“I am the place in which something has occurred.”—Claude Lévi-Strauss, The Savage Mind
It was a maverick idea, though not primitive, but on the whole fierce, rebellious, raw like some force of nature.
Savage: Its old French term sauvage, from the ancient Latin silvaticus, takes us back to the untamed ferocity and torrid seasons of the woods. Or, in another sense, it is child-like wonder, but on the same cone as l’enfant terrible.
When I first got wind of the Savage Mind Bookshop, the hopelessly radical bookworm in me wanted to fly off to Bicol and lose no time ravaging its shelves. It’s not that there is something immediately and obviously outer-worldly about this book shop as to trigger the voracious in anyone, book nerds aside.
The thrill that goes with visiting Savage Mind Bookshop lies in one of its owners: Kristian Sendon Cordero—esteemed author, poet, translator, filmmaker, fierce advocate of Bikolandia literature and deputy director of the Ateneo de Naga University Press. The feathers in his cap speak for themselves, and I would assume, his choices of books to put on display.
There is something about a fellow book lover owning a bookshop which thrills me to no end. Only a handful of people come to mind. It was only with brittle resolve that I chose to stay in Manila, to one day look forward to what I would call my fait accompli, had it not been for my day job as editor and journalist.
But then, why not? I asked myself. An interview. It’s as juicy a story as any that hogs the headlines these days. In today’s world where reading is deemed a chore, and learning largely a waste of time, there has to be a hamlet which Claude Lévi-Strauss described as “in which something has occurred.”
Bookshops and libraries are the brainstems of civilization. Savage Mind Bookshop takes this a notch higher by being the capital city of divergence and convergence, sitting right in the very strata of the agora of ideas. Here the silent and the subversive, the supple and savage, agree to disagree.
It is here that creator and creation merge into one seamless whole.
PHILIPPINES GRAPHIC: The name Savage Mind reminds me of the book penned by Claude Lévi-Strauss—“The Savage Mind”—which the author described in its Preface as “complete in itself.” It’s a very appropriate description for a bookshop aiming to be a literary and cultural hub. How did you come up with the idea?
KRISTIAN SENDON CORDERO: The original plan was to name this complex Peninsulares since we are located in the Peninsula St. of Naga City. But Randy Dagooc, my business partner, who is also one of my active collaborators in filmmaking, suggested that it should rather be the name of the whole complex, which we will slowly develop into an art and culture hub in the Bikol region.
He named the restaurant and the co-working space/café PNNSVLA (Peninsula). We decided to drop Peninsulares, because we do not want to be mistaken for a Spanish restaurant.We already have QuePasa, Soledad and Casa Soriano in Naga City. I also like the idea that the whole complex is called Peninsula, because Bikol is a peninsula. Some people have also started calling the whole complex the ‘Pen’ and we like it.
For the bookshop, I consulted my two good friends, the film critic Tito Valiente and Atty. Dan Adan, who is also a gifted writer, and they immediately agreed with me that the bookshop be called Savage Mind, especially Tito, because Lévi-Strauss is considered a leading figure in cultural anthropology.
I like the idea of putting the words ‘savage’ and ‘mind’ together. When we think of the mind, we immediately think of reason, of logic, or order, but that is not the case always, or that is not the case at all. Surely, the mind is also the site of our irrationalities and irregularities, which, for me, are greater sources of our creative powers. I also happened to collect so many things ranging from pottery from Tiwi, Albay, to some little wood and clay figurines from the places I visited, and used these as part of our interior design.
Like human beings, I guess, books, films, and artworks have their own savage personalities as well. We wish to offer a space for encounter, for convergence of these different personalities and distinct voices. The Savage Mind aims to provide this kind of space that allows people to come as they are with their personal backgrounds.
We wished for a place of divergences and convergences.We are thankful to the Lirag Family who allowed us to make use of their ancestral house and convert it into a house of dreams.
Savage Mind also comes off as having a “rebellious” ring to it, at once raw and well-nigh untouched by civilization. How unique, or rather, how does the bookshop stand out when compared with other book shops, say, in Naga or Manila?
The Bikol region has always been identified with key opposition, they say. The resistance against Marcos in the region is something that many people would invoke as a source of pride and encouragement for the Bikolano youth to continue this kind of political resistance.
I think it is time that this spirit of resistance should be raised unto another level.
The resistance should not just be limited to political participation. I consider the work that we do, be it in literature or cinema, as a kind of resistance against the dominant thinking that still continues to privilege the English language against the local languages. Hence, I would like to continue to write and produce works in the languages of Bikol while at the same time bring the literary works I have read and which have influenced me into our local languages, which include the Tagalog and Filipino.
I would like to see this rebellious spirit in the books and films that we produce and consume. It is high time that the Bikol language be freed from the dominant discourse of the local Catholic Church and the media that remains controlled or supported by ruling political elites.
I am excited to see novels and cinemas that will be have a new mode of temperament, a new phasing, a new way of telling our stories and struggles.
I am aware that there are people who do not share my politics and my poetics—I cannot blame them, after all these kind of people would have something to say against you—but I will not be deterred by labels and opinions by these unimportant groups.
I would continue to seek areas and opportunities for me to come to terms with the thing that I hold dearly, and that is the province of my imagination, incarnated within the languages where I choose to dwell.
Don’t you consider putting up a book shop to be a rather risky endeavor in the day and age of e-books and digital gadgets like the Kindle? To you, what does the future hold for the physical book in this country?
I like taking risks. I like going out of the conventions. It has become part of my constitution, and I guess that is also part of the constant reinvention I accord myself. Being risky and compulsive is the same thing with filmmaking and, as a result, I lost some friends and their trust, and personal money.
In this bookshop, our main target is for people to have an alternative space aside from the noisy cafes that you now see in the city.
Naga has two Booksale outlets and two National Bookstores. Both are frequented by many people, either for their school supplies or for the usual popular titles like the books of Sidney Sheldon and Dan Brown. We want to introduce these people to new writers and new materials. There is a real danger if people read the same books and watch the same films.
For a small city like Naga, we now have six Jollibees and four Mcdonald’s, and God knows how many more are coming with all these malls sprouting all over the place! I guess one independent bookshop would not hurt that bad for the city to realize that there’s more to life than eating fast food meals and drinking those expensive coffees.
I don’t think we should limit ourselves to the digital format, despite the allure that technology brings to us. Physical books are here to stay and would be constantly revived, if ever.
Also, to reduce our discussion to this clash between [physical] books and e-books is to forget that we are in country where many schoolchildren do not have books and textbooks for their instruction.
We can turn them into potential collaborators if we expose them to the books that would help them rekindle a new sense of pride in being Bikolanos. Imagine the sense of identity they would discover if they begin reading the classics in their own local languages. We take pride that, in Savage Mind, we have this special section dedicated to translation in Philippine languages like Filipino and Bikol. Most of the books here are published by the Komisyon sa Wikang Filipino, the Ateneo de Naga University Press and the Ina nin Bikol Foundation. We have copies of the Bikol translation of “The Little Prince” by Antoine de Saint Exupery and Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet.” We are anticipating the release of Bikol adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland” and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”
I am challenged by the fact that the few people who can actually buy books are the ones who don’t consider books as part of their needs. Filipinos are [among] the frequent users of social media in the world, but that is not the same as reading a book.
I think what we need today is to have more events, fellowships and gatherings where good books and excellent authors and artists can be highlighted as part of our local community. We also have to raise the bar of what it means to be a good writer in a local language. It does not mean that one who writes in the Bikol language is automatically good and deserves our respect.
At the same time we need to reinforce our mother tongue-based language education by encouraging writers to write materials for our children and young adults. We can also try translating other children’s stories from other world literatures into our local languages.
It should not always be about the local dishes and the same legends about flora and fauna.
We can learn a lot by engaging with all other cultures and we can begin with our neighboring regions. In fact, here at Savage Mind, we have a special section dedicated to writings from the regions.
Books written in Sebwano or Waray are available here because it would be good for Bikolanos to know more about the other nearby regions. I hope the regions will also have space for the Bikolano writers in their “spaces.”
I guess with the advent of new printing technology, more small and independent presses would join the foray, and this is a good thing because it may signal, as well, the beginning of independent bookstores in this country. Hence, we need to create a new middle-class economy that will consider books as a basic human necessity, so we can support these endeavors.
The study of culture and literature makes for what seems like a dime a dozen topics and issues that are less likely to interest students and youngsters today. How do you plan on drawing in a younger crowd?
Young people are curious and adventurous. We do not need to attract them. They will find us. I have the highest respect for this next generation and I guess they will be the ones who would help us make this shop survive, considering that our bookshop will be part of their youth.
The greater challenge is for the parents and teachers to review their priorities in terms of educating these children. Savage Mind will offer alternative class programs, which we wish to offer to our public and private schools in Naga.
We are also launching programs called ‘Tuesdays with Papay and Mamay,’ an event dedicated to senior citizens in Naga. The elders are invited to come as guests of the bookshop and would be asked to tell stories to the young people in the audience.
We will also have two clubs, which we will call the Bad Poets Society and the Bat Film Circle. There used to be a lot of bats in this old house. Students and professionals will be asked to register and, with an annual membership fee, they will be given free access to our book and film collection. They will get free writing workshops, entrance to our screenings, exhibits, and other art-related events.
As deputy director of the Ateneo de Naga University Press, it is safe to assume that books, language and the profession of writing have been a major part of your everyday life. To lend method to the madness of adding culture as a prime directive in running Savage Mind, what hurdles do you think you’d be facing? Top of mind, please share at least three problems and the corresponding solutions.
I think we will need a larger space in the future but I am taking things slowly. In three or five years let us see if we can expand this concept in Legazpi City. Or maybe I can take this out of the city and build a writers and artists’ village in the mountains, with a gallery and a bookshop.
Meanwhile, we maximize the use of our space and develop loyalty among the people who support this kind of undertaking. Savage Mind will also produce its own books and educational materials in the coming months.
People would always look for something new. We need to publish more books. We wish to have the books we ourselves would love to read and share.
While printing is still costly, we plan to use our connection with the European embassies and other private institutions in publishing our books of translations so we can distribute them for free, especially in the public schools.
We need more schools and institutions to include us in their plan of activities so we can also sustain our operations. We need active partners in the community and we hope the new leadership in Naga City will support these kinds of creative pursuits.
Once I heard F. Sionil Jose talk about the distinguished senators and justices who would come to visit his small bookshop in Ermita and would buy most of his books. I hope I can see the same thing in Naga that people who hold power and influence would start reading our books, especially those authored by Bikolano writers. I still have to see this coming and I hope this happens very, very soon.
Let’s talk literature and country: As author and deputy director of an academic press, your promotion of Bicolano literature is pretty well known. Also, your translation of foreign classical literature, particularly those written by Jorge Luis Borges and authors from the Czech Republic, to say little of your successful engagements in film featuring Bicol’s famous daughter, superstar Nora Aunor, came to the attention of several literary and filmmaking communities all over the country. Now a bookshop, which will also serve as a literary/cultural hub in the very heart of Bicolandia. What specific purpose would all these efforts serve in a country infamous for its lackadaisical treatment of good literature in general, and whose political and economic life mirrors that of the Sick Man of Asia?
We have to be optimistic despite this darkening scenario that pervades in the public spheres, especially in the media. Here at Savage Mind, one is welcomed by this phrase, Collige Omnes Spes Vos Qui Intratis, Magrimposnin Paglaum Kamo Na Digdi Madagosor—‘Gather All Hopes All You Who Enter Here.’ If Dante’s “Inferno” is about abandoning hope, here we did a little change. We can gather as much hope as possible because that I think it is the value of books and cinema in our lives. Art offers a certain kind of hope.
If we speak about resistance and rebellion, we cannot not talk about hope. During my college days in the seminary, I got this book by Rosemary Mahoney, “The Singular Pilgrim: Travels on Sacred Ground.” It says that hope ‘is the most tender of human emotions. It has no guarantee, it requires bravery, and makes the soul vulnerable and when dashed it can inflict the gravest wounds.’
As for the region where all your efforts are bearing fruit—Bicol—what are your expectations? Any solid timeline for these expectations?
We plan to produce more books of translations and involve our immediate communities in the works of translation.
Teachers are our allies and we hope to involve them in many of our programs, especially the alternative class programs. We will offer short courses on creative writing and translation workshops starting June for a minimal fee.
Art sessions and exhibits will also be held here. Short videos featuring Bikol scholars and cultural workers will be produced by our team, so we can continue to involve our public in discourses.
Some people would call this a renaissance period in the Bikol literary art scene. I used to like the term, but I now I have serious doubts about it. This is too far from a renaissance. We still have to write and produce Bikol novels and Bikol films. We also need a new breed of Bikol scholars, musicians, historians, anthropologists and scientists.
We need to do the large strokes, and not be contented with these lyrics and tigsiks we love to turn into our regional representations.
Yes, there is something to celebrate, but we still have to do more in terms of education and cultural work. We have to stop exoticizing ourselves as Bikols. We have to think of a larger world out there and connect with them.
I am hoping that more writers who are not Bikolanos would write about Bikol and maybe Bikolanos should also explore writing beyond the Mayon Volcano or the Peñafrancia Festival. We hope to publish science fiction and graphic novels in Bikol.
Do you believe that Bikolanos in particular will be receptive and open to such ideas as the formation of a cultural and literary hub in the region? Do you believe in promoting your ideas to other regions?
I think the Bikolanos are receptive to this kind of endeavor. Although most are nostalgic when it comes to language, we can start from there and proceed to other agendas. Now, we get visitors who come from as far as Masbate and Catanduanes, the two island provinces of the region. As someone who is identified as a Bikol writer, I think it is time that writers from the regions must learn from each other.
In Naga, we keep telling our audience of the need to know about these writers from other parts of the Philippines. This coming August, we will have a small art festival focusing on Waray literature and cinema. A renewed sense of the nation will hopefully emerge out of these convergences.
In similar ways, we need to know more about writers from our neighboring regions, like Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore, among others. We have to see that these regional identities, more than a geophysical category, are also a cultural network that we can forge and develop.
In another interview, you described yourself as l’enfant terrible of Bikol writings, concluding that “Savage Mind is the fulfillment of this terribleness.” In your opinion, how important is Bicolandia literature to a country like ours struggling with our right to free expression? What can readers expect of its “terribleness” and how can that terribleness help?
It was the poet/translator Marne Kilates who first called me l’enfant terrible of Bikol writings sometime in 2007. I was a very young man then with so much anger and guts against my perceived opponents. I was reckless too. Once I posted in social media a short critique against a colleague’s work, which I perceived to be intellectually insufficient and the university suspended me for one year because they reached a decision that I violated a certain code of ethics in the university.
During those months I got suspended, I was able to finish my second film with Nora Aunor and translated Franz Kafla’s “The Metamorphosis,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray,” and Jorge Luis Borges’ selected poetry in Bikol and Filipino. While I do not regret posting that critique, I guess I have come to my senses that the university is not the most ideal place where you get the most inspiring people who can help you navigate the rigors of academic or intellectual life. It is far from that.
In fact, the university is teeming with people whose only mission in life is to maneuver and keep their little powers within their reach. It is more concerned about its number of enrollment, rather than developing and charting new courses that will produce creators and not passive second-level managerial workers.
Now that I am past 30, I think of this terribleness as being a perpetual outsider. I would like to continue charting new opportunities and new projects that would put our very concepts of ourselves to the test. I would like to see how this spectrum will grow in me and, at the same time, I want to keep this personal space within myself that, despite these many things that I do as a deputy press director, as a writer/translator, as filmmaker and now as bookshop manager, I would like keep that little child in me, the boy whose sense of writing was conditioned by the fact that his parents had to work abroad as a domestic helper and a security guard. That kind of separation has given me a certain kind of restlessness , a kind of terribleness, that remains to be punctuated and pained by distances and desires both physical and metaphysical.
Some artists argue that government support for literature and the arts is unwelcome due to the risk of control or censorship. What is your off-the-cuff opinion about government support in the area of literature, film and culture? Do you consider it important?
We need to critically engage and work with the government agencies that are mandated by the same state to finance art and cultural projects. Our state cultural agencies are in place—yes, there are weak areas—the system is not perfect, especially since some of these posts are still given as a result of political favors.
We still have to do a lot of decentralization. We need to see that politics is always transactional. Hence, we need to strategize as we bring our agenda to the very system that we hope we can change, and these include government agencies including the state universities and the Department of Education, which continue to exert tremendous influence on our people.
I have my own fair share of being censored and it is such an awful and extremely undesirable situation. In 2013 our first film, Angustia, got an R-18. Some scenes were cut and, at that time, I was clueless and helpless. There were very few people who came to help us. Artists should always find ways to deal with these issues, either as an individual or a collective. We are stronger when we are united. Regrettably, most people are just taking the fights in their social media accounts and today even the ways our opinions are formed have become so instant and cheap that you realize that the most pretentious are the first to voice out wrong opinions.
Of late, there has been a resurgence of smaller, secondhand bookshops all over the country, including street sellers and online vendors of physical books. What is the future of the bookshop in the era of cyberspace in our country? Do you think it has a fighting chance?
Yes, books have to move around in this country like a regular trade. We need to optimize the use of this available technology to exchange books from region to region.
In Savage Mind, we tell our readers that there are no second-hand books, only new readers. And we place these books along with the “brand new.” We also remove the usual plastic covers attached to the books. We want people to browse, and look at our books, to discover the pictures inside them and recognize certain things that may help them recall a happy instance or recognize a familiar work.
I like getting books that were previously owned by another human being, or disposed of by a public library. Are we not excited when we get books previously owned by another person?
This is something that the digital copy cannot have. Lately, some writers like Tito Valiente, Danton Remoto and Jaroslav Olsa, Jr. have consigned or donated their books with us, so we are also putting a special section for these writers who are willing to let go of their books.
We want to cultivate a new community of readers that think of books as houses of dreams that they can inhabit.
Culling from experience as deputy director of a publishing house, author, translator and filmmaker, what do you think the future holds for regional art?
Having been involved publishing and filmmaking and, now, with Savage Mind, I think it’s time we rethink what regional art is and, even, what we consider as national.
Is it something about the place of origin that gives a regional identity to a work? Is it a driving force that gathers and pushes artists and writers to define their identities and affinities? What about having Bikol-Kapampangan writings, since both regions are volcanic and Catholic? Will translation allow that to happen? Or will cinema pave the way in articulating these conjectures we have not yet considered?
I have no easy answers for these things. Clearly, we must stop thinking that regions and the nation is a binary. It is not the case, I believe. I am more interested in the works of translation and transnational.
While I would like to be identified with Bikol, I am also excited to see how these notions of the Bikolano would change as we try to forge new frontiers and chart new directions especially in the works of translation and cinema. G