Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Animating Philippine Literature

Animating Philippine literature

PENMAN column item by Butch Dalisay

Monday, February 04 2008 (www.philstar.com)

I was in Singapore last week with poet Vim Nadera and publisher Karina Bolasco for a British Council-sponsored seminar on “Animating Literature: Bringing Texts to Life.” I like to think of myself as a pretty capable teacher of literature and language, but listening to the presentations of teaching experts like Prof. John Corbett of the University of Glasgow reminded me just how much there remains to be learned, and what an inexhaustible wonder literature is. Facing deadlines for other writing assignments having more to do with politics and economics, and still grappling with revisions to my own second novel, I remembered what I was a teacher of literature for, and why students everywhere could benefit from bringing literature into their lives, with a little help from their mentors.

I was asked to make a presentation on animating literature in the Philippines — an overview of what we’ve been doing to get literature off the printed page — and here, for posterity, are highlights of what we shared with our colleagues from Asia and the UK.

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There has always been something vital and interesting going on in Philippine literature, and much of it has taken place off the printed page. The problem emerges when we look at the sales of books — especially those of the kind that we want our students to read and make for good paper topics: in other words, the kind of literature you and I write and patronize. As a recent study by Prof. Patricia May Jurilla notes, “the readership of Filipino literary books is not at all very wide. It is usually limited to a small circle that includes authors themselves indeed but also academics, critics, teachers, and students.” Editions are very small, at a standard 1,000 copies for a print run — in a country of 90 million people, most of whom are at least nominally literate, many in English and/or Filipino. Sales are slow, taking at least two years for 1,000 copies to sell out.

There are many reasons for this, but the most basic one is, not surprisingly, economic. A typical paperback novel can cost most Filipinos a day’s wages. Another obstacle is language, and a third, I think, is simply material. By that I mean that most of our writers aren’t writing what most people want to read.

While highbrow literary publishing may have relatively languished, we have had a vigorous and profitable popular literature in comic books, romance novels, radio and TV dramas, and, of course, movies.

This isn’t to say that Philippine literary publishing has had very little success. As my colleague Ms. Karina Bolasco here — who manages our largest literary publishing house — will tell you, there has been no shortage of new, talented authors seeking to get published every year. Many of these writers come from the annual literary workshops that we have been holding since the early 1960s and from the many creative writing degree programs now in place in Philippine universities, from the bachelor’s to the doctoral level.

In strictly financial or professional terms, the future might not be too bright for these people. But instead of dwelling on our failures and shortcomings — which will be familiar to every developing country and yet-modernizing society — I’d like to focus today on things we’ve done, done well, and done right in the Philippines to promote literature. I’ll then try to distill some useful lessons we’ve learned, toward a kind of best-practices list that we can all contribute to.

For example, for six years now, the National Book Development Board — a government agency with a self-explanatory name — has run a program called “Booklatan sa Bayan” that promotes readership in far=flung and underserved regions by holding seminars on the establishment and administration of libraries and reading centers, storytelling training, and a workshop for reading trainors. This program has been supported by major corporations as part of their own CSR programs. The NBDB also sponsors National Book Month in June (since moved to November), and last year’s highly successful celebration — devoted to the theme of “The Literary Imagination and the City We Live In” — included fully-booked bus tours of literary Manila, on which students could visit sites memorialized by Filipino authors in their works.

NGOs and private foundations have also been engaged in readership development. The Philippine Board of Books for Young People gives out much-awaited annual awards for the best new books for children — to authors and illustrators alike. The Sa Aklat Sisikat Foundation seeks out sponsors to promote reading and teacher training in public schools. Major Philippine corporations such as HSBC, Petron, and Jollibee have been behind SAS, which has reached over 100,000 students and 3,000 teachers in 500 public schools over the past six years.

Read or Die (www.read-or-die.org) is a group of young bookworms who also pronote reading and literature in the Philippines. Last August, it launched what it calls its Propaganda guided reading program at a suburban high school, under which 46 students read a book for two hours every week under the guidance of a Read Or Die facilitator, capped by a visit from and a conversation with the book author. Read Or Die also organizes the Write Or Die series with Filipino authors meeting with their readers in local bookstores.

Private publishers and booksellers have done much to raise the public profile of literature. Riding on the vast network of its parent company, National Book Store, our biggest and most prestigious literary publisher, Anvil Publishing, has always been supportive of Filipino authors, and has sought ways to connect them with their audiences. Last October, Anvil cooperated with the British Council to bring reading expert Dr. Alan Pulverness to Manila to speak to hundreds of Filipino teachers and to meet with leading Filipino authors. A new bookstore chain, Fully Booked, has brought no less than Neil Gaiman over not once but twice, drawing huge crowds on both visits.

This brings me to the emergence and the growing popularity of new kinds of literature in the Philippines — genre fiction, speculative fiction, graphic or comic-book fiction, creative nonfiction, chick lit, performance poetry — all of which offer writers, especially new and young ones, some alternatives to mainstream realism. These genres don’t lack for enthusiastic supporters who will go out of their way to promote their favored schools of writing. One young entrepreneur, Kenneth Yu, took it upon himself to publish the slim but groundbreaking Philippine Genre Stories, now on its fourth issue. A prizewinning novelist, Dean Alfar, leads a group of young writers called Lit Critters, who meet regularly to discuss both local and foreign stories that might help them in their own work. Both Kenneth and Dean have extensive online networks. (And here, the formula seems to be alternative + young + Internet + network.)

We already have several major, high-traffic websites and portals devoted to Philippine literature, among them panitikan.com.ph, which has scored over three million hits since it began almost two years ago. We have been able to secure some government funding for this portal, which is regularly updated and acts as a clearinghouse for nearly everything related to Philippine literature.

A work titled Ang Kagilagilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah (The Amazing Adventures of Zsazsa Zaturnnah) deserves special mention, because of its runaway success in several versions — first, as a comic book by the artist Carlo Vergara in 2002, then a stage musical in 2006, and finally as a movie in 2006. Before the musical even opened, all 16 shows had been sold out — an unprecedented feat in Philippine theater. All three versions — comic book, musical, and movie—won critical acclaim. The lesson here? Update and adapt material for new times, themes, and audiences.

Zsazsa Zaturnnah is also unusual in that it was one of the relatively few cases where a work that had succeeded in print moved on to the stage and then to the movies. Very few Filipino stories, novels, or plays ever make it to the movies, with the occasional exception of popular novels serialized in the komiks magazines. An incipient independent film industry has emerged, with many young talents drawn from art, literature, and music, but its market, as yet, remains severely limited.

The situation in poetry is more encouraging — maybe because it involves little money and makes even less. In other words, when something has very little commercial value, people focus on making art, and do very well. Filipino poets might never achieve the same iconic status they enjoy in, say, Russia or Indonesia, but they’re carving out a space of their own, at least in the urban consciousness.

A group of mostly young Manila poets, headlined by a few of their hardy seniors, holds what the organizers call “Happy Mondays” poetry readings at Mag:Net, an art-gallery-cum-café near three major universities every Monday. Around 10 well-known and also new poets take to the stage at these readings (which an incompatibility with cigarette smoke unhappily prevents me from attending), followed by an open mike, and punctuated by rock music. On Tuesdays, the scene moves to the Conspiracy Café, a 15-minute drive away. Events like this are replicated outside Manila — in Baguio, Cebu, and Davao — where local artists and poets’ groups take the lead. They’ve been very successful, largely because it’s the young people doing the organizing. While their elders go to seminars and festivals to read papers and sign books, these young poets have the energy and enthusiasm to make things happen from week to week.

What’s truly interesting is how poetry and other literary forms have merged with the other arts in the Philippine literary scene. In January 2006, the Philippine Literary Arts Council — the country’s premier organization of writers in English — spearheaded a very special art exhibit titled “Chromatext Reloaded” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines Main Gallery. Poet and retired advertising man Marne Kilates has opened a website he calls “Poets’ Picturebook” at http://marnescripts.blogspot.com, where the featured poets write poems based on paintings, photographs, or other artworks of their choice.

The lesson here, finally, seems to be that for literary forms to survive, they have to be willing and able to mutate, and if necessary, to merge. This way they break new ground and reach or even create new audiences.

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