Questioning Assumptions with Randy Ribay

On October 25th, Sacred Heart Cathedral students and staff packed into the Pavilion for a special assembly featuring author Randy Ribay, who connected with the SHC community on the topics of his books, his journey as an author and the important work of questioning ourselves.

Patron Saints of Nothing is one of Ribay’s most celebrated works ( Freeman Book Award, NPR Best Book of the Year and finalist for the National Book Award). The novel, which tells the story of a high school student who travels to his father’s home country of the Philippines to uncover the truth about his cousin’s death, was chosen as one of three mysteries by the English Department for this past summer’s One School One Question reading. The book deals with the challenges of coming of age, of internal and external cultural conflicts, of grief and estrangement and connection in the midst of difficult realities and multiple perspectives.

This year, student groups helped to bring context to the chosen readings. The Book Society club prepared videos to help students make their selection at the end of last year, and Kapamilya, SHC’s Filipino-American CCC (Catholic Community Cohort), helped bring context to Ribay’s story in the week before his visit. English classes at all four levels incorporated Kapamilya’s video into coursework to prepare students to receive and engage with our guests.

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During his presentation to the entire student body, Ribay spoke about the novel’s story and his personal experience as a Filipino-American. He also explored the difficult yet necessary task of challenging ourselves to look past assumptions and address humanity in a post-colonial world where we must work to avoid pitfalls of materialism, preconceptions and toxic masculinity to connect with and understand each other.

In response to student questions on how to best help each other do this work, Ribay turned back to his experience as an author, a reader and a consumer of media. He told students that the books he reads, the movies he watches and the stories he chooses to pay attention to flesh out his world and give a new understanding of different perspectives. He told them that, as an author, he works to provide his readers with real characters so they can identify with people who may be different from themselves. In short, he works to expand empathy through compelling fiction.

After the assembly, a smaller group of students and faculty members joined Ribay for lunch. They asked what it takes to become an author. He told them it requires accepting a lot of rejection, especially as an author not coming from a “mainstream identity.” The 39-year-old pointed out that, when he was growing up, he didn’t see himself in most YA (Young Adult) novels, and that the most recent political climate in the US and the return to book banning has made some publishers more wary of publishing certain narratives.

In response to one student’s question on finding a balance between appreciating the culture he was raised in and living now in the United States, Ribay shared that, though born in the Philippines, he had been in midwestern American schools as a kid, where no one looked like him aside from his siblings. Outside of school, he was culturally Filipino, even speaking Tagalog at home, before his parents decided to focus on their children’s American accents. But in school, no one knew anything about it.

This led to a disconnect of information. “If I wanted to fit in, I just didn’t bring up any of that.”

In college, he learned more and swung in the other direction. He referred to himself as biracial or bicultural (his mother is white). Now he likes to use the term “third culture.” Ribay says the people you talk to and the stories you are exposed to help to explain and help you grapple with your own identity.

Ribay emphasized the importance of showing diversity within Filipino identities in his novels. “In Patron Saints of Nothing, you see a priest, a policeman, an artist, an activist… All with different perspectives on the drug war, and all with different approaches to life.” The creation of different characters with different worldviews enables readers to have a more complete understanding of a larger and complex culture, even if that culture is not their own.

Finally, Ribay encouraged students to engage the information they receive and to notice who gets a voice in the media. He told them to observe the news and see which family members are spoken to and how much time is devoted to each story. In between anecdotes about his youth, and explanation of his reclaiming of history through tattoos and storytelling, he encouraged them to leave space, to embrace their third-culture identities, and to appreciate and own pride in self.

We look forward to Ribay’s upcoming novels, including a multi-generational exploration of father-son relationships in Everything We Never Had, as well as a novel that takes place in the Avatar universe, The Reckoning of Roku.

Photos by Stephanie Aclan ’25

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