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FRANKFURT, Germany – A gay beautician who turns into a superhero, a call center agent who embezzles money from his employer, two Bisayan women struggling with the devastation wrought by Super Typhoon Yolanda. By their book covers, they are stories of fantasy and mythology, crime, and coming of age. By the words on their pages, they unravel the layers of Filipino life and identity that are shaped by globalization, colonialism, and the climate crisis.
The diversity of the Filipino identity was represented and told in the hundreds of Philippine book titles that were exhibited at the recently concluded Frankfurt Book Fair.
“We are reclaiming our narrative for the countries that adopt our people, to assert that we are more than the stereotypes that continue to persist and that we are in fact a people with a great history and even greater stories to tell,” said Charisse Aquino-Tugade, National Book Development Board (NBDB) Executive Director.
The Frankfurt Book Fair is the world’s oldest and largest trade fair for books and literary content. The event dates back to the 15th century, in the years after the invention of the printing press.
The Philippines has been exhibiting at the Frankfurt Book Fair since 2014 and is part of the NBDB’s initiatives to support the Philippine publishing industry and promote the works of Filipino authors on a global stage.
“This is the Filipino. We reclaim. We speak back,” said Aquino-Tugade about this year’s curated book titles and mix of genres that range from romance, traditional and contemporary literature, history, and graphic novels..
This year’s theme, “archipelago of stories,” illustrates the story of the Filipino identity as rooted in grit, where mythology and humor are both salve to everyday realities and homage to the vibrance and valiantry of our ancestry.
What it means to be Filipino
Writer Glenn Diaz’s debut novel The Quiet Ones tells the story of Alvin Estrada, a call center agent who discovers a way to embezzle money from his American telecom employer. A crime novel that is also described as a “grimly humorous” look at the rise of the call center, everyday working class Filipino life is refracted through global capitalism and colonialism.
The Quiet Ones is based on Diaz’s own experience of working as a call center agent during his junior year at the University of the Philippines back in 2005. The job was a quick and easy way to make money but an experience that Diaz recounted in a past interview as “disempowering.” Forced to simmer and suffer in silence with only a mute button as a shield against an irate customer, Diaz turned his nearly breaking out in tears every day into columns for The Collegian. When he began writing fiction, Diaz re-examined the experience by drawing parallels between life as a call center agent and life during the colonial era ruled by the Americans and the Spanish.
The Quiet Ones won the 2017 Palanca Grand Prize, the Philippine National Book Award, and the Madrigal Gonzales First Book Award.
Journalist and author Criselda Yabes took vignettes of her coverage of Super Typhoon Haiyan in her climate fiction book, Broken Islands, the story of Luna and Alba, two Bisayan women grappling to survive the aftermath of the 2013 disaster.
“Typhoons and natural disasters are so much a part of our life that it is becoming part of our DNA,” said Yabes, who explores how people restart their lives after a calamity knowing that at any time you can lose everything again.
“There is a growing demand for climate stories told as personal narratives from publishers around the world,” said Kevin Ansel Dy, NBDB Project Development Officer.
Tiempo Muerto by Caroline Hau is another climate fiction novel that tells the story of two women, heiress Lia and domestic worker Racel, and their search for Alma, the woman who loved them both as nanny and mother. Alma had gone missing after a typhoon devastated their village.
Back after the pandemic
People came out in droves for the Frankfurt Book Fair, held in person after a hiatus imposed by pandemic restrictions. Book lovers and enthusiasts came dressed in costumes, and lined up to buy their favorite graphic novels and fantasy books. Big names in publishing displayed their titles in towering, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Book reviewers who built their own organic community on TikTok known as BookTokers trooped to the TikTok booth equipped with its own recording studio nook.
“It is so heartwarming to see this many people come out for books,” said Karina Bolasco, publishing veteran and director of the Ateneo University Press.
Despite many grim predictions about books literally going out of print and driven out by other story platforms that appeal to shorter attention spans, Bolasco said, “There will always be a demand for books.”
The Philippines plans to bid to be the Guest of Honor for the 2025 trade fair. As the Frankfurt Book Fair Guest of Honor, the chosen country will showcase its creative industry through the presentation of its literature, languages, and cultural life on an international stage. Past Frankfurt Book Fair Guests of Honor include France, Spain, and Indonesia. – Rappler.com
The Quiet Ones, Tiempo Muerto, and Broken Islands are published by Ateneo de Manila University Press. Check the NBDB website for the Books Philippines catalog and for more information about Filipino titles exhibited at the Frankfurt Book Fair.
Ana P. Santos is an intersectional journalist who reports on gender, sexuality, and labor migration. She is currently based in Berlin, Germany.