Sunday 30 October 2022

Guest post from Victory Witherkeigh, Filipinx author of The Girl

Filipinx Victory Witherkeigh is an established writer of short stories, and a debut novelist. She is currently living Las Vegas.

The Girl is a young adult novel that subverts expectations to explore the idea that a girl's true self is more important than what she's been told. Breaking through good girl, virginal heroine stereotypes and inspired by mythology and gods, the novel asks the reader to think about what is good and what is evil.

The Girl follows a nameless main character. She’s been told since a very young age that she was a mistake, a demon who shouldn’t have been born. Shunned by her parents, she’s shuffled between theirs and her grandparents’ homes until her eighteenth birthday. The Girl is baffled by her ordinary life in Los Angeles. For all intents and purposes, she’s just like everyone else. That is, until the Demon comes to claim her.

Victory refers to her Filipinx / Pacific Islander heritage throughout The Girl.  She combines pre-colonial myths of gods and demons with a modern setting, to create a coming-of-age story of a first generation-born American. To coincide with the close of Filipino American Heritage Month in the USA, she here talks about using Filipino mythology in her writing.

Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are known in America as AAPI, and the term Filipinx has there been adopted to refer to people of Philippine origin or descent; it is used to indicate gender-neutrality in place of Filipino or Filipina. Now we know this, over to Victory...

As a brown first-generation AAPI reader, finding any literature I could identify with was a struggle. And even my own ethnicity in the Southeast Asian/Pacific Island discussions is often a hazardous mixture and melting pot for thousands of dialects, mythologies, and folklore. Another AAPI creator I follow on Instagram, Caroline Mangosing, wrote of the Filipinx diaspora in 2020, “We are a nation of people with NO unified cultural identity outside of a colonized one….”

With that quote in mind, I’ll say some pre-colonial myths and legends that inspired this book are from the Philippines and French Polynesia. They were stories I grew up hearing, with multitudinous variations in pronunciation and even names, depending on who was speaking. I was first brought back to the Philippine islands at two, with various stopovers along the way to see relatives. As I grew older, family members living and visiting from the islands (Philippines, Hawaii, and/or French Polynesia), sometimes for half a year or more, would stay in our home. We would take them out on weekends to spend time with cousins, and then I’d listen to their tales about our way of life, the history of our parents, grandparents, or even great-grandparents. The inconsistencies and overlap made more sense as I grew older, from my own observations and later college studies of Asian American history and the culture clash between myself as a first-generation American vs. their immigrant cultural viewpoints. 

Oral tradition and storytelling were a massive part of the Austronesian migration, around 1500 to 1000 BCE.  More recently, since the islands we come from were prone to various monsoons or lack of government infrastructure, power outages were widespread. A common way to pass the time in the dark would be to grab a flashlight and tell stories - often, the scarier, the better. I think that’s something all children and adults can relate to - that feeling of sleep-away camp or a sleepover where you and your friends are trying to one-up each other to see who will be the toughest. My earlier short stories involved some of the nightmare creatures that haunted my childhood dreams. There is this type of witchcraft they called Usik Daginut. It means little death or thousand little deaths, and you could use it to curse someone by having tiny insects burrow under the victim’s skin and create the sensation of hundreds upon hundreds of bug bites, driving a person mad. 

Then there are all these creatures that could only come from these islands, and from the migration of the Austronesian people during a time when the world was changing - destroying and reforming itself before people’s eyes within the same generational periods. All of the beauty the migrants  witnessed also caused so much death and pain. Before the European colonials came, we had tales of our dragons and gods and nightmares that became our own myriad old wives’ tales and stories that were not just culturally interesting, but genuinely a guide to keeping people, especially children, alive. Stories about why you don’t sleep with your feet hanging over the sides of the bed or a boat because you don’t know if a demon will drag you into the shadow world. Or about why you need to shout into the night before tossing your garbage out to warn the dwarves that humans are coming in order not to bother them. I am glad we don’t still wholly subscribe to the idea that we can’t have more exotic names because it’ll attract dwarves to come and steal women away!

The one thing about the Philippine Islands and even the rest of Polynesia that people forget in contemporary census groupings is that the “nations” we know today were never actually united before the European colonizers came along. It’s why as much as modern politics would group us culturally apart, you’ll find some dialects still carry words, or art forms like tapa weaving, that connect the Philippine Islands to the indigenous Polynesian chain of oral traditions. There are now creatives and researchers looking to add to the reconstructionist movements of the islands - reconstructing pre-colonial knowledge, or ways of life, for future generations to study. 

I hope The Girl will be able to add another dimension to the evolving mythos.

Details: The Girl is set to debut in December, through Cinnabar Moth Publishing (USA) in hardback, paperback and Ebook, priced in local currencies.