Read Local! A brief guide to reading more Philippine Literature

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This 2021, you can expand your reading list and consider these Filipino writers and publishers.

With the country’s notoriously fickle internet connectivity and the continuing danger of physical contact, I find books a safe remedy to the growing loneliness of lockdown. Many local cultural workers and institutions, despite the punishing circumstances of this current crisis, are putting out work, which deserve a much larger audience. This 2021, you can expand your reading list and consider these Filipino writers and publishers.

National Publishers

The country’s biggest publishers often still have books worth checking out. Anvil Publishing has repackaged several Filipino classics for a contemporary audience, including Manuel Arguilla, Lope K. Santos, and the always fabulous Nick Joaquin. Books from the dearly departed Visprint Inc — Bob Ong’s bestsellers, Agay Llanera’s heartfelt “Choco Chip Hips,” “Kikomachine,” and “Trese” comics — have found a second life in Avenida Books.

Bookmark Inc. has an online shop with a rich selection of children’s books, Philippine histories, and texts on indigenous culture, environmentalism and popular science. They also sell many affordable literary classics, like Nick Joaquin’s “The Woman Who Had Two Navels,” the short story collections of Bienvenido Santos, the novels of NVM Gonzales and Azucena Grajo Uranza, and titles from the grande dame of Philippine letters, Gilda Cordero-Fernando. I particularly love Bookmark’s translations of Rizal’s “Noli Me Tangere” and “El Filibusterismo” by Soledad Lacson-Locsin. These translations retain the lyrical, playful language of the original texts, along with all the bombastic drama and romance of Rizal’s writing. Sandra Nicole Roldan’s “At the School Gate” is another noteworthy book. Following an activist’s daughter as she navigates the perils of Ferdinand Marcos’ martial law, “At the School Gate” is an important account of how fascism debilitates the happiness and security of everyday life.

Selections from New Day Publishers (“Doctor to the Barrios” by Juan M. Flavier), Bookmark Inc. (“At the School Gate” by Sandra Nicole Roldan and “Noli Me Tangere” by Jose Rizal) and Anvil Publishing (”The Essential Manuel Arguilla Reader” and ”Banaag at Sikat” by Lope K. Santos).

New Day Publishers is a pioneering national press that has expanded to Shopee. They offer fiction and non-fiction books: “Pugad Baboy” comics, Moro histories, and a biography of Josephine Bracken. Another great set of New Day titles are Juan M. Flavier’s series on working in the countryside. Flavier portrays rural communities with generous humor and humanity. Finally, Adarna House possesses a colorful assortment of literature for children that can be appreciated by all ages. They released one of my favorite books of 2020, “Si Laleng at ang Lakbay-Paaralan,” which shows the challenges and triumphs of an Indigenous bakwit school, and the terrors of a militarized society.

RELATED: Our best Filipino books of 2020

University Presses

The University of the Philippines Press, Ateneo de Manila University Press, the University of Santo Tomas University Press, and the Cordillera Studies Center all have online shops, and I always exercise a significant amount of self-control to just browse and not buy. UP Press continues to publish literature with a progressive and sometimes revolutionary perspective. Gelacio Guillermo’s “Mga Tula” and Benilda Santos’ “Kuwadro Numero Uno” are two poetry collections imbued with startling grace and power, probing everything from the feudal violence in the nation’s countryside to the nature of consciousness and being. Lualhati Abreu’s “Agaw-Dilim, Agaw-Liwanag” is a harrowing autobiography of an activist during the country’s most tumultuous periods, and illustrates the shortcomings but ultimate necessity of revolution. And if you’re looking for something a bit more lighthearted but written with equal skill, there’s Jhoanna Lynn Cruz’s “Abi Nako,” a memoir on motherhood and the literary equivalent of a drag queen at the height of her bombastic powers.

Ateneo Press carries books by prominent cultural critics like Soledad Reyes and Rolando Tolentino, popular Tagalog writers Liwayway Arceo and Rosario de Guzman-Lingat, and National Artists Resil Mojares, Amado V. Hernandez, and Rolando S. Tinio. Ateneo Press also sells H. Arlo Nimmo’s “The Songs of Salanda,” a devastatingly heartbreaking and beautiful account of an anthropologist living with the Sama Dilaut of Tawi-Tawi, years before martial law upended their ways of life. And with the threat of historical revisionism growing worse each day, Ricardo Manapat’s “Some Are Smarter Than Others” documents the extensive corruption of martial law and reminds us that in a just world, the Marcoses would all be in jail.

Selections from UP Press ( “Mga Tula” by Gelacio Guillermo, “Kuwadro Numero Uno” by Benilda Santos,’ and “Agaw-Dilim, Agaw-Liwanag” by Lualhati Abreu) and Ateneo Press (“The Songs of Salanda” by H. Arlo Nimmo).

Meanwhile, UST Press presents the reader with T.S. Sungkit’s groundbreaking novel “Driftwood on Dry Land,” translated into English from the original Binisaya. Sungkits blends the mundane and marvelous to craft a mythic novel on the first inhabitants of Mindanao. Charlson Ong’s “Blue Angel, White Shadow” is another remarkable UST Press title. The novel is a detective story in Manila’s Chinatown, and sketches a fascinating panoply of characters with their colorful, intoxicating mysteries.

The Cordillera Studies Center (CSC) publishes work that I find incredibly helpful and worthwhile, expanding my limited urban purview into the nations beyond Manila. June Prill-Brett’s “Tradition and Transformation” is a must-read for anyone who wants to become more familiar with the richness and complexity of Cordillera cultures. “Saliksik-Kordilerya,” edited by Delfin Tolentino, Jr., compiles several interesting papers on aspects of Cordillera life, like Ifugao folk-songs and the Indigenous Kalinga healer called mandadawak. The CSC also carries issues of the seminal research journal, “The Cordillera Review.”

However, even books from university presses can be priced at amounts inaccessible to many Filipinos, especially with today’s destitute state of wages and exorbitant costs of living. If you want to read more Filipino literature without emptying your wallet, visit Sentro ng Wikang Filipino’s Aklatang Bayan. The online library contains twenty-nine books in Filipino that you can download for free. It’s a generous treasury of literature, featuring feminist and revolutionary poetry, manuals for sustainable farming and peasant organizing, Bukidnon folktales, narratives of OFWs, songs of the bakwit, and all the richness that today’s Filipino writers have to offer.

Selections from UST Press (“Blue Angel, White Shadow” by Charlson Ong), Sentro ng Wikang Pilipino (“Hindi Ito Romansa” by Chuckberry J. Pascual) and Cordillera Studies Center (“Saliksik-Kordilerya” edited by Delfin Tolentino, Jr.).

Independent Publishers

There are many independent publishers in the Philippines who publish books you won’t normally see in National Book Store, Fully Booked, or other big bookstores. At the 2020 Manila International Book, several of these publishers banded together to form The Indie Publishers Collab. A cursory look at the members of this writers collective shows several indie publishers with catalogues of books to captivate your attention.

Balangay Books features books from notable Filipino writers such as Bebang Sy, Nap I. Arcilla, and Almayrah Tiburon. Cubao Editions, a homegrown small press from Quezon City, showcases the writing of Paul S. de Guzman and Chiles Samaniego, two writers whose fiction bursts with strangeness and creativity. For those seeking poetry, Gacha Press has linguistically playful and potent chapbooks from Paolo Manalo and Michael Balili.

Kasingkasing Press is one of the most exciting small presses publishing today. In addition to works in English and Filipino, they publish books in Binisaya, Hiligaynon, and other Philippine languages, providing some much-needed diversity to Philippine letters. Kasingkasing Press released one of my favorite books of 2020, Felino S. Garcia Jr.’s Filipino translation of Adelina Gurrea Monasterio’s marvellous works, which have so long remained in Spanish unread by many.

Selections from Balangay Books ("Maqueda" by Nap I. Arcilla III), Gacha Press ("Happily Ever Ek-ek" by Paolo Manalo), Cubao Editions ("Marienbad, etc." by Chiles Samaniego), Kasingkasing Press ("Panglugayawan" by Elsed Togonon), and Southern Voices Printing Press ("Ang Munting Prinsipe").

Kasingkasing’s Lazada shop also carries books from Aklat Alamid. They specialize in children’s literature in Philippine languages like Ilocano and Ibanag, and have published two lovely books about children and their relationships with family and the natural world. Another progressive publisher is Southern Voices Printing Press. They sell socially-conscious children’s literature and biographies of activists and revolutionaries like Recca Monte, Crispin Beltran, and Angie B. Ipong. They also recently released “Ang Munting Prinsipe,” a Filipino translation of Antoine Saint de-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince.”

Finally, readers should patronize Gantala Press. Philippine literature, as with any other institution, isn’t immune to patriarchy and the excess of men’s voices; Gantala Press provides an urgent, feminist answer to this. They publish Meranaw and vegan cookbooks, astrology zines, comics of women-loving-women, and stories of peasant and working-class activists. Gantala’s publications remind us that literature isn’t just produced by a professionalized group of writers from the middle and upper classes; literature should be produced and enjoyed by the broad sectors of the Philippine people, from farmers to urban workers to single mothers to Indigenous peoples. And with every publication, Gantala forwards this necessary, revolutionary alternative.

Local Bookstores

There are also several local, independent bookstores who carry out-of-print and hard-to-find literature, both local and international. You can visit or contact them online: Wise Guys’ Bookshop (Santa Mesa, Manila), Roel’s Bookshop (Quezon City), Popular Bookstore (Quezon City), Bookay-Ukay, Studio Soup Zine Library (Quezon City), Kwago (Makati City), Uno Morato, Tradewinds Bookshop (Intramuros), Mt. Cloud Bookshop (Baguio City), Puón Bookstore of the Alfredo F. Tadiar Library (San Fernando, La Union), Yoli’s Books and Crafts (Los Baños), and Savage Mind (Naga City). You can also visit to find rare, limited edition, and wonderfully opulent books.

In addition to the books I mentioned above, here are some books I recommend from local presses:

“La India, or the Island of the Disappeared” by Rosario Cruz-Lucero (UP Press)
“The Sky Over Dimas” by Vicente Garcia-Groyon (UP Press)
“The Forest/Ang Gubat” by William Pomeroy (UP Press)
“Muog: Ang Naratibo ng Kanayunan sa Matagalang Digmaan ng Pilipinas” (UP Press)
“The Philippines is in the Heart” by Carlos Bulosan (Ateneo Press)
“The Nation Beyond Manila/Ang Bayan sa Labas ng Maynila” by Rosario Cruz-Lucero (Ateneo Press)
“Tiempo Muerto” by Caroline Hau (Ateneo Press)
“Moral Politics of the Philippines” by Wataru Kusaka (Ateneo Press)
“Isabelo’s Archive” and “House of Memory” both by Resil Mojares (Anvil Press)
“Tikim” by Doreen Fernandez (Anvil Press)
“Balintuna: Mga Kwentong Kakatwa” (7 Eyes Productions)
“Lupang Ramos: Isang Kasaysayan” (Gantala Press)
“Umaalma, Kumikibo: Essays on Women and Violence” (Gantala Press)
“Saliksik-Kordilyera: Papers on Indigenous Practice, Ritual Life, and Oral Tradition” (Cordillera Studies Center)
“Dap-ay Discourse Uno: Activist Perspective of Cordillera History and Social Change” (Cordillera Studies Center)
“Kali: Voice of Cordillera Women” (Cordillera Women’s Education Action Research Center)
“50: Mga Binalaybay ni Roger Felix Salditos” (Sentro ng Wikang Filipino).

After spending 300-plus days in a soul-crushing lockdown because of the lack of adequate government response to this pandemic, it’s easy to think that there is nothing else, that we must surrender our lives to corrupt powers beyond our control. Literature, especially literature produced to defend the status quo, can reaffirm that. But literature can also show us the alternatives. And in the Philippines, there’s a significant and growing body of literature which illustrates paths to different, more human ways of being. I hope this list helps you find them.