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Friday, March 29, 2019

Vida Cruz and Philippine Mythology

This was a really great discussion. Special thank you to our guest author Vida Cruz for persisting until she actually made it into the hangout, despite technical difficulties, and to our discussants for their patience while we resolved those issues to the best of our ability.

We started by discussing Vida's story "Odd and Ugly," which she describes as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast set in Spanish colonial Philippines. In this tale, the Beast is a Kapre, a kind of hairy giant who lives in a tree and smokes cigars, while Beauty is a farm girl. The story is told in second person from the Beast's point of view. Vida told us that she had written about these two characters in different iterations, and the Beauty and the Beast portion of the story came last.

Since the Spanish were in the Philippines for over 300 years, education has been heavily influenced by them. There is a dearth of good literature about the early colonial period. When Vida attended Clarion workshop in 2014, she did more research for that story.

In the story, the kapre views the farm girl with a combination of guilt and fascination. He's been living the bachelor life in a magical tree, and it's a bit of a mess. His servants can't do work, because they are flowers. He hoards things he has found in the forest over the years.

Vida told us that Tade Thompson was one of her beta readers and helped her flesh out the connection to world history. Spoilers - the kapre is a former runaway African slave who was transformed. It appears that some of the origins of the kapre myth include the fact that the Spanish told the natives of the region that escaped slaves were monsters. This added historical element is integrated beautifully and sensitively into the story.

Another character in the story is a diwata, which is most closely translated to "fairy" but is also like a mountain goddess who roams mountains and lakes. In this story, the diwata is missing, and Beauty wants to know where the diwata has gone and why she is not helping to chase away the Spaniards. This diwata is modeled on a diwata called Maria Makiling who is the spirit of the mountains outside of Manila, the protector of both the mountains and the bay. There are many stories about her, quite a number featuring mortal lovers she had who either had to go to war or spurned her. There are stories about her from the Spanish colonial period, and also the American World War II period.

Recently there has been a resurgence of interest in Philippines mythology in the Philippines. There is a zine called "Spirits of the Archipelago" that focuses on them. Vida directs those who are interested in this topic to The Aswang Project website.

A lot of the mythological stories grew out of oral culture, so it is hard to recapture them since the people experienced colonial invasion. People have tried to write down these stories a few times.

Kate remarked how this mythology would be a rich vein to mine since the West has had so little contact with that body of knowledge.

Vida told us how the Spaniards tried to stamp out these beliefs and stories. Most people in the provinces, though, still believe in aswang and you will be able to see things like hanging garlic and brooms across windows. Tagalog people had four local gods associated with death and dying. The Spanish took their names and turned them into witches in order to demonize them. It's important for us to try to find the original versions of these stories and preserve them wherever they can be found.

Next we talked about Vida's story about the origin of the mango. She told us this one was difficult to write. She worked on it during the Clarion workshop and had intended it to be the story for week 1, but ended up having to postpone it to week 2. This story is set in the pre-colonial period. There isn't much literature on this period - more now than there was in 2014, but at the time she had to rely on Google searches. The story features a mountain tribe living on rice terraces. The main character is a servant who works as a handmaiden to the heir to the tribe. This tribe values telling stories and singing, but the princess can't sing. The servant's brother falls in love with the princess, and she helps him court her, but he dies hunting the dowry boar. His sister goes and sings for him, and impresses the diwata of the mountain so much that she grants her one wish. The sister wishes to have her brother alive again, and the diwata brings him back as a magical mango tree.

One of the stories that inspired this piece was a story about a very good boy who dies and when his parents beg the diwata to bring him back, she turns his heart into a mango tree. Another variant is about a girl who kills herself, and when her heart is buried it grows a mango tree.

The mango tree is culturally important.

Vida expressed some uncertainty about the hearts being buried, because she explained that in pre-colonial times your liver, not your heart, was considered more important. However, it may be that the heart was chosen because mango fruit physically resembles a heart.

Kate asked if there were any spirits or deities associated with weather and storms. Vida said there was a creation story where someone fights a giant bird and the fight causes storms, but the world is born from that fight.

No one person knows everything about these stories. If you talk to different people you get different pieces of them, like trying to assemble a puzzle.

Vida has not yet written a story about the purple yam called ube. We were encouraging her to do so!

In fact, food features in both of the stories we discussed. A kapre who is courting a woman gives her food, but you are not supposed to eat it - especially black rice - or you will be stuck in his realm. The kapre favors a single tree. When you go inside it, it's one room of his house. The talking flower-servants were Vida's own invention. In fact, they livened up the story quite a bit! She told us the story was much slower when it was just the kapre and Maria, so she added the fire tree as a second in command. The flowers mirror aspects of filipino social communities where people know each other, gossip and have petty fights.

Right now, Vida is working on a Tiptree grant for a project involving an alternate Philippine archipelago with mythological creatures, told in the form of news articles. A journalist is determined to expose gender issues, the rise of fascism, and other things. One of the stories, "First Play for and by Tikbalang Triggers Uproar on Opening Night," has been published, but four more are planned. In one, Maria Makiling the diwata runs a popup cafe with human heartbreak as her secret ingredient. She picks up people really suffering as victims of martial laws under Marcos. In a sense, she said, writing this was to counter the revisionism that is currently happening in Philippine politics, where there's a resurgence of fondness for Marcos. Vida says that recent talk about the "good things Marcos did" have her worried about upcoming elections.

Still in the works is a story skewering the Duterte regime, in which there's a civil war between mythological creatures and the government because Duterte kissed Maria Makiling without consent and she demanded an apology.

Another story is about a human girl, age 12, and a mermaid marooned on shore after Typhoon Haian, trying to survive in the post-typhoon city. This one features a mermaid hierarchy, climate change, and sea pollution diminishing the mermaids' power to stop typhoons.

When asked what other filipino writers she was inspired by, Vida cited Dean and Nikki Alfar, who she calls the Oberon and Titania of speculative fiction in the Philippines. She says that the genre didn't really boom until the 2000s, but that every spec fic writer there owes them a debt. She also recommends The Infinite Library and Other Stories by Victor Ocampo.

Vida told us she really wants to see an alien invasion story set in the Philippines because the people there are so used to such things. She said if they met an alien "we would invite it to our houses and serve it lunch, but make it take its shoes off first. We're kind of doing it all the time."

Vida also recommended a great image of the three diwata Marias (Makiling, Sinukuan, and Cacao) and a friend, which can be found here.

Vida, thank you again for coming on the show and sharing your work with us! This was fascinating, and I hope you can come on again sometime.

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