Sour MILF

A British author-publisher was animatedly talking about the ins and outs of book publishing and marketing to an audience of about twenty, and not even his accent could keep from picking at my seatmate’s bag tag in utter boredom. Actually, my mind was elsewhere—I was missing a very important communication research class and there was pair homework due that afternoon. It also did not help that it was the ungodly after-lunch period, the meal I had just eaten and the room’s full-blast air-conditioning already sending me to a graceless stupor.

It was Friday, the third and last day of the second Manila International Literary Festival at the sleek glass-and-concrete Ayala Museum in Makati. The event, which also happened to have the unfortunate acronym of MILF, was the flagship activity of the National Book Month project sponsored by the National Book Development Board (NBDB). I actually did not know such an even existed until last week, when my professor soberly announced that we have no choice but to attend it and pay the 800-peso registration fee (2,000 pesos for the entire three days).

A series of sessions had been spread over the three-day schedule, each day divided into four time slots. Three sessions were simultaneously held for each time slot, and it was up to you to choose which session to attend. For this year, they flew in Pulitzer Prize-winning authors Junot Diaz (The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wow) and Edward P. Jones (The Known World, Lost in the City) to speak at the sessions. I missed them both—Diaz was scheduled right on the first day, which was a Wednesday and the busiest day of the week for me, while I skipped Edward Jones’ book signing that Friday because I really didn’t know him until then and had no intention to pretend otherwise. I sat instead in a session dubbed “From Print to Silver Screen”, which was paneled by Ricky Lee, Khavn deLa Cruz, and Alvin Yapan (director of this year’s Cinemalaya entry Sayaw ng Daliwang Kaliwang Paa).

I had really looked forward to one of the last sessions of the day, humor writing, and even staked out a seat in the designated room early, only to be disappointed by the news that two of the star panelists, RJ Ledesma of GMA News TV’s Best Men, and the Jessica Zafra, would not be able to come anymore. I slunk out of the room and transferred to a non-fiction writing session next door.

I see the merit in the NBDB’s efforts at putting together such an event. We definitely have much to learn from the experiences of such big publishing companies as Putnam and Random House, and yes, it is commendable that they made sure to offer sessions that catered not only to publishers and agents, but to writers, students, and teachers as well. But as a government agency mandated to “ensure an adequate, affordable and accessible supply of books for all segments of the population” among others, the NBDB seems to be missing on some of its main objectives.

The NBDB barely helps in increasing literacy or promoting reading by holding gala events such as MILF. Number one is the issue of exclusivity—MILF is designed in such a way that only really a mere handful could take part in its activities. The hefty registration fee alone effectively seals the doors of the festival shut to the common Filipino. And there seems to be no better rationale behind holding it in upscale Greenbelt than to stick to its supposedly “international” orientation. Where better else to hold such a gathering of the country’s literati than in the heart of Makati CBD, far—and safe—from the hordes of commuters and workers who could not care less about rhyme and meter in a poem?

All over the country children in public schools are being impaired by substandard textbooks, and here is our national book agency seeing it better to coop up the country’s writers and publishers inside air-conditioned conference rooms (so they could endlessly flatter each other) than to build libraries or launch reading programs nationwide. If the NBDB could find the money  to fly in and provide accommodations for international writers and publishers, surely it should be able to find the resources as well to distribute free, quality reading material to our youth. Storytelling competitions, book writing contests, mini-libraries in classrooms (which we actually did in high school), and a national book drive are just some of the many high-impact projects the NBDB can implement to spur the interest in reading among the public. (The good news is that the NBDB seems to have gotten a head start on these projects, at least according  to the latest issue of its official publication Bookwatch distributed in the festival.)

This is not, to say, however, that there is no need for such events in our country. On the contrary, many aspiring writers need as much inspiration they can get from events like these, given how little our culture values writing and reading. The point is, the MILF need not be the end-all and be-all of the NBDB’s National Book Month celebrations.

While I was munching on a tasty banana muffin served for snack—the catering service, to the amusement of many, was curiously named “Brassieres”—I began to hope for the day when they will finally be able bring in my favorite authors. I wouldn’t hesitate to pay a couple thousand bucks if in return I’d get to have J.K. Rowling sign my battered Sorcerer Stone’s copy! But I also began to hope that, when that day comes, I wouldn’t find myself sitting again in a room of only twenty, but instead elbowing my way through an infinitely larger crowd–mostly children–who have finally discovered the joys of reading.

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