I was planning on discussing the local social push (not a review as I haven't read the book) of Moondogs by Alexander Yates but as I was deliberating about the subject, I discovered what I really wanted to talk about isn't specifically the author and the book per se, but the phenomenon of "international publishing" (one example is the ability to order books from the US/UK but not from other countries) and how this shapes the Filipino reader/buyer's mentality.
The short answer is it's complicated.
For the longer answer, read on.
Yates released his novel, Moondogs, under Doubleday (an imprint of Random House, one of the Big Six) earlier this year. Now as a speculative fiction reader, this is one of those books that would have flown past my radar as it wasn't marketed as a speculative fiction book despite elements like a cigarette-smoking rooster (no relation to Elmer) or a group of soldiers with superhero-like powers (again, I haven't read the book and basing this on feedback and reviews). It all seem fantastical, or at the very least probably falling under the label "magic-realism" but marketing it as Fiction will probably garner Yates more sales in the long run. Which isn't really a new argument as it won't be the last speculative fiction book shelved under Fiction (nor is that necessarily a bad thing).
However, there are other considerations. It's set in the Philippines for example (again, I'll leave it to others who have read it to judge whether it counts as cultural appropriation or not). To be fair to Yates, he's spent 15 years of his life here (including high school).
On one hand, it's possible to interpret it as a foreigner writing about the Philippines and that's not new either, whether it's Robert Heinlein (honestly, Starship Troopers's protagonist is superficially Filipino, but by virtue of being identified as a Filipino, it's enough to attract the attention of local genre fans) or Neal Stephenson (I haven't read Cryptonomicon but friends who've read it are thrilled at his depiction of the country).
On the other hand, we can embrace Yates as one of our own, a Filipino by culture if not by heritage. And how different is that from some of our expat writers like Jessica Hagedorn or Miguel Syjuco who were raised here before migrating elsewhere? Which isn't to say that their writing is any less Filipino, just a different kind of Filipino. (And to add more confusion to the mix, it's also a different dynamic when an expat who's never been to the country writes about it, or encounters the Philippines for the first time as an adult.) Again, this isn't anything new or unique.
Recently though, there's this push from National Bookstore--reaching out to local book bloggers--to help promote Yates's local book tour (there was also another one at the Manila International Book Fair together with Samantha Sotto
That's not a bad thing, mind you, and I'm thrilled the Philippines is being included in fiction abroad (hopefully not at the expense of Orientalism), but there's also a point where I wonder if the author and the book is getting attention locally precisely because it's not published here (the premise of the Manila International Book Fair panel after all is "Life of a Novelist: How to Get Published by the World's Largest English Language Trade Publisher"). That raises a lot of questions: Do local authors have similar opportunities? Another is how local readers are receptive to books published locally vs. those published in the US/UK, as one of the questions posed by Filipino Reader Con was whether local readers read Filipino Literature.
There's the streak of novels by Filipino authors whose claim to fame is winning or short-listed for an international award, or published abroad: Soledad's Sister, Ilustrado, Before Ever After, etc. I'm not saying don't get published abroad or don't attempt to win prizes (and that's what I do in this blog, spread awareness of Filipino books and authors to an international audience), but as a reader, I start questioning my habits: am I reading this solely because it was recognized (either by an award-giving body or a publisher) internationally? If it didn't win any awards, would I purchase it from a local publisher and give it a chance? And to illustrate that fact, that's the appeal of Spot.ph's article on "10 Pinoy Authors in the International Publishing Scene".
I also want to point out the phenomenon of Filipino readers craving novels when a lot of local output revolves around short stories (there's also the fact that the Don Carlos Palanca Memorial Awards for novel is only once every three years instead of annually). How much is that shaped by innate preference (short stories have no appeal to some readers just as novels might not interest them) and how much is that influenced by Imperialism and Colonialism?
Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards sponsored by Fully Booked and Neil Gaiman. I was meaning to post my reflections on the event last year but didn't get around to doing so, but here were my reservations back in 2010:
I'm thankful for Gaiman's generosity in funding and establishing the Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards, yet in the bigger picture, there are downsides to his association with the awards. The first is how the awards eventually revolves around its patron. If you take out Gaiman from the equation, I doubt that the awards ceremony would draw this many people, or that the anthology would sell as much copies. It is my belief that it is for this reason that the ceremony and book launch is timed with Gaiman's visit to the Philippines (and let's face it, it is quite expensive to fly in Gaiman every time there's an awarding or book launch). On a certain level, Gaiman is aware of this problem--at least when it comes to the funding and production. In this video (at the 4:00 min. mark), he cites how he wants the awards to be more autonomous, at how it would continue on even if he wasn't present.
The second lacking that I see, as it were, is in the area of the contestants. For some participants, the biggest reward is in meeting Gaiman. Not that it's a bad thing per se, but it begs the question: if Gaiman wasn't present, would the contestants still write and submit their stories? The other problem isn't limited to this contest or publication: what happens next to these writers? There are some writers whom I see continue to submit to other publications and contests, but these tend to be writers who are active in the first place. The rest, however, seem to stop, either because there's no prize money (and I'm not saying that's a bad thing--writers deserve to be paid for their fiction after all) or because Gaiman isn't sponsoring the event. If the aim of the contest is to discover and encourage new blood, where are the new blood so to speak? Why aren't they submitting to other venues and continue writing? (Obviously, I'm not blaming the contest itself here. But the contest does tend to attract people who write specifically for the contest, and then stop altogether--or at least it seems so to me; I could be wrong, and want to be proven wrong.)
The third problem isn't a problem for me per se, but still needs to be said. The Philippines tends to be over-critical of some things, and the reason why the term "speculative fiction" was challenged by the literati here is because it originates from abroad (i.e. colonialism). So here comes Gaiman who is championing Philippine speculative fiction, and he's a foreigner. Again, personally, I'm open arms for his contribution in nurturing the local scene, but I can also envision where encouragement comes from within as opposed from without. It also says something that the local literature scene criticizes local authors who champion Philippine speculative fiction, but are mum when it comes to Gaiman.
Again, this is not to espouse burning bridges with everything that doesn't originate from the Philippines like a pre-Meiji era Japan, but these are critical questions that don't get talked about publicly. (That's not to say that the Graphic/Fiction awards didn't produce a lot of excellent work or nurtured some great talent. While we can laud its positive benefits, it's also vital to assess points of criticism.)
As far as personal practicality is concerned, I'm wondering how is it possible to draw attention to local authors, and convince Filipino readers to read their work. Dean Francis Alfar, for example, has been promoting Philippine speculative fiction here for the past few years, and let's be honest: the crowd a Philippine Speculative Fiction book launch would draw pales in comparison to the numbers Neil Gaiman attracts when he came to promote the launch of The Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards anthologies, even if the content of the books are related (of course there are also other factors to consider, such as awareness, availability, marketing, etc.).
What I mentioned above might come off as a rant, but I have reasons to be optimistic. There is the much-maligned Romance genre for example and I don't think the readership for Filipino romance books will be dwindling anytime soon. Related to that is the Chick-Lit genre and while Summit Media is expanding into the territory of mobile phones, we also have authors like Mina V. Esguerra who is self-publishing in venues like the Kindle, and acquiring a readership (internationally if not locally--see, I'm doing it too!). PsiCom is also doing well with its horror line. So it is possible to nurture a rich, local readership. The dilemma is in expanding it to other fields.
Trese and Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah have an enormous fanbase here and the tragedy is that I'm not able to really promote it outside of the country due to it being unavailable elsewhere (Andrew Wheeler describes Trese as "...some of the very best urban fantasy I've ever seen, set in a distinctive culture I don't already know everything about, with wonderfully atmospheric art from Baldisimo."). I'm really impressed with Carlo Vergara, especially how he handles gay themes in his comics, not just in Zsa Zsa Zaturnnah but even in his earlier, now out-of-print graphic novel One Night in Purgatory. Or the fact that the former is written in Filipino.
photo taken from GMA News
Perhaps the best reason to remain positive is that new books will continue to be published, regardless of whether it achieves commercial success or not, in print or electronic form. Take for example Visprint's latest release, Dumot by Alan Navarra: it's weird, not easily categorized, and utilizes both English and Filipino. I'm honestly skeptical whether it'll be as popular as some of Visprint's other titles, but I'm excited that such a book is getting published by a midsized local publisher.
And despite my criticisms earlier in the essay, I'm just as excited as any reader that the Philippines is getting written about, that we have authors coming to the country (Junot Diaz is coming to Manila!). Local readers are discovering all sorts of authors in different genres and that's always a good thing.