In quiet defiance, independent publishers redefine Filipino literature

With efforts to highlight Philippine literature, independent publishers relay the stories of Filipinos and change what it means to be in the publishing scene.

Nothing beats the feeling of buying a book—the crisp hardbound cover, the smoothness of the paper, the scent of its pages. But hidden behind the juggernauts of the publishing industry are underdogs composed of passionate authors and literary buffs that revel in their passion. 

The independent publishing industry offers a vast range of stories: from colorful explosions of themes and texts of small-scale projects to entire collectives that fund advocacies. The result is a euphony of tales that provide readers with perspectives that would otherwise be unseen anywhere else. 

An inkling of hope

The origins of Filipino independent publishing are largely unknown. Due to censorship during colonial times, Filipinos published subversive texts independently, a notable example being Jose Rizal’s revolutionary novels. Even prolific Ilonggo writer Magdalena Jalandoni initially sold self-published copies of her short stories and poems in front of the Jaro Cathedral in Iloilo. Independent publishing emerged primarily because writers were compelled to work outside the confines of mainstream publishing, which has often prioritized literary works that are profitable over those with promising literary quality.

Today, independent authors and presses delve boldly into the foray of the book industry. Since 2015, Kasingkasing Press, an alternative press and online bookshop in Western Visayas, has been publishing books that steadily redefine what makes up the Philippines’ national literature. For founder Noel de Leon, it comes with a necessity to know the literature of a certain culture or area. “Kapag mahal mo—hindi lamang dahil trending or uso, pero…dahil naiintindihan mo ‘yung kanyang mga struggles sa kasaysayan—mas maiintindihan mo talaga kung bakit talagang kailangang i-prioritize ‘yung ating mga regional literature, he shares. 

(When you develop a passion for regional literature—not just because it’s a trend but because you understand its history—you start to comprehend why we need to prioritize it.)

Similarly, Gantala Press specializes in publishing works with strong feminist ideals. Their cookbook of low-cost recipes of common dishes, Lutong Gipit: Mga Recipe sa Panahon ng Krisis, is a commentary on the systemic oppression faced by marginalized communities. The sales of these books are used to fund the campaigns of Amihan National Federation of Peasant Women and Rural Women Advocates, a Diliman-based organization pushing for agrarian reforms and women’s rights.

Beyond advocacies, independent publishers reflect reality through unique ideas and stories. Magpies Press is a collective of independent publishers based in the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB) who use a small circulation of self-published works called zines to tackle issues in Filipino society in a way that “essentially pokes fun at things for us to comprehend it better”, as member Bianca Ysabel Rabe puts it.  One of their more well-known zines, 2019’s Gurl, Corrupted, follows the story of Cassie who joins a TikTok competition to inaptly save student affairs. Throughout the story, Magpies satirizes real social issues such as the transport crisis in Metro Manila and the construction of the Kaliwa Dam, which Cassie encounters while trying to make TikTok videos. 

 It takes a village

From ideation to distribution, independent publishing takes on a more nuanced approach than mainstream publishing. De Leon believes that independent publishers must provide art that’s not just entertaining but also relevant. “Kapag independent press ka, hindi pwedeng gusto mo lang mag-publish,” he notes. “Kailangang sumasagot ka rin sa tanong na bakit kailangang basahin ngayon ang teksto na ililimbag mo.

(If you’re an independent press, you shouldn’t just want to publish. You also need to address why it needs to be read.)

Kasingkasing Press embodies such purpose by publishing real stories of the youth, such as their experience with Pagsulat Duag: Queer Youth Narratives of Panay. “Hindi kamiyung writer. Tinuruan namin na magsulat yung mga bata at ikwento nila [kung ano mang] gusto nilang ikwento sa kapwa nila bata,” de Leon muses—showing how an independent press primarily publishes with and for their communities.

(We weren’t the writers. Instead, we taught children to write what they want to write as if they were sharing it with other kids.)

Magpies Press creates their zines in quite a similar fashion but through a medium easily reproduced through photocopying machines. As an organizer of events for independent publishers—most notably, their biannual Zine Orgy—they take pride in providing spaces for zine artists to openly discuss with  their audience. But founder Shaunna Ysabel Cledera notes that some would try to spread hateful discourse of sexism and bigotry during these events. “Doon sa event mismo, meron siyang (an aggravator) table na puro mga zines tungkol sa babaemenor de edad, kunwarimga ganoong klaseng bagay,” she grimaces. 

(During the event, an aggravator put out several zines about underage women, those kinds of things.) 

Instead of shunning them, Cledera encourages constructive criticism toward these artists. “We’re not capitalists. We’re not bosses here. We want to see if people can be talked to,” she sustains. 

Reading the fine print

However, the pandemic has severely affected the independent publishing industry. Cledera laments that their small zine community is slowly being forgotten by some students of UPLB. “Magsu-survey ako sa mga estudyante, hindi nila masyadong alam kung ano ‘yung zines. Nakita namin na isa sa mga pinanggagalingan nun ay nawalan talaga ng activities [to showcase our works],” she narrates.

(I would survey students, and some aren’t even familiar with zines anymore. We think that this could be attributed to not having activities that showcase our works for so long.)

On the other hand, de Leon highlights increased production and delivery costs as a major hindrance during the start of the pandemic. “Noong nagsisimula pa lang, parang maloloko kami,” he exclaims in tragic hyperbole. “Ang mahal-mahal ng shipping fee ng mga libro [kaya] parang ayaw nang bumili ng mambabasa, so maraming mga booksellers, cafes, book shops ang na-paralyze.”

(When the pandemic was starting, we were about to go crazy. Expensive shipping fees discouraged potential readers, so booksellers, cafes, and book shops were paralyzed.)

Fortunately, these challenges quickly turned into opportunities. While Gantala Press had their operations hindered by a lack of physical interactions due to the pandemic restrictions, they rebounded by “taking advantage of technology to be able to produce work.” The presence of video conferencing platforms and content creation applications has greatly helped them increase their productivity.

Kasingkasing Press took a similar route by providing electronic copies of their books. They also launched a grassroots marketing campaign, a “sari-sari bookstore”, where their books are made available at sari-sari stores located in nine small barangays. The success of these programs enabled de Leon to hint at an optimistic future, “Pinapaalala talaga sa atin noon ng pandemic na maraming gustong magbasa [atmaraming may interes sa Philippine literature.” 

(The pandemic has reminded us that many want to read and have interest in Philippine literature.)

Ultimately, Magpies Press member Mac Andre Arboleda believes that independent publishing provides them with a unique opportunity to subvert institutional standards. “[We] will always have that power to not submit to power,” he opines. 

The stories and experiences spotlighted by the independent publishing industry continue to redefine what it means to be Filipino. They stress that everyone’s experiences are valid and should be celebrated. After all, as de Leon fervently declares, “Hindi iisa lamang ang kwento ng ating bansa.” And every one of them deserves to be heard.

(Our country does not only have one story.)

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