him this magic flute. When he played on the flute, all manner of animals came to him and he was able to capture what he needed.

Rochita Loenen-Ruiz is a Filipino writer of science fiction and fantasy. A graduate of the Clarion West Writer’s Workshop, Rochita was the recipient of the 2009 Octavia Butler Scholarship, and the first Filipina writer to attend Clarion West. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of online and print publications, including Fantasy Magazine, Apex Magazine, and Weird Tales. In the Philippines, her short fiction has been published in Philippine Panorama, Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 2, and Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 4.

3 replies to “Hunting for Stories in the Philippines

  1. Pingback: Welcome « From the Beloved Country

  2. I came across this article in a random search, and was thrilled (three years after the fact of your accomplishment) to find that a Filipina had participated in Clarion West — that had been my own goal many years back, before single parenthood sidetracked, or rather, slowed down my writing.

    I was a Manila girl (my father was American, hence the last name, my mother Spanish-Filipino from Iloilo), but the mythology I was steeped in was Visayan, rather than more Northern based. Like many girls I grew up with in the pre-Cory days, I was ignored by my parents and raised by ya-yas (in my case, from Antique, Iloilo, and Siquijor). Because I was left to my own devices much of the time, and coincidentally read too many of the Ballantine adult fantasy paperbacks and Arkham house hardcovers that were floating around in the 70s (my father and oldest brother were speculative fiction nuts, and brought their books in from the States — I also watched far too many Hammer horror movies on Filipino TV, on top of Filipino horror movies, which are not quite like anything else on earth), I was perhaps imaginatively over-susceptible to the mystical thinking that I was lovingly subjected to by my caregivers (mostly in the form of threats — not only did Manananggal go after fetuses, they also went after little girls who wouldn’t listen). 

    I was particularly struck by the passing comment you made that folks at Clarion found the setting for one of your stories “difficult to believe.” Many of my friends in the United States find my stories of home striking.

    I think it’s a wonderful thing to have been raised somewhere with tiny ghost stories lurking around every corner. I am happy to find that folks are starting to write about them. Keep doing that.



  3. manuel dulawan has other books published and i have with me soft copies of another 2 books which are not yet published. He’s been looking for publishers but to no avail.