New publishing house to revive forgotten gems of Philippine literature

Mara Sy-Coson: A Gunslinger for Philippine Literature

At first glance, it may seem like an odd analogy to compare Mara Sy-Coson and her new publishing venture to a gunslinger or sheriff in an Old Western. However, when you consider the similarities, the analogy becomes more apt.

In Westerns, a hired gunslinger would enter a hostile town of criminal elements, facing insurmountable odds in the hope of bringing peace and order for the regular townsfolk. Similarly, Mara's first venture is the publishing house Exploding Galaxies, whose quixotic vision is to revive and reprint forgotten gems of Philippine literature. This is a genre that is niche in the best of times, and she is doing so with physical books, when all anyone wants to talk about is how it is the digital age.

Mara Sy-Coson and the first published book of Exploding Galaxies.

So forgive me for thinking Mara is a cause that richly deserves our support, and that we should applaud her for daring to establish a business that has the odds stacked against it. Is it a passion project, or a serious business venture - or a blend of both? Mara readily confesses that it is definitely a passion project; but she’s also cautiously optimistic that this may in fact be the very best time to launch this project, and champion these ‘lost’ potential classics of Filipino literary fiction.

The Exploding Galaxies press is set to launch on June 10th with a new edition of Wilfrido Nolledo’s postmodernist novel, "Just for the Lovers." The novel was first published in 1970 in the United States by Dutton, and then reprinted in 1994 by the prestigious Dalkey Archive Press with a foreword by Nolledo’s mentor Robert Coover. This will be the first Philippine edition of a novel that was then hailed as one of the most remarkable novels about World War II set in the Pacific theater. In Dickensian fashion, it chronicles the lives and survival of a broad cross-section of Filipinos during the Japanese Occupation and the American Liberation historical periods.

Considered a cult and underground favorite abroad, it shifts from fever-dream hallucinatory lyricism, to documentary social realism. It’s bawdy and funny, then dares us to keep our eyes open with savage imagery of rape, degradation, and the horrors of war. It has been described as a complex exploration of language, history and mythology. And I’ll be the first to confess I have not read this novel; and profusely thank Mara for creating this Philippine edition.

Wilfrido ‘Ding’ Nolledo.

Nolledo passed away in 2004. For over two years, Mara had lengthy discussions with his widow and family, who live in Los Angeles. She was securing the publishing rights for the Philippines and the rest of the world (except the USA and Canada), from the estate. The book has a foreword by Gina Apostol and an introduction by Audrey Carpio. I mentioned Robert Coover earlier. He was one of Ding Nolledo's mentors during his stint as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Iowa in 1996.

Mara's game plan for Exploding Galaxies is to publish four to six books a year. She wants readers to rediscover the joy of holding a book in their hands, and to experience the tactile, olfactory, and visual pleasures of reading. She and Don Jaucian, the editor of Exploding Galaxies, will select works to revive and publish based on their own subjective criteria. Whether they find the works by chance, through crowd-sourcing, or in second-hand bookstores, they are always looking for the unearthed, undiscovered masterpiece that they know must be shared with the world.

Mara also reveals that the second book of Exploding Galaxies will be "The Three-Cornered Sun," written by Linda Ty-Casper. Written in 1979, the events of the novel take place during the 1896 Revolution, inspired by the anecdotes and stories that Linda recalls from her grandmother. Linda is now in her early 90’s and lives in Massachusetts.

Mara recalls Fitzcarraldo Editions, an independent British publishing house that consistently published literary fiction and long-form essays that resonated with her. She found their work to be so consistently good that she knew that she would enjoy and admire most anything in their catalog. If there is a standard that Mara and Exploding Galaxies aspire to for Philippine literary works, Fitzcarraldo would be close to setting that standard.

Exploding Galaxies is still in its early days, and it is too early to say how the reading public will react to Nolledo's work. In a time when self-help, beauty, home interiors, fashion, and food books seem to be the more popular genres, it seems that Mara and her publishing house have a steep uphill climb ahead of them. However, the nobility of their endeavor is beyond doubt, and I will be cheering them on from the sidelines, ever ready to purchase their books. I hope you will do the same. Filipino literary talent that has been ignored for decades should not be a lost cause, but a cause for celebration and renewal.