The Looming Horror and Magic of What It Is To Be Alive: Isabel Yap’s Never Have I Ever

There are worlds within the cutthroat music of Isabel Yap’s debut short story collection Never Have I Ever, and they are wondrous and vicious and true. Yap’s work spans the speculative, weaving fantasy, horror, and sci-fi and wielding each with deft expertise. Here, Filipino folklore breathes through the cruelties and magic of the contemporary, infused with history and legend. Each story is a cleverly crafted gem, resonant and surprising and deeply profound. The collection as a whole establishes Yap firmly as one of the sharpest masters of the form.

As a Fil-Am reader, I found so much of myself in these stories. That specific cadence and tension of family, the rich folklore of my childhood that I so rarely see represented or imagined in contemporary American writing. Whether Yap’s writing about a diaspora experience or a story rooted in Manila, that sense of place and complex identity is drawn so vividly. She carves out details clever and true. 

Every story is a fierce standalone, haunting and vindicating in turn. Yap expertly maneuvers the speculative through stories of both Filipino and diaspora experience, through girlhood and friendship, love and legend, queerness and grief. She’s honed the art of endings that are both ambiguous and satisfying, the lingering questions a purposeful echo. This collection shines with clean, precise prose that evokes so lushly the complexities of her characters and their wants. In each work, she cracks open a bite-sharp premise and a strange, beautiful, often devastating, always brilliant creature of a story pours forth.

Stories like “Syringe” and “A Cup of Salt Tears” wield the speculative to interrogate the enormity of grief. Through a river demon and androidal nurses, in specific, solitary, familiar settings, Yap excavates the savagery of unfairness that is grieving, the way the world and its strangeness and its mundanity persist and demand things of you. Grief makes an uncanny space of us, the death and dying cleaving the person we were from who we are within it, who we become going forward, and in that uncanny space, what might we do? Who might we let in? 

In “Have You Heard the One About Anamaria Marquez?” Yap explores the chillingly commonplace horror of girlhood. Terrible things happen to schoolgirls with such regularity they often wash over us, rumors ooze through villages and hallways, each seemingly more ludicrous than the last, but the truth is in there, and we’ve become too used to it to notice, a horror in and of itself. The way girls become ghosts become cautionary tales become stories to scare each other with, to tease each other with. The way urban legends take shape between the teeth of the storyteller.

Many of these stories trend deliciously dark and visceral, but they’re threaded with wit, humor, and heart. The lightest inclusion is a tender, unique romance, centering a young gay witch in San Francisco, and the new guy at his tech startup he definitely doesn’t have a crush on. “A Spell for Foolish Hearts” builds with satisfying twists, and explores a slower, soft shape of queerness. Patrick hasn’t dated much, and at one point he questions whether he may possibly belong on the asexual spectrum. This story is one example of Yap’s ability to channel fanfic vibes in the best way — by subverting tropes in surprising ways, and delivering on queer catharsis. 

Then there are the stories that don’t so much as sink their teeth in you, but make you look down and realize there have always, in fact, been teeth in you. There in the meat of your thigh, perhaps, digging. Insatiable. “Asphalt, River, Mother, Child” is one of the strongest works of fiction I’ve ever read, and immediately became one of my favorite short stories. In it, the underworld mother of the innocent finds her domain filling with victims of the “war on drugs,” the current, ongoing devastation of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. In spare, steady prose, Yap raises a goddess to ask, is this justice? Is this governance, is this peace? This is what the gods see when they come for us, when we go to them. This, here, bright with the blood of your people, of your children, is this a clean street?

Vicious, vindicating, and visceral at once, Never Have I Ever balances compulsively readable humor with the good, transformative sort of devastation. This is a truly powerful, propulsive collection, exploring the makings and reshapings of myth, and the myriad ways we might save each other. Each character is vividly drawn, be it an exhausted magical girl wondering if she and her friends will ever be done slaying monsters, a servant in love with her charge, or the disbelieving new roommate of a vaguely discontented manananggal. Her stories tread somewhere between familiar and uncanny, interrogating human connection and monstrosity, and all unapologetically, beautifully Filipino. Each story with its own specific atmosphere, each its own sort of spirit, each sure to haunt the reader in its own uncanny shape. Here, magic makes mirrors of us, and we won’t always like what we see. Yap writes with an expert hand as she moves the reader through the looming horror and magic of what it is to be alive. 

Never Have I Ever is available from Small Beer Press.

Maya Gittelman is a queer Pilipinx-Jewish diaspora writer and poet. Their cultural criticism has been published on The Body is Not An Apology and The Dot and Line. Formerly the events and special projects manager at a Manhattan branch of Barnes & Noble, she now works in independent publishing, and is currently at work on a novel.

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