Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Essay: Why I Promote Philippine Speculative Fiction

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

I owe this essay to Mary Anne Mohanraj's recent entry at John Scalzi's blog, the reason for which I'll explain in the next paragraph. The elephant in the room, which I must tackle in this first paragraph, is RaceFail '09. Now I'm not an American, but the RaceFail issue is just as relevant here in the Philippines (which is to say we--especially myself--are not without our own prejudices and biases). My honest reaction to the debate is that I sympathize with both sides. Both parties bring up good points. But on the other hand, there's also parts where I'm simply shaking my head and again, participants on both sides are at fault. It's difficult finding the balanced response and thankfully, I didn't have to write it: Mary Anne Mohanraj Gets You Up to Speed Part 1 and Part 2 is what I would refer to others when it comes to the RaceFail issue, not only because it clarifies some points, but offers solutions as well, especially to fellow writers (because I also have fears about writing "the other").

I bring up Philippine Speculative Fiction because there are a couple of statements which resonated with me in Mohanraj's essay. Here's the first one:
It’s so much easier for you or I to get published in America than it is for local Sri Lankan writers to get published, I can’t tell you. The difference of scale between the American publishing industry and Sri Lankan publishing is enormous. There’s only one major Sri Lankan press that I know of, and when they applied for the rights to publish my book in Sri Lanka, they couldn’t afford the $600 HarperCollins asked, because that translated to effectively $6000 in Sri Lanka, which would have destroyed their annual budget.
Simply substitute Sri Lanka with The Philippines and that more or less describes the publishing scene in my country. First, there's the cost of living. Minimum wage in the country is roughly $7 a day, not $7 an hour. That's well and good with basic commodities but for everything else, it's a huge discrepancy. For example, I've been working in a small publishing company for the past five years and I'd still be earning significantly more working at a McDonalds in the US than in my present job. Second, there's our local publishing industry. Aside from the systematic hurdle that is called "distribution," most of the Fiction books in the country, even those coming from the "big" publishers, usually have a print run of a few thousand at best. The only exception to this rule is the romance genre and perhaps chick lit (and that's not to say we haven't published local versions of foreign books such as The Little Prince or Jessica Hagedorn's novels).

The other statement that rings true to me is this:
The point is, given this discrepancy, I feel that it behooves me, as an American author who benefits from Sri Lankan material, to do everything I an to promote Sri Lankan authors. Primarily, that means buying and reading their books, posting reviews, spreading the word. I also try to help bring the good ones to America to give readings, and put them in touch with my agent, in the hopes that it might help them get published here.
Obviously, I'm not Mohanraj; I'm not an American author, I don't have a US-published book, and I don't have an agent. But what I can relate to is that desire to promote Filipino authors. I don't think my blog is as popular as Scalzi's for example but hopefully it's getting the word out, if only to a tiny audience. And that's not to say I'm not the only one doing so. There's the Carl Brandon Society, Writers of Color 50 Book Challenge, The World SF News Blog, and the occasional posts from Jeff Vandermeer, and John Klima (over at Tor).

Let me clarify something though. It's not just Philippine speculative fiction that needs to be championed. There's a lot of other speculative fiction from other cultures out there, whether it's China, Korea, India, Russia, Poland, or some other country which we haven't heard of. I choose Philippine speculative fiction because it's what resonates the most, me being a Filipino, and this is where I can do the most good. It all boils down to setting individual goals one at a time. For now, it's Philippine speculative fiction for me. And let me clarify that when I speak about Philippine speculative fiction, I'm talking about prose written in English. There are some who expect me to champion the entire span of Philippine speculative fiction which includes comics and the various works written in our other native languages (some of which I haven't even heard of) but that's honestly too much of a burden for me. If you're interested in Philippine comics, speculative or otherwise, I recommend Gerry Alanguilan. If you're looking for Philippine speculative fiction not in English, well, I'm still waiting for someone to take up that responsibility because my Filipino isn't as polished as my English, and I'm an idiot when it comes to our hundred other dialects.

The question you might be asking is why Philippine speculative fiction? To me, it all boils down to variety. Speculative fiction from other countries provide an alternative to what's dominant or mainstream. You might be an American reader who's tired of the Tolkienesque clones or urban fantasy that's dominated the bookshelves for the past decade. Or you might be a Filipino who's residing in a foreign country and looking for a story that you can relate with more. Or you might be someone of color who's interested in what's similar or what's different when it comes to the fiction of your culture and that of a Southeast Asian country. Personally, I simply want us to have a voice, and whether that becomes popular or profitable is best left for readers to decide. But before that can happen, it has to be published and promoted (so that people are aware of it).

My other agenda in promoting Philippine speculative fiction abroad is because it's nearly impossible for Filipino writers to make a living in this country writing fiction. The reality is that publishers only print a thousand or two copies of a book is because that's only what the local market can support. To me, there's a big discrepancy between a foreign book like Twilight or Harry Potter as opposed to local novels. You'd think Philippine books would at least sell profitably in their country but that's not the case. The irony is that if a local author is published abroad by a big publisher, there's a better chance that his or her book will reach more readers here (because it's cheaper and there's more copies to go around) than if it was published locally originally. Or even if that generalization is flawed (I don't think it is or I wouldn't be claiming it otherwise), at the very least authors have options beyond local publishing.

It's difficult talking about Philippine speculative fiction to an international audience because our work doesn't even get there. I sometimes joke that I could be making up this industry called Philippine speculative fiction and nobody abroad would know. Thankfully, we have the Internet and it's changing not just business but culture. There's some published Philippine speculative fiction available online and I've compiled them here. Another project of mine last year was The Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler which reprints stories that me and my co-editor Mia Tijam enjoyed.
Now let me talk about The Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler for a bit. I'd like to thank everyone who mentioned and talked about it, whether it's authors like Tobias Buckell and JM McDermott, or news sites like BoingBoing, Futurismic, and SF Signal (there's a lot of other sites I didn't mention that plugged it and I want to say thank you). I've also seen it mentioned in discussions (or rather, the comments section) that goes back to RaceFail '09 to the point that I feel I'm unintentionally taking advantage of the issue.

Now this is greedy of me to say but I hope you get a chance to read The Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler. I want feedback, positive or negative, and start discussions on it in your blogs and forums and wherever else you feel comfortable talking about it. I suspect, and this may be unfair of me, that the sampler is more of a website that people refer to rather than actually read (and perhaps that's a failing on my part). Maybe you actually don't like the stories featured. Or find them to be too alien. And if that's the case, I want to thank you for actually taking the time and expressing your opinions. Discussion for me is important because it sends a message to the community and to the publishers. Maybe Philippine speculative fiction doesn't really appeal to the market. If that's the case, at least it came from you. Or maybe you're really, really interested in it. Publishers won't take my word for it and that's why I'm relying on the community to speak out. Make it a meme or something.

Mind you, that advice doesn't simply apply to Philippine speculative fiction. It could be American Indian fiction. Or Korean short stories. Again, the Carl Brandon Society and The World SF News Blog are great resources. There's also the upcoming The Apex Book of World SF edited by Lavie Tidhar which features stories from Asia and Europe. If you're interested in supporting fiction from writers of color, help spread the word and hopefully vote with your wallet. That's the most effective way of telling publishers you want such stories, and hopefully will give rise to a sequel (which in turn will cover other countries such as South America or Africa). Talking and promoting fiction from around the world feels apt. It might have felt out of place two decades ago but now seems the perfect time.
There's honestly some selfishness involved in promoting Philippine speculative fiction. When I point out such stories to other people, I feel a certain pride. I didn't write that story but giving an opportunity for it to be read by others is a different kind of joy. Perhaps the closest analogy is why editors continue to publish short fiction magazines and anthologies. The other reward I get is when I read about an author who gets revitalized when their story is published, reprinted, or praised. In a country like the Philippines where there isn't much acclaim to writing fiction, a timely compliment or acknowledgment might be what motivates someone to keep on writing.

The last part is important because I can't promote Philippine speculative fiction if it wasn't being written in the first place. I mean I'd love to produce and gain acclaim for Philippine speculative fiction but that's honestly beyond my skill level right now. Authors like Dean Francis Alfar and Rochita Loenen-Ruiz are relatively prolific in the international field but there are also other authors who are skilled or have raw talent, both local and abroad. I want to showcase the plethora of what we have here--even those that aren't necessarily my preferences--and let readers decide.

And ultimately that's the reality. I can be the best promoter in the world but if I don't have good writers to promote or a community to address, all the skill in the world won't make it happen. I want Philippine speculative fiction to be read, perhaps an anthology or two published internationally in the next few years to showcase the writings of our writers. I'm impressed with Australian and Canadian speculative fiction because they're not only prolific but they're effectively being distributed. I want Philippine speculative fiction to be that way (along with those from other countries such as Sri Lanka) but I can't do it alone.


Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Thank you for making it public.

I've xposted the link a bit.

I do have two specific questions, and I hope that you'll answer them at your earliest convenience:

1) You've written "...I sympathize with both sides." My question is, how do you define both sides?

2) You've also written "participants on both sides are at fault. "
Would you be more specific please as to what has been problematic, as you define problematic, as it pertains to the sides that you mention but neither define nor describe?

Thank you!

As to the Philippine Speculative Fiction Sampler, I'm only one of several people who's mentioned it online and in meatspace to people.

When I've read through all of it, I'll most likely be sending in a written response.

Best wishes,


Charles said...

I don't really want to go into that topic right now since it's a discussion unto itself and my essay is only loosely related to that subject (which is to say if RaceFail never happened, there'd still be an essay like this).

For #1, a broad generalization could be the non-POC writing about POC (i.e. Elizabeth Bear) or the lack of it, and POC complaining about POC.

For #2, I don't want to get into specifics (as that'll lead into another discussion), but the anger and lack of understanding (again, on "both sides") is a factor.

Unknown said...

I don't really want to go into that topic right now since it's a discussion unto itself and my essay is only loosely related to that subject

And yet.

(which is to say if RaceFail never happened, there'd still be an essay like this).

I don't follow. But if I understand you correctly, this post (and your response to my questions) shouldn't serve as a map.

Thank you for that much at least. I wish you, as ever, success.

Charles said...

Hi Skyward.

Allow me to clarify: my essay is only loosely related to RaceFail. I didn't post it to tackle RaceFail, although as mentioned in the first paragraph, what spurned me was a reaction to something Mohanraj mentioned in a RaceFail article. If RaceFail never happened, I'd imagine myself writing this essay, although perhaps not as soon, and perhaps not with as much articulation.