Last April 28 and 29, the National Book Development Board (NBDB) held the 7th Philippine International Literary Festival at the QCX Quezon City Memorial Circle as part of the celebration of National Literature Month. With the unifying theme Against Forgetting, delegates and festival-goers conversed with respected authors and burgeoning contemporary Filipino writers. The program was topped by speakers who spoke about the Martial Law Era and what writing and journalism was during that time. The event was also graced by the presence of international Chinese poet Bei Ling, whose story of exile from mainland China raised questions of compromised academic freedom in his own country.
The 2010 National Statistics Office’s Census of Population and Housing (CPH) shows that among 71.5 million Filipinos who are 10 years old and above, 97.5 percent are literate, or can read and write. With such an event, it should be clear that most of the country has invested into reading and embracing the culture of Filipino literature, right? Well, not exactly.
The role of literature
“We are not a reading nation, we are not a remembering people,” Jo-ann Maglipon, a group editorial director of Summit Publishing, says, reminiscing about her time as a young journalist in hiding during the Martial Law Era. She was the editor of the book, Not On Our Watch: Martial Law Really Happened. We Were There. that tells the numerous stories of campus journalists who lived through the dictatorship. But she offers that reading is a solution.
History and literature must go hand in hand. While the former is static, the latter shifts in form, finding fresh new voices even in the most barren issues. It is a muscle that keeps the historical landscape pulsing with life and remembrance. Thus, there is a nobility to be found in the NBDB’s faithful effort to bring to the people cherished authors and journalists who have played or are playing a role in shaping the voice of the Filipino.
Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz, Chair of the NBDB, further affirms this theme by stating that reading literature “should go beyond the political causes and advocacies because it is also thinking of literature or books as a way of preserving memories. Many writers are asked, ‘Why do you write?’ and they reply, ‘Because I have memories I want to preserve. I can’t carry it all in my consciousness.’”
Though the theme dictates the solemn and very reflective tone of the whole festival, some of the discussions and workshops that took place during the two eventful days created an atmosphere that was joyous and infectious. Some seminars offered tools to aid writers and content creators in preparation for the future and the advancement of technology—a source of practical knowledge for aspiring authors concerning the book industry that served to be very meditative of the craft itself. Though attendance is increasing every year, more Filipino readers are still encouraged to bask in the glow of Philippine literature.
The state of our writers
The first day of the festival treated the delegates with writing seminars on Retelling Stories and Untold Histories of Indigenous Groups, Truth from Tragedies, and even the lightly treaded topic of Sex and Sexuality. These topics all have in common the urgency by which they are supposed to be covered, albeit of different necessities. We see writers bringing to light and breaking down narratives of indigenous people, LGBT culture, stories of typhoons and criminality, all in an attempt to pierce through stereotypes and to free certain narratives from tragedy or taboo.
The question that remained crucial was: Are writers free? Or are they limited by hindrances and reservations? Allan Derain, author of Ang Banal na Aklat ng mga Kumag, which won the Grand Prize for the Filipino Novel Category at the 2011 Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature, believes that writers are essentially uninhibited, but asserts, “Freedom comes in the form of betrayal.” He also mentions that the heaviest kind of censorship is the censorship writers put on themselves, but closes with this statement: “I think ang tanong ay [hindi] kung malaya ang mga manunulat, kundi mapagpalaya ba ang manunulat?”
Through different programs that have been set for Filipino writers, primarily led by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino (KWF), more and more outlets are available for aspiring and professional writers to express their art and make sure the world sees it. John Torralba, linguistics specialist of the KWF, cites the Gawad Uswag Darepdep which is a creative writing contest aimed at teens aged 17 and below; Uswag is Bisaya for the forward, while darepdep is Ilocano for imagination, a play on words that invites youth from all over the country to take part and show off their writing skills.
Being in a multilingual country, it is hard for writers to establish one general narrative that speaks for the Filipino diaspora. Even with such programs as that being brought by the KWF, and the relentless inspiration from writers all over the archipelago, readers are often overwhelmed with the amount of literature. “How can you build [or] form national literature if you’re only aware of one section of literature?” The result is that we are hemmed in by the familiar, unaware of the rich literature of other dialects that are nonetheless reflective of the Filipino as well.
“Dapat talaga, magkaroon ng awareness yung mga tao. [At] the same time, naging aware din yung mga writer. For example, in Hiligaynon, naging aware din sila sa literature ng Tagalog or Ilocano,” Torralba says. “That’s the only way na magstastart yung conversation. Nagkakaroon na tayo ng commonality, nagkakaroon ng characteristics na magsasabi na Filipino talaga.”
Spreading like wildfire: Publishing joys and woes
The workshops held during the second day tackled self-publishing, the marketing of books on a worldwide scale, and how to properly secure one’s rights for their published work. These workshops were facilitated to help writers hone their craft by taking them to the different sectors of what that entails, from conception to publication.
It was Sta. Romana-Cruz who had qualms over the fact that in commercial bookstores, we still find books by contemporary and long-time heralded Filipino authors in the “Filipiniana” section as if it was some “exotic, quaint classification.” This may be the market’s perception, but the processes that come with the publication of Filipino books are far from antiquated.
Cristina Hidalgo, director of the UST Publishing House and UP Press, discusses the intricacies that come with editing a writer’s manuscript. She mentions that in the Philippines, we do not have literary editors, we only have copy editors and proofreaders, both separate entities. In our publishing companies, we still have to hire distinguished writers to edit bodies of work instead of having literary editors who specialize in such an endeavor. For this to become a mainstay in ensuring quality work, Ms. Hidalgo believes that the market must grow.
Of course, there is also the problem of access. Publishing companies only publish 500 to 1000 copies in the first run because sales are not guaranteed; their system is to print by demand. And yet, the publishing company Visprint, which publishes the prolific Bob Ong books, have found a niche. Selling books for 100 to 200 pesos, as well as keeping each book a good 100 to 200 pages thin, they cater to teenagers who have little disposable income and different reading tastes. Even when their books are not lauded by award-giving bodies such as The Manila Critics Circle or Carlos Palanca Awards, the supply for them is constant and steady.
Conchitina Cruz, member of small independent publishing house High Chair, believes that there should be “circulation outside of commercial bookstores. It’s important to create different channels to produce books.” She further adds, “It broadens our sense of what literature can be. That it is not limited to schools and universities, not limited to special geniuses, that there are different types of writing.” So the members of High Chair shell out money from their own pockets to produce poetry books that are unorthodox: books from handmade material, in different sizes that depend on the need of the text. She believes these are “not easy to sell, [but are] able to provide life outside the market space.”
Torralba says that the celebration of the native word should come from us first. “Una, mahalin natin ang atin. Mahalin natin sila para mahalin din nila tayo kasi di pwedeng tayo-tayo lang din ang nagbabasa,” he remarks, also pertaining to foreigners who are slowly embracing Philippine literature through translations and adaptations available. Filipino authors like Mia Alvar (In the Country), Miguel Syjuco (Ilustrado), and Marivi Soliven (The Mango Bride) have secured selling rights in America and have garnered accolades from the likes of The New York Times. There is also the Frankfurt Book Fair, an annual book fair that provides opportunities for writers from different countries to sell their rights to publishing companies abroad. Last year, according to Sta. Romana-Cruz, books from the UST Publishing House sold all of their books put up for trade.
And you, dear reader
Torralba scoffs at the assumption that Filipinos don’t read. “Filipinos read. Nag-iiba nga lang sila ng paraan, nagkakaroon ng iba’t ibang form of reading,” he opines. Sta. Romana-Cruz also offers the same remarks, adding that though the reading choices of Filipinos are diverse, they grow whenever they discover more choices and deepen their love for literature.
As the bridges between writers and readers continue to widen, Torralba adds that it’s important to keep writing. “Sa mga young writers na [gumagawa], magproduce sila kasi paano ka magbabasa kung wala namang babasahin,” he remarks, urging aspiring creators to keep honing their craft.
“I hope it continues [to be] bigger each year. Since it’s a government initiative, I hope the public appreciates that the government is interested in promoting arts and culture,” Sta. Romana-Cruz states, adding that the festival is present to entice Filipinos to read more. Though there have been efforts to drum up publicity, it’s up to the readers, which some may call a few, dedicated members of society, to keep the flame burning for Philippine literature.