Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Essay: The Phobia of Writing for the International Market and Philippine Speculative Fiction

Every Wednesday, I'll have an essay or a feature on any topic that catches my fancy!

Here in the Philippines, when I start talking about Filipinos taking their work abroad, there is often some hesitation. Many people in the writing community and the academe are wary, the value of their own craft being important to them. From my understanding, their fears can be summed up in two points: they don't want the Philippines to be exoticized nor do they want to pander to an international market. (Another reason is that they want to be read here in the Philippines but I can't refute that.)

Let me elaborate on both issues. For me, the fear of being exotic and pandering to an international market are more or less identical. An issue with writers is the concept of "selling out" or writing for the sake of profit rather than art (not that there's anything wrong with -gasp- writing for money) and they usually associate an international audience with that mentality. Prabda Yoon, a Thai writer, for example in the recent Philippine International Writers Festival mentioned that other people typically expected Thai writers to talk about drugs since that was the public perception (outside of Thailand). Or that Thai locals never referred to Bangkok as Bangkok. So to many local writers, one of the worst things you can do is to reaffirm the stereotype.

I can only speak in terms of Philippine Speculative Fiction since that is what I am most familiar with. Philippine Speculative Fiction has made some progress when it comes to getting published internationally (perhaps not incredibly popular but we've finally gotten our feet wet). Dean Francis Alfar for example has been published in print in publications like The Year's Best Fantasy & Horror, Rabid Transit, and Exotic Gothic 2. Kristin Mandigma's fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld while ex-pats Chiles Samaniego and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz works have been published in Weird Tales (famously known for printing H.P. Lovecraft's short stories). Then there's the various online venues such as Fantasy Magazine and Bewildering Stories where a few Filipinos have gotten their work accepted.

Going back back to the idea of pandering to an international market, again, I want to stress the fear of Filipinos that foreigners will want to read about an idealized Philippines, one with beaches and natives instead of, say, the urban landscape that can at times be "more America than America." While these fears are arguably warranted, there's a point where this phobia is an idealized concept by Filipino writers, the same way a foreigner might think the Philippines is nothing but a tropical paradise devoid of modern luxuries such as electricity.

For example, The Year's Best Fantasy and Horror includes an Honorable Mentions list and a few Filipino works are cited. Why just last year, we had eight stories mentioned. Here's the list:

"Hamog" by Joanna Paula L. Cailas
"The Datu's Daughters" by Raymond G. Falgui
"Pedro Diyego's Homecoming" by Apol Lejano-Massebieau
"In Earthen Vessels" by Rodello Santos
"Sidhi" by Yvette Natalie U. Tan
“The Ascension of Our Lady Boy” by Mia Tijam
“The River Stone Heart of Maria Dela Rosa” by Kate Aton-Osias
“Stella for Star” by Yvette Natalie U. Tan

The first six stories saw print in Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 3. Look, that book for the most part is circulated in the Philippines. I don't think the writers ever imagined that their work would ever be read internationally. They were really writing for Filipinos. "Pandering to an international market" probably never entered their mind and well, editors abroad enjoyed their work. I think what surprised everyone (me, the editors of Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 3, and the author herself) was the inclusion of "The Ascension of Our Lady Boy," not because it wasn't well-written, but because the tone and voice is very colloquial. I think we underestimated foreign readers that they wouldn't understand it. For example, the said work includes lines like "I know, it's so Bagets! But growing up, Aga Muhlach was the crush-ng-bayan and now it's just yummy-ulam-pahingi-pa-ng-kanin Papa Piolo Pascual!"

In the same list, Yvette Tan mentioned in an interview that she previously hadn't tried marketing her fiction abroad because she thought Americans wouldn't appreciate her work--at least the stories that she had previously written. Yet here are two works that were acclaimed, "Sidhi" originally written for the Palancas (and winning third prize in the Futuristic Fiction category) while "Stella for a Star" a runner-up in the Philippine Graphic/Fiction Awards (which was judged by Filipinos).

Back in 2006, another story that was included in the Year's Best Fantasy and Horror honorable mentions list is Francezca C. Kwe's "Lovelore" which was originally printed in The Philippines Free Press and later reprinted in Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 1. I don't think neither Tan nor Kwe's citation was a fluke and maybe there's something that both Filipinos and readers abroad can appreciate.

When it comes to online magazines, Kristin Mandigma's "Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-Realist Aswang" was originally intended for Philippine Speculative Fiction Vol. 2 and only later on found a home at Clarkesworld. The author told me that she queried the editor whether she needed to further elaborate and explain the events happening in the story (there's a lot of allusions to Philippine culture and myth after all) but the latter said it wasn't necessary. And for the most part, I think readers of the said magazine enjoyed the story as it is. Another example is Nikki Alfar's "Glass" which got accepted in Fantasy Magazine. This was originally submitted to a dragon-themed anthology locally but because of delays, was submitted elsewhere. It isn't pandering or exoticizing if your original target audience were Filipinos.

Oh, and allow me to toot my own horn with citing the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler which are all reprints of existing speculative fiction stories written by Filipinos. One of the stories that got BoingBoing'd was Khavn Dela Cruz's "The Family That Eats Soil" which was a translation of a local piece. Another story that foreign readers latched on to was FH Batacan's "Keeping Time" because of its science fiction biology element. The piece was originally published in The Philippines Free Press and later won the 2008 Free Press Literary Awards. I don't think majority of my writers ever expected that they would have an international audience yet the website has over 10,000 hits in less than four months since it was originally set-up. The virtual anthology was even mentioned in the Carl Brandon Society Blog, a website "dedicated to improving the visibility of people of colour in the speculative genres of science fiction, fantasy, horror, magical realism, etc."

What I also like about Philippine Speculative Fiction is that it reaches out to Filipinos, not just those in the country but those outside of it. There have been Filipino contributors hailing for Singapore, America, New Zealand, France, etc. And for me, I feel that there's a certain injustice when our own works, with a limited print-run of a thousand or so copies, don't go beyond our borders. What about Filipinos living abroad, who don't have access to the books here?

Now I'm not saying that Filipino writers shouldn't be careful in what they write, especially when it comes to writing for a global audience. But it's been my experience that when it comes to speculative fiction, what Filipino readers and writers read are also the same things that international readers want to read as well. And perhaps, just perhaps, aren't we underestimating the intelligence of the international audience? Can our preconceptions about them not be as erroneous as the stereotype of the typical Filipino? We're not immune to bias and close-mindedness after all. And as far as the writers and works mentioned above, there were no compromises made to their fiction, save perhaps in those in the service of the story.

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