After three years, the 40th National Book Awards came back in full-force and onsite at the Manila Metropolitan Theater on May 13. Inspired by 1930s MET and art deco, writers, publishers, and book enthusiasts were clad in their best Filipiniana attire—eager to witness the recognition of books penned with the utmost care and skill.
Founded by the Manila Critics Circle (MCC) in 1982, and co-administered with the National Book Development Board (NBDB) starting in 2008, the National Book Awards (NBA) sought to give national recognition to the creative minds behind the most impactful and distinctive literary works. The support and appreciation for local literature overflowed, with the NBA having over 213 title nominations, spanning from the languages of Filipino, English, and Ilocano—the chosen featured language of this year’s cycle.
In an exclusive interview with The Benildean, Anthony John Balisi, the Director for Creative Programs and Professional Development, shared the tediousness and anticipation brought by the transition of the event from online to face-to-face. He defined the event to be bigger than the London Book Fair 2023 and the Frankfurter Buchmesse (Frankfurt Book Fair) that the organization previously participated in.
An unforgettable night
Aside from the awarding ceremony, the NBA featured a small display of award-winning books and a mini-book fair consisting of invited authors. Balisi also served as a curator for the display, stating that though there is no basis for a good or bad book, it would slowly become a gut feeling and a honed skill over time.
Balisi emphasized bringing an air of class and sophistication to the event, hence the chosen theme. Indeed, the invitation for cocktails and performances post-ceremony added extra flair. The UST String Quartet played their own renditions of classic Filipino songs, such as “Leron-leron Sinta” and “Bahay Kubo.” This was followed by a timely spoken-poetry performance about the fight of writers against ChatGPT, executed by the Linangan sa Imahen, Retorika, at Anyo (LIRA), a powerhouse organization in the field of Filipino poetry.
The grandness of the event was also marked by the increase in prizes. Since the NBA celebrated its 40th cycle this year, the winners’ prizes have been increased from ₱15,000 to ₱40,000. They plan to continuously increase this per benchmark year, as well as to feature more indie groups and diverse authors. Yearly, the NBA hopes for more participation and added recognition for the people within the industry.
From short stories to discussions on theology, the most prestigious line-up
The program officially began with the opening remarks by Dante Francis Ang II, Chair of the National Book Development Board. He called the NBA’s 40th cycle a testament to how far Philippine literature has come. Starting from the likes of Virgilio Almario, he outlined how far Filipino works have reached, and the significance they had in preserving our culture. Adding to that, he mentioned how the finalists for this year also reflected how intertwined the past, present, and future of Filipinos are.
“Books are the extension, material medium, of our development as humans and as a country. It is through this conviction that we at NBDB pledge to continue supporting our stakeholders. With the MCC and other partner organizations, the NBDB will keep working to bring the publishing industry to greater heights as we usher in a new era,” he concluded.
This was followed by a message from Dean Francis Alfar, Author and Chair of the Manila Critics Circle (MCC)—who also served as the host for the event. He reminisced about the origin of the MCC in 1981, describing it as a way for a quartet of readers to champion the rightful attention of the books closest to their hearts. With this, he also brought attention to the presence of Isagani Cruz, one of the founding chairs of the MCC.
Alfar also explained the selection process of finalists. Starting with a formal call for submissions, the category judges are then vetted and invited. For the first deliberations, the MCC and the category judges assessed all entries to determine the finalists. From there, the second deliberation consists of rereading all of the finalists before the MCC and category judges settle on a winner.
“To you, our co-readers and book-lovers, we share our passion of the written work,” Alfar ended.
Winners of the NBA were lushly packed with various authors, featuring topics spanning from a feminist tackling of assaults and transgression to eco-essays of threatened lands to a cookbook mixed with the essays of the inventor of banana ketchup. Authors, both young and old, coming from across the country, expressed their gratitude and shared tidbits of their works in their acceptance speeches.
From fictional works of short stories and poetry to non-fictional essays, prose, and media studies, a diverse range of writing subgenres was given acclaim in 29 categories.
Special citations were also given to works that did not win but had a tremendous impact in their respective fields. Namely, these were “More Tomboy, More Bakla than We Admit: Insights into Sexual and Gender Diversity in Philippine Culture, History, and Politics,” edited by Mark Blasius and Richard Chu, under the Elfren S. Cruz Prize for Best Book in Social Sciences; and “The Bicol River Basin Project: Development of Comprehensive Early Warning System for Agri-Fishery Communities in the Bicol River Basin” by Ricky P. Laureta, Ric Ryan H. Regalado, and Diomerl Edward B. Baldo under the Best Book in Science.
Additionally, a Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Ms. Maria Karino A. Bolasco, outgoing Director of the Ateneo de Manila University Press. This was awarded to her for her exemplary contribution to Philippine publishing.
The awarding ceremony came to a close with Ms. Charisse Aquino-Tugade, Executive Director of the NBDB, delivering the closing remarks. She stressed the importance of reminding people that “... The Filipino book is worth reading and that the Filipino author, artist, editor, and publisher is always worth supporting.”
The 40th year’s highlights and more to come
Ms. Aquino-Tugade emphasized the importance of having local authors, editors, and publishers be put at the centerfront.
"Not only is it timely to have it now, in a time where learning poverty issues, functional literacy issues. Now is really a high-time to just showcase what we have and showcase our greatness and creative labor, the creative capacity that is within all of us," Ms. Aquino-Tugade told The Benildean in an exclusive interview. She defined the present to be the high time for showcasing the greatness and creative labor within everyone. As a testament to this, this year marked the most number of nominees as well.
However, the NBA will not be the only major literary event this year. The Philippine Book Festival, a festival celebrating the great literary traditions and the minds behind them, will be coming this June 2 to 4.
Ms. Aquino-Tugade, who will also be serving as the Director for this, talked about how jam-packed the festival will be, with over 70 planned events. She stated that acclaimed authors, such as Ambeth Ocampo, Jericho Silvers, Ebay Ramos, and Nora Aunor, would be gracing the event with their presence.
“Let’s read our own. Let’s share our stories with the world… And go back to that really cool, awesome kind of love for reading,” Ms. Aquino-Tugade encouraged book enthusiasts and writers to keep the love and support strong—with one major way of expressing this being participation in such events.
Alfar also shared his hopes for the Filipino literary community, stating, “It has always been my hope that more and more books from more and more different voices are created and published and made available to more and more readers.”
As the event concluded, it put a (book)mark for this year’s NBA. However, there is still more to look forward to, brought on by the promise of exciting future events. As echoed during the speeches, strengthen the bonds of the literary community and make their presence louder by reading more works of local authors and advocating for more inclusivity and accessibility within the community.
To stay updated with the latest news within the literary scene, you may visit the National Book Development Board’s website.