Saturday, May 25, 2019

The Patron Saints of Nothing by Randy Ribay

I side-eyed this book a little when it got placed into my hands because on the back, it's compared to THE HATE U GIVE. Given the popularity of THE HATE U GIVE, I can see why publishers and publicists are going to be eager to draw such comparisons, but it feels like a mistake to compare every book about serious issues being faced by people of color to THE HATE U GIVE. THUG was a powerful book; let's not trivialize it with false comparisons.

Just my two cents.

That one qualm aside, PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING was kind of amazing. I didn't have any expectations going in, which is probably the best way to enter this book. It's about a boy named Jay, who is half-Filipino and half-white. He's a pretty typical boy: he's not popular, he plays a lot of video games, he doesn't know what he wants to be when he grows up. All that is shattered, however, when he finds out that his cousin was just killed in the Philippines as a result of Duterte's War on Drugs.

Frustrated with his family's reticence on the subject, and the utter lack of information online, Jay elects to spend his Easter vacation in the Philippines, living with his extended family as he tries to gather clues on why his cousin died. Jay runs into wall after wall, until he gets help from an unlikely source, but as he learns more about his cousin, Jun, and what he did after he ran away from home, Jay starts to realize that people can be quite a bit different from how you remember them in your mind.

There are so many things that this book does really well. It's not afraid to tackle difficult subjects, for one. PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING brings up colorism, American Imperialism, drugs, ethnocentrism, loss, grief, privilege, and so much more. Privilege plays an especially strong role: for example, even though Jay is quick to recognize privilege when it's at his own expense, he learns that he has privilege of his own both as a light-skinned man of color, and also as a man, that people of color with darker skin and women (especially women of color) do not have. Racism and sexism exist on a spectrum, with some people getting the shortest end of the shortest stick, so it was really great to see Ribay unpack those nuances in a way that kids could understand easily.

I also thought the war on drugs was discussed in a really great way. I knew about Duterte's authoritarian war on crime, but not to what extent. It was really awful to read about, and to see the wealth disparity between the slums in Manila versus the ostentatious displays of wealth by the government and the upper class. It's easy to fall into the same trap Jay (and, later, his white friend, Seth) did, I think, and marvel in pearl-clutching awe, and think to yourself, "Wow, things are so bad here, people are so poor." But that's a mistake, a huge mistake, because if you look hard enough, you can find examples of privilege and injustice in any society. Black people in the U.S. face incredible injustice from the police, and people demonize Black Lives Matter and the victims of police violence using the same logical fallacies that people in the Philippines use to excuse the drug users and sellers who are gunned down or jailed by the police. Why? Because it's easier to imagine that the recipient of violence and injustice deserved it than the alternative: that we're facilitating a grave injustice.

This is a really important book and really touching. At several points, I laughed. At other points, I cried. Ribay talks about the goods and bads of Filipino culture, working in everything from food to family, and from colonialism to Catholicism. I hope PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING becomes a raging success, because so many global issues get lost in the face of domestic issues, and understanding that privilege and the importance of truth-seeking and empathy are important educational tools that help make kids into more thoughtful and compassionate adults.

P.S. This was an ARC, so my copy and reading experience might differ from yours. Obviously, that didn't bias me since I'm the queen of telling it like it is, even if nobody wants to hear it.

4.5 out of 5 stars

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