October 26, 2018

For Filipino American History Month, Revisiting the Idea that “Filipinos Do Not Read”

This is how myth-making happens, no? One source, whoever they are, however reliable or unreliable they are, says the thing: “Filipinos do not read.” And then the thing gets passed on and on and on, like a meme, like an unattributed quote. And then people believe the thing. They cite the unattributed, uncorroborated thing as evidence of its truth. This is lazy work.

Others have tried to justify. They say to me, “Well, Filipinos are visual learners.”

Listen to what you are saying. Do you know what visual learning means?

Visual learning means that learners rely on what they read, versus what they are verbally told.

Visual learners need or prefer to have the text right in front of them.

In other words, visual learners READ.

It would be much more appropriate to say that we can’t easily find Filipinx authored texts in major bookstores, and it is true, that the number of Filipinx authored texts in Barnes and Noble is negligible. It’s generally the books published by the “big five” that you will find in B&N. When I was teaching Mia Alvar’s In the Country last semester, I realized I didn’t want to start marking up my hardcover copy of her book, and since I was at Bay Street in Emeryville, I went into the B&N there, and found the paperback edition, which I promptly purchased, and felt no guilt about underlining passages with my trusty mechanical pencils.

And so then, this will always be the problem. The vast majority of Filipinx American authors are published by indie and university publishers.

Indie published books don’t generally find their way into the big corporate chain bookstore (I have found Invocation to Daughters at multiple, local B&N stores, but this is really a rare thing).

Indie published authors rely on indie book distributors and indie bookstores, as I do.

I also rely heavily on college and university course adoption, as do university press published authors. As an educator, assigning Filipinx authored books, one barrier I run into is when a book goes out of print. I also run into problems when an indie publisher self-distributes. Or if an author self-publishes. My campus bookstore can’t order those so easily.

Do you get where I am going here. The question is not about whether Filipinxs read. All kinds of people — not just Filipinxs — are said to “not read.” This is a larger conversation to unpack where folks turn to for narratives and lyrics.

I believe the question of why Filipinx Americans are said to not BUY books authored by Filipinxs is because of where in the industry a majority of Filipinx American authors have found themselves — in the independent publishing world, and the university publishing world.

Our presence in these non-mainstream publishing worlds has led to the MYTH THAT FILIPINOS DO NOT WRITE BOOKS. As if there were only five Filipinx authors in the country.

I did meet someone at a Filipinx arts event this past year, who said to me that they did not know who the writers in our community are. Then they said, surely José Rizal is not the only one. They earnestly meant this.

I just smiled and nodded, though my soul was shriveling into a little ball of lint. It was an awful, awful moment.

The good news here is that Elda Rotor over at Penguin Classics is hella doing her job. Rizal’s novels are on Penguin Classics. This means we can easily find these. As we can now find José Garcia Villa, and Nick Joaquin. Because they are on Penguin Classics.

So. I am talking about the industry, which I have only come to know because I am in this industry, and I have learned to fashion my expectations and strategies around this.

How are others, not in the industry, supposed to know where we — the throngs and multitudes of Filipinx American authors — are.

I think the book festival that PAWA organizes and which the SFPL hosts is one place that writers and members of the larger community can connect. I wonder though, if it’s too overwhelming, to have almost zero exposure to Filipinx books, then every other year, to be blitzkrieged by them.

How do we normalize, make consistent the presence of Filipinx authored books in Filipinx American households and communities.

I think partnerships with public libraries is a good way to go. I think this needs to be a consistent effort, and I also do think it’s good strategy to center any reading initiatives around events — Filipino American History Month, APIA Heritage Month, International Women’s Day, National Poetry Month, for example. This needs to happen with public libraries outside of our metropolitan areas.

I want to hear others’ thoughts. I have been burnt out on organizing literary events, and I have dropped off significantly in doing this. I want to see others step up to take on this organizing and connecting.

I want to hear from others — how important is this to you, as a Filipinx author, to connect with Filipinx potential readers. What are you doing about this. What are you willing and realistically able to do about this.

Addendum: Here’s a list of 30+ Filipinx authored books that I have taught in my past decade plus of teaching Filipinx Literature classes.

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