Song of the Mango and Other New Myths by Vida Cruz-Borja
(Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2022)
Reviewed by Zhui Ning Chang
Vida Cruz-Borja is a much-anthologised writer, editor, artist, tarot reader, and conrunner, and a key voice in contemporary Philippine speculative fiction. Her second illustrated fantasy collection, Song of the Mango and Other New Myths, offers the best of her fiction writing across a decade.
In fifteen stories, Cruz-Borja takes readers on a compelling journey through the precolonial past to a magical realist present to a fantastic array of alternate worlds. Each work is accompanied by a beautiful illustration, created by different artists of Filipino heritage. As indicated by the title, many works reimagine alternate endings to classic tales and devise visions towards a more just, equal future. Cruz-Borja addresses this explicitly in her introduction, stating her belief in a writer’s responsibility as a modern mythmaker towards readers in search of kinder worlds. The writing is inventive, formally playful, and reveals a clever, thoughtful mind carving out a fresh and nuanced perspective.
Many stories in the collection are steeped in Filipino folklore, society, and worldbuilding. I loved its various manifestations—from the expanded origin of the mango tree in the titular story to meeting various Filipino supernatural creatures both familiar and new. Cruz-Borja excels at immersing readers in any and every setting, from the magical to the mundane. Works like ‘To Megan, with Half My Heart’ set in a local school captures recognisable student memories: the sleepovers on campus, the haunted bathrooms, the pain of breaking up to focus on upcoming exams, with a dash of fae whimsy and adult melancholy. Newspaper stories utilize the journalistic format to explore and critique human-supernatural relations, creating an immersive world where humans and local supernatural beings have coexisted for decades and become entangled in various issues that require mutual understanding and support. Language plays a strong role too, with works like ‘Call of the Rimefolk’ employing a significant amount of Taglish and local languages. Some of these lines are translated, while others are left as is. It is a treat for those who understand, and an incentive for those who do not to look further and discern via context.
Motifs that recur throughout include buried voices brought to light, and complicated endings. ‘Chosen Mother’ responds to the trope of the Chosen One’s dead mother, imagining a woman who gave birth to such a hero and then goes on to have many wondrous adventures, often entirely unrelated to her saviour son. It is a humorous take that foregrounds those erased or otherwise deemed “unimportant”, demonstrating a horizontal approach to storytelling that interrogates echoes and absences in genre narratives.
In its subversion of fairy tales and folklore, few of the stories have true happy endings. In ‘How the Jungle Got Its Spirit Guardian’, a girl who hunts like a man and a boy who cooks like a woman circumvent their community’s rigid gender expectations by working together, but their happily-ever-after is denied by the king of the jungle who comes to demand retribution for the death of its mate. Many works in the collection have a similar sobering, haunting quality. The refusal to grant a closed happy ending leaves a door open—a sense that this is but a liminal moment in the characters’ lives, that there is a chance for change and possibility in the future.
As a collection, it is curated somewhat unevenly—a handful of more abstract and science fictional stories sit uneasily next to the fantastical, folkloric majority. But what struck me most about Song of the Mango and Other New Myths is the welcome versatility with which Cruz-Borja approaches form and narrative, and her consistent ability to surprise, entertain, and provoke readers. Perhaps she is better known at present on the international stage for her contributions outside of fiction, but it is my hope that she will soon receive wider recognition for her powerful storytelling.