Monsters Like Us: Dissecting Allan Derain’s Anthology on the Aswang

January 08, 2019
Emil Hofileña

May Tiktik sa Bubong, May Sigbin sa Silong, edited by the Filipino Department’s own Allan N. Derain, was awarded Best Anthology in Filipino at the 37th National Book Awards last November. The anthology compiles fiction, poetry, comics, and academic research from over 20 different authors, resulting in an exhaustive study of the aswang and its place in Philippine history and culture. Apart from Derain’s work, several other books authored by faculty from the School of Humanities were also honored: Best Novel in English was given to The Quiet Ones by Glenn Diaz, while Soledad S. Reyes received nominations for Retrieving the Past/Recuperating the Voice (Best Book of Literary Criticism/Literary History in English), and Rosario de Guzman-Lingat’s The Locked Door (Best Translated Book).

Even amid accomplished company in its category, May Tiktik sa Bubong, May Sigbin sa Silong distinguishes itself through its multidisciplinary and multi-genre approach to a subject not always taken seriously. The book’s featured authors include Alvin B. Yapan, Edgar Calabia Samar, Nick Joaquin (translated by Julz E. Riddle), and Severino Reyes, also known as Lola Basyang. Straight-faced scientific studies about the aswang’s physiology and taxonomy are placed confidently next to darker or more whimsical examples of Filipino supernatural fiction. Derain intends for us to take fact with fantasy, to reevaluate what the aswang means.
For the anthology’s starting point, the editor chooses not to begin with images of terrified townspeople, kidnapped children, or slain farm animals. He begins by positioning the aswang as the unassuming protagonist of its own story, shaken from its peaceful slumber by Spanish colonialism and attempts to appropriate it into a Christian narrative. Derain writes, in his introduction, “Subalit ang hindi na mababatid ng matandang aswang na ito, na siya at ang magiging salinlahi niya’y papalaot sa kasaysayan upang maging mga sagisag din na tulad ng krus[.]” The aswang here is innocent and neutral, transformed into a multipurpose tool.
Derain makes it clear that there is no one operational definition to what an aswang is. “[A]ng aswang bilang isang tekstong kultural ay parang halimaw na kimera: maraming ulo na mahirap mapaghiwalay sa mga katawan,” he writes. For some, it may be a phenomenon used to maintain order and articulate fear. For others, the aswang may be closer in nature and aesthetic to the movie monsters of Hollywood. Still others choose to view it as the requisite villain in the Christian dichotomy of good and evil.
No matter how one perceives the aswang, what is refreshing about the book is that it is wholly unconcerned with challenging or debunking the existence of its central subject. “[A]ng mga paniniwala sa aswang ay tanda hindi ng pag-iral ng isang totoong aswang kundi ng mga panlipunan at pangkasaysayang penomenon,” Derain writes. For him, the aswang is as indisputably real as any other force that shapes Filipino society. By affirming its place in our culture, May Tiktik sa Bubong, May Sigbin sa Silong opens the door to the possibility that perhaps anything can be considered an aswang, depending on how we see it.
Derain’s anthology demands not only to be read, but also to be continuously interpreted. As the reader moves away from the early entries—learning about the organ structure of the manananggal and the various abilities that the aswang has displayed over the years—one finds that this research begins to inform one’s perception of the succeeding stories, and one’s newfound understanding of the aswang. What may have otherwise been just a series of horror stories are now part and parcel of an ethnographic study of the Filipino people, as told through the monsters and spirits that live among us.