Once, last century, I studied Filipino history for my undergraduate degree. The units were imaginatively named The History of the Philippines Part A and B. Like most things I studied, I remember little.
To be fair, it was Darwin and there was a lot of drinking.
Thankfully Alternative Alamat by Paolo Chikiamco is imaginative and stock full of story that I never got the chance to encounter as part of my history major. So while reading Alternative Alamat evokes a certain level of nostalgia, there’s plenty here that is fresh and new and exciting.
Alamat roughly translates as Legend, and so we have Alternative Legends, a collection of stories that explore and bring to life in reader’s(both International and Filipino) minds some of the richness that can be found in Philippine Mythology. After having chatted with Rochita Loenen-Ruiz and reading Alternative Alamat it becomes apparent to me that this is just a taster, an indication of what is possible, of what more there is to explore in Philippine mythology.
Paolo has managed to gather together an interesting group of stories and writers. There are names that are familiar to me: Eliza Victoria, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Dean Alfar and David Hontiveros but there’s a fair amount that I haven’t had the privilege of reading before.
A quick selection of the tales:
Eliza Victoria, kicks off the collection with Ana’s Little Pawnshop on Makiling St. which also featured in her collection A Bottle of Storm Clouds. It’s a very good modern rendering of Anagolay, the Philippine Goddess of lost things and a comment perhaps on the modernisation of the Philippines.
Harinuo’s Love Song by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, is a beautiful retelling of the myth of the Sky Maiden. Beautiful and horrifying at the same time. This story was pleasurable beyond the tale itself. It contains poems within the text but the whole story itself has a very powerful folktale rhythm to it.
Budjette Tan, famous for his Graphic Novel/Comic, Trese (available form Kobo), gives us the The Last Full Show, a slice of life from that world. It’s a good mix of crime/mystery and the supernatural, Philippines style.
Timothy James Dimacali’s Keeper of My Sky was very good and quite sad at the same time. An ancient story re-crafted in a modern setting and cleverly structured to produce a unique effect. Reminds me of some of the character reimagining in American Gods.
Mo Francisco, takes another look at Maria Makiling in Conquering Makiling, the goddess of this tale is a little more primal, earthy in her presentation. The story was vivid and quite humorous. This is one of those stories that sits quite happily in the realms of magical realism as it does in speculative fiction or fantasy.
There are others in this collection that I will leave to surprise you. They were all good stories and showcased what can be accomplished with Philippine folk lore and mythology with a range of literary styles. Dean Alfar finishes off the fiction segment of the collection with a story told in footnotes – a short excerpt from an historical text (real or fabricated I am not sure) is footnoted* and it is these footnotes that builds the story. It’s an interesting technique and it bridges nicely to the non-fiction articles and interviews that Chikiamco sourced for the collection.
You can’t ask much more from a book than to be intrigued, entertained and educated. Alternative Alamat achieves all of this admirably. It’s an important read not only for those wanting diversity in their speculative fiction but also I think for Filipino’s wanting to explore and engage in their mythology.
It is beautifully illustrated by Mervin Malonzo who did the front cover and the interior black and white plates. At just over $5 AUD via Kobo, this collection is a steal. If you are a fan of myth and folktale retelling, take a trip to the Philippines, I don’t think you will regret it.