“What does it mean to be a Filipino, and what is a meaningful basis for taking pride in the nation,” asks Gideon Lasco in the introduction to his new book, “The Philippines Is Not a Small Country” (Ateneo de Manila University Press, Quezon City, 2020, 234 pages). “What is our place in the world—and how should we envision a future we can all share?”
Lasco, 34, has demonstrated a gifted writing style, proven not only by a Palanca Award in the Essay in English but in his outspoken, highly opinionated column in the Inquirer, the pithily titled “Second Opinion.” But Lasco is also a medical doctor (Intarmed at the University of the Philippines College of Medicine), research fellow (Ateneo) and an anthropologist (PhD from the University of Amsterdam).
“The Philippines Is Not a Small Country” contains parts of essays Lasco wrote for the Inquirer over five years but he has built a narrative around those essays that is divided into seven digestible chapters.
In “Country,” Lasco deconstructs the Philippines to show how it “is as vast as it is beautiful.” In “Nation,” he talks about how the Philippines is “a young country” and how Filipinos need more empathy to deal with life. “Culture” talks about the social constructs that make up our unique worldview.
In “People,” he explores the spectrum of marginalized individuals who make up the population. “Technology” and “Modernity,” wired together, essentially comment on how both have changed Filipino society for good or ill. And the final chapter, “World,” literally discusses our place in the world, how the country is not apart but a part of the larger community.
Polished, but accessible
Lasco’s writing is polished and impressive but “The Philippines Is Not a Small Country” is no rah-rah jingoist volume. It is a reflection of a flawed and complex people, how we became that way, and that, pointed in the right direction, the country has much to look forward to.
It’s good that he knows how to do it in such an accessible fashion. Lasco cuts up the narrative into interesting, often funny but also insightful bite-sized pieces. Take the sections where he discusses “Bawal Umihi Dito,” our obsession with height, Instagramming food, why nobody tells bedtime stories anymore.
In the final chapter, he has a beautiful essay that ends: “We begin to overcome the feeling of smallness that sets back our geopolitical imagination. What our past should give us is not an enmity for those who oppressed us but an empathy for those who experienced oppression. What our past should give us is neither a feeling of victimization nor entitlement but a dignity of a people that has suffered much—but has overcome more.”
But he’s been writing throughout all that intense studying. “I’ve been scribbling essays since high school as part of school papers; I managed to publish in the much-sought-after Young Blood column on both ends of my medical training.”
Lasco started contributing regularly to the Opinion section in 2015. In fact, he is already an author. “In 2016, I published a hiking guidebook titled ‘Dayhikes and Nature Walks from Manila,’ but this is my first book as a writer of national affairs.”
Additionally, his unique combination of disciplines (writer/medical doctor/anthropologist) gives him an advantage: “Being a doctor I think makes me sensitive to health issues, while being an anthropologist makes me conscious of the need to bring out not just my perspective, but those of the people I encounter.”
But to get to those seven chapters, Lasco didn’t sit in his room and reflect on the nature of nationhood—he went out there and traveled from province to province to experience what his fellow Filipinos are experiencing. It has not been all thrills and discoveries.
“I guess the saddest—if not the most shocking—thing is that some of the things I wrote in 2016 or 2017 could have been written today, almost word for word, especially as regards political issues like the drug war, corruption and our divisive politics. I hope that 10 years from now, when we look back, we would have made some progress, and that we need not defend fundamental matters like human rights.”
He wanted to compile his columns but also make a book agile enough to still be relevant. He broached the idea of Karina Bolasco, Ateneo Press director, at a 2018 conference in Hiroshima. He worked hard on the book and Ateneo Press continued to work on it through the COVID-19 pandemic.
There were insights that he came to possess from writing the book. “Acknowledging the complexity of the Filipino should always be the starting point for thinking, and writing, about them,” he said.
In his recent columns, Lasco has been outspoken about his criticism of how the government has been handling the different crises the Filipinos have faced. How then to solve those problems?
“It is indeed an impossible question but part of the answer is justice: We have not really held our leaders and their enablers accountable, allowing them to escape, lie low and then resurface to do more mischief. In my essay ‘Memory as resistance,’ I stress the importance of fine-grained memory because tyranny is not built by one man alone; it takes a village.”
He also emphasizes that we must not lose hope. “Some of our leaders’ actions and inaction can drive us to despair but we have Filipinos from all walks of life trying their best to do good in this difficult time: from entrepreneurs to medical front-liners.”
He has new books lined up: “a more academic book about the meanings of human stature, as well as an edited volume on drug use, the drug war and drug policy in the country. And I really hope I can write about my hikes.”
“The Philippines Is Not a Small Country” is an intelligent, accessible and actually funny book about what it means to be Filipino—even though it’s a complicated answer. Gideon Lasco makes it easy for you—but you still have to answer the question, as he did in the introduction: “I was especially mindful of young Filipinos, many of whom are unsure as to what the future brings, uncertain as to what to make of their national identity, and unclear as to how to critically engage with our nation’s problems. Ultimately, my earnest wish is that these essays will convey the fact that, indeed, the Philippines is not a small country, and despite the many challenges we face, our nation and its promise are larger than many of us imagine them to be.”
Available in paperback from the Ateneo de Manila University Press, Lazada and Shopee.