(Excerpt) Locating Fantasy in Filipino Literature

Here’s another teaser from my chapter of Mapping New Stars: A Sourcebook on Philippine Speculative Fiction (Editors: Gabriela Lee and Anna Felicia Sanchez, UP Press pre-publication) which was entitled “The Roots of Speculative Fiction in the Philippines” (you can also read the chapter intro here). For this section, I tried to identify the earliest known Filipino works that could be reasonably argued as Fantasy or Proto-Fantasy, but excluding Folk Literature.

Hope you find this interesting:

One of the earliest novels that could be characterized as proto-fantasy fiction is Ramon L. Muzones’ Margosatubig: Maragtás ni Salagunting (“The Land of Margosatubig: The History of the Hero Salagunting”) written in Hiligaynon from 1946. This is the cover of the English translation by Ma. Cecilia Y. Locsin-Nava (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2012).

Navigating the genre of fantasy can sometimes be difficult and confusing as “fantasy” is not a single definite category but rather a cohesion of many diverse, often wildly different, sub-genres. Wikipedia defines “fantasy” as “a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe, often inspired by real world myth and folklore[1]”.

Fantasy proper takes place in a world other than our own (second world fantasy), whereas the sub-genre of magical realism (also known as magical realism or marvelous realism) focuses entirely on an ordinary “real” world where everything is normal, “except for one or two elements that go beyond the realm of possibility as we know it[2]”. To date there are at least 58 named sub-genres of fantasy[3] including urban fantasy, Christian fantasy, dark fantasy, epic fantasy, mythic fantasy and vampire fantasy, just to name a few.

In the Philippines the roots of the fantasy genre begin in folklore – particularly in local tribal myths and legends, as well as in pre-Hispanic ethno-epics of which over 20 oral narratives have been recorded and translated (many more remain to be transcribed and/or translated – Palawan alone has sixty-three)[4]. It should be noted that while the natives of what would be eventually  named las Islas Filipinos had little by way of books in codex form, the inland tribes and early maritime polities in the archipelago possessed a remarkable level of literacy and a strong literary tradition[5].

Myths and legends still figure prominently in modern speculative fiction works, albeit in reimagined or subverted forms, such as the graphic novel The Mythology Class by Arnold Arre (Quezon City: Alamat Comics,1999).

Epics (in the Philippines we speak of ethno-epics[6]) are considered the most direct ancestor of the fantasy tale. These long stories essentially consist of an oral narration of the adventures and trials of a revered folk hero. Sadly, as important as they are to Filipino culture, they have been less of an influence on modern speculative fiction compared to indigenous myths and legends. One of the few to have any impact was Biag ni Lam-Ang which is pre-colonial in origin.

Biag ni Lam-Ang (“Life of Lam-Ang”), tells the story of his extraordinary birth, his various quests aided by magical animal companions, as well as his death and resurrection. It became the subject of a metrical romance in the early 20th century, as well as various comic book adaptations in the 1970s, a movie, an animated film and even a musical theatre production.  

Lam-Ang, from “Kagitingan at Pag-asa” by Crisanto Aquino in the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art: Philippine Literature, Volume 9 (Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1994)

Let’s Start with (Philippine) Metrical Romance

The most popular genre of fiction during the 18th and 19th centuries was the metrical romance or chivalric romance, a type of narrative poem which in Europe developed from traditional myths and fables and was typically centered on courtly love, knights, and chivalric deeds. This genre wholeheartedly embraced fantastical elements and was a forerunner of the modern fantasy genre.

In the Philippines, metrical romance in vernacular languages (particularly Tagalog) took on two forms: the awit (a poetic narrative verse set in dodecasyllabic quatrains) and the korido (a poetic verse narrative set in octosyllabic quatrains). Like the epics that preceded them, these tales of chivalry were made to be sung and chanted.

 Numerous works in Tagalog (around 200 titles were known to have been published[7]), Bicolano, Ilonggo, Kapampangan, Ilocano and the Pangasinan language were written during this period. Interestingly, while metrical romances are not speculative fiction per se, there has been no other time in Philippine history where fantasy-adjacent genre stories were the most accepted and feted literary works.  


[1] Wikipedia Foundation Inc., “Fantasy”,  Wikipedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy  (accessed 17 December 2020)

[2] Burlington County Library System, “Focus on Genres: Magical Realism”, Fantasy (accessed 17 December 2020)

[3] BestFantasyBooks.com, “Fantasy Sub-genres Guide”, 2015, http://bestfantasybooks.com/fantasy-genre.php#urban-fantasy  (accessed 17 December 2020)

[4] Eugenio, Damiana L., “Introduction: The Philippine Folk Epic”, Philippine Folk Literature: The Epics (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2001), p. xi

[5] Jesuit friar Pedro Chirino notes, ‘All islanders are much given to reading and writing, and there is hardly a man and much less a woman, who does not read and write in the letters used in the island of Manila They used to write on reeds and palm-leaves, using as pen an iron point’. However, writing was used mainly for the exchange of letters. Religion, government, and literature were founded on oral tradition. In Chirino, Pedro, Relacion de las Islas Filipinas (Rome: Esteban Paulino, 1604) as translated and reproduced in Blair, Emma Helen and Robertson, James Alexander, The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898: Volume XII, 1601-1604 (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1904), p. 169

[6] As opposed to national epics like Germany’s Niebelunginlied, ethno-epics are “histories” of ethnic groups or small maritime polities that consider themselves “nations”. As per David-Maramba, Asuncion, Early Philippine Literature: From Ancient Times to 1940, (Mandaluyong:  National Bookstore, 1971), p. 21. See also Godinez-Ortega, Christine, “The Literary Forms in Philippine Literature”, GOV PH, https://ncca.gov.ph/about-ncca-3/subcommissions/subcommission-on-the-arts-sca/literary-arts/the-literary-forms-in-philippine-literature/, (accessed 15 November 2020).

[7] Jurilla, Patricia May Bantug “Tagalog Bestsellers and the History of the Book in the Philippines”, doctoral thesis submitted to the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 30 August 2006 p. 52


The Mythology Class by Arnold Arre. Originally published by the author in four issues in 1999, it was collected into a special edition by Anino Comics in September 2005 and Nautilus Comics in 2014.

Maureen K Speller, RIP

I am very much saddened to hear about the death of Maureen K Speller. She was a fantastic editor and critical beta reader who helped me with my stories “Blessed are the Hungry” and “Dyschronometria, or The Bells are Always Screaming”. My deepest condolences to her family.

Maureen Kincaid Speller was a critic and reviewer. She was Senior Reviews Editor at Strange Horizons, and Assistant Editor of Foundation: the International Review of Science Fiction. She also reviewed for Interzone and Vector. She was a former Arthur C. Clarke Award judge, and a former James Tiptree Jr. Award judge.

Baby Steps with AI Art

A.I. generated art has been around for years. But tools released this year like DALL-E 2, Midjourney and Stable Diffusion — have made it possible for visual-art challenged people like myself to create fairly complex, abstract or photorealistic works simply by typing a few words into a text box.

These are my first attempts to illustrate some of my stories using Midjourney AI. Not incredible but not to shabby either. I could actually use some of these as e-book covers.

However, I am still on the fence about the ethics of A.I.-generated art. Are they a real emergent art form or a high-tech form of plagiarism? WDYT?

“Blessed are the Hungry” – this one came out the best. Funny how the rendered image looks like my youngest daughter.

“I ducked out of sight as soon as I saw the wolf-like mecha, shrouding my lantern with my shirt. Frightful as they were, I was mesmerized by their strange beauty. In the half-light of the Holosonic, their liquid-armor bodies shimmered purple, vermillion and bronze. I imagined these to be the colors of a sun that I had never seen, the burial clothes of a mother-star that we had abandoned so long ago.”

“Infinite Degrees of Freedom” – the blurry shape in the background is Midjourney unable to render a mythical sigbin monster in a spaceship corridor. Why does the kid from my story look like a young Rodrigo Duterte?

“From out of nowhere, Deo smelled an immensely foul odor, a rotting stench filled with the smell of death. A shape coalesced from the blackness, swiftly moving, gibbering, and utterly horrible. A sigben, a vicious half-dog/half-lizard chimera from ancient Philippine Myth had come for him. The impossible monster blocked his path and let loose a frightening roar-bark loud as a thunder clap.”

“Mene, Thecel, Pares” – My account expired before I could redo this with a steampunk Berlin in the background. The protagonist, Joseph Mercado (a fictionalized Jose Rizal) looks a bit cross-eyed.

“Joseph wished he didn’t have to remove his mask. Everywhere he went, people stared at him. Without his mask’s protection, the city’s xenophobic populace would peer from windows or point as he walked past whispering “fremde, außerirdische, ausländer, Asiaten, Japaner, Chinesischer Mann, Korean Mann” –- anything but his own ethnicity.”

“Carry That Weight” – This is supposed to be the older brother, Berto. The two blobs in the background are supposed to be megamouth sharks. Also, the boy’s hair shouldn’t look like that underwater. Must be industrial-strength aquanet.

The smaller boy watched as his brother fished out a pair of smart goggles from his shorts pocket and clipped his phone to his wristband. Berto’s body was dark and tightly muscled. He seemed naked save for the skintight nanotech body suit that kept his body warm and protected it from the sun’s radiation.

Get Luckier: The Reading

Reading-Dialogue across the Sea between Get Luckier Sg/Phil writers

This Poetry Festival Singapore will take place from July 29 to August 10 this year in various locations across the island. Please join us this 30 July for a special event “Reading-Dialogue across the Sea” between Get Luckier Sg/Phil authors, with Singapore-based writers Paul Jerusalem, Migs Bravo-Dutt, Victor Ocampo, Reah Maac, Cathy Candano and Filipino poets Wilson Lee Flores, Wendell Capili, Jo Em Antonio, Cristina Montes, Mariela Lansang with spoken word poet LKN as host (and Cathy Candano as technology expert). The recording will be done from 8pm onwards. Stay tuned for the announcement of the online broadcast.

Get Luckier – An Anthology of Philippine and Singapore Writings II (Editors Migs Bravo Dutt, Claire Betita de Guzman, Aaron Lee Soon Yong and Eric Tinsay Valles) is the sequel to the much-loved original Get Lucky from six years ago. It features writing that illustrate how technology, the pandemic and other current events have impacted the fellowship between Singaporeans and Filipinos.

Fish Eats Lion Redux TOC Announced

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The landmark anthology Fish Eats Lion: New Singaporean Speculative Fiction collected the best original speculative fiction written in Singapore in or around 2012. It was the first local anthology that treated the literature of the fantastic as bona fide literary work, instead of simply just genre. Edited by Jason Erik Lundberg, this book included stories by Ng Yi-Sheng, Neon Yang, Daryl Yam and Shelly Bryant, who would all become leading lights in the APAC Spec Fic sphere, as well as works by mainstream fictionists who were not generally known for fantastical writing such as Grace Chia, Dave Chua, Noelle de Jesus, Isa Kamari, and Cyril Wong.

It’s been ten years since the original FEL and Jason has commissioned a follow-up anthology. I am very happy to be part of both books but it’s also a bit of a shock to realize that I’ve been getting published for so long. In my mind I am still a new writer struggling to get stories written and published (when I am not doing my day-job or house work, that is).

Congratulations to our evergreen editor Jason Erik Lundberg and to everyone on the new antho’s TOC. I can’t wait to read these new stories!

  • Stay in the Sun | Meihan Boey
  • L’Appel Du Vide | Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
  • Tiger Girls | Felicia Low-Jimenez
  • Insert Credit to Continue | Stuart Danker
  • Longkang at the End of the World | Kimberly Lium
  • Down Into the Waters | Wayne Rée
  • Road Trip | Izzy Liyana Harris
  • Blood Double | Sithuraj Ponraj
  • Blue | Cyril Wong
  • Wife, Skin, Keeper, Slick | Wen-yi Lee
  • 315 | Daryl Qilin Yam
  • Asha Hanar’s Dowry | Nuraliah Norasid
  • Multiversal Adapter | Suffian Hakim
  • The Dog Frontier | Inez Tan
  • Sejarah | Ng Yi-Sheng

More info here.

11 Must-Read Filipino Sci-Fi Books (Bookriot)

Thank you to Arvyn Cerézo over at Bookriot for including The Infinite Library and Other Stories (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2017 ; New York: Boy, 2021) in his list of 11 MUST-READ FILIPINO SCI-FI BOOKS.

Moreover, some stories explore the world between literary and genre fiction. It’s the best of both worlds, and it’s a noteworthy addition to a meager selection of Filipino sci-fi books.

I also have a short story, “Infinite Degrees of Freedom” in the first book he discussed, Science Fiction: Filipino Fiction For Young Adults (Quezon City: UP Press, 2016). This work was also translated into Chinese and appeared in Science Fiction World‘s March 2017 issue. The story concerns the rocky relationship between a distant father and his emotionally needy son, programmable matter, guns that fire bolts of electricity, chicharon and a mythical sigben monster loose inside a rickety old spaceship.

I firmly believe in the transformative power of Science Fiction in nation building. As historian Yuvel Noah Harari said: “Today science fiction is the most important artistic genre… It shapes the understanding of the public on things like artificial intelligence and biotechnology, which are likely to change our lives and society more than anything else in the coming decades.”

But we must be conscientious with what we choose to write. The stories we dream up could very well be the bedrock upon which the next generation of Filipinos will build the future.

You can find the Bookriot article here.

Ricky Lee, National Artist for Literature

Congratulations to mentor/teacher, screenwriter, journalist, novelist, and playwright, Ricardo “Ricky” Lee on being conferred the Order of National Artists (ONA), together with seven other distinguished Filipino artists from various disciplines.

His extensive body of work, spanning over four decades, include short stories, plays, essays, novels, teleplays, and screenplays. Two of his short stories won first prizes at the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature (1970 and 1971). His screenplay “Salome/Brutal” won the 1981 Philippine National Book Awards for best screenplay. In 2011, he was awarded the Manila Critics Circle Special Prize for a Book Published by an Independent Publisher. His two-stage plays Pitik-Bulag sa Buwan ng Pebrero and DH (Domestic Helper) played to SRO crowds. DH, starring Nora Aunor, has toured the US and Europe in 1993.

However, Ricky Lee is best known for being a script writer. In fact he is the Philippines’ greatest and most prolific screenwriter, having written almost 200 screenplays, including classics such as “Brutal” (1980) and “Karnal” (1983), both directed by Marilou Diaz-Abaya; “Himala” (1982), by Ishmael Bernal; “Macho Dancer” (1988), by Lino Brocka; and “José Rizal” (1998), again, by Diaz-Abaya.

On top of all that, he is also the author of the definitive screenplay manual, Trip to Quiapo which distilled all the knowledge and wisdom he had amassed over the decades.

It was truly a great privilege for me to have been one of his students at Cinemalaya’s Ricky Lee Script Writing Workshop last year (Batch 29). Sir Ricky was truly one of the best literature teachers I have ever had — particularly with how he emphasized how characters and character development was the most important part of weaving any story. Being primarily a science fiction writer, it was especially important for me to be reminded that people followed stories for their characters rather than for the plot, regardless of how fantastical or technologically awesome the latter may be.

One of the things that most stuck to me was: “Lahat ng kahon ay oportunidad para mapilitan kang gumawa ng butas upang makalabas.” To (poorly) translate and paraphrase: “All the things that keep your character in a box are opportunities for them to escape (and further the plot).”

Both his book and his lectures some everything up with the idea of the writer as active participant, not only in his work but in the world outside it. As a recent article by Jerome Gomez of ABS-CBN puts it: “In Ricky Lee’s universe, everyone is a writer because we all have the power to reverse fortunes, change the course of history, by touching other people’s lives in ways big or small.”

The Gaudy Boy Reading + Mini-Panel on Publishing

Join us on Thursday, 14 July 2002 at 07:30-9pm at the Crane Club, 281 Joo Chiat Road (Osprey Room).

Featuring: Laetitia Keok, myself and Monique Truong’s THE SWEETEST FRUITS Eventbrite Tickets: $5.00 ($6.32 with taxes and fees)

An imprint of Singapore Unbound, Gaudy Boy publishes Asian authors from around the world. Our growing list includes such terrific writers as Monique Truong, Alfian Sa’at, Lawrence Lacambra Ypil, Victor Fernando R. Ocampo, Jhani Randhawa, Jenifer Sang Eun Park, and Tania De Rozario, among others. Our books have been reviewed in Publishers Weekly and Necessary Fiction; noted in The Paris ReviewPoets & WritersLitHubElectric LiteratureThe MillionsMs. MagazineTimeOutArtsEquator, and Words Without Borders; and long- or shortlisted for The Believer, Lambda Literary, and Association for Asian American Studies awards. Come hear our authors and editors read from their work and talk about publishing with Gaudy Boy.

Victor Fernando R. Ocampo is the author of the International Rubery Book Award-shortlisted The Infinite Library and Other Stories (Math Paper Press, 2017 ; US edition: Gaudy Boy, 2021) and Here be Dragons (Canvas Press, 2015), which won the Romeo Forbes Children’s Story Award in 2012. 

Laetitia Keok is a writer and editor from Singapore. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and published in Wildness Journal and Hobart Pulp, amongst others. She edits for Gaudy Boy and Sine Theta Magazine. You can find her at laetitia-k.com 

With brilliant sensitivity and an unstinting eye, Monique Truong’s novel The Sweetest Fruits circumnavigates the globe, introducing three unforgettable women separated by geography and culture but connected by their love for the Greek-Irish author Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904). Gaudy Boy’s edition comes with a new afterword by the author.

Late Post: The Halo-Halo Review covers “Here Be Dragons”

Thank you so much to Justine Villanueva for reviewing my Romeo Forbes award-winning story “Here Be Dragons” for The Halo Halo Review (which publishes critical reviews, introductions, and other engagements with the English-language works of Filipino authors of all genres). Justine is a children’s books author and the founder of Sawaga River Press, a nonprofit that publishes children’s books featuring Filipino children and their experiences in the diaspora.

You can read her review here.

Cover of Here Be Dragons (© Canvas Press 2015)

Sadly, this picture book is no longer in print. However, this work is included in my short story collection The Infinite Library and Other Stories (Singapore: Math Paper Press, 2017; New York: Gaudy Boy, 2021).

Hope and the Future in Philippine Speculative Fiction

If the recent unfortunate turn of events in the Philippines has brought you down, remember that literature is here to salve the hurt and perhaps also offer a way to move forward. Please join fictionist and editor, Gabby Lee and myself as we talk about how speculative fiction can plant the seeds of hope during a time of great darkness.

This online discussion will be hosted by the good people of The Filipino Alliance at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island on 12 May, at 8pm EST (8am in Singapore/Manila). Please use this link to register or scan the QR code below.