Fantasy and folklore readers are looking forward to the release of Joel Ching Jacob’s debut novel Wings of the Locust, a coming-of-age tale set in pre-colonial Philippines about an adolescent who leaves behind his humdrum life to learn the ways of a necromancer (mambabarang).
The novel, to be released all over Southeast Asia, won the 2018 Scholastic Asian Book Award, which honored that year’s best in English writing in Asia. To be launched on Dec. 15, the novel is earning a string of positive reviews from critics, with writer Gina Apostol saying that it has “the most powerful imaginative coherence with a main character whose drive and desire communicate urgency, page after page.”
Coconuts Manila caught up with Jacob, who talked about how the novel was developed, and Filipinos’ place in the region’s increasingly crowded literary scene.
What compelled you to write about mambabarang in pre-Hispanic Philippines, and why a children’s novel?
I wrote the very first version of Wing of the Locust as a pitch for a TV show starring [host and comedian] Vice Ganda as a mambabarang way back in 2012. The pitch didn’t get accepted but I liked it anyway. I spent a few years developing the concept through research and it was not until 2017 when I won Scholastic’s “I write 2U, U Write To Me” initiative where I wrote one chapter to be reviewed by Barry Cunningham. I eventually spent six weeks writing the rest of the novel after the chapter I submitted won a critique from Barry.
The idea to write about making the hero a mambabarang in pre-Hispanic Philippines comes from how women and LGBTQIA+ identities were vilified by our colonizers. Mangkukulam [witch], manananggal [a winged monster that splits in half], the white lady–the othering of the tagalabas (outsider) is a concept that we are familiar with and the image of these wise women is the subject of many speculative works of fiction to reclaim it.
Meanwhile, LGBTQIA+ identities were not marginalized as they are now. Drawing a parallel between these two pre-colonial concepts, I wanted to tell a story of belonging where being a feminine man is a non-concern while being a mambabarang that can control insects was a job just like any other in an agricultural community.
How hard is it for a Filipino fiction writer to get published in Southeast Asia?
I have been published in Lontar [The Journal of Southeast Asian Speculative Fiction] and Ombak [Magazine], both from Singapore. As an American colony, we have the advantage of being able to command English that passes scrutiny from grammar nerds. The path has been paved in front of me by the likes of Sophia Lee, Catherine Torres, Victor Fernando Ocampo, Glenn Diaz, Vida Cruz, Nicasio Reed, and Eliza Victoria.
I think my success came from the willingness to take criticism and revise. I have attended several writing workshops and also regularly consult my peers and friends I have made from those workshops regarding the effectiveness of my piece. The revision brings the concept from what the author envisions closer to how the reader imagines it and eventually perceives it. Success comes from the thirst for criticism and the eagerness to revise. Talented writers who are unwilling to revise are working in a space that does not involve readers.
How did your childhood figure into this story? Did it influence you in any way?
I grew up on a garlic farm in Cabuyao, Laguna on the West of Laguna de Bay. The events that transpire in Wing of the locust happen in a garlic farming town west of the Lake of Ma’I called Kabuyaw.
More importantly, my experiences in Cabuyao involved helping out the local farm in peeling garlic. I would get paid 5 centavos (less than US$1) for each handful of garlic I would peel. Judgment and legality aside, having children as informal workers is a ubiquitous thing in Philippine culture.
The novel discusses the commodification of labor, particularly child labor in an agricultural setting. But I was also exposed to folk medicine, and stories of kulam (sorcery). These things were spoken of with the conviction of certainty.
Tell me about your life outside of writing. What’s your day job and do you have a community of writers whom you work with or exchange ideas with?
I work as an administrative aide for the University of the Philippines Press. It is far from the creative aspects of publishing, but I get to interact with the facets of publishing closer to ground level like printing companies, book cover designers. Fun stuff.
I have several writing groups that I work closely with to improve my fiction. My co-fellows from the first Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio Writing Workshop, and my co-fellows from the Silliman University Writers’ Workshop. These wonderful and talented writers and readers have stayed within my circles and help me become better with honest criticism.
How did your family react to the publication of your novel?
My mom is very supportive, financially if not verbally. We are a family of readers; my brother read a few chapters of Wing of the Locust at its very early stages.
Our family loved to read and we loved talking about books that we have all read. My mom has read the Companions Trilogy of Dragonlance and the Twilight series. It is a family activity. My brother and sister both write, but they chose more sensible courses in college. My sister still writes, for a living too, but not in the creative persuasion.
Tell me about your next project.
My next project is in conjunction with the ASEAN SOGIE Caucus. We are collating stories of magic and identity, to reclaim the space within our South East Asian cultures that LGBTQIA+ identities have always belonged, and that the assertion that magic or being anything other than traditionally masculine or feminine is evil is the invasive force. Details are available here: http://seawinganthology.
Editor’s note: Jacob’s responses were edited for clarity.