Thoughts on the MILF: LIT OUT LOUD! Day 3

Two weeks ago, the first Manila International Literary Festival (MILF), organized by the National Book Development Board (NBDB) in celebration of the 14th Philippine Book Development Month, concluded. This year’s MILF, titled Lit Out Loud, was held at the Hotel Intercontinental Manila from November 18 to 20 and featured talks from writers, academics, and literary agents about books and the writing, publishing, and reading of them.

[Read: “Thoughts on the MILF: Lit Out Loud! (Day 1)”]

I couldn’t attend the second day of the festival, which was a pity, as it included sessions about marketing literary titles; making book trailers; turning a manuscript into a film; travel writing; writing online; children’s literature; the young adult novel; genre fiction; graphic literature; and other emerging forms of literature — all of which were surely interesting.

I was, however, able to attend the third day of the festival and listen to the discussions on the Man Asian Literary Prize; writing the diaspora; gender issues in writing; and Slumdog Millionaire, the movie and the book.

The Man Asian Literary Prize and the importance of winning awards

Touted as Asia’s top literary prize, the Man Asian is an annual award given to an outstanding novel, written in or translated into English, by an Asian author. It is the only pan-Asian literary prize. To talk about the Man Asian, the latest changes in its rules, and the importance of winning international literary awards, David Parker, the director of the Man Asian, and local writers Jose Dalisay, Charlson Ong, and Alfred Yuson were invited.

Ong began the discussion by saying that there is no formula for winning literary awards; a confluence of factors — from geopolitics to having a good translation — affects the decision. He remarked that what is important is artistic integrity — writers should not pander to the tastes and whims of, say, Westerners, just to break into larger markets. Rather, the question of authenticity and the importance of representation in a globalized, multicultural world should always be kept in mind.

Parker explained that the West offers a multitude of literary prizes that draws writers from all over the world — including those of the Asian diaspora. Such a motivation and opportunity was needed in Asia; thus, in 2007, the Man Asian Literary Prize was established. According to Parker, the award seeks to give recognition to the excellence and richness of Asian literature and promote writing in the region. In doing so, it tries to combat misrepresentation of the region — to get rid of the limiting stereotypes of Asia and instead show what it is like in the consciousness of the people living here. The prize also tries to find and recognize hidden talent — writers doing excellent work who have not yet garnered wide acclaim — of which the 2008 winner, our own Miguel Syjuco, writer of Ilustrado, is the perfect example.

The prize seeks to generate what Parker called the “Booker Effect” — the rejuvenation of novel-writing and reading, and the spreading of awareness about books through shortlisting and longlisting, and good marketing. Through the Booker Effect, Parker explained, Asian writing can attract international interest, thereby allowing those outside of Asia to gain rich insight into the region, which they did not have access to before.

To achieve the Booker Effect, the rules of the Man Asian were changed. The most important changes concerned what could be submitted and who could submit it. While before, the Man Asian accepted only unpublished manuscripts from individual authors, in 2010, it accepted only published books nominated by their publishers. According to Parker, it is easier to market books that are already there; with the old rules, a lot of the unpublished works in the short and long lists did not make it to publishers or took a long time to get published, and thus were unable to add to the hype about Asian writing that the Man Asian hoped to generate. The support of publishers is also critical to the development of this hype; individual submission was not enough to achieve the desired Booker Effect. The changes were also made to ensure the quality of Man Asian entries. Parker talked about how, after Asian writing became hot, big publishers moved to Asia and seized the best writing, leaving the Man Asian to fish in the same pool as the publishers for manuscripts. When they observed a decrease in the general quality of Man Asian entries, they decided that changes in the rules had to be made. While this considerably slimmed down the chances of discovering unrecognized talent, the Man Asian decided that the more important thing was developing wide interest in the books.

He ended with the thought that “Literature isn’t for everybody … It’s something that has the greatest impact on middle class and upper class people, that’s true.” But he also pointed out that these people have a huge impact in many ways, and getting them to support literature is doing a lot to encourage general interest in it.

 

Writing the Diaspora

The discussion on diasporic writing by migrant Filipinos was led by Oscar Campomanes and Jose Wendell Capili, and was moderated by J.Neil Garcia.

Campomanes discussed two emergent features of the Filipino diaspora: the first concerns a sociological phenomenon, the reverse migration of what he called a “specific cultural phenotype” — the balikbayan/returnee, the hyphenated Filipino; the second concerns diasporic writing — its shift of focus from subject to form.

According to Campomanes, the term “Filipino” is not so much of nationality, but of globality — we are literally and figuratively (what with the nationalities and attendant accents and “native” knowledge our call center agents must assume, the imported cultural and material products we so ardently consume) all over the world, “swimming in a circuit of cultural exchange.” Some of these Filipinos who have settled abroad or are the children of migrant Filipinos return to the Philippines, constituting a whole new category in the social order, one composed of the balikbayan and the hyphenated Filipino (Filipino-American, Filipino-Japanese, Filipino-Brazilian-Japanese, Filipino-[insert nationality/ies here]), a category that has become hypervisible, functional, naturalized. Specifically, their “superior” position in the social order has become naturalized; they are celebrities in many cultural scenes — showbiz, sports, the academe. He points out that interestingly, we seem to accept that the balikbayan or, say, the Fil-Am is, of course, better than us natives — she is more beautiful (may lahi) or more sophisticated (stateside ang mga gamit), stronger (matangkad or was trained abroad), smarter (American accent! Connections with foreign universities!) — a notion that, he believes, must be studied, must be accommodated in our curricula, given that this sociological phenomenon has become a critical force in our society.

L-R: Neil Garcia, Oscar Campomanes, Wendell Capili. Photo from Sir Wendell's Facebook. He handed me his camera at the talk and asked me to take pictures.XD

In the second part of his talk, he discussed the shift of focus in diasporic writing from subject to form. According to him, much of the early diasporic writing was centered on the concept of the homeland, be they nostalgic or dystopic/dysfunctional depictions of the Philippines from a migrant’s point of view, or the preoccupation of, say, a second-generation Filipino who grew up in the United States, an everyman, and his struggle with the concept of identity/nationality and belongingness. Now, he said, new diasporic writing seem more focused in developing narrative forms that express the sense of dislocation/fragmentation/hybridity that migrant Filipinos experience. He cited as an example the “phototextual narrative”—the verbal description of photographs that constitute the story. Another good example, I think, of this preoccupation with form and how it complements the subject of homeland vs. dislocation/hybridity, is this essay by Dana Lee Delgado, who grew up in the Philippines, moved with her family to Saudi Arabia and lived there for nine years, and then went back to the Philippines, while frequently returning to Saudi to be with her family. It was published in the first volume of & (Ampersand), the creative writing journal of the English department of the University of the Philippines.

Capili, meanwhile, discussed how the literature produced by migrant writers is instrumental to fostering links between migrants and their adopted community; in retaining the cultural uniqueness of migrant groups amidst pressure to conform to the mainstream culture of the foster country; and in ensuring that migrant communities have a “voice” in their adopted country. Writing, in this sense, becomes a way of coping with the problems of migrant life.

Gender Issues in Writing

Danton Remoto, Jhoanna Lyn Cruz, and J. Neil Garcia talked about how their sexuality affects their writing, while Jose Wendell Capili moderated the discussion. What most struck me in this session were Neil Garcia’s assertions that queer writing is necessarily confessional, and that gayness in writing is not a mere topic but a subject position.

The confessional mode, Garcia explained, entails the “unbosoming of personal pain and shame,” employs an intimate tone, and brings together personal and public references in a work — Sylvia Plath’s poem, “Lady Lazarus,” for example, alludes not only to her feeling of oppression and attempts at suicide, but also to the Holocaust. Given the context and the politics from which a “gay poem” arises, it is, according to Garcia, by definition, confessional — homosexuality in this country remains a generally taboo subject, treated with derision or scorn; gays are still often lampooned; feelings of shame and anxiety still attend “coming out.”

Being open about one’s sexuality is a very political and often difficult choice; standing up for this choice and publicly discussing it — talking about one’s queerness or even one’s feminism — more so. Garcia said that “sexuality, once avowed, is not easily unavowed.” A queer writer, he said, in writing confessional poems about his sexuality, creates the myth of himself as gay. He talked about how, once he established himself as a queer writer, everything he wrote henceforth was read through the lens of his queerness — he wrote a poem about the Virgin Mary and people still thought it was gay.

Despite this typecasting, however, it is important to continue the dialogue about the still problematic issues of gender and sexuality. As Garcia pointed out, sexuality exists in a paradoxical position in our society — it’s there, and yet not there; unlike, say, class, sexuality is not so visible as a socio-economic factor or position, yet it is crucial to shaping one’s identity and circumstances in life.

Swarup discussing Slumdog Millionaire! Wish me a better cam next time!


Slumdog Millionaire

The last session I attended was a screening of Slumdog Millionaire, the critically acclaimed film by Danny Boyle, based on the novel Q & A by the Indian author and diplomat, Vikas Swarup. Swarup, who was one of the speakers in the festival, talked about the film version of his novel after the screening.

It was my first time to watch the film, and I finally understood why it won all those awards — technically accomplished and with genuine emotional power, Slumdog Millionaire is the sort of film that uplifts. In spite of the fairy tale-like nature of its narrative, which some people would deem corny, Swarup quipped that its sentiment must be preferable to, say, that of its main Oscar contender, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, whose message was basically “Death is sad.”

Despite significant departures from Q & A, notably those concerning the name, life, and the character agency of the protagonist, and despite accusations of fueling Western stereotypes of India and pandering to the desire for “poverty porn,” Swarup praised the film as a sensitive portrayal of India and a worthy vehicle for Indian artistry to be recognized internationally. Some people who attended the screening with me disapproved of this perceived desire to be recognized by the First World. However, considering that the flow of culture in our globalized world is still predominantly from the First World to the Third World, I believe that cultural products that manage to turn the tide a bit and challenge stereotypes have to be supported. Despite being directed by a British filmmaker and written by a British screenwriter, I think, and so does Swarup, that Slumdog Millionaire is such a work.

Vikas Swarup with volunteers from the UP Writers Club! Taken from the NBDB Facebook page. Like their page for updates!

And so ends the first Manila International Literary Festival, after having raised and turned over a myriad of questions about culture and art and their significance to Philippine society. I hope that in succeeding years, such conversations will continue.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Thoughts on the MILF: LIT OUT LOUD! Day 3

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on the MILF (part 1) « tenant on the top floor

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on the MILF: LIT OUT LOUD! Day 1 | tenant on the top floor

Leave a message?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s