"Build replicas for your kingdom and pack for the moon"
Just like with Eliza Victoria, I encountered Dean Francis Alfar with his story Strange Weather in the Philippine fantasy anthology The Farthest Shore which was also a collection he edited himself. One day, I was browsing through the shelves in my local bookstore when I came across this collection and I was very interested already at this point especially since the title has 'terra incognita' in it, which has been the name of my column in my college paper back when I was the literary editor, and I also kept that same title when I became the associate editor.
By definition, 'terra incognita' is a Latin phrase that means "uncharted territory" which was used in cartography to describe regions or lands that have not been or have yet to be documented on maps and geography. I decided to use it because my aim was to touch upon certain topics that have not been discussed before, mostly of the whimsical variety. I thought that such a phrase would be the most appropriate description of the content I used to write about then.
In Dean Francis Alfar's anthology How to Traverse Terra Incognita, the speculative fictionist took it to the next level using the same thematic approach. His twenty-one stories were divided into five categories where Alfar deliberately placed his readers as first-time tourists visiting unknown lands of his creation, while he serves as their tour guide, offering five fundamental advices on the best way to navigate these distinct places. Every story is a journey after all, and Alfar's theme of terra incognita has only enhanced the metaphor in the most enduringly creative way possible.
For the first category Research your Destination, my two most favorite stories have to be Simon's Replica and The Face. The former tells the story of a dying queen's request to her favorite architect where she tasked him to build a replica of her entire kingdom; while the latter is a tale of a desperate woman hoping to save the family business both through the power of prayer and science. These stories were memorable simply because Alfar conveys sadness and longing on paper with a sharp edge that makes readers feel as it was their world too that was ending alongside these women. I had the most painstakingly enchanting experience while reading these two stories.
On the second category Take Appropriate Precautions, I was incredibly disheartened by the tales characters in Ghosts of Wan Chai have to tell, where grieving people are unable to move on from their losses and have therefore began to haunt places where their loved ones were last seen; and the whimsy yet heartbreaking Packing for the Moon where a young girl with a terminal illness bravely counts her priorities in both a surprising and expected maturity.
My favorite category has to be When Traveling with Children, Be Sensitive to their Needs. Composed of five stories, three of them really stood out for me. First is the spooky story Bruhita where two boys encounter a strange girl of the namesake; Azamgal where an obsessed fan writes to a fantasy writer he idolizes to give him some notes about his ongoing novel series, but then his letters became increasingly demanding; and, finally, Sunboy which was far too close to home for me; a man has to take care of his mentally-challenged younger brother who is fixated on the sun. It was a story that was challenging to read because of how the lead character's feelings and thoughts about his younger brother closely resemble mine which made it so uncomfortable for me.
The later stories surprised me because I did not expect for some of them to be...smutty and erotic but that was also quite a pleasant shift of narrative focus. In Understand the Culture, Alfar gave us the satirical fairy-tale pieces East of the Sun, and Ever After. The former was something exceptional where a young girl was kidnapped and raped by a half-horsed man (tikbalang from the Filipino folklore) and was determined to make something of a happy ending for herself in spite of all this. We also have Messiah which is a play on the Gabriel and Virgin Mary story, and The Many Loves of Ramil Alonzo which makes use of both prose and poetry to account the narrator's misadventures with women he loved and lost.
Get to know the Locals, the last of the categories, featured two stories I have read before from other anthologies: Strange Weather which is the very first Alfar tale I encountered where two weather gods battle it out; and the excerpt from A Door Opens: the Beginning of the Fall of the Ispancialo-in-Hinirang. There are other stories in the categories mentioned for this volume that I didn't care to mention because they weren't favorites but they could be your cup of tea.
Vividly crafted and irresistible, How to Traverse Terra Incognita is a rich tapestry you will have the utmost pleasure navigating. A few of the volume's stories will enchant and intrigue you while others you didn't take that much time to contemplate at all will suddenly creep in later in the day, and will make you want to know more about their characters and places. That certainly happened to me and it's probably why I believe this anthology is something I will re-visit again. Perhaps by that time the uncharted territories herein will finally make themselves known to me and become my home.