It's rare that foreigners write about the Philippines in their fiction, so I definitely wanted to read Andy Mulligan's trash, set in Manila. From what it says about the author in the back of the book, I figure we are about on equal footing in terms of our familiarity with the world of Philippine scavengers and street children. We have mostly observed them at a distance except perhaps for a few visits on charitable excursions to their actual homes. Walked past their homes and peered through the windows, seen their activities. Though I'm sure I've had more years to do this.
I've seen the poor of other countries too. And I can't say that the experience of seeing people sleeping on the streets is any less affecting when you're in Paris or New York. For me it's actually sadder knowing how much richer, cleaner and more elegant the city is and yet there are still people who live miserably. The main difference I can see is in the numbers, especially when it comes to children. Certainly seeing so many children growing up in such circumstances is more depressing, even to those who see it every day.
I think Mulligan captured well enough the lifestyle of child scavengers. What I do find lacking is the sense of local flavor. There are little things I find jarring.
First the place names. Of course these are supposed to be disguised and the conceit of the story is that it is a foreign priest who is changing all the names of those involved and maybe the places too. It's just as well he uses that conceit, because most of the place names don't sound very Filipino to me. Most place names in Filipino mean something to locals. Places fromally named after people usually have the familiar ring of typical first and surnames. Names informally created by locals are usually straightforward descriptive terms, often names that are so catchy you can tell why they became widespread. Smoky Mountain as the name of a landfill is the best example. Descriptive, and takes off from an old song title. There's also Paliparan (flight zone) as the nickname for a street because jeepneys fly there. The name Behala that Mulligan gives the landfill sounds Indonesian to me rather than Filipino (bahala is Filipino for "things will work out" loosely translated, with reference to our ancient name for God, Bathala, so why the e?). I'm not sure what name I would have given it. Mt. Basura might have done. Trash mountain, which references the actual place name Smoky Mountain, and is pronounceable to the foreign readers.
Naravo also doesn't make sense for his name for the cemetery. Cemeteries here are mostly named after the area where they are located but there's also Eternal Gardens and Himlayang Pilipino (Himlayan means resting place). But McKinley does fine for the name of a rich area, only because it really is in use though not for a residental village. I can accept Sampalo for a local island because it sounds like the corruption of either San Pablo (Spanish saint names are common around here) or sampaloc (tamarind). So he has a 50% success rate with place-naming. I just think a local would have done better. Not to brag, but the town I made up for my story "Dancers of Malumbay" has often been mistaken for an actual place--people think the name sounds familiar (it's a local word meaning gloomy). And in naming the town for my novel Woman in a Frame, I picked Pino, because it is a local word meaning fine and it starts with a P like so many of the towns in the Laguna area, where I located it. I tried to find out if there was a reason for the favoring of names starting with P there but didn't find any data on that. So I used a P just to be sure. Hope readers think the name sounds believable.
Although the narrative is all English, the Filipino street boys are speaking mostly in Filipino, so I find it jarring sometimes when there are expressions that have no Filipino equivalent. Like boy, both to talk literally about a boy and as an interjection. The kids wouldn't call each other boy, maybe they'd use pare which can be translated as buddy or pal. The conceit here is that the boys are now supposed to be older and writing it in English I suppose since they sent this account to the priest whom they know doesn't understand Filipino. But wouldn't they write the way they talk, translating more or less directly, and just use the local words for untranslateable terms? Most people wouldn't take so much trouble to reflect on language. I'm only doing it because I'm a writer.
I especially took note of this slip since I caught myself doing much the same thing in my own book. There's a conversation between the protagonist and her younger brother where originally she says she needs a man to escort her and he replies, "You think I'm a man already?" or something like that. That gave me pause because I knew they had to be speaking in Filipino, this being years before American colonization). I knew there was no direct translation for what I'd written (man is mama but this word doesn't carry the same connotations as man), so I changed it, having them talk about how "grown-up" he was.
As an interjection, there's no equivalent. Mulligan could have used "jeez" which is equivalent to our "'sus" (we just use different parts of the same word!) or Jesus, Mary, Joseph (shortened locally to Susmariosep). Same with "hell" which he uses later. He should have used s.o.b. which does have a direct equivalent.
Later someone says "where we lay" to refer to the family grave. I'm bothered first by the grammar. Lay instead of lie is not a common grammatical error for Filipinos to make (this was said by a character using English in the story). And since the person saying this was alive, I don't think a Filipino would say it. We're too superstitious. I'm not too bothered by the use of the King James Bible as opposed to a Catholic Bible because not all Filipinos are Catholics, though most are.
The devil is in the details, as they say. I was bothered even by his describing children going to the cemetery in ties, knowing how rare that is. He did all right with the names of people, though it would have been better if he'd spelled Raphael with an f. But the book is fine as it is, and I don't take issue with a foreigner writing about my country. I'll probably write about his someday, after all (yes, I've been there). Writers and editors should just be aware how much more difficult it is to capture the sense of a place if you haven't lived there or don't speak the language. And thus they should be extra careful to fine-tune the details.
And of course when writing about foreign places one should be especially sensitive. Which I think Mulligan is. So I'm quite happy having him and other writers like him to write about my country. Writing about people in other places, when done right can help increase international understanding. Advanced happy United Planet Day (that's tomorrow, September 22). I've written an essay for a contest celebrating this, and maybe you'd like to vote for it. Read it here.