Books and authors, the best mentors | Inquirer Opinion
The Learning curve

Books and authors, the best mentors

The star-studded opening of the National Book Development Board’s 9th Philippine Literary Festival (NBDB PILF), “Author (ities),” at the Cultural Center of the Philippines has left me with an exhilaration difficult to shake off.

There was Ricky Lee, the most awarded Filipino screenwriter and playwright, in a keynote interview with the CCP’s Bebang Siy. An NBDB poster boy for reading, Lee talked about how reading and words had “saved” his life many times. He was proving several instances of how his reading promotion poster describes him: “Nabubuhay sa pagsulat, binubuhay ng pagbasa” or—a lame translation—“He lives by writing and is kept alive by reading.”

Orphaned as a young boy in Daet, Camarines Norte, Lee first discovered the world of print through komiks read to him by a kind neighbor. A hospitable and kind public librarian allowed him to spend long hours in the library even on days when an inventory was taking place. Thus began his love for books, which, he found, allowed him to escape to other worlds as his desire to physically flee Daet intensified.

Lee grew up being known as the oddball in town because he loved books and always carried a dictionary. He read anything and everything in that library, even books he could not yet fully understand. He confessed to acts of vandalism then—tearing off book pages with the best descriptions. The librarian could not have been totally oblivious to this, and he appreciates that he was neither scolded nor punished; otherwise, it might have led to his negative feelings toward books.


It was, to him, a first lesson in writing: humility. For that librarian was able to see beyond the erring boy and to recognize the curious book lover that needed nurturing.

Then as now, Lee values books as the best mentors in writing. He admitted that he had not read all the books in his library today, but expressed certainty that in time, these books would speak to him. And fortunately for all of us, he keeps on writing, despite the loneliness it entails.

Fil-American writer Elaine Castillo was the festival’s special author guest, brought to Manila from northern California where she was born and lives through the collaboration of National Book Store and the NBDB. Her well-received first novel, “America is not the Heart,” was released by Viking on April 3. It catches the reader’s attention with its title, which is a takeoff from the Filipino immigrant’s “bible” from the 1940s, Carlos Bulosan’s “America is in the Heart.”

Castillo calls herself a daughter of that book.


After the title, the second thing the reader notices is how Castillo’s engaging prose is peppered with words and phrases from the Philippine languages she grew up with: her mother’s Pangasinan, her father’s Ilokano, and Filipino. The words and phrases—“babaero, tupig, mahal, abangan ang susunod na kabanata”—are not italicized and do not carry any explanation. Even in her acknowledgments page, she speaks of “utang na loob, or absolutely unpayable debts of the heart.” She feels strongly about the liberal use of these words and phrases: How can they not be part of the reality, the diaspora experience, her world?

This is only Castillo’s third visit to the Philippines, but is avowedly comfortable in a place where her surname, which tells all about her lineage, is pronounced correctly.  At the PILF forum on “Fiction, Displacement, and Everything in Between,” she spoke about her writing as a putting together of shattered parts: “I think about the silences, the inarticulateness, and use stories to make sense of the diaspora.”


Her novel tells the story of an immigrant family in pursuit of the elusive “American dream.”  With a familiar and relevant story line, this 406-page novel—self-edited from 1,000 pages—is a hilarious and poignant tale of three generations of women in a clan. It is both insightful and entertaining.

Speaking of her craft, Castillo said:  “All of us became writers because we were readers first… Write what you don’t know, show beyond what you see.”

Get to meet Elaine Castillo today at 2 p.m. at her book signing at Instituto Cervantes’ Dia del Libro at the Ayala Triangle. Open to all.

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Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (nenisrcruz@ is chair of the National Book Development Board and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.


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