From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

The Pink Elephant in the Room

One school of thought when it comes to Philippine fiction is that texts can only be classified as such if it includes either a) Filipino characters/setting or b) tackles Filipino social concerns. Since the Philippines is a developing third-world country, that kind of perspective is understandable (“only the richer countries can indulge in topics like luxury and leisure!”). But that paradigm also limits one’s breadth of literature. Why write fantasy after all as that particular genre is deemed fanciful rather than practical? (Never mind that several of the most relevant fiction in the previous century, whether it’s George Orwell or Shirley Jackson, are fantastical in nature.)

And then there’s Teaching a Pink Elephant to Ski by Rochita Loenen-Ruiz. This is speculative fiction that veers away from the conservative view of what is Filipino fiction that there will certainly be some who will question its validity in the field: “Where are the Filipino characters? There’s no snow in the Philippines, much less skis. And elephants! Couldn’t it have been carabaos instead?” Such critics however fail to see the value of this kind of fiction in the Philippine speculative fiction field, much less Philippine literature in general.

First, there’s the courage to write about a piece that defies the local canon. Yes, this is fun, whimsical fiction, in much the same way that authors like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett might make us laugh. And perhaps what’s lacking in Philippine literature are funny stories. We’ve had our fair share of comedic nonfiction but when it comes to short stories–or at least well-written ones that goes beyond the slapstick variety–they’re quite uncommon. There’s also the absence of Filipino characters or a Filipino setting but isn’t their inclusion a bit too straight-forward and blunt? That’s like saying Americans can never write a story about someone else’s culture or why women can’t write stories from the perspective of men. In fact, Loenen-Ruiz’s narrative is so convincing that I don’t think readers stop to question and ponder whether the author really experienced all of these things. This is fantasy, people, but a well-written one that sucks you in and doesn’t cause you to pause and question its believability.

Second, there’s the technical aspects of the story. The prose appears deceptively simple but this is actually a writing style that’s difficult to pull off. There’s the succinctness and clarity of the language that makes it accessible without padding the text. Then there’s the format, a series of news clipping and email exchanges, that deviates from the common mode of storytelling in addition to being very modern. This could have been a story narrated through snail-mail correspondence but Loenen-Ruiz makes the most out of the technology, such as the concept of mailing lists. Keen readers will even spot some meta-textual reference such as the mention of of fabulists. But what really stands out is how much is implied through the correspondence rather than the writer telling readers directly what occurs. While we’re on the subject of “elephants”, there’s an aspect of Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants” that can be found in the narrative, at least in terms of the dialogue.

What Loenen-Ruiz brings to the table of Philippine speculative fiction is variety. Whereas some writers cling to what they’re familiar with or consider serious literary pieces, “Teaching a Pink Elephant to Ski” is a story that’s not immediately Filipino yet is nonetheless written by a Filipino author. It dares to be different, both in atmosphere and agenda. This isn’t fiction that’s attempting to change the world, but rather a lighthearted story that evokes pleasure and a sense of wonder. And honestly, is that such a bad thing?

Charles A. Tan is the co-editor of the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler and his fiction has appeared in publications such as The Digest of Philippine Genre Stories and Philippine Speculative Fiction. He has conducted interviews for The Nebula Awards and The Shirley Jackson Awards, as well as for online magazines such as SF Crowsnest and SFScope. He is a regular contributor to sites like SFF Audio, Comics Village, and Game Cryer. You can visit his blog, Bibliophile Stalker, where he posts book reviews, interviews, and essays.

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