Real history writes the best fiction in any genre. The unusual, precocious, and even dangerous heroes and heroines of real life are the ones who inspire us to start typing. But how do you write happily ever after when your audience knows the next war is just around the corner? How do you walk the line between romancing history and romanticizing it?
As historian and author Camille Hadley Jones posted on Facebook: “I’m finding [writing] difficult because I don’t want to ‘escape’ into the past, I want to confront it—with a HEA of course—yet I know that’s not what’s many readers seek from [historical romance].” Maybe not, but I am right there with her on “confronting history.” That is why I write my books set in the American colonial Philippines. It is why I put Javier and Georgie in the midst of the 1902 cholera epidemic in chapter one ofUnder the Sugar Sun.
Advice often given to authors is: “Don’t underestimate your reader.” Don’t gloss over the inconvenient, gritty truth just because you think your readers cannot handle it. Use it to create real characters and real conflict—but make sure that no matter how dark the dark moment, love will overcome all.
This is the subject of my talk “History Ever After” at the Ayala Museum, Makati City, on February 24, 2017, from 2-5pm. With the help of Mina V. Esguerra of #romanceclass, I will answer questions about how I balance courtship and calamity in my Sugar Sun romance series, set in the Philippine-American War. Hope to see you there!
Taking their name from the Visayan words for “woman” and “spirit,” the babaylans were “mystical women who wielded social and spiritual power in pre-colonial Philippine society,” according to Marianita “Girlie” Villariba. I recently wrote a priestess like this named Valentina:
“We are people,” Valentina said. “Farmers, sisters, mothers. We are the faithful.”
“Fanatics,” Allegra muttered.
“Why, because we defend ourselves? You compadres are like capiz oysters, burrowing down into the sludge of occupation—first Spanish, now American. You think you will come up as shiny as a pearl. I am a healer, a shepherd. I created a sanctuary where women can be free.”
Valentina is not the heroine of the book, but she is not the villain either—no matter what the Spanish or Americans believed. Because the Spanish especially viewed these women as a threat to the spread of Catholicism and patriarchy, the friars discredited the babaylans by spreading rumors that they were really vampire-like mythical creatures, or aswangs.
But babaylans did not have to be women. You could be a man—or you could be a man living under an adopted female identity, part of the long proto-transgender tradition in Southeast Asia. (By the way, the Philippines just elected their first transgender congresswoman.) Anyone who had a lifetime’s track record of helping the community—through both bandages (healers) or swords (warriors)—could be selected. This range of duties will be important to the way the identity of babaylans will evolve, especially at the turn of the twentieth century.
The babaylan’s unique blend of nationalism and traditionalism pushed them to challenge both Americans and hacenderos at the same time. Babaylans spoke to God in their native language, and God told them to oppose the changes hitting their island. They believed that God inhabited all of nature, so the destruction of nature—particularly by industrial machines—was against the will of the universe. Men joined the movement in large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th century, particularly “discontented marginalized peasants,” according to Violeta Lopez-Gonzaga. This made the babaylans “a peasant protest movement with messianic, revivalistic, and nativistic overtones.”
The largest of these revolts was led by Dionisio Sigobela, also known as Papa (Pope) Isio. As historian Renato Constantino wrote, the situation in the early 1900s was particularly tenuous. War and revolution had closed ports and destroyed farmland. Natural disasters like drought, locusts, and rinderpest made the situation worse.Laborers were rapidly being replaced by machines, though both were in short supply. According to Constantino, only one-fifth of 1898’s arable land was planted four years later, in 1902.
Times were tough, as Javier Altarejos will tell you in Tempting Hymn. In this scene, Javier reveals the babaylan ties of one of his former employees, Peping Ramos, whom you may remember as the disgruntled cane slasher who shot a young boy in Under the Sugar Sun. Javier is speaking to the hero of Tempting Hymn, Jonas Vanderburg. The American is curious about the babaylans because he is falling in love with Peping’s daughter, Rosa Ramos.
“When I took over the hacienda, Peping was sure he could manage me.” Javier took a sip of his drink. “He was wrong.”
“So he ran off to join the madmen in the mountains?”
“They’re not all madmen—though they do attract every troublemaker on the island. The babaylan are more like the trade unionists you have in America.”
“But their popes and special charms—”
“Give them credibility.”
That credibility came from the traditional role of babaylans as priest(ess), sage, and seer. People admired the babaylans, and they would not stop admiring them just because the Americans said so. In fact, the Yanks were not able to put down Papa Isio’s insurrection until 1907—a tough reality for Americans to stomach since they had made such a big deal of declaring peace in 1902.
The declaration fooled no one because Samar was rising up again, too. In fact, Samar had a very similar movement to the babaylans, complete with its own popes and sacred amulets: the pulahans (or “red pants”). Both the pulahans and the babaylans believed that:
an apocalyptic clash was coming;
they alone would survive; and
a new independent world order would be built upon the ashes of imperialism and industrialism.
If this sounds familiar, take a look at the Boxer Rebellion in China—same time, same motives, and the same ideology. It’s not a coincidence. As a teacher of world history, imperialism, and comparative religions, movements like the babaylans and the pulahans represent the intersection of everything that interests me, which is why they turned out to be such an important part of Sugar Moon‘s plot. I hope you find the politics as interesting as I do.
Featured image includes three babaylan mandalas, created by artist Perla Daly.
Christmas in New Hampshire feels surprisingly quiet this year. The holiday season traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving on “Black Friday”—marking the start of the shopping season, which will bring stores out of the red and into the black with holiday sales. Recently Black Friday has become Black-Thursday-the-hour-after-you-load-the-dirty-plates-in-the-dishwasher. And then this year I noticed advertisements for Christmas-themed books, movies, and products on or before Halloween.
The Philippines celebrates the longest Christmas season in the world, starting on September 1st—when you’ve officially entered the “Ber” months—and lasting through the beginning of January. (Or Easter, according to how long some of my neighbors had their decorations up.) Once September arrives, stores break out the holiday albums, parols are offered for sale alongside highways, and malls get so crowded that you literally cannot drive by them. Seriously, don’t plan on it. And if you do, don’t fight the standstill. Just put on some good tunes, sit back, and relax. You’re going nowhere quick.
But here’s the secret: if you want to drive anywhere in Manila during Christmas season, do so on Christmas Eve. The roads are deserted. The toll booths are unmanned. Skyway is free for everybody!
This “good night,” Noche Buena, is the real holiday. The day begins with a midnight (or pre-dawn) mass called the Misa de Gallo, or mass of the rooster. (Because by the time you leave church, the roosters are crowing.) The evening is for family dinners, and by midnight on Christmas Day the faithful head back to mass.
There is one tradition that may have gotten lost in big city life in Manila and elsewhere: pastores, or shepherds. This pageant-carol of the Nativity drama came from Mexico, thanks to sailors on the Spanish galleons. Its details, though, soon varied by region. The villains could be anyone from the devil (in half-man, half-monkey form) to King Herod to snooty homeowners.
Today, in many places, the daigon has become a set piece dancing and singing performance. But in the early 1900s Visayas, the daigon (or daygon, from “starting a fire” or “lighting up”) was more like what I described in Under the Sugar Sun:
Javier guided Georgina to a house with a pronounced balcony, the perfect place to start the daigon. Mary, Joseph, and a chorus of shepherds and angels were already assembled. Mary was dressed in a blue and white gown, her “pregnant” belly stuffed full of pillows. The band fell silent as the holy couple sang a plea for shelter to the owners of the house. One did not have to know Visayan to understand the girl’s predicament.
The owners of the house responded in turn, and Javier translated in a whisper. “They are saying that the house is already bursting with people.”
Then Mary sang again. “She is promising them heavenly rewards,” he explained. “I think a literal translation is that ‘their names will be written in the book of the chosen few.’”
“It is beautiful,” the maestra whispered. “What did the people in the house just say?”
“They have turned her down. They said their house is not for the poor.”
He found Georgina’s innocence endearing. No doubt she knew the story of the Nativity as well as he did—probably better since she actually went to all the novenas—but her rapt expression made it seem like she was hearing the story for the first time.
They trailed the crowd to the next house, where Joseph begged for a place for his wife, “even in the kitchen,” but was told that the mansion was “only for nobles.” When Mary insisted, the doña threatened to let loose her dogs on them.
Georgina looked around, noticing that they were almost at the school building. “They will not sing to us, will they? More importantly, I do not have to sing back?” She looked truly alarmed.
“Do not worry. They will finish before that, at the ‘stable’—by which I mean the town church, San Nicolás. The crowd and the band will amble on, though, begging for refreshments, so we should prepare.”
Georgina’s eyes lit up. “Your aguinaldos!”
He laughed and squeezed her hand on his arm. “Exactly—including your favorite: chocolate.”
There is a fair amount of seduction over food in that book, even at fiesta. Maybe especially at fiesta!
For a young woman, landing the role of Mary was like being crowned the homecoming queen, though she had better be able to sing, too. Fortunately, my character Rosa Ramos was both pretty and talented:
Singing had pulled Rosa through her childhood. Instead of being just the daughter of a disciplined maid and an undisciplined field hand, her voice had made her the best known fifteen-year-old in Bais. Out of all the girls on all the haciendas, she had been cast as the Virgin Mary in the local Christmas pageant. It said something about her life back then that she could not have imagined anything so grand anywhere in the world. She could have been crowned queen of Spain and still not been as happy as she had been that night.
That was a little holiday gift for you—a taste of Tempting Hymn. Here is another gift: the lighting of the huge Christmas tree at Bais.
I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas (Maligayang Pasko!), Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, and Happy New Year.
Moss led Della over to the sillon in front of the window. The planter chair was a deep recliner made out of wood and rattan, and it had long, wide arms that stretched out in front of the seat. The sillon was built for napping, but Moss had not brought Della here to sleep.
She sat, and he gently lifted one of her legs to rest on the extended arm of the chair. She relaxed there, wanton, ready for him.
He started with a gentle kiss to her knee and then moved his lips up her inner thigh. Della gave a deep moan, vibrating her entire chest.
“I love you,” he mouthed against her skin. He said it a second time. And a third.
The words earned him a soft giggle. “I understood you the first time. I love you, too.”
It was good that he would not need to repeat himself because he was running out of room on her leg.
I do use furniture creatively in my books. Ahem. Though my first thought when I sat in a sillon, or butaka, was not dirty at all. It was, “Boy, could I sleep right now.” After all, that was what the “silla perezoza” or “lazy chair” was designed for. (It was also called a “sillon de oreja” or “chair with ears.”) The backs were curved and the arms flat and long, all the better to slump deep and raise your feet. The cane backing circulated the air around the siesta-enjoying hacendero in his bahay na bato house. (Yes, Javier Altarejos owns a sillon or two, but he never stays seated long enough to use one. He’s a vigorous romance hero, or didn’t you know?)
The fact that hacenderos owned furniture designed around day-sleeping had to frustrate their employees, though. In fact, the more unequal the labor relations, the more popular the chair seemed to have been. Designed in Cuba, these chairs were found everywhere from Mexico to the southern United States to the Philippines to India—all with their own variations. Even Thomas Jefferson had one, and he gave one to James Madison. Interestingly, most American colonial officials in the Philippines had never seen one before because relatively few were from the South. They found them fascinating (and comfortable), never knowing they needed only to go to Virginia to see one.
There may be a dirty underbelly to this piece of furniture, but in the era of La-Z-Boys, I think we can put our differences aside. I wish I had my own sillon right now, in fact…I could use a nap.
With the popularity of the Twilight series—or, let’s get old school with Anne Rice’sVampire Chronicles—I am surprised that more writers have not widened their paranormal worlds to include the folk traditions of the Philippines. Though legends vary, the Aswang Project website has come up with three common characteristics of aswangs in them all:
The aswang’s diet consists mainly of human liver and blood;
It has an unholy preference for unborn children; and
It is also known to prey upon children and sick people.
Um, did you notice number two? Aswangs have been blamed for miscarriages and stillborn babies all over the islands. Scholars say that Spanish Catholics spread the aswang legends to vilify the female midwives and folk healers, called babaylans, especially those in the interior of the southern islands. As this website describes:
When they know of a pregnancy . . . they would land on the roof of the pregnant woman’s home, and, trying to remain undiscovered, dig a hole to get inside. Once close, they use their razor-sharp teeth and their tongue that can stretch out as a thin wire to drink the blood and eat the fetus through the mother’s belly button . . .
Even worse, there is a related creature called a manananggal, who is a beautiful woman by day, but at night she detaches the upper half of her torso, sprouts bat-like wings, and flies around with her guts hanging out, looking for victims.
The aswang legends are particularly popular in the Western Visayas region, near where the Sugar Sun series is set. In fact, when Silliman University in Dumaguete opened their first dormitory in 1903, people thought it was haunted with these very creatures.
You may be wondering, how are aswangs created in the first place? What is their origin story? Getting bitten, like by a European-style vampire, is not going to do it. (You would just be dead, I think.) In the Filipino version, the dying aswang vomits up a small black chick—as illustrated below—which the aswang-to-be must swallow. Waiter, check please.
In European folktales, like those of the Brothers Grimm, the big bad wolf is eventually punished for eating children. But the victims of aswangs get no such justice. (Maybe because carrying a child to term and then actually delivering it has been the most dangerous thing a woman could do for most of history?) This is very dark stuff. I don’t write novels this dark, but someone should. I cannot imagine an aswang hero, but maybe that’s my lack of imagination.