Group Discussion: Patron Saints of Nothing

Hey, everyone! The Rich in Color bloggers have gotten together to discuss Randy Ribay’s PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING. As always, there will likely be spoilers in our conversation. If you’ve already read the book, please join us by sharing your thoughts in the comments.

A powerful coming-of-age story about grief, guilt, and the risks a Filipino-American teenager takes to uncover the truth about his cousin’s murder.

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.

As gripping as it is lyrical, Patron Saints of Nothing is a page-turning portrayal of the struggle to reconcile faith, family, and immigrant identity.

Crystal: Families are complicated. Very complicated. Jay likely knew that on one level, but as he gets re-acquainted with his extended family in the Philippines, this becomes even more obvious. I found it interesting that Jay felt closer to his cousins than his siblings. And even more notable was his relationship with his uncle, but for completely different reasons. I think his changing opinions of his uncle were evidence that he was maturing. He begins to see that not only are family relationships complex, but people are too. We’re not simply good or evil. Individuals have so many facets.

Jessica: As someone who grew up in a different country than my cousins, I definitely connected with Jay’s relationship with Jun — close in some ways, distant in others, and overshadowed by the regret that they’ve drifted apart. The letters the two exchange really brought Jun to life, and his initial introduction — consoling Jay — sets the tone for a central conflict: The ways Jay is connected to his heritage, and the ways his perspective differs, as someone who grew up in America. I’m in awe of how PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING managed to thread the needle on this conflict, and show the fraught complexities of family, and coming from an immigrant background.

Audrey: I really liked how PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING tackled complicated family dynamics between and across generations. Whether its Jay and his immediate family, the relationships among the parents’ generation, or his slow-building connection to Grace, there is a lot simmering under the surface. Not only are different people actively keeping secrets from one another, but Jay is also at a significant disadvantage due to language and cultural barriers. (Side note: As someone who can’t communicate much with her own grandmother due to a language barrier, Jay’s interactions with his grandparents were painfully familiar.) I really appreciated the scene with Jun’s service for this reason; even though Jay couldn’t understand most of what his other family members said, it was obvious that Jun had mattered to them all despite the ways they had/had not shown it previously.

K. Imani: I agree with you Audrey about how the novel tackled the dynamics across generations. In my extended family, so many stories are unknown because the elders refuse to speak on it, like Jay’s father about why he left the Philippines. The last years of Jun’s life would have been another untold story had not Jay decided to seek it out and stir up trouble in his family. I could truly empathize with his struggle and his frustration with his family, specifically his uncle. I feel like Jay’s insistence on learning about Jun and his family helped not only himself but the rest of his family.

Crystal: A large part of this story focuses on Jay’s connections to his family and to the Philippines. His father explains that “It’s easy to romanticize a place when it’s far away. Filipino Americans have a tendency to do that.” He goes on to say, “But as many good things as there are, there are many bad things, things not so easy to see from far away. When you are close, though, they are sometimes all you see.” Jay definitely has to square his ideas about the Philippines with the reality he meets.

Jessica: Ack! This was a big deal to me… so naturally, I’ve already discussed it in my earlier answer — but yeah, that line from his father is so important, especially in stories where an American goes back to the motherland. I feel that, as someone who’s always dreaming of Taiwan.

Audrey: Jay marched into his extended family’s lives (and the Philippines) with a lot of ignorance and multiple preconceptions, and by the end of it, he left with a better understanding of them and himself–and a desire to close the distance between them. What elevates this from the painful White Person Goes to a Foreign Country to Find/Better Themselves narrative is that Jay gets called out on his ignorance and assumptions constantly, and he isn’t a savior who sweeps in and fixes everything. There are Filipinos already doing the hard work and who will continue to do that work after he leaves. At the same time, Jay also has claim to his motherland, and his uncle’s gatekeeping and frequent digs at Jay are clearly unhelpful. I think a lot of diaspora folks will find things to relate to in Jay’s story.

Crystal: This book deals with President Duterte’s war on drugs. The abuse of drugs is such a huge social issue. It seems when people declare these wars on drugs, they actually seem to declare war on people. And the people they are warring against are often the ones most negatively impacted by the drug use. Jun’s cousin Grace tells him that Jun thought “that those suffering from addiction needed to be helped, not to be arrested because their addiction was as much genetics as it was a choice. And those pushing need to be employed, not killed, because most of them were only trying to survive.” Beyond that, looking for the corruption that allowed the drugs to get into the country would also be a good place to start. It’s so much easier to demonize the addicts and the pushers than solving many of the problems that lead to the drug use — especially when the people in power actually benefit from looking like they are working on the problem, but still leaving the whole system in place. This story helps share the human side of this war.

Audrey: PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING did a great job of pointing out the complexity and hypocrisy surrounding this war on drugs and how easy it is for people to start looking at one another as less worthy of life simply because they are visible symptoms of larger social ills. Even Jay doesn’t want to believe that Jun could have been using drugs, and that leads him to erroneous conclusions for much of the novel. It’s simpler for those in power to make an enemy of those who are suffering rather than doing the complicated, expensive work of tackling corruption and the problems that lead to drug use in the first place.

K. Imani: I agree with both of you that this novel does an excellent job of putting a human face on drug abuse, and highlights the issue with Duterte’s drug war, that sadly, many in the US do not know about. It definitely showed that the way to deal with drug abuse is to treat it as a health issue, rather than a criminal issue, because Jun wasn’t a criminal. Jun was a troubled, but giving soul, and if he’d had treatment instead of killed, he would really make an impact in his world. Additionally, I feel like this highlight of Duterte’s drug war also shows how power corrupts and how people can fall so easily into following along to hold onto power. I know that we learned different sides of Uncle Maning, however, his blind faithfulness to Duterte and the drug war disturbed me. The belief to do anything for the “law and order” and the “safety of the people”, when in reality the ones in power are the ones we fear. This hit a little too close to home to me.

Crystal: Many families have secrets or things they really don’t talk about much, but there were many things going on here that Jay was learning for the first time. Some of his family members are working to help girls escape from trafficking situations and he never even knew. It makes me think about how many things people are keeping from each other. And like Jay wonders, why do we not share more and love more when we all have the capacity to love so deeply? We certainly miss out, but it’s protective to stay separate and keep things hidden.

Audrey: Some of the best scenes in the book are when Jay is able to bridge that gap between himself and someone else in his family. It takes courage to speak and the willingness to be vulnerable, and Jay is starting to embrace both by the end of the book. Jun’s letters were excellent examples of this, as was Jay’s final letter back. I was really pleased with how the book ended and how Jay had changed in this regard when he came back to the U.S.

K. Imani: Without giving away the ending, I loved the way Patron Saints ended because Jay and his father’s conversation ended the cycle of keeping secrets. In the beginning of the book, Jay didn’t really have a deep friendship with anyone and I felt sad for him, but clearly it was because he was used to growing up with a closed off family. Clearly, he needed an outlet and I feel like the trip to the Philippines and his brief time with Mia, who became a real friend, helped him express himself for the first time in years. It was also very brave of him to speak out to his family, but it overall lead to a healthy change for Jay and his entire family. I almost wanted an epilogue at the end to see how much his family had changed after Jay’s experience, as I would have loved to see how Jay’s relationship with his father changed for the better.

Crystal: I haven’t seen many books set in the Philippines, but I’ve really enjoyed the ones I’ve read — ANGEL DE LA LUNA AND THE 5TH GLORIOUS MYSTERY (review here) and DURAN DURAN, IMELDA MARCOS, AND ME (adult book with YA appeal). Have you all read many other books set there? Do you have any to recommend?

Jessica: This is a short story and not a YA book, but it’s really good so I’m going to take the chance to plug it anyway: “Asphalt, River, Mother, Child” by Isabel Yap on Strange Horizons. The story tackles the what’s going on in the Philippines right now, and it’s incredible and heartbreaking. (Please check the content warnings before reading.)

Audrey: You know, I think PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING is the first book I’ve read set in the Philippines! I have read works by Filipino-American writers before, but this was the first one actually set in the Philippines, so far as I remember.

K. Imani: I read ANGEL DE LA LUNA AND THE 5TH GLORIOUS MYSTERY as well and really loved it, so I second Crystal’s recommendation. I don’t think I’ve read any others, but I’m definitely open to reading more in the future.

Extra: Salve Villarosa (@cuckooforbooks) a BookTuber in the Phillipines created two great videos about this book. The first is her review of the book and the second is a Q&A with Randy Ribay during his book launch in Manila.

Please add your thoughts about PATRON SAINTS OF NOTHING in the comments. Also, if you know of other YA set in the Philippines, please share.

2 Replies to “Group Discussion: Patron Saints of Nothing

  1. I was absolutely riveted by this book; the writing, the story, and Jay and Jun’s relationship and family issues. Your discussion was so important and I would like to add 2 other books I read this summer that reminded me of Patron Saints (although not in the Phillipines, travel to homeland and dealing with issues)- family, identity, travel to homeland, secrets, mysteries, and complex immigrant experiences. The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan and Darius the Great Is Not Okay by Addib Khoramm will evoke similar, important questions and truths.

  2. Excellent discussion! I share your appreciation of Patron Saints of Nothing, and on a craft level was impressed by the way Ribay shows the assumptions Jay (and the reader) makes about someone that turn out not to be the case, and how he, and we, missed the signs. Jay’s evolving relationship with Grace is a perfect example, as she’s someone else forced to hide who she is and what she believes. She was such a well-drawn character and exemplifies the way in which secondary characters are the protagonists of their own stories.

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