My Best Filipino Reads of 2020

I previously wrote a listicle of my lockdown reads spanning March to June, and as the year ends, things have gotten worse rather than improved. Picking best books one read in the year is torturous, especially in my age where I have become very discerning in what I read. If I took time to read it, I will one way or the other enjoy it. If I had to trim it down, here it is. This is not ranked, and as much as possible I tried to feature other works, but the exceptions, those appearing the both lists, are definitely my favourite reads of the year.

This type of reflection and writing this is deeply enjoyable but inevitably remain petty if places in the country’s circumstances. As many were preparing for New Year festivities, indigenous communities in central Panay were raided by the joint police and military operation leaving several dead, and many more arrested. Playing a familiar tune, state forces claim these areas to be rebel nests, but critics point out that these communities are in opposition to the controversial Jalaur dam and refuse to give up their ancestral lands. Aside from being in close proximity to this place, I have also attended an Tumandok assembly in the area back in 2014. Just like in my previous listicle, a goal in writing down my thoughts on these books would be to nudge readers to connect rather than escape reality, especially its bleak, if not paralyzing, unfolding in the present. It feels like an act in vain, but I remain hopeful.

Similarly, many of these write ups are reworked older posts from my Instagram, if not longer reviews in this blog. I will link longer reviews where applicable.   


Aklat ng Mga Naiwan by Arlo Mendoza (Balangiga Press, 2018)

I already wrote about this in my lockdown list, and I think its the best work in Filipino I read this year. The boldest and most sustained experiment in long-form fiction I’ve encountered, and will make landmark postmodern works like Etsa-Puwera by Jun Cruz Reyes (2000) and Great Philippine Jungle Energy Cafe by Alfred Yuson (1998), appear fossilized in comparison. To get a taste of Mendoza’s mind, do read Labirinto ng mga Imposibleng Antolohiya. Patrick Bautista’s zine Walang Ibig Sabihin also comes to mind when discussing incendiary literary projects that shake the literary establishment. I thank Kristine Ong Muslim for bringing Bautista’s work to my attention.

Tiempo Muerto by Caroline Hau (ADMU Press, 2019)

Expanded from a short story from her second story collection, Hau’s Tiempo Muerto follows two women; Rachel, a domestic helper in Singapore, and Lia, a recently divorced socialite living in the same city-state. They head back to their hometown, fictional island of Banwa—sugar plantation about to be converted into a resort, where they shared a childhood. One to look for her mother, the other for her nanny. These two are entry points; whose collected experiences map out the fates of their classes as they cross demarcations of the local, national, and global. Another old mansion of secrets and trauma, of ghosts real and imagined, and finally attempts to come into terms with histories on their backs and hoping to change its course. In term of literary rendering of Negros, this is a great complimentary reading to The Woman Who Had Two Navels by Nick Joaquin (1961) and The Sky Over Dimas by Vicente Garcia Groyon (2003). Hau also happens to be my most read author of the year, this novel plus her two story collections, brings it to a total of three books.

The Quiet Ones by Glenn Diaz (ADMU Press, 2017)

In contrast to Mendoza, I consider this one as the best work in long fiction in English I’ve read. Diaz’ novel presents itself a noir. A group of call center agents in Manila orchestrated an embezzlement scheme using the technology and access the company they work for provides, and manage to get away. Is this a case of the subaltern using the tools intended to enslave him, fighting back at the Empire? The Quiet Ones is a meditation that asserts this is true, as well as declares its failure. The crime dimension is immediately dropped as we go through the characters’ stories of intimacies, multiracial and queer. These entanglements, made possible by the networks of capital, maintain the noir atmosphere by careful unfolding of individuals’ vulnerabilities, that is simultaneous with the withholding of secrets and releases of disenchantment. These lives would later tie up tangentially in the end, united by common silences and their responses toward them. This is also a workplace drama, a nuanced mapping of Manila, and a window to the nation at the birth of the 21st century.

My full review here.

A Natural History of Empire by Dominic Sy (ADMU Press, 2019), Maikling Walang Hanggan: Mga Dagli by Rommel B. Rodriguez (UST Publishing House, 2019)

I am still yet to write about Sy’s stories, but I would characterize them immediately as Borgesian. Probably not as accessible and sensual or witty as the stories of John Barrios in txtm8ers at iba pang mga kwexto (Kasingkasing Press, 2015), but the playfulness in the stories are similarly used to interrogate the self, nation, and history. This collection is slim, but needs rereading; an American officer tasked to end insurgency in the new colony, an intense family dinner as Martial Law was brought up, a guerrilla fighter from the future. Another impressive short fiction collection is made up of the re-imagined dagli by Rommel Rodriguez. Divided into three sections – human fables, counterpoint to colonial episodes, and contemporary polemics, Rodriguez pushes Eduardo Galeano’s project of using brevity to depict multitude. My thoughts on Rodriguez here.

Other great story collections equally daring in form in their own ways, are political experiments in Pag Mabilis Na Umalis Baka Di Naman Talaga Dumating by Rolando Tolentino (UP Press, 2017), speculative pieces in Instructions on How to Disappear by Gabriela Lee (Visprint, 2016), Edgar Calambia Samar’s update of sorts of Maximo Ramos’ inventory Philippine mythological creatures in Mga Nilalang na Kagila-gilalas (Adarna House, 2019)


Ella Arcangel Vols 1 & 2 by Julius Villanueva and Mervin Malonzo (Haliya Publishing, 2018, 2019)

Also included in the lockdown list, this definitely takes on the top spot for best graphic novel, and recent events, whether burning of coastal community in Bacoor, the urban poor bearing the blunt of hard lockdown, just makes this work more potent. I have written about the award-winning animation of one episode, Oyayi sa Dilim, which could also function as my review of the series as a whole. A new Ella Arcangel story has been recently released as well.

My special mentions comics are also works that involves Malonzo and Haliya Publishing; After Lambana (Visprint, 2016) with Eliza Victoria, Tao Po: Isyu 3 (Haliya Publishing, 2017), and the amazing adaptation of Samar’s Si Janus Sílang at ang Labanang Manananggal-Mambabarang (Anino Comics & Haliya Publishing, 2019). Another standout read is Carlo Vergara’s classic Ang Kagila-gilalas na Pakikipagsapalaran ni Zsazsa Zaturnnah (Visprint, 2004), though is sequel, Zsazsa Zaturnnah sa Kalakhang Maynila, remains unfinished.

Lastly great comics read in the exciting platform Penlab like Patay Kung Patay by Noel Pascual, AJ Bernardo, and Mike Alcazaren, Crime Fighting Call Center Agents also by Pascual and Bernardo, Dylan and Joan by Adam David and Josel Nicolas, Biyernes Santo by JP Palabon and Chocnut-san, and Ang Mga Pusa ng Barangay Masikap by Julius Villanueva.


Labi by Kristian Sendon Cordero (ADMU Press, 2013), Ang Mga Iniiwan ng Tubig by Jason Tabinas (ADMU Press, 2020), Corpus by Carlos M. Piocos III (UST Publishing House, 2010)

Cordero’s poems should be read alongside Sy’s stories as they share fabulist elements easily gathered from the country’s moribund postcolonial condition. Cordero zeroes in the Bicol region, juxtaposing volcanic brooding, harsh monsoons, and folk religiosity. What emerges is a landscape where the past is alive in the present, death converses with the living, the environment defining communities – and the other way around.

Also from the region, Tabinas has a more humble project but not less impressive. Written in stark and unimposing language, with meticulous imagery, Tabinas’ poems as cruel as the rural landscape and cultures it depicts. The collection is divided into two parts, loosely dry and wet seasons, and based on their joys and ordeals, are two sides of the same coin. Peasant communities are either praying for rain amid a drought or barely surviving clockwork monsoons. There are idyllic moments as well—celebrating fiestas, playing with friends during summer, so on, but all these are built on a precarious existence, going on for several generations. An aura rarely seen on food by the time it gets on people’s plates, on different parts of the country, different parts of the world.

Also similar to the project of Cordero, my favourite poetry volume of the year is by Piocos, especially Guerra Cantos. As I previously written, the verses carry a certain “brand of eroticism; intimate but also philosophical, not just mere confession of the self but also meditations on language and communication itself.” The images are visceral, the language carnal, and demands to be read slowly, if not repeatedly. I’m also looking forward to securing a copy Piocos’ second volume, Kung Ang Syudad Ay Pag-ibig (UP Press, 2019).

All the Philippine titles I have read in 2020. Not all included in this list, but all worth checking out.


Break It To Me Gently: Essays on Filipino Film by Richard Bolisay (Everything’s Fine, 2019)

There should be more books like this, in order for us to see the collective view of a particular cultural moment, in this case the Third Golden Age or the Indie Wave of Philippine Cinema. While reflecting on Bolisay’s sharp unpacking and literary takedowns of various films, I ended up reconstructing pivotal moments on how I came to love film, more than I already did, and eventually writing about them, especially from a position which is distant from the cultural center that is Manila. Bolisay’s book, but a sample from his blog, is essential reading on the craft of reviewing, unofficial film histories. Because of the pandemic, local cinema has become even more beleaguered than it already was, but these essays will reignite one’s sense of critical wonder. My thoughts on Bolisay here.

Another notable book on film studies is Gerard Lico’s reissued PA(ng)LABAS, Architecture + Cinema: Projection of Filipino Space in Film (2009, 2020), of which I wrote a longer review. I was also able to attend an excellent lecture by Lico titled Que Horror: Architecture of Fear in the Filipino Psyche, where clips from horror movies over the decades were used to substantiate concepts in conservation and dark tourism. I strongly believe this should be turned into a book.  

House of Memory by Resil B. Mojares (Anvil Publishing, 1997, 2019)

I started an older edition of this one back in undergrad, and I think this is actually the best place to start with Mojares. Collected columns from the 90s; personal as much as academic, concise as much as extensive. For sure to ignite the cultural critic in everyone. Some favourite pieces on drinking norms, street food, and precolonial penis rings. The essay on his stay in Bellagio is haunting, asking what is at stake, and confronting contradictions, in studying one’s culture.


Halos Isang Buhay by Edgar Calambia Samar (UST Publishing House, 2012) and Ang Tagalabas sa Panitikan by Chuckberry Pascual (UST Publishing House, 2018)

In order to get an advance degree in creative writing, writers need to produce their own poetics, or a self critical assessment or history of their literary project. I’m still on the fence with this idea, but I do believe this is because a creative writing degree, in this country and elsewhere, will most likely make you end up in the academe. An introduction to the inner workings of two contemporary writers I greatly admire, reading about Samar’s and Pascual’s influences, both literary and biographical, is a fascinating experience. I feel there is a need to requote them here,

Hindi sapat ang pormalismo upang maturol ang katotohanan bilang isang anyo ng pagsisinungaling, at ang kasinungalingan bilang isang anyo ng pagpapahayag ng katotohanan, ng pangungumpisal. Hamon din ito sa mambabasa, dahil sa pagbasa nang malay sa taglay na mito at etnograpiko, kinakailangan ding kilalanin ng mambabasa ang kanyang sariling mga prehuwisyo at pagtindig sa isyung inihahain. Sa pangungumpisal ng makata bilang persona ng tula, tumatayo ang mambabasa sa posisyon ng kinukumpisalan. Tatanggapin ba ang posisyon ng persona? Paniniwalaan ba ang sinasabing katotohanan ng akda? Totoo rin ba ito para sa mambabasa? Dinamikong relasyon ito, walang puknat ang pagtatanong tungkol sa katotohanan ng katotohanan. Patuloy ang siklo ng pagkilala at hindi, ang negosasyon ng kapangyarihan, upang maihayag ang katotohanan. Ito ang pag-iingay ng panitikan, na maaaring pagmulan ng materyal na pagbabago.

Chuckberry Pascual

Sa panahon ng kasalukuyang teknolohiya, ang internet, TV, cellphone, Ipad, at iba pang pinagkakaabalahan na nagiging ekstensiyon na ng ating pagkatao, ang kulturang popular bilang namamayaning opyo ng masang tinatamad nang magbasa ng nobela at gusto na lamang itext o i-plurk o i-twit ang lahat, o isulat sa Facebook wall bilang status message, lalong nagiging pangarap para sa akin na magagawa pa ngang agawin ng nobela ang atensiyon at oras ng madla mula sa mga iyon, o makiamot man lamang kahit sandali. Kahit sandali. At pangarap ito na sinisikap kong panindigan kaya’t patuloy akong nagsusulat-at magsusulat-ng nobela sa kabila ng sistemikong pagbura sa pangangailangan para rito ng mundong nilulusaw ang halaga ng mga pag-alala’t pagbabasa, ng mga pagkatha’t pagsisiyasat.

Edgar Samar

Sensing Manila by Gary Devilles (ADMU Press, 2020), Children of the Postcolony: Filipino Intellectuals and Decolonization, 1946-1972 by Charlie Samuya Veric (ADMU Press, 2020)

First time to encounter sensory ethnography with Devilles, and loved it immensely. Might seem eclectic or deeply subjective to others, but Sensing Manila is intricate project combining urban studies and cultural criticism, to arrive at an idea of the national metropole that is both intimate and theoretical. Street food culture linked to shopping mall urbanism, communities formed by church bells and later karaoke bars, censoring of naked bodies in billboards is read along with crowded religious processions. Highlight for me is Devilles discussing growing up near American soap factories, but when these companies relocated, to find cheaper labor to exploit, what’s left is the stench of Pasig river polluted by industrial waste.

Veric on the other hand interrogates the postwar and post -independence generation of Filipino intellectuals and their respective decolonization projects—Edith L. Tiempo and literary formalism, Fernando Zobel and modern art, Bienvenido Lumbera and the vernacular tradition, E. San Juan, Jr. and subaltern internationalism, Jose Maria Sison and mass revolution—histories of how they came to be, their reception and influence, their affinities and to a lesser extent, clashes. As Veric admits, this project is more on outlining and reclaiming the almost forgotten history rather than critique. Again, the individual chapters seem eclectic, but necessarily for a view of a generational milieu. Their aspirations placed side by side serve as a map for us who came after them, in forging, following Fredric Jameson on modernity, a singular decolonization, in the Philippines, and elsewhere.

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