Danilo Cruz, the protagonist of Danton Remoto’s Riverrun, is a young Filipino man raised near an American army base. From the get-go, something about Danilo is different, and everyone in his village can make it out. Even as a young boy, going to watch television at a friend’s house, the mother responds by slamming the door in his face. His reaction is violent.
I walked down their cemented stairs, grabbed a pebble, no, a rock, and hurled it at their windowpane… The smashed window looked like the teeth of a shark.
Danilo is too young to understand why people are alienated by him, but as he gets older, his being different takes a certain shape. He pines for his best friend Luis, imagining his “smooth skin and… face aureoled with light” every night he goes to bed. The labels—“you’re a fag, ha-ha-ha!” classmates shout—come before before he can fully understand that he is attracted to the same sex. His father observes that something in his gait is off. He advises Danilo:
You should walk with your chest out, your stomach in and your gaze level in the distance… This is the way boys should walk.
Ferdinand Marcos is meanwhile taking a stranglehold on the nation’s government. While Danilo and his family witness most events of the dictatorship from their television—the Plaza Miranda bombing, the suppression of student protests—violence soon comes to their remote village. A C-47 crashes into a nearby town. The family travels to the hospital. One family friend lays with his “khaki uniform… torn to shreds around the elbows and knees,” while another’s body is “limp, as if all of her bones had turned to water.”
Literary fiction from the Philippines rarely circulates abroad. The reimagining and republication of the 2015 Philippines edition of Remoto’s Riverrun by a publisher with international reach is therefore a welcome opportunity to experience a novel originating from the Philippines. The novel also succeeds as an honest portrayal of coming to terms with one’s sexuality. Most of the novel is filtered through Danilo’s attraction and arousal to various men, and his inability to understand what it means in regards to his place in society. No matter whether Danilo is in the rural Philippines, or in bustling London, where later Danilo heads to, there is the sense that Danilo will never understand himself. He remains in a state of emerging from his chrysalis, not only for the duration of the novel, but—one imagines—for the rest of his life.
The novel is organized as a series of vignettes, with the writing pared down to resemble the drips of a faucet. We see Danilo grow, we stop, and then we observe him once more. Most of the vignettes remain told in first person, but some are structured as news articles, as lists, or as recipes. Some can almost stand their own complete short story. For example, Danilo’s first encounter with death come in the chapter “Sssssh”. It starts innocently enough, with young Danilo startled from hearing a “sssssh” in the trees; his family’s housewife Ludy explaining it as the movements of a Filipino folk monster, the kapre.
The kapre looks like a human being, except that it stands more than ten feet tall. In fact, it is as tall as the acacia tree in our yard. Its eyes are as big as saucers and its lips are as thick as the branch of a tree.
Danilo, aghast, refuses to stand near the acacia tree for many days. Ludy delights herself in telling more of these stories over the course of many days, feeding off the fear of a child. Then, the sound returns, this time accompanied by “six-by-six military trucks… transporting bodies in the night. The next day at church Danilo asks who it was that died. Ludy refuses to answer, and the “sssssh” sound returns, this time from Ludy’s own mouth.
The fragmented structure gives Remoto the opportunity to employ a heightened sense of observation, giving each and every moment a sense of daily detail that coming of age writing rarely achieves. As one finishes this this welcome addition to the growing library of gay coming of age novels, one has the impression of having lived life alongside Danilo.