JUSTINE VILLANUEVA Reviews
On Maps: the short story “Here Be Dragons” from
The Infinite Library and Other Stories by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo
(Gaudy Boy, Singapore, 2021)
I chose to read and review The Infinite Library and Other Stories by Victor Fernando R. Ocampo because I wanted to challenge myself to read Filipino speculative fiction. This genre is new for me and I’ve been needing some motivation to finally start exploring it. I’m glad that I did because there’s so much to love, and learn, in this collection.
I have to admit, however, that reading this collection is a bit of a challenge. It demands the reader to really make the extra steps of looking up the references made in the stories for a fuller understanding of the individual stories and the collection. One can’t just wing it and hope to understand the stories by way of context. This is what I tried to do at first, not wanting to disrupt my flow of reading. But I felt like I was missing out on the core themes so I finally looked up “Mane, Thecel, Phares” and “Here Be Dragons” and “Strabo” and many more phrases and words used throughout. What a difference it made! Like I said, there is so much to love, and learn, in this collection.
I have to admit one more thing: at this point in my speculative fiction reading experience, there is no way I can possibly rise to the challenge of reviewing all 18 stories in this collection threaded by themes of Filipino identity, the diaspora, artificial intelligence, and infinity (!), among many others. So instead, I am going to review one story. Yes, just one. This is actually harder than it sounds. To choose one means I have to read and reread all of the stories in search of that one that resonates most with me. In the end, I choose “Here Be Dragons.” I’m a children’s book writer, after all, and stories about young girls occupy a special place in my heart. I also love maps.
In “Here Be Dragons,” an 11-year old girl, Isabelle, is sent every day to buy her mother’s favorite pan de coco. Her trips never varied until that one day when she dares enter a new neighborhood shop, “Here Be Dragons,” which sold nothing but maps. Maps are Isabelle’s greatest passion. Inside, she meets Strabo, the proprietor, who offers to make her a map that would “chart everything from the tip of your toes to every last hair on your heard”. All for the price of a bag of pan de coco. When she asks how she would know that her map will be “real”, she is told that “a map is true only if you have been there before.” The story fast forwards in time and in 100 years, the 111-year-old Isabelle finally sends for her map. The story ends “somewhere in time” when Isabella steps out of the shop experiencing a sense of déjà vu and remembering Strabo’s words, spoken only a few minutes before…or a lifetime ago.
The title of this story, “Here Be Dragons,” is a phrase associated with old maps—early modern European maps—where an uncharted territory is signified by beasts and serpents. The phrase itself, in Latin, was only used once, not on a map but on a globe, Hunt-Lenox Globe, built in 1510, and referring to the southeast coast of Asia, the extreme end of the Asian continent. Thus, as a phrase, “Here Be Dragons” is indicative of the subjective nature of the mapmaking process and the limitations of the mapmaker’s knowledge of the land. Obviously, it does not take into account the knowledge of those who actually inhabit the “uncharted territory” and who might actually call it home. The use of this kind of map is for the outsider whose agenda may be more geared towards “discovery” and “exploration”. Those who live in the uncharted territory have no use for this map. Seen from the uncharted territory’s perspective, this kind of map warning “Here Be Dragons!” is false.
In contrast, the map that Strabo offers to make for Isabelle is one that is based on her body, senses, and experiences. “My bird, Animaxander, will record everything you will ever see and hear. My bear Eratosthenes will do the same for everything you will ever touch, and my apple Ortelius will map all the things that you will ever taste in your life.” It is a map that evolves, is emergent, has yet to be made as she becomes. A map that takes into account her age, sex and gender, race, class, existence in a particular time and space, as she daily walks the neighborhood to pick up pan de coco, from the Puerta del Sol convenience next to their house, past the Milky Way cafe, to the Estrella Del Norte panaderia. A map that follows her as she ventures beyond her neighborhood, beyond her country, to everywhere in the universe she ends up going.
In Strabo’s kind of map, there would be no need to indicate “Here Be Dragons” because it is a map that shows the way to heaven and hell, happiness and sadness, music, loves lost and found, imaginary places known only to dreamers and mapmakers.” It would also be a true map because “you have been there before.”
This brings me back to Isabella’s question upon seeing a vast collection of rolled up maps and dusty globes strewn carelessly on the floor of the store.
“Who would need all these maps?” she asks.
“Everyone,” Strabo replies.
I agree with Strabo. Who wouldn’t want such map for themselves, one that “helps you build your world and find your place in it”? I would.
Justine Villanueva traces her ancestral roots to Bukidnon, Philippines where she was raised until she immigrated to the United States when she was 17. She now lives in the Patwin-Wintun homeland (Davis, California) with her husband and two sons. Justine's creative work focuses on decolonization, social justice, and connecting with the living Earth. She writes children's books and is the founder of Sawaga River Press, a nonprofit press that publishes children's books featuring Filipino children and their experiences in the diaspora. She runs her own law and real estate office. She loves to dance.