Penman for Monday, Nov. 26, 2012
WHETHER BY design or sheer coincidence, November is turning out to be a kind of Literary Arts Month for the Asia-Pacific region, with a plenitude of literary festivals and conferences being held one after the other over the last four weeks.
First off—as I reported on last week—was the Reaching the World Summit held Nov. 5-9 in Bangkok, Thailand, under the auspices of the Asia-Pacific Writers and Translators Association and in conjunction with the SEAWrite Awards, in itself a major regional literary event. Going on at the same time, from Nov. 2 to 11, was the Singapore Writers Festival, featuring Michael Cunningham of The Hours as this year’s big name, backstopped among others by Marina Mahathir, a feisty political commentator who just happens to be the daughter of Malaysia’s famous PM.
And then, from Nov. 14 to 16, we had our own third edition of the Manila International Literary Festival, billed this year as “Read Lit District.” It was put together as usual by the inimitable and irreplaceable Andrea Pasion-Flores and the National Book Development Board, with the generous support of the Ayala Foundation, among other sponsors. And finally, the world’s biggest gathering devoted to nonfiction—the 2012 Bedell Nonfictionow Conference, with several hundred attendees expected—took place just last week from Nov. 21 to 24 in Melbourne, Australia.
I am, in fact, writing this in Melbourne as I await the opening of Nonfictionow, where I’ve been privileged to be asked to deliver one of the four keynote addresses. You’ll get a report from me very soon on how this conference turned out—and why, as I suggest in my keynote, there’s an even greater necessity for good nonfiction in this age of Facebook and Twitter, when almost any event is deemed newsworthy five seconds after its occurrence. More on this in the coming weeks.
Right now I’d like to focus on the MILF (something about that acronym keeps distracting me, and it has nothing to do with southern secessionists), the youngest of its kind in the region and perhaps necessarily the most modest, compared to its long-running forebears in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Sydney, Singapore, Bali, and Jaipur, among other places. But even at age three, it’s already shown both strength and precociousness, and the ability to attract both big-name writers and SRO audiences—many members of whom pay quite a bit of money just to listen—over its three-day run.
I’d have to admit that years ago, when Andrea first mentioned the NBDB’s plans to start an international literary festival in Manila, I was less than convinced that we could pull it off, having been spoiled rotten by the many others I’d attended abroad. How were we going to bring in world-class international authors? How many locals would turn up? Where were we going to hold the event?
As it turned out, all my misgivings went for naught. Practically since the beginning, the MILF has been a resounding success, attracting the likes of Pulitzer prizewinners Junot Diaz and Edward Jones last year and prizewinning Nigerian poet and novelist Christopher Abani this year, as well as international literary agents and editors, not to mention the usual suspects from the local literary community.
This time around, I sat on two panels—one on “Making the First Page Count” with New York-based author Tim Tomlinson and Soho Press senior editor Juliet Grames, and another with Chris Abani on “The Writer’s Demons.” Both sessions proved deeply instructive even for me, reinforcing the value of encounters like this even among old pros—just when you think you’ve heard everything, you haven’t.
Most instructive of all was a session I attended on literary editing, featuring the prolific and versatile Australian author-editor Ken Spillman, the Hong Kong-based poet and editor David McKirdy, and again Juliet Grames. The session drew a full house—and a good thing it did, because literary editing remains a great unknown to most Filipino authors and publishers, leaving us with unpolished texts if unbruised egos. (Since Soledad’s Sister was picked up by an agent some years ago and subsequently by publishers and translators in Italy and France, aside from a US edition, I’ve had the good fortune—and the humbling experience—of dealing with literary editors, whose comments and suggestions proved insightful and helpful. No pain, no gain.) Here are some outtakes from what they said:
Ken Spillman: “The best writers respond well to criticism…. In my hands, on the average, the manuscript would be reduced by 10 percent…. I see editing as a partnership, helping the book become the best book it can be…. (In a good book) I suspect a lot of hard work has gone on behind the scenes but it is never evident in the reading.”
David McKirdy: “Don’t send a publisher something that’s neither fish nor fowl, and therefore unmarketable—like a combined collection of poems and prose. You should have a clear conception of your work. Don’t try to put lots of different things together—it doesn’t work.”
Juliet Grames, being the most experienced editor of the three, gave the longest and most novel presentation, beginning with the confession that she started off as a writer when she entered the publishing industry, thinking that she could learn the secrets of the trade from within, but soon found her calling as an editor. “Midwifery might be more for you than motherhood,” she said. Her first editing job was no earth-shaking novel—“It was No More Kidney Stones, revised edition,” she said with a wry smile—but it led to many others, and also impressed upon her the importance of the variety of projects a publisher undertakes. “Crime fiction supports the literary fiction that we publish,” she added.
Then like a teacher, she stood up and drew a series of Venn diagrams on the whiteboard: a set of diagrams each for readers, writers, and publishers. (If you’ll recall your high school math, Venn diagrams have to do with circles or sets and their intersections.)
Juliet explained: “For the reader, the three circles to consider are language, or words; story; and morals, issues, or topics. Readers read for these reasons, and my dream book would have all three.” For writers, it was passion, money, and message; for publishers, it was money, cachet, and ideology. Her final bit of advice resonated well with the audience: “Find yourself in these diagrams, and find and approach the right publisher.”
We are, of course, still a long way in the Philippines from having a passel of publishers to choose from, but then again the purpose of an international literary festival is precisely to remind our authors to expand their horizons beyond the local scene. With the right novel or nonfiction opus in hand, we might yet break into the global market of readers as have the Chinese and the Indians, and put Philippine writing squarely on the world’s literary map.