One of my goals this year is to read more fiction by Filipinos. Fortunately, thanks to friends from the #RomanceClass and #SteamyReads workshops by Mina V. Esguerra, I have a lot to pick from when it comes to romance, one of my favorite genres.
But as I’ve read more and more books, I realize that I have the problem. And it’s the same problem I encounter when I try to write fiction set in the Philippines—I feel a little out of step with reality. This is especially true when I read local YA or NA.
I suspect it has a lot to do with my background. My parents were hippies of a sort, and I grew up in a liberal and progressive household. My father was a British-born American, and my mother took her master’s degree abroad. We spoke English almost exclusively at home—and continue to do so. I watched very few TV shows growing up, and those that I did watch were often international rather than local. I read a lot of books, but the percentage of these that were written by Filipinos was so laughingly small that I do not think I could call myself a reader of Filipino books.
Then there’s the issue of milieu. I sometimes have to step back from my own experiences growing up when I read about characters who have to deal with their parents’ disapproval not just of their boyfriend per se, but of having a boyfriend at all (my mom was more excited than I was when I got my first boyfriend when I was 20, and she’d been preaching about safe sex and my right to make decisions about my own body since I was 13 or 14).
I also had more guy friends than girls until I hit college (and even then, my closest gal pals were also from co-ed schools like me, rather than the exclusive schools of so many of my acquaintances), and the way characters seem to regard the males of the species as a mystery not to be understood is something I’ve also struggled to get behind. And because I was raised with idea that making love is simply a way to use your body to share your heart with someone and therefore an essential part of any committed relationship, I sometimes grow a little frustrated at the prudishness of some local romance novels.
As a result, I often feel like these romances are a bit dated as some of the mentalities and attitudes seem very similar to those in the books I’ve read that were published internationally in the ’70s and ’80s. But as I’ve talked to more and more people who read these same romances, I’m finding out that what I see as an antiquated attitude to relationships is frequently something that girls experience here and now.
So, yes, I understand that my way of thinking is really just how my own reality affects my experience of a book. Isn’t that always the way? While I’ve tried not to let the way some of the attitudes in a novel are out of sync with my own thinking affect my enjoyment of the book, I suspect someone with a more conventional upbringing might relate to these books a bit better than I do, which would enhance their own pleasure out of reading it.
I won’t go into discourse about our society, as this was never supposed to be a socio-anthropological sort of discussion. I am glad that there are novels out there that speak to more and more Filipinas, that echo their own experiences. That I am not served in this way doesn’t mean that I don’t cheer these authors on and support their books. I don’t mind that I don’t fit the profile of most target markets for Filipino romance novels in English. I enjoy them in the same way I enjoy historical romance—knowing that the cultural attitudes that frame the characters’ actions and way of thinking aren’t necessarily the same as the ones that frame mine.
But from a more businesslike standpoint, I wonder if, in a country where very few, if any, writers can afford to support themselves on novel-writing alone, this is what’s holding our romance novels back from making better sales on international markets like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or iTunes. If the only people likely to relate to these novels are Filipino readers, then either or both of two things need to happen, if you ask me. One, the local reading market needs to step up more than they have (even though sales have been very good for local books in the past year or so, it’s still not enough that I know more than one or two authors who make their living off novel-writing alone). Or two, local writers may need to start writing more globally appealing books. I worry about the likelihood of the first, and I think I won’t be the only one to mourn just a little bit if the second becomes the norm for Filipino romance in English.
I am by no means an expert on the book publishing industry or on society. My only approach to this is as a reader (and sometimes proofreader of books, if you count how I make my living). And I’m sure not everyone will agree with my thoughts or impressions. But how many do? That’s something I’d like to know.
And on that note, do leave a comment to share your own thoughts on reading Philippine romance novels!