By Aby Yap
“Kahit siguro ipagtabuyan mo ‘ko, hindi ako aalis dito sa tabi mo. Dito lang ako. You know why? It’s because no one else will love you like I do.” — ‘Ang Stalker ni Rafael’ by Camilla
For those who aren’t familiar with Tagalog romance pocketbooks, Camilla might be a complete stranger. But for those who own libraries upon libraries of these novels, she’s the fairy godmother of the lovelorn Pinay in search of Prince Charming, bringing the promise of happily ever after.
One of the most prolific writers in her genre, Camilla (real name Armine Rhea Mendoza), writes for today’s most popular Tagalog romance novel brand Precious Heart Romances (PHR). Published by Precious Pages Corporation since 1992, PHR has even recently conquered the television, its romance tales brought to life by movie stars.
Writing Tagalog romance novels for the past decade, Armine, who got her pen name from a lady warrior in Iliad, discloses she can produce 30 manuscripts a year. And it was all inspired by a great-aunt.
Her Nanay Binya, she recounts, “had a staggering collection of Tagalog romance books from every publication available during the ‘90s,” a time when Armine was already writing for a magazine. But when her cousin encouraged her to try Tagalog writing, she started “stealing” books from Nanay Binya’s library to study how they were written.
In two days, Armine completed her first manuscript. However, it was rejected by the publisher who offered her an editorial job instead, which she accepted. After a year, she quit to write full-time.
Her manuscript finally became a book then. Later, her “bunch of kooks,” as she describes her heroines like Karen Kerengkeng, was also born.
But while Camilla enjoys celebrity status, Armine, graduate of Ateneo and De La Salle Universities, knows too well how her so-called “commercial literature” is negatively perceived.
She shares amusingly, “When my best friend, also an Atenean-La Sallian, found out what I wrote for a living, she started teasing me, telling me my book titles are cheesy, copying the blurbs, and sending them to me via SMS. Then, she started telling our common friends that my other name is Camilla. I could only retort by saying that jologs Camilla earns better than they do—combined!”
Malou Medina, editor of My Special Valentine pocketbooks under Bookware Publishing Corporation, admits that 90% of their readers are 13- to 50-year-old females belonging to the C, D, and E markets. Consequently, their stories follow a strict romance formula, which requires happy endings, because it guarantees huge sales.
“It’s a form of escape. Majority of Filipinos are poor that we project our hopes and dreams onto the pocketbooks we read,” she explains. “That’s why bidas are all so good-looking, rich, and smart. They can’t die too.”
But it doesn’t mean that their stories all have the same damsel-in-distress and knight-in-shining-armor characters and rags-to-riches plots typical of romance novels.
“We’ve long moved on from these storylines because readers now want the protagonists to be palaban,” remarks Malou. “It’s the conflict between these characters that makes up for that kilig factor, so we inject interesting scenes, characters, dialogs, or new angles to old plots.”
Some readers—high school and college students, housewives, professionals—also submit manuscripts to them and get paid PhP4,000-PhP7,000 if accepted. Malou even recalls a male teenager from Mindanao who snail-mailed his 50-page back-to-back handwritten manuscript, which they published.
But while the Tagalog romance novels genre has a strong ground in the publishing industry, it still has major challenges to resolve. One is piracy, which isn’t at all exclusive to film and music.
“We’ve seen scanned copies of our pocketbooks concealed under different book covers, titles, and authors being sold in Divisoria,” Malou relates. “It’s a very alarming situation, but we’re taking up arms against book piracy.”
Writer Apple Masallo already has three published novels. Her ideas, she reveals, usually sprout from watching Asian TV series and cartoons, but most of her story scenes come from her own experiences or other people’s.
Apple began reading Tagalog romance novels in high school, when she used to read as many as five a day. She says she gained a lot from these: good entertainment, wider vocabulary, and relationship perspectives.
Since romance novel readers are mostly women, Apple believes the genre is unmistakably female. “Writers write what their women readers would appreciate, what could boost their female egos. Thus, the storyline wherein the hero goes crazy over a woman—that’s what’s kilig for us,” she opines.
Draftsman Paul Sevilla would rather keep his identity unknown, though, since no one knows that he writes. He originally intended to write suspense, action, and comedy, but the lack of market for these genres discouraged him. Thus, he settled for romance writing.
Very few men enjoy reading Tagalog romance novels, says Paul, so publishers require male writers to use female pseudonyms. He understands that female readers prefer female authors and that it’s women who know women best.
But he’s all out for indulging the readers’ expectations, Paul adds, especially since Tagalog romance novels just mirror the roles that women and men play in society, where the bida as a loving wife willing to sacrifice amuses the audience.
“Women are weaker and submissive, more likely to be housewives; while men are more powerful, smarter, and stronger. That’s the reality of life—it’s a man’s world,” he concludes.
Maria Teresa Cruz San Diego, aka Maia Jose and Tisha Nicole, knows the powerful potentials of her medium. Aside from authoring a hundred Tagalog romance novels for nearly two decades, Tessa is also a mentor-trainer for Star Cinema’s Basic Film Scriptwriting and a freelance writer-editor for local and international NGOs.
She remembers how venturing into this genre started out only as an experiment to expand her paycheck. After studying Tagalog romance pocketbooks, she came up with her first manuscript in three weeks. It was immediately published by Books for Pleasure Inc., which owns Valentine Romances, for which she wrote exclusively until it closed down in 2002.
Her bestsellers gave way to unthinkable plots like fantasy romance and crucial messages on political, ecological, and gender issues. For a women’s NGO, a series tackling prostitution, mail-order bride syndicates, and white slavery was released. A romance pocketbook that encourages mothers to participate in the government’s breastfeeding program also came out.
Tessa’s emphasis has always been respect for the readers. The challenge to the writer, she states, is to make the novels just as accessible, understandable, and enjoyable to a high school graduate as to a doctorate degree holder.
“Very few of our people read literary books. It’s a reality that there are more readers of Filipino romance novels,” she argues. “If all good writers stick to high literature, what’s left to the mass market readers but junk? We writers owe it to the readers to write for them and give them choices.”
Thus, as happy endings aren’t far from possible in real life, so is cooking up worthwhile romance literature peppered with the realities of love and life—one that’s truly Pinoy flavored. (This updated version first appeared in Ilustrado magazine.)