Patricia Evangelista On Her Book, 'Some People Need Killing'

In Patricia Evangelista’s ‘Some People Need Killing,’ Journalism is an Act of Faith

Photo by Mark Nicdao

“To rephrase Joan Didion: The future is always bright in the Philippines, because no one remembers the past.”

Patricia Evangelista starts with a story.

At every stop of her book tour, she delivers a monologue akin to a sermon to her spellbound audience. It is one she knows like the back of her hand: she has covered it since 2016, spent the last four years writing and revising it, and she is now touring it across the Philippines to a jam packed April schedule.

Unlike her last name, she isn’t the “bearer of good news” exactly, a running irony mentioned in her spiel. The story she tells is a tragedy—but more than that, it’s a reckoning. Her memoir Some People Need Killing, an account of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs that left thousands dead, is a story that needs telling.

Although Evangelista modestly claims she is no public speaker, her command of the crowd is a glimpse of her youth spent in that stint. After all, it was a college championship in a global speaking tournament that landed her a column in the nation’s most reputed broadsheet, thrusting her writing—and distinct flair—into the public eye.

She is the closest thing to a rockstar journalist in the Philippines, where broadcast is king and the most recognizable media personalities are polished television anchors. In her combat boots, white T-shirt and jeans, and a pottymouth that equips her to take her main subject, former president Rodrigo Duterte, to task.

She references Didion in the book’s afterword—”We tell ourselves stories in order to live”—and then later, because we have to see a contract through, she joked in a recent signing at the Ortigas Foundation Library.

Evangelista is the millennial bearer of that endangered school of new journalism: longform, literary reportage that in an increasingly digital world, may be losing its luster. A self-identified trauma reporter, she produced the digital news company Rappler’s Impunity series, which features drug war hitmen and survivors, the bones of what would become her nonfiction debut. Its success—landing on The New York Times’ 10 Best Books of 2023, a shoutout from former U.S. President Barack Obama, and all-around rave critical reviews—proves hope for us old souls: Maybe print isn’t dead yet after all.

Photo by Mark Nicdao

Anyone who has followed her columns can spot her unmistakable, singular style a mile away. She’s literary but not snobbish; she can charm a cop and condole with a widow. She navigates a crime scene with those signature boots and street savvy, switching between her pen and cigarette in hand.

In Some People Need Killing, she comes not into her own voice—she had a distinct one already—but her own story. Evangelista chronicles not only the voices of ordinary Filipinos across the moral and political aisle, but takes a stab at painting the sweeping history that leads to the Duterte moment. Then she breaks through the fourth wall and situates herself smack dab in the drug war and Philippine milieu.

And while the book breathes new life to the stories of victims and survivors, it’s also Evangelista’s humanity that drives home the stakes: discovering a false memory involving her own grandfather’s compliance with the dictatorship; banter with morally gray sources that ends with a tense rhetorical question; and the bursting group chat among nightcrawlers, the journalists who cover the drug war as a beat, as they grapple with vicarious trauma and debate the agency of surviving families who cave to government machinery. Following the deluge of death and ensuing news fatigue of the Duterte years, it was those moments that tell you the narrator isn’t omniscient or omnipotent. Instead, they captured the cost of standing witness.

But for all the romanticizing that Evangelista’s brand and success invites, she’s grounded in a harsh reality: In a post-Duterte world, the pen is not, in fact, mightier than the sword. In her memoir, she also offers radical hope: “Journalism, in the end, is an act of faith.”

There is a Filipino custom, known by anyone who has covered the drug war, of chicks placed on the caskets of the dead. Their function is reminiscent of every biting word in the book: it might not be as lethal as a bullet, but it’s the sharp pecking at the conscience of power.

I spoke to Evangelista recently about genre, trauma, and craft. The conversation has been edited for brevity.

Photo courtesy of Patricia Evangelista

How and when did you know that this narrative you were following was meant to be a book?

I didn’t set out to write a book when the slaughter began in 2016. I went out to cover what President Rodrigo Duterte called a war. I wrote many stories in the aftermath, investigated most of them, but after body followed body followed body, I felt there was a bigger story that I needed to make sense of. It wasn’t enough to ask who the dead were and how they died. It was why we let them die.

[You’ve said] the process of writing stretched from one year to four. Tell us about what went on in those years. How many times did the draft change? What were the most difficult parts about it?

There was no precise number of drafts. The draft changed daily. The manuscript was always a draft, year after frustrating year, all the way to early August of 2023, two months before we published, when my editor and I decided to change the first sentence of the final section of the Epilogue—and even after we were trying to excise wandering commas. I still think there are bad sentences and disposable paragraphs that made it into print.

Writing is hard for me, has always been hard, and it was a commitment to process that made it possible to even have a workable manuscript. I go on the field. I cover the crime scene, or the wake, or the funeral. I conduct the interviews with everyone involved. Interviews last hours, and with some of them, I get the transcripts done, translate, reorganize. I gather all the documents possible. I investigate, reinterview, call sources, verify details. I break down the sequence of events, integrate them with police reports and court documents and reporting from other agencies. That’s when I ferret out the argument. I lay out the official rhetoric, figure out the narrative arc, engineer the structure, fall into a black hole of research, rewrite the structure, go back out on the field, make phone calls, before ripping the structure apart and building it back again, then again, until every element has its place. Every section is mapped out, point to point, on sheets of paper I tape up or lay out on the floor. I bulletproof each point, figure out what’s missing. I go where the facts lead me. I lawyer for the other side, however many the sides. It takes days, sometimes weeks. All of that is before I even start writing.

The first sentence sets the tone and narrows the focus. I see the scenes play out. I relive them until I find the language, the rhythm, the song behind the story. When I hit a wall I break the structure down further. I write. It takes enormous restraint not to get up off the chair and run away from it all.

If I manage to find the words, I edit. Ground the language. Strip out the superfluous. See what is left. I’ve been doing this since my early twenties, and it is very rare that I can write without following process. In the end, for the book, what was left was more than a hundred thousand words.

I’m curious to know what you think of the ‘genre’ you write in, longform narrative. You’ve named Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe in your acknowledgments, for example. Locally, some of the known journalists who took on the style of new journalism… include Nick Joaquin and Pete Lacaba. Where do you situate your work in this larger tradition?

I am a fan of literary journalism, but I’m not limited by it in terms of influences. Good writing is good writing. For me it’s a way of seeing. It doesn’t matter if it’s fiction, or new journalism, or if it’s fantasy or young adult or true crime or a space opera. I read for the joy of reading, but sometimes that single word, phrase, sentence I read on a random plane ride might inform the thinking behind a future paragraph. I am uncertain where I fit in any specific tradition beyond the fact I write nonfiction. I hope to have written compellingly and honorably, but that is a hope. I don’t pretend to have achieved it.

Both at home and abroad, longform is endangered, as audiences tend to have shorter attention spans and consume news via social media and video. Do you worry about the dwindling space for this mode of storytelling in the Philippines?

I don’t believe stories have lost their currency. There are limits to media freedom and challenges to establishment media but they are threats to journalism, not specifically to storytelling, longform or otherwise. Our culture has always been about narrative, and the people who sat telling stories around fires a thousand years ago certainly couldn’t have imagined the sort of storytelling we consider traditional now. The medium will keep evolving, and while I am glad books are still read here, digital and audio are platforms I’m eager to explore.

As a fellow journalist, I completely feel your aversion to the spotlight and the instinct to stay true to the third person, observer role we’ve been traditionally taught is the gold standard. But on a personal level, how did you overcome the ‘ick’ of talking about yourself, and establishing your position as a storyteller?

Storytelling is natural to me, public engagement is not. It’s a continuing struggle, whether it was writing in first person or standing on a stage. But I can do what best serves the story. The war on drugs isn’t something that I needed to create space for. It’s a recurring theme in the national conversation. My task was to hold space for specific voices that I believed needed to be heard.

Personally, one of my favorite chapters was “My Friend Domingo,” which talks about a police commander you profiled who grows fond of you. One of the things I most appreciated was how it captured how tricky journalist-source relationships can be. How do you negotiate and sensitively deal with sources whose politics are completely different from yours, especially when indicators can point to practices of violence?

All sources are different from us, in one fashion or another. The point of an interview is to discover who they are, how they’re built, what drives them, what they’ve done or refuse to do—the entire universe of a single life. It’s true that who we are informs how we ask, the same way my being Filipino informs my coverage of the story, but it would be a poor journalist who only seeks out people who are similar. My policy is always consent and disclosure. They consent, I disclose. The motivation is to understand, not to agree.

What about your observations about how Filipinos, culturally and as a nation, process collective social trauma?

We don’t. To rephrase Joan Didion: The future is always bright in the Philippines, because no one remembers the past.

You’ve spoken a lot before about how trauma impacts your sources. But what about you— how have you dealt with the vicarious trauma of standing witness to that?

I am never going to pretend watching hell happen is in any way close to living it. But we’re not cameras either, we don’t record, print, then delete. We remember. So I read happy books. I watch comforting films. I have a tribe of friends who have my back, and who understand that what I do exacts a price, because in most cases they’ve paid it themselves. They remind you, when you forget, why you do what you do. Community matters. So does nicotine, caffeine, and alcohol.

What’s next for you?

I’ll tell this story as often as I can, and then I’ll go back on the field.

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