Required Reading on Writing: Part 2

I’m planning to take the comprehensive exams for my graduate-school program this coming November. I figured four months would give me a proper head start in terms of required reading — there are 40 creative-nonfiction books on the official reading list. I don’t have to read them all, but I could at least cross some off the list. And apparently, that list will still change depending on what I plan to do for my thesis. We’re not even talking about old class notes, syllabi and reference books yet; just that list.

Keeping those factors in mind, I read these two books first. As far as I know, both are out of print, and unavailable in most Philippine book stores, so thanks, school library!

Two newspaper-column collections, courtesy of Carmen Guerrero Nakpil (1940s-1960s) and Butch Dalisay (early 1990s).

When I was a kid, I ignored the newspapers’ front pages and opinion columns, and went straight to the humor, lifestyle, travel and sports sections. I began focusing on opinion columns only in the last few years — a real shame, but better late than never, as I like to say.

I like reading these columns, even if I don’t always agree with what they contain. Unlike in other literary genres, where you can cover up your real sentiments or couch them into more socially “acceptable” forms, opinion columns (and creative nonfiction, for the most part) will put you out there, with an accompanying photo and byline for good measure. You can say things in the nicest way possible, but you can still be misinterpreted. There’s no hiding here: you better be ready to stand by everything you say, and how you say it.

Two newspaper-column collections – The Best of Barfly from Jose “Butch” Dalisay, Jr., and Woman Enough and Other Essays from the late Carmen Guerrero Nakpil – show readers how op-eds were done back then, and prove helpful for these trying modern times. Required reading, indeed.

Be ready to go way back.

The essays in Nakpil’s collection were written from the 1940s to the 1960s. This means most of her references are obviously dated. Not that I’m complaining; I liked reading the essays where she looked back on her own childhood memories (like roaming her old-Malate neighborhood for gifts on Christmas Day). But the demographic that will relate to her essays the most will be the members of the G.I., Silent, and Baby-Boomer generations. So to my fellow Millennials and younger readers, keep your phones and tablets handy so you can check Google whenever needed. Otherwise…


Her writing style will also make you recall the old-school way of writing in the Philippines. Writers back then (Kerima Polotan Tuvera is the first person I think of) tended to use “one” instead of “I”; and to pepper their work with words now considered too deep, intellectual or pretentious, in contrast to today’s simpler, direct, and conversational style.

As for The Best of Barfly, the bulk of Dalisay’s essays were published in the early to mid-1990s, a time that isn’t too far off for most of us. Still, if you weren’t keeping track of current events then, you’d miss out on some references. I didn’t have any problems with the tech callbacks, but there were some people I had to look up. Like this guy. I completely forgot about the Chop-Chop Lady case!

It’s also amusing to note that his writing style then is almost the same as it is now. Read The Best of Barfly, then go through his current Penman archive, and you won’t see much difference in terms of voice. Reading the text, you know it’s him. And his essays about trying to keep his old VW Beetle alive (pendong kotseng kuba!), the process and experience of sending telegrams to his loved ones, his long-running obsession with fountain pens, and two parents suing over a Pinoy beauty pageant in Manhattan are great throwbacks.

“Evergreen” content is best.

Sure, there are long trips down memory lane, but Nakpil and Dalisay are also adept at writing what online-content churners now call evergreen content. Basically, these are topics that are timeless for and relevant to any target readership/market, regardless of era. Obviously this wasn’t what they had in mind when they wrote their columns, but it shows that there are some things that’ll never change. 

Of particular interest to me are the first four essays of Nakpil’s Woman Enough. The arguments and situations Nakpil talked about in the eponymous essay, The Filipino WomanMyth and Reality, and Maria Clara still apply and resonate today, even decades after publication. Women are still perceived and treated differently compared to men, seen as delicate things that need protection from the world but are also wholly secondary to people with penises. Don’t you dare mansplain and tell us otherwise.

Looking at the other essays in the book, our political climate is still the same (with the same family names!), the erasure of Philippine history pre-Ferdinand Magellan is still in place (but with more awareness now, so… it’s an improvement?), and the elite still lord it over the needy.

More than 20 years later, some of Dalisay’s topics are still highly relevant to us. The pain of and processing grief from losing a parent will never change, we’re still pretty much addicted to technology and the feeling of being important or loved (we’ve long abandoned beepers for cellphones, then smartphones), Filipinos still have this strange love of noise, and we still love affixing titles like “sir”, “ma’am”, “Dr.”, “PhD” etc. to our names. National writing workshops are still important here; the padrino system still exists; and people still ask writers how they can become one too, as if there’s only one quick solution to legitimacy and productivity.

If you’re going to drag people, drag them with style.

There is no overemphasizing the value of slaying the targets of your ire in highly creative ways. Out of Nakpil’s essays, “Charity” is the cheekiest and spot-on in her anthology. In this 1951 essay for the shuttered Philippines Free Press, she completely skewers the ultra-rich society ladies who “want” to “help” the needy – but with the fanfare, media and associated print-page allotment, of course. What, they’re going to do all that for nothing? Que horror!

You can bet your sweet ass this still happens in the Philippines today. You can also compare it to so-called altruistic folk who post their good (digital) deeds on social media primarily so they can feel better about themselves.

Woman Enough and Other Essays, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil
Paperback, Ateneo University Press
Buy: Ateneo University Press | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | AbeBooks

The Best of Barfly, Jose Dalisay, Jr.
Paperback, Anvil Publishing
Buy: Contact Anvil Publishing