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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
The Manila International Book Fair
This September I enjoyed some preposterously good fortune—National Book Store, of the Philippines, invited me to attend and participate in the 32nd annual Manila International Book Fair. Held every September, the MIBF is sort of BEA meets AWP meets Comicon (though the Philippines also have their own Komikon), with nearly 90 thousand visitors and hundreds of exhibitors. For a full week the SMX Convention Center in Pasay is packed with booths from university, religious and general interest publishers, as well as large storefronts from local bookstore chains. There are author events, book-blogging and publication panels, even cosplay workshops—it is a zoo in the best possible way.
I attended the fair as part of the launch of my first novel, Moondogs, which came out earlier this year, and is set largely in Manila. That last bit is important—but for the setting, it’s safe to say that National Book Store never would have caught wind of my novel, let alone brought me all the way out to the Philippines. This is also why I qualified my good fortune as “preposterous”, because I wasn’t just getting sent on a trip to promote my first book, I was also getting sent home. I graduated high school in Manila—the city where I had my first job, my first date, my first basically everything. I met the woman who is now my wife in Manila. After college in the States, I returned and worked as a contractor in the US Embassy. I hadn’t been back in nearly seven years, so when National Book Store contacted me, I hit the fucking roof.
I should also clarify that, as much as Manila might feel like a home to me, I am not ethnically or culturally Filipino. This bit is also important—I lived in the Philippines as a teenager because my father was stationed there with the US Foreign Service. And it is by no means lost on me that by setting my first book in Manila, I’ve entered a long and often dubious tradition of westerners writing about “exotic” foreign countries, publishing that writing back home. Indeed, it’s not entirely difficult to compose a cringe-worthy short synopsis of my book. Like so: “American guy writes crime novel set in deliciously exotic Philippines. Novel contains drug addicts and prostitutes and corrupt politicians. Also, bad things are done to traveling white people, and there are some magical brown people.” This is of course only a very partial truth (magical white/pink people, corrupt expat businessmen, everybody doing bad things to everybody else regardless of their hue), but that makes the particulars themselves no less true. So in addition to being ecstatic about going back to Manila, I also felt other things. One of them was anxiety. Would people be offended by what I’d written? Was I returning to a country—a culture—that I had appropriated for literary purposes, and maybe worse, exoticized? Obviously these were questions I investigated as I wrote the thing, but they ring different in an empty apartment slathered with crazyman post-it notes than they do on a packed flight bound for a book fair in the Philippines.
I landed in Manila around midnight, two days into the already bustling fair. I’d gotten some inkling that it would be a busy trip when I looked over the schedule that National Book Store sent, but it wasn’t until I arrived that I really grasped the scale. They had me in events every day, with radio and print interviews for the intervals between. Some of this work happened offsite, but the majority of it was at the Manila International Book Fair, which, as I said, was a wonderful madhouse. The fair filled the entire convention center to capacity, arranged not so much in a series of booths, as in a series of paddocks. National Book Store occupied a swath of floor space by the entrance, and had basically erected an entire store in their allocated area. Other bookstores had done the same, as had a large number of local publishers, all of whom were also selling books directly to customers. In this way, the MIBF is less a trade show like the London or Frankfurt Book Fairs, and more a thunderdome of bigass literary retail. The fair was held in concert with an anime festival, and thus packed with teenagers and adults in full-on costume—robots, schoolgirls with bright hair and swords, fox tails and ears. At one point I used a urinal directly next to Cloud from Final Fantasy VII.
The stock filling the National Book Store storefront was in a lot of ways similar to what you’d find in a B&N (or, a year ago, a Borders). Stacked displays of literary prizewinners, sections for YA and Science Fiction and Speculative—a great deal of it originally published in the United States. In fact much of the mainstream book market in the Philippines (this includes many locally published books) is in English, something that might seem strange to readers unfamiliar with the history of American colonization over the first half of the last century. Some of the books I saw on National Book Store’s shelves had been directly imported, but many were printed locally through arrangements with overseas publishers. National also offers strong support to Filipino writers, in some cases becoming sort of a bookstore/publisher by printing, marketing and selling local work. In fact the best discovery I made at the fair was one such title—Trese by Budjette Tan is an absurdly awesome graphic novel that offers a gritty noir take on Philippine folklore. Sort of like True Blood, but Budjette’s vampires—or aswang—are a good deal scarier.
Another local writer that National was throwing support behind is Samantha Sotto, who had just published her debut, Before Ever After , with Crown in the US. I did several events in tandem with Sam, which was a pleasure on account of she is awesome. We made sort of a odd pair—an American who had lived in the Philippines and set his first novel in Manila, and a Filipina who had lived in Holland, and set her first novel in Europe (also, and strangely: both books hinge thematically on chickens). This brings me back to the question about representation, because in all of the Q&As I did, both with Sam and by myself, it was an issue that came up explicitly, and frequently. Honestly, after giving the issue as much consideration as I thought I had, I should have kept a better answer in the chamber. But when a questioner at my first event asked if I was worried that I’d made Manila look like an ugly place, if people might not want to come here after reading it, I responded with something like 10-20 seconds of deeply inelegant silence.
It wasn’t so much that I expected the question of representation to go unasked; to float like some implied gorilla over my conversations. But I also didn’t anticipate the disarming—the wonderful—directness with which it would be asked. It was a real question, as in: the woman who asked it really wanted to know. Hardly the cultural boogey-person of my neurotic liberal nightmares. Now before I go any further, I’d like to pause here and briefly address this fear stuff. Because I’ve tried to tell this story to friends, and I have yet to get it right. The fear I’m talking about is the fear of being the asshole. The fear of entering that none-too-long continuum threading cultural appropriators and generalizers to those bigots we were all taught to pity and hate in elementary school. I’m as gun shy about this as any white American male should be, and that is by no means a dig at political correctness, but rather an acknowledgement that I come from a particularly overrepresented group (in terms of literature, but also in terms of everything else) and as such it’s especially incumbent on me to make sure I’m looking beyond the veil of my own assumptions and cultural privileges. Now when I tell people that I’m confident I’ve done that, they tend to get a little skeptical of the fear stuff. After all, if a writer is indeed confident in their work, if they’ve performed due diligence as it comes to research, and to a basic respect for the humanity of their characters, then shouldn’t they thus have little to fear? To this I would say: “Nope.” Being confident in your own work and scared you’ve gotten it wrong, not fully investigated your own garbage thinking, are by no means mutually exclusive conditions. In fact, I think that it’s a sincere openness to the possibility that you are, indeed, being the asshole, the idiot, that allows for good work in the first place. In this way, it can be a useful thing to have. If harnessed appropriately it quits being a muzzle, and drives your revisions, deepens your discovery. And just because you’ve “finished” that work, slapped a date and your name on it, that doesn’t mean the fear goes away. There isn’t an outbox for this stuff.
The question of my representation of Manila/The Philippines/Filipinos—and beyond that my right to this literary space—came again and again in interviews I did with bloggers and local media. Many of the reviews and transcripts that have come out since the trip take this question as their primary focus. More than anything, the people I spoke with seemed to be interested in why I’d chosen to write a novel set in their country. My answer—that I’m not sure I had a choice, that when I started writing it Manila was more my home than anywhere in the States—was challenged by some of them, but it was never taken to be less than sincere. This is perhaps why these interactions stand out for me as such a wonderful part of my trip to the MIBF. Because for years I had been having this conversation with myself, and now I had the opportunity to have it with real, actual humans—people who understand the country I grew up in more deeply than I ever can. And none of them hit me with anything heavy.
But it’s also more complicated than that. Because however good the conversations were, however successful or not I was in proving my Manileño bona fides (a goal that’s of course a little silly, and meager, and one I totally own up to), it would still be an omission to not take a step back and look at how lucky I was to even be on this trip in the first place, along with the circumstances that brought me there. Blogger Charles Tan recently wrote an excellent piece over at the Bibliophile Stalker, discussing (among other things) the social push in support of my trip and questioning how much of a role my identity as a foreigner, and the fact that I was published by a big house in the United States, played in that. As much as the question of representation had been the front of my mind, this is an issue that I didn’t think of until I arrived in Manila, one that’s maybe more worthy of mulling. I already mentioned that attending the MIBF was like nothing else I’d experienced since putting out this book, but let me qualify that a little. Before departing for Manila I had put together a DIY tour in the States, relying entirely on old air miles and cheap buses and friends’ couches. I visited eight cities, and did readings and signings at some wonderfully supportive independent bookstores. But a radio tour? Sitting down with reporters from major newspapers? Frigging transpacific airline tickets? I mean, at the MIBF there were banners with my face on them (I’m hesitant to even admit to that, because I would hate any other writer that did, and I would be right to). On my first day wandering around the book fair, a girl who’d seen one of these images stopped me, and asked if I was “Yates”. I signed the first autograph of my life. Here I return again to that word I started with—preposterous.
I want to be totally clear that I don’t think for a second that National Book Store invited me to attend the MIBF because I’m a foreigner. As I said, they’ve given similarly fantastic support to Sam Sotto, and have a history of publishing and publicizing local writers like Budjette. But I do think that the fact that I’m kind of a curiosity—an American writing about Manila, about many Manileño characters, but publishing in the States under a big American house (Doubleday, an imprint of Random House, owned by Bertelsmann, which is actually German) does have a ton to do with it. And in this way I found that my return to Manila for the MIBF was still very much in keeping my old life there as an expat, and the dynamics of power and access that inspired me to write the book in the first place. Coming of age in Manila included not only reckoning with a culture to which I could never entirely belong, but also realizing that my status as a middle-class American meant I enjoyed an economic experience of my new home that was totally unavailable to most of the people born there, an experience I’d done nothing to merit (if such a thing even can be merited). That position of privilege, based at least to some extent on the fact that it says USA on my passport, was still in force when I returned this September. I was still riding high(ish) on identity.
The question is, both as a writer and a reader, what is there to do with this information. Unfortunately I have yet to come up with an answer less vague and shitty than this: don’t ignore it. And that task, at least for the four days I was at the MIBF, was made a great deal easier. I owe it to some arrestingly honest bloggers willing to talk to me about my place in their city, and to National Book Store, for sending me on my way with some excellent book swag—from Sam, to Budjette, to Miguel Syjuco (he published his acclaimed meta-asskicker of a novel last year) and Gerry Alanguilan (more chickens!). I’ve got a killer reading list for the rest of the fall. You should consider reading some of them, too.
Alexander Yates’ work has appeared in Salon, American Fiction, FiveChapters.com and the Kenyon Review Online. His first novel, Moondogs, was published by Doubleday in March. You can contact him at alexanderyates.com or @TheOtherYates.