A Family of Aswangs Moves to the U.S. in This Riveting Novel
In Jason Tanamor’s novel Vampires of Portlandia, a family of aswangs immigrates from their homeland the Philippines to the United States’ Pacific Northwest. Settling in Portland, Oregon, the aswangs are surprised when they discover other aswang breeds living among them.
Tanamor, a second-generation Filipino-American, says he got the idea for the novel after watching a TV show.
“To be very honest, I’d never heard of aswang growing up,” he tells Esquire Philippines. “I know, I know, I’m a horrible Filipino. One day, I was watching the TV show Grimm and one of the episodes revolved around aswangs. I’d called my father and he gave me the background, but I don’t think he believed the lore because he was very casual about his response. I slowly became fascinated with the subject.”
Nine months of intense research and writing later, Tanamor came out with a novel that presents a unique perspective of the Filipino mythical creature.
“I wanted to write a book with the same spirit of my favorite movie The Lost Boys,” he says. “The movie was like a horror and comedy mashed together. There were dark moments mixed in with lighthearted fun and campy humor. That’s how I envisioned Vampires of Portlandia.
In this interview, Tanamor speaks to us about his writing process, his literary heroes, and what he really thinks about the recent US elections. Excerpts:
Esquire Philippines: Tell us a bit about yourself. I understand you're Filipino-American. What do you think is the most Filipino thing about you?
Jason Tanamor: By day, I work for Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) in Portland, Oregon. I’m a Contracting Officer and Team Lead. I’m 45-years-old and am married, have one son (and new daughter-in-law), and four cats, and two dogs.
My side gig has always been writing, whether it’s novel writing or media writing. I’d spent a long time writing for entertainment but have since transitioned to writing fiction.
Both my parents are from the Philippines, from Manila. They’d immigrated to the United States on Christmas Eve, 1974. I was born shortly after in April 1975.
The most Filipino thing about me is the way I look. Having grown up essentially in American culture, for the longest time I’d identified first as an American and second as a Filipino.
Esquire Philippines: Tell us about when you first decided to write this novel. There’re tons of fables, legends and tales of the supernatural here in the Philippines. What perspective do you think your novel brings to these stories?
JT: One thing about living in Portland, Oregon that I’d discovered was the amount of crows that roost in downtown during the fall season. There are literally thousands of them, camping out on top of buildings and in trees, cawing in unison. That’s not an exaggeration. I’m always walking around, and when it’s still dark outside, the cawing and the casted shadows freak you out. When the lights hit a crow just right, the shadow could appear on the sidewalk or building times its size. If a car drives by at the right speed and time, the shadow could appear to have shifted.
Along with the many homeless people sleeping on the streets, and the distant police sirens at times, the juxtaposition plays a number on you. It creates its own creepy landscape. Its own creepy narrative. It creates an environment—creepy, interesting, fantastical, amazing—that you have to witness for yourself. After a while, I’d started to build the story in my head. Thus, in 2018, a novel was born.
I wanted to create my own mythos, such as the covenant and rules, because, frankly, a lot of the lore seemed ridiculous, such as transferring the black chick to another and swallowing. So I took some lore and then invented my own at times.
More importantly, I wanted to introduce aswangs to mainstream readers, specifically in the United States. It’s an underrepresented subject that deserves its own narrative. There aren’t a lot of international novels about the topic, so I’m hoping we see a lot more variations of aswang lore, such as we do with vampires and zombies.
Esquire Philippines: You've said it took you about nine months to write the novel. Can you break down your writing princess? How did you get past so-called writer's block (if you ever had them)?
JT: My full-time job takes up most of my day. So I make time early in the morning. I don’t set any word count goals as my sessions generally end on or around 5:00 am during weekdays. But during that time, I may get 1,000 words in. More if it’s a first draft. Fewer if it’s a later draft. I lose words on subsequent drafts.
From there, I get a workout in and then head to work. Luckily with COVID, I’m able to work from home, so my normal 45-minute commute on the train isn’t relevant. It hasn’t been since March 2020. And from the rising cases, it may never be relevant again.
On the weekends, that time may stretch to 7:00 am, depending on when I get tired or decide to get moving.
The only days I take off are when I’m in between stories. I try to write one novel per year. Some finish, some don’t. When I’m not writing, I’m reading.
I rarely get writer’s block. I’m a heavy outliner, so the story is nearly written before I begin the actual task of writing. Once I’m in a groove, I stay obsessed with the story until the first draft is done. Usually by the fourth or eighth draft I find myself losing interest. Or perhaps I get sick of it. But then I’m onto something else. That’s probably the opposite of writer’s block—when you finally get sick of your current WIP and want to quit.
Esquire Philippines: Was it tough getting the novel published? What are some of the most important learnings from this part of the writing process?
JT: The book got picked up relatively quickly, something that’s uncommon in the very slow world of publishing. I’d pitched it during a Twitter pitch event, and a couple of publishers liked [it]. After submitting the manuscript to various publishers, Parliament House Press picked it up. They are a niche publisher whose focus is on sci-fi and fantasy.
I write in so many different genres, mainly because I’d never thought I could do this for a living. I have a full-time job that pays really well, so writing was just ancillary. It still really is.
So the biggest lesson for me was to write what you want. People are going to have their opinions—good and bad. The reality is you’re not going to please everyone, and if you attempt to please everyone, you end up pleasing no one. If anything, you can have fun doing it.
In Stephen King’s On Writing he says (I’m paraphrasing), “When you write the book it belongs to you. When you publish the book, it belongs to everyone.” This is the truest statement I’d ever learned.
Esquire Philippines: Who do you think is this novel for? Is it for Filipinos who are familiar about aswangs? Or would you say it could work for a general audience who love tales of the supernatural?
JT: Technically, this book falls into New Adult, Urban Fantasy, and Vampires. But I think the book will resonate with young adults and adults, as well, who have a fascination with vampire culture and folklore like Grimm and Supernatural.
This is a challenging book to nail. I think a large portion of readers will either love it or hate it. Even though I’m Filipino, I was born and raised in the states. All my culture growing up is American culture. I wanted to introduce Filipino culture to the mainstream, but in doing so, I also open up a window that actual born and raised Filipinos may struggle with. The book may not seem authentic; rather an Americanized version of a culture born in the Philippines. But I think they’d appreciate seeing aswangs in mainstream culture.
Americans, or Filipino-Americans who don’t particularly know about the myth, will find it more enjoyable. The book falls more into a supernatural genre. But notice I referenced television shows, as I wrote the book as a visual, scene by scene, as a television viewer would digest it.
Esquire Philippines: Do you have any desire or plans of visiting the Philippines?
JT: Yes! I’ve never been, and I hear the country is beautiful. But seeing what’s going on politically and environmentally gives me pause. I could be way off as I only know what the media portrays the country as. Probably similar to how the Philippines views the United States.
Esquire Philippines: Any upcoming writing projects after this?
I think there could be a sequel to Vampires of Portlandia based on the past and present storylines, but there isn’t currently one in the works. I’d thought about potentially doing a book about each breed, and how they all culminated into Vampires of Portlandia, but that would be further down the road. I also think it could be written like a series, where the characters all appear in different “episodes,” or novels, where the plot deviates from the main core plot. Again, these are things I’d thought about for a brief second or two, but not enough to act on them.
As for non-related projects, I have two completed novels involving Filipino characters: a historical fiction about two lovebirds fleeing the Philippines during President Marcos’s martial law; and a Filipino teenager who hides his love of Filipino dancing from his friends and new love interest.
Esquire Philippines: Who are your favorite authors? (Doesn't have to be Filipinos).
JT: My favorite author is Chuck Palahniuk. I’d never been a big reader, often going long stretches without reading. Then I read Fight Club. After I’d read that book, I read his other work, and then gradually read similar authors (Bret Easton Ellis, Craig Clevenger), and have since expanded to different types of writers (Christopher Moore, Chelsea Cain). I attribute my continual reading to Palahniuk, who tends to keep stories moving forward by compounding verb on top of verb. Stories like this keep my attention. I’m not a big detail-oriented reader (or writer!) where the scene describes a setting for pages and pages. I need things happening all the time. Palahniuk does this well in his books. I’d say there is some of that influence in Vampires of Portlandia.
On the Filipino side, there are so many authors that I respect; Jessica Hagedorn, Randy Ribay, Grace Talusan, and Rin Chupeco to name a few.
Esquire Philippines: Quick thoughts on the results of the US presidential elections?
JT: I’ll just say this: I think the people have spoken, and from what media and those watching and providing commentary are saying, this was the most secure election with the highest turnout of voters in the history of presidential elections. That is what America is all about—every citizen having his or her voice heard.
Join Jason Tanamor and Grace Talusan for an online in-conversation about “Vampires of Portlandia” and Filipino representation on Thursday, January 07, 2021, at 07:00 PM Pacific Daylight Time. The event is free, and you can register at https://us02web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZIucOCvrDgvGta4PQlWSHUxRitfiVA4ioi3
And here’s an exclusive excerpt of Vampires of Portlandia:
“Leave us, whoever you may be. Uncleansed spirits, satanic influences, aggressors, wicked beings, divisions, and sects.”
The priest raised the crucifix high above his head, his arm stiff with force, and spit out the prayer for the third time. His voice was trailing, as the priest had been exorcising his patient for much of the night.
The year was 1965, and exorcisms weren’t commonly practiced in the Philippines.
When he stated his last command, Father Rodrigo placed the cross on Teniente Gimo’s head, praying aloud to the highest of powers that the demon would exorcise from Gimo’s body. He found it odd the circumstance he’d gotten into. Several hours prior, he had received an anonymous phone call from a neighbor. She’d sounded belligerent, rambling over and over about strange noises coming from Gimo’s house.
The caller kept muttering, “Ang Diablo na Asuang [The devil Asuang]. Ang Diablo na Asuang [The devil Asuang].”
Father Rodrigo rushed over in an instant.
“Most divine evil, you shall no longer deceive mankind, persecute the Church, and torment God’s children. The Highest God commands you, be gone from this child.”
Gimo squirmed violently from under the restricted vigor of the priest’s associates—another priest called Father Timothy and a nun called Sister Natividad—and then let out a low, fierce growl that echoed throughout the small shanty in the densely populated village of Capiz, Philippines.
He was a skinny man, bony, with little definition. There wasn’t a soft spot on his body, and his head was full of hair, short black strands that were slick back across his skull. His features were distinct; Gimo was quite the looker.
The three zealots pushed Gimo down to the bed, applying more force than before. His legs were kicking, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t break from their grasp. The nun dodged the assault, and she was able to maintain her position, forcing him onto the bed with all her strength.
“God commands you, the faith of all Holy Apostles commands you, and the will of the Sacred Priests commands you. The blood of the Highest God and the devout Saints command you.”
Father Rodrigo raised the cross up high again, his palm sweaty from how long he had been grasping the crucifix, and then pressed it down firmly onto Gimo’s forehead.
With his arm tense, Father Timothy grabbed a bottle of holy water and doused the patient’s body.
The water splashed across Gimo. He craned his neck from side to side, ignoring the associate priest, and instead, eyeballed Father Rodrigo with a cold stare. His eyes burned a deep blood red, and he foamed at the mouth.
The holy water had no impact on Gimo. The priest moved forward, closer to his patient.
When Father Rodrigo got nose to nose with the patient, something triggered him to jump back. Startled, his knees buckling, he loosened his grip on the crucifix, where it fell to the floor next to him.
“What happened?” screamed Sister Natividad. The nun watched the exorcist’s demeanor, who was now shaking to his core. His mouth had fallen open, and his eyes were wide like softballs. “Answer me!”
The priest began to babble. His hand shook in terror, and his pointer finger, which once directed his commands like an orchestra conductor’s baton, fell crooked at the restrained man. He had lost much of his confidence, and the rest of his will was dying as well. What the neighbor was spouting now made sense—aswang.
The nun could feel her body starting to collapse. She had never experienced a possession before.
Gimo, once again, wiggled so much that his one arm freed from the priest’s grasp.
Father Timothy tightened his fists, clasping Gimo’s shoulders, and constrained him to the bed.
“Father!” said the nun, her last-ditched effort falling by the wayside.
Hi-hi-his eyes,” said Father Rodrigo with a shaky, uncertain voice. The priest pointed to Gimo, his hand trembling. “My reflection.”
Gimo continued to writhe, the so-called exorcism having little effect on him. The prayer only worked on Catholic exorcisms, and this god, Asuang, was not the same. Saliva spilled from his lips, pooling down onto his chest and stomach, and his face was wet with perspiration. Gimo laughed something inhuman. His neck twisted in an uncontrollable spasm.
“Your power does not work on me!”
Gimo ground his teeth; the sound was piercing. His pupils were now a fiery red.
Father Timothy splattered the rest of the holy water onto the man. His mentor, Father Rodrigo, watched the encounter with frightened eyes. Gimo’s pupils changed for both priests to see, turning from blood red to deep black, portraying a tinted-like window for the priests to view themselves in.
Like his mentor, Father Timothy stepped back. He pointed, whispering, “Aswang.” His face turned ghostly white, and before he could react, the junior priest had fallen lightheaded and collapsed onto the ground. When he hit the floor, the empty bottle slipped from his hand and rolled under the bed.
Father Rodrigo, on the other hand, simply stared in horror. Aswangs were a myth, stories that your grandmother told you when she wanted to scare you.
“Father Timothy!” said the nun. She was now at a loss; her superior was in shock, and her colleague had fainted. She was running out of options.
Gimo let out a noise that sounded like rolling thunder and laughed.
Sister Natividad, her inner strength arising from the depths of her torso, turned to him. “What did you do to them?”
Gimo’s laugh slowed to a couple grunts. When his excitement died down, he sat up and wiped the holy water from his arms and chest. He displayed the water to the nun, licking his wet hands to show that his power was much greater than the priests’.
The nun slowly stepped back. Her slight burst of confidence faded quickly, and her face soon filled with terror.
Gimo slid off the bed and onto the floor, walking one step in front of the other toward the nun, like a runway model on the catwalk.
The nun backed up until she hit the wall of the small house, stealing quick glances to the unconscious Father Timothy and a frozen mentor in Father Rodrigo. Her body pushed into a picture frame. She blinked repeatedly, wincing from the slight pinch against her skin. The frame crashed to the floor, the glass shattering in several pieces.
Sister Natividad felt around behind her, sliding her palms against the wall, hoping to find something to fight with. Her eyes glossed over a shard of glass. If she could only reach for it, she could defend herself. The piece of glass, though, was out of reach.
The head priest mumbled, “Gimo, Gimo,” over and over as he observed the entire episode. “Aswang…”
Gimo closed in on the nun, standing nose to nose with her. With the whites of her eyes widening, the nun soon saw what both priests had seen: her reflection in Gimo’s eyes was upside down.
Sister Natividad vomited, heaving heavy chunks onto the floor. She’d heard of the legend like every other Filipino child in the country. But it was only that—a legend. Nothing more.
Father Rodrigo couldn’t move. Both of his protégés had fallen victim to fear, and he was left to fight the aswang alone.
Gimo’s eyes changed to red as he moved in a slow pace toward the priest. He knew he had Father Rodrigo in his hand. There was nothing to stop him.
“Vanish, Satan, master of all deception, enemy of redemption.” By now, the exorcist’s words were futile; they meant nothing.
Gimo grabbed Father Rodrigo’s throat. His fingernails, long and sharp, dug into the priest’s skin, piercing the first layer until Father Rodrigo began to bleed.
A faint scream escaped from the priest. The slight loss of blood made him lightheaded, and like his associate, he passed out.
The patient lowered his lips toward the flawless skin of the priest, opening his mouth, his front two fangs growing in length, and started to bite down into Father Rodrigo.
The sight caused the nun to fall into a panic to a point she could no longer take it, and she hid behind the dresser and covered her eyes. Before Gimo could make contact, the door to the bedroom burst open.
There stood Marcella Leones, Gimo’s lover. She was stunning to him, a glow emanating off her body from possibly the dim lighting.
“Teniente,” she said authoritatively, as if she was disciplining a pupil. “Please, do not hurt him.” Leones stayed back, keeping her distance, as she knew that this was not the man she had fallen in love with; rather, he was the shell of her former lover. She had cared for Gimo since his condition changed drastically. It was difficult for her because she had loved him. And because of this, she could not accept the reality—until now.
“Marcella.” There was sorrow in Gimo’s voice, an innocence that was nonexistent during the exorcism. He was helpless, vulnerable.
“Please,” begged Leones, her eyes locked in on his. “Please let him go.”
Gimo turned to Father Rodrigo. The priest was still unconscious.
“Do not hurt him.” She sidled up to Gimo, her arms cradling the priest, urging her lover to release him by tugging Father Rodrigo toward her.
“Marcella, I’m sorry it has come to this.”
Leones nodded, her gaze never leaving the priest. Gradually, Gimo released his grip from Father Rodrigo until the priest was safely in Leones’s arms. Gimo was, after all, a decent man; it was just the circumstance of his transformation that had gotten to him.
Leones guided the priest onto the bed. She then turned to her lover. “Thank you, Teniente.”
A tear fell from Gimo’s cheek. He knew that the life he’d had with Leones was over, at least, his former life. The two were perfect for each other. They were two souls that had found the beauty and kindness through each other’s company. But now that was no more, and he couldn’t bear having his love see him like this. The disease had taken its toll, and he would never again be the same. He had no idea if Leones—a human—could love him. He didn’t think so.
“I must go before someone finds me,” said Gimo.
The woman’s body surrendered to itself. “You can stay. I can help you.”
“No!” He looked away, avoiding her gaze. “I don’t want you to see me this way.”
Gimo felt his long relationship with Leones drawing to an end. The fact was he still loved her, and it was difficult not to. She was the kindest woman he’d ever met, but never once did he think the two could be together.
Leones couldn’t help but stare at her lover, even though he’d asked her to look away. The pain in her torso weakened, now hurting in every inch of her body. She closed her eyes tight, processing the situation in rapid beats. She wanted to rescue him somehow, pull him into her and fix him with bandages made from love and care. “I will always love you,” said Leones. “Nothing will ever change that.”
Gimo’s voice became raspy. A bout of sadness fell over him. He nearly fainted, until something within thrusted him alert. A low-sounding growl exited his mouth. His feeble frame fell into a spasm; his transformation was coming to fruition. He howled in pain.
Leones could do nothing but cry. She lowered her chin to her chest, closing her eyes in defeat. A gust of wind swirled around the room, strong enough to jar her eyes wide open. When she gazed up at Gimo, her eyes bulged. The aswang had transformed, his large bat-like wings protruding from his shoulders. They spanned half of the room.
At once, Gimo’s head fell backward. He placed his palms across his face and unleashed a loud roar.
“Teniente!” screamed Leones.
Several voices echoed in the room, speaking rapidly in verse. The voices were in Tagalog.
Leones scanned the bedroom. She couldn’t discern where the voices were coming from. They sounded heavenly and authoritative. “What’s going on?” she screamed.
Gimo’s eyes burned a blood red. As the voices continued their assault, he began to spew stanzas that sounded like biblical verses. His eyes faded into whiteness, and his lips started to quiver uncontrollably. The voices around him faded one by one as Gimo’s face started to distort.
Before she could say anything, his head dropped sharply. Soon after, he lifted himself off the floor and flew out the window, away from his former life with his lover.
Leones’s chest felt hollow. She stared at the empty spot where Gimo had once stood. When the courage inside finally came out, she said, “I have to tell you something.” But it was too late.