An acquaintance had explained her book-buying habits in this way: she gets print copies of the books she wants people to know she owns, but only downloads e-books for titles she won’t ever admit to wanting or having. I don’t follow the same rules, but I’ll admit to having some e-books that I’m relieved no one else will ever see.
Which is why I feel slightly conflicted with Alma Anonas-Carpio’s debut novel How to Tame Your Tikbalang Without Even Trying, the first in her planned Tikbalang series. First released in late 2015, it got a layout refresh last year, along with a new cover by Rica Palomo-Espiritu. Of course I’d want more people to know about it, but I also feel selfish and smug. Everyone else is still stuck with bad mommy porn; and I’m reading something that hasn’t been done before, as far as I know, and is as far from mommy porn as you’d think.
In this case, it’s Philippine mythology and erotica (mytherotica). Tala, a rookie Babaylan working in a Makati call center, and Buhawi, an Adonis-like alpha-male banker who also happens to be a tikbalang, crash into each other’s lives after Tala obtains a diary written by her “crazy” ancestor Beatriz. Individually, the Babaylan must learn about and harness her powers, and the tikbalang must be tamed by said Babaylan so he can ascend the Molave Throne as its rightful heir. Together, in their pursuit of love and immortality, they encounter problems like a wayward tikbalang sibling, an ancestor’s thwarted union with another tikbalang gone mad, and conflicting emotions about spending forever with someone you barely know. The penalties? Death for both, not to mention prolonged insanity for the Tikbalang.
Let’s get the biggest part out of the way, shall we? You read erotica primarily for the sex, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar. “How to Tame Your Tikbalang Without Even Trying” doesn’t disappoint—there’s plenty of that throughout the novel’s 242 pages of content. They’re graphic and oh-so-racy, with the clear intent of stoking hearts, libidos, and body temperatures. Anonas-Carpio makes her main characters go at it in every possible position in every possible place: from her apartment to his house, from back seats to bathrooms, from private beaches to siokoy-owned love caves, and even from the real world to the Other World. Her vivid imagination gives us sex toys that exist in real life and only on every woman’s wish list; and her characters, enviable stamina and prowess that I doubt an actual living, breathing person has. Vines from magic balls, instant chains, lightning-powered dildos and a seven-stage sex marathon, oh my!
Erotica also requires a solid plot and setting as backbone, and for the most part this novel has those down too. There are a lot of statements, facts, and bits about our country’s folklore, traditions, and destinations, with the action spanning Manila to the Visayas and up north toward Paoay. The novel also includes a glossary that explains local myths, expressions and phrases, and even culinary dishes. It’s quite the introduction for non-Filipino readers —and answers that damn persistent “Filipinoness” question asked of every piece of local literature.
But the ample sexytime also leads to other questions. Even with the novels’ emphasis on equality, consent and reciprocity, the first few chapters showcased problematic behavior for both leads, behavior that many people unfortunately still call romantic. Tala and Buhawi’s characterizations are uneven at times, with both switching moods and intents at whim, sometimes in the same page. At times, Buhawi came across as mere supernatural beefcake with a raging hard-on than a potential life partner for Tala. The supposed villains weren’t given enough page time, and their motives were mostly explained by the main and supporting characters. The dirty talk and catch phrases become repetitive, some acquiring a comical effect for me by the back half. There were four scenes wherein the new couple devoured big meals (pre- and post-coitus), which seemed to me like the novel was buying time until the next Big Moment. One character’s coming-out was unexpected but unearned, and another’s unforgivable betrayal wasn’t built up properly.
And if you know the author well enough, you’d know what she has taken from real life and made fictional, and how. Her journalism background also shows; some parts of the novel were too detailed, and I was expecting even devices’ model numbers to be stated at some point. Some would say this is a mild blurring of the line for a work of fiction, but I’d say she wrote the story she wanted to tell, exactly the way she wanted to. Isn’t that every writer’s wet dream?