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Read your way through Manila

By Kynesha Robles, The Philippine STAR Published Sep 09, 2022 5:00 am

We go someplace else when we read. I have been to frigid Alaskan towns, solitary Greek islands, and a house in a cerulean sea all from the comforts of my own bed. I could physically be in line at a grocery store checkout with a book in hand, but I could mentally be in the house of a notable celebrity family in Malibu. 

Its goods, bads and contradictory crevices are often inimitable, but the most talented of writers can bring it to life on page.

There’s an enticing glow in the unknown, but the familiar offers an incomparable solace. Metro Manila is home, whose comforts and disruptions are easy to memorize. Its goods, bads and contradictory crevices are often inimitable, but the most talented of writers can bring it to life on page. The city is the perfect backdrop for stories and novels; a setting so full of dispositions and paradoxes, it’s a character in itself. 

Through these six books, revivify your love for Philippine literature or view the city from a new lens altogether. 

The Quiet Ones by Glenn Diaz 

This Palanca Award-winning thriller will take you through Metro Manila, Ilocos Norte, Tarlac and the realities of living in the Philippines itself. Diaz manages to capture what was once considered ordinary in lyrical, detailed prose: rainy-day floods in Manila, MRT window views of the city, the urban loneliness of its streets, bus commutes up north, and hole-in-the-wall restaurants in Chinatown. 

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Perfect for: Commuters who soldier through the city’s congested roads and public transportation on a daily basis 

Most likely to be: The required reading in schools that everyone will love

Notable quote: “... a city confused, a city old and exhausted but pressured to show off its newer trimmings, a youth it couldn’t remember.” 

Manila Noir, edited by Jessica Lagendorn

“What better setting for noir fiction than Manila?” wrote Rappler in their review of the book. This anthology — written by a dazzling list of celebrated Filipino writers: Gina Apostol, Jose Y. Dalisay, F.H. Batacan, etc. — is my first (but certainly not last) noir fiction. The settings in these stories range from Greenbelt Mall in Makati to Tondo, Manila. 

Read this if you like: True crime podcasts and documentaries 

Read this if you don’t like: Happy endings or “good guys”

Notable quote: “I like to think of Manila as a woman of mystery, the ultimate femme fatale. Sexy, complicated, and tainted by a dark and painful past, she’s not to be trusted.” 

A Field Guide to the Roads of Manila and Other Stories by Dean Francis Alfar

Dean Francis Alfar, a household name in Philippine speculative fiction, never fails to surprise you every time you start a new short story in this diverse collection. The namesake short story, A Field Guide to the Roads of Manila, personifies the roads of Manila — from Aurora Boulevard, Balete Drive, N Domingo St., to EDSA. Each of the characters takes after their real-life counterpart’s reputation. For instance, the White Lady of Balete Drive, a part of Filipino folklore at this point, is an eerie yet morally agonized character in the story. 

Perfect for: Fans of mythology and folklore 

Notable quote, from the short story “City Crossing”: “Though the many cities that form the Capital have set boundaries, and people cross the porous demarcations daily, a greater number of people tend to stay in the city where they live and work, in effect creating not-so-permeable barriers that gave the different cities their character.” 

Everlasting Nora by Marie Miranda Cruz

Nora and her mother are forced to live as squatters in the Manila North Cemetery after losing their home to a fire. Catering to a middle grade school audience, the book is a sobering reminder to the realities of informal settlement in the Philippines. But set in the cramped community of the cemetery, it still inspires resilience and camaraderie to its readers. 

Read this if you’re looking for: A light yet equally meaningful read 

Notable quote: “All around me, the living slept among the dead. Some of them slept on mats or other makeshift beds. Others slept on top of tombs. They lived inside mausoleums with the few things they needed for daily life, like plastic dishes, basins, discarded furniture, and sometimes electric fans. They were squatters, like my mother and me, living in the Manila North Cemetery because it was better than living in the slums.” 

The Age of Umbrage by Jessica Zafra

Guadalupe grew up in the house of one of the richest and most powerful families in the Philippines… in the servant’s quarters. The Age of Umbrage is all at once a coming-of-age narrative, a social and political commentary, and a moving story on Guada’s complicated relationship with her mother, a cook for the Almagro family. 

Perfect for: Fans of Phoebe Bridgers’ lyricism and the film Lady Bird

Notable quote: “On her right, people sat at narrow tables eating porridge and innards, and on her right were wooden crates of shoes. Bags and belts dangled from the ceiling, smacking her in the face. She carried her backpack in front, like an apron, to deter pickpockets.” 

Ongpin Stories by R. Kwan Laurel 

Laurel takes us through the Ongpin Street he grew up in and gives us a glimpse into Chinese customs and family ties through its distinctive residents. Ongpin, which runs centrally through Binondo, is an enclave of Chinese culture and a feast for the senses. At night, its dramatic streetlights and lanterns and colorful storefronts cast a cinematic glow, romanticizing the street despite its lurking dangers. In the book, we witness Ongpin Street and its residents in their early days. 

Perfect for: Fans of xiao long bao and Wong Kar-Wai movies

Notable quote: “ …for the people from the streets that intersected through Ongpin, like Salazar, where pastries and jewelries were sold; Gandara, where the cheapest shoes were said to be found; all the way to Santa Cruz, where banks and money changers waited, considered themselves part of our street.”