Writing in the time of hip-hop and Harry Potter

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[Editor's note: Any views expressed in this piece are solely the author's.]

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines) — If writing is an act of rebellion against tyranny and at times — even against one’s self, how can it survive in a market monopolized by mass-commercial fiction?

“The world of publishing is absolutely dominated by international bestsellers like Harry Potter and Twilight,” said Vittachi Nury, Chairperson of the Asia Pacific Writers and Translators (APWT), during the group’s annual conference at the University of the Philippines in Diliman on October 22 (Thursday).

A novelist himself, Nury said that while the market is growing in Asia, it is underserved with great writing. But the good news is that e-books are becoming massively popular in Asia, he added, giving fiction authors a chance to market their works across different platforms.

“E-books are adding a wonderful opportunity for writers,” said Nury, who pointed out that Apple’s iBooks app is gaining one million users a day.

Filipino author and APWT Director Butch Dalisay also said that while the Philippines has one of the region’s richest concentrations of writers producing work in English and local languages, these writers are often not read.

In a country of 100 million people, Dalisay said that the first printing for a novel would likely run to no more 1,000 copies, which will take a year to sell, and earn the author a maximum of about P50,000 (US$1,000). He added that, Filipinos won’t just buy books that cost higher than the daily minimum wage.

Blind infatuation?

And with an audience “blindly infatuated with Hollywood, hip-hop, and Harry Potter,” this Western-oriented mindset of the middle class Filipino has largely limited the audience of some of the most talented writers in the country.

“As I often remind my fellow Filipino writers, our rivals on the bookshelves are not each other, but J. K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, E. L. James, Paulo Coelho, and Tom Clancy,” sayid Dalisay, who has published more than 25 books himself.

This, he added, is a sad fact for a country that has such a “fertile ground for a literature of dissidence and resistance,” with Filipinos having struggled against colonizers, oligarchs, despots, and corrupt leaders. 

Writers here freely write about politics or love, according to Dalisay, but have yet to break through to the international market.

“It sometimes takes the international spotlight for local readers to take notice of native genius. It sounds like wishful thinking, but by connecting our literature to yours, we might do enough together to push our literatures to the forefront of our peoples’ consciousness,” he said to an audience of over 150 writers from Asia and around the world.

But at the same time, it can be argued that publishers often prefer outsiders, who possess that sense of otherness and a perspective that lays out the complexities of ideas of identity and belonging, against the history and culture of place that is not their own.

Taking the good with the bad

U.K.-based writer and journalist Tom Sykes, who is working on an autobiographical travelogue “Blood is Thicker in Manila,” said that there are dangers of writing about a foreign place.

“Western writers tend to dwell on negative aspects. It sells books, it's sensational to write about crime and prostitution…but you have to be honest and accurate as an outsider writing about a place. Write about the good and bad things,” he said.

Having been a travel writer for 10 years, Sykes uses a trope in travel writing called “shadowing,” where a writer references back to a previous writer who has written about a place.

He says there are writers like James McMicking, a Scottish merchant in the mid-19th century who dismissed Manila as a "morally backward" place because of the Spanish colonization and Catholicism that had taken root here. McMicking went as far as suggesting that another empire should take over in order to improve Philippine society.

Whereas there are writers like Nick Joaquin, who had written imaginative historical essays.

Sykes said writing in the shadow of Joaquin has led him to a greater understanding of his own travels in Manila, introducing him to the historical and socio-cultural aspects of this country.

He cites Joaquin’s collection of essays, “Language of the Streets,” published in the 1960s, which historicizes political and popular culture and extols Manila’s art and architecture, and upholds a sense of nationhood in post-colonial Philippines.

'Feeling one's way through a civilization'

Like Sykes, Hong Kong-based Neville Sarony, said it is ideal for writers to stay in a place for certain period of time, sort of “an outsider feeling his way through a civilization.”

“If you write from the inside, even as you write as an outsider, you don’t get criticized,” said Sarony, who has written “The Dharma Expedient,” an adventure novel set in the mountains of Nepal during his stay there as a British officer.

Non-Asian writers like Sykes and Sarony have enjoyed some literary success due to their immersion in Asia.  But it is often not the case for Asian writers who work and sell their stories in Western markets. As it is, sheer market forces have largely marginalized local writers seeking international audience. But it is exploring these unfamiliar territories or taking risks that make writing what it is a thrust into the unknown, and as Dalisay puts it, a going against the grain.