Redefining ‘required reading’ for PH | Lifestyle.INQ

OCTOBER 27, 2022

At a time when what Filipinos are reading has never been more scrutinized or more important, an independent publishing company composed of two people has curated and packaged previously published writing they believe you should be reading.

The very fact that they called it the Required Readings series emphasizes how important they think these essays are. When readers hear the phrase “required reading,” they think of school and the handouts they need to read for classes, but this series is different. This Required Readings series is presented as something you don’t need to read for school, but which you should read—period, student or not.

There are five books in this series: National Artist for Film Ishmael Bernal’s “Bomba,” National Artist for Theater and Literature Rolando Tinio’s “Notes on the Theater,” Patrick Flores’ “Every Step in the Right Direction,” Jonathan Corpus Ong’s “Trolls for Sale” and Neferti X.M. Tadiar’s “Life-Times of Becoming Human.”

Patrick Flores; “Every Step in the Right Direction”
Patrick Flores; “Every Step in the Right Direction” —CONTRIBUTED PHOTOS

The company behind this is do-it-yourself Everything’s Fine, founded in 2019 by activist/cultural critic Katrina “Ina” Stuart Santiago and publication designer Oliver Ortega.

The same page

In 2017, the two met while working on the book “Pro Bernal, Anti Bio” for ABS-CBN Publishing and Santiago found out “we were on the same page about the kinds of books we wanted to continue making, and the writers we wanted to publish.” Ortega says that Everything’s Fine “is primarily a publishing company for authors, meaning we would like for authors to have a larger hand in the production and distribution of their books, and being fairly and adequately paid for it. In a way, Everything’s Fine operates like a not-for-profit publication although we are a registered business entity. As a young company, we are still figuring out the right balance—and math—for what we want to achieve, how we can sustain the business and print more books, while paying our authors and others involved in the making of our books.”

The name “Everything’s Fine” just came during one of their meetings in Bonifacio Global City.

“We thought it was just the right name that combines our vision of producing ‘fine’ books, as it is about simply being fine as a state of mind and self; and of course, ‘everything’ is something that can capture the scope of ‘being fine’ we’d like to be always in,” Ortega recalls. “There is no grand origin story for the name. We both insisted on a sort of cheeky name, something like ‘Oh, no, you didn’t,’ which is an imprint we’d like to be able to use in the future.”

National Artist for Theater and Literature Rolando Tinio (1937-1997); “Notes on the Theater”
National Artist for Theater and Literature Rolando Tinio (1937-1997); “Notes on the Theater”

Santiago says that by 2018 they were ready to begin their publication experiment, though they only completed incorporation in 2019. That year, they published the film critic Richard Bolisay’s excellent collection of essays, “Break it to Me Gently.” “We called it a win, as 2020 hit us hard given the pandemic, but we were able to do a revised edition of (Santiago’s earlier book) ‘Of Love and Other Lemons,’ so 2022’s really like the first year our book list has grown, and our plans have started moving forward.” Among the books that fell by the wayside was the late Cherie Gil’s “Kontrabida Contradiva.”

Ortega adds, “At that time, we were working on an illustrated book that features young Filipino women scientists. This should have been our very first book. However, we are still working on it right now, and we hope to see it released before the year ends or maybe early 2023.”

Points of origin

The Required Readings series has several points of origin.

“I had always wanted to republish works of writers I grew up reading, whether in old books, journals, magazines and newspapers, as I feel like so much of those essays just have been forgotten,” Santiago explained. “We first called the series Missed Readings. We already had the early film reviews of Bernal, and early on got permission from Tonchi Tinio to republish Rolando Tinio’s two essays on theater. We soon realized that the frame of ‘old’ might be a limitation, and we shifted to Required Readings, which allowed us to expand the series to include not just old and missed essays, but also more recent works that have been drowned in the information glut of the internet.”

The selection process, in Santiago’s words, was difficult.

“Certainly, there is a question of access, especially for the older essays and for authors who have already passed on.” Ortega says, “Other than access, the next question is relevance: Do these essays allow us a better understanding of nation in the present—its politics, people, cultures, histories, urgencies—no matter when and where these were first published? “

The project spiritually started with Santiago’s research on Bernal. “But I think the first time we talked about Required Readings as it has been published was in 2019. Ortega says, “By 2020, I was already designing the series, using Bernal’s bomba essays and Tinio’s essays on theater. Ina started talking to Patrick Flores about his volume, and at that time started going through his archive of previously published film and TV reviews and cultural criticism in English from the 1990s. Although Flores’ book would change completely as the work went on, before the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown, we have about three books ready. But we thought they were all ‘old’ voices and we wanted to mix them up with new ones, with new and younger writers and thinkers that excite us both.”

Jonathan Corpus Ong; “Trolls for Sale”
Jonathan Corpus Ong; “Trolls for Sale”

Younger voices

So, Everything’s Fine set out to find younger voices and found them in Ong and Tadiar in 2021.

“For Jon, I really wanted a transcript of one of his talks in the US, as I thought capturing him explaining disinformation architecture is different from his writing,” Santiago says. “That, alongside essays that were easy to read, and which also contextualized disinformation in the Philippines in the rest of Southeast Asia. Neferti’s academic work is generally inaccessible to a bigger reading public, and we knew that if we could find essays that have the same intellectual rigor, but are in a language that might be more accessible, then being able to get her books to readers could spark better conversations about the big fundamental and difficult issues she talks about. In the case of ‘Life-Times,’ these are current issues that interest so many of the woke generation such as women’s bodies, labor rights and urbanity.”

Ortega says the copy editing and final design for the two new volumes of Ong and Tadiar took most of the year. Meanwhile, Flores got back to Everything’s Fine with the idea of bringing together his Singapore Biennale essays.

“I guess being a small independent press kind of works in our favor: The deadlines are ours, and movable, especially for projects like this one,” Santiago says.

When it comes to the Required Readings series, Santiago is basically in charge of the text and marketing; Ortega, the design and production.

For Santiago, there is joy in “getting to publish such important work. I’m such a nerd when it comes to books, and being able to publish writers and intellectuals I admire is something I do not take for granted. And then being able to sell them! I think to some extent we treated this as ‘one’ book, just because these are such slim volumes. But soon enough we realized we were in fact publishing five books in one set. It feels kind of ‘new’ in that way, to publish in sets, and it excites me that we can possibly keep doing this series, five volumes at a time. The reception has also been pretty great. The full set has been No. 3 in literature sales on Lazada in July, and No. 2 in August. Jonathan’s volume is no.1 for August, which is pretty cool.”

The volumes are noticeably slim and small (4 inches by 6 inches, from 60 to 96 pages). Ortega explains, “Given the length of the works we’re publishing, we knew that the books will be slim volumes and so the size will have to be small. We also like the idea of these little books that contain big or great ideas. We wanted the Required Readings books to have the same dimension, that way, it will fit perfectly with these other books if you place them on your shelves.

Better conversations

So, what makes this Required Readings series truly different from anything else out in the market and who is the target audience?

Ortega says, “We’ve always liked this idea of something small and affordable, how we can possibly print small volumes with just one or a few essays around a certain theme or idea. We are hoping that having labeled them as ‘required readings,’ our teacher friends in the colleges and unis will one day require them for their students. But honestly, we have not thought much about market; rather, we have just been focused on publishing the books that we ourselves would like to have available.”

Santiago says, “As someone who does much of the materials that we use for marketing our books online, I think it’s clear that there is an audience for the books that we want to create. To begin with, we believe there are readers in the Philippines, and that there are readers for all kinds of books. And we like to be surprised by the kinds of readers our different books are able to attract. It’s too soon to speak of markets and target audiences, given the short time we’ve been doing this at this scale and rhythm.”

Everything’s Fine hopes to do a new Required Readings series every year. Aside from other writers, “we hope that it will be received as well as this first set,” Ortega says. “Maybe in future editions, we can have a guest editor who can curate a set for us.”

Everything’s Fine has been extremely busy, particularly after having survived the crucible of the Manila International Book Fair (MIBF), with four books in September. Richard Bolisay’s “Nothing Deep” was launched on Sept. 3. Jade Capiñanes’ “How To Grieve,” Carlo Paulo Pacolor’s “Ang Kompedio ng mga Imposibleng Bagay” and Aldus Santos’ “The Demo Versions” were made available during the MIBF with individual launches to come after. October will see Don Jaucian’s book of essays, “Brief Histories,” and they hope, according to Santiago, “at least five books in December, this time all women authors, and our women in science book.”

There’s a longer-term goal for Everything’s Fine: “We’re, of course, still looking at that wish list that just keeps on growing,” Santiago says. “We’re hopeful about opening an independent bookstore and art space as soon as we find investors who believe in the creation of communities around reading, art, creativity, critique, transparency, fairness and collaboration.”

Now that Everything Fine’s Required Readings series is out there, the two are just literally getting started.

Ortega says, “We do hope everyone who has bought and read these books appreciate them as much as we did.”

For Santiago, “If books are supposed to begin better conversations, then certainly we’d like to imagine that Required Readings can be that fire starter for the more difficult topics we tend to evade, or which elude our every day.” INQ

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