A month of remembering and reading
I BEGAN August wearing yellow in loving memory of Cory Aquino, a woman I was fortunate to know beyond her being the Philippines’ first woman president. And it is neither sheer fanaticism nor blind loyalty that drives me to remember her each time. Aug. 21, 1983, and Edsa I and 1986 meant so much for my family, more than words can convey.
I also knew August had come when I got an early-morning text message from National Artist Virgilio Almario, also head of the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, hailing the month of the national language and Filipino as the language of knowledge and learning: “Maligayang Buwan ng Wika! Isulong ang Filipino bilang Wika ng Karunungan!”
At about the same time came the reminder from Gwenn Galvez of Anvil Publishing that it is also #Buwan ng mga Akdang Pinoy, the courageous and noteworthy initiative began last year by award-winning poet, fictionist, and Ateneo professor Edgar Calabia Samar, also best known for his bestselling Janus Silang series. To push the usual celebrations of Buwan ng Wika to a more meaningful level, Samar vowed to post daily on social media something on Philippine literature. Other entities have joined, asking then and again today: What book by a Filipino author are you reading this August?
I was not caught unprepared because I have been engrossed in a good YA read that I now wholeheartedly recommend: “What Things Mean” by Sophia N. Lee, published by Scholastic Singapore this year. What makes it significant is that it won the Grand Prize at the Scholastic Asian Book Awards in 2014. Lee is the first Filipino author to win the award since it began in 2011 and to be published by Scholastic—yes, the same publisher of Harry Potter. The first-runner-up prize also went to a Filipino, Catherine Torres, who wrote “Sula’s Voyage,” likewise published by Scholastic. The other winners were from India and Singapore.
Olive is the 14-year-old protagonist of this YA novel, someone with adolescent angst magnified and made more intense by her innate introspective nature. She looks distinctly different from her relations, with their patrician noses and fair complexion. She lives in a familiar extended family unit of a grandmother, her single mom, two aunties, two cousins. She loves stuff that is not among the typical favorites, like pickles, which she hoards. She has a fascination with words and all that they could possibly mean, as the title itself reveals.
Thus, it makes total sense that the storyline of “What Things Mean” is driven by specific words. The 28 chapter titles are words that have multiple meanings as nouns, verbs, or adjectives. That is how every chapter begins, just before the first-person account continues, to remind the reader about these many ways with words and their nuanced meanings—and, also, that “words sting.” In a sense, the one-word titles provide a sweeping glimpse of the storyline.
Olive may be different—“being strange is my department”—but she is reassured by her mother that there is nothing wrong with being different. Yes, even the fact that she loves reading obituaries. However, the one question that Olive demands to be answered is the identity of her father. Her mother will answer all her curiosities, except this one. “In our house, I am the only reminder my father was ever here.” She is aware that hers is not a totally unique case, but at least her peers have reasons for their fathers’ absence, something she does not have. “It does not seem right that all that remains of him are my eyes, my hair, the color of my skin…”
The book is readable and flows easily. Poignant lines stand out and are memorable. During the
relaxed and intimate mother-daughter time when mother brushes her hair, Olive is emboldened to bring up what has been weighing on her. She is brushed away: “I know him as well as you do.” She is close to desperation when she asks: “What do I have to do so you will tell me about my father?”
Somehow, Olive herself discovers the answers to the questions that have been haunting her. “Why didn’t he like me?” is one that continues to perplex her, especially after their encounter. There is quiet resolution as the story ends, with Olive comforted that the best parts of both her parents are embodied in her.
The story ends with the reader in me wanting more, if only to see what direction Olive’s nonrelationship with her father will take.
Lee’s first book holds the promise of more engaging books to come. Last year, her entry for the 2015 Samsung KidsTime Awards, “Soaring Saturdays,” stood out for being an engaging read. Samsung initiated the award because it wanted the best children’s stories from all the Asean countries to be remembered and read by the Asean community in digital form. The judges ensured that each country was represented.
And what about you? What book by a Filipino author are you reading?
Come and meet Sophia N. Lee today at the 2 p.m. launch of “What Things Mean” and Catherine Torres’ “Sula’s Voyage” at National Book Store Glorietta 1.
Neni Sta. Romana Cruz (email@example.com) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.
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