Random thoughts on the National Book Awards in the Philippines

In the Philippines, there is an annual event that authors look forward to – the National Book Awards. It is conducted by the Manila Critics Circle and the National Book Development Board. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the nominated books in the previous two years have been merged in the 2022 ceremonies.

These annual awards are worthy of support and praise as they recognize the value of Philippine writing and the vital role of the book industry in furthering literacy.

Full disclosure: my books of poetry and short fiction have been shortlisted a number of times in the past. Another book, Crocodiles in Belfast & other poems, was included in this year’s list. I write this piece as an outsider in the whole selection process. I am limited by physical distance and countless other circumstances. I dare to share my thoughts alone and do not represent any group or institution. These musings are not meant to offend. I therefore wish to hear what you think – each and all feedback will be much appreciated.

There are a few things that bothered me when I read through the selection process, which led me to pose the following questions.

Why do the publishers have to supply books for nomination? Shouldn’t the Manila Critics Circle and the NBDB show that they support local publishing by buying those books instead?

How many members of the Manila Critics Circle actually write book reviews to let readers know which books would be worth their while? Shouldn’t critics be critics who make their opinions and views public – ideally in accessible formats like journals and magazines (in print or online) – and not keep them behind closed doors during the annual selection process?

How many previous National Book Awards winning titles have eventually been read by the general population? Shouldn’t part of the nomination be the chance for the title to be listed among the Department of Education’s recommended books? Won’t it make sense for the National Book Development Board to raise funds to buy copies of the nominated books for dissemination to libraries around the country?

Apart from the pageantry of the annual awards, shouldn’t the NBDB push for a more just and fair distribution of and access to locally published books? Should it not dismantle the monopolistic hold on book distribution which is blatantly unfair to publishers who are not part of the behemoth that is the National Book Store and its sister publishing entities?

I had a look at how they conduct the selection process for the National Book Awards in the US as a point of comparison, knowing fully well they have a much robust and thriving book industry as well as a huge network of public libraries. I do not propose that the Manila Critics Circle and the NBDB make a complete overhaul of their selection process. It wouldn’t hurt to involve other interested parties such as librarians, the reading public, and others.

The NBDB could make a difference in the Philippines by funding the writing of book reviews and criticism. They could put up financial and logistical support for independent publishers in local and international book fairs. They could support self-publishing efforts to produce new and challenging work that mainstream publishers may not be keen to release. These are random suggestions and I am certain many more could be gathered from keen players in the Philippine book scene.

On an unrelated note… The return of the Marcoses to the highest political leadership of the country is tragic. The national elections were marred by disinformation, vote buying, and fraud. Highly dubious numbers during the supposed electronic transmission of the results point to an orchestrated manipulation, thus a disenfranchisement of the true sentiment of voters. These issues were widely reported by media and expressed by voters themselves online, but were largely swept aside by the Commission on Elections. A group of international election observers declared the process a failure, and the supposed winner as illegitimate.

The first few days of the new regime saw extravagant partying reminiscent of the excesses of the family before they were overthrown in a popular revolt in 1986.

About matangmanok

Jim Pascual Agustin writes and translates poetry. Sometimes he tries his hand at essays and stories. His latest book is BLOODRED DRAGONFLIES, published by Deep South in South Africa. Check out the official blog page for Bloodred Dragonflies. In 2011 the University of Santo Tomas Publishing House in Manila released BAHA-BAHAGDANG KARUPUKAN (poems in Filipino) and ALIEN TO ANY SKIN (poems in English). The same publisher released his most recent poetry collections SOUND BEFORE WATER and KALMOT NG PUSA SA TAGILIRAN. In 2015 a new poetry collection in English, A THOUSAND EYES was released. His first collection of short stories in Filipino, SANGA SA BASANG LUPA, was released in 2016. UK publisher The Onslaught Press launches his poetry collection, WINGS OF SMOKE, worldwide in February 2017. San Anselmo Publications released HOW TO MAKE A SALAGUBANG HELICOPTER & OTHER POEMS in 2019 followed by CROCODILES IN BELFAST & OTHER POEMS in 2020 - both books can be purchased through their Facebook page. View all posts by matangmanok

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