Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay – A Timely and Unforgettable Story about the Phillipine Drug War, Privilege, and Hope

Book review: Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay. A badge at the bottom-left that says, 'Reviewed by CW, The Quiet Pond'. In the centre is a image of Xiaolong, the pink axolotl wearing a flower hat, waving at you.

Blurb:

Jay Reguero plans to spend the last semester of his senior year playing video games before heading to the University of Michigan in the fall. But when he discovers that his Filipino cousin Jun was murdered as part of President Duterte’s war on drugs, and no one in the family wants to talk about what happened, Jay travels to the Philippines to find out the real story.

Hoping to uncover more about Jun and the events that led to his death, Jay is forced to reckon with the many sides of his cousin before he can face the whole horrible truth — and the part he played in it.

CW’s Review:

When some of my favourite Filipino bloggers hyped up this book and sung its praises, I was intrigued. When JM hosted the blog tour for Patron Saints of Nothing, and I read the powerful and personal book reviews by Filipino bloggers, I knew that Patron Saints of Nothing would be the kind of book that you just could not miss. And if there is any book that I want you to pick up based on my, and many other amazing Filipino bloggers’ recommendations (I’ve linked a bunch of reviews that you must read at the end of this review!), you should read Patron Saints of Nothing.

Patron Saints of Nothing follows Jay, a Filipino-American who travels from his comfortable home in America to the Philippines to uncover and understand the mysterious circumstances of his cousin’s death. This is a book that doesn’t just explore the Philippine Drug War happening in the Philippines right now – it’s also a story about identity, privilege, grief, and the complexity of human experience.

About history as it unfolds in the Philippines

Allow me to talk frankly to my readers located outside of the Philippines for a second, especially those of us in Western countries: I think a lot of us, at most, may have heard about what’s going on in the Philippines at the moment. But in case you haven’t heard, then here is the ‘Philippine Drug War’ Wikipedia page. My personal knowledge prior to reading Patron Saints of Nothing stemmed from my Filipino friends talking about it on Twitter and within my friend circles. Though their opinions – from young Filipinos both living at the Philippines and those living in New Zealand – were pretty much uniform (they were against it), I think a common denominator was concern; many of my Filipino friends were very concerned about the trajectory of the drug policy and how it would unfold.

It’s been three years since the Philippine drug policy was introduced, and, as of writing, the official toll from the drug war is roughly 5100, but news organisations and human rights groups counter that the death toll is around 12,000. Big numbers can be hard to grasp, and their significance and impact on a country, its people, its families, its future, even more so. Enter Patron Saints of Nothing: a story that contextualises the Philippine Drug War and its impact through the lens of a Filipino-American in a story that is deeply personal and untangles cultural experiences within Filipino identity, and the differences between being a Filipino who lives in the Philippines and a Filipino who is part of diaspora.

Tackles and confronts privilege and ignorance

For a lot of us living outside of the Philippines, we probably relate to Jay – we go through our daily lives in an innocent ignorance – but is ignorance nonetheless – that distance affords us. I don’t think that Ribay wrote Jay so that he would be a relatable character in the sense that we generally understand ‘relatable’ characters – a character where we use as an anchor for comfort and familiarity. Rather, Jay is relatable to many of us readers outside the Philippines because he lives a privileged life in America, away from what is happening and what his family experiences in the Philippines. Indeed, Patron Saints of Nothing is not a book that panders to the American/Western gaze. It is not a story about how a Filipino-American saves his Filipino family. Rather, Patron Saints of Nothing challenges the common American saviour trope, squashes it like a bug, and gives its Filipino characters agency, a voice, and a space to be diverse and real.  

Though that’s not to say that Jay’s struggle as a diasporic teen are meaningless, throughout the story Jay is made very aware of his own privilege and his ignorance and is forced to reflect confront them head-on. The story in Patron Saints of Nothing, at times, can be uncomfortable; to be honest, it made me uncomfortable at times (particularly with Jay’s conversations with Tito Maning). But I think an important thing that Patron Saints of Nothing emphasises is that feeling discomfort is not a bad thing. Rather, sitting with discomfort and exploring why we feel discomfort is a necessary part of the process of when how we see and understand the world changes.

In the case of Patron Saints of Nothing, this is the sort of book that implores us outside of the Philippines to just shut up and listen – and with this, Jay is a fantastic protagonist. When Jay learns of the circumstances of Jun’s, his cousin, death, he adopts a grandiose and righteous belief that he will personally go to the Philippines, confront his family who, for reasons he cannot understand, will not talk about what happened, and make them confront what he strongly believes is true. However, Jay does not become a saviour; Jay becomes a character whom we can sit with as he navigates perspectives and experiences unfamiliar to him, is humbled by them, and goes through the messy and imperfect process of growing and learning. And I think that Jay is the protagonist the story, and we, needed for such a story.

Ultimately a story about grief, healing, and hope

I’ve talked a lot about the more sociological elements of this book so far, so let me take a step back and talk more frankly about why I loved it. The simple answer is that Patron Saints of Nothing is a kind of book that hits you so incredibly hard – and you later thank Ribay for it. The emotional depth of this book was phenomenal, how it portrays the impact of the Drug War and the class divide within the Philippines was candid and yet sensitive, and Jay’s experiences as a diasporic teen visiting a place that is a part to his identity – and yet he feels apart from – was so real and relatable.

What I really loved about Patron Saints of Nothing, though, was how there’s this undercurrent of hope. Grief is a big part of the story, as Jay turns his grief of losing his cousin into action which later transforms into a journey of understanding. The story is supported by an array of fantastic characters – I loved Grace, Jay’s cousin and Jun’s sister; I loved Jay’s two kind, sapphic, and powerhouse titas, Tita Ines and Tita Chato; and I also loved Mia, a budding journalist who Jay meets at the Philippines and helps him uncover the secrets surrounding Jun’s death (though I wasn’t a big fan of their romance, and I didn’t quite understand the purpose of their relationship). Furthermore, and I never would have imagined that I would say this while reading the book, I even appreciated Tito Maning; a pro-Duterte policeman who interrogates Jay’s identity in the most critical and most awful way and yet would protect his family.

And it is through the characters that Jay grows closer to and gradually understands does he come to terms with the grief he feels for his cousin’s death, and how the familial connections he has made are what help him to heal and hope again. Though this book does explore sad themes, this is not a sad book; this is a book about being humbled, about listening and supporting rather than saving, that people are complex, and that the meaningful connections that we share with others is what gives life meaning.

MY CONCLUSION: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Patron Saints of Nothing may be one of the most powerful books I have read in 2019. Candid, harsh, but never insensitive, this is a book that demands to be read and demands to be listened to. I loved this timely book; it has given me so much to think and reflect on, and for that, I am grateful. I’m not kidding, friends: you have to read this book.

Goodreads | IndieboundMy short review on Goodreads


Is this book for you?

Premise in a sentence: A Filipino-American visits his family in the Philippines to uncover the mysterious circumstances surrounding his cousin’s death amidst the Philippine Drug War.

Perfect for: readers who want to learn more about the Philippine Drug War; readers who enjoy reading ‘issues books’; readers who want to read Filipino identity

Think twice if: you aren’t in the mood for a ‘heavier’ read at the moment; readers who do not like ‘grey-area’ cheating/infidelity.

Genre: young adult, contemporary

Trigger/content warning: death of loved one, drug-use (mention and explicit), vigilantism, police brutality (mentioned), alcohol consumption (in safe context)


Let’s discuss!

You know what? It’s kinda funny. In the story, Jay and his cousin, Jun, are penpals and send hand-written letters to each other. Myself and my cousin, who lives in Malaysia, are penpals and send hand-written letters to each other. I won’t lie: among the many things that I gained from reading Patron Saints of Nothing, I am grateful that this book made me want to send another letter to my cousin, even though I had written to him most recently. Just to send him my thoughts and to see how he is doing. And I’m pretty damn grateful to Ribay and this book for that.

Read these book reviews of Patron Saints of Nothing by Filipino book reviewers:

  • Kate at Your Tita Kate – “This book turned out to not just be a fierce and accurate indictment of the current administration’s anti-poor drug war policies, but also a poignant study of what it truly means to be Filipino.”
  • Camillea at Camillea Reads – “It was a beautiful experience to read a book that knows the Philippines and its people completely; to be able to read about my self without any stereotypes or judgment was freeing.”
  • Rain at Bookdragonism – “Patron Saints of Nothing is not perfect … but it’s one of the books that I will never forget in this life.”

One thought on “Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay – A Timely and Unforgettable Story about the Phillipine Drug War, Privilege, and Hope

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