Why Filipinos Should Read: ‘White Lady, Black Christ’ by Charlson Ong

by Bryan Meniado

August is Buwan ng mga Wika and Buwan ng mga Akdang Pinoy. These occasions serve as reminders to celebrate our languages and the work of Filipino writers. Notice that I wrote Buwan ng mga Wika, which is plural, and not the usual Buwan ng Wika because I want to celebrate the diversity of all Philippine languages–take note, not just “dialects”–and cultures. 

In celebration, I’m doing something new for Why Filipinos Should Read: featuring a novel for the first time. I’ve mostly been writing about nonfiction titles because that’s my reading niche; but that doesn’t mean I don’t read fiction. I enjoy reading them and do have a handful of novels in my to-be-read pile too. 

So for this month, I’m sharing about White Lady, Black Christ by award-winning Filipino-Chinese fictionist Charlson Ong. Published in 2021, this is the first release from the newly revived Milflores Publishing, and I should say they really restarted with a bang. This mystery-thriller involving a religious, cross-cultural conspiracy that could shake the foundations of faith made me flip pages continuously. 

Primarily set in the bustling streets of Quiapo in Manila, White Lady, Black Christ tells the interwoven storylines of numerous characters from different backgrounds seemingly trying to resolve the conundrums of their respective lives. As the story progresses, it weaves into a well-crafted unraveling of the mystery surrounding the character Tata Peping, the modern day Itim na Nazareno, and his grand plan to violently awaken people from the lies they have been told all their lives. 

With the intriguing title and premise coupled with the engrossing cover art by Ivan Reverente, the skillful storyteller Charlson Ong has given us another book for the ages. I hope you enjoy this spoiler-free invitation as to why Filipinos should read White Lady, Black Christ

A solid pageturner by a Filipino author

While the “White Lady” part is in itself stimulating, I was more drawn to the “Black Christ” part as I’m also invested in reading about religion and theology. In fact, about one-fifth of my shelf is dedicated to religious references ranging from Judeo-Christian and Islamic history and theology to indigenous belief and atheism. 

So when I received a copy of the book and learned from the blurb that it’s a mystery thriller involving religion, detective stories, and anthropology, I knew right away that this would be a worthwhile break from my usual nonfiction reads. And while it may be my first Charlson Ong book, I was certain this book by a decorated Filipino storyteller was going to be mind-stimulating and knowledge-enriching… and it delivered! (Charlson Ong has received several prestigious grants and awards, including the Palanca, Free Press, and National Book awards, among others.) If you enjoy stories by international authors like James Patterson, Gillian Flynn, and Dan Brown and those by our very own Jose Dalisay Jr., F.H. Batacan, and Caroline Hau, then this book is for you too. (Related: “Why Filipinos Should Read Filipiniana”

A subtle social science education

Beyond the mystifying mysteries, what I like more about the book is its rich setting. Since the story is mainly set in Quiapo, right in the heart of Manila where people from all walks of life converge, it is heavily imbued with social, political, and historical backdrops that can awaken your inner social science geekiness. And as a nonfiction and social science reader, I’m very much pleased!

White Lady, Black Christ does not only carry a stirring narrative, but also strings along lessons in anthropology, sociology, and history. Charlson Ong blends the story with social commentary on different topics like colonial history, government corruption, and Philippine society in general. Furthermore, it makes various references to important historical events like Martial Law and EDSA, and to real-life cult organizations like Lapiang Malaya and Aum Shinrikyo. 

A masterful writer the author is, Charlson Ong did not weave in information in a way that would distract or veer the reader away from the narrative. In my opinion, they were well-researched and not tangential at all.  Every element and theme perfectly fits, enhancing and deepening the story. As what F.H. Batacan said about the author: “…Charlson Ong takes you on a dizzying spin through a mystery so twisty and baffling that it could only have been set in the Philippines.” 

Black Christ and the role of religion 

As a follow-through on social sciences, we shouldn’t miss the central element of the story that is religion. The story is so well-written that the confluence of fiction and complex topics such as syncretism, folk catholicism, and colonial history seems flawless, which made my reading experience, even as an occasional novel reader, much easier and more enjoyable. It’s still very much like reading nonfiction but better because it comes with a thrilling story too! 

Speaking of syncretism, folk Catholicism, and colonial history, the book captures our local cultures well not only in terms of mere description but, more importantly, in also making us more conscious and aware of the influences in our everyday lives. As we may already know, religion plays a big role in Filipino culture but many of us don’t really put much thought into it. Same with other aspects of our culture, not everyone of us thinks deeply about why we do the things we do, or why we practice certain traditions. We often just say “nakasanayan na” or “iyan na kasi ginagawa ng mga lolo’t lola at mga ninuno natin” without full understanding why such is the case.

Some of such socio-cultural aspects are explored in White Lady, Black Christ, especially when it comes to our religious devotion and practices. It bravely and critically examines one of the most powerful institutions that permeate our everyday lives—the Church— and its relation to other social institutions. 

Indigenous peoples and cultures appreciation

In case you missed it, August is also History Month, and every 9th of August is International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. We are indeed packed with significant commemorations this month, including the upcoming National Heroes’ Day. *whew*

For me, a great way to celebrate these annual observances and show our appreciation is by reading more about our history and culture, more particularly that of our indigenous peoples. We should also go beyond surface appreciation and learn more about their rights and plights. White Lady, Black Christ is filled with that. In fact, some of the key characters in the story are indigenous peoples from the Cordillera, and the author masterfully immerses us into some elements of their indigenous traditions, languages, and issues, including pressing issues of development, migration, and displacement. 

Now that we’re on the topic of languages, I think it is also important to note that, contrary to popular belief, the Philippines has more than a hundred languages, and not just dialects. Filipino and English are the two official languages and the regional tongues many of us relegate as mere dialects are languages too. That’s right! Cebuano, Ilocano, Hiligaynon, Waray, and all other regional and indigenous languages are not just dialects because they are all distinct languages that reflect diverse history and cultures. So one might ask: what is a dialect and what is a language? Here’s a short video that can help anybody know more about the difference. Language vs dialect

Identity interrogation

My main takeaway from Charlson Ong’s newest release is the challenge for us to interrogate and be more aware of our identities. The characters and their various backgrounds, as well as the setting, in White Lady, Black Christ represent our diversity as a people. They are a reflection of our different cultures, circumstances,  and aspirations. For me, we should strive to even be more accepting of differences, and understand and accept that there is no one way to be a “Filipino” because there are many. You may be a Filipino-Chinese, a Moro, a Tagalog, a Bisaya, or an Ivatan, for as long as you aspire for a better society for your kababayans where equality, peace, and justice prevail, then that’s an inch closer towards realizing our aspiration for nationhood. As they say, there is unity in diversity. To me, this call is the most crucial echoing message in White Lady, Black Christ. ☁️

The reviewer received a copy from the publisher.
Why Filipinos Should Read appears every last Friday of the month. Read more here.

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