Recognition or Oblivion
I wish to congratulate my good friend,
Joel H. Vega, whose book, Drift, was awarded the Philippine
National Book Award for Poetry in English for 2019. My own book, How
to Make a Salagubang Helicopter & other poems, was the
In previous years two other books of
mine were recognized as finalists by the National Book Development
Board: Baha-bahagdang Karupukan (poetry in Filipino) and Sanga
sa Basang Lupa at iba pang kuwento (short stories in Filipino).
There are many books published every
year in the Philippines. I’m grateful that the NBDB has seen my
work worthy of being noticed multiple times.
I think it is an interesting exercise,
these awards. They aim to spread literacy and book appreciation. They
could be seen as stepping stones to bigger things. More book deals
for the author, maybe an increase in sales.
But in a way, these awards could be
misleading. They could also act as a type of gatekeeping. Will those
books that never got noticed by the gatekeepers be “forgotten” or
will the readers who admire such books make certain they are not left
out, that they are actually read and appreciated.
Who chooses – who are these
gatekeepers – and what is the process of their selection? More so,
if funds spent on these awards are public funds, surely the public –
perhaps as represented by librarians in schools and universities –
should have some say?
I am posing these questions after
having read how the National Book Awards in the US is conducted.
At the same time, I am not totally
ignorant of the absence of libraries in public places in the
Philippines. The biggest libraries are in exclusive universities –
for the children of the elite – and in some properly functioning
public universities. There is no actual nationwide library system.
Public education has made sure of a highly literate, though
impoverished, population. This literacy has been useful in getting
employment locally through call centers in the cities and through
many positions of service outside the country.
I grew up speaking Filipino. English
is not my mother tongue. My mother and father grew up speaking
Ilocano and Tagalog/Filipino, and perhaps one other local language.
English came to me through public school and Sesame Street. Books
came much later, years after I consumed local comic books from a
stand in a wet market on the walk back home of a good few kilometers.
In my youth, I had no experience of
what it’s like reading books that weren’t required at school. The
so-called library at the public school I went to had stuffed animals
instead of real books.
I would like to be surprised by being
told that the situation is much different now compared to decades
ago, that there is now a public library at every barangay.
The first library I entered and was
able to use was in a Jesuit-run high school. I was lucky enough to
receive a financial scholarship through the singular efforts and
kindness of an Irish American, the late Fr. James O’Brien. He also
shared his love of learning to hundreds of young, less privileged
students like me. He taught us English through stories and poetry,
while making clear that it was to be used so we could stand up for
ourselves among those who considered the local languages inferior. He
spoke excellent Filipino and Bicolano.
That library – and later the
university library and the British Council library in Manila –
became a kind of refuge for me. They felt more holy than all the
churches and chapels that dotted the country.
So where to start with spreading a
wider appreciation of books in the Philippines? I’m not saying
ditch these awards. They are one way, though perhaps quite flawed, of
leading possible readers to discover an author or a book.
In order to truly expand the
appreciation of books, there would have to be a healthy reading
public. You cannot force people to read, but you should provide them
with libraries where they can experience for themselves the joys of
The National Book Development Board,
with the help of the Department of Education, should work towards
building a national public library network. These libraries could be
initially stocked with the literary output of Filipino authors
published by established publishers as well as by smaller independent
publishers, even brave authors who self-publish work that might not
seem “easily marketable” by a publishing house. They should fill
these libraries with books in as many Philippine languages as
possible. Translations of international work to the local languages
should be encouraged and funded. After that, instead of spending
public funds, they should welcome donations of international titles.
What then of the existing structures
for these awards? I’m an outsider, to be honest. Always have been.
Perhaps I’m a little sore that my work has only been partly
recognized again by the gatekeepers.
A few years back I released a poetry
book – Alien to Any Skin (UST Publishing House, 2011) –
alongside the shortlisted Baha-bahagdang Karupukan. I was
deeply disappointed that Alien to Any Skin was not even
shortlisted, though thankful that the other book was. It was a very
special paper child, Alien, if I may say so. There, I’ve
said it now.
How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter
& other poems is an altogether different book, but no less
special. It is a book that demands a readership and recognition now,
not just because of the poetry, but also because of the pertinent
issues it challenges the reader to face: bullying, violence, and,
more particularly, the deadly consequences of the fake war on drugs
by the Duterte regime. It also contains poems that have little to do
with such issues, and more about a search for a common humanity.
These days the Philippines is ground
zero for social media misinformation. The basic literacy that
Filipinos received through the public school system is what has made
them vulnerable to the lies that the current regime uses to block
I hope that my book won’t be left in
the halls of oblivion. I want it to one day be read, sooner rather
than later, by more critical thinking readers.
How to Make a Salagubang Helicopter
& other poems is widely available in both independent and
chain book stores in the Philippines or through the Facebook page or
website of San Anselmo Publications. A Kindle edition is also
available on Amazon.