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Novel intentions |


Novel intentions

Don Jaucian - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - For the fourth issue of the “occasional” magazine, Manila Envelope, publisher and ad man David Guerrero and editor Jessica Zafra originally set out to compile a sampling of the works of young Filipino novelists. But the issue took three years to make and some of the authors grew out of the “young” category.

“We didn’t say ‘young’ anymore,” Guerrero explains. “Some of them are young. It was gonna be ‘young’ but with the delay they started getting older and older so we though we better make it ‘contemporary.’”

Manila Envelope 4: The Best of Contemporary Filipino Novelists collects works from 13 Filipino authors such as Miguel Syjuco, Dean Francis Alfar, Lakambini Sitoy and Gina Apostol. Some of the works sampled in the issue have already been published as novels, such as Apostol’s The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, R. Zamora Linmark’s Leche, and Katrina Tuvera’s The Jupiter Effect. Still, it’s great to read a magazine that gives you a glimpse on the state of novels in the country.

Novels are quite a rarity in local publishing. While classic works of Nick Joaquin, F. Sionil Jose, and Jose Rizal are present in bookstores, most of the contemporary works today are short story and poetry collections: perhaps the most lucrative forms on the local literary scene.

“Too much work magnobela,” a young writer tells me when I asked him about the state of novels in the country. There’s the issue of juggling your day job with finishing your novel, monetary compensation, and the industry’s encouragement. Judging by the books published locally, essay collections, poetry and other forms of non-fiction bring more money to the table than novels.

Recently though, more novels penned by Filipinos are making their way to bookstores. There’s Miguel Syjuco’s Ilustrado, which got published after it won the prestigious Man Asia Literary Prize, Charlson Ong’s Blue Angel, White Shadow, Lourd de Veyra’s Super Panalo Sounds, and the aforementioned books by Apostol, Tuvera and Linmark.

 ME4 gives us a sampling of the spectrum beyond short stories. These tales range from stories of Filipinos transplanted to different parts of the world (Syjuco’s “The Terrorists Have Already Won,” and Bino A. Realuyo’s “With Love, Sandra, Queen of Fish Sauce), homegrown struggles (Vicente Garcia Groyon’s “Sky Over Dimas,” and Angelo Lacuesta’s “Mabini”) to grotesque ventures into the fantastic (Alfar’s “Remembrance”).

We sat down with Manila Envelope’s David Guerrero and talked about country’s literary scene, introducing Manila to an international audience, and using literature as a tourism tool.

SUPREME: What was the original intention when you first released Manila Envelope?

DAVID GUERRERO: Originally, it was just to explain something about the country to people who haven’t been here so the first one we made specifically to be distributed at the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity. It was something that was brought there to give other people from around the world some background about the Philippines because a lot of people didn’t know much. Now, I think the situation’s different, now people know a little bit more but maybe they don’t know too much about the writing. Now, the intention is not really so much for that one narrow audience but more of a general audience; perhaps trying to appeal more to the literary types in various parts of the world.

Why decide on sampling Filipino novelists for the fourth issue?

It felt like an important thing to do, to collect some of these modern storytellers together in one place. It feels like it helps with the understanding and definition of the culture. I think it’s quite a satisfying collection to put together. It feels it could be quite a useful guide and there are other compilations that have come before and that will come afterwards but it’s just the particular focus that we thought was needed.

All the issues of Manila Envelope have distinct designs. What was the idea behind the smartphone design for ME4?

I think this was partly brought about by the fact that we’ve always been the text-heavy users in the world and now we’re among the more active smartphone users. It’s something of an obsession, it is everywhere in the world but it’s here as well and people walk down the streets looking at their phones and there are all sorts of jokes about it so we thought it would be interesting to adopt that look and get people to think there are other things that they could be reading other than status updates and tweets, something maybe a little bit longer and more satisfying.

In Manila Envelope 4, many of the writers are based overseas. What do you think does this say about our literary scene?

It’s interesting. They do say it’s very hard to earn a living as a novelist. I had the privilege (of meeting) F. Sionil Jose sometime back and he said very, very few people can make a living in writing. So perhaps it’s a common trait for some of them, (they) need to go abroad, to find a place where they can write or support themselves by their writing whether it’s with an academic position or some kind of related work that they can do. It seems to be quite hard here so that’s one thing. And perhaps there is a sense in which people who write do take an external validation seriously, someone like Miguel Syjuco who won the Man Asia Literary Prize, it has instantly gained some recognition (for his work). As a nation of readers, people do look to see how some of our authors have been received overseas as well. But that’s something that could change in the future.

What do you think is the difference between the classic Filipino novels and the contemporary ones?

I think with both Jessica (Hagedorn) and Chuck Syjuco, you can see the influence of the exile, or the expat novelists. I’ve read Zack Linmark’s book and lots of others and quite a few of the published novelists do seem to talk a lot about that exile experience, especially in the US. So that seems to be a new dimension to the work that hasn’t been there before. I think that’s a reflection of how being Filipino doesn’t necessarily mean being based in the Philippines anymore and I think there’s a substantial overseas culture and it’s coming through very strongly. I’m sure people will read this and think “Why aren’t there more locally based authors?” And that probably comes back to the same issue of people not being able to support themselves while they do it.

Since your ad agency, BBDO-Guerrero, worked on the Department of Tourism’s “It’s More Fun in the Philippines” campaign, how do you think literature can be a powerful role in promoting a country?

I think this is something that Tourism Secretary Mon Jimenez is quite keen on doing, emphasizing the cultural richness of the country. That’s really at the core of our campaign anyway, it isn’t just the spectacle of the country, it’s the culture that will draw you in and keep you here and make you want to come back. It’s the culture that you experience when you come here. So I think the more that we can promote an understanding, the more that people will find it fascinating and tempting to come here. Literature isn’t an obedient art. People will write about what they want to write about and there are stories of all kinds that can come out. So I think we can only talk about giving people a bigger picture to make them understand more, make them want to experience, but we can’t tell people to write only positive stories; they have to write what they want to write about, what they know.

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Manila Envelope 4: Best of Contemporary Filipino Novelists will be available soon in bookstores. A special edition (P799) will also be available. Contact for inquiries.

Tweet the author @donutjaucian

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