6 books that will help make sense of the Philippines now

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These are places to start when you want to learn more about the issues that the country currently faces.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If there’s one thing Trevor Noah and I agree on, it’s that we now live in a world where nuance is in short supply. The economy of ideas that runs on a currency of likes and shares forces us to make quick calls on issues, and the social nature of our networks can sometimes feel like quiet contemplation is tantamount to apathy.

As a reader and writer, I suffer from overstimulation. Where there used to be only a few items on my list of things to read about, there’s now a growing list I add to everyday — at different times of the day. It’s almost like a dam breaking. And as challenging as it is for me to read without being distracted and drowned in information, I think the call of the times is to buckle down and engage thoughtfully by educating ourselves first.

Now that we’ve been given multiple platforms to get our ideas heard, we should be able to ask better, more informed questions and widen the scope of our understanding of ourselves as Filipinos and human beings living in this planet.

We have to read, see films, talk to people, and experience life for that — but for some-time couch potatoes like me, books will have to suffice. I’m sharing a list of go-tos when nuance runs short. These are places to start when I think of the Philippines and the issues we currently face:

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“Bakwit: The Power of the Displaced” by Jose Jowel Canuday (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2009)

I never imagined the story of the evacuee or refugee to be central to life in the 21st century but here we are: Children born in Syria have come of age with childhoods spent in transit, trying to move away from violence only to be refused entry in safe countries or drowned at sea. On our shores, a mix of man-made and natural disasters have displaced communities and added a layer of precarity to the already difficult lives of the poor and oppressed. Jowel Canuday’s book captures the experience of the Bakwit and examines how they are able to define belonging despite being dispossessed. The power of his telling is in his skill as both journalist and anthropologist, one aiming to tell the truth and the other analyzing whose truth is told and why. This book should give us a sense of how to write history, practice solidarity, and work toward a less violent world.

Available at the Ateneo de Manila University Press

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“Tradition and Transformation: Studies on Cordillera Indigenous Culture” by June Prill-Brett, edited by Delfin Tolentino, Jr. (Cordillera Studies Center, 2015)

Two seemingly opposing ideas come to the fore in June Prill-Brett’s collection of articles spanning 25 years of her scholarship in the Cordilleras. She manages to transport readers into the inner circles of the ilis, giving them a front row view of how and why traditional political institutions function, while at the same time observing how these societies change over time. It’s a fascinating narrative that often surprises me because politics at the village level mimics that of the nation and there’s much to learn from the Igorots about independence, settling disputes, managing natural resources, and performing gender relations. Questions of federalism and the fate of indigenous peoples in the Philippines ought to explore the concept of legal pluralism practiced in many IP communities. The accounts in this book allow us to think about laws more broadly but also root them in the changing needs of communities. And isn’t that novel in this day and age? Laws that actually apply and serve the people?

Available at the Cordillera Studies Center - UP Baguio and Mt. Cloud Bookshop

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“Big Little Man: In Search of My Asian Self” by Alex Tizon (First Mariner Books, 2018)

Alex Tizon caused a stir in the Philippines and abroad when his Atlantic essay, “My Family’s Slave,” appeared online and became the most read digital piece of 2017. He touched a nerve when he wrote about Eudocia Tomas Pulido, a woman he described to be his family’s slave for 56 years. The essay appears as the final piece of this remarkable collection that has Tizon exploring what it means to be male and Asian in America. The book is a searing critique of American culture but also a powerful account of an Asian male’s reckoning and acceptance of his own skin. What makes his work important is the honesty he employs to unpack very difficult and complex truths that don’t come at the expense of bad writing or poor journalism. Tizon is a consummate writer for whom curiosity was not merely practiced as part of work but employed as a means to connect one human being to another.

Available at Fully Booked

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“The Embarrassment of Slavery: Controversies Over Bondage and Nationalism in the American Colonial Philippines” by Michael Salman (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2001)

Alex Tizon’s essay introduced me to the work of Michael Salman. A comment reacting to the article was made by a well-meaning but uninformed friend wanting to assert our national pride. He was convinced, having deeply internalized the struggles of Filipinos here and abroad, that slavery was not part of either Filipino culture or our history. Salman shows that nothing could be further from the truth, but he does it in a way that forces us to come to terms with our love-hate relationship with America. The result of some much needed soul-searching being a better understanding of how the nationalist narrative has been used to fight American colonialism while also cementing conditions that form the bedrock of slavery as we experience it today, among Filipinos. It’s an aptly titled book, but as anyone who’s been embarrassed before knows, it’s an experience we can draw lessons from.

Available at the Ateneo De Manila University Press

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“Barangay” by William Henry Scott (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1994)

Very few Filipinos know that shortly after martial law was declared in 1972, William Henry Scott was detained as a subversive communist sympathizer. The Yale undergrad who had a master’s degree from Columbia could have used his white privilege and gone back to the U.S. unscathed, but Scotty, perhaps owing to his UST doctorate and affection for a nation he had chosen as his own, rejected this and faced deportation. He gave a brilliant testimony and was exonerated. This book is just one out of many he’s written that contributes not only to the Igorot identity and their history of independence but more importantly to our own history as a nation. In “Barangay,” Scotty applies his astute scholarship and combs through 16th century  accounts of Spaniards to piece together an ethnography of the Philippines as it was encountered then. It’s a detailed book that speaks of our pre-Hispanic roots. I’m fond of it because it gives an honest sense of the elements of our culture that have either disappeared or stayed the same.

Available at the Ateneo de Manila University Press

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“Puki-Usap” by Liv Strömquist, translated to Filipino by Beverly W. Siy (Pride Press, Anvil Publishing, 2018)

Swedish comic artist and radio commentator, Liv Strömquist, finds an audience in the Philippines through Beverly Wico Siy’s bold Filipino translation of her work. Entitled, “Puki-Usap,” this book is an invitation for readers to engage the way women’s vaginas have shaped and been shaped by various dominant cultures. It’s an intelligent history of the female sex and the many discourses that have spawned on account of it. Among the locals who have searched far and wide for the book, it’s become a thing of pride to find branches of National Bookstore willing to display it along with other bestsellers. Blushing salesladies smile when shown its contents and thankfully, the narrative of shame is discussed in a colorful, accessible set of spreads complete with text indicative of the translator’s charming wit. I’ve seen many women and LGBTQ friends lugging this around and reading it, but what I really hope for are more male readers who can appreciate the narrative for what it is and perhaps realize that feminism and respect for women is a basic expansion of their capacity to be human.

Available at National Book Store