Hello friends!!! I’m thrilled to introduce another first time guest to A Little Bit Tart, A Little Bit Sweet. Ines Bautista-Yao was kind enough to respond to my request for guest posts for APAHM!I know that “#ownvoices” is the “trendy thing” right now but … it’s not a trend – it’s life, and I’m so pleased we’re able to continue celebrating SHM months!
Filipino Characters in Filipino Settings
By Ines Bautista-Yao
Growing up, my favorite books were by authors Enid Blyton, Carolyn Keene, Jahnna N. Malcolm, and Sheri Cobb South. I would lose myself in the adventures, heartaches, and triumphs of the characters. That was easy. Emotions, no matter where in the world you belonged, were universal. What wasn’t so easy was trying to imagine what it would be like to see what the characters saw, and to interact with people who had blue or even green eyes, and flaming red or flaxen hair. Funnily enough, my classmates and I didn’t know what flax was, but when we read “flaxen hair” in a book, we all knew it meant blonde. So whenever my classmates and I would write stories or imagine characters, they would more often than not have blue eyes and that so-called flaxen hair. It had gotten to a point where I would stay after a movie was over so I could read the credits and file away the last names in my mind. I didn’t know enough American last names for my characters, and movie credits were a good source of information.
It had never crossed my mind to write a story about a little Filipino girl like me.
Several years later, when a Philippine publisher started coming out with local romance books set in the Philippines written in English, I adjusted the way I wrote my characters. I began thinking closer to home. I patterned my characters after people I knew instead of people I read about or watched on the big screen. I researched more about the province where I had grown up, looking into seemingly insignificant details such as the color of a pastry wrapper or the height of a particular waterfall. I was surprised at how much of myself, my culture, and my country I had put into this story—something I had not given importance to at all in the past because the only books I read were foreign.
But the brainwashing was strong. Even if my reading list was no longer limited to American and British novels—I had discovered Indian and Chinese authors, though still published by US publishers—I still wasn’t sure if my Filipino characters would be accepted. So when I wrote my third book, one I was planning to self-publish, I didn’t include family names (they’re the easiest way to categorize a character), I didn’t name places, and I tried to keep the setting descriptions as neutral as possible. The problem with this was my readers ended up feeling displaced. Some of them asked, “Where is this taking place? I enjoyed the story but I wish the setting were stronger, clearer.” And I felt really bad because I knew I had deliberately glossed over it. If you knew the Philippines, you would know that my characters were Filipino, but if you weren’t familiar with my country and countrymen, you wouldn’t. It made me ask myself what kind of statement I was making with this book, with this half-baked effort.
It felt like I was cheating.
So I thought about it. Hard. Did I want to go the route where I wrote about foreign characters set in a foreign land because I wanted to target a larger audience? I checked out books of Filipino authors who did that and I was amazed at how effortless it seemed. Maybe because our pop culture kind of resembled theirs. I considered it, while thinking of the different ways I could possibly get a feel of a place I hadn’t been to in years.
But something kept nagging at me, telling me that even if I wasn’t writing in my local language, I wanted to write for that little Filipino girl who was looking for stories about people with skin just like hers—not exactly brown, not exactly white, but somewhere in between. With hair so black, no way could it be described as flaxen—or even titian blonde like her favorite amateur detective’s. I wanted to write about a reality that she knew, one she understood. I wanted her to say, “I know that place! I also order that cake when I visit!” I wanted to speak to her not just through the events and emotions of the characters, but through the setting as well. I wanted her to feel like she too could overcome any obstacle thrown her way—and not have to dye her hair red or blonde to be able to do it. I wanted her to feel that she could be the heroine of her own story, because she has skin that’s neither here nor there, because she has hair that’s black as a starless night, because her heritage is so mixed, no one can ever tell what her nationality is, because she is Filipino.
I rewrote my third book and released it with a stronger Filipino setting. But more importantly, now, whenever I write a story, I not only tell you where it is set (yes, the Philippines), complete with cities and provinces, but I deliberately inject my culture into my stories. And my greatest joy is when people from other countries read them and tell me that they immensely enjoyed their visit to the Philippines through the pages of my story, but at the same time, were pleasantly surprised at how similar our cultures actually are. One reader told me that she had never given the Philippines much thought other than whatever was mentioned on TV or in the movies, but was happy that she was given a closer view of the place and the people through my book.
It may be more difficult to find the larger readership I hope for with my Filipino characters who live in the Philippines, but when a reader writes me saying how happy she is that she can see herself in the main character, how she knows she can also turn her life around the way the main character did, or just how kilig she was when she read the book, I know I made the right decision. And I am so happy that more and more young Filipino writers are starting to write stories about little Filipino boys and girls, just like us. Just like me.
This was a fascinating, and heartbreaking post. Thank you so very much for sharing with us, Ines. So what did you think? Did you grow up looking like the characters in the books you read? Did you identify with them? … Do you like “traveling” when you read books?