Finally, a Filipino YA novel about HIV

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With HIV cases at an all-time high, Segundo Matias Jr.'s “Mga Batang Poz” aims to help young readers understand the disease. Photo courtesy of LAMPARA BOOKS

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In 2017, 29 new cases of HIV were diagnosed in the country each day. Thirty percent of these cases are from Filipinos aged 15 to 24 years old. When children’s book author Segundo Matias Jr. learned about this, he cried.

“‘Nung una kong makausap ‘yung health officer [para mag-research tungkol sa HIV] … sabi niya, ‘Actually as young as 12 years old meron kaming na-diagnose.’ Hindi ko alam ‘yung gagawin ko. Naiyak ako,” says Matias. This was the moment he realized that he was ready to write his next book.

The first of its kind in the Philippines, “Mga Batang Poz” is a young adult novel that follows four “poz” (HIV-positive) teens as they embark on a road trip that forces them to confront their pasts and brings them closer to understanding their future living with the disease.

At under 400 pages, the book’s length might intimidate non-readers, but Matias builds a world not too far from our own, allowing young readers to easily connect with the stories of Luis, Enzo, Gab, and Chuchay as they reckon with their desires, burgeoning sexualities, the shame of exploring these in a society that remains traditional and conservative, and the consequences of being ill-informed.  

Matias is no stranger to publishing radical stories — of the innumerable children’s stories he has written and published at his press, Lampara Books, notable works include “Mga Kwentong Dapat Mong Malaman,” a series that addresses alcoholism, drug abuse, smoking, and gambling, and “Uncle Sam,” a book about a girl and her gay hairdresser uncle. But writing “Mga Batang Poz,” he says, was not an easy feat.

It was upon the suggestion of his MA Creative Writing thesis adviser, Eugene Evasco, that he considered pursuing the topic, but it was only when he learned of the actual figures that he decide to take it on. Matias also credits Evasco for pushing him to bare all, including the details of his characters sexual experiences.

“Tinapangan ko lang talaga ang sarili ko,” he explains at the book launch. “‘Nung una kong sinusulat, tinatanong ko sa sarili ko [kung bakit ko ito ginagawa]. Ang objective ng nobelang ito ay para iparating sa mga bata kung paano magkaroon ng HIV.”

Mga Batang Poz Book Launch (21).jpg Segundo Matias Jr. is an author and publisher who has written over 50 children's stories, including progressive and radical stories that tackle themes like alcoholism, drug abuse, and sexuality. Photo courtesy of LAMPARA BOOKS

Matias’ apprehension is understandable, given the persistence of Catholic values against contraceptives and safe sex methods in the country. In 2015, a church group ambushed a condom company’s Valentine’s Day giveaway promo by offering to swap them with chocolates. They came with signs that encouraged abstinence. While in 2017, the Department of Education rejected a proposal to distribute condoms at schools, saying that the law only mandates sex education.

Addressing the question of which challenges he faced while writing the book, he alludes to this climate, pointing out an overarching problem in Philippine literature when it comes to writing about sex and sexuality. “Hindi mo nga masabi sa literature ang salitang titi, tamod, kahit condom,” he says. “‘Pag binanggit mo sa tahanan ... parang natatakot.”

“Dumating ako sa punto na ayoko na isulat ‘yung mga ganun, pati ‘yung sex scenes,” he admits. “Pero sabi ko, paano malalaman ng bagets?”

Matias shared that he took many trips to the Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), as well as various HIV clinics and testing centers, to talk to doctors and health officers to better understand the disease and the available treatment options for those who have been infected. All of the information gathered here he weaves into the novel, demystifying the myths about the disease while instructing readers on how to move forward living with it.

Mga Batang Poz Book Launch (11).jpg At the launch, Matias was joined by Dr. Rossana A. Ditangco, head of the DOH-RITM AIDS Research Group, to discuss his research process as well as answer questions from the audience regarding HIV. Photo courtesy of LAMPARA BOOKS

To better understand and represent his teenage characters, Matias dove headfirst into the world of social media, “alter” accounts, and dating apps.

“May mga in-interview akong mga bata and inalam ko ‘yung kanilang behavior, ‘yung social media,” he says. “‘Nag-Grindr ako, nag-‘alter’ ako. In-imbibe ko. Even the language.”

It has been pointed out that there may be a relationship between the rise of HIV cases and the ways in which teens have been using social media to express and discover their sexualities while also remaining anonymous. Though social media plays a big role in the novel, Matias’ writing does not attempt to make this assertion.

Instead, “Mga Batang Poz” presents a visceral look into the lives of today’s queer teens as they discover themselves and pursue their desires in a society that will not allow them, whether because of expectations, prejudices, or circumstance, and find a haven in both the anonymity and connection provided by social media. It uncovers the reality that a society which cannot muster the words “condom” or “contraceptive” inside the home does more harm than good. And though social media may be the tool by which these kids reach outward, it is not the scapegoat.

Mga Batang Poz Book Launch (22).jpg The book cover bears an illustration of a young man wearing a face mask to represent the fear and stigma that surrounds HIV. On a research trip to a clinic, a health officer had explained to Matias that the patients wear masks not just to avoid getting sick, but also to hide their identities. Photo courtesy of LAMPARA BOOKS

Matias makes it clear that it is the stigma we should be fighting. It is the stigma that weighs down on each of his characters and pushes them further away from friends and family, and from feeling hopeful about their situation despite the fact that today, an HIV diagnosis no longer equates to a death sentence. 

On one of his trips to an HIV clinic, Matias came up with the idea for the book cover — an illustration of a young man wearing a face mask. He noticed that all of the patients waiting for their turn at these clinics wore masks, so he approached a health officer to ask why. The answer was this: “Ayaw nila magpakilala … Positive or not positive, nag pa-pa-test lang sila o kumukuha ng gamot, nagtatakip sila.”

At the launch, the author called on other writers to follow suit in the hope of starting a much needed conversation about HIV and eliminating the fears surrounding it.

“Sumulat pa tayo ng maraming ganito dahil napaka-konserbatibo ng Pilipinas, ni hindi masabi ang salitang condom sa loob ng tahanan. Magsimula na tayo.”

If these future works will be anything like “Mga Batang Poz,” which deftly avoids falling into the trap of becoming yet another queer tragedy or moralistic cautionary tale by demystifying the monsters of HIV, understanding the circumstances of its characters (and its audience), and giving them a positive ending, then maybe we can expect a future of readers that are no longer afraid.

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“Mga Batang Poz” is available at Precious Pages retail outlets, National Book Store, and leading books stores nationwide.