Rich and Strange: "Santos de Sampaguitas" by Alyssa Wong, Part 1
In preparing for today’s review I had to think about what boundaries I wanted to set for this recurring feature. I said in my statement of purpose that “I’m going to focus on magazines as much as possible, and have the reviews slanted towards recommendations unless I think there’s something constructive to be gained from pointing out a story’s failings.” Yet presented with a story that I intensely disliked, that I thought poorly executed at best and actively harmful at worst, I found myself exhausted by the thought of unpacking its problems. In order to do so I’d want to bring careful analysis to bear on it and possibly compare it to another story that succeeds where it fails — and I just don’t have the time this week. Also, this feature’s called Rich and Strange, not Poor and Conventional.
So instead I’m going to set a precedent by reviewing only half of a story, but one I loved: Part 1 of Alyssa Wong’s “Santos de Sampaguitas” at Strange Horizons. Part 2 goes up next week, so I’ll check in again at that time to see how it stacks up as a whole. For now, I was hooked enough by Part 1 to want to talk about it in depth.
“Santos de Sampaguitas” is the first-person narrative of Tín, a girl working as a maid in a wealthy Manila household with her older sister, Silvia. One night she’s visited by a dream of a dead god who informs her that she, like her mother before her, is heir to his power — power that Tín resists. By the end of this first part of the story, we’re left hanging as to where their relationship will go.
The language in this is beautiful; I was struck again and again by the originality of Tín’s voice, and her knack for a well-turned simile:
the sound of distant screaming, like a boiling saucepan of human voices
The dead god laughs, a dry sound like marbles rattling.
The story’s also full of italicized Tagalog words, which I loved for the opportunity it afforded me to be exposed to an unfamiliar language, to google things, ask around and look stuff up. The italicizing of non-English words in English-language fiction is a subject I’m ambivalent about in the abstract (and sometimes annoyed by in the concrete, when it involves the poor use of languages I speak): consider this informational video by Daniel José Older, or these excellent posts by Ekaterina Sedia on the exoticism of language and seeing through foreign eyes, respectively. It’s a subject that deserves its own post, so I just want to mark it here as something that others may also feel conflicted about. Personally, ignorant as I am about the language politics of Manila, I’m uncertain about whether what I’m being shown in the story is an instance of the dominant class speaking English and peppering their words with Tagalog and Spanish (the reverse of, for instance, people in Lebanon for whom mixing French and Arabic is a sign of poshness), or if the Tagalog’s being used to emphasise moments and concepts by selectively foregrounding the setting and the language most common to it. My feeling is that it’s the latter, which I’m completely on board with — I’ve certainly used Arabic that way myself in my own stories, and my reasoning is often complicated and personal. Mostly, though, I’m just supportive of challenging Anglophone readers out of their comfort zones.
Tín only has the use of one hand, though whether she’s been disabled since birth or through injury hasn’t yet been made clear; what is made clear is her relationship with her disability, and her awareness of other people’s discomfort with it. This creates an interesting framework for her relationship with the dead god — who claims that her disability is its mark on her — and with Rodante, a boy she deals with at market. The relationships are connected, though it isn’t yet clear how; but I appreciated seeing the way Tín’s awareness of her disability book-ends their interaction, going from a marker of her difference to a marker of something they share in common, and looping back to the god.
There’s a strange, high pressure in the back of my head, very similar to the shrill sound I hear during bangungot. I feel stupid, and I have an irrational urge to hide my arm from him even though he’s already seen it. […] He laughs again as he lifts himself out of his seat and walks toward the back of the shop. That’s when I see that he’s limping. Rodante’s right leg is a tangled, rippled mass of scars. Just like my arm.
The hum in the back of my head builds to a dull roar.
But what I found myself enjoying most, besides Tín’s voice and perspective, was Tín’s talks with the god. An interaction that begins with her trying to remember not to be rude while the god terrifies her, then moves into the god being conciliatory, then pauses when she demands a boon the god can’t grant — it’s fantastic stuff, a wonderful back-and-forth that I completely enjoyed and very much want to keep reading.
Which I will — next week!