I want to know the story so far: Eight Filipino fictionists everyone should read

SENSES WORKING OVERTIME - Luis Katigbak (The Philippine Star) - March 1, 2013 - 12:00am

As my vision continues to deteriorate (watch your blood sugar, kids), I come to appreciate more and more the wondrous and irreplaceable act of reading. Of course the primary purpose of reading for me has always been pleasure, and I will never judge someone for their penchant for vampire fiction or pointless postmodernism (that was a lie; I’m totally judging you) — still, there are authors I feel strongly about, authors I feel everyone should try regardless of their presence, or lack thereof, on the bestseller lists or in the hearts of self-appointed literati. Here are eight Filipino fictionists worth your time (and/or the last dwindling vestiges of your remaining eyesight, should you be suffering from diabetic retinopathy).

Paz Marquez Benitez

Two words: “Dead Stars.” Hailed as the first Filipino modern English-language short story, its historical significance is considerable, but perhaps even more relevant is the fact that it is still a great read: graceful and heartbreaking and uncloyingly wise. Not bad for a story that dates back to 1925.

START HERE: Not much by Paz Marquez Benitez is available, to my knowledge. So read “Dead Stars” (it’s online), then move on to “A Night in the Hills.” (There’s also a biography, that came out in 1995.)

Nick Joaquin

You’ve probably already read Nick Joaquin — “May Day Eve,” if nothing else. (One of my English teachers once said she wanted to print out “May Day Eve” multiple times and wallpaper her room with it.) If you haven’t, you’re missing out on a breathtakingly acrobatic (yet never less than appropriate) prose style, the keenest of wits, and a deep and savage understanding of the human heart.

START HERE: If you encounter it at the right time, The Woman Who Had Two Navels is one of the most vivid, unusual, and affecting books you will ever read.

Kerima Polotan Tuvera

No one else writes with such unflinching eloquence of pain. I read The Hand of the Enemy when I was growing up, and loved it; it was a favorite novel among several members of our extended family, and it took me a while to realize that it was not as well-known as, say, the Noli Me Tangere. It should be better known than it is. The author wrote, in an introduction to one of her books: “Life, I am happy to say, has spared me nothing and I have, in turn, given it no quarter. Life scars the writer but he is not without weapons of vengeance.” In other words, she kicked ass.

START HERE: The Hand of the Enemy, if you like novels. Stories, if you prefer short stories.

Gregorio Brillantes

As Mara Coson once wrote, “He is the first two syllables of his surname.” Brillantes is, quite simply, our greatest living writer, and his stories — dense with ideas and emotions and hardboiled imagination, as well as titles that would put Fiona Apple to shame — are not to be missed.

START HERE: On a Clear Day in November Shortly Before the Millennium: Stories for a Quarter Century

Jose y. Dalisay Jr

This is the man who won so many Palanca Awards that they had to rewrite the rules to give other people a chance, or so the legend goes. Awards aside, “Butch” Dalisay writes with unparalleled expertise, about the small human moments that happen in the implacable shadow of history: about ex-revolutionaries, short order cooks, scriptwriters, gamblers, lovers, the lost, the damaged, the hopeful, the doomed.

START HERE: Any of the short story collections are great, but perhaps Penmanship and Other Stories is the best start for first-timers.

Gina Apostol

Apostol’s writing is marked by a fierce intelligence, uncommonly delicious language, wicked observations, and a dark undercurrent of humor. As others have observed, she is a master at delineating the personal and the political, and how they are inextricably intertwined. Also — and this is no small compliment — she seems incapable of writing an unimpressive sentence.

START HERE: Bibliolepsy, her first novel, features a strange childhood, sex with writers, and the EDSA revolution.

Angelo Rodriguez Lacuesta

Angelo “Sarge” Lacuesta makes it look easy, but any discerning reader can tell how much storytelling sorcery is involved in the creation of his incredibly accomplished fiction. His characters  — fully three-dimensional, fully inhabited — range across all the social strata, and the experiences he gives the reader span past, present and even a deftly imagined future Philippines.

START HERE: With White Elephants, or really, any of his three short story collections so far.

Fh Batacan

Best known as a writer of crime and mystery fiction — her novel, Smaller and Smaller Circles, was a murder mystery, as well as the winner of the Grand Prize for the Novel in English at the 1999 Carlos Palance Literary Awards — Batacan, affectionately known as “Ichi,” writes with great skill about a great range of material. Her stories are so good they make other writers want to kick themselves (I speak from experience).

START HERE: Smaller and Smaller Circles, yes, but also seek out the short stories that have been featured in various anthologies, like Gemino Abad’s Hoard of Thunder.

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Recommended listening

Fiction by The xx, Everyday I Write the Book by Elvis Costello, The Story So Far by Outerhope.


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