On Fighting People and a Virus: Two New Self-Published Nonfiction E-Books

I’ve become quite fond of compiled works in the past decade or so – specifically, nonfiction collections and fiction collections/anthologies. I don’t always have a lot of time and patience (if at all), so it’s always nice to know I could just stop reading at some point and resume whenever I want without exerting a lot of memory work.

And while I (like many people during the ongoing COVID pandemic) haven’t been doing much reading the past year, I did go through two self-published nonfiction collections recently: journalist, podcaster, and horror fictionist Karl de Mesa’s Calling Out the Destruction: Meditations on Violence and Transcendence; and journalist and ex-EIC Joel Pablo Salud’s Fear and Loathing in Lazaretto: Essays Under Lockdown.

So yeah, I do have some things to say about them.

Both contain previously published nonfiction material.

Nonfiction writers releasing article and column collections aren’t new or strange. Many have come before Karl and Joel, among them Katrina Stuart Santiago, Carmen Guerrero Nakpil and Butch Dalisay, Clinton Palanca, and Kerima Polotan Tuvera.

The reward here isn’t just in seeing how much material the author/writer has made so far. They can also freely publish their nonfiction essays and columns the way they originally intended – without the meddling of overeager slash-and-burn copy editors, print publications’ space and commercial constraints, or social media’s lordly (or should I say asshole-y) penchant for “giveth and taketh away.”

Calling Out the Destruction gathers Karl’s old articles and long reads for various Philippine publications, with some going back five or so years. Fear and Loathing in Lazaretto is a compilation of Joel’s essays pulled from his old Facebook Notes blog, The Papercut Blogs, and covers the first 34 days of the (ongoing) pandemic lockdown in the Philippines. And yes, both e-books easily fulfill the “wealth of material” and “publishing freedom” metrics.

Both are the authors’ first forays into self-publishing (AFAIK).

This isn’t the first time I’ve read Karl’s or Joel’s work. Their bylines are familiar to regular readers of current events and pop/fight culture coverage, and their prior books were published through traditional and newer presses. I’ve also reviewed horror fiction collections with Karl’s writing and editing work on them.

But Calling Out the Destruction and Fear and Loathing in Lazaretto mark the first time they’ve gone the self-publishing route. Both compiled their material using word processors and converted them to PDFs, and are now selling them via Facebook/e-mail and GCash. With the current pandemic, this is the quickest and safest way to get new titles out to readers and control the entire publishing and sales process. Frankly, I’m surprised there aren’t more Filipino authors doing the same thing right now.

Unfortunately, both titles also suffer from self-publishing’s common pitfalls. They are plenty of typos and inconsistencies in formatting and styles, things that I’ve (sadly) gotten used to seeing in DIY publishing.

And readers can read Calling Out the Destruction‘s content out of order because they’re connected only by theme. However, I encountered one problem whenever I did skip between essays. I’m not sure if this is a formatting or app (Bluefire Reader) issue – I would tap on an embedded or anchor link, and the e-book’s entire alignment would be pushed to the upper right. I have to exit and reopen the app to view it normally again.

Meanwhile, Fear and Loathing in Lazaretto has no embedded links at all. So if I want to follow up on a citation or source or do further reading, I’d have to search and type manually if using a tablet, or copy/paste when using a laptop – an extra step that could be a hassle for some readers. I’m a spoiled e-book reader; I like everything being just one click or tap away. Little things like embedding and formatting count for a lot, you know. 😂

Both are “same same, but different.”

These two self-published nonfiction e-books have a few more things in common. Both spotlight the battles, struggles, and depths of human life. Both make references to gonzo journalism and literary journalism, with a few name-drops for Hunter S. Thompson. Joel wrote a blurb for Karl’s book. And both have certain lines in their e-books that made me think “Shit, I wish I wrote that.”

Then there are the major variances. Because Calling Out the Destruction collects material Karl wrote for different Philippine publications, it’s also amusing to see how some articles and profiles could have been tailored for those publications’ audiences, and how different these audiences’ reactions could be given a few years of distance.

For example, some of his pieces for the defunct lad mag/website FHM Philippines reminded me of how I wrote my own articles for it. As FHM PH‘s editorial teams changed over the years, so did its overall voice. It tried to bridge its dated and sexist “for the good ol’ boys” approach with a broader and more modern outlook on manhood – which includes seeing the cover girls and women in general as much, much more than scantily clad sexpots solely for ogling. It was a tough line to walk and there were times when I felt my copy had to pander to old readers instead of open them up to new points of view.

Karl’s girl-power profiles on Rhian Ramos and Arianny Celeste ran along that fine line and were considered decent celebrity profiles back in 2015/2016. Don’t get me wrong; they still are. But in 2021, several lines and quotes in there just pissed me off, and emphasized that we still have a long way to go in communicating and writing about women’s true selves and inner power.

On the flipside, Calling Out the Destruction contains two particular standouts: Karl’s CNN Philippines profile on Bahareh Zare Bahari, the Iranian beauty queen in exile in the Philippines; and his dual writeups on lethwei or Burmese boxing. The former is a thorough look at how human/women’s rights activists are punished by their governments for speaking out + the international shitstorm that follows asylum-seeking, while the latter left me wanting more information about a little-known brutal combat sport and overall fight culture.

If I had known about lethwei when I was in Myanmar way back in 2012, I would’ve definitely asked around and gone to fight night. But I also think the two lethwei pieces were too closely intertwined – I think the second piece should’ve stayed and the first one cut from the final e-book. Although in terms of providing context, both pieces work well enough.

If Calling Out the Destruction is a study on fitting a first-person perspective and firsthand information within themes and media publishing limits, Fear and Loathing in Lazaretto is all about one man’s POV on one very current event. If you read Joel’s social media posts, columns, and articles, you know what you’ll get here and in which direction it’ll go. It’s great to have all this material accessible and under his own digital imprint (Tahanang Likha), especially after his departure from the Philippines Graphic in 2020.

Joel also arranges his essays chronologically here, from Day 1 to Day 34 of the Philippine COVID-19 lockdown. You can skip essays and come back to them later, but ultimately these are meant to be read in order – unlike Karl’s nonfiction collection, which is quite skip-and-return-friendly.

There are two downsides to this chronological arrangement. I can get overwhelmed quickly by the combination of heavy news-centric content + strong editorial voice + the fact that my country is still struggling to get its shit together, one year into the pandemic. That means I can read only a few essays a day, then take some time to process them and flush out that heavy feeling in my bones.

And because these nonfiction essays are about an unresolved problem, some predictions or observations have already become moot or given. For example, we’re now talking about several COVID variants (including our very own strain – yay, Philippines???); and Joel’s description of our government as a “veneer of a structure less likely to survive the quarantine” would probably become the opposite – but at our expense.

Even if little has changed here a year into COVID-19, Fear and Loathing in Lazaretto does its readers a vital service. We are starting to forget the tiniest details of the pandemic’s early days and months, no thanks to fatigue and trauma and the general anxieties of living in “these unprecedented times.” Joel’s daily essays serve as refresher courses on both the facts and the anger that we should all be feeling at basically everything and everyone in power that abuse it and prove themselves incompetent every day.

One more thing…

One of my nonfiction essays for the 2017 UST National Writers’ Workshop referred to a CNN Philippines article about Filipinas’ access to birth control. I cited that article through a footnote and didn’t think about it again until the USTNWW’s official last day, when that essay was workshopped. A panelist said that footnotes in creative nonfiction essays were rarely done (if ever), and asked me if this “unique” approach was intentional. I was honest and told her I didn’t quite know how to format citations for creative nonfiction, but I didn’t want to use other people’s work without attribution, either.

Once a journalist, always a journalist. 😂

Now I’m thinking maybe I should show the panelist Joel’s book. Footnotes galore!

Calling Out the Destruction: Meditations on Violence and Transcendence, Karl de Mesa

  • E-book (PDF), self-published
  • Buy: E-mail karl (dot) demesa (at) gmail (dot) com, or message Karl R. De Mesa – Author via Facebook

Fear and Loathing in Lazaretto: Essays Under Lockdown, Joel Pablo Salud