“HELLO FROM THE OTHER SIDE”: 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.
2015 Soho Press edition
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.
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.
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)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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.]