How Reading Too Many Foreign Novels Only Made Me Love Philippine Literature More
by Maria Romero, November 08, 2018 5:13pm
Art by Rejoice Celadina
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
I will never forget this opening line from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in The Rye, the book that got me into reading. The moment I finished digesting its last page, I swore to myself that that was the best book ever written in the history of literature. Hell, I even thought I could date an angsty kid like Holden Caulfield (the book’s protagonist) in this lifetime.
Since I get you started with this sort of introduction, I know you want to hear more about it.
My childhood was nowhere near Holden’s–it was never lousy, at least for me. My childhood days were mostly spent playing with my friends under the scorching heat of the sun. Growing up with a rebellious attitude, I never really liked reading books. It was the most un-cool thing to do for me then. Sitting in a chair, lousily turning the pages of an old book from my grandfather’s study room, and sipping a hot cup of something? I would rather wash my family's clothes and mop the whole house all day.
Discovering books was a sweet serendipity
However, my life completely turned around when I read a blog about how The Catcher In The Rye saved a girl’s life. It was Summer and I don’t have much to do, so I searched for the book’s copy online. Upon reading, I immediately fell in love with Holden and Phoebe’s story and how they became each other’s emotional anchor. In my angsty puberty stage then, I aspired to have a brotherly relationship like that. Reading that book was definitely my life’s sweetest serendipity. Soon enough, a high school teacher introduced me to the dubious Le Petit Prince. Since then, I would read one book after another and sometimes would read books concurrently–from classics to contemporaries to young adult fictions.
With that, I have virtually traveled to many places with the novels I already read. When I read Haruki Murakami, I feel like I could easily board the Chuo Line inbound rapid-service train at Koenji Station to go to the Town of Cats just like how Tengo Kawana of 1Q84 did it. Sometimes I feel like I could simply be a detective ala Cormoran Strike solving cases in the beautiful city of London in a Robert Galbraith novel. Other times I just enjoy how Jennifer Niven toured me around Indiana through Theodore and Violet’s adventures in All The Bright Places. I could go a day by just citing a whole new level of experience my books gave me but in the end, this only made me feel one thing: guilt.
I’m guilty because I was able to travel through the roaring ’20s of other parts of the world but I hardly even know that the Philippines had it’s Golden Age that was as glamorous, too. I can easily enumerate the places Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace Lancaster of The Fault In Our Stars went before August died, but I can never fully recite the places Elias of Noli Me Tangre went before he died.
It’s such a shame to be a foreigner in my own land. But behind all these sloppy realizations was a silver lining.
Reading Philippine Literature keeps my feet on the ground
To be honest, I only read books for escapism. I never really read to broaden my mind or to know more about the history of the Holocaust or how much the Philippines suffered during American and Japanese occupations. For instance, a Nicholas Sparks novel doesn’t really broaden my knowledge because it only made me seek a happily ever after until everything gets ugly.
I was so fascinated at how Western authors weaved words to create stories that touched my soul so I went on reading lots of foreign novels but never did I think that after consuming all those books, I would only end up loving Philippine Literature more. This came right after my literature class in high school required us to read Deogracias Rosario’s Walang Panginoon, a short story about the conflict between two opposing classes: the ruling class represented by Don Teong and the lower class represented by Marcos. It was a straightforward tale of a person’s right on a piece of land, but to me, its plot went beyond just reminding me to check my privileges.
Later on, I was exposed to novels written by Liwayway Arceo, Norman Wilwayco, and Francisco Sionil José. I realized that my literary horizon could expand even more with the gem that is Phil Lit. Now I don’t just read to broaden my knowledge or to escape from harsh reality but I read to keep myself more attached to the ground.
With local books, traveling through Manila’s rich culture is no big a deal now and even learning about provincial anecdotes isn’t so hard, if I only discovered my love for Phil Lit sooner. All the fields I wish I studied sooner can all be rammed down in my throat through our local books.
So now my routine, whenever I get sad and think that learning comes at too high a price doesn’t just include going to a thrift bookstore but a whole lot of reminiscing and wishing I could do something to the beaten hero of the last novel I read. Just like in “Mondomanila” when Tony was beaten just outside their slumpy street and how he was holding back just to please the fragile masculinity of his father. I wish I could be a hero and save him. But lucky for him, he was able to get out of that bleak circus of slums before everything was blown out of proportion. Or when I feel too weary to fight the good fight, I just think of how Ricky Lee brought me to a new dimension through Amapola where the dream of a Philippine society built on tolerance and social justice remains alive. Through that, I would come out of Lee’s richly imagined world more alive and ready to continue the fight the good fight.
This is the best thing about local books, they teach me about narratives grounded in traditional legends and myths, socio-political antiquities, and real-life experiences. They promote Filipino cultural values and daily struggles of locals guiding me to actively participate in intellectual discussions. Truly, getting more involved in our local literature is the best thing I can do to support what’s ours. For sure, when my old age comes, I will all look back over history without regrets.
It’s awfully funny how I once religiously look up to The Catcher In The Rye as the best novel written ever. I surely didn’t know better then. I’m glad that as I grow older, I developed a more linear and seamless life, far from the nonconformist kid I once was. Now for me, the best stories aren’t written by elites from the west but by those who braved the battles in championing the fight to write with freedom. Because the greatest novels are written in our mother tongue and made with the same air we all breathe.
Before you read all these Phil Lit books, I should warn you, you’ll never be the same after.