A ‘Song’ of many pleasures

By Vanessa P. Bicomong@VanessaBicomong

February 6, 2023 12:00:00

Short story collections are great because the odds you'll enjoy it are higher: There's at least one good story that makes the book worth keeping. 

"Song of the Mango and Other New Myths" (Ateneo de Manila University Press, Quezon City, 2022, 345 pages) convincingly clears that bar with 15 highly insightful and imaginative tales from seasoned fiction writer Vida Cruz-Borja. Illustrated by a dozen young artists, the stories build on myths and folklore from the Philippines and other parts of the world: the love story of a kapre and a farm girl, deconstructed fairy tales set in the Visayas, a diwata-run cafe harvesting heartbreak from its patrons, Filipino explorers preventing extinction of an alien species on Pluto—each a fresh take on a classical theme. When wordsmithing skill is joined by potent imagination and the ability to surprise, you never know what you're going to get next but you expect to be delighted. More often than not, Cruz-Borja delivers.

A much-anthologized fictionist who's been nominated for the Hugo Award, Cruz-Borja successfully weaves the mythical into everyday life— making the magical easier to imagine as real. Particularly impressive is her ability to use a different style and voice to suit the story she's telling. The titular story begins with, "Sit beneath the shade, child, and I will tell you the tale of how the mango came to be." The next begins with "To my dearest little girl" (a letter to an abandoned child). It's followed by "First Play for and by Tikbalang Triggers Uproar on Opening Night," the title of the newspaper article which happens to be the third story.

Emotional response

But what Cruz-Borja is really good at is what real writers do: draw an emotional response from the reader. Her characters have magical powers but very human stories that mirror our own dilemmas, dreams and hopes. The Filipino-ness of the collection helps strengthen the emotional connection, as does the author's palpable passion. "I hope that my passion for a better world can be felt in each of my stories," Cruz-Borja writes, while acknowledging that a just, equitable world does not exist. "In the titular story, ‘Song of the Mango,' the deeply flawed protagonist will eventually feel the tension between what a just world means to her and what a just world means to everyone else in the precolonial Philippine society she lives in. There are no easy answers to her conundrums because I don't believe those exist, either."

That's precisely why she calls her stories "new myths," where characters define a just world as one where they get their heart's desire—and so often fail. The social commentary sometimes gets heavy-handed to hinder immersion (as it does in "In the Shadow of the Typhoon, Humans and Mahiwaga Cooperate for Survival," which was nevertheless long-listed for the British Science Fiction Award). But overall, Vida Cruz-Borja's mythical beings seem so real, you expect to meet them the next time you find yourself under a balete tree. And you'll want to meet more of them (in writing, at least).

"I hope you'll like this book enough to anticipate my next one," she writes in the book's Acknowledgements. Yes, Vida, we do. —Contributed

"Song of the Mango and Other New Myths" is available in paperback at the Ateneo Press website; Lazada and Shopee; it is also available as an e-book.