Bone-deep kilig: The most romantic Filipino books

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Authors, editors, publishers, and readers weigh in on what they consider the most romantic Filipino books.

Stories of love, depicted in many forms and against varying zeitgeist, have been a staple in Philippine literature. But contrary to popular belief, romance is not an easy genre to pull off. If anything, it can always get tricky, with tropes and stereotypes looming as narrative scapegoats. Romance writers, to be effective, must not only wield strong language but also master a particular eye for love and the many ways it can work magic on readers.

In time for Valentine’s Day, CNN Philippines Life asked 10 writers, editors, publishers, and committed bookworms what they consider the most romantic Filipino books.

Mina V. Esguerra, romance author

“Some Bali to Love” by Carla de Guzman

In this spicy adult contemporary romance, Ava and Scott are friends who pretend to be in a relationship, and these days that may mean sudden kisses, a trip to Bali, and having to perform this charade while wedding-themed shenanigans are being filmed as reality show “content.” This book is so funny, current, and steamy. It also happens to be a second edition, and changes were made to bring the story closer to home, and knowing this makes me love it more.

“Feels Like Home” by Angel C. Aquino

This young adult romance follows Clara from Pampanga as she starts college in Manila, but a chance encounter with Mickey, the basketball star, right before school starts means she has an instant friend there. [It] absolutely delves into some of those freshmen nightmare situations we probably had, but also reminds us that we can get through them with the special friendships (and maybe the first love!) we find along the way.

“The Doctor Is In Love: A Medical Romance Anthology” by Angeli E. Dumatol, Celestine Trinidad, EK Gonzales, and Suzette de Borja

Written by doctors who are also romance authors, in case you were wondering how doctors fall in love. We discover that they might just fall in love with their rival for that one residency slot (“First Cut”), take that leap while away at a conference (“The Days of Rain and Flowers”), meet The One at a fellowship abroad (“Finally Home”), or fall for a friend who just happens to be a doctor too (“Status: In A Fake Relationship”). These four stories cover so much wonderfully-specific ground, and reading it made me feel like I got my Filipino version of “Grey’s Anatomy” romance (well maybe Grey’s when they’re happy and kilig).

Julian dela Cerna, editor

“Cubao” series by Tony Perez

Perhaps the phrase “most romantic books” would not conjure the five-volume Cubao series by Tony Perez, although its circuitous third title, “Cubao Midnight Express: Mga Pusong Nadiskaril sa Mahabang Riles ng Pag-Ibig” (1994), is steeped in the cloying hugot language that draws in a lot of readers. In a story from “Eros, Thanatos, Cubao: Mga Piling Katha” (1994), a young, infatuated helper pretends a life above her station, only to be gifted by the cluelessly privileged, dreamy boy with a rotten sandwich, which she heartily eats: “Marahan siyang sumubo ng sandwich. Kumagat. Tumungkab ng inaamag na tinapay at bulok na laman. Ngumuya. Lumulon. Ng parang suka sa kalsada. Ng parang burak sa kanal.”

Multigenre and microcosmic (not to mention out-of-print and overpriced on the secondhand market), the “Cubao” books convey a visceral love of space peopled by heathens and the heartbroken, beings mythical and real. One may say that the politics in the stories have not kept up with the times — and I risk romanticizing the author here! — but Cubao, both series and place, attests to how far we as a people have gone yet still nowhere near our destination, looking out the window in our long and often derailed ride home, nostalgic for the imaginary good life that can no longer hold while a certain rot lingered in our gut.

Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, poet

“Manila, My Manila” by Nick Joaquin

Fact and syntactical flourishes marry beautifully in this book by Nick Joaquin. Classified as popular history, the book also reads like a love letter to the city Joaquin loved and that loved him back.

“Queridas de Rizal” by Ambeth R. Ocampo

“Queridas de Rizal” compiles Ocampo’s essays about the women our national hero loved — in his own fashion. Full of historical hugot moments, the book fleshes out the women who passed through Rizal’s life, and who were previously just names we had to learn in history class. The book answers many of our hanging questions: who was the better Leonor? Why was Boustead busted?

“Pali-palitong Posporo” by Benilda S. Santos

I chose this book because it contains “Sa Aking Mangingibig,” a favorite poem by one of my all-time favorite poets. With a single image — no spoilers — the poet captures love as an impossible wholeness and holiness.

Lakan Umali, writer

“When the World Ended I Was Thinking About the Forest” by Glenn Diaz

My favorite love stories are those that, for all their awareness of the machinations of love, still find their own, thorny paths into tenderness. In Glenn Diaz’s verbosely titled, “When the World Ended I Was Thinking About the Forest,” the narrator embarks on a comprehensive treatise about the many ways humans have treated the forest: as a source for wealth, mystery, rebellion, or alternative ways of being. And like the forest, the beloved at the heart of Diaz’s narrative is just as rich in meaning and contradiction. They are elusive, yet everywhere. Familiar, yet startlingly strange. Underneath all the erudition, there is the beloved, and there is love.

Christian John Villahermosa, reader

“Si” by Bob Ong

Bob Ong’s “Si” is romantic for me as it tells the story of a couple who have been together for so many years, which is something many of us wish to have. The novel shows how turbulent years and difficult life circumstances can be weathered if you have someone by your side in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, ‘til death do you part. Cliché but so good to read.

“Para Kay B” by Ricky Lee

Ricky Lee’s “Para Kay B” is somewhat antithetical to “Si” as it shows the sadness and the dejection that accompanies heartbreak. The book posits that only one out of five people will eventually be happy in love, so this is a book about people not being chosen, who chose to love in silence, who left and was left, who faced heartbreak head-on but eventually moved forward. It is romantic because it is a reminder that love is not always rosy, and loss is part of it.

Gay Ace Domingo of San Anselmo Press, publisher

“The Sigh of a Hundred Leaves” by Ma. Milagros T. Dumdum and Simeon Dumdum, Jr.

A book of renga poetry by former judge Simeon Dumdum, Jr. and his wife Milagros (nickname: Gingging). Renga is a style of poetry from Japan wherein the stanzas are written by alternating poets. In the Dumdum couple’s case, it’s really a “he said, she said” style of creating poetry together. Ma’am Gingging writes the first three lines of a poem. Atty. Jun writes the succeeding two lines. Truly #couplegoals!

“100 Pink Poems Para Kay Leni” by San Anselmo Press (various writers)

A collection of 100 poems by 67 different writers who were all inspired by former vice president Leni Robredo’s exemplary life and advocacy for service. The book encapsulates in many poems how one woman’s love for [her] country can really inspire society. That the people she’s inspired continue to dream, hope, and work towards making our country a better place especially for the marginalized, in spite of the election defeat, is the epitome of mature love.

Enrique Villasis, poet

“Sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag” by Edgardo M. Reyes

Madalas itinuturo at binabasa ang nobelang ito ni Edgardo M. Reyes bilang marahas na paglalarawan sa lungsod, ngunit ang pinakadiwa ng kuwento nito ay ang pagpunta ni Julio Madiaga sa Maynila upang hanapin ang kasintahan na si Ligaya Paraiso. Kung tutuusin nga, retelling ang nobelang ito ng kuwento ni Orpheus. Si Julio, ang mangingibig, ay nagtungo sa Maynila, na siyang representasyon ng impiyerno mula sa mga obra ni Ovid at Dante. Nasaksihan niya at dinanas dito ang iba’t ibang paghihirap: naging biktima siya ng mapang-abusong sistema sa construction, namatay ang ilang mga nakilalang kaibigan, at sa huli, katulad ni Eurydice, tuluyang nawala sa kanya ang minamahal na si Ligaya Paraiso.

“Trip to Tagaytay” by Arnold Arre

Kung ang Maynila ni Reyes ay impiyerno, futuristic at dystopian naman ang paglalarawan ni Arre sa kanyang komiks na “Trip to Tagaytay.” Presidente na ang matandang si Aga Muhlach, ilang patong na ang nakalatag na flyover sa EDSA, nag-reunion muli ang Eraserheads sa buwan, at sa gitna ng paglalakad sa masalimuot at magulong lansangan ng lungsod, binibigkas ng narrator ang liham na isinulat niya para sa iniibig na naninirahan na sa orbital space. Sa liham na ito, inilalahad ng narrator ang kanyang labis na pagkamingaw at pag-ibig sa iniirog. Marami pang graphic novel si Arre na love story. “After Eden” at “Halina Filipina: A New Yorker in Manila” ang unang papasok sa isip ng mga nakakakilala sa kanyang gawa, ngunit labis kung makakurot sa dibdib ang komiks niyang ito.

“Lila ang Kulay ng Pamamaalam” by RM Topacio-Aplaon

Kapag may nanghihingi ng rekomendasyon ng kontemporanyong nobelang Filipino, lagi kong binabanggit ang nobelang ito ni Topacio-Aplaon. Nobela ito tungkol sa alaala at pamamaalam, higit sa trahedya at pag-ibig. Sa conversational ngunit matulaing Filipino, isinalaysay ni Topacio-Aplaon ang panimdim, pangungulila, at pag-ibig ni Dylan kay Yumi. Totoo ang mga tauhan sa nobela; kaya nga nakikita natin ang ating mga sarili sa kanila — sa unang pagkakataon nating umibig, sa sandali ng pinakamasakit nating pagkabigo. Sa panahon ng hugot, nangingibabaw ang lirikal na artikulasyon sa pag-ibig at pagkabigo ni Aplaon at dinakip niya ang ating atensyon hanggang sa bitawan natin ang mabigat na buntonghininga ng pamamaalam matapos isara ang nobela.

Eric Abalajon, writer

“Ligaw-Tingin: Kalipunang Komix ng Pagmamahalang Marilag,” edited by Emiliana Kampilan

“Ligaw-Tingin” is an anthology of lesbian short comics, with the unifying motif of the glance or gaze and its manifold meanings. For a slim book, it has an impressively wide range, not to mention inclusive approaches to Filipina lesbian intimacy. These narratives include an adaptation of a myth, a scenario in Muslim communities, first love among students, a chance encounter in a sari-sari store, and learning to come to terms with the passing of a loved one. Love is glimpsed and encapsulated in these moments, both fleeting and exhilarating.

“Pira-pirasong Pilas: Mga Tula” by Liberty Notarte-Balanquit

Brief poems mostly revolving around the anxieties of the domestic sphere — as a mother, spouse, or daughter, as well as in a larger context of the toll of birthing of a more just collective fate. Often, the poet in the persona is subtly hidden but also emerges in day-to-day encounters. In “Rasyon,” household duties start eating up the time for writing: “kung ang mga metapora / ay rasyon ng pagkain / sa pang-araw-araw na delubyo / ng damdamin, / hangga’t nariyan ka / at ang dalawa nating anak, / handa akong magutom.” One doesn’t truly rest as a provider of care, or as a poet.

Kasubong sang Hangin: Mga Binalaybay” by Gil Montinola

[This is a] collection of tender Hiligaynon poems that scour the rural landscape and daily routines in search for metaphors to articulate desire for an equally absent beloved. Done using vivid imagery, the countryside here is not an abstract space where one either seeks shelters in or tries to escape. The subtleties of yearning could be seen in “Sa Kaagahon”: “Sa pagpungko ko sa matag-aga nga nagaisahanon / tupad sang kape, mabatian ko ang sugilanonay / sang mga tanom. Kon ngaa wala na ako / nagapamunyag kag nagapanghilamon.” Heartbreak is precisely cruel in being so casual.

Jay E. Tria, romance author

“My Quarantine Diary: A Love Story” by Ines Bautista-Yao

This young adult novelette chronicles the struggles of college student Yanna at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The strains and anxieties of lockdown unfold through Yanna’s eyes, documented in her diary as she pushes through schoolwork, navigates family drama, and gets to know her nerdy (really cute) study partner.

Told in Ines Bautista-Yao’s signature vibrant prose, the author sets the coming-of-age romance [amid] the confusion and fears of the early lockdown, taking the reader through Yanna’s journey as she wades through the gloom and doom and finds friendship, reconciliation, and stirrings of young love.

“Scandalized (Backstage Pass Book 1)” by Tara Frejas

Fi Legaspi is living the dream as the roadie to South Korea’s hottest rock band, East Genesis Project, until an incident sets off a scandal and everything turns into a nightmare. Author Tara Frejas writes with the heart and aplomb of a certified lover and keen observer of the phenomenon of Korean entertainment, weaving a delicious love triangle between fiercely competent Fi, the band’s broody lead guitarist, and the equally gorgeous PR manager.

Pining? Check. Found family? Check. Korean band boy hi-jinks coming all the way to the Philippines? Check and check. Highly recommended reading for K-entertainment fans.

“So Forward (Six 32 Central Book 3)” by Mina V. Esguerra

Colin (former national team figure skater and underwear model), quietly working on getting his MBA degree, meets Lexa (national hockey team medalist, on-leave MBA professor, soon-to-be-CEO). He needs her business mind. She needs his help in the charm department. Bring on the revisions, not-dates, and lessons.

If you haven’t read a Mina V. Esguerra book, any book is a good place to start. If you’re up for a steamy romance between fellow winter sports athletes finding their performance in their newly chosen lives, “So Forward” is the book for you.

8letters, bookstore

“Silver Bells and Nostalgic Lovers” by 8letters

Ang “SBNL” ay isang antolohiya kung saan ang mga kuwento ay naka-set noong 70s, 80s, at 90s. Ito ay pagmamapa ng mga pakiramdam [at] pagbabalik-tanaw sa mga pag-ibig nang may ngiti. Sa koleksyong ito, hindi ka lamang basta kikiligin dahil dadalhin ka mismo ng mga manunulat sa panahon at pag-iibigang iyo ring hihilingin.

“El Himno de mi Corazon” by Tori Tan

“El Himno de mi Corazon” is perfect for historical romance lovers. This book is heartfelt, honest, and painful that you’ll find it hard to put down. This book will also test the patience of a lover that we all love to read.

“Mimi Turns Pretty” by Lucy Yap-Cobrado

There are lots of classic boy-meets-girl-again stories out there. For sure, nakabasa ka na rin nito, but we’re telling you, this one is worth reading. The kilig that you’ll feel between Mia and Oliver is top of the line because this is not your teenage pa-tweetums anymore. They are real and relatable.