The Story Behind Prince Juan

To tell the story behind the story of Prince Juan, I find it fitting to begin with the standard fairy tale opening – “Long ago, in a faraway land”; for it was long ago and in a faraway land that I had the pleasure of listening to my beloved grandmother’s storytelling.

It was long ago when I was around an age old enough to remember fairy tales and young enough to cherish them. And in a faraway land, back in my hometown of Iligan City in the Philippines, that I had the pleasure of hearing my grandmother’s storytelling. How I wish I could tell you the delight, in which only a child can describe, in hearing my grandmother’s stories; but all I have to work with is a distant memory fragment. A distant, yet vivid memory painted with the aroma of cotton candy. Yes, it was the smell of cotton candy, spun from the mesmerizing wheel of the cotton candy machine, that stirred this memory:

Memoirs From A Cotton Candy

I was in church with my family attending a Sunday morning mass, standing – for we were often late in coming to church and all the pews were occupied, lazily leaning on the archway, and gazing dreamily at the spinning cotton candy among other things outside the church. For, you see, outside the church and just within arms reach, there were cart vendors selling cotton candy, ice cream, popcorn, balloons, dolls, masks, toys, and all other trinkets which are irresistibly captivating to a child. On a side note, it’s funny how vividly I remember this festive carnival of sorts, in stark contrast with the solemnity of the Catholic church; but not a word of the sermon. Now, back to where I was standing, I was starting to get antsy but was relieved by the sight of people in the pews kneeling – for it signified that the mass is almost over. After the mass, I claimed my cotton candy reward for good church-like behavior and then graciously devoured it while hop-skipping towards my grandmother’s house.

My grandmother’s house was only a block away from the church. It was an old two-story house built during the Spanish colonial period. Even though the house was old, it didn’t look weary and battered, but rather dignified; for it bore witness to the Spanish colonial period, the Spanish-American War, the Japanese occupation, and the American liberation. I wish I could tell you more about this house, aside from the disheartening fact that it was torn down shortly after I moved to Canada, and way before I found my passion for writing. My grandmother’s house was also the best spot to park our refurbished WWII Willy’s jeep. So, one of my earliest lessons in arithmetic was Sunday equals church plus visit grandmother. But I digress. It’s hard not getting sidetracked when my story touches on things ever so dear to me.

So, there I was, climbing up the stairs, bursting with excitement. The stairs creaked and wobbled with every step; my cotton candy encrusted fingers sticking to the banisters along the way. I entered the living room and reached the end of my memory fragment. It ended with an image frozen in time. An image of my grandmother laid back perfectly on her rocking chair; singing while stringing malunggay (known as moringa or horse-radish tree in English). Huddled around her like petals of a flower, I find myself with my older brother and younger sister. It was in this setting that I remember most of my grandmother’s storytelling.

To my best recollection, most of the stories my grandmother told us didn’t start at the beginning. Instead, she would start by asking us to remind her where we were in the story so far. After giving her a full recap with all the details, she would say to us, “I don’t think that’s how the story goes.” Then she would tell us another version of the story, more bizarre than the previous ones. Sometimes, she would pause, cock her head to the side, staring at the ceiling with a look of confusion and say, “I can’t remember what happens next.” She would ask us how the story went before continuing. I’m still not sure if she did that to tease us, to check if we were paying attention, or if she actually forgot parts of the story. I’m guessing it might have been all three.

The Making of Prince Juan

Shortly after my grandmother passed away, I came upon the idea of honoring her memory by writing one of her stories. Of all my grandmother’s stories, the story of Prince Juan was the one I remember the most.

When I started writing the story of Prince Juan, I intended to write it in its original form. However, due to the nature of my grandmother’s storytelling, I settled for keeping the story as close to its original form as possible. But, as it turned out, it wasn’t as easy as I imagined it would be.

The first difficulty I encountered in putting together the story of Prince Juan was reconciling numerous versions of the story. I wrote my first draft from memory but it had a lot of gaps in it. So I did some research. The first person I reached out to was my mom. Even though her version of the story varied slightly from mine and had different endings, it helped fill the gaps of my first draft. To help resolve conflicting parts of two versions of the story, I interviewed all six of my mom’s siblings. To my utter amazement, I ended up having eight versions of the same story.

In putting together all versions of the story, I realized that some parts belong to entirely different stories; some were original, some from previously published works. The second difficulty I encountered was sorting out which was which since most of the characters have the same names on account of our Spanish heritage. All female characters were named Maria or their names start with Maria. while male characters go with either Juan or Pablo.

Quite surprisingly, it was in spite of all these stumbling blocks that I had the most fun in writing the story of Prince Juan. I hope you will enjoy reading it as much as I did in writing it.

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