Talk: Reading and Teaching Filipino Chick Lit and Contemporary Romance (for Sari-Sari/AdMU)
Sharing with you all my script for the lecture Reading and Teaching Filipino Chick Lit and Contemporary Romance (Like You Care, Like You Mean It, Like You Respect It). This was developed after, let’s admit, several Twitter and Facebook rants about how our books are being taught in schools. Thank you to the Filipino Department of the Ateneo de Manila University for having me! I prepared this for the lecture, recorded on Zoom and broadcast on Radyo Katipunan, and read this mostly verbatim. A Q&A (no transcript available) followed, where questions were in a mix of Filipino and English, and my answers were a mix of languages too. Part 1 of our recording was broadcast on April 14. And here it is on YouTube.
Hello, my name is Mina V. Esguerra and I am here to talk about reading and teaching Filipino Chick Lit and Contemporary Romance, Like You Care Like You Mean It Like You Respect It. I am a romance author and publisher. My first book was published in 2009. Since then I have written and published 25 standalone books mainly in the subgenre of contemporary romance, in English, and my work often features Filipino characters.
My background: my degrees are AB Comm, Ateneo de Manila University and Masters in Development Communication, University of the Philippines. Before releasing my first book I had already worked 10 years in editorial and web publishing, including a career as a consultant tasked to build international online communities for development. I’ve been a published author for 12 years. I’ve been a publisher of romance books for 11 years. I founded the writing community #RomanceClass 8 years ago, and my latest “job” is that I am now a media adaptation agent, representing books written with the romanceclass community, by Filipino authors.
Before I proceed I am going to define some terms that I will be using. When I say chick lit, I mean that the book has a female main character and the plot is about her life, her goals, her happiness.
When I say Filipino chick lit, the main character of the book is Filipino but it may be written in English. When I say Filipino contemporary romance the main characters are Filipino and the main plot is romance, but the book may be written in English.
When I talk about romance, it means that the book has romance as its main plot. Not subplot, not accompanying plot, but the main plot. And it has a required “happy ending” meaning the characters choose each other in the end. In the industry that has been called “emotional justice.”
The 21st Century Contemporary Philippine Literature modules I’ve seen have featured my book under “Chick Lit” which is no longer relevant if it means the candy-colored genre of books released in the early 2000s, because Philippine publishers have stopped publishing this entire genre. When invited to speak at a DepEd teacher training session for Senior High School at PNU in 2017, I talked about this and said that to keep this part of the module current, they’ll need to consider contemporary romance and young adult, which is what publishers and authors of chick lit moved on to by 2012.
Now most of us write romance. I founded a romance writing community in 2013, and it’s called #romanceclass. Since then we’ve helped over 80 Filipino authors write and publish over 100 books. We write in English and we sell these books in print and digital and audio, available to a worldwide audience.
Romance is a billion-dollar industry worldwide, with a readership in the reported millions. In the Philippines, we have a readership in the hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions. We can know this because reports are available: book sales, surveys, and analytics from sites like Wattpad. In 2020, during lockdown, I released a new book and experienced my best ever release day numbers. In 2020, My Wattpad account gained 24,000 new followers, most of them following me during ECQ. In terms of books written, books sold, and books read, romance by Filipino authors is thriving and I see that in every publishing space that I’m present in. The genre and its authors deserve a place in the study of 21st Century Philippine Literature. We also deserve respect.
For a romance reader and writer the disrespect can be avoided if you join the right communities, which is why we’ve formed ours and keep it as welcoming and safe as we can. The disrespect we routinely experience is coming from classrooms, and all connected to it. It’s in class discussions where people routinely discuss the validity of a genre they obviously don’t read. It’s in writers workshops where romance authors are not invited to submit romance. It’s in awards where there are no romance categories or romance doesn’t get to compete. It’s in faculties where no one teaches or specializes in romance scholarship. It’s in class assignments where books are chosen for convenience rather than content, and copies are not provided. It’s in modules where the activity doesn’t require reading, but a report that “predicts the ending”—because they don’t intend to supply the full book or even read it. What’s the point?
…Am I expecting too much? If you teach this differently, and you actually already care, and respect the work, then thank you. It’s possible that I’m seeing the worst version of this because I attend these events and often have to hear the complaining about popular literature, and I write a popular genre. Maybe it’s because I’m also seeing it from my email inbox, when students email me asking for help with their assignments. I used to think they were lazy, but after a while I noticed that the requests were too similar. One common request was “What’s the ending of My Imaginary Ex?” That’s my book, and that question was sent to me more than once. I have a Google Alert for my book title and that question appeared in online forums where students crowdsource answers for their homework. That led me to find at least two schools using modules where indeed, there was 1 chapter of my book and then an assignment to “predict the ending.” Because the book was never intended to be provided or read. I don’t know if the teachers have read it. I am currently the only publisher of My Imaginary Ex, and I have not received any order from any school that apparently is teaching my book to their senior high school students.
Is it too much, to expect that a school have a copy of a book they’ve included in their subject? To expect that the teachers at least know how it ends—because there’s no need to “predict an ending” in a romance. Knowing the genre’s definition gives you the ending. What is there to predict? Is this an unreasonable thing to ask for?
Apart from my own personal experience, there is a documented disrespect of the romance and chick lit genres, and people have suggested strongly that it’s because it is associated with women writers. If the genres are included in a course about Philippine literature, and people teaching it feel that they can even though they haven’t read it or studied it, then that is a problem, because you might NOT be qualified to teach it. Maybe other genres have this problem, and we can find solutions today to build capacity for not just my genre but others too. I don’t actually expect every single literature teacher to be a romance genre expert, but there are ways to help.
Some of my suggestions, if you are not an expert:
Choose books with intention. I have 25 published books, and the book of mine that is included in modules for several schools is not what I would have chosen as a representative text for Filipino Chick Lit. I believe it was chosen out of convenience, or the original module author’s familiarity with it, and I’m thankful for the inclusion but it’s not what I would recommend as an impactful and representative book. I know many good books and I am willing to give everyone who asks a list, based on your goals for your class and their age group.
Understand the genre. I mentioned at the beginning the basics of chick lit, and romance. It would be great if that was how every discussion starts—so people are not studying books looking for things that it’s not meant to have.
Recognize the gaps in material you’ve been given. I am willing to provide or find recommendation lists, copies of books, speakers, workshops. We can try to do this in a way that is least stressful. My community has pre-recorded author talks, some of us have put entire books free on Wattpad, or can provide copies and discussion questions. Students don’t have to email us asking for copies or answers.
I also have some suggestions for the activities and discussion section of this course, because again I find it useless to ask students to “predict the ending” of a book that actually HAS an ending. There are other discussion questions that also miss the point. For example:
Can you relate to the main character? This kind of question invites judgment and moralizing. Our books are known for its focus on relationships and empathy. Maybe, let’s teach it with empathy. It’s better to ask students HOW and IN WHICH WAYS they relate to the main characters. Similarities rather than differences and judgments.
Was the main character selfish? If the book is chick lit, and the main character is a woman, who as defined by the genre is on her own personal journey, in discussions it never fails to come up that she is being “selfish.” Again, please remember that these books were written with the intention of exploring a woman’s choices. Make your classroom a space of safety and empathy when discussing these books.
Was there too much romance? A grad student did a paper on me, and asked me to send her a selection of my books. I did that, and she got back to me saying did I have anything that didn’t have too much romance. She noticed my books had too much romance. I am…a romance author. When a book fulfills its genre requirements, then it does that. When it doesn’t, then it’s a failure. I hope we’re not disrespecting books that actually fulfill their main goal—hoping that it fails its genre to be liked by you misses the point.
When we get stuck on basic basic topics then we don’t have time for more interesting ones. I’ll give you examples of some better discussion points right now. How about:
Is this man a romance hero, or just a decent human being? Can we tell the difference?
Is this true love, or do they have no other choice in an abusive environment?
Is this an empowered choice, or only a fulfillment of unfair obligations?
Who is the villain of this story, and what does this say about the power structures in our lives? What does the story say about giving in, or fighting back?
This is just a few of the many, many more interesting discussions we can have once we treat chick lit and romance books with respect. This part of the study of 21st century Philippine Literature can be an exciting, wonderful space to discuss books that are very accessible and loved and are about issues of identity, coming of age, sex, the patriarchy, family obligations, society’s expectations, functional relationships, mental health, and so much more. These are things that matter so much to your students, that’s why they’re the largest demographic for our books everywhere, all the time. I also teach and hold workshops, but mostly outside of this particular classroom setting, but as I said, I’m willing to help make things better and easier. I’m glad to have been invited here today and will take your questions and requests if you have them.