LITERATURE

Our best Filipino books of 2020

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We asked a few critics, writers, and publishers to give us some of their best or favorite reads of 2020.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I’d like to think there are more Filipinos who read this year. The success of online book fairs such as Aklatan and the ease of having a book — or books — delivered to your home have certainly satiated our need to explore worlds elsewhere or understand the direness of our situation.

In Glenn Diaz’s essay on the function of fiction in the time of the pandemic, he says, “Fictional stories are most ‘instructive,’ I feel, in these moments of overlaps and slippages, when they approximate our ‘real’ experiences and perceptions just enough that we are jarred to take a second hard look. What fiction provides is not ‘information’ or ‘facts’ in the way that guidebooks or think pieces dispense things such as instructions on navigating the so-called new normal. What it provides is the imaginative clearing — necessarily collaborative between writer and reader — with which to imagine, and with work perhaps even refashion, our world anew.”

But the pandemic has brought forth a creative crisis. It was a hard year for editors, writers, and other professions related to the book trade — either laid off or freelance work was scarce. The sales of brick and mortar bookstores have dipped around the world and independent bookstores struggled to get by. But by the end of the year, with the insistence of the government to boost the economy and despite the bungled policies to help people return to their jobs, there were signs of life that the book trade is slowly gaining legs.

It should also be noted that small publishers took the opportunity to drive up visibility by using online platforms to promote books, perhaps in response as well to readers who were looking for something else to read. It used to be that books competed for shelf space in stores, but now they can readily push for releases and back lists through social media promotions. It made sense because people are spending more time online than browsing through store shelves. Another factor is the monthly sales of the likes of Shopee and Lazada, which also encourages readers to check out more books. Several new books were published around the last quarter of the year, one of which, I think, is a hard and true mirror of what it’s like to live through 2020.

Photo from TARANTADONG KALBO/INSTAGRAM

Kevin Raymundo’s “Tarantadong Kalbo Vol. 1” stood out among the Filipino books (what little of them) I’ve read this year. It is an urgent, scathing, and a dizzying capsule of the year that was, not to mention a fuming indictment of the injustices that are still being experienced by Filipinos. The jokes are sharp, the punchlines are hard-hitting, but the undercurrent of realism doesn’t let us off the hook once we’re done laughing. Many of his comics have been out since the better part of the year (it also includes his somber comic for CNN Philippines Life); an almost reactionary impulse to give life to a pressing issue that will soon be swept away by the online news cycle and social media timelines. Going through “Tarantadong Kalbo Vol. 1” is enough to make you angry again.

Here, we asked a few critics, writers, and publishers to give us some of their best or favorite reads of 2020. — Don Jaucian

LAKAN UMALI, writer

“50: Mga Binalaybay ni Roger Felix Salditos” by Roger Felix Salditos trans. Kerima Lorena Tariman (Sentro ng Wikang Filipino, 2020)

As other countries acquire vaccines, our own government continues to bungle their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and to intensify their attacks against activists and opposition groups. So, it’s very tempting to lose hope during these depressing times. However, “50: Mga Binalaybay ni Roger Felix Salditos” reminds us that there are still those who dare to be revolutionaries, and how the world is so much the better for them. Killed in a military encounter in 2018, Salditos wrote under the pen names “Maya Daniel” and “Mayamor,” and produced a wonderful body of artistic work before his murder. Written in Hiligaynon and English with Filipino translations by Kerima Tariman, the poems remind us that, as Che Guevara said, the true revolutionary is guided by strong feelings of love: “The waves clasp the shore/the moonbeams kiss the seas/All are looking for their pairs/I find you beautiful, why not I to you?/And what worth are all these kissings/I am telling if I cannot kiss you?”

“Mga Kwento ni Juana: Cuentos de Juana” by Adelina Gurrea Monasterio trans. Felino S. Garcia Jr. (Kasingkasing Press, 2020)

The great critic Resil Mojares once said that much of our culture and history is sepulchred in Spanish, because few speak and understand the language today. Adelina Gurrea Monasterio’s works were among the victims of this unceremonious burial. A visionary writer, she was largely ignored and forgotten by many contemporary readers because she wrote in Spanish. Now, Felino S. Garcia Jr.’s remarkable Filipino translations of her stories will hopefully bring her to a much larger audience. Featuring tamawo, tik-tik, spell-bound maidens, cowboys and hacienderos, Gurrea weaves the marvelous and the mundane to paint a tapestry of Negros sugarlandia as the island faced the handover from one colonial master to another.

“Si Laleng at ang Lakbay-Paaralan,” Story by Mon Sy and Illustrations by Ara Villena (Adarna House, 2020)

Living in the Philippines brings a lot of struggles. And no matter how much we want to protect them, children often witness and experience these struggles. Si Laleng at ang Lakbay-Paaralan deals with heavy themes; militarization, state violence, evacuation, internally-displaced persons. But with eye-catching, colorful art and an ultimately triumphant story, this children’s book introduces the struggles of the Manobo and the realities of bakwit schools, and reminds us that community can be a people, not a place.

SPECIAL MENTION

“Remains” by Daryll Delgado (Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2019)

Daryll Delgado’s brilliant debut novel, which hasn’t been getting the coverage it deserves, can be read as the sister of Caroline Hau’s equally-brilliant “Tiempo Muerto.” Both novels feature women returning to their home islands after an extended period of absence, forced to confront truths left buried for too long. But whereas Hau sets her literary eye on the country’s virulent hacienda system, Delgado focuses on another national trauma: Typhoon Yolanda and its aftermath in Tacloban. As the lead character confronts the ruins of her old home, Delgado makes the reader confront the magnitude of devastation wrought by the natural world, and by human greed and forgetfulness.

STENO PADILLA, writer

"Busilak: New LGBTQ Poetry from the Philippines" by J. Neil C. Garcia, editor (UP Press, 2020)

This book is close to my heart because I'm one of the contributors. But apart from that, the poems in this collection from LGBTQ poets in the Philippines are mesmerizing. There is depth, the emotions conveyed are lasting, the imagery is vivid, and smartly written. It's not Instapoetry. It is poetry of the finest quality from some of our young and amazing poets.

"Wings of the Locust" by Joel Donato Ching Jacob (Scholastic, 2020)

This award-winning, coming-of-age novel is high fantasy. It tells the story of Tuan, who apprenticed himself to Muhen, the mambabarang of Ma'I Kingdom. What's unique about this book is that it is 100 percent Filipino. It is set in pre-Hispanic Philippines during the time of the Datu, Alipin, Diwata, Bayugin, Sigbin, and other mythological creatures of the Philippines. It's probably the best book to ever come out this year.

"The First Filipino: A Biography of Jose Rizal" by Leon Ma. Guerrero (Anvil Publishing, reprint 2020)

This book was originally published in the early 1960s but was printed again this year by Anvil. Personally, I think this is the best book that tells of the life of our national hero Jose Rizal. Why? Because it took the middle ground. It neither treated Rizal like a saint or a god nor considered him a loser or an American-sponsored hero. Guerrero, with painstaking research, told the story of Rizal as a human being, warts and all, which made him all the more worthy to be called "The First Filipino."

"Marka Demonyo: Or Poems on Love, Faith, and Duct Tape" (Anvil Publishing, 2020) by Lourd De Veyra

This tiny book can knock you out because of its imagery and sometimes no-nonsense lines. It's performative poetry, but it can also be tender and atmospheric. What I like about these poems is that it is current, it attempts to expose the darkness of our times, of this regime, and sometimes does it with humor or downright tactlessness. It's very Lourd De Veyra.

"I, Journalist, and Other Newsroom Instropections" by Joel Pablo Salud (UP Press, 2020)

I like this book because it is a no-nonsense, insightful and sometimes inspiring book about a journalist's life. Every aspiring journalist will pick nuggets of wisdom and a bit of indirect mentership from the essays in this book. But more importantly, it stresses the importance of a free press and an independent journalist, especially now that we're living in such perilous times.

GANTALA PRESS, independent publisher

“Kali: Cordillera Women’s Voices” (Cordillera Women’s Education Action Research Center, December 2020)

This book collects collaborative pieces such as poems, songs, stories, artworks, and other literary works of indigenous women in the Cordillera region. The anthology tackles issues that indigenous women confront, including their plight and struggles during the COVID-19 pandemic. It also honors the courage of women like Beatrice Belen, who stand up to defend land, life, rights and dignity in the midst of worsening state repression and fascism.

“Scent of Rain, Sun and Soil: Stories of Agroecology by Lumad Youth in the Philippines” (Community Technical College of Southeastern Mindanao, 2020)

This book is an attempt to push back against the government’s long and intensive efforts to obliterate Lumad communities in order to give way to multinational and/or foreign-owned mining, logging, and industrial agriculture operations. A collection of poems, testimonials, and photographs from CTCSM’s students and staff, the book illustrates how the Lumad, through organic agroecology, meet the challenges not only of living sustainably, but of simply surviving in this country.

“Si Laleng at ang Lakbay-Paaralan” by Mon Sy, illustration by Ara Villena (Adarna Publishing House, 2020)

This book illustrates the vital role of Lumad schools: boarding schools that offer classes on basic education, agriculture, arts and culture-based lessons. More importantly, the book introduces militarization to young readers. The Lumad community calls the soldiers who burn their schools and destroy their dorms “wak-wak.” The book defines the “bakwit” by revealing a secret: “Minsan, tuwing kailangan, naglalakbay ang ating paaralan.”

KRISTINE ONG MUSLIM, writer

“Balada ng Bala at iaba pang mga tula,” by Wiji Thukul, edited and translated by Mark Laurence D. Garcia and Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III (Sentro ng Wikang Filipino - U.P. Diliman, 2020)

“Balada ng Bala at iba pang mga tula” is a 200-page volume of poems by Wiji Thukul, an Indonesian labor organizer and a desaparecido of the US-backed Suharto regime. The poems, edited and translated into Filipino by Mark Laurence D. Garcia and Amado Anthony G. Mendoza III, were written and published in the span of at least a decade. No greasy conceits of hagiography soiled the editors’ introduction. Expect a thoughtful contextualization that situates the recurring themes in Thukul’s body of work in the Philippines, where the Duterte regime — in the guise of an anti-insurgency, anti-terrorism campaign — is arresting or killing dissenters. Expect a compelling dissection that shows how Thukul’s political struggles had shaped his art — and not the other way around.

“100 Aporismo o kung anupaman sa mga unang araw ng quarantine,” by Carlo Paulo Pacolor (Self-published, 2020)

Some years ago, Carlo Paulo Pacolor wrote and published a series of hybrid poetic texts called “Ang Kompedio Ng Mga Imposibleng Bagay,” which I instantly loved. The works are no longer online so I cannot link to them here. That was my first “encounter” with Pacolor, a gifted surrealist with a keen sense of humor. “100 Aporismo o kung anupaman sa mga unang araw ng quarantine” is an electrifying, often unsettling deep-dive into bits and pieces of uncomfortable truths, among them the plight of desaparecidos, “Gusto ko pa ring malaman kung sa'n kayo inilibing, She, Karen, Jonas.”

“Walang Ibig Sabihin,” by Patrick Bautista (Self-published, 2020)

In 2018, a year that saw some legendary “outsider lit” releases which included Carlos Palanca’s limited-edition “Philosophiae Culturalis Principia Poetica” (transcribed by Tilde Acuña and Arlo Mendoza), Patrick Bautista put out an innocuously titled zine called “‘Ika Nga Nila: Mga Tula” and he became, from that time on, one of my go-to Filipino authors for rereading when I need to be reminded of what true risk-taking looks like.

The 20-page “Walang Ibig Sabihin” collects Bautista’s recent experimentations, each one razor-sharp and wide-eyed and unapologetic in its disdain of enablers of oppressive structures of power:

Ikinahihiya ko ang mga panawagan
para sa mga akda sa panahon
ng pandemya. Ikinahihiya ko
na minsan kong hinabol ang basbas
ng mga Institusyong Pampanitikan.
Ikinahihiya ko ang aking sarili
higit kanino man. Ikinahihiya ko ang tapang
na maghanap ng kalinga sa mga salita
at ang yabang na bigyang halaga ang sarili
bilang makata. Ikinahihiya ko
ang mahabang tradisyon ng paggamit
sa paghihirap ng masa bilang materyal
ng mga burgis na manunulat at akademiko.
Ikinahihiya ko ang karerismo at oportunismo
ng mga alagad ng sining. Ikinahihiya ko ang Sining.

I remain thankful for the likes of Patrick Bautista. I remain thankful for the few Filipino poets and anthologists who show decency and refuse time and time again to capitalize on people’s suffering. In recommending Bautista’s incredible writing here, I hope I can enjoin a reader or two to partake of his stirring vision of the world.

PAUL S. DE GUZMAN, writer

“Mga Migranteng Sandali” by Jacob Laneria (Kasingkasing Press, 2020)

No voices are raised in the five short tales that comprise Jacob Laneria’s Mga Migranteng Sandali. There are no bloody deaths or dramatic confrontations, but the violence of migration, especially among those who do so to earn a living, is deeply embodied in this 36-page zine. Each story quietly dismantles the image of a welcoming, inclusive Canada: in this Canada, Filipino migrants are constantly working, living on the outskirts of an industrial city like Hamilton, Ontario. In the few instances that they can gather, there is a lot of food, but even more disappointments and barely articulated frustrations. At the center of these five stories is one family, separated by migration, then brought together, then separated again. There is so much heartbreak and bone-deep sadness in these seemingly artless, deceptively inflectionless accounts. I’m grateful to have read them.

“Kumusta Kayo: Naratibo ng Kababaihang Magbubukid Ngayong Pandemya” by Amihan Federation of Peasant Women, Rural Women Advocates, and Gantala Press (Gantala Press, 2020)

The burden of the COVID-19 pandemic weighed — and continues to do so — heavily on the rural poor, especially women from poor farming communities. What the ECQ in the summer of 2020 put into sharp relief was the terrible amount of suffering farming families went through as a result of an unscientific, militaristic approach to containing the pandemic. Many months and tens of thousands of cases later, the pandemic rages on, and the suffering continues. In "Kumusta Kayo," the Amihan Federation of Peasant Women, Rural Women Advocates, and Gantala Press check on the lives of women farmers from different parts of Luzon and Visayas, and what one sees is women trying their best to survive, not only for themselves but for those around them. The 44 first-person accounts in this zine show women grappling with the sudden loss of income, while worrying about where to get their next meal, taking care of sick family members, waiting for ayuda that barely covers their needs for the day, and facing the scare tactics of men in uniform. But what this zine clarifies is that the suffering experienced during the pandemic is merely an intensification of a long-standing, systemic injustice that victimizes the poor. The 44 voices in this zine need to be magnified: not only is this essential reading, it’s a call to action.

“Lahat ng Nag-aangas ay Inaagnas” by Paolo Tiausas (Available from UWU Books, 2020)

If men are trash, do they deserve to be the subject of good poetry? Paolo Tiausas’s “Lahat ng Nag-aangas ay Inaagnas” confronts manhood and its toxic legacy: its casual violence, its endless betrayals. “Ang kasaysayan ng lalake ay kasaysayan ng pagkakamali, / parehong sinadya at hindi,” one of the poems declares. This book is also about the performance of masculinity — the “angas'' in the title, the “angas” that repeatedly finds itself invoked in these poems, the “angas” the writer himself uses to grapple with his own participation in the curse of manhood. There is a lot of anger, but there are also moments of tenderness, an apprehension of the miraculous in the ordinary: a small bird takes unexpected flight from the back of a jeepney in “Dalawang Sandali ng Hiwaga sa Aurora;'' a map makes itself legible to tourists in “Huling Gabi sa Osaka.” There is also an invitation to get swallowed up in unbridled joy, most memorably in “Feelings,” where Carly Rae Jepsen is the presiding deity. If you’re a man and dancing to “Cut to the Feeling” does not square with your idea of manhood, the poem seems to say, that is your loss: maagnas ka riyan.

SPECIAL MENTION

“Happily Ever Ek-ek” by Paolo Manalo (Gacha Press, 2019)

The poems in Paolo Manalo’s “Happily Ever Ek-ek” are populated by lovers, would-be lovers, wouldn’t-be lovers. There are matches that click, there are matches that don’t, there are matches that do and then don’t. There are awkward teenagers out on a date who have yet to know heartbreak (“At the Chocolate Kiss”); there are couples with picture-perfect weddings who are clueless of the future awaiting them (“Wedding Planner”). But “Happily Ever Ek-ek” isn’t just about lovers — there are barkadas, families, low-wage earners, police officers who plant evidence. Readers often remark on the humor and playfulness of Manalo’s poetry, especially as one sees misheard lyrics, teleserye scenes, and wordplay deftly woven into each poem. Still, much of it is laughter in the dark, especially for the lot of us who thought 2019 was our annus horribilis, only to be convinced that it was merely one cursed year in a chain of anni horribiles. Reaching our “happily ever after” may be looking dubious each day, but we still have ek-ek, and for now that might be good enough.

“Anong Pangalan Mo sa Gabi?” edited by Tetay Mendoza, Joel Acebuche, and Claire De Leon (UP Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, 2019)

The subtitle of this book is “50 Questions Often Asked to Filipino LGBTQIs.” Many of these questions are crude, intrusive, ignorant, even downright offensive. And yet each of these questions is answered — with frankness and humor, with patience and deliberateness, filtered through the lived experience of each of the LGBTQI respondents, whose black-and-white portraits appear in this book. The photos show the respondents matter-of-factly holding up a chalkboard on which the question they are answering is written, as if to say, these are real people, and these questions have very real consequences on very real lives. Published by the UP Center for Women’s and Gender Studies, in cooperation with UP Babaylan and Babaylanes Inc., “Anong Pangalan Mo sa Gabi” is an important step in the direction of a future where these questions will hopefully no longer be asked.

To inquire about the book, send a message to the UP Center for Women’s and Gender Studies through their Facebook or Instagram accounts or through [email protected]

KRISTIAN CORDERO, writer and founder, Savage Mind: Arts, Books, and Cinema

“Ang Mga Iniiwan Ng Tubig” by Jason Tabinas (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2020)

This debut collection of Jason Tabinas inducts him as one of the better poets to have come from the Bikol region. By writing in Filipino, Tabinas writes a particular register to the so-called national language now enriched with a sensibility that particularly locates his home-space, “Bula” and its memory of water. Bula is a riverine and interior town in Camarines Sur and usually flooded every monsoon season. Hence, the vocabulary and images in this collection are particularly tempered from these recollected experiences of this young poet. Like Luis Cabalquinto’s “Magarao,” the lyrical voices in this collection yearns a return to a particular hometown, a childhood, but at the same time recognizes his other self living and leaving in another time zone, maneuvering and performing the role of an exile. The poet in Tabinas knows too well that his “Bula” is gone. In “Ang Mga Iniiwan ng Tubig,” he invents an inventory of losses and charts a calendar of grief. But despite this, Tabinas relives Bula, and affirms that the call to home is always paradoxical: it can be as strong as our faith, as stubborn as memory, hence, this kind of poetry.

Days after Bikol was badly hit by two consecutive typhoons, I re-read his collection and these words from Gaston Bachelard reverberates: “Memories of the outside world will never have the same tonality as those of home, and by recalling these memories, we add to our dreams; we are never real historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of poetry that was lost.” Listen to Tabinas: “Sumipot ang mga unang bulaklak/at ikinatuwa ang tingkad ng pagkakaiba ng berde’t pula./ Na pagkaraan ng mga bagyo,/ang parehong bagay ang magbibigay sa’yo/ng paghihinayang at lungkot/ sa katiyakan ng paulit-ulit na pagkawasak.”

“Gabos na Hayop, Pantay-Pantay” by Fr. Wilmer S. Tria (Savage Mind Publishing House, 2020)

Fr. Wilmer Tria, who is often mistaken as a Jesuit, continues to translate and adapt western classical and religious texts to Bikol as part of his call for decolonization. Following the lead of Roque Ferriols and Albert Alejo, both Jesuits, Fr. Tria has also developed a textbook on philosophy of the human person in the Bikol language, and has continued to do his own linguistic explorations by challenging himself to do these translations. Language, for Fr. Tria, remains the best medium upon which we can rebuild and reimagine a best possible world and in his case, it is Bikol. The Bikol that he uses in his liturgical celebrations is also the Bikol that he uses in his conversation with Kahlil Gibran, Carlo Collodi, Karel Capek, Jose Rizal, among others.

Of these projects the most successful is Antoine Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince” (now on its third printing) and he hopes to achieve this same success with the Bikol’s Adaptation of George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.” Entitled “Gabos Na Hayop, Pantay-Pantay,” (All Animals Are Equal) it comes with illustrations by John Sherwin Acampado. In this new work, Fr. Tria “adapted” or “transformed” Mr. Jones’ English farm to Señor Imperial’s Hacienda Felipe (Filipinas) and the name of the animal characters were replaced to more familiar Filipino historical figures, the dictator Napoleon becomes Fernando, the martyr Snowball becomes Benigno, Squealer who is a political chameleon becomes Ponce. The workaholic horses are named Juan and Juana, etc. Reading Fr. Tria’s adaptation allows us to get a critical stance towards our histories. For anyone interested in translation studies, these works of Fr. Tria are rich materials to navigate since these works are overtly unfaithful to the originals. In Tria’s “An Sadit na Prinsipe,” the fox becomes amid, a civet cat, while interestingly, the baobab remains.

For someone interested in learning the Central Bikol, “Gabos Na Hayop” is a good stepping board especially if you are also familiar with its English “version.” Next year, a musical based on this Orwell adaptation is being planned as part of the voter’s education campaign, while he has also started translating Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” to Bikol.

“Isang Kahig, Isang Tula: Mahigit na 200 Tanagá” by Albert Eduave Alejo SJ (Ateneo de Naga University Press, 2020)

Reading Albert Alejo’s slim book of poetry, one immediately discovers the affective devotion of this Jesuit poet to this traditional form of poetry. And to someone who is not so familiar with it, he writes a tanagà about tanagà:

Aapat na taludtod
na tigpipintog pantig
sa tugma, sukat, lugod
Loob ko at naantig.

Most of these short poems were encoded using his cellular phone. These tanagas were also written in the most ordinary places and circumstances, and according to the Jesuit priest, some were even written when he would find himself stuck in traffic. There seems to be no wasted moment for this Jesuit poet. In his first book, “Sananyan lang Ang Pagpatay,” which was recently reprinted by High Chair, I was immediately drawn to his prayer-like poems which remain evident in this latest collection. Like the old prophets, here is a voice that continues to haunt the oppressors and reject all forms of injustices while at the same time it draws its warmth and tenderness in the celebration of a world that is charged with God’s grandeur. He is a poet that continuously sings about hope.

May likas na halaga
Bawat isang nilikha
Mula lumot at luya
Hanggang lawin at linta.