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Mastering monsters and fears

By ALFRED A. YUSON, The Philippine STAR Published May 09, 2022 5:00 am

The Great Little Hunter, written by Ian Rosales Casocot, illustrated by Hersley-Ven Casero, and published by Pinspired Philippines, was launched at Dakong Balay Gallery on Rizal Boulevard in Dumaguete City last month. The book’s special first edition of 100 numbered copies nearly sold out on the same evening.

The hardbound children’s book of 8.5 by 11.5 inches, with thick inside pages, features Casero’s arresting artworks that dominate each spread, with Casocot’s magical story unfolding sparingly on each page — sometimes as brief phrases but also as snippets of dialogue and paragraphs that advance the tale.

Anxious at bedtime, a young boy is told his secret name by his father.

“Ngayam,” the father says, “means he is a great hunter, a mangangayam… A brave boy that hunts. A boy that hunts monsters. A boy that is never, never afraid.”

In Binisaya, a mangangayam is a hunter who tracks predatory wild animals with fast dogs that rely on their sight. The huntsman usually does this to collect a bounty. But in Casocot’s story, Ngayam uses the power of his secret name to overcome his own fears of the creatures of midnight.

The wakwak, the sigbin and the tikbalang are among the Creatures of Philippine Lower Mythology, an authoritative book by Maximo D. Ramos published in 1971. The first two are particularly popular as bogeys in the Visayas, while the last appears to be shared with Luzon. Imaginary creatures depicted in a people’s lower mythology are said to be among the most important phenomena in their belief systems

The vampiric wakwak is a bird-like creature that preys on humans at night, similar to the manananggal. The sigbin, said to look “like a small kangaroo, with flapping ears, burning eyes, a whip-like tail, and the ability to walk backwards,” may not be familiar to people from Luzon, but in Bohol, sigbins are believed to hunt for the hearts of children, which they turn into amulets. Lurking in rainforests is the tikbalang, a long-limbed humanoid with the head and hooves of a horse. It’s not particularly dangerous, since it simply plays tricks on travelers.

Casocot recounts that his own problems with anxiety made him want to write about a boy confronting his fears.

“I also knew I needed the story to be steeped in local culture. And then the idea of a child ‘mangangayam’ (or hunter) came about. After a few days trying to bring the story down to less than 500 words, I thought of only one person who could bring my vision of this story to life: Hersley-Ven Casero. But before even meeting him, I needed to prepare the visuals for each spread of the potential book, so that my story and his potential illustrations would perfectly sync with the structure of a book.

“Hersley was quickly on board. Two months later, Hersley showed me his work — and I was astonished at how much he was able to flesh out the world of Ngayam, making the story also his own: it was his idea to make each canvas/spread bleed into each other like in a continuous scroll, making all sixteen spreads part of one very long work, with the last spread bleeding into the first one. And every canvas hides all sorts of flora and fauna Hersley studied while making the work. Part of the fun is identifying these!”

Author Ian Rosales Casocot

The artworks were exhibited at the gallery, so that Ngayam’s story could be followed as it scrolls from one canvas to the next. It’s a good, not-so-scary read for kids, as Ngayam quickly overcomes nightmarish threats with the simple declaration of the powerful name his father had given him.

On that night, he slips into sleep after savoring the full moon outside his window. A dream launches him on a little boat of imagination, disembarking from which leads him to an adventure in the dark night. But he simply masters his nightmares by befriending the monsters.

After his reading at the launch, Casocot confided: “I, too, was and still am afraid of the dark. Over time, I realized that it is okay to venture into the despairing dark and confront what you fear. That was the story I wanted to tell children — that you can prevail versus the darkness by befriending the very monsters that haunt you.”

Illustrator Hersley-Ven Casero 

For his part, Casero said: “I wanted our book to preserve our culture as Ngayam’s tale unfolds. I tried to show glimmers of our beautiful peculiarities —from Philippine mythological creatures to the flora and fauna you will discover in the book.”

Ian Rosales Casocot has won Palanca awards, the PBBY Salanga Writers Prize, and the Fully Booked/Neil Gaiman Philippine Graphic /Fiction Prize. He has authored several books of fiction, including a novel, attended the International Writing Program in Iowa City, and was the Founding Coordinator of the Edilberto and Edith Tiempo Creative Writing Center in Silliman University.

Hersley-Ven Casero is a multidisciplinary visual artist who’s also based in Dumaguete City. He won the Artist of the Year Award from Foundation University, and the Negros Oriental Young Heroes Award in the field of Visual Arts in 2018. 

They are planning a softbound second edition, complete with a new cover. The first hardbound edition remains a limited collector’s item. Limited copies are still available at www.inspired.ph.