In this series we ask bibliophiles, prolific readers, and men and women of letters about their book consumption habits and their top picks for essential reading.
“The last book I read during the lockdown was The Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn, which is a compilation of her letters sent to family and friends. Gellhorn was one of the greatest war reporters in history and the unfortunate third wife of Ernest Hemingway. I found it strangely consoling to read about her bewailing the state of the world during a war and how politicians and the people they govern want very different things to disastrous results. Now, I am reading the concise guidebook, Who’s Afraid of Contemporary Art? by Kyung An and Jessica Cerasi in preparation for teaching an art appreciation class, and lining up Frisson: The Collected Criticism of Alice Guillermo, compiled by the Philippine Contemporary Art Network next.
“I read several books at once and bring one in my bag in case of boredom. While waiting in line at a bank one time, the teller laughed at me for reading an actual book made of paper. I just stared at him in reply. I also have a habit of not reading newly bought books right away but saving them like a miser. I only read A.S. Byatt’s Matisse Stories years after I bought it when I began writing about painters and their work.
“I grew up in a home scant of books. The scarcity meant reading what was available around the people who took care of me. From our kasambahay, it was Tagalog komiks. My dad had his J.D. Salinger books from the 1960s and Stephen King paperbacks. At Lola’s house, there was the hardbound collection of children’s tales and the Bible. My mom had her hair curled with Pagoda Cold Wave Lotion while I sat in a corner reading women’s dailies. I was happy to get a library card, finally. Childhood had no imagination police.
“What gets read next is like administering self-medicated book therapy. It depends on what I am working on or interested in at the time. Sometimes l will remember a book out of the blue and have the desire to read it. If I am stuck on a writing project, picking up a book that is as far away from it as possible helps me feel unstuck.
“No matter how many books I read and how many writers I admire, I will always end up writing like myself. What has been significant to me are supportive writers groups that help in terms of keeping you in the practice of writing regularly. Their advice summed up one line: Keep going. From experience, guidance from an eagle-eyed editor you trust has made a tremendous difference when pointing out weak spots you missed.”
JOYCE ROQUE’S ESSENTIAL READING PACK
Five poetry samplers and a comics story from Gacha Press. “It’s been a struggle for me to focus and read novels because of the quarantine, but it is slowly getting better. So I am recommending shorter work that is easier to slip in and out from. Please consider buying books from Philippine indie publishers. Lots of great stuff you can find when you click through #TheIndiePubCollab and #ReadIndiePH from comics to essays and poetry from all 18 publishers. Some of the small presses even donate part of their sales to fundraising drives for COVID-19. Gacha Press came out with free poetry and comic book sampler you can download here.”
Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan. “I know, I contradict myself, but this was the last novel I read before the March 15 lockdown began. The closest thing I can say about is it is like a bawdy, literary romp through Indonesian history if you were guided by Quentin Tarantino and Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I picked up the book because I remembered seeing the work of an Indonesian painter and wondered why we didn’t try to learn more from our Asian neighbours who we share a lot from instead of always looking to the West.”
Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered by Geoff Dyer. “This was a hilarious read, the anti-travel writing, travel book. There was a time I read a lot of travel essays as I was writing the first draft to How to Ride a Train to Ulaanbaatar and Other Essays. Travel writing usually follows the expectations set by the genre, and this one flouted that.”
Voices on the Waters: Conversation with Five Mindanao Writers edited by Ricardo M. de Ungria. “I enjoyed reading this and learned a lot. They talked about their work, the times they grew up in which inevitably led to talking about life in Mindanao. Reading it was like being a fly on the wall during an interesting dinner conversation.”
How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. “Quarantine Year 2020 feels like the world never stopped burning since the Australian bushfires in January. I read this during lockdown when I was anxious and forced to do nothing myself. It made me feel more hopeful and self-compassionate after. The author is a Filipino American visual artist and writer with probably one of the most calming author websites I’ve ever seen.” — JOSEPHINE V. ROQUE as told to JED GREGORIO
Josephine V. Roque writes essays, reviews, short stories, and plays. Her forthcoming collection of travel writing called How to Ride a Train to Ulaanbaatar and Other Essays will be published by Penguin Random House SEA at the end of the year.