(Excerpt from Keynote Speech delivered during the Gintong Aklat Awards 2008, SMEX Convention Center, Bay Area, Pasay City)
Recent events in our history, specifically in the past twenty years or so, have more than less convinced me that ours is a culture not of ideas and intellection but of emotions, hints, and suspicions. Our predilection is for the unsaid or the merely implied, the shadowy and adumbrated, the peripheral and the underground as appropriate instruments to counter what has been perceived as the given brutality of power and force exercised by the few oligarchs and pseudo-monarchs in appropriate political positions. The dynamics in our culture is such that there seems to be always an agon between the outer and the inner, between the overt and the secret, the official and the unofficial, mainstream and underground—with the outer and overt and official conceived of as tyrannically powerful and repressive, and the inner and secret and unofficial wielded as a submissive and abiding force whose time will eventually come. The complexity of the interplay between these two “forces” has remained inexhaustible and a source of inspiration for our inventiveness that has spanned the gamut from the ludicrous to the ludic. Our basic stance is subversive of any established order, and the reality of our daily life is rooted in infringements of various kinds tolerated and even elevated to the level of norms—from blatant disobedience of simple traffic signs and rules, to secret deals and agreements at the highest levels of the echelon that explode in the faces of the players when exposed to the public. Witness the aborted Memorandum of Agreement between the government panel and the MILF, which has plunged the peace process in Mindanao into a crisis and cost deaths to civilians and soldiers alike and displacements of hundreds of thousands of families in central Mindanao. “If you were the MILF,” Mayor Rodrigo Duterte of Davao had remarked, expressing the sentiment of many Mindanaons, “after a gestation of five years, talking laboriously for five years, tapos sabihin na, ‘Oh no, the MOA-AD is just a piece of paper,’ and as a matter of fact, ‘they [that is, members of the government panel] were not given the authority to sign.’ If you were the MILF, would you be happy to hear that?” Little wonder that given the kind of governance that this sad republic of ours has, who wouldn’t want to break away from it? Our memories are full of treacheries and betrayals, and our ideal is martyrdom for a cause that should not have been put on the pedestal of grievance had our civil life been shaped and ruled by simple observance of basic laws and rules of public conduct. But we prefer to move with stealth, duplicity, and cunning, and make a show of conservatism and righteousness to make up for our deep lack of a strong moral center. Of course, the majority of us have their religion to fall back on, but even in that realm we know how to play the gods.
All these may appear to be sociology simplified for dummies by a poet, but this poet thinks we’ve allowed ourselves to be played with as such for as long as he can remember. And at no time in our history had we been placed in such a moral quandary—or muck, or nadir—and at such tragic scale of helplessness and inaction than the one we are in at the present time. There is certainly no lack of imagination on our part to cope with this kind of predicament, but in our present case, we seem to be facing a blank wall—and making the best of the cracks and fissures we see on it.
I mention these things here because I want to locate the publishing industry within such dismal state of affairs as I see it.
Outside of Manila, the culture remains mostly oral and informal, lending itself immediately available to blogs and egroup discussions that appear to have improved on barbershop or streetcorner disputations of yore. In Mindanao, egroup discussions on the present situation—fervid and informed and varied—have overtaken the news and are well on the way to developing a dialogue among intellectuals and other stakeholders in the island. (Whether the discourses will turn towards a plan of action remains, however, to be seen.) The wealth of such informal discourses is simply staggering, and media and the book industry would probably do well to address this new source of information and knowledge as viable contributions to the knowledge economy.
While a number of good local books have been made increasingly available to the public, the public, including the underpaid academic, has not found them affordable enough to spend enough on them. This is embarrassing but true, given the difficult, unkind, and unequal economic opportunities in the country. But the money, or lack of, is not all there is to it. The more shameful thing is that given a degree of purchasing power, most people will opt to buy foreign books than local ones. Not only is there glamour and sophistication in being up-to-date with bestsellers in the American market, there is really no interest at all in matters Filipiniana, which have never really been a part of our breeding in our formative years.
Again, to be truly a national industry, growth must involve publishing in the regions where there remains a pressing need to recover, develop, and sustain local knowledge that should help locate the missing pieces in the uncompletable puzzle that is this nation. The distribution system should also be more far-ranging than what it is today—even if you can never be sure if only six people would buy your books. That, in any case, would be a good start, especially in areas that SM will never find worthy enough to erect a mall in.
These are dark and trying times, indeed—literally and metaphorically—and it’s easy to fall into despair and cynicism in the face of work that remains to be done. But the comforting thought is that—despite the virtual lack of a critical thinking, and not merely a reading, public—the attempt to create a meaningful sense of ourselves and of our history out of the shards of our lost traditions and indigenous knowledge continues in this business of book publishing. The unearthing and gathering and examination of narratives and poetries that define the range and limits of our imagination and creativity as a people remain a worthy and priceless task in a country that has still to find the correct balance among contending truths and between the push and pull of reason and emotion. The matter of money might have been there initially, however little the returns may be in this business. But eventually, I imagine and I hope, the publishers must have broken through the great wall of emptiness and absurdity that attend and threaten any worthy human endeavor—the better to give it shape and character—and settled down with the hope that somehow the threads of all these texts produced every year will be picked up and find themselves woven into a tapestry where discourses of all kinds can be discerned as fitting triumphs of the Filipino imagination.
In a country where there is little respect for honor and truth, the fact that some people did care enough to get something done right in so insignificant a thing as a book is testament enough that human passion for the beautiful object remains a truth in itself that gives off light, bravely and briefly as it may be.
Ricardo de Ungria is Commissioner for the Arts at the National Commission for Culture and the Arts. He is the President of the Davao Writers Guild. He also teaches creative writing in UP Mindanao.