September 21, 2012

New literary destination: the Philippines


Hernando Guanlao’s book club in Manila

How many people does the Bard pull in to Stratford-upon-Avon every year? What percentage of visitors to Greece are there on some Homeric pilgrimage? F. Sionil José looked to these examples in calling for more literary tourism in the Philippines, in an article in the Philippino Star this week. He looks to nearby countries like Thailand as tourism success stories of recent years, though his suggestions for the Philippines wouldn’t wreak the cultural and environmental devastation that’s occurred in large areas of Thailand. He wants instead to celebrate and promote local literature on both the national and the international stages, to encourage tourism from locals and foreigners alike.

One way to do this, he says, would be to encourage the literary and film industries to work more collaboratively:

The Koreans are now producing epic historical movies, and those addictive telenovelas which have enthralled so many all over the world. My daughter-in-law, Lee Pai, who teaches history at the University of California at Santa Barbara happened to be visiting. She said those movies and telenovelas are scripted by Korea’s leading writers familiar with the literary classics of the West and East  which explains the high quality of the telenovelas unlike the asinine and moronic serials produced by local TV. As evidenced by the Palanca awards, we are never short of literary talent. Why do our movie and TV people ignore them?

Shockingly, he also has to call on Mrs Socorro Ramos, founder of the nation’s leading bookstore chain National Bookstore, to exhibit Filipino books in her store windows. That this wasn’t happening in the first place will likely shock anyone in the US and the UK, so used are we to bookshops filled almost exclusively with native literature.

One guy in Manila is doing more than his bit to promote the local literature: Hernando Guanlao has just been featured on the BBC World Service for the library he’s opened outside his house. The only rule, he says, is that there are no rules: no lending limits or return dates. People are even free to keep the books if they like, though in the twelve years he’s been running the library he’s actually gained books, through donations, and now has 2,000-3,000 books. And he’s got his sights set even further than that:

To help the poorest communities in Manila, Nanie Guanlao does not wait for them to find him – he goes to them, on his “book bike”, which has a large basket piled high with books.

He’s also started to set his sights outside Manila. He’s already given several boxes of books to a man trying to set up a similar venture in Bicol province, a 10-hour drive from Manila, and his latest plan is to help a friend who wants to start up a library in the far south of the country.

She wants to set up a “book boat”, travelling around the islands of Sulu and Basilan – an area better known as a hideout for separatist rebels than for any great access to literature.

Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.