LIKE most communities, the Philippine literary community had its share of cheers and tears in 2018. The past year saw a number of Filipino authors here and overseas reach significant highs in their careers, while several others — including very influential ones — departed for, as the title of a Russell Banks novel says, the sweet hereafter.
In February, Filipino-American Erin Entrada Kelly won the prestigious 2018 Newbery Medal for outstanding contribution to US children’s literature for her novel Hello, Universe, published in March 2017. The Association for Library Service to Children, which hands out the prize annually, described Kelly’s book about a diverse group of four middle-school students, including a Filipino-American boy, as a “modern quest tale” that “shimmers with humor and authentic emotion” and is “masterfully told through shifting points of view.”
Two months later, another Filipino-American, Elaine Castillo, released to great acclaim her debut novel, America is Not the Heart, whose title directly references Carlos Bulosan’s classic semi-autobiographical novel America Is in the Heart. The New York Times called America is Not the Heart, about Filipinos in 1990s California, as “hungrily ambitious in sweep and documentary in detail, and reads like a seismograph of the aftershocks from trading one life for another.”
For its part, the San Francisco Chronicle described Castillo’s book as a “tender and unforgettable debut” and a “wholehearted and sharply observed family epic,” while Vogue called it “magnificent” and The Guardian found it “impressive.”
Speaking of America Is in the Heart, major global publisher Penguin Random House announced recently that it would publish its own edition of that novel. This edition, with a forward from Castillo herself, would be released under its Penguin Classics imprint on May 21.
Bulosan’s work is the latest published by the distinguished publishing house under that brand. It comes after José Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, Jose Garcia Villa’s Doveglion: Collected Poems and Nick Joaquin’s The Woman Who Had Two Navels and Tales of the Tropical Gothic.
Like Castillo, Gina Apostol garnered similarly overwhelming praise for her fourth novel, Insurrecto — about a US filmmaker wanting to do a movie on the Balangiga Massacre — which came out in November.
The New York Times said the book was a “bravura performance in which war becomes a farce, history becomes burlesque” and The Los Angeles Times called it “an arresting novel with a timely political message” that “deftly illustrates the power of perspective.” Such raves put Insurrecto on several “Best Book” lists, including those of Publishers Weekly, BuzzFeed and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
New National Artists
On home soil, Malacañang formally conferred in October the National Artist title on esteemed essayist and literary scholar Resil Mojares, the late novelist Ramon Muzones, and playwright and puppet-theater pioneer Amelia Lapeña-Bonifacio. The selection of the first two, honored for their contributions to Philippine literature, is especially significant, for they are the first authors from the Visayas to be inducted into the Order of National Artists. As such, the government’s recognition of them is seen as a great boost to writers and writing from the regions.
Cebu province-based Mojares has published 17 books; and edited, co-edited or co-authored 11 others. These include The Origins and Rise of the Filipino Novel: A Generic Study of the Filipino Novel Until 1940; From Marcos to Aquino: Local Perspectives on Political Transition in the Philippines; House of Memory: Essays; The War Against the Americans: Resistance and Collaboration in Cebu, 1899–1906; Waiting for Mariang Makiling: Essays in Philippine Cultural History; Brains of the Nation: Pedro Paterno, T.H. Pardo de Tavera, Isabelo de los Reyes and the Production of Modern Knowledge; and Isabelo’s Archive.
As for Iloilo province-born Muzones, who died in 1992, his considerable body of work includes Ang Bag-ong Maria Clara, Maambong Nga Sapat, Margosatubig, Si Tamblot, Si Tamblot Kandidato Man, Ang Gugma sang Gugma Bayaran, Babae Batuk sa Kalibutan, Malala nga Gutom, Shri-Bishaya, and Dama de Noche. Some of these are considered groundbreakers in Hiligaynon literature.
Muzones was not the only author from Iloilo recognized, though. 2001 Palanca Hall of Fame inductee Leoncio Deriada and his daughter Dulce Maria Deriada bagged prizes for their short stories in Cebuano and Hiligaynon, respectively, at the 68th Carlos Palanca Awards for Literature in early October.
For the second straight year, Ateneo de Manila University Press copped in November the publisher of the year prize at the 37th National Book Awards after six of its dozen nominated titles triumphed in their respective categories.
The year also witnessed the launch of several wonderful books. Among the more notable ones are Coral Cove and Other Stories and A Waiting Room Companion by Angelo R. Lacuesta, Hush Harbor by Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, Bienvenida de Soltera by Liza C. Magtoto, Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China by Marites Dañguilan Vitug, At the School Gate by Sandra Nicole Roldan, Hans Christian Andersen and Jose Rizal: From Denmark to the Philippines by Danish Ambassador to Manila Jan Top Christensen, Mga Batang Poz by Segundo Matias Jr., The Achieve of, The Mastery: Filipino Poetry and Verse from English, mid-‘90s to 2016 by Dr. Gemino Abad and Mookie Katigbak-Lacuesta, and In Many Ways: Poems 2012–2016 by National Artist for Literature Cirilo F. Bautista.
Sadly, most writers would remember 2018 as a year when too many important authors yielded to lingering illnesses and passed on. Perhaps the most prominent of these is Bautista, who died on May 6, leaving behind an impressive body of work that includes what many of his admirers and peers regarded as his masterpiece, the epic poem The Trilogy of Saint Lazarus. 2000 Palanca Hall of Fame honoree Edgardo Maranan joined him on May 8, and was followed by award-winning essayist and Angono’s foremost chronicler Ligaya Tiamson-Rubin on May 18.
Death struck again in early July, claiming Rogelio Mangahas — one-third of a trio of influential poets in Filipino (the others are National Artist for Literature Virgilio Almario and Lamberto Antonio) who emerged in the 1960s — on the 4th; fictionist and Streets of Manila co-author Luningning Bonifacio-Ira on the 5th; noted critic Leonard Casper on the 6th, which also happened to be his birthday; and celebrated essayist Carmen Guerrero Nakpil on the 30th.
Completing this list is playwright Alberto Florentino, whose departure on September 22 was only confirmed by US-based novelist Cecilia Manguerra Brainard several weeks later. Although many know him for his award-winning play The World is an Apple, Florentino’s most significant contribution lies in his Peso Books series, a then-innovative publishing initiative that made the works of Filipino authors more accessible and affordable to readers.
There is no question the literary community would miss these writers, but it can take comfort in the books they left behind. They can also take solace in the knowledge that these books would continue to illuminate and inspire readers and writers in the coming years, and in turn lead to the publication of more books, enriching Philippine literature further.