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How Randy Ribay is changing the publishing industry, one YA novel at a time

Randy Ribay poses for a photo in San Francisco on April 18, 2022. Photo: Ekevara Kitpowsong

“Patron Saints of Nothing” hit the young adult (YA) literary world by storm in 2019, and author Randy Ribay (pronounced “ree-BYE”) has been riding high ever since.

The book is a compelling coming-of-age story about grief, guilt, and the risks a Filipino American teenager takes to reveal the truth about his cousin’s murder in the Philippines. It was selected as a 2019 Freeman Book Award winner and finalist for the National Book Award, Los Angeles Times Book Prize, Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Young Adult Novel, International Thriller Writers Young Adult Award, Amelia Elizabeth Walden Award, CILIP Carnegie Medal, and 17 state book awards for children’s and YA literature.

Ribay says that for “Patron Saints of Nothing,” he asked himself, “What role do I have as a Filipino American in talking about injustices occurring in the Philippines?”

Born in Manila, Ribay and his family moved to the United States and eventually settled in Michigan, just outside Detroit. He remembers a sporadic Filipinx presence in his childhood, visiting the houses of random Filipinx families and fielding microaggressions in the predominantly white community.

“Nobody could place me ethnically. I got the ‘What are you?’ question often. I’m biracial. Couldn’t put me in a box,” Ribay said. “There’s something about the way you look that signals to people that you’re from somewhere else.”

As an immigrant in America, Ribay faced many challenges.

“When I was really little, we spoke Bicol and Tagalog. Then eventually, my parents stopped teaching us either one as part of that desire to fit into America more. They didn’t want us to have accents and felt that we needed to speak English to succeed economically,” he said.

Ribay went on to earn his Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the University of Colorado at Boulder and his Master’s degree in Language and Literacy from Harvard Graduate School of Education. He has lived in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family for the last six years and currently teaches high school English.

Based in the Bay Area, Ribay says that he’s surrounded by a robust Filipinx population for the first time in his life. From buying Filipino food at local grocery stores to hearing people speak Tagalog and other languages of the Philippines, living in the Bay Area has impacted Ribay and his writing.

“I’ve always been influenced by where I live. It impacts how I think about things. In terms of how I write, [my characters] are often Filipino characters who are the only ones in the community. That’s starting to shift now that I live in a place with a stronger Filipinx American community. It’s making me think about history more and different perspectives of living around people,” he said.

For Ribay, inspiration hits anywhere. Inspiration may derive from different parts of his personality or seeing kids of color play basketball and Dungeons & Dragons. Writing about young adults resonates deeply with him.

“Young adult fiction is ultimately about that time in life when you start to think about who you are outside of your family. You’ve been raised with certain beliefs, but as you get more free time and responsibility, you start thinking about what to do after high school,” Ribay said. “This increased independence often causes us to think about ‘What do I want? Who am I? Am I who my parents want me to be?’”

Ribay is also the author of two other YA novels: “An Infinite Number of Parallel Universes” and “After the Shot Drops.” But entering the publishing industry wasn’t easy for Ribay. With no connections or family members who were practicing artists, he says he felt clueless and ran into barriers that writers of color often encounter in publishing.

He shares that he received feedback like, “Hey, your writing is good, but I can’t connect to your characters.” The lack of understanding and connection, he says, demonstrates biases in the publishing industry that have real ramifications and perpetuates a dominant group in YA literature — the white upper-middle class.

“These biases add up, so the industry will always reproduce itself. If we want it to produce meaningful change, to diversify the stories that are out there, there’s no way to work on that besides diversifying who’s working behind the scenes,” Ribay said.

Ribay is doing his part to change the industry. He plans to release several short stories in different YA anthologies in the next few years. Coming fall 2022 is “Grimoire of Grave Fates,” a YA fantasy mystery set at a magic school where one of the professors has been murdered. In this anthology, each author tells a piece of the story, focusing on the biracial or multiracial experiences of individual characters. “House Party” is a YA anthology of senior year stories to be released in 2023, in which a cast of diverse authors each writes about a different character’s experience. Ribay is also working on an audio-only short story with Audible and a “super-secret” project with details that he has yet to share.

“Sometimes it doesn’t seem busy because other authors publish every year. I feel super slow sometimes,” Ribay said, “but I will defer to having a full-time job and raising a 19-month-old child.”

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