LITERATURE

Why Filipino reading culture is heavily influenced by our colonial past

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This reader found it essential to escape the Western literary canon, and instead, take a deep dive into stories offered by literature from all over Asia.

The one Filipino-written book I read last year was “Dwellers” by Eliza Victoria. The book is about two cousins who are “dwellers,” which means that they can reside over another body that they choose. I remember thinking two things while reading: First, what a concept. Second, I would never want to do that.

I was raised speaking English, and growing up, I consumed art and pop culture that was predominantly Western and white. I was secretly proud of my niche interests in American culture, like listening to Fiona Apple or The National back when most of my peers weren’t, and of the breadth of my knowledge when it came to Western philosophy and art movements. A painting enthusiast, I like that I could tell famous romanticists apart based on the subject matter and their use of color. I liked that I had my own favorite style of still life paintings, vanitas with a nautilus cup. I can still quote the first line of Plato’s Republic: “I went down yesterday to the Piraeus with Glaucon the son of Ariston, that I might offer up my prayers to the goddess.” These are parts of me that I cultivated without meaning to be a certain way..

In all these things, it was always the movement that was striking to me; the unhappiness with remaining still. Fiona Apple’s frenetic energy and anger, The National’s middle-age ennui, the way the light reflected off Aivazovky’s waves, or the almost violent shades of red in Goya’s paintings.

In 2020, a year that brought about a conscious turn towards listening to and supporting the voices of minorities, I confronted my unhappiness with stillness and felt the urge to expand my cultural consumption by reading more. Especially books written by people of color — particularly Asians.

I, found by a CliftonStrengths test to be an “Achiever,” started researching Asian fiction that I could consume. I found a 70-page Google document that had book recommendations from basically every country in Asia. I can’t tell you how many days I spent reading summaries, cataloguing and pruning my own to-read list. I dove headlong into Japanese literature: samurais and shipwrecks, then later, modern critiques on their culture and government. I read fantasy novels inspired by Chinese folklore.

I’d made it a hobby, after a while, to try and understand the East Asian alphabets that I was inundating myself with. Understanding a bit of Japanese and Korean came to a head when I discovered, not a book, but a performance of BTS singing the Korean version of the Japanese single “Like Pt. 2.” I felt wild as I picked up on the translations, moreso on the wordplay and rhymes that spanned the two languages. I found myself wanting to dive deep even more. Each finished piece of fiction I consumed felt like a badge of triumph.

The Valley of Despair

From exclusively reading American or European fiction, I ended up reading 10 books by Asians, 11 months into my year-long personal challenge.

And then I read “Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee.

It was a book my friends and I decided to read together. In our book club discussion, I described reading “Pachinko” as a warm bowl of sinigang after a trip abroad. Warm, comforting in its familiarity. When I recommended “Pachinko” to another friend, I used the same metaphor, and it was then that I realized how inaccurate it was. I wanted to feel that way about the book, but I was just projecting that yearning onto it. This was a novel written by a Korean-American woman about a Korean family’s life in the early 20th century. How the hell was that sinigang to me?

It brought me back to my final semester in college, when I signed up for a literature elective taught by Laurel Fantauzzo: “Contemporary Fiction of Filipinos Abroad.”

At that time, the novels and short story collections we read and discussed struck me as removed from myself; I felt that they weren’t written for me, but instead explained Filipino culture to an audience that didn’t know or understand it.

For example, “The Mango Bride” by Maria Victoria Vega Soliven-Blanco overexplained the class divide in Manila. Beverly Obejas, one of the main protagonists, works as a waitress who attends a fancy party in what I assumed was Forbes Park. The descriptions of the village, of the patrons’ wealth, of the culture disparity, struck me as heavy handed. The Tagalog phrases felt forced and unnatural. It’s been years since I’ve read it, but I remember clearly asking myself, is this kind of narrative all there is?

I’d made it a hobby, after a while, to try and understand the East Asian alphabets that I was inundating myself with. Understanding a bit of Japanese and Korean came to a head when I discovered, not a book, but a performance of BTS singing the Korean version of the Japanese single “Like Pt. 2.”

Karina Bolasco, director of the Ateneo de Manila University Press, notes that Filipino reading culture is heavily influenced by our colonial past: “The literary canon in schools is still American, so we should not be surprised if the literary taste of most readers is American. For over a hundred years, reading (in the Philippines referred to) only reading in English.”

National Book Store, which continues to hold the lionshare of the Philippine book market, only started operations around 80 years ago. And even then, they sold textbooks and “GI novels” (novels whose primary audience were American soldiers stationed in the Philippines) up until the company opened its own publishing arm, Anvil, in 1990.

Perhaps my greatest hubris, then, as now, was thinking that I had nothing else to learn about the Philippines. Half of me abhors the admission in itself; a nation is, after all, an imagined community. There’s no real reason to twist myself into knots over our shared perception of the Philippines, fractal and scattered as it is. Despite this, the inherent politics of consumption should come as no surprise.

Still I felt bad about this all: I’m only one person, and I’m no literary critic. I just like reading books, learning new things about the world.

My own friends, who hadn’t read much Filipino-written literature either, cited different things: a lack of recommendations, a lack of interest, not knowing where to begin if not from dreary classics.

But elsewhere, the interest and appetite for Filipino books is strong, and continues to grow. I’d assumed that, like most of my social circles, people had just stopped reading. It was a relief to find out that the opposite is true, outside my echo chamber. The National Book Development Board of the Philippines (NBDB) conducts a survey every five years on readership in the Philippines. During the last one, the majority of survey respondents reported they were interested in reading Filipino-written books, and lamented the lack of Filipino writers for certain genres. According to NBDB: “For willingness to spend for books, the majority of the respondents (75.70%) are willing to spend at most ₱199 per book... almost the same for the amount respondents are willing to spend for a book published by a foreign publisher.”

Ani Rosa Almario, Vice President for Product Development of Adarna House, said their sales in 2020 indicate an increase in readership. “More and more teachers are using literature-based instruction, and more parents are buying books for their children.”

Sailing Home

Bolasco, who started and headed Anvil until 2016, pointed to the many Filipinos who self-publish and read original content on the platform for user-generated stories, Wattpad. “The publishing landscape is vibrant and diverse, with books being written not just in Filipino, but also in other Philippine languages. Publishing is no longer Manila-centric.”

RELATED: Our best Filipino books of 2020

I maintain that there is comfort in familiar themes: community, family, duty, and a smidge of repression mixed with the consequences of colonialism or World War II echoing through. Or maybe that’s just my taste in fiction and art in general.

I recently purchased a hand-printed linocut entitled “The Desire for a Distant Shore” by Danielle Isabela, a Filipina artist. Made after a monument in Italy by Leonardo Bistolfi, the art is of a woman looking out beyond the frame. I bought it because it spoke to me, spoke to a lifetime of looking out windows and daydreaming of lands beyond my own.

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Books noted:

“The Mango Bride” by Maria Victoria Vega Soliven-Blanco
“Pachinko” by Min Jin Lee
“Dwellers” by Eliza Victoria
“Shipwrecks” by Akira Yoshimura
“Tokyo Ueno Station” by Yu Miri
“The Vegetarian” by Han Kang
“The Poppy War” by R.F. Kuang
“The Empress of Salt and Fortune” by Nghi Vo