CP Goes to the Philippines: World Publishing Today by Noel King



This text is based on a presentation given by Noel King at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao, on September 20-21, 2015. This version includes some material added after that presentation.

“Most trends in the book industry are accompanied by countervailing ones. As the conglomerates get bigger there is a new optimism among enterprising independent houses … who believe that they can offer distinctive titles that the giants, with their concentration on the mass market, overlook.” – Nicholas Clee, “End of the Book Postponed,” Prospect Magazine 135 (June 2007).

“Sales of physical books rose in the UK for the first time since 2007, with Nielsen BookScan figures for January-November up 5.4 per cent on the previous year. Add to this the British chain Waterstone’s pulling unwanted Kindles from its shelves and Amazon opening a bricks and mortar bookshop and it did seem like the future might not be entirely digital after all. The stuff of fantasy? We will see.” – Lorien Kite, “Books of 2015,” Financial Times Weekend (28-29 November, 2015).


First, it’s both an honour and a pleasure to be participating in the Sixth Philippine International Literary Festival, the first to be held outside Manila, here in Davao, Mindanao. This admirable, conscious attempt to shift a little the Manila-centric literary-cultural viewpoint to include other, more distant regions of the Philippines certainly resonates with me and my presentation today.

“I come from the land down under,” Australia, with a population of 24 million, most of whom are clustered in capital cities on Australia’s coastline, or if somewhat inland, on a river. In Australia the publishing industry is concentrated in our largest city, Sydney, where I live, and in our second-largest city, Melbourne. Sydney is said to be the home of international, conglomerate publishing while Melbourne is said to have more small-independent presses (Rosenbloom, 2007). The one exception to that account of Melbourne is that Penguin Australia is located in Ringwood, an alcohol-free suburb of Melbourne.

There is a history of cultural rivalry between Sydney and Melbourne whereby Sydney, with its warmer weather, lovely beaches, its obsessive relationship with real estate and money, is regarded as some kind of aspirational L.A. whereas Melbourne – quite recently voted the “most liveable city in the world” – is regarded as more intellectual, more cultural, certainly possessed of more venues for live music. At one point this civic rivalry was cast in terms of “St Petersburg vs. Tinseltown,” and I will leave it to you to decide which designation goes where.

A few weeks ago Sydney was listed as the third most expensive city in the world to live in, coming up a couple of places from its fifth place of several years ago. Real estate prices are very, very high, as accordingly is rental accommodation, and the everyday cost of living is very expensive. All for no particular reason, beyond opportunity and avarice. Even so, a former Labor Party Prime Minister, Paul Keating, once said, “If you’re not living in Sydney, you’re camping out.”

Further afield from this Sydney-Melbourne duelling capital city duo are three other capital cities, each of which has a significant role to play in Australia’s literary-cultural life. Adelaide, South Australia, now home to South African Nobel Prize Winner, J. M. Coetzee, likes it made known that its original settlement included no convicts, unlike the rest of Australia’s white settlement origins as an English penal colony. Frequently described as a “city of parks and churches,” it boasts a longish tradition of being very cultural, with an International Writers’ Festival, a Fringe Arts Festival, a World Music festival, film festivals, and the South Australian Film Commission, which was a crucial part of Australia’s revived feature filmmaking industry in the early 1970s, producing films such as Sunday Too Far Away, Gallipoli, and Storm Boy. It also has a history of enlightened political lawmaking. It was the first Australian state to legislate against rape in marriage. And it was at the University of Adelaide that Miguel Syjuco completed the PhD that would result in his 2008 Man Asian Prize-winning novel, Ilustrado (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010).


Stepping further westward, across the long expanse of the Nullarbor, we reach Perth, Western Australia. Perth is a four and one half hour plane ride for those people who aren’t camping out, who are living in Sydney, and is home to celebrated Filipina Rose Hancock and also to Janet Holmes à Court. It is the home state of former Labor Party Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and the Labor Party Education Minister, John Dawkins, who introduced profound changes to Australia’s tertiary education system; home also to the late Alan Bond, disgraced businessman who spent some time in gaol and who will forever be admired by Australians for having, in 1983, wrested the America’s Cup yachting trophy from the US after it had spent 132 years in the New York Yacht Club’s possession. Those races were won to the tune of Men at Work singing “Land Down Under,” and this historic victory obliged the US to challenge – successfully, as it turned out – to regain the Cup by sailing in the waters just off Fremantle, near Perth. Fremantle is home to Fremantle Arts Centre Press, and is where one of Australia’s most commercially and critically successful writers, at a national and international level, lives – Tim Winton.

Fremantle Arts Centre Press was established in 1976 and has as its mission the publication of only those writers who are connected to W.A., either by having come from there, having once lived there, currently living there, or by having moved there to live. In the 1980s this proudly regional, small-independent press surprised itself by publishing two books that went on to sell a million copies apiece. First came A. B. Facey’s A Fortunate Life, a memoir of a hard-scrabble life in Australia in the first part of the twentieth century, published in 1981 and adapted for television in 1985, the money from which enabled FACP to build a warehouse to store their various titles. This TV adaptation came about when a local freelance film-TV worker, Ken Kelso, approached FACP to see if they would allow him to pitch the Facey book to TV people he knew. On the basis of the fact that he was a local they agreed and this encounter with Kelso proved doubly beneficial, leading not only to a goodly sum of money on the first day of principal photography but also to a meeting with a friend of Kelso’s who was struggling to complete her first book. Her name was Sally Morgan and the book this Western Australian Aboriginal artist-writer eventually finished with the help of FACP, My Place, published in 1987, became the press’s second million-copy seller.

The writer who got away from them, through no fault of their own, was Tim Winton whose first novel, An Open Swimmer, won the 1981 Vogel Book Award (for an unpublished manuscript by a writer under the age of thirty-five) which brings with it publication by an east coast press, Allen & Unwin in Sydney. Otherwise, it is quite likely that FACP would have published Winton, much as they published Elizabeth Jolley, who taught Winton briefly in some creative writing courses he took at Curtin University. And speaking of distances from margin to centre, it was always a delight throughout the 1980s and later to see Elizabeth Jolley, from a city deemed the most remote capital on earth, reviewing books in the Gotham-centric New York Times Book Review.

A sixty minute plane ride north of Sydney is Brisbane, capital of Queensland, and home to an important Australian press, the University of Queensland Press, which began in 1948. For many years UQP was lucky to have on its books two highly-regarded, strong-selling authors: Brisbane-born Lebanese Christian David Malouf and Melbourne-born Peter Carey. Carey used to spend time in Byron Bay, writing very successful commercial jingles for Australian television, so perhaps it was Byron Bay’s proximity to Brisbane that saw him fetch up at that press. Certainly, when he took himself elsewhere, to Balmain in Sydney, then to New York, and found other publishing outlets, UQP’s bottom line dropped dramatically, a minor version of the fluctuations experienced by London’s Bloomsbury Press in a non-Harry Potter year.

In the 1970s and 1980s, I taught at universities in Brisbane and Perth and got to know a little of the cultural-political life in each place. When it first opened in the late 1970s, Griffith University in Brisbane had an artists-in-residence scheme which saw Australian writers spend some time on the campus. Two such writers-in-residence were Steve Spears – at that time enjoying international success with his play, The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin – and Helen Garner – whose novel Monkeygrip (which was adapted into an Australian film) brought her a cultural prominence she has maintained for several decades with an output of fiction and non-fiction works. The arts section of the Sydney Morning Herald of March 2, 2016, announced that Garner had received a Yale University Windham-Campbell Prize of US $150,000 “in recognition of her non-fiction writing.”

In Perth one can still buy postcards that depict only the vast landscape of Western Australia and indicate all space east of W.A. as “unknown territory.” And W.A. and Queensland share some similarities, at least in the way they are regarded by Sydney and Melbourne as wilder, more cowboy, frontier environments than the trio of genteel states that separates them: South Australia, Victoria, N.S.W. For example, Queensland has a political history of folksy right-wing rural populism roughly analogous to the career of Huey Long in 1930s Louisiana when he was regarded, until his assassination, as a serious possibility for a tilt at the White House. Long was immortalised as Willy Stark in Robert Penn Warren’s great novel, All the King’s Men. As it happens, the favourite book of Brian Burke, disgraced politician and former Labor Premier of Western Australia, was a biography of Huey Long, so you can appreciate that the broad comparison between W.A. and Queensland and the American Deep South has some purchase. For a few years, in his early time as Premier, Burke’s manipulation of the media to convey, very successfully, his Labor party’s policies and programs made him the envy of east coast Labor Party politicians like Neville Wran, Labor Party Premier of NSW, and Paul Keating.

I’m well aware that no Filipino needs to be advised about the ways of political corruption, connivance, and compromise. Suffice to say that you are geographically proximal to Malaysia, the nation said to have perfected the first instances of credit card fraud. But as you ponder how best to establish important cultural infrastructural works in your country, from Manila to all your regional capitals and beyond, you might like to file away a remark from Huey Long, a line which so far as I recall, did not make it into Penn Warren’s novel, nor did it appear in either of the film versions: “We got graft, but we got roads. The other states, they just got graft.”


All I mean by this lengthy preamble is to impress upon you the fact that all Australians are well aware of what one of our historians, Geoffrey Blainey, once called “the tyranny of distance” – and that phrase describes the internal distances within our “wide brown land,” coast to shining coast, as much as it does Australia’s physical distance from its initial northern hemisphere coloniser, England (Blainey’s original point), and its later soft-power coloniser, the US, with whom we share various trade and military alliances.

For the remainder of my talk I will hurry through some features of the international publishing scene as it seems to me to be configured at the moment. I speak here as a non-expert but rather as someone who has, over the last twenty years, interviewed a number of publishers in Australia, London and the US, trying to determine how a series of small-independent presses whose books I liked, managed to survive and thrive in an industry that increasingly conducted itself in a Hollywood, conglomeratised fashion. When I was doing my interviews, probing the idea of “cultures of independence,” I used an analogy that works well up to a point: a comparison of mainstream presses and smaller-independent presses along the lines of contrasting mainstream Hollywood films, blockbusters, to smaller-independent films.

By the 1990s US trade publishing had been completely Hollywoodised. Eighty per cent of book profits came from twenty per cent of the books published. Imagine a Dickensian spread sheet along the lines of “Annual income, one pound, annual expenditure one pound and sixpence, result misery,” as we consider the fact that most films and books don’t make money. In the 1990s, as the chains – like Barnes & Noble – edged towards “superstore” status, it cost $10,000 a month to have your book displayed in the front window of the store, hoping to attract the literary gazes of passers-by. It also cost $10,000 a month to have one’s book placed within an oh-so-casually-and-carefully-disordered array of books placed in the bin just inside the store as one entered (see Lauren J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists). The somewhat dismaying term for this act of purchasing publicity was “co-op,” a short hand term for “Co-operative advertising dollars.” Terminology aside, these strategies seemed to me very close to Hollywood’s practice of buying saturation TV ads to build what they ridiculously called “pre-awareness” of the blockbuster film about to be released.

André Schiffrin’s memoirs, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way We Read (2001) and Words and Money (2010), both published by Verso, and Jason Epstein’s The Book Business (2001) from Norton, reveal how, for quite a long time, US trade publishing functioned in a manner that seems to me very close to the model of the mature Hollywood studio system as it operated from the 1930s until the late 1950s and early 1960s. The so called Classical Hollywood studio system practised cross-subsidisation on films such that the profits on a Rin Tin Tin movie would allow the studio to make a historical drama with Bette Davis.

For much of the publishing lives of Schiffrin and Epstein, bestsellers and fastsellers by authors whose names not many of us now remember permitted a trade press to publish a big ‘L’ literary writer who would sell in vastly fewer numbers but who would be an excellent advertisement for the press’s commitment to ambitious, challenging literary writing. Think of an author like William Gaddis in the several decades of, and between, The Recognitions in 1955 and JR twenty years later.

In his pamphlet A Life With Books, Julian Barnes extols the printed book over the e-book, while acknowledging the economic lure of the latter, using the instance of his own most recent novel which was five pounds or so cheaper as an e-book. Barnes recalls a period from the late 1960s to the late 1970s when he was an avid book collector and frequenter of second-hand bookshops and storehouses with job-lots of used books, a time very different from contemporary circumstances with “the ferociously fast turnaround that modern central management imposes,” an insistence that creates a context in which “the average shelf-life of a new hardback novel – assuming it can reach a shelf in the first place –is four months.”

When those publishing conglomerates alluded to above arrived, so did an army of bean counters working out precisely how many copies of front, middle, and back-list titles were being purchased. The patrician, gentlemanly, amateur days of trade publishing were swept aside and when BookScan arrived in January 2001, to do to the book business what SoundScan had done to the record industry back in March 1991, it really was game over for earlier understandings of mainstream trade publishing.


US artist-essayist-writer-publisher Russell Chatham lived just outside Livingston, Montana, for almost forty years, having left California in the 1970s when it became too expensive, heading up to Montana to visit his friend Thomas McGuane. In the early 1990s Chatham founded Clark City Press, initially simply to keep in print some of his own books but soon enough he started publishing works by some of his writer friends in Montana, like Jim Harrison and James Crumley. Chatham’s press had very high-end production values and after a while found itself deeply in debt. Rather than go bankrupt or offer one cent in the dollar to his creditors Chatham interrupted Clark City’s publishing side for several years as he slowly sold enough of his backlist to pay off his creditors, and then started publishing books again.

Clark City’s debt had been incurred in part by overly optimistic claims for potential sales from sales representatives and by what Chatham called “very irresponsible buying” from the big chains, safe in the knowledge that they would be protected financially courtesy of a practice developed by Alfred A. Knopf in the Depression era of the 1930s which allowed impoverished bookstores to acquire stock with no initial upfront financial outlay, on the understanding that they would sell whatever number of books they could, and return those not sold. When this practice became industry-standard Knopf is alleged to have said, “This is insane. I call it, gone yesterday, here today.” (Chatham, 2005). (As an aside, having just finished Mia Alvar’s wonderful collection of stories, I’m very confident that the ghost of Mr Knopf will rest easy as In the Country generates very healthy sales, or “moves a lot of units,” as later locutions might put it). Hearing Russ Chatham’s reference to the hyper-optimism of his sales reps caused me to think of an excruciating scene in the Maysles Brothers great documentary, Salesman, where one of the bible salesmen stands up at a group meeting and announces how much better he will do in the coming year, how many more sales he will make. It truly is a cinematic version of the Conradian “fascination of the abomination.”

At a talk he gave in Missoula at the 2005 Montana Book Fair, Chatham provided his gloss on the Knopf “gone yesterday, here today” adage: “So you have 8,000 orders and you send out 8,000 books and you think, wow, we got it, and then a year later, 7, 999 of them come back and you’re done.”

By way of contrast England had a Net Book Agreement in place for almost one hundred years from the 1890s to 1995, and across that historical period also resisted any notion of a “sale or return” deal for booksellers. This “made for cautious ordering by bookshop managers,” as John Sutherland puts it in his little book, Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction. Since 1995 the English and U.S. systems have become very similar, as the following remarks made in 2007 by Francois Von Hurter make clear:

It’s the only business in the world where a sale isn’t a sale. You’re paying the author, let’s say, or the translator, 5,000 in advance, you’re doing this and that, and a year later your book comes out, then three months later it’s in the store, and then two years later half of the books come back, and you kind of think, who’s financing all of this? A Martian would say, you guys are nuts, and if you really look at the cash immobilised, you end up realising it’s a silly business model, but you have to do it out of love. You know what you know, and occasionally you might be lucky with a blockbuster, but it’s a work of love, it’s not a work in which you make your fortune. The only good publishing business model is that of scientific journals. There, people subscribe to very expensive journals, you don’t pay the authors anything, everyone wants to get in Nature or Science. So it’s the opposite of us. The publisher gets the money in advance from subscribers, and has source material at zero cost. That’s how those guys get rich. Michael Heseltine, he’s in that business.


I will now move in a leisurely manner toward my conclusion by saying why I think the codex book will survive during the era of the e-book and the i-book, and why examples of very impressive literary work will continue to come from marginal, eccentric, unanticipated-by-the-majors areas.

First, the arrival of the e-book and the threat it posed to the codex form seems to have abated. 2014 figures report that hard-copy book sales are on the rise. The tech-head excitement that greeted the 2007 moment of Japanese cell-phone novels (keitai shousetsu) – novels composed in that medium to be read in that medium – was followed by the information that when those cell-phone fictions were published in conventional book form they accounted for 50% of Japan’s best-selling titles. And many here would remember that Stephen King’s e-book venture failed because people chose to pirate it rather than pay him the one dollar he was requesting.

So it is not self-evidently the case that a new publication medium necessarily obliterates an older medium, and writer-publisher Peter Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail press in London is sceptical about drawing too close a comparison between what has gone on with music downloads and what might happen in the book industry. In 2006, Ayrton said:

I think people in publishing are quite lucky because a book isn’t like a CD, where people will just download a couple of tracks. The concept of a CD is almost alien to my kids and their friends, they just want a couple of tracks! I can’t see people who are into books just reading a couple of chapters. They’ll want to read the whole book. So I don’t think we have to worry about the Ipodisation of reading. I think e-books will develop slowly but it will be best sellers and classics. So if you are publishing Jane Austen you might be in trouble, but I don’t think it will be the latest book by Gary Indiana or Lynne Tillman, because the kind of people who are into those books want to be able to put them into their bag or their backpack, they want to hold them, fold them, read them in bed.

The following are some relatively recent examples of critically-commercially successful books that have come from unpredicted, unanticipated spaces.

Paul Harding’s novel Tinkers won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize after having initially been published by Bellevue Press, a small press associated with New York’s oldest public hospital, attached to NYU’s Department of Medicine (this hospital is mentioned in one of the stories in In the Country). Harding’s next book, Enon (2014), was sold to Random House and here we might remember that Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain was published in 1997 by a small press (Atlantic Monthly Press), won the National Book Award in the year Don DeLillo’s Underworld was up for that award, was adapted into a big budget Hollywood film, and sold 3 million copies. After this independent success Frazier’s second book, Thirteen Moons, went to auction based on a one-page outline and fetched $8.25 million from Random House, and $3 million for the movie rights from Scott Rudin. Did we mention earlier some of the consequences of the Hollywoodisation of US trade publishing?

A second instance of eccentric publishing success concerns Melbourne-based Greek-Australian gay writer Christos Tsiolkas who published his fourth novel, The Slap, which was adapted very successfully to Australian television. The book sold 300,000 copies in Australia, where a best-seller is 30,000 copies but no UK buyer wanted the book. So Tsiolkas’s friend, the multi-talented gay Irish writer Colm Tóibín, published The Slap in his boutique press, Tuskar Rock, set up by Tóibín, his friend Peter Strauss, and Hannah Westland in 2011, and now housed with Profile books alongside Serpent’s Tail Press. Tuskar Rock had published “collectors’ editions” of some novels – Tim Winton’s Breath, 350 copies at $850.00 a pop – and Tóibín had said that Tuskar Rock was trying to tap “into the same phenomenon as people listening to vinyl records” in a digital age. At the time Tóibín said Tuskar Rock did not expect to make a lot of money from Tsiolkas’s novel: “Let’s just say that we don’t think we’ll make much money, but it’s not about losing lots of money either.” The Slap went on to sell 1.2 million copies and win the 2009 Commonwealth Writers Prize, at which point the larger London presses that earlier had knocked the book back, came looking to secure it, wondering how they had missed it in the first place. They had also missed another Tuskar Rock success story, Don Patterson’s volume of poetry, Rain, which sold very well. This is not quite of the order of picking J. K. Rowling’s first Harry Potter manuscript out of a waste paper basket but it is a nice example of why small, marginal, alternative publishing spaces continue to be important contributors to international literary-cultural life.

Third, a few days ago I read in The Guardian that a first-time book, The Loney, by Andrew Michael Hurley, was first published by Tartarus, a small Yorkshire Press in a print run of 300 copies. After that it moved to a larger press, John Murray, and went on to win the 2015 Costa Award for First Novel.

These few examples encourage me to believe that small print runs, small-independent presses, small bookstores – that fragile coalition that constitutes such a valuable culture of independence – will continue to exert a positive cultural influence around the world. In respect of small bookstores, think of how one of your diasporic own, Jessica Hagedorn, honed her poetry-writing skills by hanging out in San Francisco’s City Lights bookshop, the book enterprise begun by Lawrence Ferlinghetti that sits a hundred yards or so up a slight street incline from Francis Coppola’s pizza/pasta restaurant that stocks Coppola wines. The restaurant is the street level part of a beautiful, old, triangulated building whose upstairs rooms once housed people like Wim Wenders when he and Coppola were making Hammett (1982) for an early iteration of Coppola’s Zoetrope film company, which, you would be aware, publishes Zoetrope: All Story. In the issue of All Story “designed” (they prefer that word to “edited”) by Wim Wenders, one finds a wonderful story from Vietnamese-Australian writer Nam Le, “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” that was later included in his best-selling, prize-winning collection, The Boat. Readers who long have been awaiting a second collection or a novel from Nam Le have been delayed by his having discovered a way to make $200,000 a year from casino gambling and since that money would be tax-free it is the equivalent of an annual income of $400,000. Why teach at Harvard?


Speaking very much as an outsider it seems to me that three clear publishing opportunities exist either for a university press or a trade press in the Philippines. Each is based on an existing overseas format that simply needs to be modified to suit the Philippine situation. The British Film Institute’s series of small, 96 page books devoted to films deemed classics and/or modern classics was devised by Edward Buscombe in 1992 with a view initially to having the books connect with an archival film restoration project then being undertaken by the BFI of 365 films deemed classics of world cinema.


BFI Film Classics

The BFI classics volumes were written by novelists like Salman Rushdie and Alberto Manguel, journalists, TV presenters (Melvyn Bragg), film critics and film academics, and were pitched at that famously nebulous entity, the “non-specialist but educated, interested reader.” Eventually Buscombe thought that when, across the course of a year, a screening of the 365 restored films would see the history of cinema flow in front of spectators’ eyes on London’s South Bank, many copies of the supporting volumes would be sold. It was an idea that was quickly ripped off by other countries that duly produced series called ‘Australian Film Classics,’ ‘Canadian Film Classics,’ and ‘Hong Kong Cinema Classics.’ It also generated a range of other iterations of the small format film analyses of a single film. In the ‘Deep Focus’ series published by Soft Skull Press (which includes books on Heathers and Death Wish), Jonathan Lethem writes about John Carpenter’s They Live, while Arsenal Pulp Press in Vancouver publishes its ‘Queer Film Classics’ with books on Death in Venice, Strangers on a Train, I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing. Cult cinema is targeted by Wallflower Press’s ‘Cultographies’ series which includes books on Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, Donnie Darko, Blade Runner. A ‘Pop Classics’ series from ECW Press has a book on Showgirls, while Auteur Publisher’s ‘Devil’s Advocates’ series has titles on Witchfinder General, Suspiria, Carrie and many others, and a ‘Controversies’ series from Palgrave Macmillan has books on Straw Dogs and Basic Instinct, among others.

The BFI later expanded its original format to publish analyses of celebrated UK and overseas television series (Edge of Darkness, Boys from the Blackstuff, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).

Why not adopt this format here to generate a series of similarly packaged volumes devoted to Philippine cinema? And why not unashamedly define the reach of the series to include films made here by, say, US filmmakers as well as your own acts of filmmaking? For your first volume, contract an appropriate Filipino writer to write on Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. You would be aware that this film already is the subject of some film classics series (it was the first volume in Bloomsbury Press’s excellent but short-lived series), along with coverage in studies of Coppola and Zoetrope. Eleanor Coppola’s diary of her husband’s film shoot, Notes, became the documentary Hearts of Darkness, which could be addressed in your putative volume as well. Once published, this volume automatically connects your fledgling series with international film publications and film courses whose libraries certainly would order copies of this distinctively national take on a modern classic, and would link with the fan base that follows writing on certain cult films and television series (UK examples would be Dr Who and The Avengers).

You could also commission a volume on Weng Weng’s pint-sized James Bond activities, as in For Your Height Only (1980: Dir: Eddie Nicart), currently available on DVD in the UK and US, and that volume could also address the documentary made by Australian Andrew Leavold, The Search for Weng Weng (2015). And why not include a volume or two on some of the Roger Corman films shot in the Philippines?

Another small format series could imitate the 33 and 1/3 series – initially published by Continuum Press and now published by Bloomsbury Press – in which a small volume is devoted to an iconic or cult pop album (Pet Sounds, Let it Be, Highway Sixty-One Revisited, Exile on Main Street, The Kinks are the Village Green Preservation Society) and once you started publishing your Filipino versions of these, they could circulate within the Philippines wherever music and cultural studies courses were taught and obviously would attract interest from overseas fans, musicologists and music teachers. Maybe Freddie Aguilar’s “Anak” could be the opening volume.

And there seems no reason a university or trade press in the Philippines shouldn’t publish a version of U.S. Random House’s Crown Journeys series of little books that have a writer talk about a town or a locale. Sometimes the writer is strongly associated with a city or a neighbourhood – Kinky Friedman writes about Austin, Texas, Ishmael Reed writes about Oakland, Chuck Palahniuk writes about Portland – while on other occasions a prominent writer will write about a locale that means something to them: so former head of the Iowa Writing School and author of Stop-Time, Frank Conroy writes about walking around Nantucket, and Michael Cunningham (The Hours) writes about Provincetown. In Australia we have “borrowed” this idea by having local writers write about our capital cities. As yet, we have not ventured into the “neighbourhood” level of the Crown Series, but it surely cannot be too long before some press asks Tim Winton to take a walk around Fremantle and commit it to paper. Why not ask ‘Butch’ Dalisay to write a similar volume on Romblon and why not approach an appropriate local writer to do a volume on the city in which we now find ourselves, Davao?

One final suggestion. Even allowing for what I sense is a very strong Philippine tradition of privileging high literary forms, poetry, the literary novel, serious historical non-fiction, the fact that you also have a strong tradition of comix – comics or graphic novels – and of late have started to produce very strong contributions to international crime and noir fiction, makes me think you should organise a special Philippine section of the next available Bouchercon crime fiction conference. Bouchercon 2016 takes place in New Orleans from September 15th to the 18th, and in 2017, it occurs in Toronto from October 12-15th. In 2018 it travels to St Petersburg from September 13th to 16th, and in 2019 returns to the US, to Dallas, from October 31st to November 3rd. In 2020 it shifts to Sacramento from October 15th-18th.

Bouchercon delivers you a huge, ready-made audience, much like the Frankfurt and London Book Fairs, so it would be easy to work out suitable representatives from here in the Philippines and from Filipinos living and working overseas, and you would be guaranteed to make a splash as the latest new thing. As you all well know, literary festivals and film festivals are endlessly in search of the new entity, the new hot thing to showcase. There is no reason for the Philippines, with its great range of writers, graphic novelists, filmmakers and musicians, not to benefit from that.

Works Cited

Julian Barnes, A Life With Books (London: Jonathan Cape, 2012)

Geoffrey Blainey, The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia’s History (Melbourne: Sun Books, 1966)

Russell Chatham, “Gone Yesterday, Here Today”: Presentation on Clark City Press, Montana Festival of the Book, Missoula, 23 September, 2005 (unpublished paper)

Nicholas Clee, “End of the Book Postponed,” Prospect Magazine 135 (June 2007): 72-74.

Frank Conroy, Stop-Time (New York: Viking, 1967)

Michael Cunningham, The Hours (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)

Jose Dalisay Jr., Soledad’s Sister (Manila: Anvil Publishing, 2008)

Jason Epstein, The Book Business (New York: Norton, 2001)

A.B. Facey, A Fortunate Life (Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1981)

William Gaddis, The Recognitions (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1955)

William Gaddis, JR (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975))

Helen Garner, Monkeygrip (Melbourne: McPhee-Gribble, 1977)

Paul Harding, Tinkers (New York: Bellevue Literary Press, 2001)

Noel King, “’I Can’t Go on, I’ll Go On’: Interview with Ray Coffey of Fremantle Arts Centre Press” Westerly, 51 (November 2006): 31-54.

Noel King, “’Independent, Emerging, and Satisfying’: Interview with Publisher Henry Rosenbloom of Scribe Press, Melbourne,” Metro 152 (2007): 154-158.

Noel King, ‘’The Main Thing We Book Publishers have Going for us is the books themselves: An Interview with Pete Ayrton of Serpent’s Tail Press, Islington, London 12 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 3 (Autumn 2007): 104-119.

Noel King, “A bridge between all these literatures that we love: Interview with Francois von Hurter, Bitter Lemon Press, London 10 July 2006,” Critical Quarterly 49, 1-2 (Summer 2007): 62-80.

Lorien Kite, “Books of 2015,” Financial Times Weekend (28-29 November, 2015): 1-2. Also available at:

Malcolm Knox, “The Interview: Colm Toibin,” Sydney Morning Herald (May 15, 2010).

Nam Le, The Boat: Stories (New York: Knopf, 2008)

Lauren J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Sally Morgan, My Place (Fremantle, W.A.: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1987)

Robert Penn Warren, All The King’s Men (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co, 1946)

Andre Schiffrin, The Business of Books: How the International Conglomerates Took Over Publishing and Changed the Way we Read (London: Verso, 2001)

Andre Schiffrin, Words and Money (London: Verso, 2010)

Steve Spears, The Elocution of Benjamin Franklin (Sydney: Currency Methuen Press, 1977)

John Sutherland, Bestsellers: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: OUP, 2007).

Christos Tsiolkas, The Slap (Tuskar Rock, 2010)

Wim Wenders, Zoetrope All-Story 10, 2 (Summer 2006)

[Header image: ‘Book’ by Sam @Flickr republished unmodified under this CC Licence.]

CP Goes to the Philippines: ‘Killing Time in a Warm Place’ (extract) by Jose Dalisay


Fiction by JOSE Y. DALISAY, Jr.

Camp Sunflower was a converted Army barracks in a military reservation on the outskirts of the city. It had been built for forty people but there were over a hundred of us in it by mid-March, gathered over the months and trucked there from various processing centers in the capital region. We bunked in pairs, over and under. Jong had taken the spot below mine shortly after he was trucked in, early in February. Some nights I would hear him murmur, and when I asked him about it he said that he had been praying.

I, too, prayed, but quietly, for uneventful sleep and for a miracle in the morning. It happened now and then at reveille, after calisthenics. The Commandant was a captain who liked to make a show of disdaining his mission, and he would have Sergeant Quiones hold everyone in formation while he shuffled our papers in his guardhouse office, letting their thump and crackle come across over the PA system into the one ear those minutes fused our beings into. Our hearts pounded even as we tried to recover from the push-ups and the jumping jacks. Then, as the sweat crusted on us, he would read the names in a reluctant whine–Peneyra, Gaffud, Dimalanta–and there would be whoops and yells from among the chosen, and a cold, astonished panic within the rest of us, at least those of us who still would not believe that prison, without trial and without sentence, was our natural lot at age eighteen.

At dusk we would sit in rows on long benches facing west where the city was, gazing out across the barbed wire fence at the sky turning into dappled shades of pink and orange and purple. We would slap thighs and shoulders, trade cigarettes and candybars, exchange confidences, pass the day’s news through the hopelessly uneven sieve of our opinions. We recreated society as we had known it, mimicking its noises, while we waited for the darkness to congeal and for the red Marlboro neon sign to light up somewhere in Guadalupe and blink like the most trusting and constant of fireflies. And then as though by previous agreement our chatter would subside, although few would have left their seats, and man and boy we would all keep still, eyes on the sign, palms on the edge, souls long vanished between and past the wires. Then it would be too much. A man would crack a joke. The spell would be broken and we would all file in for supper and chess.

There was always a chess tournament about. The organizers had devised a complicated system for separating the masters from the novices, and I belonged to the latter among whom chess was still fun. We adored the gambit, made reckless sacrifices, argued touch-moves, favored the eccentric. We were in love with the notion of capturing queens, cornering kings, torturing knights and annihilating pawns. Chess became our most popular pastime, without much else to do after supper besides talking.

Sometimes we found a topic that was new to all of us, or had been nearly forgotten so that it was almost new, and we would give up chess for the pleasure of talking. Nearly everything important, of course, was a memory, something we had each brought in with us, and it was a matter of rummaging through our brains and putting a smart sheen on whatever story we found before serving it up.

We valued most the stories that newcomers told of the network of resistance to the martial-law regime that was building up on the outside, operating out of rented quarters, basements, backrooms and corners of friendly houses. Now and then the clean-living citizens of this and that neighborhood would waken to find their walls awash in crudely paintbrushed red: “Fight martial law with people’s war!” “Down with the US-Marcos dictatorship!” “Long live the national democratic revolution!” Most of these people would shake their heads and wash or scrape the slogans off before the Metrocom arrived. Now and then a gang of strollers in the park would link their arms and urge revolt: “Dare to struggle, conquer fear!” And they would keep at it, startling passersby into acknowledging their misery, until security men flashing their .45’s came cursing and scrambling through the crowd. There would be a chase over hedges, across avenues, down alleyways, into the murk of the city’s guts.

And there would be captures, betrayals, surrenders, reprisals–when a runner stumbled, when a father broke, or when, by some tacit miracle, a community sprang to its feet to fence in its own. Even then: borrowing a wartime tactic from the Kempeitai, soldiers and policemen would throw dragnets over suspect zones, always at night, the better to tumble the menfolk out of bed onto the street in their shorts, to establish virility by heft, pedigree by tattoo, and ideology by some obscure but unfailing code of physiognomy.

Communists, one major in intelligence was supposed to have theorized, wore a composite mask of guilt, depravity and outright menace–doubtlessly engendered by their atheism, drug addiction, loose morals and lust for power. The remark made the rounds of the prison camps, and those of us who had retained or regained their humor spent time to measure and to argue nasal proportions and to confirm the unusual depression of the philtrum in those whom we knew to be guilty as charged. We were to hear that the major’s observations perked up the mornings in Manila’s coffeeshops, where it was soon rumored further that the major had submitted his pet theory to the National Defense College for his masters thesis, and that it had been acclaimed, and that consequently the major, until then just another ambitious mediocrity, had been promoted for his extraordinary perception.

But even so the regime, acting on sounder wisdom gained from Forts Bragg and Leavenworth, mounted its operations not with caliper and mole chart (not until much later, when the major’s theories–by then the brigadier general’s–underwent a revival) but with M-16, howitzer and silver on the front, and with tuneful invitations on the airwaves for the citizenry to partake of the new martial enthusiasm: “A new sun rises, a new life, new strength, new honor, in the New Society!” A father’s bass or a mother’s alto, the one with authority and the other with assurance, would then intone the price to pay for such wonderful novelties: “For national progress–discipline!”

Chastened so kindly, many of the prodigal wept and were forgiven, and there were many even among us who came to agree that the hour for revolt had passed, that civil liberty, for all its clamor and cacophony, had failed woefully to build roads, to curb crime, to feed the poor and to satisfy the rich, and that, therefore, national self-discipline and constructive subordination were worth trying. In this envigorating vista, a New Filipino family could walk cleanswept streets at night without fear of being waylaid by the perverse and the destitute, who were themselves learning the virtues of self-effacement in jail, field and factory. A New Filipino entrepreneur could choose the best of partners and invest in resort palaces, tobacco, tennis-ball production or car-assembly plants, or better yet in banks to nourish these timely ventures, and expect to reap the just rewards of a guaranteed industrial peace. The New Filipino reader could expect to take his morning coffee with any one of the new government-approved dailies, revel in their optimism, and go off to work comforted in the thought that given the dire and stressful vicissitudes of life in the outside world, there was no better place on earth to be that very moment but in the Philippines, among her 7, 100 sunblest isles.

Indeed it was for many a happy and hopeful time when futures could be bought and marriages sealed on the strength of record prices for copra on the London exchange, and on the threshold of careers in development management and in national security administration, careers financed by willing money from the World Bank, USAID, the Japanese and a host of other less-exalted benefactors, all of them eager to participate in the cause of national progress through discipline. A massive injection of investments at the top, so the gurus prescribed, would surely seep down to the masses by simple logic of gravity, in time; it was only a matter of time. (And in time I would myself believe this.)

But there were others, obstinate in their unhappy abstractions, who resisted all conversion. Some would remain where they were and be content for the time being with rolling slogans in their mouths, like talismans, between shut teeth. Many would pack their young lives into a bag, or summarize them in notes, never adequate, to parent, lover and friend, and vanish into some transcendent state—“up there,” in the vocabulary of the initiate–where the angels bore Kalashnikovs and rained lightning on the oppressor.

Whatever Kalashnikovs remained: the Constabulary armories were teeming with a stupendous assortment of weapons, surrendered by or confiscated from the outgunned public–homemade sumpaks and paltiks, Colts, S & W’s, Brownings, Armalites, grenade launchers, Czechoslovakian and Israeli assault rifles. The mere rumor that the Constabulary was employing hypersensitive metal detectors in its zoning operations ferreted more firearms out of drawers, cabinets and underground caches; if not the rumors, then the promised penalty of twenty years at hard labor for illegal possession of any firearm beyond a pellet gun. Citing impressive gun-collection figures chalked up on a board and displaying a disarmed tribal headman between them, the chiefs of the Constabulary and of the Metropolitan Command had declared on the broadcast news that Philippine society was finally being rid of harm after three hundred years of warfare against something or other. “Smiling martial law” was how the newspapers described the public face of Presidential Proclamation No. 1081. The smile of discipline sat smartly on the country’s lips. Long hair had been outlawed. The midnight curfew returned the vagabond home. Walls were whitewashed and front yards trimmed, from Forbes Park to Camp Sunflower.



JOSE DALISAY is an English professor and director of the Institute of Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of more than twenty books, including novels, story collections, plays, and essays; a recipient of the National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle; and was named by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors List as one of the top 100 most accomplished and influential Filipino artists of the past century.

CP Goes to the Philippines: ‘Killing Time in ’73’ by Jose Dalisay


[This essay by Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr. first appeared in Chimera (February 1996) and was later republished as the introduction to a reissue of his 1992 novel Killing Time in a Warm Place. Our next post will feature an extract from that book].


I was arrested by military intelligence agents close to midnight on January 2, 1973. Like a true Pinoy, I had gone home – after largely staying away for the past several months, the first months of martial law – to visit my folks for the New Year; this, despite a rumor that the place would be raided or “zoned” – sosonahin – Kempeitai-fashion. Home to me then was a community of squatter shanties in Old Balara, a stone’s throw from the university where I had spent much of that freshman year studying Mao instead of math.

There were about eight of them; my father woke me up as gently as he could, and I found myself staring into the barrel of a carbine. I was being arrested, they said, for violation of the anti-subversion law. I thought they were exaggerating; I wrote manifestoes and such, and I was 18; I was a flea. But they took me to a waiting car – as big and as black as a hearse – and then they moved on to the next house which, much to my surprise and chagrin, turned out to be a safehouse used by another activist, an old high school classmate of mine. Of all the places, I thought – and then they tossed him into the rear of the car beside me. (Years later, Cecilio – released – would take to the hills and die in a firefight down south.)

There were more untimely reunions at the holding cell in Camp Aguinaldo, where we were taken and deposited. Instantly I recognized a brown sofa; I had seen it last in a “UG” – underground – apartment that had obviously been raided and pilfered of all things usable. An adjacent room called the “exclusion area” was where the interrogations and the beatings took place. We were talking about Rey Vea (now dean of the University of the Philippines College of Engineering) and about how lucky he was to have avoided capture – only to see him trudging into camp, the catch of the day.

A few days later we were trucked off to a new “detention” site – the Ipil Rehabilitation Center in Fort Bonifacio. It wasn’t a bad-looking place, when it was new and when there were only forty of us (that number would reach 200). It was a motley crowd we made: senior scholars and professors (William Henry Scott, Zeus Salazar), would-be politicians (Orly Mercado, Jojo Binay), religious (Fr. Jose Nacu, SJ), journalists, teachers, workers, students, bums, reputed killers, and the perennially lost, even among the lost. The women were put in their own camp beside us, and married couples and lovers met with a barbed wire fence between them. People spoke in careful whispers, knowing or believing that someone, somewhere among our ranks was the dreaded “ajax,” our slang word for “agent,” the government’s and our jailers’ ears.

We soon settled into what I suppose was a typical prison-camp, River Kwai routine, starting with reveille and mass exercise first thing in the morning. We did calisthenics the Chinese tai ch’i way – the People’s Liberation Army way, we would say to encourage ourselves. The food was good, at the beginning: a lump of rice, a thick slab of meat or fish, vegetables, and a banana (later, we would have to grow mustasa in the garden, and depend on supplements brought in by family and friends). Much of the day was spent doing whatever one pleased: reading books from the small library, playing chess, bodybuilding, learning a trade. A few of us inclined to drawing and painting formed an artists’ group; I would use my lettering skills to wangle permission from the sergeant to talk across the fence with a girl I had a crush on, in exchange for making a poster announcing more rules. We sat on benches in the evening and watched the Marlboro sign in the Guadalupe skyline. Sometimes, it almost seemed serene. There was terror roaming about the country, and it would reach us with every new incoming batch, and now and then someone would get picked on by the guards and beaten up (the only time I’ve been thankful for having been hazed and thus prepared by my fraternity); but for the most part it was a quiet life, especially for those of us who had been constantly on the move or on the march, before we stumbled.

For a couple of months and for wobbly but flattering reasons (a joke then as now) I was moved along with a busload of other people to a maximum-security, fortress-like prison within the same headquarters, and mixed in with common criminals, the spillover from Muntinlupa (or was it a waystation?). We shat in the same transparent toilets, with nothing but a towel to mask the action; the common areas were walled with chicken wire, and everything had to be visible to the guards, who patrolled us from above on catwalks. We ate at the same tables, but the OXOs and the Sigue-Sigues deferred to us – the may pinag-aralan, the book-learned – affirming, even in prison, the persistence of degrees. And frankly I don’t think we minded it, especially when they lunged at each other with sharpened spoons as they would now and then, while we watched TV (“Brian’s Song”) and while the guy in the next bunk – a Comp Lit professor reputed to have Soviet (vs. our Maoist) attachments, painted a gray and very lifelike (or deathlike) representation of his Army-issue mess kit against a pale pink background, on a canvas and with oils he was privileged to bring in. I thought this too hoity-toity, and amused myself and others by sketching the comrades’ sneakers on oslo paper (to a nineteen-year-old, that does for wit). The professor, I would later hear, struck a deal with a gallery, and was thereby able to support his family from where he was. So this art – we also painted matches and matchboxes and sold them as souvenirs on Sundays – became our version of Muntinlupa’s bottled ships.

Most of us would eventually be released under one amnesty or other. My own deliverance walked in straight out of Kafka: one day in August, an officer arrived with a sheaf of papers, among which were mine. I was taking a shower when I heard my name being called over the PA system: “Dalisay, to the guardhouse!” The news, at the guardhouse, was always either very good or very bad. The officer looked at me and said: “Dalisay, are you still here? We have nothing on you. Pack your bags and go home.” I had been in prison for most of 1973 – seven months and four days – not bad, by martial-law standards.

Some of us rejoined the struggle and went Cecilio’s way, or were salvaged in the sewers (and still some survive!); others returned to the university, which I, by the roundabout way of public relations (for a government ministry, no less) and scripting formulaic movies about the fall of the Filipino high and mighty, have done; and quite a few of us flew off to the United States and parts beyond – astonished, no doubt, by the extent to which a life could be complicated further.



JOSE DALISAY is an English professor and director of the Institute of Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of more than twenty books, including novels, story collections, plays, and essays; a recipient of the National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle; and was named by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors List as one of the top 100 most accomplished and influential Filipino artists of the past century.

CP Goes to the Philippines: Jose Dalisay and the Marcos Period



At the Sixth Philippine International Literary Festival held in Davao on November 20-21, 2015, the first time the festival had been held outside Manila, one of the central themes was “writing in place/creating your space.” That theme recalled a comment made by Jose Dalisay Jr. in his introduction to a reprint of his 1992 second collection of short stories, Sarcophagus and Other Stories (Manila: University of the Philippines, 1996):

When I came out with my first book of stories (Oldtimer and Other Stories) seven years ago, I wrote that I was searching for a “style” – some distinguishing flourish to make the stories mine as if they were at risk of being someone else’s but for this elected word or that moulded phrase.

Since then, I think I’ve come around to see that it isn’t so much “style” one chases after, but a sense of place, or, more acutely, a sense of home: that point in the story where author and sympathetic reader recognize, with astonishment and pain, a sudden familiarity. It may seem an odd thing to say of a book that spans, in its locales, several countries and ages, but it is, after all, the only thing to say, the only thing to go for.


In my Contrappasso interview with Dalisay, he alluded to his imprisonment under the Marcos regime’s Martial Law in Manila in the early 1970s:

I entered university in 1970, and very quickly got involved in the student activist movement, which was both anti-Marcos, anti-dictatorship, and also to some extent Marxist. For all these reasons I got imprisoned in 1973 for a little over seven months, and yes, that experience formed the basis for my first novel that was published in 1992, almost twenty years later. My experience is shared by many others of my generation, coming out of that Martial Law period.

Dalisay attended and gave a presentation at the 2015 Davao festival, which had on display a new edition of his book about that period, Killing Time in a Warm Place. Also attending the Davao conference was New York based Mia Alvar whose much-praised debut collection of stories, In the Country, included the titular long short story addressing this same period of recent Philippine history.

Some indication of the immediate poetic agit-prop reaction to the end of this repressive Marcos period is contained in the “Editors’ Preface” to Versus: Philippine Protest Poetry, 1983- 1986, which explains:

These poems are of a political season, the thirty crucial months between the assassination of Benigno Aquino Jr. on 21 August 1983 and the inauguration of his widow, Corazon, as President of the Philippines on 25 February 1986. The collection begins with poems in praise of Aquino, the slain political leader whose blood on the airport tarmac was seed of a new political faith. His assassination unified not only the people of the opposition but the entire people in opposition, for we had become a nation grown weary of an authoritarian regime, though our anger had been inchoate until that fateful Sunday.

Later in that introduction they add:

There was a lot to write about, for in this period, too, were highlighted themes and events that, while previously spoken of only in whispers, were now the subject of open popular conversation. The war in the countryside was one rich lode; the deaths of friends who had gone up to the hills were now open to elegy and that meant Filipinos on both sides. The foibles of the Marcoses were subject of satire, the Great Stone Face of Mr Marcos in La Union pilloried with as much venom as Mrs Marcos’s infrastructure project.

F. H. Batacan was unable to attend the festival but the November issue of Cebu Airlines’ inflight magazine featured an interview with her on the occasion of New York’s Soho Press’s publication of a much expanded edition of her 2002 novella, Smaller and Smaller Circles. At one point in the interview Batacan is asked, “If you could urge the President of the Philippines to read one book, what would it be?” She replies, “It would probably be Some Are Smarter than Others by Ricardo Manapat. The minutiae of his investigation of the Marcos plunder drives home the point that there is very little the powerful can hide from history.” Another excellent book on the Marcos period is by James Hamilton-Patterson, now resident in Austria but who for several decades spent at least six months of the year in the Philippines. His book is America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines.

In the coming days Contrappasso will publish both the introduction to, and an extended extract from, the new edition of ‘Butch’ Dalisay’s Killing Time in a Warm Place. The novel provides a haunting vision of the era:

Sometimes they use ice. They lug a block of it into the room–a block the size that trucks used to deliver around the neighborhood stores before the invention of tube-pressed chunks in plastic bags–and let it lie there, while in another room the blindfold is applied. Clothes are stripped off, and–despite the crying and the whimpering or, in those instances that evoke both bafflement and challenge in the torturer, the hot outrage that spews out of battered mouths–he or she is walked into the room with the block of ice, and without the slightest notion of what is coming next, he or she is kept standing, is talked to, is prodded between the legs, for an hour or so until the knees give in to exhaustion and the chill from the back of the room, and then, having caught the shiver that betrays the body, they cluck sympathetically and shake their heads at each other and one of them, perhaps the chief himself, will snap his fingers and say next to him or her something like “Santiago, what terrible hosts we are, look how tired this person is, get a chair somewhere–yes, that one will do.” Then he or she is seated on the ice, is made to lie on it, for fifteen minutes, or an hour, however long it takes for the ice or the person to melt.



Texts Cited.

Mia Alvar, In the Country (New York: Knopf, 2015

F. H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles (New York: Soho Press, 2015)

Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr., Killing Time in a Warm Place New Edition (Manila: Anvil Press, 2015)

Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr., Sarcophagus and Other Stories (Manila: University of the Philippines, 1996)

Jose Y. Dalisay, Jr., Oldtimer and Other Stories (Asphodel Books, 1984)

James Hamilton-Patterson, America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines (London: Granta, 1998).

Ricardo Manapat. Some are Smarter than Others: The Marcos’ Crony Capitalism (Alethia Publishers, 1991)

Alfrredo Navarro Salanga and Esther M. Pacheco, ed., Versus: Philippine Protest Poetry, 1983- 1986 (Quezon City, Metro Manila: Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1986).





NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1986), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.


CP Goes to the Philippines: Featured author Jose Dalisay


Jose Daliday is an English professor and director of the Institute of Creative Writing at the University of the Philippines. He is the author of more than twenty books, including novels, story collections, plays, and essays; a recipient of the National Book Award from the Manila Critics Circle; and was named by the Cultural Center of the Philippines Centennial Honors List as one of the top 100 most accomplished and influential Filipino artists of the past century.

In the coming days we will be publishing a series of pieces about and by Dalisay. But first, a quick flashback to Dalisay’s first appearance in Contrappasso. Noel King caught up with Dalisay at the Pan Pacific Manila on 19 August 2013 for an interview which was published in our sixth issue and is online here:

An Interview with Jose Dalisay

CP Goes to the Philippines: Featured author F. H. Batacan

F. H. “ICHI” BATACAN was born in Manila and graduated from the University of the Philippines with a BA in communications and an MA in art history. After ten years of working in the Philippine intelligence community, she turned to broadcast journalism. Smaller and Smaller Circles, her first novel, won the prestigious Philippine National Book Award and is widely regarded as the first Philippine crime novel. It has been recently republished in an expanded edition by Soho Press in the USA.

Noel King’s extensive 2014 interview with Batacan (and her agent, the writer Andrea Pasion-Flores) appeared in Contrappasso #8 and is online HERE.


CP Goes to the Philippines: Featured author R. Zamora Linmark

zamora linmark

R. ZAMORA LINMARK was born in Manila. He is the author of the poetry collections Prime Time Apparitions (Hanging Loose Press, 2005) and The Evolution of a Sigh (Hanging Loose Press, 2008) and the novels Rolling the R’s (Kaya Press, 1995) and Leche (Coffee House Press, 2011). His next poetry collection, Pop Verite, is forthcoming from Hanging Loose Press. He also recently completed a third novel titled These Books Belong to Ken Z. He has been a Distinguished Visiting Professor in Creative Writing at the Universities of Miami and Hawaii.

Linmark has been a regular contributor to Contrappasso. Some of his poems were reprinted in our special issue Writers at the Movies (2015). Here Linmark  introduces and reads his poem A Letter to Claire Danes from a Fan in Manila:

Two other poems appeared in Writers at the Movies:

After Douglas Sirk’s Written on the Wind

Twelve Short Takes on Montgomery Clift


Linmark’s short story ‘Dear Jesus’ appeared in Contrappasso #6 (2014). It begins:

Dear Jesus:

My worst nightmare is about to come true. Yesterday, the Senate Committee on Judiciary and Labor approved the same-sex marriage legislation bill. 20 to 4. And now it’s up to the House of Representatives to kill the bill. But what if they, too, flew over the cuckoo’s nest? That’s why I’m flying there tomorrow. I’m going to withdraw whatever money I have left in my checking account, take the first flight to Honolulu and give these loonies a piece of my mind. That’s right. Hold on, Jesus, I’m now on the line with a Hawaiian Airlines ticketing agent from, of all places, Philippines. Dear Lord, Honolulu is only half hour away by plane from here and I have to call someone in the Philippines to book it…. Just got off the phone. They’re charging me four arms and six thousand legs as if I’m Imelda Marcos. What a rip off. And they don’t offer Senior Citizen discount. So much for Aloha Spirit… Calm down, Marie, calm down… Screw it. I’m willing to overlook the astronomical cost of this ticket due to the gravity of the matter. Otherwise, I’d tell them too to go choke on my monthly SS! I’d rather go hungry for the next couple days than allow this bill to be passed. I don’t care if I have to testify three, four, five thousand times. I won’t stop until these so-called progressive legislators wake up and realize that they’re doing more harm than good. This is not in the best interest of the peoples of Hawaii. I know it. The majority knows it. Come tomorrow, they will know who Marie Machado is and what she stands for.

Marie Machado, Hana, Maui.


 Dear Jesus:

I have two mommies. Am I greedy?

Alexander Rosales, 3rd grade, Kapalama Elementary.


Dear Jesus:

Did I wake up in the wrong state? Is today Halloween, October 31, 2013? It is, right? All this talk of gay marriage makes me want to puke. That’s what I want to do right now. Puke the bowl of kim chi chigae I ate last night all over the grounds of State Capitol. This Senate Bill 1 makes me sick to the bone. I should call in sick. But I can’t afford to miss a day’s worth of work. I already got written up twice for being late. But this is more important than ushering losers to their seats or telling them to get their toe jams off the seats or picking up their trash or shining the flashlight on their faces to shut their snoring up. If that fat cow Shawna fires me, so be it. I’ll miss the free movies and fifty percent off of popcorn and hot dogs. Fuck it. This is not the only job in the world. There are a thousand more out there I can get fired from. My sick call is legit. It’s an act of sacrifice, me as the lamb willing to sacrifice his bread and butter just for you, Jesus, because I love and believe in you. All I ask is that you help me write the most convincing testimony, because I’d hate to make a fool of myself in public, especially since Olelo cable TV is live-streaming the entire hearing.

Charles Kwon, McCully.


CP Goes to the Philippines: Featured author Andrea Pasion-Flores

ANDREA PASION-FLORES was born in Manila. She is a graduate of the University of the Philippines where she received her degrees in Journalism, Law, and her MA in Creative Writing. Her fiction has appeared in the Philippine Graphic, Philippines Free Press, the UP Institute of Creative Writing’s Likhaan and Silliman University’s Sands and Coral journals. Her story collection For Love and Kisses was published by UST Publishing House, Manila, in 2014.

Contrappasso was delighted to publish Pasion-Flores’ short story ‘Love in Mini-Stops’ in our eighth issue in 2015. It begins:

SHE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIM during the monsoon season when she went out to get a bite from a Ministop store.

Even if the rains battered the glass walls of our 21st floor office, even if the winds sang a howling protest against the wisdom of their insistence to huddle under a black golf umbrella, they still went out for short orders of pork siomai, asado pao, and fried dumplings, crossing the street even if the umbrella could only keep their inner halves dry. In a storm, puddles aren’t really puddles but streams of water overflowing from the gutters to be leapt over with gingerly grace. Pia kept her hand tucked under the arm of her man as she skipped over streams on their way to, what one officemate referred to with snickering glee, their “dim sum delights.”

During monsoon weather in Manila, the skies turn a brackish grey and the southwest winds blowing from the Pacific turn potted palmeras, trees that are not quite trees, irregularly dotting the center island of Emerald Avenue, into fluttering fronds, like hands desperately calming the beating heart of a nervous bride. The Philippines is the only country in the world with no divorce, thus the words “till death do us part” sound ever so permanent. But at thirty-one, Pia was still unmarried though she was dating a man who was. Sean, the guy, was a stockbroker and a consultant for a holding company a couple of floors above ours. He was in his late forties with, I would guess, a couple of kids. But Pia doesn’t like talking about that…..

Read the whole story here:


CP Goes to the Philippines: Books Beyond Borders by Noel King



This text is based on a presentation given by Noel King at the Sixth International Philippine Literature Conference held in Davao, Mindanao, on September 20-21, 2015. This version includes some material added after that presentation.


We gather here in Davao as APEC takes place in Manila, as everybody whose airplane travel here was disrupted is aware. Australia’s new Liberal Party Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, has mentioned the 70th anniversary of Australian-Philippine connection that takes place in 2016, celebrating the opening in 1946 in Canberra, our nation’s capital, of the first Philippine Embassy in Australia. P.M. Turnbull also mentioned the fact that Australian and Philippine soldiers fought together against the Japanese in WW2.

Elsewhere I find that Australia is seventh on the list of countries that Filipinos opt for when going abroad to live and work, and we are only 15,000 people off the number 6 country, Japan. Your initial coloniser, Spain, is 11th on the list. Of course the US, with almost 3 million Filipinos resident, comfortably outranks all other countries as your choice of a place to go in the event of leaving your country.

So think of this presentation as a short description of the delights and difficulties that attach to an Australian’s attempt to track down writing from the Philippines.

My interest in Filipino poetry, fiction and non-fiction has developed only in the last few years. Since I don’t read or speak Tagalog, and nor do I know any of the 175 other languages-dialects that are spoken in the Philippines, I have been pursuing Philippine writing in English, accepting any and every piece of advice that came my way. Initially this involved my becoming aware of a range of US, UK and Australian writing set in the Philippines, and it is a distinguished body of work. It includes James Crumley’s first novel, One to Count Cadence (Random House, 1969) and Charles Willeford’s Something about a Soldier (Random House, 1986), his memoir of his time at Clark Military Base during WW2.

Highly regarded Australian writer Robert Drewe’s novel, A Cry in the Jungle Bar (Collins, 1979) is set here and around the time of writing that book Drewe described the Philippines’ history as “400 years of Spanish Catholicism and 50 years of Hollywood.” A friend in Kuala Lumpur alerted me to Alexander Garland’s The Tesseract (Penguin, 1999) and a colleague at Macquarie University put me onto Pico Iyer’s Video Night in Kathmandu (Bloomsbury, 1988) where I found his Bruce Springsteen-titled chapter on the Philippines, “Born in the USA.” John Irving’s most recent novel, Avenue of Mysteries (Simon and Schuster, 2015) is set in the Philippines.

Other suggestions came from an old friend with whom I had done some university teaching in Brisbane in the late 1970s. Historian Michael Counihan is very knowledgeable about a great many things, from south-east Asian history, to all kinds of fiction, music and media. He has a particular interest in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and the Philippines. He alerted me to Cambodian Space Project’s music, told me about the late Robert Bingham’s great novel set in Cambodia, Lightning on the Sun (Doubleday, 2000), and urged me to read P.F. Kluge’s Biggest Elvis (Viking 1996), set in the Philippines. A year later I was able to return the favour by sending him a copy of Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra’s poem, “Fat Elvis in Kamias,” from Insectissimo!, published in 2011 by University of Santo Tomas Press.

Mick also worded me up on Australian writer William Marshall’s two “Manila Bay” crime novels, Manila Bay (Secker & Warburg, 1986) and Whisper (Viking, 1988), English writer James Hamilton-Paterson’s novel, Ghosts of Manila (Jonathan Cape, 1994) and his non-fiction work, America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines (Granta, 1998). It was odd to find the Marcos book dedicated to two Londoners, Mark Cousins and Parveen Adams, known distantly to me from Cousins’ having been invited as a visiting scholar to Griffith University in its early days and Parveen Adams having been associated with a UK feminist journal of which I once had a complete run, m/f.

Under my own research steam I chased down Timothy Mo’s Brownout on Breadfruit Boulevard (Paddleless Press, 1995) with its astonishingly vulgar and hilarious nine page opening sex scene involving a very young Filipina prostitute and a grotesque, overbearing, elderly German professor. The professor has the teenage Filipina sex worker crouched over his torso, facing away from him, buttocks to his face, and the time duration involved in this act of crouching and the difficulties it entails are part of this galvanising opening. The professor is working away in the young woman’s anal area and soon a pile of shit descends on him, leading to his character’s analysis of the faecal make-up, an in-situ ontology of the turd. This analysis takes a while and other sexual acts are also performed on him before he takes the young woman into the bathroom where he has an array of instruments that will clean out her anal passage while also – as he well knows but she, being a novice at this particular sub-region of sex work activity, doesn’t – occasioning a further exciting descent of excrement onto the professorial torso. Around this time masturbatory acts occur and the professor ejaculates. This opening sequence proved too much for conventional publishing houses and Mo was obliged to self-publish. I also acquired Mo’s Renegade or Halo 2 (1999), with its epigraph from José Rizal. This book too was published from Mo’s London-based Paddleless Press.

So I had this group of names and titles but the many authorial names so well known to Filipinos weren’t known to me until I began searching out Mick’s references more thoroughly and until I read, and wrote a review of, the collection Manila Noir (Akashic, 2013) and instantly set about seeking out other works from its contributors.

As I searched more widely for Filipino writing in English, I ascertained that works by F. Sionil José, Jessica Hagedorn, Sabina Murray, Lysley Tenorio, and Gina Apostol were easy to locate, as were R. Zamora Linmark’s two novels, Rolling the Rs (Kaya Press, 1995) and Leche (Coffee House Press, 2011), and his wonderful poetry – Prime Time Apparitions (2005) and The Evolution of a Sigh (2008), both from New York’s Hanging Loose Press. Once this radial literary skip-trace had begun, my bookshelves started filling up a newly discovered special section devoted to Filipino poets, novelists, and non-fiction writers writing in English. Some Filipino music and DVDs also found their way into this emerging collection.

Coincidentally, around this same time, I had become involved with Contrappasso (Italian for ‘counter-punch’), a literary journal edited by two Australian academics in their early 30s, Theodore Ell and Matthew Asprey Gear. As I discovered more about Filipino writing I started making short trips to the Philippines, initially only to Manila, but then making it a policy to tack on side trips to other places (Dumaguete, Bohol, Cebu, Iloilo, Bacolod) in order to widen my superficial knowledge of the country. And when I was lucky enough to meet some local writers who kindly agreed to sit in front of and speak into an old cassette tape recorder for interviews – Butch Dalisay, Ichi Batacan and Andrea Pasion-Flores, Rosie Cruz Lucero – my researches started to consolidate in a way that had me hooked. Butch mentioned that he hadn’t seen a cassette recorder of that vintage for some time, and on a subsequent trip to Manila, as Ichi and Andrea said their last words into it, the machine collapsed. But those interviews were duly transcribed, speech turned into writing, and sent back to the interviewee for whatever corrections, deletions, additions he or she wanted to make. They eventually appeared in Contrappasso and on the Contrappasso website, which also ran a short story from Andrea Pasion-Flores, and poems from Zack Linmark.

It was during this period of reading myself into some kind of very basic knowledge of Filipino literature in English that I co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso with Matthew Asprey Gear. One was on Noir (sufficiently broadly defined to include fiction, poetry, photography, non-fiction) and another was on Writers at the Movies, which concentrated on what various novelists, filmmakers and poets had said about particular movies they loved, and the cinemas in which they first encountered them. The issue also included more conventional forms of critical writing about films. Some wonderful Filipino content found its way into those two issues. Meanwhile, Matthew, on a trip to Miami to see the writer, Lester Goran, adventitiously encountered Zack Linmark and commissioned material from him for Contrappasso. So, a combination of utter serendipity there, and dogged pursuit here, saw more Filipino material come forward in that journal.

As I slowly built up my collection of Filipino writing in English, using the research skills acquired from a career as an academic, skills which actually aren’t so very distant from those possessed by any true fan of some species of writing, theatre, film, music, sports, I soon found that if the books were available from amazon.co.uk, amazon.com, or abebooks.com (which Amazon now owns), they were readily acquired, as indicated earlier. But if they had to come from the Philippines it was quite another story. Then they became quite expensive. As we all know, the cost of a book on abebooks.com is directly related to its rarity. I already possessed a copy of Jose Dalisay’s Soledad’s Sister – purchased from Solidaridad bookshop, along with a few other novels, stories and poetry during a week in Manila when a typhoon turned my stay into a kind of Key Largo moment, except that I was able to toddle from my very nice hotel to Solidaridad bookshop, a nearby Robinson’s Mall, a Spanish-Filipino restaurant, and a Cowboy Grill, so it was really a great time, just with lots of rain.

A month or so before coming to this festival I checked on abebooks.com to see how much Soledad’s Sister cost, and there were two entries, now both gone. One offered a copy in “good” condition (on that abebooks.com range of ‘acceptable,’ ‘good,’ ‘very good’, and ‘fine’) which would have cost $425.00 for purchase and postage. Or I could have opted for a ‘very good’ copy to come my way from Miami at a cost of $620.32 for purchase and postage. But of course I already had a copy purchased in person in Manila for an extremely reasonable outlay, just as I had been amazingly lucky to pick up a copy of Ichi Batacan’s original novella version of Smaller and Smaller Circles for $25.00 or so when the few copies online were going for $300.00 or more. I bought Ichi’s book from a somewhat chaotically organised bookshop in Sydney called Gould’s Bookshop, in Newtown, near Sydney University. It was run by Bob Gould, an old leftie-libertarian-anarchist, Trotskyist-pacifist, until his death in 2011, and now continues to be run by others who maintain those eccentricities of filing and shelving.

It occurred to me to go directly to some Filipino publishers to purchase books, specifically the university presses that had published some of the fiction I was chasing – University of Santo Tomas Press, and the University of Philippines Press – and have the books posted directly from Manila to Sydney. I discovered that these university presses had e-books (but I was chasing codex), used B-pay and accepted bank cheques, but did not have their own credit card facilities. I went to my local bank in North Sydney and asked, as it happens, a Filipina bank teller, how much a bank cheque made out in Filipino pesos would cost. That cost was $35.00, and since the Charlson Ong book I was chasing cost about $30.00 and postage was to be $25.00, the book suddenly had an all-up cost of $85.00 and that was starting to look like a financial bridge too far.

But it ain’t over ‘til it’s over. I noticed that the Charlson Ong book was available in the US from a bookseller who did not post outside the US, while postage within the US was quite cheap. It’s not for nothing that I spent some years teaching cultural studies students about Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life, concentrating on how his ideas of “poaching” had been taken up by various studies of popular culture, from my former Curtin University colleague John Fiske’s work to Henry Jenkins’ writing. Since I had several friends working at universities in the US, I realised I could have the book sent to them and they could use their institutional postage to post it on down to me, and suddenly the book was once again available at a very reasonable price. “Poaching” always makes me think of Jean Renoir’s La règle du jeu, and the whole idea of the poacher-lord-of-the-manor relation is a bit off in some ways, a touch of the Bakhtinian idea of carnival as a “licensed blow-off,” as Terry Eagleton once characterised it. But there was no gainsaying the substantial saving in cost to the overseas book purchaser.

So I say to you, it shouldn’t have to be done this way. Why should all US-and-UK-published Filipino writers be so easy for overseas readers to access and yet, when it comes to any attempt to move a Filipino book in English from within the Philippines directly to an eager overseas buyer, difficulties arise and price-point costing kicks in, in a lose-lose way for writer and reader?


We live in a time of print-on-demand publishing and there is now an established practice (from crime fiction reprints in the UK and USA, to New York Review Books, to Text in Australia) of recirculating older, lapsed books accompanied by introductions from prominent, contemporary or more recent writers who use this introduction in part to say why this distant text is, in their view, worth revisiting, worth reading now. Why not adopt this practice here?

A nice example of this came about when Charles Portis’s True Grit was reprinted in 2005, by Bloomsbury in the UK and Overlook Press in the US, with an Introduction by Donna Tartt. Her introduction had earlier been an essay in the Canadian literary magazine, Brick. And when a tie-in version of True Grit came out to piggy back on the considerable commercial success of the Coen Brothers adaptation of the book, the lovely Donna Tartt essay was retained. Quite recently Denis Johnson has written an introduction for the NYRB reprint of Leonard Gardner’s only novel, Fat City, saying how much he learned from it, and Barry Gifford has written an introduction for the NYRB revival of Elliot Chaze’s Black Wings Has My Angel. This last is a nice closing of a long circle because Gifford had been keen to re-publish Chaze’s novel in his Black Lizard series but when that series was sold on to a larger publisher they had no interest in issuing that title.

In 1972 Matthew J. Bruccoli persuaded Southern Illinois University Press to republish a series of books under the banner of “Lost American Fiction”. The first title was Edith Summers Kelley’s Weeds and Bruccoli explains that the reception of that book “encouraged Southern Illinois University Press to mount a series that would republish obscure or unavailable works of fiction that merit a new audience.” By the time the series was wound up in 1979 twenty-nine titles had appeared over seven years in hard cover from SIUP and in paperback from Popular Library, the co-operating publisher. After the first fourteen titles had appeared, Bruccoli explained that these titles were not the result of “one editor’s judgement” but rather, “five were recommended by friends, our co-operating publisher, colleagues, even strangers who wrote enthusiastically about the series.” The only firm rule that applied was that the book “must have been originally published before World War II.” Apart from that books were measured against notions of “literary merit”, and whether the work illuminated “the literary or social history of its time.” One other sought-after quality was “’life’: does the work live? – does it have a life of its own? – does it present human nature convincingly?”

Each book was accompanied by an Afterword by a critic, academic, or writer. Carroll and Garrett Graham’s Queer People, a novel about Hollywood initially published in 1930, was reissued with an Afterword by Budd Schulberg, no doubt on the basis of his having written What Makes Sammy Run? Another title in the series was James Ross’s They Don’t Dance Much, first published in 1940 and the only novel written by the journalist. The Afterword to that book was written by George V. Higgins, no doubt on the basis of his fame as lawyer-turned-writer with The Friends of Eddie Coyle, a book that revolutionised US crime writing. The dust jacket for the issue published in Bruccoli’s series had some quotations from James Ross, one in which he said, “When I began writing this book late in 1939, I had no outline and no real plot in mind except maybe unconsciously some variation on the one Chaucer used in ‘The Pardoner’s Tale.’ There was nothing aside from a fairly clear idea of the characters, Jack, Smut, and the Fishers and Astor Legrand. I had known them all, at least in a casual way. One of them was murdered but, so far as I know, none of them was ever convicted of anything more than a misdemeanour.” The inside back flap quotes Ross as saying, “in a statement written for this new edition of his novel”:

The book was written as the Depression was ending and as the stage was setting itself and the characters assembling for the presentation of World War II. Since then, this region of the South has lost much of its rural flavour. The roadhouses have long since disappeared. Human greed and the evils it generates haven’t. Some reviewers said the novel was ‘Southern Gothic,’ suggesting a piece of fiction dealing in fantastic occurrences in an overdrawn setting. My memory is that my aim merely was to show it the way it was and leave it to the reader to reach his own conclusions as to the point of it, if there was any, or draw his own moral if he needed one.


Otto Penzler’s New York-based Mysterious Press – in its digital manifestation – recently reissued They Don’t Dance Much with an introduction by the wonderful Daniel Woodrell, which opens: “So, we are sitting in a greasy spoon, a tavern, a living room, talking about books we love that didn’t catch a break, hard-luck books of such obstinate appeal that, though they died early, just won’t stay dead. There are canonized books most of us know too well and yawn when we speak of them one more time, but far, far better are the little known literary wonders we’ve come across at flea markets, garage sales, up in grandma’s attic,” books that can now be urged “upon our friends” in order to “catch them by surprise, propose a new name for a seat at the table.” Woodrell’s next remark justifies the whole idea of any series that republishes a lost or forgotten work accompanied by a testament from a contemporary writer: “Since sometime in the 1970s the book I most often brought up first, almost always to complete silence, was They Don’t Dance Much by James Ross. I only read the book because the covert avant-gardist George V. Higgins vouched for it as both literature and a good time. Higgins was quickly proved right, and only became more right as each page was turned.” Higgins ended his piece on the enduring importance of Ross’s book by saying:

James Ross was a writer out of his season. That was too bad for him, and until this novel was retrieved from the neglect of almost twenty-five years, too bad for us too. He wrote with a fine disregard for what was popular, courageously, and his editors printed what he wrote, with equal courage, and nobody noticed. He advanced the craft of fiction as far as it could be advanced when he was writing, and no one was paying attention. Very few at least. Life’s hard, life’s very hard. It’s harder without luck

But that, of course, was what he was telling us.

Woodrell has a beautiful characterisation of Ross’s writing: “Ross writes in classically laconic, wised-up American prose. His voice suits then and now, and will carry well tomorrow.”


A legendary US publishing instance of this strategy of “reintroducing” older books, happened in 1984 when Gary Fisketjon and Jay McInerney were involved in Fisketjon’s idea of “Vintage Contemporaries,” a paperback imprint from Random House whose initial seven titles, five men and two women, included Raymond Carver’s Cathedral (McInerney had taken a creative writing course with Carver), James Crumley’s Dancing Bear, and McInerney’s first novel, Bright Lights, Big City. Understandably, McInerney was reluctant to appear first in paperback, preferring a hardback first edition as was usual at that time. He received hard cover publication in the UK but agreed to go in the US with his friend’s instinct as part of the paperback “Vintage Contemporaries.” His book immediately sold 300,000 copies and McInerney’s reputation was made.


NYRB Classics

Of late we have seen how books in the US and UK published thirty to fifty years ago are being reissued by presses like New York Review Books and attracting rave reviews and strong sales. John Williams’ Stoner is a case in point. A book which first appeared in 1965 has had an amazing international success and not because addled 1960s types were buying the book on title alone, nor because Tom Hanks was rumoured to have loved the book and optioned it. Little bookshops all over the English speaking world were putting it out with their staff endorsements – that rather twee practise of having short, hand-written endorsements extolling the book in question. Stoner is now being brought out in a special 50th anniversary edition, yet another indication of the increasing overlaps these days of trade-chain-superstore bookshops and small-indie bookstores.

In her book Reluctant Capitalists, Laura J. Miller notes that one response to the chain’s bookstore-malling of America was independent bookstores seeking to differentiate themselves by describing “the bookstore as not simply a place in which to purchase books, but as a community centre that provides meaningful services and enjoyable diversions.” This strategy was then so utterly recuperated by the chains that by the mid-1990s their bookstores had become places to have coffee, hear author readings, attend book launchings and signings, and meet with a reading group. And when one hears the ugly news that Borders Bookshops were anti-union, as Powell’s Books in Oregon is now (together with its policy of buying up any local competition), the comfortable thought of “Chain bad and Indie good” is somewhat compromised.

Miller points out that in the 1970s in areas like the Bay Area of San Francisco the generation involved in bookselling had come out of the anti-war movements of the 1960s and the pacifist movements of the 1950s. As one of her interviewees puts it, “Bookselling is one of those professions where you could go and work because you were not of the system.” But in our neo-liberal times this history has become just that, history. In the US alone one can list the names of wonderful small bookshops from New York to San Francisco and L.A, that no longer exist: Posmans near Washington Square and NYU campus, A Clean Well-Lighted Place in central San Francisco, Midnight Special in Santa Monica.


To some extent the tactic of repackaging an old text for a new readership is a book publisher’s equivalent of the frenzied DVD moment which saw the publication of all kinds of special editions, and anniversaries (10, 20, 25 years since a film’s first appearance), director’s cuts (which could mean variously that a French director who had had no interference when originally making his film had now decided to make it one hour longer – Betty Blue – while other director’s cuts might shorten the film, as was the case with Peter Weir and The Cars that Ate Paris). With dead directors cuts it could refer to reinserting some deleted scenes from Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, giving the film a new opening which places the following narrative in a quite different context, or it might be a rediscovered memo (published in Film Quarterly) in which Orson Welles indicates where he would have made changes to the Albert Zugsmith-produced version of Touch of Evil, and with historical work from Jonathan Rosenbaum and new editing work from Walter Murch, a restored print does the international festival circuit and arthouse rounds. Something of that practice accompanied the publication of the late Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, its controversial appearance being mired in various scandals around Lee’s allegedly having been swindled out of copyright, not being totally on top of things as she went about her daily routine of heading off to a club to play slot machines – a mild extravagance in a resolutely frugal lifestyle – and come home for an evening meal.


In September 2015 Serpent’s Tail press received rave reviews in The Guardian and The Weekend Financial Times on the occasion of having republished Montanan novelist David Gates’s Jernigan, a book first published in 1991 (It’s almost a twenty-fifth anniversary, so keep an eye out in 2016). Serpent’s Tail had a strong tradition of reissuing old titles. Its Midnight Classics series republished books by Horace McCoy and David Goodis, and also republished some books that had a kind of cult status or cult-film tie-in status, as with Newton Thornburgh’s Cutter and Bone which became the much admired film maudit, Cutter’s Way, from Ivan Passer. The film has a (much deserved) great critical reputation but initially it was released under the novel’s title, died a death, was re-released as Cutter’s Way and still didn’t make money, despite wonderful performances and fine directing. In its Serpent’s Tail edition Thornburgh’s novel has an introduction by George Pelecanos, saying how much he admires the book. Serpent’s Tail had published the first few crime novels from Pelecanos and of course he later gained an even larger audience by way of his involvement with the production of and writing for the hugely (correctly) lauded TV series, The Wire.

One quite recent Australian example of this publishing practice of reviving titles to try to engage a new reading public occurred in Melbourne with Text press, run by Michael Heyward. Text began regularly reprinting vanished or forgotten Australian fiction from the 1960s and 1970s. For example, they reissued all of Randolph Stow’s novels with introductions from contemporary Australian writers.

In the case of Elizabeth Harrower, Text has succeeded not only in republishing forgotten novels and short stories by an Australian author but has also managed to bring back into the literary limelight a female writer who had abandoned the writing life decades ago and had refused to publish a completed novel. That Salinger-like act of non-publication signalled Harrower’s departure from Australian literary culture. Then, in the wake of Text’s reissuing of her novels, Harrower suddenly agreed to permit publication of the long withheld text In Certain Circles. Furthermore, in November 2015, on the weekend that I was flying to the Philippines, Harrower was due to be “in conversation with Michael Heyward,” in an event taking place at Mosman Public Library, a good address on Sydney’s salubrious northern shore.

I came to the Philippines a little earlier than the dates set aside for this conference, initially into Iloilo to get over jet lag in (for me) a new city, and then came on to Davao a few days before the days for this festival, to get the lie of the land, acquaint myself a bit with this city.

As I usually do when flying anywhere I had a quick scan of the inflight magazine (in this case Cebu Air), and was delighted to find an interview with Ichi Batacan on the occasion of the U.S. publication of an extended version of her 1999 novella, Smaller and Smaller Circles in hard cover and soft cover by Soho Press in New York. At a certain point in the interview Ichi was asked the usual question – I say this is “usual” because I always ask it! – of which (in her case) Filipino writers she admired. Among her list of names – some of whom are attending this conference – she mentioned her deep admiration for Kerima Polotan’s novel, The Hand of the Enemy, which had won the 1961 Stonehill Award for Best Filipino Novel in English. As a rough rule of thumb, I think one should always trust the recommendations of writers whose work one likes, and so, after trawling abebooks.com, a copy of that book will be waiting for me back in Sydney on my return at a cost of about $130.00 for purchase and postage. In the same interview Ichi also mentioned a book about the Marcos years, Ricardo Manapat’s Some Are Smarter than Others, and that too is now on its way to my bookshelf.


Perhaps some enterprising Philippine press could embark on a project of reprinting lost or lapsed works of Filipino literature along the lines of the Vintage Contemporaries and New York Review Books lists? Why not reprint The Hand of an Enemy with a new Introduction from Ichi Batacan? Over the next two days why not approach Butch Dalisay, Mia Alvar and all the other writers’ names you know so much more readily than I, and ask them a simple question: “Which currently out of print piece of Philippine literature would you like to usher back into print and renewed circulation by way of your Introduction?”

And when this book is published, could the presses in question please have credit card facilities in place to facilitate purchases from eager overseas readers?


I now ask your indulgence as I conclude by suggesting a very large project to embark upon, one requiring several levels of government and industry assistance, and in this case the “books beyond borders” refers to the Philippines alone, as I realise was the major intention of the title of your festival.

If it is the case – as I have been told – that the Philippines has a very weak national library system, even at University level, why not try to reverse that fact? Any project that seeks to increase the possibility of literate and literary encounters in a country with 175 or so distinctive languages-dialects could begin by initiating a strong, ongoing local-community library system. Beyond the fact that such a project necessarily would involve the employment of architects, builders, the training of appropriate librarians, it would also allow you to tailor the library holdings in each centre to include, in multiple copies, what you regard as the appropriate set of national Filipino texts in Tagalog, English, etc, while also including the main texts in those languages-dialects specific to the region in question. You would take the standard contemporary definition of “text” to mean works of Filipino poetry, drama, fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, comix, DVDs, sonic-radio works plus whatever newspapers, journals, magazines, and games are deemed important and/or controversial works.

Your project would be to specify a considerable body of work to be made available to all library users. In Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (University of Chicago Press, 2012) Andrew Piper says that libraries in the US are “emerging as important actors within civic life. We have rediscovered just how important those pockets of reading are to transitive properties of urban experience.” You could run with the slogan, “Library is Coming/Library is Here,” and if you imitate the great English tradition of the public library, you would be doing so at a moment in history when countries like England and Australia are destroying this great tradition, applying moronic neo-liberal attitudes to a wonderful, democratic institution. Zadie Smith’s 2012 essay “The North West London Blues,” relates a story of the running down of the library system in contemporary London and Alan Bennett’s essay, “Baffled at a Bookcase,” describes with a devastating, sad accuracy, how libraries in the UK have been changed into “valuable marketing opportunities,” rather than continuing to provide the opportunities for poorer people to have ready access to books, learning and entertainment for a low cost.

Since you have yet to create your version of a national Library system with strong regional, municipal holdings and strengthened University library resources, it should take several decades before you try to dismantle whatever excellent system you have put in place to suit the distinctive needs of your Philippine population. Long before it occurs to you to destroy this system, hundreds of thousands of young and older Filipino readers, listeners and viewers will have benefited from its existence. For you can’t simply say, “Filipinos don’t read much” if you haven’t given a vastly poor populace the opportunity to access at no cost a strong lending-library collection. Of course the texts selected might well be more often sonic or audio-visual than poetry, novel, non-fiction, drama, but it wouldn’t all be in that direction.

The great upside to this library-building campaign, aside from the immediate and continuing employment opportunities it would provide, is that you could practise a back-to-the-future moment in which you ignore the debased, deracinated, ruined remnants of Anglo-Australia’s once-great public library system and build a wonderfully distinctive Filipino system that acknowledges the centre-margin issues that inform so much of your discussions of reading and publishing in the Philippines.

And the absolutely wonderful final feature of this imagined project is that the phrase “neo-liberal” would appear only as a book title in your non-fiction section.

Thank you for your time and patience.


Works Cited

F. H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles (New York: Soho Press, 2015)

F. H. Batacan, Smaller and Smaller Circles (Manila: University of the Philippines Press, 2005)

Alan Bennett, “Baffled at a Bookcase,” London Review of Books 33, 15 (28 July, 2011): 3-7.

Robert Bingham, Lightning on the Sun (New York: Doubleday, 2000)

James Crumley, One to Count Cadence (New York: Random House, 1969)

Robert Drewe, A Cry in the Jungle Bar (Sydney: Collins, 1979)

Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life trans. Steven F. Rendall (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1984)

Alexander Garland, The Tesseract (London: Penguin, 1999)

John Irving, Avenue of Mysteries (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015)

Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu (London: Bloomsbury, 1988)

P.F. Kluge, Biggest Elvis (New York: Viking 1996)

Laura J. Miller, Reluctant Capitalist: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007)

Andrew Piper, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times (University of Chicago Press, 2012)

Ricardo Manapat, Some Are Smarter Than Others: The History of the Marcos’ Crony Capitalism (New York: Aletheia Press, 1991)

William Marshall, Manila Bay (London: Secker & Warburg, 1986)

William Marshall, Whisper (New York: Viking, 1988)

James Hamilton-Paterson, Ghosts of Manila (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994)

James Hamilton-Paterson, America’s Boy: The Marcoses and the Philippines (Cambridge: Granta, 1998).

Kerima Polotan, The Hand of the Enemy (Manila: Regal Books/Erewhon Bookshop Distribution, 1962)

Zadie Smith, “The North West London Blues,” (2012), New York Review of Books (June 2nd, 2012), available at: http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2012/06/02/north-west-london-blues/

Lourd Ernest H. de Veyra, Insectissimo! (Manila: University of Santo Tomas Press, 2011).

Charles Willeford, Something about a Soldier (New York: Random House, 1986)

Carroll and Garrett Graham, Queer People (1930) (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1976)

James Ross, They Don’t Dance Much (New York: Mysterious Press/Open Road/Integrated Media, 2013)

James Ross, They Don’t Dance Much (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Press, 1975)

James Ross, They Don’t Dance Much (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1940)

Budd Schulberg, What Makes Sammy Run? (New York: Random House, 1941)




NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.

[Header image ‘Books’ by Flavio Ensiki @ Flickr, reproduced under this CC licence, unaltered.]

CP Goes to the Philippines: Mia Alvar’s In the Country (review)



Mia Alvar, In the Country (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015). 347pp.

“I actually didn’t know I was writing a book about class and labor until almost every review described it that way.” – Mia Alvar quoted in Sophie Nguyen’s Conversation with Mia Alvar ‘00 in Harvard Magazine (7th August, 2015)


Reading through this hugely impressive debut collection of stories set variously in the Philippines, Bahrain, and the USA, I found myself recalling a moment in the mid-1960s, from my early teens in Newcastle, NSW, Australia, when my mother was driving me to a Saturday morning football game in our 1950 F.J. Holden. The car had come with my stepfather, a carpenter-joiner whom my mother had married in 1961 after raising two boys as a single, widowed, working mum over a period of eight years.

For whatever reason, aged twelve or so, I had suddenly become strongly aware of class difference and social status while living a very happy, working class life, safe, carefree, sporty. I said to my mother that morning that since we were a bit early there was no need to drop me exactly at the sports oval (where much newer cars would be dropping off my teammates), just somewhere nearby would be fine. Of course she wouldn’t hear of that and drove me precisely where I needed to be.

A few years later we acquired a second-hand 1964 Holden E.H. Hydramatic, a much more impressive vehicle, and from then on I was very happy to be dropped off anywhere in our car. Years later the F.J. Holden would become a collectors’ car (as would the E.H. in a later period) but that retro-fetish moment had yet to arrive and the F.J. was just a very old car.

In the Country caused me to wonder, at what age do these debilitating class and status attitudes set in? Alvar’s stories explore, in superb prose, sundry awkward emotional moments of embarrassment and evasion, difficult issues concerning social class, the value and dignity of one’s occupation – whatever form of work is entailed – and one’s sense of self, with legitimate senses of pride and achievement coming up against overweening delusional pride and misconceptions of self. The stories probe questions of honour, respect and filial duty and the precise circumstances under which a person’s presumed constant attitude of obligation to family might reasonably be expected to be normative, and under what circumstances it might be withdrawn.

The stories are totally accomplished at all levels, from the micro ‘level of the sentence,’ as practitioners and some literary critics like to phrase it, and at the more macro level of narrative through-line, deft complications of plotting, gradual revelations of back-story, astute temporal shifts, all concerning an array of utterly engaging characters from all social levels. Alvar’s stories show her to be a perfect deployer of what Roland Barthes once called “le petit fait vrai,” the small, emblematic, quotidian detail that results in what we used to call “the realistic-effect” (to prove that we knew writing was a representational system composed of various codes and conventions that had various ways of luring us in to a fictional world.) As they bring to life their varied characters and locales, the stories also recall the great phrase Jean-Luc Godard once used to describe what he felt was the obligation of film, whether fictional or documentary, an act of “bringing in the evidence.”

Among the wonderful array of characters and narrators on offer in In the Country are: a US white Wonder Bread model visiting the Philippines for a photography shoot, recalling her time with a half Filipino fellow model flatmate who has died; male overseas Filipino workers in Bahrain; a prominent political Filipino figure working in the US as a public service official. In every story sharp dialogue exchanges see confrontations played out and invidious truths told, but equally often we encounter a character’s private, unstated thoughts, reproaches, observations. Accusations are held back out of a given character’s sense of family loyalty and remembered rules of “bienséance.” In these cases, the reader becomes the only person privy to a character’s capacity for self-control, and ability to grudgingly bite the tongue in order to allow a social milieu’s traditional protocols of respect, deference, and politeness to be upheld. In these instances devastating moments of critique and revelation are not uttered to another character who monumentally deserves a serve for delusional, self-obsessed behaviour. In “The Virgin of Monte Ramon,” the mother self-presents as a Filipino version of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, or perhaps the Maggie Smith character in Gosford Park, that familiar image of someone who has known better, more wealthy, fêted, beautiful days, and has absolutely no interest in cutting her cloth to suit her current straitened economic circumstances. In this story, the heart-breaking revelation of the real circumstances that caused the condition of the wheelchair-confined young male narrator, the tragic, distant, historical event that has blighted this family and which underpins the grotesque daily household façade, comes from the long-suffering, selfless G.P. Dr Delacruz who, for decades, has tried to help this household and its occupants. All his young life our narrator has recognised that “it was not so easy to name my status. How should I explain the fine house, and the servants who were sometimes paid in bowls or jewels to maintain it?” Of Dr Delacruz, he says, “I felt sure that he knew the truth but was too gallant to expose my mother.”

Into this lonely boy’s compromised life comes an angel named Annelise, the daughter whose mother, also named Annelise, has been doing domestic work in his house. The Annelise family comes from a nearby ravine shantytown, which has no electricity. Young Annelise saves the young lad from his loneliness and provides him with a vision of how to survive in the face of everyday jokes about his crippled body. She also surprises him and all their classmates by not bowing to Sister Carol’s chastising of her for her classroom behaviour: “I’d never heard a child speak to adults with such boldness, or stand almost with pride while being disciplined.” This image of a strong, young female whose courage and eloquence seem way beyond her years, is reported to us by this more demure, infinitely less self-assertive male friend. And, come story’s end, their friendship endures.



Mia Alvar. Photo by Michael Lionstar

If in some of these stories it is the reader alone who learns the true shape of diegetic events by eavesdropping on the heroically repressed, exasperated thoughts and musings of thoroughly honourable, hardworking souls, happily, on other occasions these same Filipino rules of politesse are challenged forcefully, often by feisty young women who have no time whatsoever for unearned expectations of the continuance of inter-generational power relations, familial or non-familial, nor for the domineering, even abusive, expectation that an institutional arrangement (as in the classroom teaching situation alluded to above) should always prevail on its own terms. History has taught this younger generation that there is nothing to be gained from continuing obeisance, as this remark from “Shadow Families” indicates: “Our mothers’ sad, hard lives had taught us just how much a man’s good looks and silky voice were worth.”

“Legends of the White Lady” tells the story of two flatmate friends and models, alluded to earlier, who travel from New York to Manila on a job. The Manila setting allows all kinds of conversations working from the white female US model’s perspective that presumes anyone living in Manila would jump at the chance to blow that town and go Stateside, only to find these unthinking first-world expectations contradicted at almost every point.

Each of Alvar’s stories establishes some sort of dialogue – muted or explicit – between the Philippines and an overseas setting (Bahrain, US). Where is the right place to be? If you go to the US, as so many university educated Filipinos have done on various US scholarships (Fulbrights, etc), what is your relation to the politics and culture of the land you have left? “Old Girl” presents a portrait of a supportive, indulgent, clear-eyed wife of a Filipino public servant who has been given a job in the US, far from the political uncertainties of the Philippines. While they and their children clearly benefit from the privilege and safety of this first-world posting, a conversation with the home country remains, stated and unstated, about the thought of return, a wondering whether any authentic Filipino cultural-political life could be lived outside one’s country of origin. For much of the story the husband is training to run a marathon at an age when he shouldn’t be running anywhere and eventually he is diverted from this self-imposed grand-standing desire, but not before all the family has been drawn into this vanity, prompting the wonderful wife to muse, “She’s thinking how a marathon is like a marriage: the long haul, the ups and downs, the tests of endurance and faith, the humbling, undiscovered country.”

Among the other stories we have a terrific, sad scrutiny of a Filipino male’s situation working in Bahrain, a man whose sexual drive and slightly reckless way of being in the world is always threatening his safety anywhere, but certainly in a country which has strict rules about such matters. “Esmeralda” is a beautiful story, told in second-person against the tragedy that was 9/11. It outlines a brief encounter, an equal exchange of erotic, emotional, intellectual simpatico-ness achieved in an unequal context where a Filipino cleaning woman is working in the Twin Tower offices of a businessman whose wife is dying of cancer. The two find a brief and profound tenderness together. Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City was told in second-person and I suspect McInerney got that idea from the start of Don DeLillo’s Running Dog as much as from any then-contemporary beer commercial. McInerney reviewed some of DeLillo’s early novels, up to the publication of White Noise and so he would have been drawn to the opening sentences of Running Dog: “You won’t find ordinary people here. Not after dark, on these streets, under the ancient warehouse canopies. Of course you know this. This is the point. It’s why you’re here, obviously.”

The title story of In the Country visits one of the major topics and challenges of contemporary Philippine writing, the era of the Marcos regime, martial law, student protests, arrests, imprisonments, deaths. Alvar’s story focuses on the question of the extent to which one can always oppose all things tyrannical and draconian, continuing to act on the lifetime-held, second-nature convictions of a male investigative journalist when such political activism could put one’s wife and child at risk. It was precisely this political-investigative-journalist persona that initially attracted the young female Communications student, leading to their living together and having a butterball son, and later a daughter, together. Alvar’s perfectly orchestrated temporal shifts back and forward move the reader around different years (1986, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1976, 1979, 1981, 1983, 1984, 1985) from this defining moment in Philippine political history and across this couple’s long relationship until an absolutely devastating conclusion is handed down.

New York writer Jane DeLynn once said the way she worked her way into a new novel was by experimenting with phrases and word clusters until she eventually found “sentences that can lead me someplace.” In Mia Alvar’s collection of stories we encounter beautiful sentences that have enabled this writer to range across a compelling array of locales pertaining to Filipino experience as overseas workers, as diasporically displaced, as economic migrants/émigrés, and as Filipinos who did not leave, who stayed on, stayed at home. With these sentences Alvar has found, abundantly, a way to take her readers to some very confronting psycho-geographical places, unflinchingly presenting the myriad difficulties – personal, social-political, sexual, economic – of life in these locales.

French historian Michel de Certeau once used the phrase, “arts de faire,” which carried the two meanings of an art or craft of making-creating, and also an art of getting by/making do. It is as if Mia Alvar has created a fictional universe in which those two meanings occupy the centre of the everyday lives of her characters. But the final miracle of this collection is that, while always respecting the realities of these oftentimes hard, sad, troubled lives and their social contexts, the author does not allow the last word be one of despair and miserablism. Instead we encounter an array of beguiling, admirable characters who have found ways of surviving and prevailing.

This compelling debut so fully displays the writer’s remarkable talents for all aspects of storytelling that readers of In the Country will really be hanging out for Alvar’s next collection of stories or her first novel.

See also: Noelani Piters, The Rumpus Interview with Mia Alvar, The Rumpus (July 29th, 2015)




NOEL KING has worked in many Australian universities, in a variety of media and cultural studies contexts: at Griffith University (1977-1980), the South Australian College of Advanced Education (now the University of SA, 1980-1886), Curtin University (1986-1989), UTS (1989-2001), the University of Tasmania (2002-2003), and Macquarie University (2003-2012). He has co-edited two special issues of Contrappasso on Noir and Writers at the Movies.