This article was originally published at 2019-07-26 17:52:58
What goes on in the minds of young Filipinos as they grow up in an increasingly globalized media-saturated society? What are the experiences that shape their values? What do the films they watch and the books that they read teach them about their identity as Filipinos, and about the future that they have to help build for the country? If one wants to influence the minds of the young Filipino audience, how exactly does one capture their attention?
UA&P Literature instructor Ria Cayton’s research attempts to find some answers to these hard questions by exploring a unique aspect of Filipino popular culture: Filipino mythology as explored in the contemporary Graphic Novel. CRC got curious about her paper, “Philippine Myth and the Supernatural in the Graphic Novel”, which was presented at the 2016 International Conference on Philippine Studies (ICOPhil) in Dumaguete. So CRC decided to ask her a few questions about Filipino reading culture, Philippine myths in contemporary storytelling, and the future of the Philippine reading and publishing market.
You chose to look at Trese and Mythology Class for this study; was there a particular reason for that choice?
- I mostly chose stories on the basis of readership — the number of people the work had reached. Because to me, [high readership] meant it was material that resounded with readers, and which people recommend to their friends. The basis for determining that was that [Trese and Mythology Class] had been republished and received awards, which meant that there was enough reader demand and attention that the publishers had to reprint and recognize them. Mythology Class was one of the first few works to explore the [Speculative Fiction] genre, perhaps even before the public even recognized the genre. In the case of Trese, the readership for Books 1 to 3 was so strong, that there was a clear interest for succeeding volumes from fans of the series. I wanted to include other works like Skyworld (which was published a little after Trese] and those anthologies that come out during Comics conventions, which compile the works of various artists. But I chose [Trese and Mythology Class] because of the readership at the time that I was first doing the study.
What do you think made these two works so popular? Since they were both modernized reinterpretations of Philippine Mythology, do you think it was because they reflect the values of the audience?
- In the case of Mythology Class, I don’t know if you can say it was because of interest in the genre. For one, [The artist] Arnold Arre is also known well for his art and other works which are also graphic novels, but not necessarily dealing with the supernatural or Philippine folklore-related topics. In that sense, you could say that Mythology Class is one of his best works, but he is already [very popular] on his own [aside from appealing to interest in that niche.] Perhaps Mythology Class was really designed to appeal to college students. The main characters were college students going through a — for lack of a better term — Disney-like story structure. The reader is introduced to a character who must go through a process of growth. Initially, they have a conflict that seems difficult to overcome, and they almost give up, but succeed because of friendship and overcoming their own weaknesses. It’s a very structured narrative in that sense. However, Mythology Class makes use of local color and urban legends, and creates a pleasant balance between what is familiar, such as old myths or supernatural creatures such as, siocoy or Duendes, and places them into new context. If you’re recreating the myth and portraying, say, a siocoy in the Pasig River, you’re recreating the myth, but also engaging the reader. It’s delightful for those who have heard stories of siokoy, and surprising for those who never knew that there was a Philippine folk creature to be so close and within a familiar and unexpected setting. Trese, on the other hand, started out as a niche work, and grew to be very popular. The early support that it gained was really from the fact that it tackled a fun topic that people love talking about. The first two volumes discussed urban legends, and then gave readers a palatable explanation for how such legends actually co-exist with everyday people in Manila. I think audiences really liked that approach to making sense of an otherwise unresolved urban legend. By the third volume of Trese, readers will start to focus more on the character and storyline of Alexandra. So structurally, as a storyline, it’s very strategic, because it begins with a [subject] that is very socially interesting and entertaining, and slowly makes you more invested in the character revealing more of her own storyline. So, the interest gradually shifts to following that character. The urban legends become supporting elements rather than the main focus of the story. Even later volumes of Trese leaned towards more political themes and storylines, but it’s not surprising because if you follow the character [of Trese], that’s [really the path that her stories were going to take.]
It’s interesting that the books were published a few years apart, and they show a progression between the way the two main characters are portrayed. Nicole [the point of view character in Mythology Class] is very idealized, while Alexandra Trese [the titular character in Trese] is very unapologetically self-assured character. Do you think that’s a manifestation of how society has changed?
- Very much so. Maybe the difference could be argued in terms of when both stories were written. I’m sure that if you compare the way women were depicted in literary bestsellers at the time each was published, you’ll notice the same trends in how female protagonists tend to be written. The kinds of [female] characters that Alexandra Trese and Nicole in Mythology Class portrayed were also unique in their own ways, but arguably reflective of expected traits of their time as well. In a way, Nicole is idealized as a character, but because of the unique characters that she’s surrounded by, she actually is complemented by the other women in the group. Each of the female characters have their own unique personalities, their own insecurities and their own gifts to contribute to the team. However, for most of the storyline, we follow Nicole’s perspective, and her growth as a character. Since Mythology Class is a very contained story, we hope to see that progression in one sitting— and it is not really necessary to have a sequel, although it would be great to hear that the author is working on one. On the other hand, the appeal of Alexandra Trese comes with the genre that she’s written into. Her storyline is a combination of mystery, detective fiction, and the supernatural. She’s written as a character who is equally mysterious and full of surprises, but in a sense more masculine if you compare her with the female characters in Mythology Class. But I think [the appeal of Trese] tells us what kind of readers go for what kind of books, or the kind of characters that they want to read. That makes sense because supposedly there are more female readers, and with a larger female audience, this might be a reflection of the kind of story appeals to them.
Has your research given you a good idea of what the market is like for these kinds of books?
- One additional thing I really want to do for this study is to ask bookstores about sales figures related to these titles, because I don’t have that yet. But I do have an inkling of the readership for [Mythology Class and Trese], specifically in terms of their age group based on my own experiences when I ask around about these titles with other people who seem interested in this kind of graphic narratives. I have noticed that those who know it tend to be the ones who were in college around the early 2000s. They know Arnold Arre, and they know about Mythology Class. And it’s very interesting because you’d expect it to be a very niche market – just graphic novel fans and lit majors. But it turns out even leisurely readers within that age group are aware of his work. In Trese’s case it tends to be the ones who were in college in about 2010 to 2011 or around that time. It first started getting noticed as a very niche comic around 2008, but it was a surprise when the third book came out in 2010 and readership exploded. Although after that there was a bit of a falloff. The readers for both books probably range around 28 to 40 now, both female and male readers. They’re very varied. And usually they know of the work because they know of the author. They first learned about Arnold Arre’s artworks, and because of that, they read the book. It’s not usually the book they encountered first. Trese is very interesting because people really look for it. People know about it because it was highly recommended by a friend or they heard about it, and they go specifically go looking for the book. It’s unlikely that thy chance upon it the book and say “Oh, what’s Trese?” or “What’s Mythology Class?” More often it’s a friend that says “Hey, you should read this. And then you go to the bookstore and buy it. Although if you ask [today’s] students, then they’re totally unaware of either the author or the books. And people above, say, 45 never thought of reading because they never encountered them.
That falloff you mentioned for Trese sounds intriguing. Does that imply there was a decrease in demand from the market?
- I do know that there was a time where there was a bit of a slump or a lag in terms of how often the stories came out, and that was mostly after Volume 3. I wouldn’t say there was a decline in demand. Maybe, a possible interpretation would be that people looking for the next one did not keep track when it finally came out because of the lull in between publications. Another might be that the interest for it suddenly grew when the third book of the series won the National Book Award in 2010. Although, another factor could be that when Volume 3 came out, it had a different style of storytelling. I wouldn’t be surprised if the change happened because of the fans. Because when you go to the fan conventions, it can be very pressuring in terms of storytelling, and answering the question of “where do we [take the story] from here.” Book 1 was just a lot of fun – it took urban legends and built a story around it. Book 3 became more character focused – you want to know what happened to Alex, where she came from, how she came to be so cool. That’s not a bad thing at all, because it was taking off on its own. But it was different in its theme and evolved from its first few stories of focusing mostly in popular urban legends and folk creatures co-existing with everyday people of urban Manila.
That’s an interesting take – how the fans could have affected the storytelling through interactions during conventions.
- Well, I don’t think it was the author changing the story for the fans. My reading is that he was doing it because he loved the story, and it evolved on its own with feedback from readers who loved it too. But because it became popular, it eventually had to take a new direction. It’s interesting to note the process of being a professional comic artist, and in this case producing a graphic novel in the Philippines. While there may be a structure and demand for output, it’s clearly not the same kind of pressure that Japanese Mangaka (Japanese comics creators) endure so that they produce new updates on a regular, usually weekly, basis. There is also the aspect of how Mangaka might have started with an interesting storyline but as soon as it’s published for a serial, they give up some creative control because there’s a lot of pressure to produce. If the author ends up in a slump, that can seriously delay the production of the next volume. In the Philippines, the need to produce rests so much on the artist and on readership willing to buy and support your work. It’s not unusual to come across online chat groups and pages that openly discuss the artist’s progress and when they will produce the next work. It can be very stressful as well for the graphic artist but depending on whether he or she has other projects to do, there’s no real pressure to produce an entire output on a weekly basis. It also helps that many local graphic artists have also taken to social media and online platforms to share their work and get exposure.
Yes, it sounds very exciting, what with Trese about to be turned into a Netflix series, and Mythology Class on its way to becoming a feature film directed by Jerrold Tarog. Which brings up the question of how big a role publishers play in the development of stories. Because we know there’s demand for these stories from readers, and of course the supply of stories comes from the writers themselves, but in between there’s the production side – the publishers, the marketers, and so on. Do they play a big role in the storycrafting itself?
- It will be interesting to see what direction Trese will take from now on because of how it’s interpretation and adaptation for the small screen. It could mean some complications or interpretations for how the next volumes are going to be written. What I’d like to look into more is how fans from outside the Philippines will appreciate and understand Philippine folklore and urban legends through that adaptation. As for Mythology Class, it’s a complete story. So, unless Arnold Arre produces a sequel, it could be easier to adapt to the big screen. In that sense, the fact that it’s self-contained makes it better, I think. It’s similar to films that are good on their own, that viewers can watch over and over again with just as much satisfaction as the first time, if not more. On the part of production, it is always good to consider the circumstances in the production of the work. The authors lose a lot of their creative rights in allowing more interpretation of the work, by letting others depict how they understand it, but that’s also the fun of re-interpreting stories. However, in the Philippine scene, if you really do want to make good money off with your work, it helps to have a good publisher and editor to guide your process. You could go into independent publishing, but that’s a different mountain to climb considering how much work you may have to do on your own. Another thing to consider is that the author can get very caught up in politics, in the sense that she or he must balance the authenticity of their storyline with the interests of whoever sells or helps promote it for them. This is where critics and readers are very crucial, because they can help balance out that interest to preserve a political leaning in the work, or if other interpretations can be drawn out despite the politics.
Since we’ve brought up demand, do you think it’s fair to say that there will always be a demand for these stories?
- Yes! Except that as a literature teacher, the problem I always see is awareness. People don’t seem to know that we have local books that are good, and where to begin. Literature teachers and readers probably see it every semester. At the beginning of the semester, it’s common to come across students have absolutely no interest in local literature or can give a few titles that they had to take up in gradeschool or highschool. But by the end of the semester, with some material taken up in class, it can lead to new discoveries even for teachers, when they share works with classmates and consult about works that caught their attention. I suppose you can say that I refuse to accept that the Philippines is not a reading culture. That’s what I hear a lot, at least. But there have been initiatives to bring more awareness about Philippine authorship and selections for readers to try out from our own storytellers. So to me, the statement “We Filipinos aren’t readers” should be answered with “No, the problem is not knowing what to read first.” We don’t have much time because there’s so much that be done in a typical Filipino’s day. It also does not help that we usually pay to be in a space that’s conducive to read in, and that public libraries are not always so accessible in all cities. But I am sure that if we could have such spaces, better public libraries and spaces where one could read, we would. Still, the question remains, who can tell us which works are worth our time? I often get the same feedback from outside the Philippines. There’s no familiarity. They’ve never encountered writers like Nick Joaquin or Carlos Bulosan. At best, I find people who like Rizal’s two novels. And I ask “wait, what about more recent writers?” Nothing. So, this research that I try to do is more of an attempt to call attention to the good stuff we have, or at least in my opinion what is worth one’s time. Through this I want to say “Hey, we have some really good stuff here in the Philippines that maybe you just haven’t heard about yet.” Along the way, I also hope to encounter good discussions on what’s been happening with our literary minds in more recent years, and what we write about.
Moving on, one thing interesting about your study is that it shows that the market of young Filipino readers – the ones that grew up in the digital age – is very interested in Filipino Mythology. Why do you think that interest has suddenly popped up? Is it a sudden shift in values for this generation?
- No, I wouldn’t go that far and say that values are different. It’s just that Philippine literature is consumed very differently by these different age groups. There’s the generation who went through the Marcos era and experienced a very political reality. There’s the EDSA generation, children born and exposed to narratives emphasizing democracy, freedom, a peaceful revolution. Today’s generation of digital natives experience their reality through a lot of new media and in that sense their accessibility to stories, and history is also very different. The generation that is growing up with social media most probably also read and interpret the themes of Philippine literature very differently compared to how my generation would have. However, in terms of the interest in Filipino Mythology, I think in the end it comes down to something very innate – the question of Philippine identity. Regardless of age, that always is a question that pops up. Filipino Mythology addresses our need to tell the story of who we are as a people, but without necessarily being so politically-invested about it. It can be fiction, it can be fact, because myths allow a breathing space for such discussions to take place. It gives us the distance we need in order to approach the question of Philippine identity. When we tell stories about Mariang Makiling and the Bakunawa, it doesn’t have to focus on aggressive ways of asserting meaning. It might even absurd to do so, especially outside of an academic setting. More likely, when we read about our myths, we focus on the characters the setting, the experiences they go through, and the struggles that they faced. It is through this approach that readers can get a sense of “Oh, is this what it means to be ‘Filipino’?”, and “Oh, those are the things that our culture celebrates.” Without being told directly.
In your study, you say our ability to write in English is a big advantage in terms of expanding the market for our stories. That implies that you feel there’s a large potential market out there for Filipino stories?
- Yes, a huge advantage. You know, I say this with the awareness that this is a sensitive position to take regarding language and national identity. On one hand, I do want to come across more stories written in our language, but then [when it must be published for a foreign market and readership] it needs to be translated. Something is always lost in translation, whether it be a concept that’s unique to the culture or to suppose that the other reader will understand the concept at all. So, one good thing that I think that we can reap out of our colonial past would be to master English in our own way, which is exactly what we had done as early as before World War I. By mastering the language, we make it our own, and write new stories that can reach a readership beyond our borders. That’s an advantage the Philippines has over the other Southeast Asian countries, although the statistics are showing that [our English proficiency is slipping]. In terms of our literary productions, we still have a very good advantage in terms of becoming known to foreign readership. We need to take advantage of that because other Southeast Asian countries are catching up to us [in terms of literature in English]. Vietnam’s writers in English are already so good, especially in poetry. Their literature tackles postcolonial issues too, but their take is very different from ours. Singaporean literature is being shaped as we speak – it’s a young country so they’re still trying to figure themselves out [in their literature]. But for now, as far as the Western readership is concerned, Southeast Asia seems to still be a blank, which is why we need to produce literary work that can share our viewpoint and experiences as accurately and beautifully as we can. Another thing I would like to say is that it’s regrettable to hear readers say that they don’t know any contemporary Filipino authors. Again, the problem is that foreign readership doesn’t really know we have good literature. I also think that a lot of our good Literature is so serious, tends to be very angsty, and our great writers who have written in English have talked about very difficult topics like poverty, almost like it’s our way of coping with trauma. Part of the coping is that we must talk about our trauma and it just so happens that [in our culture], it’s our literature that’s doing that for us. But such a discussion requires a committed audience. What about the readership that just wants to sample Philippine Literature? It’s for this same reason that, although I do enjoy reading a lot of our Philippine literary works, I’ve been more drawn towards graphic fiction and speculative fiction, because these genres still serious themes but in a tone that’s not necessarily so heavy.
It’s interesting that there’s a lot of material coming out right now that’s from the diaspora.
- It is. I think that might be the next development for Philippine Literature in English. Because of this fresh perspective, Filipinos writing from abroad will end up being the ones that give Filipino literature the exposure for foreign readers and written so comfortably in English. It might be time for us to be more familiar in terms of literary output outside of the Philippines by Filipinos.
How about digital media? It’s not exactly great literature, but its interesting that young Filipinos seem to be putting so much stuff online on venues like [social story-sharing platform] Wattpad.
- Yeah, what amazes me more is there’s so many people who follow that material. Take a close look and you’ll discover that there are a lot of people who follow specific authors on Wattpad. How does that fanbase even develop? I think that readership really exists if it knows what’s worth reading. But I suppose that this is a topic all on its own. However, it’s very telling that Wattpad is making it big. Maybe part of that is because it’s so affordable and accessible for young people buy these books, and that anyone can be an author and earn from it. In any case, I think that it’s very telling also as an indicator when you study what a people, a culture, spend their time on and how they choose to be distracted. Considering that there is an existing readership, it would be interesting to find out why the same formulas for our best-selling literature appears consistent.
And with that, we’re out of time. Thank you very much for sharing with us.
The Center for Research and Communication is a research and consultancy group that partners with the University of Asia and the Pacific (UA&P), drawing upon UA&P’s considerable human and knowledge resources to meet the research needs of businesses and development agencies throughout the Philippines. To find out more about CRC’s work and its various researchers and consultants, you can contact Communications Officer for Research, Mr. Remi de Leon, by email at [email protected] .