The Bathala, or where a dream meets real life

I first had the ideas for this book in high school but those ideas didn’t know then what they’d become. That happened a few years later, when I was living in the Philippines. I remember one day seeing a map of the island of Panay, where right about in the middle of it was a label that said “Sulod Tribe”. This puzzled me. Up until that point, I wasn’t aware that there were any tribal groups in the Philippines, much less the island I was living on, and that got the little hamster wheels turning in my brain that maybe I should find out more about them. At that point, I thought I was pretty good at speaking Hiligaynon and thought it would fun to see if this tribe I just learned about spoke the same language. That’s how it started.

Maybe six months later, after finding out that the “Sulod Tribe” was actually the Panay Bukidnon, creators of one of the longest epic poems in the world, these admittedly colonial thoughts I had of learning about them mixed in my imagination with this little story (really a collection of stories at this early stage) I had in the back of my mind called The Default King. There had to be a way to connect all these ideas I had, all while working in some of the utopian sort of comparison/contrast themes used by much better writers like Swift and Voltaire, where the good old noble savage trope exists to show the deficiencies in the main character’s culture. If you’re angry about how this is looking so far, then please hold off judgement until a little later.

At this stage in the game, I knew very little about pre-hispanic life in the Philippines. I still feel like I do, when I actually have read quite a lot and probably have an OK handle on things for the moment. My eventual grad studies in Philippine history may change that feeling but I’ll cross that bridge when I get there. And so here I was, six months or so out from going back to the United States, and trying to make sense of all these images I had in my mind. The binukot, daughters of high-status families trained in seclusion to chant days-long poems. The poems themselves, whose stories I could only guess at since English texts were yet impossible to find. Islands of people who lived without knowledge of the Christian God, not knowing what was coming aboard ships bound for India and ports beyond. Something was coming together but not in the way I originally planned.

As I’ve mentioned before, this story started off as a more blatant allegory and morphed over time into something which I’d take more seriously, and this is about the time when that started. I made my first map, started putting cities on it, and tried harder to really stitch together the disparate short stories I had in mind that centered on Matthieu’s quest for a place he could call home. Here entered “the island”, as I knew it for a while, and with it these images of noble savagery that a later, more anthropologically aware me would call silly and potentially harmful if taken at face value. But as it was, these images came together with Matthieu at their center as the island of those he’d come to call the Bathala: Tagalog for “god”.

It made sense that this would be how he knew them. They were godly people without knowing it, even perfect people, whose language and story mirrored those of the ancient Filipino Visayans so closely that I ended up just choosing to have them speak an actual Visayan language called Kinaray-a. OK, so the actual people in the story didn’t speak Kinaray-a but their language was represented with it for the sake of ease and because not very many people outside of a small region of the Philippines speak it. The stories of the binukot made it into their legends as well, along with little bits of folklore to explain why they did the things they did. For instance, they sailed south to escape some old war and as their written records began to deteriorate, they trained young girls to memorize their legends in case they get lost otherwise. Or how they had to leave without knowing the way to these islands, assuming they existed, and simply sailed south until it got too cold and then turned north again. Little things like this made up the story from just an allegory into something explicable in the mechanics of the world I’d constructed. And yet even then, there was more to do behind the scenes that would have to exist in order for this to become more than just the noble savage story it appeared to be and in many respects still was.

That came much later, when I had finally convinced myself that this was a book I could finish in a reasonable amount of time, and one that constant work could complete and make ready for others to enjoy. By now, though, things had changed. I’d been back to the Philippines twice; I’d invested myself academically, personally, financially, etc in the effort to research Panay Bukidnon folklore: the very stories about which I was pulling hazy ideas to turn into my stories. Things had to change in order to make this something I could be proud of, especially considering that this little chapter of my book was going to be something reasonably read by human beings other than myself.

The thought occurred to me somewhere along the line, rather too long after a conversation with a friend I’d wrangled into editing an early draft, that Matthieu was and never should be expected to tell the truth at all times, much less really know the truth about everything he encounters. And so the idea was born that Matthieu, honest to a fault and eager in his search for an earthly utopia he was too sinful to enjoy, would either be seriously deluded concerning these islanders he called the people of God, or else lie about them in order to justify his own ends. It’s a different turn than the one I’d intended to take for a long time, but one I think will ultimately improve the trajectory of the larger narrative. Now, he has the freedom to make his own truth for his own ends and for its own sake and this reality, among other things, is what enables him to create the future he one day lives. It had to start with something, if not necessarily the Bathala themselves, then with the contrast he saw between them and the world he left behind.

What he’d left was the Global Church, the Evangelical Brethren, warfare, disease and all manner of imperfections which were clearly seen on all those around him. These islands, though, were different in every way from what he’d expected, and so he had no choice but to assume that the people were not regular mortals after all but enlightened beings living above our petty mortal concerns. They were mortal, yes, but different; higher in some way. He could see no sins in them, no warfare, no suspicion of lust or violence, and so they must be perfect. And if they were perfect, then he as an imperfect outsider would be forced to change everything about himself to fit into their company or else leave paradise for a place he could abide.

Here’s where things meet reality. Whatever illusions I may have once held about a vaguely utopian pre-hispanic past have fallen away at the new things I learn about that history. This was a time and place where various raiding tribes operated outside larger national or international laws to screw each other over at any convenience, whether through piracy or slave-trading, and there was no expectation of perfection to be fulfilled anywhere. This was a time of near-constant warfare and all the virtues and vices of humanity as they had been elsewhere were fully on display. The Bathala utopia was one that never existed in reality, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t exist in the mind of someone who didn’t know any better.

In the end, this image of my ignorant mind became Matthieu’s dream, or an episode in his fated life, or simply a way for me to work through the gap between expectations and reality. Either way, minding that gap is something that we do with more than just times and places we’ve never seen. We will always be trapped against the expectation that somehow, those people are in some fundamental way different than we are, whether for good or evil. It’s this assumption that causes many of our problems as a species, as a society, and as individuals. For Matthieu, just as it would be for me as an anthropologist, the expectation that those people are somehow more pure or base or whatever than I or we are is a stumbling-block that stands between us and where we need to be in order to truly understand anyone, including ourselves.

Of course, Matthieu can work these things neatly (or at least with some semblance of neatness) because he’s a character in a book. For us, who really have these debates in our heads about real people and real places, it’s infinitely harder but therefore infinitely more rewarding.

Let’s try not to screw it up.

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