Penman No. 255: A History Book Project Like No Other

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Penman for Monday, June 19, 2017

 

LAST MONDAY’S celebration of Independence Day reminded me of the Philippine Centennial nearly 20 years ago, when I took part in the launch of the first and still the biggest book project I’ve taken on in my professional life. I’ve edited about as many books as I’ve written—more than 30—and 10 of those were all for one massive undertaking, Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People (Asia Publishing Co., 1998).

It was a 10-volume history of the Philippines like no other, put together by some of country’s foremost historians, academics, and writers, a joint project of Reader’s Digest Asia and A-Z Direct Marketing, which was then Reader’s Digest’s local distributor at a time when the family-friendly monthly was still going strong.

The idea was hatched in 1996 in anticipation of the forthcoming Centennial between A-Z’s late president Lirio Sandoval and the indefatigable Tere Custodio, who became the project director; Reader’s Digest Asia would foot most of the bill. Their idea was that while Philippine histories and encyclopedias had existed, none of them seemed comprehensive, popularly accessible, and visually compelling enough.

Tere shopped around for an executive editor, and I think it was our mutual friend Gina Apostol who suggested me (to my everlasting gratitude). We then took on two key and stellar talents, both of them sadly now gone—Doreen Fernandez as our editorial consultant and Nik Ricio as our book designer. Together, we planned out a 10-volume series, each full-sized volume no less than 300 pages, with an average of at least one picture—many of them never published before, acquired from international and private collections—on every page, 3,500 images in all.

The volume titles previewed the series’ coverage and contents: The Philippine Archipelago; The Earliest Filipinos; The Spanish Conquest; Life in the Colony; Reform and Revolution; Under Stars and Stripes; The Japanese Occupation; Up from the Ashes; A Nation Reborn; and A Timeline of Philippine History.

To write each of these volumes, we recruited our most eminent historians and experts—people like Dr. Milagros Guerrero, Fr. John Schumacher, Dr. Ricardo T. Jose, and Dr. Ma. Serena Diokno. Each volume was also supplemented by around 20 essays, contributed by the country’s top writers and cultural figures from Dr. Bienvenido Lumbera to Jessica Zafra—on topics ranging from early forms of Philippine writing and wartime “Mickey Mouse” money to 16th-century Visayan warriors and the origins of the kundiman. (My own single contribution as a writer to the series was an essay on the First Quarter Storm.)

It seemed like a gargantuan project, and indeed it was, requiring not only the production of enormous amounts of historical scholarship and pictorial research (the latter task headed by no less than Romy Gacad) but also the management of a budget hitherto unheard of in local publishing and, more dauntingly, of over 200 egos. I also organized a small team of sub-editors to help me get the job done, and sent them memos emphasizing the need for readability; every author’s brief, after all, was “to write in a style that can be understood by the Filipino high school and college student, without compromising the seriousness of the work as history.” The Internet in the Philippines was in its rudimentary stage; we had email, but still moved files around in floppies.

We gathered the editorial team for the first time one day in January 1997, setting for ourselves the formidable goal of launching 10 new, profusely illustrated books in June 1998, or 18 months hence. Against all odds, that goal was met. I would write as a promotional blurb at the end that “Here, finally, is the story of the Filipino: told from a Filipino viewpoint, but with a full appreciation of the modern Filipino’s engagement in a rapidly globalizing society.”

That priceless experience would teach me everything I needed to know as a textual editor, leaving much of the people management to the thoroughly professional and unwavering Tere. Including the essays, I read, edited, and proofread a million words; I sat side-by-side with Nik poring over the layout, adjusting the text to remove—as the perfectionist in him demanded—rivers, widows, and orphans (publishing terms you’d do well to Google), and writing and positioning subheads for visual relief.

One more task remained for me, which was to draft speeches for the two principal guests of honor at the grand book launch at the Manila Hotel on June 1—President Fidel V. Ramos and former President Corazon Aquino. I’ve sadly lost the draft I did for Cory, but I still have notes that have FVR saying:

“If the art of narrative or of storytelling is the art of making sense of seemingly random or disparate events, then Kasaysayan is our story, our understanding of ourselves, our version of the same events that other writers have used to keep us subjugated and alien unto ourselves. Written from our point of view, this version—this vision—is one that must empower us, that must make us whole, that must enable us to better ourselves and our future. We cannot change history, but history can change us.”

The handsomely boxed ten-volume set initially sold for P16,000; a few months ago I learned that surplus sets were being marketed in some Manila bookstores for as low as P2,000. That sounds to me like the bargain of the century—especially if you have a teenager in the house in need of a sense of history, or just want to see our history in a way you never did before.

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Penman No. 234: A Glimpse of Interesting Manila

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Penman for Monday, January 16, 2017

ASIDE FROM the fountain pens which I’ve recently stopped collecting, I’ve long nursed another, quieter passion, albeit on a much more modest scale. Since my grad-school days in the American Midwest in the 1980s, I’ve been drawn to old books from and about the Philippines. Sadly I can’t read Spanish—one of the great regrets of my college life, a casualty of our generation’s sweeping rejection of everything that smacked of colonialism (except, ironically, English)—so my pickings have been confined to books in English, largely from the late 1800s to the early 1900s.

I stumbled on the first of these books—and began to be conscious of their significance—while I was poking around antique and thrift shops for pens. The Midwest, with its many universities and industries (not to mention pen companies like Parker and Sheaffer), was a cornucopia of all things old and wonderful, and inevitably my eyes would drift to the dusty bookshelves that typically carried cookbooks, old Bibles, local lore, and Western novels.

Now and then, however, I’d get lucky and come across a book with some Philippine connection, usually from around the early years of the American occupation. With titles like Uncle Sam’s Boys in the Philippines and Our New Possessions, these books celebrated American imperialism, the novel fact that it now had a colony across the Pacific that deserved to be introduced to curious readers in Kansas and Missouri.

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I remember finding the massive two-volume Our Islands and Their People for $10 in a Milwaukee antique store, only to have to leave them behind when I flew home from graduate school in 1991. But I did bring back a small trove of similar material, and have added to them since then, largely via eBay.

My Holy Grail had been a first edition of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart (I would acquire one later locally in the most interesting circumstances—I’ve told the story here—and would give it to my daughter Demi as a wedding present), but another precious book I was relieved to have saved from the Faculty Center fire by foolishly leaving it in my car is a first English edition from 1853 of Paul P. de la Gironiere’s The Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines, an eBay pickup from the UK.

I’m not an antiquarian by any means; I lack the vision, the resources, and the scholarship for that. To be honest, I haven’t even read everything I’ve collected, a pleasure I’m saving for my impending retirement. I just like salvaging these well-worn volumes from the scrap heap, or from some dark corner where they can’t possibly be appreciated. They’re neither particularly rare nor valuable—only two or three have cost me more than $100—but they all contain very interesting, if sometimes horrifying, stories about America’s imperial project.

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It’s difficult, even for a Filipino, not to be entertained by the descriptions in these early travelogues, revive as they do the nostalgic charm of a vanished era. Take, for example, Interesting Manila by George A. Miller, first published in Manila in 1906 by E.C. McCullough, a $10 purchase from a bookseller in Massachussetts.

Its evocation of the past reminds us that Manila was already old even then: “Beautiful these old churches were in their scars and moss and vines. Many have been spoiled by fresh coats of paint. But who can sit silent in their vaulted aisles without hearing from those stained and mellow walls, whispered prayers of priests who long since have vanished, and shadow chants of acolytes who have joined the choir invisible?… My first experience in a Manila church was at High Mass in Santo Domingo at the early hour. There were sixteen hundred candles shining in the gloom of the old sanctuary, and a thousand worshipers were kneeling on the polished floor. Among the high arches gathered the smoke of the incense, and way up in the dome the morning sun streamed red and gold through the colored glass.

“The chanting of the priests reverberated through the aisles like the noise of a cataract, and the answer of the prostrate people was like the murmur of many waters upon the sand. Then the great organ with its thundering reeds made the old pile ring and shout like some strong giant in sport, and in the succeeding silence the people waited in awe for what might follow. What did follow was the chanting of the boys’ choir without accompaniment, and the effect from the high gallery was as if the voices came from everywhere, the very stones had suddenly become vocal and joined in the acclamation.”

In a voice we might be hearing today, Miller laments the thoughtless “restoration” of these old buildings: “The present Malate church has been restored until it is of little interest. The old tile roof, the hole in the west gable made by American shot, and the walls with shrubs and trees growing in their crevices made a building worth going to see, but now it is all paint and corrugated iron.”

The vividness and vigor of the experiences described can be exhilarating: “One of the really delightful experiences that many people have never discovered is that of a trip up the Pasig at sunset. We took the car to Santa Ana and at five-thirty stood by the river and were besieged by a dozen vociferous banqueros, who contended for the distinguished honor of carrying our lunch basket to the landing. The bancas all looked alike, but there must be the preliminary diplomatic stunts as to distance and price. Tagalog, English, and bad Spanish were mixed in a verbal storm for five minutes and then we were aboard and off for Fort McKinley.”

Sometimes these colonial reports afford us a priceless glimpse into our prewar treasures, likely long gone: “There are about twelve thousand volumes on these shelves,” Miller notes of the Franciscan library. “The library of the Recoletos contains about nine thousand volumes; that of the Augustinians eleven thousand, and the Dominicans have eighteen thousand. Most of the collections contain several copies of the celebrated ‘Flora de Filipinas’ by Fr. Blanco and his co-laborers. This work is in six volumes and an index and is a remarkable piece of scientific research. The best edition contains two volumes of colored plates of the flora of the archipelago, and the press work done, in Barcelona, is of the best.”

And then again quite often the interest doesn’t come out of the narrative itself but in the perspective, which almost inevitably involves some triumphal trumpeting of America’s virtues. Miller’s assertion of the Westerner as a man of action and of the Oriental as a laidback soul is typical of these white male observers’ musings:

“The West is known by its deeds, the East by its dreams. The Anglo-Saxon lives in the concrete, the Oriental in the shadows. The American, having found a ‘proposition’ in a field, makes haste and sells all that he has and buys that field that he may dig therein and get ‘results.’ The Oriental inhales the drowsy fumes of some far-off good that was, or is, or is to come—it little matters which—and is content.”

Interesting Manila, indeed—but even more interesting was what these books said of their linen-suited writers.

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Penman No. 225: Sayang in Singapore

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Penman for Monday, November 11

 

TO US Filipinos, sayang has one meaning and one meaning only: a regrettable loss, something that causes us to shake our heads or hold our palms to our hearts and say, “Oh, that’s too bad.” But elsewhere in the region, from some sultry corner of which the word worked its way up our archipelago, sayang means that and more: the love which may have been that which was lost, love as both a noun and a verb, or even an endearment, depending on the nuances of its intonation. So love and loss—the former all too often trailed by the latter—coexist in this wonderfully complex word, through which we Filipinos can at least claim some vestigial connection to the heart of Asia.

Sayang was very much on people’s lips in Singapore last week—you would have thought a lovefest was going on, and in a sense, it was. But the love was for books and literature, the occasion being the Singapore Writers Festival, which I was visiting for the third time after a hiatus of five years. Sayang had been chosen as the festival’s theme, and the word was festooned against a suitably floral backdrop all over the Arts House area where most of the festival events took place.

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Now on its 19th edition, the SWF began in 1986 as a biennial event, but it has since become a fixture on the regional cultural calendar (alongside the Singapore Arts Festival), cementing the city-state’s reputation—like its iconic Merlion—as the fountain of artistic endeavor in this part of the world. (I know what you’re thinking: “Shouldn’t that be us, the Philippines, with our long tradition of cultural expression and our bountiful artistic talents?” But I’ll tell you what festival director Yeow Kai Chai—himself a poet and journalist—told me over lunch: “I can’t believe you Filipinos have yet to establish a Department of Culture!”)

It was clear, from the minute I stepped out into Changi’s arrival area, that the National Arts Council, under Singapore’s Ministry of Culture, had once again pulled all the stops to guarantee a pleasant and efficiently managed experience for all SWF attendees, expected to number about 20,000. I was here as a journalist on coverage for the Star (I had attended the SWF as a participant in 2008, and returned to cover it in 2011) and I knew what to expect, but like they say, you never cross the same river twice, and this year’s festival offered a steady stream of 300 events spread out over ten days from November 4 to 13. There were over 300 official participants registered, with a hundred of them coming from overseas.

That makes the SWF one of the world’s largest and longest festivals of its kind, if not probably the most multilingual one, with its support for literature not just in English but also in Bahasa, Chinese, and other Asian languages. According to Yeow, the goal was to be as inclusive as possible in the SWF’s programming, going so far as to offer facilities for the hearing-impaired.

The fullness of the festival programme required selectivity, so I cherry-picked my way through the three days of my stay there, paying special attention to literary developments in Singapore itself. I’ve often remarked—most recently at a reading in Diliman featuring authors brought over by Ethos Books, one of Singapore’s most energetic presses—that the Philippines and Singapore have enjoyed a longstanding “bromance” going down the generations: between F. Sionil Jose and Edwin Thumboo, for example, followed by Krip Yuson and Kirpal Singh, then Joel Toledo and Alvin Pang, to name a few. We’ve published books together; not too long ago, Isabel Mooney and Lily Rose Tope worked with their Singaporean academic counterparts to edit a landmark anthology of Southeast Asian writing in English. So I wanted to see where things were at.

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The first session I attended addressed the diasporic element in Singaporean literature—but unlike our exodus of workers and writers to the far reaches of the planet, this diaspora was inbound, and a voluntary one. Moderated by the Filipino expat poet Eric Tinsay Valles, the panel comprised the Eurasian short story writer Jon Gresham, who had come to Singapore via the UK and Australia; the Filipino fictionist and diplomat Cathy Torres, who had moved from her posting in Singapore to Germany; and the American creative nonfiction expert Robin Hemley, who’s married to a Filipina and who now teaches in Singapore.

They discussed how, in the words of Eric, the diaspora could be “a creative space” within which the experience of estrangement could create some positive value. Being away from one’s home, the three agreed, made new impressions and expressions possible. The writer’s struggle to adjust and adapt was in itself the story. Jon spoke about how “It isn’t so much about roots as routes—the journey, the getting there” for the diasporic writer. Adverting to the title story of her debut collection, Mariposa Gang and Other Stories, Cathy observed how “Diasporic stories are like butterflies. They may look alike but no two are truly the same. I try to catch them and send them out into the world.”

But the it was the keynote talk by Farish Noor, a Malaysian political scientist and historian who’s become something of an intellectual rock star in the region, that both charmed and alarmed the packed chamber where the Singaporean parliament used to meet. Dr. Noor introduced his talk thus:

“How a word can have multiple meanings at the same time, and have their meanings change over time, is an interesting mirror to the unfolding of history. This lecture looks at one word in particular, sayang, charting its path of adaptation from pre-colonial and colonial histories to the post-colonial present; and considering how the changes in its meanings and applications—from fables to novels to cinema and pop culture—tells us more about ourselves, like how our own sensibilities and worldviews have evolved, leading to the postmodern present which we inhabit today. The word remains the same, but do we sayang today as our ancestors did?”

Looking back on how concepts of love evolved over time in the region—including love across species in folklore, and love for the colonial master—Farish noted how “Words are what we have left of the past, and the past is far more complicated—more rich, more deep—than the present. Today, in the age of Facebook, ‘love’ has been reduced to clicking a ‘Like’ button.”

During his turn in the chamber, Singapore’s unofficial poet laureate Edwin Thumboo looked back on a lifetime of literature in his country thus: “Young poets no longer write about nation because the nation has been constructed for them. It’s no longer a problem….. It’s so easy now to get published but I don’t think there’s enough revision going on. People are anthologizing like mad. Be patient. Always think you can do better.”

The renowned American critic Marjorie Perloff spoke at the last event I attended, and she closed SWF 2016 for me with a rousing challenge: “Avant-garde poetry has crossed the boundaries between the verbal and the visual, but poetry hasn’t changed in 70 years the way painting and music have. We need another kind of revolution!”

Many thanks again to my hosts and to my SWF friends—it was all sayang and yet no sayang for me this past weekend. In a coming column, I’ll digest two interviews I conducted with Singaporean poet Aaron Lee and our very own Eric Tinsay Valles on what it’s like to be a poet in Singapore.

Penman No. 224: Fantastic, Frenetic Frankfurt (2)

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Penman for Monday, November 7, 2016

 

GOING TO the Frankfurt Book Fair was a great opportunity to renew old friendships and make new ones within both the global and Philippine publishing community. While we authors count publishers among our closest and most valuable friends, I realized in Frankfurt that we really don’t talk about their side of the business that much, as engrossed as we often are by our own fabulations.

I was particularly happy to finally meet Renuka Chatterjee, who had been India’s premier literary agent when she worked for the big Osian’s cultural conglomerate in New Delhi. As my first literary agent, Renuka had been instrumental in getting my second novel, Soledad’s Sister, translated and published in Italy; but more than that, she guided me through my first textual revisions, through which I began to learn how international publishing worked. When Osian’s shut down its literary operation, I passed on to another very capable agent in New York, and Renuka eventually joined another leading publishing house in India, Speaking Tiger. We had corresponded by email over the years, but Frankfurt gave us an excuse and a venue for a long-overdue face-to-face.

Another acquaintance lost and found was the dynamic and groundbreaking Malaysian publisher Amir Muhammad, whom I had first met at a conference in Penang in 1992; Amir gifted me with a new trilogy of Southeast Asian stories he had just published, featuring the works of some of our best young Filipino authors. (Those books—like many others I’ve gathered on my travels—are now lodged at the Gonzalo Gonzalez Reading Room in UP, where we keep a repository of contemporary Southeast Asian literature.) Indeed, and not surprisingly, the Malaysians became the Philippine delegation’s best buddies at the fair; we frequented their booth to partake of the nasi lemak and to trade notes on the writing life. The Indonesians were equally hospitable, and our troop of visitors enjoyed a chat and the inevitable selfie with their star, the novelist Eka Kurniawan, whose Man Tiger made the 2016 Man Booker International Prize long list.

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Neither were the long hours at our own booth wasted, as a steady stream of visitors curious about our books and our culture came by to browse, to converse, and to do business. Business, after all, was what most people went to the book fair for, and while some of us minded the store, our delegates were often out meeting with their counterparts from the US, the UK, Europe, and the rest of Asia. (I had a very productive conversation with a gentleman from Montenegro who runs a kind of global blog of blogs—expect “Penman” to appear there soon, but only after it’s published here, of course.)

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It was the Ateneo University Press’ new boss Karina Bolasco’s third straight year at the fair, which she had previously attended representing Anvil Publishing. University presses don’t generally look at their books as profit-makers, reducing the financial pressure somewhat, but Karina still had a full schedule of meetings with academic publishers, especially longtime Philippine partners such as the University of Wisconsin Press. “Our job is to negotiate for reprint rights,” Karina told me. “We try to find material already published abroad that will be interesting to Filipino readers, and we also offer other presses the rights to reprint Filipino works with a global appeal.”

One of the most visited displays in the Philippine booth this year was that of Mandaluyong-based OMF Literature, Inc., which has published religious and inspirational books since 1957. OMF CEO Alexander Tan told me that their market was big and growing—extending even to OFWs in the Middle East—and that it had developed its own local stars such as pastor Ronald Molmisa, who draws huge crowds to his lectures on love and relationships. “I realized that by breaking the rules and letting people like Ronald use Taglish in their books, we could reach more readers,” Alex said.

On the other hand, literary agents like Andrea Pasion-Flores, who now works with the Singapore-based Jacaranda agency, assume the task of representing Filipino authors abroad and finding publishers to buy their works (and who then assign editors to work closely with the authors on revising their text for publication). Andrea—an accomplished author in her own right who also happens to be a lawyer and the former executive director of the National Book Development Board—is the first and, so far, the only literary agent working actively in the Philippines. Jacaranda has already sold the rights for such distinguished Filipino writers as the late Nick Joaquin, Charlson Ong, Isagani Cruz, and Ichi Batacan (whose Smaller and Smaller Circles will be a movie soon).

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Andrea and her Jacaranda colleagues Jayapriya Vasudevan and Helen Mangham spent long working days in Frankfurt at the exclusive Literary Agents section upstairs, which only registered agents (who paid a hefty price for table space) and publishers could theoretically access. But Andrea secured a pass for me so I could observe the frenetic 30-minute “speed-dating” sessions that took place in hundreds of cubicles. “You’re probably the only author in this room,” Andrea told me. When I asked her what international publishers were looking for from Filipino authors, her response was quick and to the point: “The big novel, more genre fiction, and more high-quality literary fiction—and less ego, please, as Filipino authors generally aren’t used to revising their work!”

Back downstairs the next day, my companions at the Philippine booth were surprised to see me in animated conversation in Filipino with a Caucasian lady, whom I was happy to introduce to everyone. Our visitor was Annette Hug, a novelist and translator who had come from her home in Zurich to meet with me and with her publisher at the book fair. Annette—who took her MA in Women’s Studies in UP and regularly practices her Filipino with an OFW friend—had just translated a piece I had published last month in the Philippine edition of Esquire magazine, a piece on extrajudicial killings that had somehow gone viral; Annette’s translation had come out that same day in a Swiss newspaper and she brought me my copies, fresh off the press. But apart from that sad topic, Annette had also just published a novel in German, Wilhelm Tell in Manila, based on Jose Rizal’s work on that Swiss hero’s life, and the UP Press will now explore the possibility of publishing a translation of her novel in the Philippines.

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Another visitor was children’s book author and Palanca Hall of Famer Eugene Evasco, who just happened to be in Munich on a three-month research fellowship, so he took the three-hour train ride to Frankfurt to visit the fair and to take in the mind-blowing displays at the children’s literature section.

Of such providential encounters, magnified into the thousands, was the Frankfurt Book Fair made, and while I was there less on business than as a roving cultural ambassador of sorts, I was glad and privileged to tick another item off my bucket list. I’ve run out of space to talk about an excursion some of us took to trace the footsteps of that quintessential Filipino writer, Jose Rizal, in nearby Heidelberg, so I’ll save that for another column soon.

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Penman No. 223: Fantastic, Frenetic Frankfurt (1)

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Penman for Monday, October 31, 2016

 

I’VE BEEN to mammoth meetings before—the Modern Languages Association in Chicago, MacWorld in San Francisco, Comic-con in San Diego, for instance—but nothing comes close to the Frankfurt Book Fair in size and scope. Covering over ten hectares of exhibition space spread out over several buildings and many floors, it’s certainly the world’s biggest and best-known book fair, gathering participants from nearly 200 countries.

Unlike author-focused literary festivals, the vast majority of those participants are publishers, booksellers, editors, literary agents, and printing industry representatives, all looking to make a pitch and a sale of their wares across the globe. That globe may have been made much smaller by the Internet, but nothing still beats a face-to-face transaction with one’s possible partners, and that’s where a book fair like Frankfurt’s comes in, as a week-long physical marketplace where the world’s publishers, from the biggest to the smallest ones, all go.

Inevitably a few writers and artists stray into the mix (we spotted David Hockney through a crack in the wall being interviewed at the Taschen booth by German TV), and this year I was one of those lucky few, with some help from the National Commission for Culture and the Arts and the University of the Philippines. Spearheaded by the National Book Development Board and invaluably assisted by the prime advocate of culture and the arts in the Senate, Sen. Loren Legarda, the Philippines expanded and upgraded its representation at FBF 2016, with a much larger booth and an impressive array of books from all our major commercial and academic publishers. The NCCA also sponsored one of our top graphic artists, Manix Abrera, and it didn’t hurt that National Artist Virgilio Almario came along in his private capacity to accompany his wife Lyn and daughters Asa and Ani who were representing Adarna Books and the Book Developers Association of the Philippines.

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While Filipinos have attended the FBF in dribbles for some time now, it was only this year that we went all out, helped incalculably by our bigger booth. Last year, publishers had to chip in P100,000 each to rent a tiny plot of real estate at the fair, which starts at 400 euros per square meter. Sen. Legarda’s timely intervention meant that publishers could put their rental money into bringing more representatives and more books, and our 2016 delegation hit a historic high at over 40 members.

Though not yet quite the pavilion that countries like China and Singapore could afford, our corner booth was colorful and visually attractive—a plus in a fair with thousands of such offerings, all competing for the passing viewer’s eye. Through the Ateneo University Press (now headed by Karina Bolasco, formerly of Anvil Publishing), the Philippines also had another albeit smaller booth in another hall as part of the FBF’s invitational program, an affirmative-action project that brings in and sponsors selected publishers from developing countries. Predictably, China’s exhibit occupied a whole city block (for the price of which they could have gotten a better English editor for their signs, which proclaimed “Chinese Publication”).

On the other end of publishing pomp and circumstance, the FBF annually invites and celebrates a Guest of Honor, and this year it was the Netherlands and Flanders, which decked out an enormous hall as a haunting landscape reminiscent of the Dutch flatlands. The Guest of Honor status focuses attention not only on that country’s literature but its entire culture and society, providing an opportunity to put one’s best foot forward (Dutch royalty attended the opening ceremonies, lending a touch of glamor to the event—and ratcheting up security for everyone). The Guest of Honor also gets to choose a theme for its exhibit, which this year was “This Is What We Share” (last year, New Zealand—on the other side of the world, for Europeans—whimsically chose “While You Were Sleeping”). My fancy tickled, I asked what the Philippines needed to be named Guest of Honor—one can both apply or be invited—and received an unequivocal answer: “Millions of dollars.” I shut up.

Its cultural import aside, the book fair means big business for Frankfurt, which, in partnership with the private sector, leases out the fair grounds to such clients as the publishers’ association which directly runs the book fair; at other times the venue hosts other big events such as automotive fairs and a forthcoming Justin Bieber concert. Last year the FBF brought in 250,000 participants, a figure the organizers expect to rise to 280,000 in 2016.

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This year’s edition of the Frankfurt Book Fair is officially the 68th, but it traces its lineage much farther back to medieval times, when friars traded pages of illuminated Biblical manuscripts. There’s still a special section of the FBF devoted to the antiquarian trade, to which I gravitated naturally, being interested in all things ancient. Other than this parchment-heavy and leather-bound corner, the FBF dwells and thrives on nothing but new, newer, and newest—new books, new ideas, new authors, new media, new technologies, new markets, new connections, new networks.

Exhibits are grouped by geographic region, by language, and by theme, so one has to roam far and wide to get the full scale of things and to zero in on specific interests. Much of the business at Frankfurt, however, is pre-planned; with table space at a premium, publishers and agents would have emailed each other months or weeks in advance to set up meetings for specific dates and times in Frankfurt.

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The publishers of so-called “trade books”—novels, cookbooks, children’s books, etc. aimed at the general public—showcase their works to attract attention from international publishers and booksellers who may want to translate them into another language, or to sell the books on consignment in other countries. Academic publishers—this year we were represented by the UP Press, Ateneo de Manila University Press, and UST Press—negotiate among each other for reprint rights, which can make costly works more easily available to local readers.

Led by NBDB Chair Neni Sta. Romana-Cruz, the Philippines launched its exhibit with a reception at its booth on the fair’s formal opening on October 19, a well-attended event graced by Ambassador Melita Sta. Maria-Thomeczek (who was happy to recall that she had once been an employee in Rio Almario’s Adarna Books and had been a student of Rio’s wife Lyn at Maryknoll) and by First Secretary and Consul Cathy Rose Torres, who herself happens to be a prizewinning fictionist. The reception was catered by Maite Hontiveros, who laid out a scrumptious spread that featured lumpia, spoonfuls of adobo on rice, mango juice, and Philippine chocolate, which were clearly a hit among our foreign guests.

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Filipino books, of course, remained on top of the menu, and for the next week, we took turns at the booth to entertain visitors and book buyers from other countries, while occasionally slipping out to survey the vast array of exhibits and inevitably to marvel at the scope, vitality, and quality of global publishing in the 21st century. I came away even more convinced that culture is a global battleground, and that books are weapons—of mass instruction, if you will.

Next week, I’ll share the highlights of my conversations with key people at the book fair, and report on retracing Rizal’s footsteps in Heidelberg.

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Penman No. 196: A Frenchman in Jalajala

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Penman for Monday, April 18, 2016

 

I USUALLY ask my wife Beng to ride out with me on a day trip during the Holy Week break, and this year our destination was rather unusual, in that it never figures in the travel plans of Manileños, although it’s a short and pleasant drive from Quezon City or Ortigas. We took the scenic route from Diliman via Antipolo, Teresa, and Morong, and soon found ourselves following the lakeshore of Laguna de Bay on the peninsula of Jalajala, Rizal, described by the guidebook as “a fourth-class municipality with a population of 30,074 people.”

We were there on the trail of an extraordinary author and adventurer who, nearly two centuries ago, had lived in Jalajala, and had written about his sojourn in a book that had been a favorite of mine for 40 years.

The book was Paul Proust de la Gironiere’s Twenty Years in the Philippines (subsequently expanded under the title of Adventures of a Frenchman in the Philippines), and I had recently acquired a copy on eBay, all the way from the UK—the first English edition published by James and Henry Vizetelly, undated but very likely from 1853, a year ahead of the American edition published by Harper & Bros. in 1854. The copy was far from mint, but it was in its original binding and still very readable, and wonderfully illustrated with engravings of local scenes.

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Gironiere was an adventurer from France who came to the Philippines in 1819 in his early 20s as a ship’s surgeon and stayed on for the next two decades, establishing himself as a landlord and farmer in what today is Jalajala, Rizal. His travails begin shortly after his arrival on the ship Cultivateur, and his account of a massacre shows why his book is—in that awful word coined by book reviewers—“unputdownable”:

I had only resided a short time at Cavite when that terrible scourge, the cholera, broke out at Manilla, in September, 1820, and quickly ravaged the whole island. Within a few days of its first appearance the epidemic spread rapidly; the Indians succumbed by thousands; at all hours of the day and of the night the streets were crowded with the dead-carts. Next to the fright occasioned by the epidemic, quickly succeeded rage and despair. The Indians said, one to another, that the strangers poisoned the rivers and the fountains, in order to destroy the native population and possess themselves of the Philippines.

On the 9th October, 1820 … a dreadful massacre commenced at Manilla and at Cavite…Almost all the French who resided at Manilla were slain, and their houses pillaged and destroyed. The carnage only ceased when there were no longer any victims. 

…Four hundred Indians surrounded me; the only way of dealing with them was by audacity. I said in Tagaloc to the Indian who had attempted to stab the captain: “You are a scoundrel.” The Indian sprang towards me; he raised his arm: I struck him on the head with a cane which I held in my hand; he waited in astonishment for a moment, and then returned towards his companions to excite them. Daggers were drawn on every side; the crowd formed a circle around me, which gradually concentrated. Mysterious influence of the white man over his coloured brother! Of all these four hundred Indians, not one dared attack me the first; they all wished to strike together. Suddenly a native soldier, armed with a musket, broke through the crowd; he struck down my adversary, took away his dagger, and holding his musket by the bayonet end, he swung it round and round his head, thus enlarging the circle at first, and then dispersing a portion of my enemies. “Fly, sir!” said my liberator; “now that I am here, no one will touch a hair of your head.” In fact the crowd divided, and left me a free passage. I was saved, without knowing by whom, or for what reason, until the native soldier called after me: “You attended my wife who was sick, and you never asked payment of me. I now settle my debt.”

I had first read the book a long time ago, and kept my copy of Adventures, in a Filipiniana Book Guild edition reprinted locally in paperback by Burke-Miailhe in 1972, with a foreword by the eminent historian and economist Benito J. Legarda. In his foreword, Dr. Legarda says that Gironiere’s book was “probably the best seller among books about the Philippines in the 19th century,” noting that “What attracted the 19th century reader was of course the narration of several adventures, at that time considered unusual or bizarre. Among them may be enumerated the killing of man-eating crocodiles, the hunting of wild carabaos, the exploration of caves, the customs of pagan tribes, and the adventures of those caught in captivity by Moro pirates.”

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While granting that Gironiere’s accounts may have taken certain fanciful liberties, Legarda also considers the many real contributions the Frenchman made to his adopted soil, particularly as an agricultural pioneer who planted coffee, abaca, indigo, and rice on his 2,400-hectare estate in Jalajala, then part of Morong. Of Jalajala, Gironiere would write that it was “the greatest game preserve in the island: wild boars, deer, buffaloes, fowls, quail, snipe, pigeons of fifteen or twenty different varieties, parrots in short all sorts of birds abound in them.”

Gironiere returned to France in 1839, crushed by the deaths of his son, daughter, and wife, and he eventually remarried, and yet nothing, he said, “could induce me to forget my Indians, Jala-Jala, and my solitary excursions in the virgin forests. The society of men reared in extreme civilisation could not efface from my memory my past modest life.”

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Was there anything left of Gironiere’s vast estate? All I could find on the Internet was a marker put up by the National Historical Institute in 1978 on what presumably had been his property, so I resolved to find at least that. We were there on the Wednesday of Holy Week, so I knew I had to catch someone at the municipio before it closed for the half-day, and fortunately a kind gentleman from the agriculturist’s office recognized the marker and offered to lead us there. And a short drive later, there it was, on a lot in the shade of towering acacia trees.

Nothing else would have suggested Gironiere’s presence, except possibly a stump of bricks in a corner of the lot. Not too far away was the water’s edge, and the slim profile of Talim Island, which Gironiere would have seen out his window. I struggled to imagine this spot as the center of a visiting Frenchman’s adopted life and holdings, his pursuit of bats and lizards, crocodiles and gold dust.

I didn’t feel let down; I was looking at an empty stage, but I knew the play, and I could hear the lead actor’s parting words: “Overwhelmed by the weight of troubles and of the laborious works I had executed, there was only one wish to excite me, and that was, to see France again; and yet my recollections took me continually back to Jala-Jala. Poor little corner of the globe… where my best years were spent in a life of labour, of emotions, of happiness, and of bitterness! Poor Indians! who loved me so much! I was never to see you again! We were soon to be separated by the immensity of the ocean.”

Penman No. 181: A Designer on an Island

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Penman for Monday, January 4, 2016

 

 

ONE OF the side benefits of our recent visit to Bohol was an opportunity to reconnect with an old friend and professional colleague, the prizewinning book designer Felix Mago Miguel, who has chosen to live and work in Bohol for the past ten years with his wife Amel and their five children.

Beng and I had known Felix for a long time, since she saw and bought some of his paintings and gifted the then-newlyweds with her own painting and some plates by the potter Lanelle Abueva-Fernando. (“The plates are all gone now, because we used them and would break one every year,” said Amel apologetically, “but the painting’s still there!”) Felix and I had worked together, as writer and designer, on some coffee table book projects, notably those on Philippine-American relations, the Mt. Apo geothermal project, and the Government Service Insurance System. After my early collaborations with the late, lamented Nik Ricio, it was a relief and a pleasure to find the young and talented Felix, who has rightfully taken over Nik’s mantle as one of the country’s most sought-after book designers.

We invited the couple over to lunch at our hotel and we had a nice long chat about life, work, and what it’s like to keep on top of your profession from an island far from the country’s business and cultural center.

“Honestly, it hasn’t been all that difficult,” said the former Manileño. “In fact, I didn’t tell my clients for a whole year that I was working from Bohol because they might worry about my accessibility and meeting deadlines and so on. But with the help of the Internet and by scheduling my trips to Manila, I’ve been able to cope with the demands of the job. I use WeTransfer and Google Drive to move large files online, on my SmartBro account.”

Amelia Zubiri was born in Bohol, but also grew up and went to school in Manila, where she and Felix met in UP Diliman, where Felix was a Fine Arts major, graduating in 1992. They decided to move to Bohol to get away from Manila’s toxic atmosphere and to raise their children, now aged 16 to 7, in a healthier and more relaxed environment; all the children—the twins Ulan Kalipay and Ulap Namnama, Angin Kalinaw, Araw Naasi, and Langit Biyaya (the only one born on the island)—have been home-schooled. Deeply spiritual, the Miguels have learned to repose their trust in Providence, and their faith has been well placed.

When a huge earthquake devastated Bohol on October 15, 2013—just two weeks before supertyphoon Yolanda ravaged the Visayas—the Miguels and their one-storey home emerged shaken but unscathed, and they shared their good fortune by helping out with relief efforts. “The earthquake was a life-changer for many Boholanos,” Amel reflected. “It encouraged many Boholanos who had left for jobs overseas to come home and spend more time with their families. Seeing the new houses they had painstakingly built crushed in seconds seemed to remind them that nothing was more important than time together.”

Most of these OFWs work as seafarers, an occupation historically favored by Visayans. “It’s not uncommon for a Boholano family to have one or two seamen working on ocean-going vessels,” said Amel. “You can tell the houses that they build with their remittances by little design elements like anchors and portholes,” added Felix, smiling.

Felix Mago Miguel’s own journey to the crest of the book design business is a story of good breaks, sheer talent, and perseverance. Now 44, he started out in 1996 by designing Soledad Lacson-Locsin’s landmark translations of the Noli and Fili for Bookmark. “I’d done book covers before, but this was the first time that the publisher, Lori Tan, let me do everything from cover to cover,” said Felix. Later that same year, another book project, Water in the Ring of Fire: Folktales from the Asia-Pacific, edited by Carla M. Pacis, won for Felix his first design award from the National Book Awards. Since then, he has designed over a hundred books, some of them winning him recognition from the National Book Awards and the Gintong Aklat competition.

It isn’t the awards, however, that drives him to excel in his craft, but the satisfaction that he gets out of seeing a happy client. The project that has given him the most pleasure has been XYZ: The Creativity of Jaime Zobel, which drew on Zobel’s three decades of work in photography and art. “Don Jaime was so ecstatic about the book that he told me he needed to take a Valium to calm down,” recalled Felix. It’s that kind of reception that drives Felix to spend long nights staring at a computer screen, poring over one image after another.

The most technically challenging was Cuaresma, put together by Cora Alvina and edited by Gilda Cordero-Fernando and Fernando Zialcita, and winner of the National Book Award in 2000. “This was before digital photography, and I had to work with a huge box of color slides,” said Felix. But then again, “The technical aspects of book design are often easier to deal with than some people behind the books,” Felix confessed.

Like me, he’s had his share of good book projects that, for some reason or another, went nowhere. He did get paid for work done, as I was, but it’s such a waste of labor and good material when a project that seemed so promising never sees the light of day, because someone in the production process fails to deliver, or because the clients themselves lose interest or change their minds. Thankfully for Felix and me—as I wrote in this column a few weeks ago—coffee table books remain in high demand, and I expect to be working with him again on one or two forthcoming projects soon. One current project he’s excited about is a book on native Philippine trees that he’s doing for the Lopezes.

While he’s based in Tagbilaran, Felix flies out to Manila to personally check on his projects in the press. This used to be done abroad for high-quality printing jobs, but local printers have expanded and improved significantly enough to take on the challenge. “Our best local printers like House Printers can now compete head to head with their counterparts in Hong Kong and Singapore,” Felix said. (House Printers produced one of my most recent books, the biography of former Sen. Ed Angara.)

He misses painting, and spoke wistfully about the last big painting he did, a mural for the Church of Gesu on the Ateneo campus in Quezon City. But the children, the Miguels said, seem to be taking intuitively to art; Felix and Amel have monitored their time online to make sure that they can attend to more active and creative pursuits, and it may not be long before this couple’s decision to forsake Manila for a southern island bears fruit beyond more beautiful books.

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Penman No. 178: So You Want to Do a Coffee Table Book

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Penman for Monday, December 14, 2015

 

 

PEOPLE OFTEN ask me what it takes to produce a coffee table book. As a writer and editor, I’ve been involved with quite a few of them over the past twenty years. Just a couple of weeks ago, I was happy to attend the launch of one I co-wrote with Exie Abola and Felice Sta. Maria, Lighting the Second Century, produced for Meralco by the prizewinning Studio 5 group of publisher Marily Orosa.

While I suspect I know the answer, the first thing I tell anyone who asks me is, “What do you want a coffee table book for?”

Coffee table books are not cheap, running into the millions to produce—and, with few exceptions, they don’t make money for their publishers. So why even bother? Why does every year bring a plethora of new CTBs off the presses?

Many of those books don’t even come to market—they’re never meant to be sold or to make their investment back, and therein lies the reason for their existence: not to make money so much as to make an impression, not even to the general public but among a select group of readers, fellow connoisseurs, enthusiasts, and avatars of a certain thing or idea, to whom they can be given away as promotional material.

Because they’re generally not for-profit projects and because they require a sizable investment, CTBs are almost always conceived and funded by large institutions—corporations, foundations, universities, and the government—whose leaders have found some special reason to commission a CTB.

That reason is usually to commemorate and to celebrate an important milestone—the founding of an institution, the centenary of a founder, the completion of a major undertaking. CTBs can also be used to introduce or promote a new initiative—say, a province’s tourism program. Some CTBs may seem downright frivolous and extravagant, but many do serve a higher purpose beyond public relations, as visual records of our social and economic history,

But why a book, and why a coffee table book? Even and especially in this digital age—abounding with possibilities online and with new media—print still suggests permanence and prestige. The Web reaches far more people and is practically free, but many see it as an ephemeral medium, lacking the solidity and credibility of a book in the hand. For people and institutions seeking to perpetuate some shining moments and memories, the appeal and cachet of a CTB can be hard to resist.

CTBs are relatively new on the local publishing scene, and it wasn’t until the late 1970s when Gilda Cordero Fernando came out with such landmark tomes as Turn of the Century and A Question of Heroes that this new category of “desirable object” emerged. My own first exposure to CTBs was an epic challenge, when I edited the 10-volume Kasaysayan: The Story of the Filipino People for Readers’ Digest Asia in 1998, working with and learning from such legends as our editorial consultant, the late writer Doreen Fernandez, the late designer Nik Ricio, and our indefatigable project director, Tere Custodio.

Institutions usually go to PR or ad agencies for CTB projects, which are too complicated for in-house PR units to do all by themselves. They can also be put together and undertaken by people like me, Tere, or Marily who’ve had some experience in the work involved, but even I have to assemble a crew of first-rate professionals who can deliver good work on schedule.

CTBs are, first of all, conceptualized by the client in consultation with the writer or the PR specialists. While top management can and should give the marching orders early on—purpose, theme, scope, audience, treatment, budget—it’s best if a mid-level person with some understanding of media were designated to represent the client in dealings with the creatives, with full authority to streamline decisions and processes. (My worst nightmare would be to deal with a whole board of directors, each one of whom will be dipping into the editorial pie and making a general mess of things.)

Aside from the client, the CTB team will typically comprise the project director or manager; the head writer and his or her assistants; the executive editor; the book designer or art director; the photographer; and a production or editorial assistant in charge of logistics—handling money, setting up appointments, liaising with the client, following up the paperwork.

Many future problems can be solved right at the conceptualization stage. If the book’s purpose, scope, and audience are clear from the start, expensive adjustments can be avoided later on. Schedules, budgets, and deliverables have to be established and stipulated in a contract, leaving a little wiggle room for exigencies.

A CTB is picture-intensive, and will typically have a ratio of 60/40 or even 70/30 in terms of images to text. This means that there’s absolutely no excuse in a CTB for bad photography, bad design, and bad printing. If you can’t afford to come up with a good-looking product—never mind the text for the time being—then save your money and go for a regular, black-and-white book, not a CTB. Take note that a good designer could cost more than a good writer. (My pet peeves design-wise include designers who get too fancy with typography or insist on laying out text over an image, compromising readability.)

That said, showing off a well-designed book with awful text—poorly written and riddled with grammatical errors and misspellings—will be much like going to town with a date with the looks but also the brains of a lovebird (not that some people would mind). So invest in a good writer, one possessing a mastery not only of the language but also of the material, and with the patience and maturity to deal with both the client and his or her fellow creatives.

I’ve often found that the actual writing is the easiest and most pleasurable part of the job. Dealing with and interviewing clients can be quite stressful, and there’s a saturation point one reaches with almost any project, no matter how interesting it is.

Like any other book, CTBs also require sharp editors who can look over the writers’ shoulders. I never mind being edited myself, if the editor knows what he or she is doing. (If I don’t have the time to write the books myself, I’ll sometimes offer to do the editing.) CTBs, surprisingly enough, often reveal their lack of editorial oversight in their most visible and therefore vulnerable parts—in their titles, picture captions, and the front and back matter, which tend to be the last pieces of text to come in and are easily overlooked. I’ve seen expensive and glossy books with spelling errors on their title pages!

A good CTB should be a pleasure to read and to own. It should be a showcase of the art of good writing and good design. But above all, beyond being a plaything for creatives, it should do what it was meant to do—provide useful information in a visually engaging way. The best CTBs will retain their value over time and even become heirloom pieces on their own. That’s something worth keeping in mind next time somebody with more money than sense cries, “I want a coffee table book!”

 

 

Penman No. 165: Going for the Bestseller

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Penman for Monday, September 7, 2015

AUGUST AND SEPTEMBER are usually busy months in the cultural calendar, and this year’s been no exception. UMPIL—the Writers Union of the Philippines—held its annual conference toward the end of August, with the economist and columnist Solita “Winnie” Monsod delivering the customary Adrian Cristobal Lecture. On September 1st—perhaps the most important date on many a young Filipino writer’s calendar—the 65th Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for Literature were given out, with poetry titan Gemino “Jimmy” Abad arguing eloquently for the power of literary language to create its own reality.

In that same week, National Book Store, among other sponsors, put on the Philippine Literary Festival at the Raffles Hotel in Makati, headlined by visiting authors Matthew Quick and Meg Wolitzer. I went on a panel at that festival with my friends Krip Yuson and Jing Hidalgo, with Marivi Soliven as moderator, to talk about writing the novel. I was surprised to walk into a packed room at the Raffles, despite the fact that Meg Wolitzer was holding forth in another session at the same time.

Now, I’ll admit that I’d never read Meg before, although I’d read about her recent novel Belzhar. She was advertised as a bestselling author, as was Matthew Quick, who wrote The Silver Linings Playbook.

I overheard a mild complaint in the hallway to the effect that the NBDB should have invited the powerhouse cast of Pulitzer prizewinners that Manila festivalgoers have been used to seeing (I remember hosting a chat with the wonderfully encouraging Junot Diaz a few years ago). I didn’t have the time to stop and respond to that comment, but I would’ve said, ”Hey, no problem! There’s a lot we can learn about producing bestsellers! And bestsellers can and should be well-written, too!”

Indeed, in our panel on the novel, one of the recurrent themes that came up was that we Filipinos don’t write enough novels (“We’re world-class sprinters,” I noted, “but not marathoners”), at a time when the only thing international publishers are looking for are novels, which can lead to fat Hollywood contracts and all kinds of other spin-offs.

Toward the end of that discussion, in the Q&A, a young lady in the audience asked about what we (presumably the literary Establishment, going by our senior-citizen cards) thought of newer and less traditional routes to literary fame like Wattpad. Thankfully, I’d heard of Wattpad, and had even actually registered on the site a few months earlier out of curiosity, so I could peek into what was going on there. I knew that Wattpad was generating stories that were already being adapted into commercial movies, so it was more than another digital pastime. (For my fellow 60-somethings, Wattpad’s a website where people—usually very young people—upload stories of all kinds, typically love stories, vampire stories, science fiction, and fantasy.)

I told the questioner that while it was likely that much of the material on Wattpad wouldn’t come up to conventional literary standards, I didn’t see that as a problem. What was important was that—at some level and with little or no intervention from their elders—young people were writing and reading, and that can’t ever be a bad thing. Tastes mature and change, and even within those young-adult genres, truly good work is bound to emerge and be recognized and rewarded. And even mainstream literature itself would ultimately benefit from the spillover; as Shakespeare put it, “When the tide comes in, all the ships in the harbor rise.”

But beyond supporting what younger writers were doing, I brought up another pet theme of mine, which is that we older writers write way too serious (if not sometimes inaccessible) stuff, and have thereby separated ourselves from our potential readers. Creative writing has become way too academicized—produced in, for, and by formal writing programs, with little regard for what ordinary readers are really concerned about in their daily lives. In other words, while we seek to develop our readership, or work on the demand side, we should also work on the supply side by writing material of more popular appeal, with little or no reduction in quality.

This train of conversation ran on a couple of nights later at the Palancas, where I had a chance to chat at the sidelines with Graphic fiction editor Alma Anonas-Carpio and essayist Ferdie Pisigan-Jarin. (I don’t smoke—and I would urge everyone not to—but I happen to find people who smoke usually more interesting to chat with than those who don’t, so I usually join the smokers out on the patio of the Rigodon Ballroom at these Palanca dinners, especially when the program—with my apologies to the gracious hosts and the contest winners—goes on for too long.)

I told Ferdie that I suspected that, outside of school, young readers these days didn’t really care much about author’s reputations, or about what critics or other old people say about a work. Ferdie agreed. “We undertook a survey,” he said, “and we found out that what makes young readers decide to buy a book is what they can get of the story from the back cover. They can’t even leaf through the pages, because most books these days are shrink-wrapped.”

From Alma came the astounding news that one young Filipino writer, Marian Tee, was making a regular six-figure income from the Amazon sales of her e-book novels. Though based here, Marian writes dreamy romantic comedies set in places like Greece, with titles like The Werewolf Prince and How Not to Be Seduced by Billionaires, and with covers displaying a surfeit of naked male muscle. The female protagonist may be blond, swears Alma, but she’s really Sarah Geronimo in disguise.

I’m not saying that we should all write like Marian, because we probably couldn’t even if we wanted to. But it’s good to know that there’s someone among us who knows the market and can play the global game, because there’s a lot we can learn from her—in adaptability, in audacity, in humility, and in plain hard work.

I don’t think that literature as a fine art will ever be threatened (any more than it already is); there will always be authors who won’t mind being read by a precious few, and thankfully so, because these are the writers who will keep pushing the envelope of language and exploring uncommon sensibilities. For most other writers, or most other times, it’s worth keeping in mind that “bestseller” isn’t necessarily a bad word.

Penman No. 125: A Date with the Doctrina

1024x1024-1510204Penman for Monday, December 1, 2014

 

NO VISIT to Washington, DC would be complete without looking into the Library of Congress, which stands behind the US Capitol, perhaps in a symbolic juxtaposition of knowledge and power. The library was, in fact, originally lodged with the Congress, but had to be rebuilt when British troops sacked and burned the Capitol in 1814, starting with the wholesale purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection of almost 7,000 books for about $24,000.

The LOC has come a long way since then; Jefferson’s volumes are still on display, but they have been joined by 36 million more books, not to mention more than 120 million more non-book items such as photographs, manuscripts, recordings, and sheet music. It’s easily the world’s largest library, adding some 12,000 new items to its roster every day, largely because of the copyright registration process. According to the LOC, half of its collections are in languages other than English—about 480 languages all in all, including nearly 3 million items from Asia.

A simple search of the LOC collections shows that there are more than 40,000 items here related to the Philippines (including, should you want to hear it, a recording of William Howard Taft talking about the Philippines shortly before he became President in 1909). The LOC has early editions of Jose Rizal’s Noli and Fili, which, along with other important Rizaliana, were put on special display at the Asian Reading Room in 2011 to commemorate Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary.

Last week, thanks to the combined efforts of the Filipino-American community in Washington and former LOC librarian and Fil-Am activist Reme Grefalda, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the crown jewel of the LOC’s Philippine holdings—the only known copy in the world of the 1593 Doctrina Christiana, the first book published in the Philippines.

The Doctrina is essentially a catechism, a collection of common prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. Being basic prayer books, there had been other Doctrinas published earlier in other countries. The Philippine version was put together by Fray Juan de Plasencia, a Franciscan friar who helped found many Philippine towns, including Antipolo, Lucban, Meycauayan, and Tayabas. In 1585 he wrote King Philip II of Spain that he had already written several religious and scholarly books that could help spread the faith in the islands—including the Doctrina and studies of the Tagalog language—and asked for royal assistance in funding their publication.

But the good friar died in 1585, and it wouldn’t be until some years later, in 1593, when we see Governor General Gomez Perez Dasmariñas writing the King to present him with copies of the Doctrina in two versions—Tagalog and Chinese—and to explain that he had granted a license for the printing of these books (under Dominican auspices) because of their great value to the evangelization effort. And then, so the story goes, all copies of the Doctrina vanish, until the Tagalog one reappears—presumably the royal copy—in Paris in 1946, where it’s bought by an American dealer, who then resells it along with many other books in a lot to the American book collector and onetime Sears Roebuck chairman Lessing J. Rosenwald (1891-1979), who then bequeaths his collection, including the Doctrina, to the Library of Congress upon his death.

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So the LOC’s copy, as far as we know, is the only one of its kind, and it was with great anticipation that Beng and I joined a group of ten Filipino and Filipino-American scholars and advocates who were kindly admitted by the LOC’s Rare Books Division to a private viewing of the Doctrina, with LOC librarian Eric Frazier doing the honors. (While waiting for our appointment, we had taken in a few of the LOC’s other prime offerings including the Gutenberg Bible, which is on permanent display near the stupendous main lobby that welcomes visitors, and the Magna Carta, on loan from the Lincoln Cathedral.)

I should’ve read up more on the Doctrina before we went up there, but I was surprised by two things I realized only when I saw the book up close: its relatively small size, and the fragility of its paper. It’s only about 9 by 7 inches, not much bigger than a contemporary textbook. It was a further surprise to hear Eric say that “As far as I know, among the millions of books we have at the LOC, this is the only one whose every page is sheathed in Mylar.”

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I had asked Eric about the condition of the book and the paper, having seen and even handled other books from the 1600s (many of which, printed on stout, crisp linen paper, look good as new, and have survived in much better shape than the acid-lined paper of the 1800s and 1900s). The Doctrina, as it turns out, was printed xylographically—like a woodblock with the letters carved out—on mulberry paper (other sources say rice paper, although that term may have covered other papers made from mashed material). I’m not a professional historian, so I stand to be corrected on these presumptive facts by people who know vastly more about the Doctrina Christiana and about the history of books than I do (two immediately come to mind, our foremost book historians: Dr. Von Totanes and Dr. May Jurilla).

It was with the greatest of care and respect that we flipped those pages, and we saw what generations of the faithful must have seen (that is, if they saw the book at all): a syllabary, followed by prayers and other articles of faith, presented in Spanish, Tagalog, and baybayin, that pre-Hispanic script that survives in our consciousness only in the Katipunan “ka.” What’s remarkable is how fundamentally familiar the text of the prayers is: “Aba guinoo Maria matoua cana, napopono ca nang gracia. ang panginoon dios, ce, nasayyo. Bucor cang pinagpala sa babaying lahat….”

And so it went, a cry of praise and supplication across the ages, come to life again at our trembling fingertips.

I can only hope that, perhaps through an arrangement with a responsible Philippine institution, the Doctrina can be brought back to the Philippines for a special exhibition (the forthcoming Papal visit would have been the perfect occasion), or at least that more Filipinos in the US could see it, along with the other Philippine holdings at the LOC. It does take time and effort to arrange for a viewing, but in the meanwhile, the full digital copy of the book, provided by the LOC, can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/knpzkn5. For more information on the Doctrina Christiana and this particular copy, see the notes of Project Gutenberg editor Edwin Wolf at http://tinyurl.com/p6uqlvr.