Blood of the Revolution: On Filipina Writers and Aswang

I learned of the aswang and manananggal as many Filipino children do, through the memories of my mother. “Like vampires,” she said on a summer afternoon, “they drink blood, human blood, and take flight after the sun has set.”

My eyes widened as she continued her story. “Unlike vampires, the manananggal can separate itself into two halves, and it leaves its lower half to fly through towns, hunting for its prey: the fetus curled up in its mother’s belly.” She would go on to tell me of the night she was hunted by an aswang in Davao, and the distant relative who brandished a stingray’s tail in the darkness as a warning to the creature. “His eyes all red,” the aswang had watched her earlier that day, and the insistent tik–tik surrounded the nipa hut my mother slept in that night.

She would tell me of the warning her relatives gave her: “‘Wag kang aalis sa paningin ko at ‘wag kang aalis mag–isa. Kilala siyang aswang dito.”

Don’t leave our sight, don’t walk by yourself. We know the aswang here.

She can still hear the piercing scratches of the aswang’s talons on the bamboo slats beneath her back.

I’ve never felt especially dangerous. I’m a petite Filipina–Canadian woman, barely 5’1” with small features and a voice that doesn’t exactly inspire fear in people. I’m used to not being seen, and when I am seen, I’m used to people underestimating what I’m capable of. I can be invisible when I want to be.

In North America, sometimes invisible is better than the alternative. When Asian women are visible in our media, it is often still in less–than–ideal conditions. We are the maids, the geisha, the tiger moms. We are the quiet women, the submissive women, the intensely sexual women, the women who think of nothing but marrying a rich white man—what other goal is there for an Asian girl?

As Rachel Kuo writes in “5 Ways ‘Asian Woman Fetishes’ Put Asian Women in Serious Danger,”

Like a porcelain vase, Asian women are often seen as decorative and fragile. Transformed into passive commodities of sex, our bodies must also be seen as weak and submissive—dainty, delicate, and small.

Telegraph writer Yuan Ren relates first–hand experience hearing fetishizing remarks of friends and strangers alike:

I’ve heard my Caucasian friends recommend to their male, single mates that they should date “nice Chinese girls”, with the added bonus that Chinese women are far more sexually open–minded than Caucasian girls.

The stereotypes converge to paint us with dismissal: we are never dangerous, never deadly. We blend into the wallpaper, into bedrooms, into the fabric of Western countries that colonized the lands our mothers and grandmothers called home, but for the stories that still make their way down the family tree.

Of all the mythological creatures that populate Filipino legends, it’s the aswang and the manananggal that figure most often in whispered stories. You might find fewer cynics than those who would swear up and down, in the name of God, on the blessed graves of their families, these creatures exist. Many would follow that declaration with a story of their own, some passed on from grandparents to their toddling apos, and some from a night spent in Capiz, or Vigan, or even the noisy streets of Manila’s nightlife.

It is easy to believe when the sun sets and the town sways into silence.

The stories are different, built up by exchanges over bonfires, school trips, particularly heavy drinking sessions. The touchstones are the same: they are drawn, incessantly, unavoidably to the bellies of pregnant women, to fair–skinned girls, to small children. The aswang and the manananggal make for excellent nightmare fuel even if you aren’t part of those demographics.

Their descriptions are just as varied—I can’t recall ever being told exactly what an aswang looks like, but I can echo other Filipino–American kids when asked to describe a manananggal, with its intestines hanging from its torso, and black wings carrying it through the night sky. The image of a manananggal’s lower half stock–still in leafy forests has stayed in my head since the first time I was told they exist.

Back then, I couldn’t have explained why these stories beckoned to me. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, far from the provincial towns that mythological creatures would call home. I didn’t believe in werewolves or vampires, though ghosts were a whole other conversation. But there was a note of truth in my mother’s words that I couldn’t dismiss or debunk completely, and a fascination that I didn’t feel I needed to tamp down. There was something about the danger that these stories sketched out, the uncertainty and mystery that I found myself returning to more than any other part of Filipino culture.

If the presence of these monsters in our literature today is any indication, I am not the only one.

The first short stories I ever read that featured aswang and manananggal blend together in my mind today, consumed as I was at 14 with the sheer abundance of them in anthologies I found at the local bookshop. Some were listed as true accounts and others were clearly laid out as fiction. I read as many as I could find, though I never could convince myself to attempt the pages after the sun had set.

Superstition, perhaps. Fear, maybe.

But as I read, I found myself returning to and seeking out the stories written by Filipino women again and again. There was an almost delicious sting to these tales, a palpable crack of the facade that Filipino society paints over women in almost every aspect of our lives. In these stories, I felt the danger that words alone can’t muster.

That sense of danger still lives for me in stories and poetry that I’ve found through friends and colleagues, through my own careful, cautious study of the writing craft. For some, encountered early, I could never quite name what it was that sent a shock of strength to my spine, only that it did.

“Excerpt from a Letter by a Social–Realist Aswang” by Kristin Mandigma was a delightfully irreverent spotlight on the presence of aswang stories and motifs themselves:

With regard to your question about how I perceive myself as an “Other,” let me make it clear that I am as fantastic to myself as rice. I do not waste time sitting around brooding about my mythic status and why the notion that I have lived for five hundred years ought to send me into a paroxysm of metaphysical Angst for the benefit of self–indulgent, overprivileged, cultural hegemonists who fancy themselves writers. So there are times in the month when half of me flies off to—as you put it so charmingly—eat babies. Well, I ask you, so what?

It was the first of these stories to make me laugh out loud, a sensation I hadn’t ever associated with the same creatures that made me wonder about the shadows on my window.

The poem “Manananggal” by M Sereno is made of verses with teeth as unforgiving as the hunger of its subject, still present in the quiet hollows:

how it roars in my chest, how hungry am I
for any sort of color: red for fire, gold for blood;
for soup of bones and organs, mouthfuls of struggling life.

In each line, I hear the leashed yearning entwined with violence that the manananggal cannot control, at least not for eternity, and not without a price.

In The Sea is Ours: Tales from Southeast Asia, Alessa Hinlo tells readers of “The Last Aswang.” Hinlo returns to the Spanish colonial era, and the erasure of Filipino traditions and beliefs, including the existence of aswang. She does so with warning in every word.

“You made us,” she repeated. “Spare me your regret. If we terrorize your dreams from across the sea, it is your fault.”

Likewise, it’s a warning and a prayer that builds “Good Girls” by Isabel Yap. California houses aswang too, you see, and how could it not when Filipino blood has pulsed there since the 1800s?

When you’re finished, when you’ve shriveled up everything inside her stomach so that your own is full, you spool your tongue back into your mouth and breathe deeply. The horizon tells you that you have about an hour before the sun rises. That’s just enough time to head home, rejoin your lower half, shuffle back into bed. Good girls don’t get caught with babies in their bellies; good girls don’t lie; good girls don’t sneak out wearing only their boyfriends’ shirts.

You know what you are; you know what you aren’t.

Most recently, it was Alyssa Wong’s “Santos de Sampaguitas” that I brought to my mother, she who has lived stories like this. She read it on an iPad on a summer afternoon much like the one years before, when I had first heard of these monster girls.

I am dreaming, and dreaming proper, of my mother’s house in Bicol, a small, bamboo–and–hemp structure that the Ma’am in Manila call a ‘shanty’—a word I never knew before coming to the city. Shadows from the malunggay trees dapple our house’s nipa leaf roof, and the scent of the white sampaguita blossoms by the door is so strong that I almost don’t smell the dead god arrive.

As she read, I followed the words with her, my mind plying the last decade of memories to call up the sight of lush Philippine forests and the fragrance of sampaguita. I had seen them, and I could see them again as we talked about what she found familiar and new in the story. “Maganda,” she said. “Nakakakilabot rin.”

Beauty, hand in hand with fear.

What I felt as a child and what I feel today when I read about Filipino women, supernatural and human alike, is a beast in itself. There is pride, and there is fear, and there is an undeniable recognition of what we share. I might not be an aswang, but we are both Filipina, descendants of a country still removing the shards of history from itself.

In stories of aswang and manananggal written by and about Filipino women, I hear the cry of rebellion. For over 400 years, colonizers swept through the Philippines, their hands laying claim to land and treasure and women. I hear the declaration through the trees:

You cannot control us here, deep in our heartlands.

To me, the aswang and manananggal are worth fearing, and worth respecting. When I see Filipina writers taking up their stories, I am empowered, and I feel seen. These narratives are a bastion, however battered and worn, of what the Philippines is to me: a place that I might never call home, but that has shaped me anyway. They are my bellweather of the power I can wield that no one can see.

I’ve never written a story about the creatures that have fascinated me for most of my life, though not for lack of trying. It almost seems like a disservice with my awkward words and stilted phrasing. Even now, there is a palpable distance between the stories I love and the life I lead, far away from the dangerous duality of the Visayan forests. And yet as a writer, the questions I can’t answer tend to show up in the art I create, and the themes I revisit over and over again.

I am an immigrant woman now, once an immigrant kid, and there will likely never be a moment in my life where I will know what it is to face a whispered story coming true in the night. My witching hour is too brightly lit by streetlamps and snow to hide the shadows. I would not hear the tik–tik beckoning them to my rooftop, and there are no cracks between bamboo slats for a hungry tongue to slip through.

There are only the familiar words of warning in a reinvention of old tales, in which we see ourselves grappling with the danger that lives in our veins. There is only the knowledge of things we cannot explain, but that we pass on to the future, tinted by our vision of them. There are only the stories, resurrected and revolutionized by women like me.

Angel Cruz

Angel Cruz is a writer and boy band scholar living in Toronto. She is a staff writer at Women Write About Comics and Book Riot, and a 2017 Contributing Writer at The Learned Fangirl, with additional bylines at the Chicago Review of Books and Brooklyn Magazine. Find more of her work at angelcruzwrites.contently.com, or follow her on Twitter @angelcwrites.

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