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Books, bayong, and aswang: The 37th National Book Awards

"We look forward to more and better books by Filipinos, of Filipinos, and for Filipinos and the world."


An eloquent and talented artist in a bayong mask stole the show and walked away with two trophies at the 37th National Book Awards night held Nov. 24 at the National Museum of the Philippines.

Emiliana Kampilan donned a woven straw bag, which had black mesh-covered holes over the eyes and mouth, to receive the awards for Best Graphic Literature and Best Book Design for ‘Dead Balagtas, Tomo 1: Mga Sayaw ng Dagat at Lupa.’ 

The National Book Awards are an annual recognition ceremony established in 1982 by the Manila Critics Circle. Beginning 2008, according to the organizers, the MCC partnered with the National Book Development Board to “institutionalize and co-administer” the NBA “to better honor Philippine publishers, authors, and book designers.” 

Dead Balagtas “inspires you from cover to cover,” said NBDB-appointed judge for design Daniel Matutina, in his citation for the book. “It touches on myth, culture, social realities, class, isolation, familial ties, and identity—with all stories tied together by geography. Its storytelling is elevated by illustrations, lettering, visual design, layout, and production.” 

Kampilan’s ground-breaking work also won this year’s Madrigal-Gonzalez Best First Book Award in a ceremony held at the University of the Philippines’ Writers Night last Nov. 23.

Emceed by internationally published author Dean Francis Alfar, who is also an MCC-appointed judge, the 37th NBA proceeded briskly and with much humor. Alfar decreed a strict one-minute rule for thank-you speeches, which had some awardees talking very fast or making it short and sweet, as did Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo, who only said, “Maraming salamat po,” before walking off-stage, to the huge amusement of the audience.

 Dr. Pantoja-Hidalgo, director of the University of Santo Tomas’ Center for Creative Writing and Literary Studies, won the award for Best Book of Essays in English for ‘The Thing with Feathers: My Book of Memories.’ 

Dr. Jose Wendell P. Capili, NBDB-appointed permanent judge for essays, says the book is a “seamless weaving of the author’s personal narratives into a cohesive whole. It is personal history, but it is also Philippine literary and social history.”

 The Best Translated Book award was given to a group of translators and Hanunu’o Mangyan poets for “Bamboo Whispers,” a compilation of poetry of the Mangyan. The syllabic poems, called ‘ambahan,’ are usually inscribed on bamboo in ‘surat Mangyan,’ a pre-Hispanic script. Anya Postma, accepting the award in behalf of the group, said their book is their “gift to the Filipinos.”

The Best Anthology in Filipino award went to ‘May Tiktik sa Bubong, May Sigbin sa Silong,’ fiction, poetry, and essays on the ‘aswang’ in the national imagination. The book was compiled and edited by Palanca- and NBA-award-winning author Allan N. Derain.

Aside from their place in myth and superstition, aswang, which can take many physical forms, also “represent opposing or contrary histories, and a simple explanation of a battle between light and darkness does not encompass its narratives” (from the call for submissions in 2014: “kinakatawan din ng aswang ang mga nagsasalungatang kasaysayan kung kaya’t hindi simpleng away lang ng liwanag at dilim ang puno’t dulo ng kaniyang naratibo”).

Derain’s acceptance speech, read in his behalf by writer Rowena Festin, ends memorably with, “Mabuhay ang mga aswang. Mabuhay ang wikang Filipino. Mabuhay ang panitikang Filipino.”

MCC chairman Ruel S. de Vera lauded the quality of books published in 2017: “The winners truly do represent the best in their fields of specialization. It stands as a testament to the tireless efforts of all those involved in the country’s publishing industry that the selection was both difficult and rewarding for us.”

NBDB chairman Flor Marie Sta. Romana-Cruz said of the event: “There are those who might be wondering why we still choose to celebrate books with full pomp and circumstance in a country that seems more receptive of other forms of media…Through the NBA, we champion the creation of excellent books that have the force and potential to compel readers toward free thought and speech, literature that serves to amplify the diversity of Filipino voices.”

The full list of winners may be seen at the NBDB website.

Warm congratulations to the winners of the 37th NBA, and kudos to the MCC, NBDB, judges, and everyone who worked behind the scenes to ensure the event’s success. We look forward to more and better books by Filipinos, of Filipinos, and for Filipinos and the world.

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Dr. Ortuoste likes reading, writing, but not ‘rithmetic. FB and Twitter: @DrJennyO

Topics: National Book Awards , National Museum of the Philippines , Emiliana Kampilan , Flor Marie Sta Romana-Cruz , books , Rowena Festin
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