Ishmael Bernal wondered why, “despite the small span of intellect informing the local film industry,” the business continued to dodge both cultural and economic obsolescence. “Audiences long accustomed to mediocrities now buy substandard, subhuman products,” he wrote in his essay “Bomba,” first published in The Manila Chronicle in 1970. “It’s like the evil circle of the political game. You get the idiot you vote for.”
It may as well have been written yesterday. Bernal, a film critic before becoming a filmmaker, went on to dissect the “bomba,” a genre of sex-centric films prevalent in the 1970s, using it as a lens to inspect local film’s inevitable transformation from art form to moneymaking machinery. Meditations on modern Filipino cinema basically say the same thing, and god knows the “evil circle of the political game” persists in turning. But beyond the familiar alarm that nothing has changed is a comfort in having newfound words to understand our current social condition; a realization that the answers we are looking for may already exist, just hidden away in archives and libraries and journals.
This was the rationale behind Required Readings, a book series by local press Everything’s Fine rediscovering critical work on Filipino culture. Bound in thin, Penguin Mini Modern Classics-esque volumes, the first set boasts diversity in time and topic, consisting of both familiar names (Bernal’s “Bomba”, Rolando Tinio’s “Notes on Theater”) and new thinkers (Jonathan Corpus Ong’s “Trolls for Sale”), from art history and criticism (Patrick Flores’ “Every Step in the Right Direction”) to feminist theory (Neferti X.M. Tadiar’s “Life-Times of Becoming Human”).
“When we started thinking about it, ‘Missed Readings’ pa yata [‘yung tawag sa series],” Katrina Stuart Santiago, author and co-founder of Everything’s Fine, tells CNN Philippines Life. “We felt that these readings were important to us Filipinos, but it might not be easy to [find] them anymore, so we wanted to show people na these are the essays, the thinkers, and the ways of seeing that you missed in the course of how access to information has evolved.”
Selecting authors for a series called “required readings” was obviously no easy task, especially since the press — who’s a two-person team of Santiago and co-founder Oliver Ortega — was at the mercy of access. “Hindi mo lang cinoconsider sino yung mga gusto mo at sino yung sa tingin mong mahalaga na mabasa, [but also] who will be open to speaking to us given that we’re relatively new and we’re very small,” Santiago says.
The series began with Bernal, whose columns the press already had from a previous project about the filmmaker. Santiago is old friends with the son of National Artist for Theater Rolando Tinio, who was happy to see the press’ interest in republishing his father’s essays. “May mahahalagang archives that we just haven’t taken advantage of,” Santiago says. “Many of these older artists have really fantastic archives of not just their works but also of nation — hindi lang natin sila binabalikan.”
“Notes on Theater” brings together Tinio’s essays from the 1960s, where he discussed the state of the art form in the country, spending much time exposing its roots and deconstructing the artist in the process. “I seem to be suggesting that the true artist is also a scholar, an esthetician and a critic. I mean to. However, I do not mean that he need go to a university and get a Ph.D.,” the dramatist wrote. “All I am confuting is the superstitious belief that poets write poems in the womb of their mothers.”
The press then invited curator and art historian Patrick Flores, who sent over his clippings over the years. Repurposing his essays from the 1990s was proving tricky, however. It wasn’t until he wrote about the Singapore Biennale in 2019, where he served as Artistic Director, did “Every Step in the Right Direction” fall into place. The book (and the biennale) draws its title from the oft-cited quote, “No uprising fails. Each one is a step in the right direction,” from the female revolutionary Salud Algabre, who led a rebellion against American colonizers in the 1930s. In three essays, Flores takes readers into his processes and methods of thinking in producing the biennale.
The small press also sought more contemporary writers they were already fans of, primary of which was women’s studies professor and critical theorist Neferti X.M. Tadiar. Her collection “Life-Times of Becoming Human” questions what humanity means in the age of incessant institutional violence, from neocolonialism to Duterte’s war on drugs. “Violence and suffering become the constitutive traits of dehumanization, while humanity becomes equated with freedom from violence,” Tadiar wrote on female migrant workers. “It would seem that today ‘humanity’ has become primarily a category of the protected, a status that accrues to fully-fledged subjects under the universal law of state sovereignty.”
Jonathan Corpus Ong was another obvious pick, as Everything’s Fine had always wanted to publish the researcher’s crucial work on disinformation. “Trolls for Sale” takes us deep into Southeast Asia’s fake news crisis, where the Philippines is patient zero and the antidote remains obstructed by the state and big tech.
Other authors the pair considered were Nick Joaquin, though they had no way of getting permission; cultural historian and food critic Doreen Fernandez; and film critic Richard Bolisay, who previously published his debut essay collection “Break It to Me Gently” under the same press.
“Hindi lang namin sila pinili kasi gusto namin ‘tong writers na ‘to,” Santiago says. “I was telling a friend who ordered it recently na pangarap kong makasali sa Required Readings. She was like, ‘Ang weird mo, ikaw naman yung nag-publish no’n.’ Oo nga, pero malinaw sa’kin na wala ako sa ganyang level. We’re saying na these thinkers and writers are critical to our understandings of what it’s like to live in nation, to consume the culture of nation at this point in time.”
This is something Everything’s Fine wanted readers, younger ones in particular, to have access to and start conversations about. “When I was sending emails to [the writers], kasali yung spiel na the younger generation deserves to read these essays, and it’s really just a matter of bringing them together into a volume that will appeal to them,” Santiago recalls. “The lightness of [the books], the price points, ‘yung design ni Oliver for it — we really wanted to practically deliver these to the bookshelves of younger readers.”
Part of the press’ goal to diversify our bookshelves is releasing the books by set; to garner interest, Ortega says, in a plethora of ideas readers may not check out otherwise. A reader who may have only heard of Ong's work on disinformation, for instance, may still end up buying the entire set and reading about art curation and the genre films of the ‘70s.
Santiago adds, “We’ve also been lucky with our authors kasi they appreciate the project and they want to continue it, so whatever royalties we could offer them, they agreed to funnel it to the next set to keep it going. It’s that kind of relationship that we like to have with our authors, ‘yung nagiging community siya of people who believe in what we’re doing.”
The pair have begun dreaming up potential next batches: Ortega wishes to see a set written exclusively in Filipino. Santiago wants an all-women rendition. There’s also the possibility of inviting someone else to curate a set. What’s certain is that this is only the beginning — the press envisions Required Readings as a regular series “that will continue for as long as we can keep it going.”
They remain loyal to their mission of providing readers with necessary contexts and critical inquiries into Filipino life. “When we say we’re requiring these readings, we’re trying to tell the readers na may mapupulot sila rito,” Santiago says. “May mahalaga silang sinasabi tungkol sa atin at may matututunan tayo sa kanila.”