Tuesday 18 March 2014

Andrea Pasion-Flores / overview of lit life in the Philippines

Manila-based, multi-talented Andrea Pasion-Flores is a copyright lawyer, and an academic – she teaches English at the University of the Philippines as a member of the faculty of the Department of English and Comparative Literature. She is also an agent with the Jacaranda Literary Agency – the first agent in the Philippines. She was previously the Executive Director of the National Book Development Board of the Philippines (NBDB).

I interviewed Andrea by e-mail, to find out more about books and readers in the Philippines. I started by asking her about her work at the NBDB. Whilst she was the Executive Director, she was known for her pioneering work introducing literary events to the Philippines. Starting with Lit Out Loud (2010), followed by The Great Philippine Book Café (2011) and Read Lit District (2012), she helped establish the Philippines as a venue on the world literary festival circuit. How did she now feel about that achievement? “I was working with very few resources yet trying to make things work. That was a lot of heartache, but very rewarding, too. So I do feel like a proud parent of sorts.”

Beyond the festivals, what does Andrea consider the legacy of her time at the NBDB? I don't think I should claim anything as mine. There were many men and women working for each success, so each one was the institution’s: things got done because of collaboration; people saw the vision; we were focused. I was lucky in timing, too. When I was appointed to the NBDB, the agency was in transition and was still finding its way from a complicated past. So I was free, with the support of the Chair, Dennis Gonzalez, to test a lot of ideas. I began with some housekeeping: a revision of the vision/mission, the agency's framework, the re-assigning of personnel, and the setting of goals. Meanwhile, Dennis Gonzalez was working to establish a trust fund for authors, to help those who were working on manuscripts that were important though perhaps not commercially viable. He and I, and the whole NBDB, wanted to help others to generate content, to help in the creation of knowledge - the larger vision of working towards a knowledge-based economy was always in our minds. So we made sure that legislation to establish the fund would pass, lobbying congressmen and senators to get behind the bill to secure our trust fund. I remember sitting up with Dennis Gonzalez until 2 or 3 in the morning at the Senate because our Senator-sponsor, Senator Allan Peter Cayetano, was planning to sneak legislation onto the agenda - it was not calendared for the day, but he was confident it would be taken up and believed in it as much as we did. We had to be there just in case there were questions. And he did get it in, and it was passed: supporting writers is now an on-going activity. It's a great thing. I'm proud to have been a part of that law's journey.”

What about other initiatives to help authors to survive money-wise? “It's very difficult for authors to live off their writing, and it’s doubly painful when their copyrights are infringed. Hence the NBDB helped establish a collective management organisation for authors. Now, many authors are compensated for the use of their works in the public school system. The amounts aren't fantastic yet, but they're improvements from nothing.”

Copyright infringement is a big problem in Asia, and not just within publishing, either. How did Andrea’s background as a copyright lawyer help her fight the pirates? “I was in a position to help in the Intellectual Property Office's quest to have a new copyright law pushed through the legislature, to provide strong copyright protection in the Philippines. Whenever there was a request for comments on proposals, or for someone to go to congressional hearings, I would just slog on. By my time, legislation had been languishing in congress for so long with many people working on it, contributing so much in different ways then having it shot down then revived again, that I didn't think I would ever see the fruit of all that hard work, but the bill was passed!”

That must have been a great day for authors, as well as for lawyers? “Sure. I was always keeping in mind that I had to watch out for the rights of authors. I was aware I had the responsibility to watch out for the public interest, especially in a developing country like the Philippines - I think everybody involved was aware of this responsibility. With the Intellectual Property Office leading the effort, I do feel the Philippines now has a copyright law that is progressive yet fair to copyright owners. The law is a source of pride for the many who worked on it.”

Beyond legal and financial issues, how did the NBDB reach out to the wider literary community of the Philippines?  How did it help develop a thirst for reading Philippine literature? “I think the very basic thing the Philippines needs to do to grow readership is to raise the quality of education in the public school system. At the university, I see the large gap that has to be bridged when dealing with students from the public schools. Though efforts are ongoing, it's a long a process, but I have hope that I will see this happen. In terms of my work at the NBDB, under my watch we put Philippine poetry in the train system. It was called Tulaan sa Tren  - roughly, poetry in the train - it sounds better in Filipino I assure you! We recorded celebrities reading the poetry, and had the recordings played on the radio, on partners' websites, in coffee shops. We distributed Tulaan sa Tren posters - poetry posters - to schools and libraries. We ran Tulaan sa Tren twice, and both times the reception was fantastic. We also raised the profile of the National Book Awards, which are given every year by the NBDB and the Manila Critics Circle to the best books written, designed, and published in the Philippines, and established the biannual National Children's Book Award.”

Moving away from Andrea’s old role at the NBDB, I asked her about her new one as an agent. I didn't know how isolated she was, professionally, but I did remark she surely couldn’t have many competitors for clients.  “Right. I have a feeling I am not only the first literary agent in the Philippines, I suspect I am also the only one!”  Really?  “Really. I think there should be more, but people here still have to get used to the idea of an agent. Here, content creators deal directly with publishers, but, as everywhere, creators and publishers have distinct interests. Also, people here find it difficult to talk about compensation, especially when the authors and publishers are friends, which is always the case because the publishing industry is tiny. So sometimes you have authors unable to make good deals for themselves, or they can't collect monies owed them, or they sell the rights to their own work for very little.” 

What about other publishing professionals – editors, for example? And what about other parts of the infrastructure, review journals, book fairs etc? Does the Philippines have these things? “Like many young markets, I think the Philippines still has a lot to improve on. We lack editors able to give high-level advice on manuscripts, though we do have a good number of copy editors. We need more distributors, marketers and publicists, more experienced book designers, more translators. I can go on and on with my wish list.” 

Asian Books Blog is based in Singapore, where the National Arts Council is a strong supporter of literature.  Andrea drew a comparison with the situation in the Philippines: “I do wish the Philippines could afford the kind of government support Singapore is giving its creative sector. But maybe someday we'll get there, too? We are a generally happy people, and I fall into the mould of the optimistic Filipino!”

Government support is one thing, but a mature publishing industry surely needs a strong selection of commercial publishing houses. Are such houses to be found in the Philippines? “We have many publishers - but there's always room for more good ones. If you have a vision for how books should be made, or how content should read I think there's room for you in this large, diverse market.”

What about marketing to that large, diverse market? “There is still a long way to go in terms of marketing and publicity. We need to reach out to mainstream media. Authors need to help. More authors are going out there to make their works and themselves known, and social media is helping, but there's a lot of work still to be done. Also, we do need more distributors and retail outlets aside from the current ones. The Philippines is an archipelago, and has difficulty distributing to more than 7,100 islands populated by about 100 million. We need more libraries and bookstores and other creative channels of getting books to their readers. Digital publishing should be the solution, but it has yet to really catch on here. Many things are being done, some more quietly than others, and people are working together to make it happen. So I think the industry will soon be focused in its goals.”

You can’t have a publishing industry without readers and writers, and in Asia, for many authors, a big barrier to gaining readers is lack of English, on either one side, or the other, or both. I asked Andrea for her thoughts on this perennial problem. Are most local authors in the Philippines writing in English?  If so, do they resent this?  If an author wants to write in Tagalog, or another local language, is there much chance of translation into English?  

Andrea said: “There are many authors working in Filipino (Tagalog) as well as in English. The Philippines has around 170 regional languages, 12 of which are designated mother tongue languages. Of course, there really needs to be more translation work going on for all these languages, not only from English to Filipino and vice versa but to all 12 mother tongues at least. It's happening, slowly, children's books are leading the way because our education system has recently introduced the requirement of learning in the mother tongue. One publisher forged the way with the translation of popular young adult novels like Harry Potter and Hunger Games and other titles into Filipino. More titles have been following this path, with translations happening in other regional languages. Translation will help broaden the market and keep people hooked on books. So that's a great development.” 

How eager are local people to read books by local authors?  Is the market dominated by bestsellers from the West?  Or not?  How do local authors get their voices heard locally?

“For local books, the bestsellers are those written in Filipino (Tagalog). The English titles don't come close to the numbers bestsellers in Filipino rack up. For the English-language books, most bestsellers in other markets would also be the bestsellers in the Philippines. Of course, genre fiction sells, romance, religious and inspirational books, self-help, etc. In any language, those kinds of title will sell. I hear graphic novels in English are not doing so badly either, but it's a niche.”

I wondered whether Andrea detected any trends, concerns or fashions particular to the literature of the Philippines at the moment?  What currently concerns local authors?  “I like what's happening in the comics scene. There is a very loyal fan base that packs comics conventions here - kids do cosplay, swap comics, and lots of indies show up to sell, too. The book bloggers, writers, and illustrators are there, with readers in kilometric lines asking for autographs. It's a community. Meanwhile, I just attended an opening of an exhibit in a museum featuring the art of comics and graphic novels. I thought it was very cool to have comics in a museum - an important thing for the genre. 

I also see a lot of crime and fantasy being written. For more popular lit, romance is still up there, especially with a little bit of a twist - interracial romance, paranormal romance. Kids are also writing a lot of fantasy and sci-fi within the romance genre. Young adult lit is flourishing. I've read a few narratives that happen within games. I thought that was interesting. Books on finances aimed at younger people are also growing in popularity.

Wattpad is big, and has been dictating what gets published by commercial publishers. Kids are using Wattpad as a launchpad for a writing career. I think that is very interesting. The language being used is Filipino mixed with English - lots of Taglish going on. The stuff that's written might not meet professional standards, but Wattpad is its own space, and what a large space it is! There's a lot of fan fiction and erotica being written in that space, too. It's interesting.”

I commented that it all seemed very lively. “Yes. It's a very vibrant scene actually. In Manila, there are books launched almost every week – although it would be nice to have more exciting book events, with lots of activities aimed towards young people aside from just readings, which are standard at the moment. There were a couple of local movies that were based on books that came out recently, with big name celebrities playing the major roles. Film adaptations are great if they get people buying the books. Still, we need to do more of everything to reach out to the market. We need to be out there all the time getting people excited about books and reading.”

I asked Andrea if she could recommend any local authors as ones to watch, or books by local authors she thought everybody ought to read? “Oh, there are so many!  I am sure to get in trouble for this, but here goes anyway - I should say I have a soft spot for women authors. For novels in English, remember the names Vicente Garcia Groyon, Katrina Tuevera - daughter of another great woman writer, Kerima Polotan Tuvera - Glenn Diaz, Tara F.T. Sering and Dean Alfar. For crime, I would recommend F.H. Batacan. For writing on the conflict in the southern Philippines, Criselda Yabes. I like the essays of Rica Bolipata Santos and Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo. In Filipino, I enjoy the funny yet painful coming-of-age essays of Beverly Wico Siy. Among the men, I would say Charlson Ong is a really fantastic novelist writing about the Filipino-Chinese experience. I also always enjoy the short fiction of Jose Y. Dalisay and Sarge Lacuesta. 

People ought to read Gilda Cordero-Fernando's short stories, especially A Wilderness of Sweets and People in the War and Ninotchka Rosca's State of War. Anything that comes out of the mind of Merlinda Bobis is worth reading, too. If you ever get the chance to listen to her, she is such a treat. 

If people want to get to know the fiction and poetry of the Philippines, they should get copies of all the anthologies of Gemino H. Abad, who also happens to be a fantastic poet. The poems of Edith Tiempo and Marjorie Evasco are wonderful, too - here again is my bias for women writers.  For poetry and criticism in Filipino, I'd go for Virgilio S. Almario. He is ably translated into English by Marne Kilates. Krip Yuson and J. Neil Garcia's poems must be read, too.  

Among the younger poets, I'd say pick up the books of Rafael San Diego, Mikael Ko, Mark Anthony Cayanan, Paolo Manalo, Isabelita O. Reyes, and Conchitina Cruz. For graphic novels, you will be blown away by Budjette Tan and Kajo Baldismo's Trese series. If you want to get to know Filipino food, Doreen Fernandez is the canon.” 

For children's lit, I like Ompong Remegio's story books. Candy Gourlay's novels are fantastic, too. I would say for children's lit everyone ought to read Doll's Eyes by Eline Santos, a horror story for children that happens in the labyrinthine city of Quiapo, a chaotic, mystical place in Manila. It's wonderfully terrifying! The illustrations of Joy Mallari are riveting as well.” 

Finally, I asked Andrea if she were appointed spokeswoman to the world for the literature of the Philippines, what would she say? “The literature coming from the Philippines reflects the pain and suffering found in the everyday realities of the Filipino people. Remember we're always in the path of destruction - we're in storms' way and in the ring of fire. Many parents leave children behind to work overseas. We've had a long colonial past the effects of which we're still suffering from. Many are mired in poverty still. Yet despite this history of suffering, Filipinos were found to be one of the most optimistic and caring people on earth. They are not flippant or dismissive of the harsh realities they face, but are persistent and resilient, and are constantly showing people how to overcome the harshness of a difficult life. I believe with all my heart that a novel reflecting this part of the world's realities from a writer who lives in the Philippines will soon blow everyone away. I am determined to find that novel and represent it, and it's not going to be just one novel but many. I am sure Filipino writers writing in English are working on it. Maybe the big books will come from writers writing Filipino-Tagalog or any of the regional languages and will be translated into English for the world - from being written in Filipino languages they will forge their own form - I am excited to find those, too. I do know Philippine literature is rich and varied - and grossly underrepresented in the world's publishing arena. Jacaranda intends to stop this underrepresentation of Asian literature. I intend to stop the underrepresentation of Philippine lit. I feel very strongly that the world is ready to read Asia. I promise the world Asian literature won't disappoint.”