What Things Mean + Sula’s Voyage

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It’s been a couple of years since I interviewed Filipino writers Sophia Lee and Catherine Torres at the Asian Festival of Children’s Content in Singapore, shortly after the results of the Scholastic Asian Book Award were announced. It was a proud moment for the Philippines as Sophie’s novel, “What Things Mean” was named the winner of the Scholastic Asian Book Award, while Catherine’s novel, “Sula’s Voyage,” was one of the finalists.

The Scholastic Asian Book Award aims to recognize excellence in fiction in Asian stories for children, showcase the diversity of literary talent within the region, and to encourage and inspire more books and stories with Asian content. (Read more about it.)

The way Sophia and Catherine described their novels definitely made me long to read them, and I finally got to, as review copies of the books made their way to me a couple of weeks ago!

PrintIn “What Things Mean,” 14-year old Olive tries to make sense of her world through definitions. In chapters marked by dictionary entries (“stories,” “gone,” “place,” “ineffable,” “stamps” and a whole lot more), Olive explores her life’s mysteries: why she looks so different from the rest of her family, why she loves pickles, why she’s not into sports… and the biggest question of all: why she doesn’t have anyone to call “Dad.”

There’s a quiet, guileless charm to this book that makes it difficult to resist. Olive is endearingly awkward, and her bewilderment is something that’s easy to relate to (we’ve all had those moments where nothing seems to make any sense), but she bravely soldiers on, unafraid to ask the difficult questions, even if the answers don’t turn out exactly the way she expected them to. I like the philosophical nature of this novel: Olive tries to define herself and her interactions with others in clear-cut definitions, and eventually finds that real life doesn’t allow you to pin neat little labels on things. By the time I got to the final chapter, tears were streaming down my face.

I just have to point out one drawback to this book — I think there’s a missed opportunity in design. The book has so much potential for visual interpretation: Olive likes to file things, and interspersed in the narrative are postcard entries, newspaper clippings, lists, and whatnot, and I would have wanted to see a little more creativity in how these appeared in the book. Even the dictionary entries, which feature so centrally in the novel, could have been set more distinctly from the narrative, to mark the start of each chapter.

Design issues aside (I wouldn’t say no to another edition), “What Things Mean” is a memorable read that says so much in very little words.

IMG_6785(1)“Sula’s Voyage” features 15-year old Sula, a troubled teen who has quite a bit going on in her life: her recent expulsion from high school, the growing suspicion that her parents are hiding something from her, and her own feelings of uncertainty. When Sula goes with her mom on a visit to a family friends’ island home, Sula finds herself closer to the answers she is looking for, and this sets her on the path to self-discovery.

“Sula’s Voyage” gave me a heady longing for the sea: much of it is set right on the beach, Sula’s dad is an oceanographer, and Sula feels a deep connection with the sea (she is, after all, named for the Sulawesi Sea). Also, the balangay (a sea vessel that harks back to ancient times) and the sea-dwelling (and seafaring) ethnic group, the Sama Dilaut, play an integral role in the story. I was particularly glad to find the Sama Dilaut featuring prominently in this story, because more stories need to be told about them and the many other ethnic groups in the Philippines.

There are so many layers to this story that make it an interesting read. Of course, there’s also the turmoil that Sula is going through, her constant struggle to fit in, her blossoming friendship with a boy, and grief for a someone she has known all her life. It all seems to be too much for a person to handle, and that makes Sula a sympathetic character — I can only imagine how disquieting it must be for Sula, and how much more intensely she would feel all of it at her age. The plot is framed within the richness of Filipino culture and its unique convergence of folk beliefs and foreign influence, as well as certain realities of this country, like the Filipino obsession with fair skin, and radical NGOs taking a stance against corporate giants. It does get unwieldy at some points, but is ultimately rewarding when all the pieces fall into place, as the reader sees Sula through her journey and she finds the peace and acceptance she has been looking for.

Both “What Things Mean” and “Sula’s Voyage” deal with self-discovery, but they also unwittingly share something that’s truly Filipino: food as the heart of the Filipino family. I cannot count how many times both books have made me hungry: Olive’s jam-making family ritual, Olive’s attempt at Huevos Motuleños,  Olive’s mom’s spaghetti with meatballs, Sula enjoying handcrafted coffee at Books and Brews, or Huevos Rancheros at the Gonzaga’s and tacos from Tito Guido’s taqueria (both books actually mention tacos, and it got to a point I was craving tacos in the middle of the night), and the lechon and oysters and uni…  I love how the books highlight how food brings Filipino families together, and how something as simple as a shared meal establishes warmth and kinship, whether by blood or by association.

The two novels are definitely welcome additions to the growing selection of Filipino YA literature, and I look forward to reading more of Sophia and Catherine’s work in the years to come. The books also signify new Asian content for the region —  more Asian stories by Asian writers for young Asian readers —  and it’s great how the Scholastic Asian Book Award has been a driving force in making this happen.


“What Things Mean,” paperback, 4.5/5 stars
“Sula’s Voyage,” paperback, 4/5 stars
(both review copies courtesy of Scholastic)

“What Things Mean” and “Sula’s Voyage” will soon be available at National Book Store and Pandayan Bookshop.

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