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A Spoonful of Sugar Helps Literary Progress Go Down

ANNA FELICIA SANCHEZ ISHIKAWA or Anna Ishikawa, as she is known professionally, was born in August 1981 and graduated from St. Scholastica’s Academy High School in 1998. She gained admittance to the top University of the nation – the University of the Philippines, Diliman – where she majored in Creative Writing, eventually earning her BA in English Studies. She has won numerous grants and local and national awards for her fiction and placed second for a full-length play in English in the 2004 Palanca Awards – which is regarded as the Philippines most prestigious and longest-running literary contest. Over the past few years, she also participated as a fellow for fiction in English in the UP, Dumaguete, and Iligan National Writers Workshops, some of the most selective in the country.

Some Americans who identify themselves strongly by their ethnic origins might wonder at the surname Sanchez (Anna’s maiden name). Many might assume this is because of her ancestry; the country was after all a Spanish colony for over three centuries. But in fact, a large majority of Filipino families have Spanish names without having Spanish ancestry. The quick answer to this is that during the colonial period, the Claveria Decree of 1849 required all Filipino families to select a Spanish surname name from an approved list. Ishikawa, of course, is a distinctively Japanese name and is the name she adopted from her husband who is Japanese-Filipino. With a name that practically contains the history of the world, is it any wonder that she writes in the universal language and for a universal audience?

Given that it is not even the official language of the United States, it might surprise some Americans to hear that in addition to Filipino, or Tagalog, English is the other official language of the Philippines; it is considered the (lingua franca) throughout most of the nation. Most Filipinos, particularly in the urban areas, are not only completely fluent in speaking it but some are even more comfortable writing in English than in their native tongue. It may even be that, as any students of a language are apt to be more attentive to grammar than its native speakers, Filipino writers who write in English are likely to write more correct, albeit sometimes more self-conscious, prose than the average native English speaking pupil. Certainly it is also conceivable to posit that the Philippines, and perhaps other postcolonial nations as well, is done being a student of English as foreign language. That is, they no longer consider it “foreign” but rather the operating language of the international community, as well as a natural second tongue, beyond it being officially so. We maybe entering the era of global cultural homogenization. If so, what does that mean for the future of Filipino literature?

The Philippines is often viewed as a matriarchal society, perhaps due to the fact that in the past two decades, two of the three presidents have been women, including the two-term incumbent. Though not strictly speaking a matriarchal society, the cultural history of the country does demonstrate a balance in political and cultural contributions from both genders. In the literary history of the country, there is no prominent history, at least no significant movements, to promote female writers over males writers. Perhaps, this is because of their common struggle to promote any sort of literary endeavors by Filipinos that the gender issue had to be relegated to a secondary position. At least for now.

A filipino writer might get mired in a state of limbo if she were to endlessly ponder who she is, or should be, as a writer. Anna Ishikawa and her contemporaries know there is more pressing work at hand: Get the nation to start reading again in the first place. At a close second place is to get the country to produce more written work – any language will do.

According to a survey sponsored by the National Book Development Board (NBDB) the number one book most read in the Philippines today is the Bible. The second genre of books read are romances. What is a young literary writer – scion of the nation’s literati – to do? A smart person and accomplished writer in tune with all trends of the industry, would supply the demand. And Anna is nothing if not a smart and accomplished writer. Publish or perish, as they say. Anna’s first book ODD GIRL OUT is a romance novel. Unapologetically ‘chick lit’ as a matter of fact. The story, simple and auspicious enough, is about a modern Filipino woman trying to find out what kind of love she is looking for, after her perfect one fell apart.

As Anna told the Manila Bulletin upon the book’s release, “It’s the theme of despair, escape, recovery and redemption.” The story could be boiled down to those broad themes, but the book itself, represents more than that. Her heroine, Cerisse, is a very independent young woman with a very “modern” lifestyle: living on her own, starting her business and being sexually very active.
Anna continues: “It also explores female sexuality as popularized by the likes of Sex and the City and Bridget Jones’ Diary, and the realities and stereotypes of the modern woman… you also have elements like the gay friend and issues of being a single mom.”

This may seem like nothing new to readers of the genre but even for a fictional Filipino life, it is quite controversial considering that the Philippines is a staunchly conservative society with over 81% of the population belonging to the Roman Catholic Church. The president, a devout catholic woman, once “admitted” to using the contraceptive pill as a young mother, but said it made her feel so guilty she had to go to confession. She has announced her intentions to withhold public funding for contraceptive programs, pushing for natural birth control (i.e. abstinence) which is the only method sanctioned by the church. Issues of homosexuality, pre-marital or promiscuous sex are clearly not issues open to discourse.

The dichotomy between modern Filipino mores and the peoples’ inextricable symbiosis with the United States is most evident in the contemporary literature the country has been producing in recent decades.

To say there is an exilic nature to the English writing by Filipinos – insofar as that distinction can still be drawn between what is deemed “Filipino” and “Filipino in English” writing – is a subjective matter. However, what many of the nation’s most prominent writers agree on – and often promulgate in their work – is the notion that Filipino writers are caught between two languages and two cultures. As renowned Filipino writer Nick Joaquin has declared, “the identity of a Filipino today is of a person asking what is his identity.”

And in his book Authentic Though Not Exotic: Essays on Filipino Identity, Dr. Fernando N. Zialcita, suggests that “many Filipinos question the “authenticity” of their identity. They are uneasy about the heavy Spanish influence that came in with colonialism. They wonder if their culture is but a mixture of conflicting traditions. Moreover, they fear that the Hispanic presence seems an oddity in a Southeast Asia that defines itself as non-Western.”

Oddity or not, the Filipino experience on display in its literary works, is certainly unique in the South Asian region. When Anna Ishikawa references shows like Sex and the City, or has characters that demonstrate an affinity to the lifestyle depicted in such shows (controversial even by western standards), is she representing the modern filipino woman? Or urging her to be more liberated, to own her sexuality? Her main characters are pointedly atypical Filipinos from the main character who lives alone in her condo, to the single mother supported by a family of friends instead of actual kin. Is this lifestyle a trend in the younger generations? No, not really. She is providing escapism and at the same time exploring these themes as a writer even as the entire country is exploring them as a society. Perhaps the fact that such novels serve as a vehicle for escapism is most indicative of the existing social polarity.

Imagine this: You have always wanted to be writer and have been writing stories since time in memoriam; Short stories, poems, and plays. Maybe you even have a comic strip with your very own made up super hero that you continuously develop for the fun of it. You do very well in school (bookish ones always do) Among your favorite books you count Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, Jane Eyre by Bronte, as well as books by Nick Hornby and Terry Pratchett. You gain acceptance to the nation’s most prestigious University where you join ranks with other literary scions of the country. And what do you major in but English Studies and creative writing, of course. You publish your first three books before the age of twenty-seven; even greater things still ahead.

All these things are true for Anna Ishikawa. But in terms of livelihood and prestige, what does it mean for her? Especially when for decades bookstores have been flooded with American and European publications, From TigerBeat magazine to the latest by James Patterson.

Fox Literary House was founded by Anna’s former university classmates. They have just published her third book “Where Your Dreams Come True” about a young woman who sees the man of her dreams in, well, her dreams, and starts looking for him in real life.

Sarah Grutas, a friend of Anna’s and editor of Fox books, seems to feel it’s time to move ‘Filipiniana’ out of its niche and squeeze it in next to the Sweet Valley High books on the store shelves. The most direct way to do this, is to offer Filipino stories in the same vein, same language, as the competition. The lack of language barrier has made this possible and necessary. Especially when your young Filipino writers grew up reading and being educated on Dostoevsky and Austen.

As editor, Sarah says her main goal for Fox Literary House is to heighten the Filipino people’s level of awareness of great literature. “Yes, we want to earn money. Yes, we want to provide entertainment. But the most important thing for us is for the Filipino people to have something that will stimulate their creativity and [sense of] cultural excellence.”

Another goal, apparently, is to cheat. “With our own horror anthology which are very popular in the country, our writers tried to incorporate issues that are not usually addressed, like homosexuality. How do you write a story about a gay ghost? Most of the stories are about homosexuality, prostitution, militarization, and domestic violence – issues that abound in the country but people keep quiet about….not many Filipino readers care about these things anymore. They’d rather watch Pinoy Big Brother or a telenovela or something they won’t have to process.”

Not many publishers in the Philippines offer advances or give royalties. Fox books does both. If a publishing house does offer any monetary compensation, the highest incentive pay a writer will get is Fifteen thousand pesos ( about 356 US dollars). Fox Literary House is one of the only two publishers in the country that will offer that fifteen thousand pesos to writers. Houses that do pay will, at most, give “known” authors eight thousand pesos. New writers can settle for compensations in the three to five thousand peso range. Actually, some larger companies do not give any monetary compensation for any written work. She explains that oftentimes, the only incentive larger companies will offer is the “prestige of being published by a big-time publisher.”

Fox Books also has three options on copyright ownership for writers to choose from: in perpetuity and five or ten year options – they do not claim copyright ownership on the book as an idea or concept only on the book as Object. Sarah says they are the only publisher in the Philippines who has this kind of “copyright-ownership-(ewan).”
It isn’t the competition, then, that has pushed Fox Literary House to offer writers like Anna such a liberal “copyright-ownership-thingy”. What they are doing is creating a platform for expression in written works. They are bringing more Filipinos to writing and are promoting the arts as a profession, and not just an extracurricular activity. Almost unheard of in large publishing markets abroad, Fox books accepts unsolicited manuscripts. In fact, they have an open submission policy and advertise for manuscripts on the internet.

Revolution by chick lit? Probably not. Still, one can at least hope for a little social discourse. After all, the Philippines is a nation whose national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, was a writer. His written works – the novels Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and El Filibusterismo (The Subversive) – have been credited with igniting the revolution against the Spanish empire which ruled over the Filipino people for over 333 years. True, the legacy of the colonial period is not only manifested in politics and language but in literature as well. Writings on the subject of the trauma due to imperialism has brought us illustrious works by the likes of J.M Coetzee and Salman Rushdie. Should it then follow that the trauma be accompanied by obligations for Filipino writers – or any other writer who originates from a former colony or commonwealth nation – to explore the weath of “material” available to them due to colonization?

Anna and her colleagues do not presume this task is incumbent upon them. Of course, as the literary progeny of internationally recognized literary luminaries such as Lualhati Bautista, Nick Joaquin and Ninotchka Rosca, they balance the future of the nation’s literature on the tip of their pens.

But the task they are taking on is the promotion and development of a fledgling market: Filipino literature for the global masses. Having been weaned on western literature and tastes, who can be better entrusted to poise Filipino writers – particularly since they are already free of any linguistic encumbrances – for the international market? Their works donot seek recognition, but universality and establishment. The past is precious, but the future is at risk. Much in the same way national bookstores and overseas markets do not discriminate in the literature they import into the country, it seems the philosophy of the new generation of nationalistic Filipino writers is to produce work that transcends their regionality.

Mayra David
In addition to writing articles and book reviews, Mayra David writes short stories and novels. Well, so far, just one novel. But she does have several short stories and they are indeed short. She lives in New York City with her husband, books, and laptop.
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2  Comments
  • km

    Hello, I accidentally read the book of anna ishikawa, when my professor told us to read some inspirational books and I really don’t have any idea of what I’m going to read. So when I’m on my way home, I saw national bookstore and I glimpse some books there, until I saw your book entitle “odd girl out”. And with no second thought I bought the book and read it as my homework. I really had fun reading the said book and I hope I can have some list of other books made by anna ishikawa. thanks so much. God Bless.. :)

  • yura timoshenko

    It is weird that I found this particular article… I typed “is there a literary progress?” and here is what I found…. Still it got me interested, good review… Another funny thing was an observation about books mostly read by urban populace – here in Moscow it seems to be roughly the same, judging by people I see in subway and what my friends read. But I think it is a result of a class structure of society, it affects percentile of people who may be prone to be more intellectual in their reading. Personally though, it seems that intellectual attitude is more artificial than being shallow, so you decide what makes more value for you, honest shallownes or artificial intellectualism…

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