Research Notes · 04/21/2017

The Hour of Daydreams

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Renee Macalino Rutledge writes about The Hour of Daydreams from Forest Avenue Press.

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A Bedrock of Ghost Stories

I often tell people that a Filipino folktale, The Star Maidens, inspired my book. The truth is, I started researching my novel long before I read this tale and well before I knew I was writing one.

I was a pre-teen when my cousins arrived in the US from the Philippines. They had accents like my aunts and uncles and compared everything to their standards back home. “In the Philippines, we did this,” or “in the Philippines, we had that.” I realized, later, how homesick they must’ve been, but back then felt bad that California didn’t live up to their expectations.

Though we were all around the same age, my cousins didn’t like to play outside as much as I did. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area suburbs with two older brothers I jumped off roofs, rode dirt bikes, and went fishing with. In contrast, my newly arrived cousins could happily pass a whole Saturday lounging around the house, eating, sharing tsismis, and napping. “In the Philippines, it’s too hot to play outside,” they’d say.

One thing we had in common was a love of ghost stories, a seed from which a branch of my novel would grow. My cousins introduced me to the Philippine legend of the White Lady, a ghost dressed in a flowing white dress, with unkempt, long black hair covering her face. The White Lady was bent on revenge on those who’d wronged her in life. During sleepovers, we’d scare one another with a simple exclamation in the dark: “It’s the White Lady!”

Another was the legend of Bloody Mary, also a female ghost, one that would appear in the mirror if we held hands in front of our reflection and repeated the words, “Bloody Mary come to me.” We tried this, but it always ended with one of us shrieking from the bathroom before an apparition could be known.

The interesting thing is the ghost stories didn’t stop with my cousins. The older generation of my family believed in supernatural beings, too. One of these was the duwende, a dwarf that lives underground with the power to inflict harm. I remember those times when the commotion of a family dinner would wind down and a quiet would fall upon the room as we digested our meal over coffee or hot Ovaltine. That was when my aunts and uncles reminisced about life in the homeland and the duwende rose up in their memories — how it was prevalent in the Philippine provinces, how they’d seen one with their own eyes. They also attested to ill-willed duwendes possessing their friends.

Afterward I turned to one of my most reliable sources, my dad, to fact-check. I figured a duwende was just another urban legend, like the Loch Ness monster or Bigfoot. But if my dad could testify to their existence, there had to be something there. He told me that any bump in the ground could be perceived in the Philippines as an entrance or exit to a duwende’s home. His own backyard had had an anthill, and any time he passed it, he said the required words to avoid a duwende’s curse: “Makikiraan, Po.” I used this line in my novel, which I translated into English as “Excuse me, Sir, just passing through.”

It was more than this line, though, but the mentality behind it that became a point of investigation in The Hour of Daydreams — the belief that such forces from the realm of the imagination could be real. I doubted the existence of these beings then questioned my rigid belief system that didn’t make room for the possibility of the mystical and otherworldly. The book became a way to work through the different sides of truth to decide what’s real and what’s fabricated.

While writing the book, I researched other supernatural beings in the Filipino tradition: The diwata is a tree fairy that grants wishes if it favors you; the manananggal is a vampire that feeds on pregnant women’s unborn babies, the aswang is a shapeshifter. I discovered the existence of people whom the villagefolk would turn to for help in dealing with curses and affliction: The albularyo is a traditional healer, or witch doctor, while the babylan is a revered priestess.

All this is to say that well before I read The Star Maidens, the ghost stories of my youth set the stage for me to jump into the folktale’s magical elements. The Star Maidens’ winged women, living stars, nighttime setting, and enchanted quiver where the possessive husband hides his wife’s wings all drew me. Aside from the captivating imagery, however, the story felt predictable and lifeless. That is, until I compared it to the ghost stories I’d heard as a child and wondered the same thing I wondered about them: What if this story was based on something real?

What if the fantastical winged women existed and those who’d come into contact with them shared their stories? Who were the tellers, and how did they impact the story’s journey? The Hour of Daydreams followed their imagined tales and intersection, something I could no longer research, something beyond the confines of fact.

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Renee Macalino Rutledge is the author of The Hour of Daydreams (Forest Avenue Press, 2017). She has been published in ColorLines, Literary Hub, Red Earth Review, Ford City Anthology, Mutha Magazine, and others, with work forthcoming in The Tishman Review and 2017 Women of Color Anthology. She is at work on short stories while researching her second novel.