By Neni Sta. Romana Cruz
5 December 2015
Philippine Daily Inquirer

It was nothing short of a miracle that the 6th Philippine International Literary Festival of the National Book Development Board (NBDB) took place in Davao City so successfully despite it being nose to nose with the departures of Apec leaders from Manila. But actually, there was never any danger that it would not happen because Davao’s literary community is such a proud and vibrant force that even if 93 of us from Luzon could not make it with flights reset twice or thrice, it would still have been a crowd-drawer. What an initial blow to the egos of the travelers from Luzon, but what a heartening commentary on the state of letters in Davao and its environs.

The literary festival has come to be the highlight of the Philippine Book Development Month of November. It brings together writers, publishers, illustrators, educators, librarians, literary agents, and many enthused readers for a celebration of the literary form.

This year’s festival was extra special because the NBDB was able to hold it in Davao, a city that gives special importance to activities celebrating culture, art and history. It is especially auspicious that this is the first time the festival was held outside Metro Manila. Previously, it was held at Hotel InterContinental, at Ayala Museum, at Filipinas Heritage Library, at the universities where creative writing and love for literature thrive (University of the Philippines, University of Santo Tomas, and Ateneo de Manila University) and, last year, at Bayanihan Center in Pasig City.

Thus was born this year’s festival, with the theme “Laláng: Writing in Place, Creating Your Space.” In a number of Filipino languages—Bikol, Kapampangan, Hiligaynon, Sebwano, Tagalog—“laláng” means to create, to craft. Fittingly, what the discussants addressed, investigated and encouraged was the kind of creation or craft that has special rootedness in a place or origin: How does a place shape literature? How does literature shape a place, or a group of people?

To help set conversations going on these issues, we had a number of international guests flying in specifically for the festival: Mia Alvar, Filipino-American author of “In the Country,” an acclaimed collection of short stories published by Knopf; Okky Madasari, one of Indonesia’s flourishing contemporary writers; Ondrej Neff, a popular science fiction author from the Czech Republic; Tina Narang of Scholastic India; and Noel King of Macquaire University in Australia. Neff was flown in by the Embassy of the Czech Republic in Manila headed by Ambassador Jaroslav Olsa, himself a consummate book lover. Neff’s compilation, “The Fourth Day to Eternity and other Stories,” translated into English and published by Anvil, was released especially for the festival.

Filipino authors joined them, as well as publishers led by NBDB governing board members Ani Almario, Karina Bolasco, Isagani Cruz and Ruel de Vera.

Ricky de Ungria, UP Mindanao professor, former chancellor and poet, and NBDB principal counterpart in Davao, organized a comprehensive two-day program that left many torn over which of the simultaneous sessions to attend. Young writer Julian dela Cerna served as his special assistant and as an extension of NBDB logistics for the event. The NBDB contingent from Manila led by executive director Graciela Mendoza-Cayton included the tireless, sleep-deprived staff: Rhia Aladin, Rhonnell Dacio, Ynna Embalmado, Camille Martinez, Debbie Nieto and Jason Tabinas. It does take a village to mount a festival of “Laláng” proportions.

The venue—Seda Hotel—was perfect and allowed us the use of the Abreeza Mall across the street for our opening and closing ceremonies and a book fair of Manila and Davao booksellers. Indeed, if people will not frequent bookstores, why not bring books to the places they frequent?

After all the literary talk, it was logical to have a Poetry Walk. At sundown, we went to the mall and made several stops at strategic spots to have poets from the Davao Writers Guild read their poems. It was a wonderful crowd-drawer, in the very same premises where the night before, the draw was the popular zumba class. Lively and memorable was the reading of guild president Jhoanna Cruz.

The highlight of the festival was the attendance of two distinguished women writers, both Davao residents—Tita Lacambra-Ayala, also a poet and painter, and Aida Rivera Ford.

Lacambra-Ayala, 84, was given a special award by the NBDB in recognition of her indie publishing efforts decades before the term was known. She has been consistently circulating collections of works by promising writers in whatever form that is convenient.

The question that now intrigues is: After Davao, where in the islands do we go next?

And who says books take on less significance with the onset of December? The NBDB concludes its literary events for the year with this afternoon’s 34th National Book Awards at the Old Senate Session Hall of the National Museum of Fine Arts on Padre Burgos Avenue, Rizal Park, Ermita. The program begins promptly at 5:30 p.m. Let us celebrate the best books published in 2014.

Neni Sta. Romana Cruz ( [email protected]) is chair of the National Book Development Board, a trustee of Teach for the Philippines, and a member of the Eggie Apostol Foundation.