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Interview: Randy Ribay on his controversial, highly-praised novel, ‘Patron Saints of Nothing’

Fil-Am author Randy Ribay speaks truth to power in his latest YA novel 'Patron Saints of Nothing'.

When it comes to Young Adult (YA) fiction, it’s quite rare to find titles and narratives that hinge themselves on explicitly political  stories and themes.

Randy Ribay’s latest novel Patron Saints of Nothing, is one such title.

An exploration of one’s identity as seen through the lens of Duterte’s bloody war on drugs that’s been raging in the Philippines for the last three years, Patron Saints of Nothing has received starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal, as well as authors such as Laurie Halse Anderson, who described it as “brilliant, honest, and equal parts heartbreaking and soul-healing.”

It’s an apt description, given the book’s unflinching and yet poetic take on the story it chose to narrate.

GIST got to talk to Randy very recently. Here, our conversation:

Patron Saints of Nothing tells a very specific story that, for most of us here in the Philippines, is a very grim reality. What compelled you to write the novel?

As a Filipino-American with a lot of family in the Philippines, I try to keep an eye on the news over there. So when the drug war’s extrajudicial killings started making international headlines, I couldn’t ignore it. My immediate reaction was that it was a blatant violation of constitutional and human rights, yet I was shocked that most of my family and (if surveys are to be believed) most Filipinos supported the approach. That made me take a step back and wonder what right I had to voice my opinions about anything happening in the Philippines when I haven’t lived there since I was a baby. I created Jay & Jun’s story to explore this question. 

As a Person Of Color (POC), what are your thoughts on the current state of diversity in fiction and in the publishing industry?

It’s getting better, but there’s still a long way to go. I think we really need to work on not just making sure diverse stories are being written but making sure that the industries themselves are diverse so that they make it out into the world and into readers’ hands. Systems reproduce themselves, so if we want to ensure the books on our shelves reflect the diverse reality of our world, then we need to ensure that our teachers, librarians, reviewers, agents, editors, artists, marketing professionals, etc. also reflect that diversity. 

What were the challenges you faced while writing Patron Saints of Nothing?

I put a lot of my own memories and personal struggles into the novel, so simply deciding to do that was a challenge. Creating art is a very vulnerable act, and creating art that includes so much of yourself can make you feel even more vulnerable. 

Another major challenge was making sure that I was representing the Philippines and the drug war as accurately and as sensitively as I could. I tried to do my research to get the facts right. I spoke with Filipinos. I visited twice while writing the novel. For the Filipino and Fil-Am readers, I wanted to make sure they felt seen. For the non-Filipino readers, I wanted to make sure they were getting a realistic depiction of the country and its people. There’s not many Filipino stories in YA, so I was always aware of this responsibility. 

Randy, Patron Saints of Nothing delved on the nature of populist and extremist ideology and its effect on people. What inspired this decision?

Reality, I suppose. I wanted to portray the different perspectives people have, including those that support the EJKs and the drug war. However, I think it’s much easier for people to hold those opinions when it’s simply statistics. By writing this story, I wanted to humanize a victim of the war and make the reader feel the emotional impact of the policy. 

What makes a good story? What makes a good writer? 

I enjoy stories that have balanced development of all the narrative elements. I like stories with a world that feels vivid, characters that are relatable and complex, a plot that’s engaging enough to make me want to keep turning the page, themes that speak deeply to what it means to be human, and writing that’s lyrical and concise. However, that’s my personal taste. I believe “good” is subjective, which is why I prefer to say that I enjoy something rather than saying it’s “good” (which implies some objective quality).

As for the second part, I don’t know, exactly. First of all, probably someone who is writing consistently, since it’s a skill that is refined with practice. Someone who reads a lot and reads widely and reads critically. Someone who’s a student of humanity and is curious about the world. And someone who knows why they’re writing and can remember that during difficult times or rejections. Maybe all of that, but I don’t know. Everyone is different; every writer is different. 

How does one find his or her voice when it comes to writing?

Practice. I think at first, it’s natural to emulate what you enjoy, but if you keep doing that, it gets boring and your work won’t stand out. But I think if you keep writing and keep asking yourself this question and be willing to experiment, you will move toward your voice. I think this is an ongoing process, though. At least for me, I have a sense of my voice, but I also believe my voice is always evolving. 

How does it feel, connecting with Filipino readers through Patron Saints of Nothing?

It’s an absolute honor. Although my first two novels feature Filipino American characters, Patron Saints of Nothing delves directly into Filipino American identity and the Philippines. This has allowed me to connect with more Filipino readers, I’ve loved meeting them and feel so honored whenever they thank me for bringing more Filipino representation into the YA world. 

***

Published by Kokila Books under Penguin Young Readers, Randy Ribay’s Patron Saints of Nothing is available in paperback form at Fully Booked and Pandayan Bookshop.

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