Running after a Big Bag Wolf

‘Some intellectuals claim that we are not a reading people, but I believe that’s inaccurate’

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HAVE YOU ever been to a novel place where you felt like you want to stay there forever?

That is exactly what I experienced when I arrived at the World Trade Center in Pasay City more than a week ago to chase the first ever Big Bad Wolf event in the country.

It’s the brainchild of BookXcess leads Andrew Yap and Jacqueline Ng, whose main mission is to extend the doors of opportunity to book readers and book lovers who normally couldn’t afford to buy one.

As soon as I stepped foot on the entrance of the building at around one in the morning, a pleasant aroma greeted me which emanated from the smorgasbord of books stationed per category across the 2-hectare floor area of the venue. The chill in my body was something I’ve never experienced before from the throngs of book sales I had been to.

“This one is different,” I said to myself. “A glimpse of heaven.”

I can still recall how my eyes glowed like the sun when I saw the sea of people walking and running and pushing their carts with the same exhilaration I’ve been curbing inside for days leading to opening day. I even thought for a moment that I was in an airport when I saw that some of the shoppers were carrying large bags and boxes, as if they’re going to travel to a remote destination or roam around the world.

The mood was convivial. Pop songs encompassed the enclosed space. The ushers wore their best smiles and first-rate patience. A stranger handed me his own basket. I unhurriedly checked the piles of titles from the right wing of the entryway to the section close to the center.

I read the texts written on the back covers. I smelled them. Secretly. Memoirs. Novels. Non-fiction.

I bought a total of 8 books for about P1,800: Asne Seierstad’s One of Us, David J. Linden’s Touch, Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, Chris Kyle’s American Sniper, Scott Christianson’s 100 Documents that Changed the World, Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of A LionDivisadero, and a winner of the Booker Prize, The English Patient.

While the books being sold at the Big Bad Wolf are “remaindered” and launched about 6 months or one year ago (which is why they are priced 60% to 80% lower than in regular bookstores), I still can’t help but feel sorry for the scarce presence of Filipino literature in this mammoth book sale.

As I was about to pay at the cashier, I thought: “Would it be possible to see Filipino authors’ works being sold and showcased at a colossal and noteworthy affair like this someday? Will they be received the same way as J.K. Rowling and R.R. Martin?”

Truth be told, most of the of books I currently have were written by foreign authors. While I read F.H. Batacan, Bob Ong, Laurel Fantauzzo, and Miguel Syjuco, my ignorance on the content, tone, voice and structure of the worlds created by National Artists for Literature F. Sionil Jose, Nick Joaquin, Cirilo F. Bautista and the others is undeniable. I was in high school when I first heard of their names because we were required to read snippets of their artistry in our Filipino class. But when we graduated, and with no quizzes to take, time passed by, and I forgot about them.

When you visit a branch of the Phlippines’ biggest bookstore these days, the themes of their top selling local books revolve around these 3: how to fall in love, how to move on, and how to be loved by your crush. These are the thin, self-help, mind-numbing books that can leave one to ask: “Hanggang dito na lang ba tayo (Is this all we’re capable of)?

The day after I watched his interview with Boy Abunda for National Arts Month, I swiftly searched for copies of National Artist Virgilio Almario’s poem collections in a luxurious mall just a couple of kilometers away from our home. I was appalled that I did not find any trace of his genius; instead I saw Leavs, Faudets, and Kaurs taking over the shelves.

In the face of globalization, English is considered as the most valuable means of communication. As Filipinos, we take pride in our level of proficiency in this language. But with it comes the growing practice of degrading our roots and creativity, and the maltreatment of Filipino poems, essays, and novels, labelling them as corny, subpar, and insignificant. We have so many writers and creators who are discouraged by the feedback they receive from the people around them. There’s no money in writing. It’s useless. You’ll just be a slave all your life. Don’t waste your time in nonsense. Art is dead.

Jose Rizal once said: “On this battlefield man has no better weapon than his intelligence, no other force but his heart.”

Literature and the arts are the soul and heart of a country. They help us unravel some of the unspoken, subdued, and hidden truths around us so that we may understand ourselves better and be introduced to the richness of our history, which will fuel us to act, reevaluate our views, or change our course if the situation demands for it.

If we do not embrace our own gifts and treasures, and if we forget who we are, we may end up cruising on a highway with no direction or maps as references, and unknowingly get into a collision with our fellow travellers.

Some intellectuals claim that we are not a reading people, but I believe that’s inaccurate. I am convinced that we’re still searching for that spark of transcendence, of the drive to take another sound, earnest look at our dying local publishing industry.

We have to change our mindset that the works of foreign authors are innately superior and finer and more magnificent than what we can produce. We have to debunk the colonial mentality that’s deeply ingrained in our culture, or else we’ll live in an endless search for our identity.

Not everyone can declare that they ran after a Big Bad Wolf at one in the morning on a Saturday. With all the courage I have, I did, and I hope you do, too. Forever.

(This piece has been published on Rappler.com’s IMHO on February 24, 2018.)

Photo credit: http://www.bigbadwolfbooks.com

Spirited Away

“It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.”

WEEKS AFTER my father passed away when I was in grade school, I raised a question to our catechist, Ms. Y: “Where does a spirit go after a person dies?” My classmates and I were then sitting on the steps in front of a Catholic church in the financial capital. Ms. Y responded: “Ben, he’s in heaven with God. He’s watching over you. Pray to him every time.” Still baffled, I followed up with more questions: “But will he be bothered if he sees me getting low scores or failing grades, or unable to submit projects on time because of his absence? Does that mean that the dead still think about us, the living? Do they still have problems in heaven, a supposed worry-free paradise?”

At a loss for answers, she moved on with her discussion. But I did not.

In this Catholic nation, it’s instilled in the majority that we should observe Undas, a holiday where families visit cemeteries to lay flowers and light candles on the graves of their loved ones, to honor them.

I still vividly remember how every year after my father’s death, I took on the task of repainting his grave a week before the holiday at the Manila South Cemetery. With a small towel covering my nose to avoid inhaling the vapors from the white paint, I gleefully sang to my father some Fernando Poe Jr. songs, to bond with him, to reminisce on the old days, to feel his presence. FPJ, known as “the King of Philippine Cinema,” was his favorite actor.

After painstakingly removing the wild grass that had grown around his grave, I talked to him, whispered my dreams that I hoped he’d help me realize, and asked him to guard and guide us, especially my mom who had to take on the gargantuan role of being father and mother of the family after he left.

It was always an emotional ride from the entrance of the cemetery to his grave close to the center. Spirited away, I succumbed to flashes of memory: his laughter while watching a Dolphy show, his chicken tinola, his low, manly voice, our weekend afternoon sessions of counting the number of white, curly hairs I could pluck from his head, which was directly proportional to the number of pesos I would earn to buy my favorite orange drink and biscuits.

Years later, I questioned everything.

As a once devoted and proud Catholic, I became more inquisitive about things of the spirit, religion, faith, and the Bible when I entered college. After rereading Jose Rizal’s novels, “El Filibusterismo” and “Noli Me Tangere,” confusion plagued my mind. Rizal is our national hero but I wondered why most of us don’t heed his words. We even have “Rizal” as a required subject in tertiary education, to delve deeper and study his life and works, to learn from him, to inculcate in us the virtues of an exemplar of Filipino brilliance and excellence. But do we understand him? Have we realized the principal reason he was banished, with all his might and courage, from the face of the earth, which we commemorate every Dec. 30? Are we blind to historical facts?

On page 72 of the “Noli,” Rizal wrote: “But now, let’s see how the idea of Purgatory, which is absent from both the Old and the New Testaments, became Catholic doctrine. Neither Moses nor Jesus Christ make the slightest mention of Purgatory…” Yes, purgatory is never mentioned in the Bible. A quick search in your electronic Bible can prove this to you. The question then is: Where did the doctrine of purgatory come from?

What about the scrapping of the doctrine of limbo by then Pope Benedict XVI when he authorized the Catholic Church’s International Theological Commission on April 22, 2007, to publish a 41-page document titled “The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptized”? In an article written in Rome for Telegraph.co.uk, Nick Pisa reported: “Babies who die before being baptized will no longer be trapped in Limbo following a decision by the Pope to abolish the concept from Roman Catholic teaching.”

Why do we have to light some candles, thick and thin, big and small, during Undas? Why do some Catholics steal and disrespectfully recycle the very candles of their fellow Catholics that are believed to illuminate the path for their deceased? Why are we made to believe that our departed loved ones are guarding and guiding us from heaven? Isn’t it true that the dead know nothing, as what’s written in Ecclesiastes 9:5 (New International Version), “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further reward, and even their name is forgotten”?

For hundreds of years people have been made to believe in doctrines that have no basis in the Bible. Worse, these are just invented teachings that go against the principles of truth and justice. But to no surprise, when I brought this up to the other members of my Catholic family, they were caught uninformed. Because of fear for our souls to be condemned, we grew up following our leaders without testing or asking them, and, like a sail in a vast ocean with no map, GPS tracker, or a virtuoso captain to follow, we’re clueless on why we practice or celebrate centuries-old traditions.

While it is true that we’re a democracy and that our Constitution protects our freedom to choose and practice a religion, it is time to rethink our stand and course. We’re living in a world where access to information is encouraged—something nonexistent when the greatest Filipino who ever lived challenged those in authority in his time using his proverbial pen as his sword. Yes, there’s fake news. Yes, deception is rampant. Yes, it’s an uphill battle to get to the bottom of things. But today, more than ever, we have a duty to get to the truth, for veracity to shine, not just for other people but for our own sake—for our souls.

The choice is in our hands.

And with God’s grace and mercy, someday I hope to talk to my father again. No, not in this world, not next to his grave, or while sitting in front of another Ms. Y, but with the almighty Father in heaven, in his paradise.

(This piece has been published in Philippine Daily Inquirer’s Op-Ed section – Young Blood – on the 31st of October, 2017.)