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Song of the Mango coverIn this, her first traditionally published anthology, Filipina author Vida Cruz-Borja delivers a thoughtful, imaginative collection of fifteen stories that invite the reader to imagine what a “more just, more equitable” world looks like (p. xi). This entails subverting time-old tropes, envisioning future space exploration, and giving voice to vulnerable populations. It also means acknowledging that the desire for a more just and equitable world can only be conceived in a time and place in which the inhabitants carry the “memory of pain” (p. xi). For readers who live with triggers, Cruz-Borja provides a list of content notes for each story at the back of the anthology (while perceptively admitting that it is impossible to provide a comprehensive list).

Because a more just and equitable world does not exist (yet), Cruz-Borja calls her stories “new myths” (p. xii). In her introduction to the anthology, she explains that she is passionate about creating a better world, and she threads this passion through her stories, whether they envision justness and equity on a societal level or within the life of an individual or individuals. These new myths fall within the larger tradition of myths and folklore, in which authors and whole regions engage in conversation with one another through retellings of concepts, stories, and characters. Many of Cruz-Borja’s stories draw from Filipino mythology. Others interact with more modern works (e.g., “Chosen Mother” with Diana Wynne Jones’s Tough Guide to Fantasyland [1996]) or fairy tales that have been retold countless times (“Odd and Ugly” is “Beauty and the Beast” with a touch of “Rapunzel”). [1]

The motif of mangoes threads the collection. The titular story, “Song of the Mango,” opens the anthology by presenting the author’s take on the origin of the fruit: a Diwata brings a grieving handmaiden’s brother back to life as a mango tree. The opening line recalls the oral tradition of mythmaking, the passing down of folklore to the next generation and its inherently conversational nature: “Sit beneath the shade, child, and I will tell you the tale of how the mango came to be” (p. 1). The story closes with an invitation for the reader to sit and partake of the fruit—and to join the author in the mythmaking process: “And now that I have told this story, are you certain you still want to stay and take part in this thankless but important work? If so, here is a mango—I invite you to take a bite” (p. 30).

Yet, as the story reveals, the mango is more than a tale to be told under the shade of a tree. It is more than a mythical fruit that possesses the power to heal “snapped bones, incurable illnesses, [and] broken hearts” (p. 13). In her new myth, Cruz-Borja juxtaposes Saha’s desires with those of everyone who desires something from her. As Saha takes it upon herself to liberate herself from her oppressors, and to safeguard her people’s stories against forgetting, the mango adopts these meanings. And it continues to gain more meaning with each subsequent story in the anthology. The mango thus provides more than physical healing; it offers comfort, shelter, a taste of home. It is shared “no matter what kind of day [a person is] having” (p. 33), it “warm[s the] whole body” (p. 40), and pregnant wives develop cravings for the taste (p. 305). A kapre “[takes] up residence” in a mango tree (p. 315), and the Tamawo lures unsuspecting maidens into his home with the promise of its “extraordinary” taste (p. 239). It is a peace offering, an invitation to “stay and take part in this thankless but important work” of building an “archive of stories, songs, and poems … just ripe for the unforgetting” (p. 30). A taste of the mango opens one’s eyes to other ways of viewing the world.

With few exceptions, the collection is steeped in Filipino folklore and culture. Readers can enjoy the stories even if they lack familiarity with the characters and myths. Within each story, Cruz-Borja provides enough context for readers to understand what’s happening. For example, the mythical kapre features prominently in “To Megan, With Half My Heart.” Although the story does not define the term, descriptions like “bark-rough and knotty” skin colored by “[s]hades of brown, gray, and green,” eyes that are “greener than was humanly possible,” and a parent that is “neither tree nor human” (p. 41) suggests that a kapre is a supernatural, humanoid being with characteristics of a tree. [2] Most importantly, the stories communicate very real, very human desires and dilemmas. Leni, the protagonist of the aforementioned story, grapples with first love and motherhood. Thus, even if the setting may be unfamiliar, each story has the power to resonate with global readers through their shared humanity.

That said, readers who desire an introduction to prominent characters of Filipino mythology should begin the anthology by reading its third story, “First Play for and by Tikbalang Triggers Uproar on Opening Night.” The story is the first of three which reads like a headline article written by the fictional Ma. Rosario P. Herrera, to be featured in the also-fictional newspaper The Archipelago Daily. In accrediting the cast of mythics who play a role in producing the musical, Herrera gives a brief description of their kind. The story also introduces readers to the anthology’s themes of equity and justice. Acclaimed theater director Jerald Bulan has released a controversial new musical, Noladi, which adapts the epic poem of the Tikbalang (horse-headed beings) of Northern Luzon. Unusually, it is the first human-directed play to cast mythical creatures in acting roles, and protestors fear that the show will set a dangerous precedent that ultimately harms human rights. This concern evokes real-world fears related to The Other. Fears that are universal. Although this story is set in the Philippines, the concern over human rights calls to mind, for this US-based reviewer, news stories expressing concern that undocumented immigrants “steal” jobs from citizens or that historically marginalized groups will oversaturate the job market, making it difficult for more traditionally established groups to find jobs.

Yet, as the article goes on to show, there are multiple sides to every story. Protest also comes from mythic rights activists, who believe that Bulan claims to “champion the cause of mythics … for [his] own personal gain and to disastrous results” (p. 66). While some mythics would agree that “no good will come of this play,” however, others are simply “happy that humans will get to understand the life of a mythic like the Tikbalang” and hope that next time an epic will be staged featuring their own people group (p. 55). Such fears also resonate with real-world concerns. By staging fictional interviews that give voice to different opinions, Cruz-Borja highlights the complexities of activism and giving appropriate representation to historically marginalized groups. In the process, she offers a starting place: listening to those who are different from us. Two additional news articles expand upon this theme to encourage empathy and helping one another, while delivering incisive commentary on Philippine social issues (in “Have Your #Hugot Harvested at This Diwata-Owned Café” and “In the Shadow of the Typhoon, Humans and Mahiwaga Cooperate for Survival”).

Cruz-Borja’s search for a more just and equitable world takes her not only through the Philippines but into fantastic worlds. “A Mask for the Queen of Shards,” for example, subverts fairytale tropes in which the heroic prince rescues the damsel-in-distress. Instead, the prince is trapped in his tower, leaving the women to move the plot forward: his clever younger sister schemes and plots, his tyrannical mother reigns through fear, and his common-born lover embarks on a quest to free him—and win his hand. Likewise, “Chosen Mother” explores the life of an oft-neglected woman in fantasy stories: Dalena tries to make a life for herself instead of falling into the trope by which the Chosen Mother’s death spurs the Chosen One onto his heroic quest to defeat the Dark Lord. In giving Dalena a voice and a life of her own, Cruz-Borja invites readers to reflect on the stories that have been passed down to them, and to reimagine them—to imagine how a story would change depending on who is allowed to tell it and, if given agency, what they would do to bring about a better world.

This necessarily raises the next question: what does “better” look like in the real world? Cruz-Borja invites readers to imagine that better future. “Call of the Rimefolk” explores a futuristic, technologically advanced Philippines, where a Filipino is preparing for an expedition to Pluto. It also has present-day implications in its exploration of love, as Miguel comes to terms with his impending long-distance relationship with Roland. Imagining a better world also means acknowledging that human ideals are not always perfect, for they come from flawed beings. “The Museum of Incomplete Statues,” “Ink: A Love Story,” and “Blushing Blue” examine individuals’ ideal worlds and the consequences of achieving (or failing to achieve) their desires.

Most of the collection’s stories fall on the novelette end of the spectrum, which is where Cruz-Borja seems to have found her niche. Indeed, the longer stories allow her to flesh out the setting and context with her intricate worldbuilding while developing vibrant, compelling characters. Yet, the author demonstrates similar prowess with the collection’s few shorter stories, like “The Museum of Incomplete Statues,” in which a nail technician falls in love with a statue. In five and a half pages, Cruz-Borja immerses the reader in Anna’s mind, with all its mundane complexities and vulnerabilities, and reveals why the young woman makes the seemingly absurd decision that she does at story’s end.

By presenting different perspectives on what a better world might look like, Cruz-Borja reveals that no easy answers exist. In the process, however, she continues the tradition of mythmaking. First, she engages in dialogue with the artists who provided illustrations for each story. Ten artists provided an illustration based on their interpretation of Cruz-Borja’s writing. Eleven if you include the cover art. Some illustrations seem pulled straight out of a story; others symbolically represent a tale. Each communicates an artist’s response to a story—what it means to them and how it leads them to envision a more just and equitable world. Second, Cruz-Borja converses with readers, inviting them to imagine with her and to contemplate on what a “more just, more equitable” world looks like.

In the end, the author leaves each reader to come to their own conclusions—and to continue the mythmaking process by taking the initiative to do what they can to bring about such a world. This may involve acting upon the world like Maria Cacao (“In the Shadow of the Typhoon, Humans and Mahiwaga Cooperate for Survival”), spurring a loved one to pursue their dreams like Miguel and Roland (“Call of the Rimefolk”), or building empathy like Maria Makiling (“Have Your #Hugot Harvested at This Diwata-Owned Cafe”). It may even lead one to retell these new myths, and to share one’s own reflections on what the stories mean, in the hopes of spurring a fellow reader to pick up their own copy of this incisive, imaginative, and ultimately hope-filled collection.


[1] “Interviewing Vida Cruz-Borja,” Runalong the Shelves, March 8, 2023, [return]

[2] A quick Google search reveals that a kapre is a tree giant. This is further corroborated in another story in the anthology (p. 55). [return]

Kristy Wang is an American-born Chinese writer. She enjoys speculative and fantasy fiction that give voice to the historically silenced and marginalized. When she’s not writing, you can find her playing with her rescue dog, drinking a cup of hot tea, or observing the interplay of light and shadow. You can also find her on Instagram and Twitter.

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