What makes a Filipino novel?
Should it be set in the Philippines? “Illustrado,” another novel written by a Filipino and published in the US is set in the Philippines and New York. The young adult novel, “Tall Story” by Filipino-British writer Candy Gourlay and published in London and Manila, has the older brother living in San Andres, a small town in the Philippines, and the younger sister in London.
Should it at least have one Filipino character? In Jessica Hagedorn’s most recent novel “Toxicology” the main character’s cousin is a Filipino illegal immigrant in the US. William Paulinha, a Filipino posing as a Chinese Feng Shui expert, is the protagonist in “Fixer Chao” by Han Ong? Incidentally, both “Illustrado” and “Fixer Chao” were featured in the New York Times’ Book Review.
“Before Ever After” is the first one (novel) I’ve encountered that is not pushing a political agenda,” writes Van Totanes, resident blogger of Filipinolibrarian.blogspot.com.
During my early years in New York, I took a class under Ninotchka Rosca, author of “State of War” which discussed the Philippines during the Marcos years. Around the same time, Sionil Jose’s novel, “Dusk” (“Po-on” in the Philippines), about a family in the Philippines during WW II, was reviewed in the New York Times. Mr. Totanes is right. Many Philippine novels have Philippine politics and history as the background. Other books by Philippine authors covered by the US mainstream media that have politics and history in the background: “When the Elephants Dance” by Tess Uriza Holthe and “When the Rainbow Goddess Wept” by Cecilia Manguerra Brainard. Both are set in WW II. The US National Book Award nominee “Dogeaters” by Jessica Hagedorn embodies the chaos of the Marcos years. In 1997, “Dogeaters,” was adapted as a play and later staged in the experimental but well established Public Theatre in the East Village in New York City and Joseph Estrada’s presidency was added in the final scene.
Filipino books as gifts
In 2001, there was a symposium on “Filipino Literature and the Arts in the Diaspora” in New York. Many Filipino and Filipino American writers spoke: Perla Daly, Eric Gamalinda, Bino Realuyo, Lara Stapleton, Eileen Tabios, among others.
One of the speakers talked about how a US-based editor told her about how much she liked the novel of that Filipino American writer BUT, the editor said, in her experience, books by writers of Filipino and Filipino American writers do not sell.
For a while, I dated a Filipino-American writer and film maker, and he supposed that maybe it is because our country has so much Western influence that that it is not as exotic as India or China to readers in the US market.
The speaker in the symposium also blamed our colonial mentality. When was the last time, she asked the mostly Filipino audience, did you give a Filipino book as a gift? In one Filipino fund raising ball, she was dismayed to learn that the raffle prize was a Coach bag! (This was in 2001.) “Why not give the latest book published by a Filipino?,” she suggested.