Bookish thoughts from the Philippines
In the second post in The View from Here series on literature from around the world, we travel to the Philippines with the help of Angus who blogs at Book Rhapsody.
Let’s meet Angus
Mabuhay! I was born and I still live here in the Philippines. Hence, I am a Filipino. I am currently in Mandaluyong, which is part of Manila, the country’s capital. I am a technical writer for a software company whose headquarters is located in Atlanta, Georgia. I have to stress that my work has nothing to do with the literary world because I mainly write end user manuals for the various products of our company. It’s not something that one would read for leisure or would put in a regular book blog. Book Rhapsody, focuses on a lot of things. I love award winners and book lists, so you’d find books that are winners of major book awards and that are often included in big book lists. I have a fixed set of awards and lists that I am following (e.g., Booker, Time Magazine’s All Time 100 Novels, etc.). I also have a lifelong project of reading at least one work from each Nobel laureate in Literature.
Q. What kinds of books are the most popular right now in the Philippines?
Young adult fiction is popular among Filipino readers. There is a strong John Green following here in the country. I have also noticed that Filipinos enjoy following series of books, such as the following: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, Twilight, and A Song of Ice and Fire.
Other popular kinds of books are chic lit, romance, and graphic novels. Nicholas Sparks leads the pack, but there are a number of local authors who are into these kinds of books. Other popular international authors in the country are Paulo Coelho, Haruki Murakami, and Neil Gaiman. Currently, there is a strong buzz on the latter’s recent novel, The Ocean at the End of the Lane.
My friends mostly prefer to read books from other parts of the world. This does not mean that we don’t support our local authors. It’s just that there are more choices in the international scene than here in the local arena. Other Filipinos might attribute this to what is popularly known here as colonial mentality. Who could blame us? We were colonized by the Spanish, the Americans, and the Japanese.
Seriously, a reader’s book choice shouldn’t make him less of anything. If it’s any consolation, our book club is trying the best to keep our local literature alive by assigning at least one book of the month that is dedicated to local authors for the year. And we also have the fledgling Reader’s Choice Awards, where Filipino readers get to pick the best books published by local writers.
Q. How do you and your friends prefer to acquire books?
Mainly, Filipinos go for the regular book stores. I know a lot of people who also go online shopping, usually at The Book Depository due to the free shipping. But if the books are available in local book stores, they’d go there and buy those books. The major book stores here are National Book Store and Fully Booked. There’s also Power Books and NBS Best Sellers, of which both are under the family of the former. And then there is Book Sale. This is a chain of book stores that sell second hand books. So yes, there is a strong tradition of second hand books here. Most of my book hoards are from different branches of Book Sale.
There aren’t a lot of brick and mortar type shops here in the country. In fact, there is one that closed and resorted to online selling. I even have a feeling that the owners of these shops get their stocks from Book Sale. There is a conspiracy theory going on about it, but since it is not really proven, I refuse to say more on it.
Q. What books do you remember having to study in school that could be considered classics of Filipino literature
High school students are required to read two books, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo. These are originally written in Spanish and are taught to Filipino students in our local language. These are penned by Dr. Jose Rizal, our national hero. It is known to every Filipino that these novels were the catalysts in staging the Philippine Revolution against the Spanish colonizers during the end of the 19th century. It could be said that every Filipino owes his freedom thanks to these two novels.
The novels, taken respectively in junior and senior high, give us a view of the Philippine society during the Spanish regime. It is related there how Filipinos were repressed of their rights by the abusive Spanish friars. These books are very political and patriotic, and every nationalistic Filipino must have sentimental spots for these two.
Q. What are some of the common themes or concerns for writers from the Philippines?
A common theme is the Filipino immigrant experience. This stems from the fact that many Filipinos go overseas in search of greener pastures, not only to support themselves but more so to support their whole families. The culture clash, the necessary adjustments, the separation from loved ones, and such similar themes are all taken into account.
Poverty and corruption are two more common themes. The short stories that we studied during high school all have these in common. It seems that they are inseparable. If you really want to know, there is an ongoing high profile case against a national politician who swindled our tax money for personal use. I could say that the literature that is being taught and read here in the country is relevant to the times.
In terms of style, Filipino writers tend to use highfaluting words that not even American or English writers use. One is bound to find obscure synonyms to average words when reading a book written by a Filipino author. In some ways, it’s similar to Indian writers. One is able to gather the author’s nationality through diction.
Q. What recommendations would you have for readers who want to discover books written by Filipino authors?
Popular choices would be Jessica Hagedorn, Lysley Tenorio, and Miguel Syjuco. They all write in English, and the latter has garnered international fame when he won the Man Asian Literary Prize in 2008 for his novel Ilustrado. All of them are Filipino immigrants writing something about how it is to be a Filipino elsewhere.
I’d also like to recommend the local giant F. Sionil Jose on the sole basis of his strong literary foundation and his wide array of works. I am happy to note that he’s been making it in the lower end of the Ladbrokes’s betting list during the Nobel season. I heard that his works have been translated elsewhere, but I have no idea because I only see the local editions of his novels. He also writes primarily in English.
Q. And finally …. how well do writers from other parts of the world portray the Philippines in their novels?
I have read novels written by Filipino immigrants, but I have yet to read a novel written by a non-Filipino. Recently, there was a great furor when Dan Brown described Manila as the gates of hell. There was a local official who wrote him a letter, and the author replied that he’ll be looking forward to his trip to Boracay. Well, Boracay is definitely not the gates of hell. It’s an island with a strip of white beach filled with fine and powdery sand. It’s a top tourist spot here. But Manila? Well, it is close to the gates of hell, especially during the rush hour. The heavy traffic, the heat, the pollution, oh well. I really can’t blame Brown’s description. But that’s just one part of Manila. He must see the other parts for him to reconsider. Besides, Inferno is a work of fiction. His description of Manila doesn’t have to be derogatory.
- Interview with Jessica Hagedorn in The Independent June 2013
- Feature on Lysley Tenorio
- You Tube video on Miguel Syjuco
8 thoughts on “Bookish thoughts from the Philippines”
Thank you for these recommendations, I’d like to read some acclaimed books by Filipino authors. I moved to Davao this year and I’m always happy to see kids in the book stores checking out the likes of Neil Gaiman – the creative imaginations of the next generation are assured. But the lack of decent libraries is a shame.
I know foreigners like to complain about any aspect of other countries that’s different to their own, but for me, libraries are a big thing. As spoiled as that sounds, in the UK I’d always have a small stack of library books that changed every few weeks (a couple of novels, short stories, something about the brain or philosophy…), it was one of life’s pleasures and I hope Filipino kids have similar availability to good books. Maybe ebooks will make it easier as the technology gets more popular and affordable.
Im a fan of libraries too Dave – what is happening to them in the UK now is scandalous. My local council is surveying users as part of a review of the library service. The survey doesn’t contain a single question about books. Instead we get questions about whether we would use the library more if it had a cafe and sold stamps. But at least the service does exist and we have what people in other countries would relish as you say.
As for e readers, there has been so much talk about their negative impact on bricks and mortar booksellers but not much about how they could democratise reading by giving people an easier way to access.
Thank you for such a thoughtful comment
Lovely interview. Headed off now to Book Rhapsody
The thanks are due really to the writer – Angus. And yes Book Rhapsody is a good blog ..hope you enjoy it
Wonderful Angus. A great addition Karen. Angus, I also like books from lists and prize winners if only because it helps me filter out books. I’m very rarely disappointed by a National Book Award winner or a Booker. But I don’t venture out too far into international waters. I’m trying with Europa editions, but even there I seem to keep reading American and European writers. How little we know about some parts of the world.Never heard of the Filipino writers you mention.
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Thank you so much for this. I am deeply humbled, and although this isn’t a definitive insight on the Philippine literary scene, I hope it could offer a glimpse that would widen one’s perspective of world literature. 🙂
Definitive or not, you’ve given us insight that we wouldn’t get from other sources