Sunday, June 07, 2009

Beyond “Twilight” zone

WHEN I saw Aga again, she told me about a blogosphere war that waged with even more heat but decidedly less sleaze than the stir over the Hayden-Katrina sex videos.

In college, Aga could be counted on to brave even the flesh-eaters of Colon cinema houses to watch every movie showing that week. Her impromptu reviews helped make us decide whether to troop to the theater for a quick fix or hoard our pesos for a good read.

These days Aga has swung heavily to the save-for-a-book side. Remembering our last talk about the graphic novels created and published in the country, I mentioned to her that I had been trying to find for my niece a complete set of the Twilight series.

When I couldn’t find two of the older titles some weeks ago, I assumed it was because I hitched a ride on the bandwagon so late, the stocks had already depleted.

Aga corrected my ignorance. I followed her advice and checked the blogosphere.
Manuel L. Quezon III’s May 4 column for The Philippine Daily Inquirer’s “The Long View” exposes the issue and links readers to, which posts the dispatch that first exposed the “Great Book Blockade of 2009.”

This was penned by Robin Hemley, director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, who’s spending a Guggenheim Fellowship in the country.

A book-industry professional told Hemley that for the past two months no imported books entered the country because the BOC was on a duty-collection frenzy after an importer “made the mistake” of paying taxes for the release of his shipment of Twilight by Stephenie Meyer.

The bestselling record of the series may have attracted Customs, whose officials bent out of shape international and national laws to tax imported books, in the hope perhaps of covering “the 30-billion-peso ($625 million) shortfall in projected customs revenue,” Hemley speculates.

In 1952, the country signed the Florence Agreement, a United Nations treaty that guarantees the free flow of "educational, scientific, and cultural materials" between countries, and declares that imported books should be duty-free. The country also passed Republic Act 8047, which provides for "the tax and duty-free importation of books or raw materials to be used in book publishing."

With President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo scrapping last May 24 the taxes imposed on imported books and reading material, I partly agree with Aga that I may have better chances now of redeeming my standing with my niece.

However, looking around the café we were in, my thoughts were not on Twilight’s love-crossed vampires.
The Abaseria Deli & Café’s charm as a meeting place is heightened by its collection of heirloom photos, native handicrafts and books about Cebu and the Philippines. I even spotted copies of the recently published Barili, The Town, The People, and The Years: A History, written by Azucena L. Pace.

Last year, when I scouted for local publications to give my balikbayan relatives, I found a yawning gap that the University of San Carlos’ Cebuano Studies Center, Casa Gorordo Museum and a few other establishments try to fill.

While everybody rues the decline of reading today, even worse is the fading of local writing and reading, halves of a tandem. For a culture to flourish, there has to be recollection and preservation, one approach being through writing, which can only be sustained by an audience that will buy, read, criticize and discuss.

While the local publication industry has made milestones and garnered awards through its newspapers and magazines, the publishing of books continues to lag. Some readers will say they cannot find anything that’s local to read. Some writers will say they cannot find publishers, who in turn complain they cannot find readers to patronize local books.

Unlike the “Great Book Blockade of 2009,” we cannot blame anyone for this impasse but ourselves. 09173226131

* First published in Sun.Star Cebu’s June 7, 2009 “Matamata” column

Friday, June 05, 2009

Short, happy life of roses

An early morning rain swept the streets of Tacloban City when I flew in last week. Lacking sleep and preoccupied with tasks at hand, I took little notice of my surroundings until our van pulled out and I saw the first of the “conjugal” billboards.

The husband and wife team of Tacloban City Mayor Alfred Romualdez and Councilor Cristina Gonzales-Romualdez beamed from the mist-sprinkled surface of a billboard overlooking the Daniel Z. Romualdez Airport.

Until a local friend corrected me, I made the mistake of assuming that the tandem smiling from several billboards and streamers is the mayor and vice-mayor.

When we encountered again the couple, still smiling tirelessly, as we took a rather sharp curve to the city, my friend snorted: this people think they own the city.

My stay was too short for me to agree or disagree with his view. But then and now, it seems that the people of Tacloban remain ambivalent about what must be their most prominent political clan.

When I first visited the city in the 1990s, I thought it was a sleepy throwback from my memories of old downtown Cebu.

On that trip, while motoring to the city, we passed by the Sto. Niño Shrine and Heritage Museum. When I expressed an intention to visit one of Imelda Marcos’ heritage landmarks in her hometown, my hosts then discouraged me. Looting had reduced it to a shell of its former self, they said: there’s nothing there.

“There’s nothing there” was a verbal shrug I often heard from residents during two other visits I made as the ‘90s came to a close. Last week, when I complimented another resident for the wide open spaces, the lush greenery and towering ancient tries found so close to the heart of the city, his reply was another shrug: she didn’t do enough for Tacloban.

“She” refers to Imelda, the “Rose of Tacloban,” whose beauty, singing and marriage to the strongman Ferdinand Marcos first brought prominence and acclaim, then notoriety, condemnation and jeering when their conjugal fortune eroded along with their credibility and moral ascendancy.

Today, in the city of her birth, there is no conspicuous public image of the “Rose of Tacloban,” now multiple-jowled and rarely seen in Manila dailies’ society pages.

Another rose, the younger, fresher Cristina, smiles ubiquitously now around the city. Although it was my first time to see the Romualdez couple’s display of public self-indulgence, I saw it as no different from the Malakas and Maganda images of Ferdinand and Imelda I grew up seeing in the ‘70s: the rose-colored optimism of political myth-making framed by stark, contradictory social realities.

After finishing early an appointment at the Government Center in Palo, I walked to another Leyte landmark, MacArthur Park. Whether it was to fulfill a promise to the Filipinos or he was just passing through, the return of General Douglas MacArthur to the Philippines is commemorated on Hill 522, located by the Red Beach in Palo, site of fierce fighting between Allied and Japanese forces during the Second World War.

It was near noon and the park was nearly deserted. I squinted at the figure of MacArthur, wondering if his aviator glasses were real or just painted black. According to stories, the Marcos couple had the original concrete statues destroyed and replaced with bronze ones commissioned by Imelda. And then she renamed the site as Imelda Park.

After their fall from power, the old names of every street, park and public building in Leyte were restored. The park continues to draw crowds who remember the bloody sacrifices made for freedom or for geopolitics. Or perhaps just to have their picture taken.

One fellow hitched his shorts and waded gingerly in the brownish water to pose beside the striding figure of the general. The top of his head only reached MacArthur’s crotch so he had to content himself with clutching a bronze knee while his lady companion took photos and shouted jokes.

Backdrop to the grinning couple and my watching self was the park, immaculately maintained and quiet as a cemetery. 09173226131

* First published in the May 31, 2009 issue of “Matamata” in Sun.Star Cebu