Reading and Such

La Mon Yuk (as in Ma Mon Luk): How ‘Alinam’ might just get the young to read again

Lawyer writes young adult fantasy novel where Bonifacio, Binondo reel you in

“The more that you read, the more things you’ll know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” — Dr. Seuss

Reading and Philippine heroes go together like hand in glove. Andres Bonifacio read the history of the French Revolution, Jose Rizal’s novels, Alexandre Dumas’ works, and books on law and medicine. Rizal read French literature in Spanish translation, books on the Philippines; his love for reading and appreciation for books were nurtured by his mother. His family had one of the biggest libraries in Calamba, a rarity in 19th-century Philippines. His most prized possessions were his books numbering more than 2,000 (which he had pawned to merchant-friend José Ma. Basa in Hong Kong, so he could buy a ticket to get home, according to historian Ambeth Ocampo in Rizal without the Overcoat).

Bonifacio and Rizal would be disappointed to learn that today, reading has been superseded by social media. Hardly anyone reads these days, let alone seek book recommendations the way Juan Luna did from Rizal. That Filipinos, especially the young, are not reading is discouraging, yet hope remains in whittling down the 91 percent of Filipino children “[who] at late primary age are not proficient in reading,” as reported in the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Alinam Chapter 5

Alinam: Diego Domingo and The Mandato Ruiz can spur the youth to read again. It’s a young adult fantasy novel blending Philippine history and folklore written by lawyer and Ateneo law professor Mickey Ingles.

Right from the first chapter, Ingles quickly reels in readers by dispelling the notion that Philippine history is boring. They meet the main characters exploring Binondo—a scenario that doesn’t normally happen, but piques the interest. Historically known as the oldest Chinatown in the world, Binondo is a food haven that draws the fictional triumvirate of bookworm Diego, popular girl Sophia, and athlete Luis. Tellingly, Sophia’s not a stereotypical mean ditz, but is intelligent (studied Mandarin in Shanghai), amicable (no chip on her shoulder), self-possessed (not easily intimidated), and talented (her school’s fencing team captain).

Ingles balances history with fantasy in the novel by weaving notes on Filipino life through the characters’ use of such honorifics as Ate or Manang, local vocabulary, the parlance of angsty Filipino high school students, and food. La Mon Yuk (LMY) is a salute to historic Chinese restaurant Ma Mon Luk, which began as a small store in Binondo, and its iconic mami and siopao. Ingles uses LMY, the no. 1 restaurant in Binondo on Diego’s internet search list, as the portal to their adventure.

Ingles quickly reels in readers by dispelling the notion that Philippine history is boring

The grip on the readers becomes tenacious when he casts a figure from Philippine history as one of key characters of Alinam.

The pivotal character is Andres Bonifacio, the almost forgotten hero and afterthought to Jose Rizal, whom Ingles retrieves from oblivion. He’s reintroduced to readers bereft of local history lessons as the enigmatic captain in Alinam, a parallel walled city of Manila. He exudes what Ocampo calls the historical Bonifacio’s “dynamic personality and highly emotional nature,” as observed by graphologist Lina Márquez from Bonifacio’s penmanship. Ocampo himself noted that the Katipunan Supremo’s signature is of “a distinguished leader of men.”

Bonifacio’s leadership quality—and ideology—isn’t elided. Ingles places the fictional namesake at the helm of a resistance movement against a governor-general dead set on ruling Alinam with absolute authority. Captain Bonifacio commands respect from his cohorts—palace doctor-spy Dr. Tabora, swordsman Maestro Maligno, wizard Padre Gustavo Mundial, native Manang Tere, and factotum Tobias. That the captain closely mirrors the Supremo’s personality is underscored by Diego telling Sophia and Luis that the historical Bonifacio “wasn’t known as a scholar like Rizal, but he loved to read…People think he was uneducated and poor, but he wasn’t.”

Alinam Chapter 8

The trio meets Captain Bonifacio in his book-filled office where, in an assertive tone, he explains his presence in Alinam and the rules for survival. Ingles pays homage to the past and in a chapter, reminds present and future Filipinos through Diego of the dangers of a person wielding complete power over the multitudes. It’s an apt move in this era of misinformation and disinformation that has sown chaos and dulled the intellect of youth—and adults—who have no qualms normalizing despots, injustice, and tyranny.

If the Netflix-released Trése reimagines local mythical creatures through animation, Ingles modernizes Filipino mythology with Alinam, framing Lola Basyang and a coterie of supernatural creatures as victims of power play. The aswang, tiyanak, akit-akit, and mangalok are dispossessed natives living on the edge of society, and tagged as malevolent undesirables by the ruling elite. History has imperialists labelling natives as savages needing saving from themselves. The arrival of conquistador Miguel Lopez de Legazpi, who established the first historic Spanish settlement in Cebu, is reflected in his fictional counterpart who “drove the Natives to the fringes and erected the walls of Alinam.”

The author modernizes Filipino mythology, framing Lola Basyang and a coterie of supernatural creatures as victims of power play

Ingles further underscores the injustice of authoritarianism with his characterization of a tiyanak living among humans and managing a restaurant. A far cry from the depicted vampiric child-creature, Manang Tere is presented as a plump woman with kind eyes and a warm smile. In the same vein, he reworks a traditionally malignant mangalok into a tattooed, praying ally of Bonifacio, and restyles Lola Basyang as a state-persecuted “elegant and stately” prophet.

Fantasy isn’t fantasy without magic. El Primero Salamangkero Legazpi conquers the natives with magic. Mundial, an antipode to Rizal’s tyrannical Padre Damaso, is a genial salamangkero, freedom fighter, and Diego’s teacher in magic who cautions the tyro magus on the consequences of unchecked thoughts and feelings when using magic. The warlocks of Alinam channel the vibe of Harry Dresden from The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher. Dresden, a human wizard skilled in thaumaturgy, exercises restraint in harnessing power from the elements in order not to obliterate himself.

Ingles makes reading and learning Philippine history engaging through a fantasy world that captures the country’s past and present. Time travel might be a clichéd literary device, but it nudges non- and casual readers to read Alinam, and encourages hope that the buildup of the reading habit and other skills—i.e., vocabulary, analysis, critical thinking, comprehension—will continue.

Reading doesn’t happen by osmosis. It needs to be practiced, like what Bonifacio and Rizal—and Diego—did all their lives.#

Alinam is available on Lazada and Shopee.

About author

Articles

She has clocked years of overseas work and living. On the second year of the pandemic she returned and settled back in the Philippines after 20 years.

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