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This is the blog of Ian Rosales Casocot. Filipino writer. Sometime academic. Former backpacker. Twink bait. Hamster lover.

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Monday, October 03, 2005

entry arrow9:00 PM | On Literary Invisibility and What Else Ails Philippine Literature

This is getting interesting. There are two more worthy rejoinders on the whole "what is wrong with Philippine literature" debate raging in all our blogs. One is from Angas ng Kurimaw. And another one is from Butch Dalisay who answers a similar query from a reader of his Philippine Star column. Because the paper's archives doesn't exactly work to our expectations, I am reproducing the whole thing below (with permission from Sir Butch)...

Minding the Market
From PENMAN by Butch Dalisay

I received a message in the mail a couple of weeks ago from a young reader who seemed troubled by a question that many of us have asked ourselves. In so many words, why don't Filipino authors figure more prominently in the global literary marketplace? Where's the Pinoy Harry Potter?

Here's Isabel's letter in its entirety, very slightly edited:
Dear Sir,

I'm 15 years old and I read your column weekly. I know you're very knowledgeable about Philippine literature so I thought you the best authority to answer this question:

How come I never see Filipino authors in the Young Adult section of the bookstore -- even Filipino authors who are American citizens, or living in some other country? I've seen very few Filipino authors in other sections of the bookstore, too, aside from the Filipiniana section.

My main concern here is the fact that I haven't encountered many local authors being published by international titles like Scholastic or Harper-Collins (or even not-as-hot publishers like Puffin or Penguin Books). Maybe it's just that I'm ignorant about how publishing really works, but I find it disconcerting that only British or American authors get to share their books with the world. I know our local publishing companies are pretty good, but don't Filipinos want to expand their literary market to other countries? I've always wanted to see a Filipino-written book in someplace like Barnes & Nobles or Borders. Is it that they won't accept manuscripts written by foreign authors, or is it that these foreign authors simply don't try? Or could it be that (gasp) we simply aren't good enough?

Another thing that's been bothering me is the very limited genres that Filipino writers dabble in. I've only recently started liking some Philippine literature (due in great part to the local newspaper writers, and Jessica Zafra), and I've noticed that most books are, well, compilations of some sort. Poetry, or essays, or newspaper articles, or short stories. Aside from the works written by older authors (or those novels penned in Tagalog), I haven't seen too many novels or even chapter books (our children's books are always pretty short). And in the few novels I've seen or heard about, I've noticed that most stories center around the Philippines or Filipinos, and involve rather depressing storylines. This is all right when done in moderation, but practically all local literature I've encountered is like this. I am not exaggerating, because last year for our English class we had to read local novels for our book reports, and all my classmates complained that the stories were too gloomy and complicated. There was always something wrong going on -- adultery, abortion, leaving the country, family complications, hatred, war, death, etc. etc. Also, it's really good to write about one's country, but that shouldn't be the only thing we can write. After all, most of the world cannot relate when we talk about Manila or sisig or basi or carabaos.

I always wonder: Where is the fantasy? The science fiction? The romance (and I don't mean the kind that has a cover ripped off from a print ad)? The drama, suspense, action, horror? Where are all these stories, and how come no Filipinos are writing them? I know Filipinos are talented, and it isn't all that hard to find inspiration. So what's happening?

The thing that really worries me is the future of our local writers. I have dreams of getting a book published someday myself. But is there a chance? Is there a way for aspiring Filipino authors to get published, and to have an audience larger than the limited one that actually goes to the Filipiniana section? It's been bothering me for a long time, and I finally had to ask. I certainly hope I'm not the only one concerned about this.

Your answer would mean a lot to me, and I would definitely appreciate it. Thank you very much.

Thanks, too, Isabel, for expressing concerns that you surely aren't alone in taking to bed and getting up with in the morning. If you've been following this column, you'll know that I've asked many of the same questions myself, chiefly those having to do with our seeming inability or unwillingness to produce work of greater variety in subject and treatment -- the "genre" fiction that you were looking for. I've also wondered why we don't, won't, or can't write happier stories, given what a fun-loving people we seem to be otherwise. Now let me see what I can do by way of some quick answers to some very complicated questions.

Why don't we see more Filipino writers outside of "Filipiniana"? I don't know if it makes for better marketing -- I'm assuming it does, since local bookstores have done this for ages -- but it's the very existence of the Filipiniana section that prevents, say, Charlson Ong from sitting next to Michael Ondaatje, and Angelo Lacuesta to Jhumpa Lahiri. "Filipiniana" makes it easier to locate the Filipino book or author your teacher sent you to find, but it also exoticizes Filipino writers in their own country, physically and psychologically separating them from what readers take to be the mainstream of world literature. I'll admit that it doesn't bother me as much as it probably should, but then I'm more interested -- as you are -- in Filipino authors getting on foreign bookshelves.

So what's keeping Filipino titles from selling in Borders or Waterstone's? The easy answer is that it takes tremendous marketing resources to secure shelf space in the major Western bookstore chains, given the sheer volume of good books being published by everyone around the world. Even US-based Filipino or Filipino-American authors, despite their literary talent and with all of their local connections, find it difficult to get noticed by the New York Review of Books and to be picked up by Borders. (There are, of course, happy exceptions, and my friend Krip Yuson has been tracking them for us.)

The more sobering possibility is that we simply aren't writing the kind of material that appeals to a broader audience (read: the mainstream American public, with all of its variegations). That's both good and bad -- good because it keeps us focused on and true to the things that matter to us as a people, whether here or abroad; bad because it can also lead to insularity, parochialism, and plain monotony.

I happen to suspect -- maybe to hope -- that every good book will find its audience, and that great books that speak to the human heart will find their way across time and space to the distant but fervent reader.

Why aren't we writing in more genres? We are -- sort of (see my quotations from Tony Hidalgo below) -- but it's a slow burn, especially among older, established writers stuck on rewriting the Noli and the Fili. For young writers and audacious publishers, on the other hand, genre writing (sci-fi, fantasy, horror, mystery, crime, etc.) could represent the perfect opportunity to touch base with a whole new generation of Filipino readers and to get out of the groove of solemn and sometimes soporific prose that older writers like me seem to prefer and purvey.

I've often complained about the surprising absence of crime in our fiction -- given what a malevolent lot we are, at least according to the tabloids -- and I don't see why a crime story (say, about a stolen pair of shoes that leads to murder in Pandacan) can't rise to the level of great fiction, with the right touch and sensibility. (Okay, okay, I'm working on it.)

I agree, Isabel: we should be writing about more than ourselves, more than about suman latik. In this our season as the vagrants and wanderers of the world, I welcome stories about the Pinoy's perception of Warsaw and Wollongong.

Why do we keep writing about such depressing subjects? Because it's a gut reaction to the sordid realities around us -- the grinding poverty of the many, the mindless greed of the few, the loss of one's civil liberties, the desperation of a corrupt cabal in holding on to power, no matter what. Beyond that lies the challenge of cleverness -- to expound or to touch on these ancient and seemingly impervious realities with freshness, wit, and even humor. They don't need to be in everything we write -- but they should be embedded in our subconscious, providing ballast to our fanciful imaginations.

Is there hope for young Filipino writers wanting to publish first books that aspire to nothing more than providing an afternoon's delight? What should the Filipino writer bear in mind?

By way of an answer, let me quote from a paper on Philippine publishing delivered recently by Tony Hidalgo -- himself a prizewinning author and now the owner-CEO of a small but vigorous publishing house called Milflores:
Milflores Publishing, a small company by industry standards ... has grown phenomenally in five years by taking creative, calculated risks. From our initial four titles in 2000, we now have 58 titles in the bookstores -- a growth rate of 1,450 percent. From sales of 4,260 books in 2000, we expect to sell around 40,000 this year -- a growth rate of close to a thousand percent.

The most important constraint for book publishers at the macro level ... is the widespread poverty in the country... Another important constraint is the mismatch between the books that the best Filipino minds write and the needs and preferences of readers. Most Filipino books are still written in English though most readers prefer books in Filipino. The best Filipino writers still concentrate on writing fiction (novels, short stories, plays) and poetry in English, while nine out of 10 book buyers want information books. Because of class differences in lifestyles and experiences, the content of the best Filipino literature in English is often at odds with what most readers want from fiction, so they turn, instead, to the movies, telenovelas, and romance novels... The small, but affluent, A and B market is fluent in English and should be the natural market for Filipino literature in English by the best writers. Unfortunately, this segment is also highly Westernized and prefers books by foreign authors. Some of them are even unaware that there is now a fairly large body of work by Filipino authors in English....

In more practical terms, Milflores engaged several dozens of the best, award-winning writers to contribute to humorous anthologies on popular topics like shopping malls, insomnia, beauty pageants, being a Noranian, etc. We also published collections of humorous essays by good writers on migration to America, pregnancy, the single life for women, the gay world, etc. We only focused on the popularity of the topic of the books -- we never told our writers what to write and never asked them to simplify anything for the mass market. In fact, we always selected manuscripts where the writer poured everything he/she had into it, for we believe that books with great passion are the best ones, or to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, 'In some sense, every good book is a cry for help.'"

The Philippine Star
3 October 2005

I guess this one should add more fuel to a very interesting fire. Comments!

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