Robin Hemley Dotcom

May 2009

Carlos Morton's Reading Disaster Story

It's been a little while since I've posted a new Book Tour Disaster Story. Here are several anecdotes courtesy of Carlos Morton.

New York City

By Carlos Morton

The Nuyorican Poet's Cafe was an exciting place to be in 1976, a
gathering place for writers, players and hustlers on the Lower East Side of
Manhattan. It was in a rough neighborhood, so there was always a certain
risk involved.

I lived in Manhattan, working as a free lance writer and wrote a number
of articles about the Nuyorican theater movement (a combination of New York
and Puertorican) for local newspapers and national journals. Miguel
Pinero, author of the prize winning play "Short Eyes," and Miguel Algarin,
a Rutgers University Professor were the ones who started the cafe.

One night Miguel Algarin told me the strange looking old white guy
standing at the bar was William Burroughs the legendary writer of "Naked
Lunch." I really admired his writing and so I went up to him and introduced
myself. It was very loud, people talking, music playing, and I said, I've
always wanted to meet you Mr. Burroughs, my name is Carlos MORTON.

Burroughs turned to me with a surprised look and exclaimed: Carlos

At least that's what he "heard."

Another time I got into a argument with a Nuryorican Poet named Lucky
Cienfuegos who pulled a switchblade knife on me. I can't recall what we
were arguing about, probably poetry.

To which I replied, "You win the argument, Lucky."

One night I read from a play I was writing, "Pancho Diablo," about a
Chicano devil who quits his job in hell and moves to Houston. (It was
produced at the Public Theater in 1987.) No one was listening, it was late
and loud and people were drunk . . as was the reader . . . so I just gave
up in disgust and threw the one hundred page script up in the air . . . it
all fluttered down like a ticker tape parade on Fifth Avenue.

I got the biggest applause of the night, people like Chicano writer Ana
Castillo still recall it.

CARLOS MORTON's professional playwriting credits include the San Francisco Mime Troupe, the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Denver Center Theatre, La Compania Nacional de Mexico, the Puerto Rican Traveling Theatre, and the Arizona Theatre Company. Morton's most recent book is Children of the Sun: Scenes and Monologues For Latino Youth, (2008, Players Press). In 2006-2007 he was named Distinguished Fulbright Lecturer to Poland. He is currently Professor of Theater at UC Santa Barbara.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 31, 2009 10:39 PM

The Book Blockade is Over!

Well, it's over! The Book Blockade. I found out this afternoon from an unlikely source, my editor at the Far Eastern Economic Review for whom I was working on a follow up article on the book blockade. He happened to do a search on the book blockade and found the breaking news that President Arroyo directed Customs to stop collecting duty on imported books, effective immediately. I thought everyone in the Philippines must already know, so I sent a congratulatory note to some of the people involved at about 6 a.m. Manila time. Apparently, my email was the first they heard of it.

I'm so glad I didn't turn in my article yesterday.

I've been writing this follow up piece on the Book blockade for days now, but every time I think I've finished, there's a new development. And now this!

I'm a little exhausted at the moment, but I've been sort of jumping around my house for the past eight hours or so, and corresponding with my various friends in the Philippines who all played important roles in fighting the blockade. Perhaps that's why I'm exhausted. It's so rare in my experience to have an outcome like this. We were all prepared for a long siege but I was worried that people might grow bored or resigned to the book tax and that would be that.

The whole thing only started on May 1st when McSweeney's put up my dispatch, "The Great Book Blockade of 2009." A little over three weeks, but on the internet that's equal to a decade almost. Following tweets on the subject, I could tell that people were already getting tired of the subject -- social media can be great, but Twitter doesn't exactly reinforce a long attention span in its users. And some people were saying, "I don't mind the tax so much." That worried me because it seemed like a capitulation, a resignation to injustice. And it was unjust because it was a violation of the word of the Philippine nation when it ratified the Florence Agreement. As I told people, the Philippines could leave the Florence Agreement, but until it did, it needed to abide by it. Otherwise, the word of the nation means nothing.

And some people somehow thought that the importation of foreign books hurts local publishers. I don't think so. In any case, the people who can afford to buy books will buy a foreign book if they want it, whether there are cheaper local books available or not. It's not so much a matter of cost as it is a matter of reading taste. It's people who can barely afford books that would have been most severely affected by the duties.

And some people started suggesting that duties should be collected and given to local publishers and authors. Right. I doubt local publishers and authors would have seen a peso . . . But that's not the way to support local publishers (even if such a scheme could work). Such protectionist schemes rarely work and often wind up backfiring -- even if such a scheme could be carried out, it might have helped a few publishers or authors (and a lot of Customs officials), but it would have hurt bookstores.

Anyway, that's all moot now, thankfully.

My post mortem on the Book Blockade will be published soon online at the Far Eastern Economic Review website.

And my next McSweeney's "Dispatch from Manila" should be up soon as well. Thankfully, I don't think there's anything controversial about it. I'd love to take a little break from controversy.

I'd also like to concentrate on my book Do-Over! for a little while, too. It's a funny book, something even a Customs official might enjoy . . .

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 24, 2009 11:59 PM

Things that Could Have Killed Me

I've been absent from this blog for the past several days because of the recent publication of my new book. It's kept me busy in various ways. Most recently, I was invited to write a guest opinion for The Wall Street Journal on childhood. After talking to my good friend Xu Xi about my sometimes raucous and dangerous childhood, I settled on the topic, "Things That Could Have Killed Me." The piece was a fairly light-hearted look at my often reckless behavior in my youth and it seems to have struck a chord with a number of people. What always amazes me after a national publication is that people from my deep past get in touch with me again. I love this - in fact, it's perhaps my favorite thing about publishing in a national newspaper or magazine. Who will get in touch with me this time? In this case, my older sister Nola's college roommate from Athens, Ohio emailed me - remarkable because my sister died in 1973 at the age of 25 and her roommate had never really known my sister's story. I've written about Nola in a previous memoir, so this was a kind of wonderful chance meeting between myself and Nola's roommate, something made possible only because of the Internet. Another person who read the article and contacted me was one of the best writers from the very first creative writing class I ever taught (at Roosevelt University in Chicago in the mid-eighties). If you'd like to read the WSJ piece, you can do so here.

If you're a long-lost friend, please say hello!

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 24, 2009 12:28 AM

A Proposal for Bookstores in the Philippines to Fight the Book Blockade

Norman Sison's ideas for breaking the book blockade are very good, but I'd like to add an idea that might galvanize public opinion in this matter.

Book lovers around the Philippines are siding with the bookstores and importers. Now I think it's time for bookstores to get into that act. It would be a good idea if bookstores around the Philippines made banners to hang in their stores reading: NO TO THE BOOK BLOCKADE! Then in smaller print the banners might read, "For more information ask a cashier." At the cash register, there could be flyers that state in a nutshell what the issue is, including a website address and then the e-mail addresses of Sales, et al so that people could complain to the people who are behind the blockade. Imagine if these flyers and banners were in all the windows of every National Bookstore in the country, for starters! This would not take a lot of money but it would potentially rally book buyers throughout the RP.

Bookstores should be urged by everyone to join in the cause. After all, the book blockade directly affects their interests. National Bookstore, Fully Booked, and Power Books should create these banners and flyers in conjunction with the Book Development Association of the Philippines. The only way for this to succeed, I think, is if everyone plays a part.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 17, 2009 7:21 PM


It's been recently reported that Undersecretary Estela Sales of the Philippine Department of Finance believes that "novels are not educational." This leads me to believe that she must be suffering from a lack of education, or else, I and hundreds of thousands of educators around the globe who teach novels to millions of high school and college students must be horribly deluded and/or misinformed. As Ms. Sales has already told bookstore owners that she is the sole correct interpreter of an international treaty in force for over fifty years in the Philippines, I can guess that she would simply answer to stunned legions of educators around the world, "Yes. You are misinformed."

However, I cling to my silly notion that novels (indeed, books in general) are educational even if Undersecretary Sales says they are not. I think perhaps the solution to this Book Blockade is to offer some literature courses to Undersecretary Sales free of charge. Let me be the first person to step up and offer this freebie. Next time I'm in Manila, we can start our lessons. The Course will be titled "The Literature of Corruption," and it will teach novels that deal explicitly or implicitly with an entrenched culture of corruption. Maybe we'll start with Rizal's classic NOLI ME TANGERE. I'd also like to include a Graham Greene novel, perhaps THE HEART OF THE MATTER and definitely Aravinda Adiga's THE WHITE TIGER. That's just a start. I'm open to suggestions. I might even be able to get her some University of Iowa credit. I think it would be a great course and I'd even extend the offer to Rene Agulan, the Customs official who held up the first shipment of books in January as well as any other Customs officials who might like to learn what exactly is educational about novels.

Somehow I suspect I won't have any takers. So let me suggest that the universities in the Metro Manila area offer such a course, starting next semester. UP, Ateneo, DLS, UST, etc should offer such courses and invite Secretary Sales, Rene Agulan, and others. And if they don't show up, then the course could still be taught to students who know the meaning of the word "Educational."

By the way any academics in the Metro Manila area who might like to help educate Undersecretary Sales can reach her at: One further suggestion: it's probably best not to ask her questions that can be answered with a simple "yes" or "no."

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 17, 2009 9:26 AM

A Strong Piece in The Philippine Inquirer

Tonight, I'd just like to point you in the direction of The Philippine Inquirer's strongly worded editorial against the "Book Blockade," "A Nation of Idiots"

I would also like to encourage people to write to UNESCO to urge action on the issue of the Philippines' violation of the Florence Agreement.

You can do so here:

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 16, 2009 12:05 AM

Heroes Old and New

My good friend, the writer Sarge Lacuesta gave me a t-shirt not long ago of some old school Filipino heroes wearing shades: Jose Rizal, Emilio Aguinaldo, and Andres Bonifacio. As a wannabe Filipino, I've worn this t-shirt proudly around Manila and happily no one has laughed at the foreigner wearing the Pinoy t-shirt, though people sometimes give me a wry, indulgent smile.

While I'm not quite ready to have a new t-shirt made, I have some new Filipino heroes to admire, chief among them Manuel Quezon III who has brought the "Book Blockade" to the attention of the general public and provided a great timeline for the scandal, and I also admire the many bloggers (among them, but certainly not limited to Charles Tan, Kenneth Yu, Louie Aguinaldo, and Norman Sisson) who have continued to press for action on this violation of the Florence Agreement. One of my absolute favorites is the sardonic Bahay Talinhaga. I also greatly admire the organization RockEd and its Bookbigayan 2009 (Book giveaway), scheduled for May 24th. I am also heartened to see prominent political figures in the Philippines start to get into the fray on the side of importers, book store owners, and book lovers everywhere.

Of course, the Dept of Finance and The Dept. of Customs simply hope to wait out the furor or wear down the protests by claiming that their taxation of imported books is legal. As George Orwell points out in his essay "Politics and the English Language" (which I cited in my original McSweeney's piece), bureaucrats are expert above all at hiding the truth by writing and speaking in convoluted prose. That's why The Florence Agreement is such a beautiful treaty because it explains in the simplest language that books (not merely educational, not merely cultural, not merely scientific . . . but books!) are exempt from import duties. Undersecretary Sales and others try to make it appear that the Florence Agreement is some arcane rune that must be "implemented" (yes, that's true, it must be implemented correctly) by them and "interpreted" (that's not true) by them. No interpretation necessary. Books mean books. If you don't believe me, go look it up in the dictionary, which is, by the way, a book.

Happily, the book lovers of the Philippines still know how know what a book is, still appreciate clear language, and still know how to read an international treaty.

If you would like a great timeline on this issue, here's the link to Manuel Quezon's:

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 15, 2009 11:00 AM

More on the Great Book Blockade of 2009

I'm off to Milwaukee for a radio interview and a workshop this weekend, but I wanted to give an update on the "Great Book Blockade of 2009." For the best update read this:

The Philippine government is expert at ignoring its own people despite a vocal and free press so we'll see how this plays out. But I'm hopeful that this will have results, in part because of the internet and its ability to get the word out and be a great tool for organization -- the evidence is the Facebook Group "Filipinos Against the Taxation of Books by Customs" with now almost 12,000 members in, what, 12 days? But as Manuel Quezon III, myself, and others have commented and urged, it's important for the group to tax action beyond FB because FB can also be a tidy little area of containment for the government. In other words, let all of these book lovers vent all they want on FB. Who cares? Not that I'm in any way belittling the group. I admire it. But it's important to take other organized steps. Norman Sisson has urged people to write to Unesco:
This seems like one of many good tactics to me. Not only should the U.N. be involved (as the treaty broken by the Philippines is a U.N. Treaty), but the embassies of countries that export books to the Philippines should also be kept informed: presumably, the U.S., Great Britain, Singapore, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada, etc. It should be remembered that this issue is not only a local one, but an international issue and the government should be called to account by the international as well as the Filipino community. The Book Development Association of the Philippines should bring this issue up with embassy officials as well and urge them to take a stand.

I would love to be a fly on the walls (though I think I'd stand a good chance of being swatted) of the Bureau of Customs, the Department of Finance, and Malacanang right now. I'm sure that this issue is getting some attention in these hallowed halls despite any public mask of disdain. Some, if not most, would surely like to dismiss the issue. Some ridicule it. Some would like to ignore it. But surely, some, maybe a growing number of corrupt officials, are getting more than a little nervous.

One more note: Filipinos who order books from Amazon and other such services have routinely paid taxes for their books at the Post Office for years. Now, more and more people have become aware of the Florence Agreement and its no wiggle room language re: the taxation of imported books. Is it possible that ordinary Filipinos might now have the power to refuse the petty extortion of Post Office officials? I'm not holding my breath on this one, but I think they should try. As my sister-in-law (a lawyer in the Philippines) once told me, "We have plenty of laws here. We don't lack laws. We lack implementation of those laws." Understood. But still, if I were picking up books at the post office, I would make a stink about it every time and I would get the name of the official who made me pay to get my books. And I would ask others with the same experience to pool these names (and their individual experiences) so that we could create a database. And eventually, together we might make a case against them.

If there's one thing this controversy has shown me, it's that one should never underestimate the collective power of an informed public.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 14, 2009 6:43 AM

New Interview

Hi all:

I'm traveling back from the Hermitage in Florida to Iowa City and so I'll keep this short. There have been a LOT of developments lately in the "Great Book Blockade" story in the Philippines, all it seems for the good. More on that later . . .

In the meantime, I wanted to make you aware of a new interview that was done with me by Shelagh Shapiro for her program "Write the Book." If you're interested you can listen at:

In the interview, we discuss DO-OVER!, writing, and we touch on the book blockade in the Philippines. I hope you'll listen.

In other news, I'm going to be interviewed for National Public Radio's Sunday Morning Edition. I'll let you know more when I know.


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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 12, 2009 8:52 AM

Dinty Moore's Book Tour Disaster Story!

This just in from the wonderful writer, Dinty Moore:

Dinty W. Moore's Book Tour Disaster Story
Dinty W. Moore

My first book had only been available for about a week when I drove into Philadelphia for my initial bookstore reading, the preliminary leg of a very modest - meaning, drive yourself around, buy your own dinner - book tour. Still, despite the lack of airplanes or five-star hotels, I was excited. Years of dreaming and hard work had led to this moment.

My publisher had hooked me up with a longstanding, well-respected independent bookstore in center city, though in retrospect someone should have checked to see how the shop had been doing "lately."

I admit to a measure of dismay when the manager met me in a dirty, ill-fitting, pilled sweater at the front of an empty store and then walked me up a flight of steps to a narrow, dingy second floor. It wasn't the small number of cheap folding chairs that caught me up short, or the rickety podium. It was the vast array of "gently used" pornographic books and magazines that lined the walls. Though the main floor of this once-thriving bookshop contained the finest contemporary and classic literature, it seems the second-story skin books were paying the electric bills.

I won't dwell on the disappointing details of what followed. It was simple: no one came. Okay, one personal friend and his wife showed up a bit late, but they were also friends of the bookstore owner, so it is hard to say if they were there to see me, to see him, or to have a glass of wine, which is what we did when it became apparent that my reading was a total bust.

Live and learn, I thought. Of course bookstore readings don't sell books. This was normal.

I tried every justification to bolster my flagging spirits as I walked back to my sister-in-law's apartment that Sunday afternoon, down Walnut Street, toward Rittenhouse Square, where I hoped to grab a cup of coffee and just forget it all
But I saw the damn line a half block away. Hundreds of young couples, many, but not all, with strollers or toddlers, snaking along the sidewalk, into the sparkling new Borders, the one with the comfy chairs and coffee shop. I had to walk right by, and then, as if there was a lesson to be learned, I had to walk in, to see the line snake all around the first floor of the chain bookstore, up the steps, and once more around the second floor, until it ended at a wide table, where Chris Van Allsburg, flanked by four store employees, was signing copies of The Polar Express. Thousands of copies. He seemed very nice.

I pledged then and there that my next book would include trains, and polar bears.

But it didn't.

Dinty W. Moore's memoir Between Panic & Desire (University of Nebraska) was winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2009. His other books include The Accidental Buddhist, The Emperor's Virtual Clothes, and the writing guide, The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. He has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Gettysburg Review, Utne Reader, and Crazyhorse, and teaches in the creative nonfiction MA and PhD program at Ohio University.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 11, 2009 9:28 AM

Vox Populi

A lot going on today on several different fronts!

For me, the most exciting news is that Rep. Teodoro Locsin, Jr. of the Philippines has written a letter to President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo asking that she repeal the illegal tax on imported books that I first wrote about on McSweeney's Internet Tendency, "The Great Book Blockade of 2009." Read his letter here:

While the battle isn't over yet, this action is so incredibly heartening to me. This is Vox Populi in action in a way I've never before experienced, and it's so gratifying that it's happening in the Philippines. So often, people in the Philippines are cynical about their voice in the affairs of their country, but this proves to me at least that the people of the Philippines have the will to change their country for the better. Foreigners too easily write off the Philippines as well, and I hope that this episode shows that the Filipino people should in no way be written off.

I'll be writing a follow up article on the situation for The Far Eastern Economic Review.

In other news, exciting to me, but in no way as important, about 65 people attended my beach reading at the Hermitage in Florida, and I sold a bunch of copies of Do-Over!

All in all, a very good day.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 11, 2009 12:09 AM


I'm currently spending two glorious weeks at The Hermitage Artist Retreat in Manasota, Florida, working on A NEW PROJECT. I pretty much have the place to myself. My first day, there was one other artist, Mandy Fang, a very talented composer from China, but we only overlapped one day, and since then I've had the place to myself, except for the lizards and the tourists on the beach in front of the cottage. I should say, "cottages," because, as I said, I have had the place to myself for the last 8 days or so and there's more than one house, both right on the beach facing the Gulf of Mexico. I've been doing a bit of a Goldilocks routine -- my first night, I slept in the main house, built over a hundred years ago, in the attic room, but it was a little cramped, so the next day, I slept at the beach cottage, but the sound of the surf actually kept me up at night! So then I moved back to the main house and took a little room off the living room. Just right. The first day I was here, I kayaked in the bay for an hour and a half with Mandy, and during the day, I usually see Sharyn who is one of the administrators here, and if I need something, she drives me in to town. But for the most part, I've been enjoying the solitude. Every night I sit on the porch around 8pm and watch the sunset over the Gulf, waiting for a phenomenon supposed to bring good luck, the green flash. No good luck for me. Still haven't seen it. But the sunsets . . . I'll take them in lieu of luck. I haven't found any ten million year old sharks teeth either, though Sharon and Patricia Caswell, the director of the Hermitage, assure me they're all over the beach. You just need to look. I guess I don't know how to look. At least, finding or not finding ten million year old shark's teeth doesn't determine my luck, I think, so I have to settle for walks along the beach in lieu of shark's teeth.

Tomorrow, I give a reading in Sarasota for Do-Over and then the next day I give a reading on the beach. Maybe if people hear me read, it will bring them luck, but if my readings don't bring them luck, well, maybe they'll still be entertained.

Do Over has its official birthday on Monday. Wish me luck.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 8, 2009 3:34 PM

The Controversy Continues

2,330 people have now joined the group, "Filipinos Against the Taxation of Books By Customs" in 24 hours!

The Book Development Association of the Philippines has also issued a position paper challenging the rationalizations of the Bureau of Finance in its decision to tax imported books. It's long and full of legalese, but it seems air tight and backs up all of the contentions I made in my McSweeney's piece. Basically, the Bureau of Customs is not only violating the international obligations of the Philippines, but is also violating the country's own laws.

I was contacted today by a German reporter based in the Philippines - it's important that this story receives international attention as well as grass roots protest.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 7, 2009 6:28 PM

A Grassroots movement in the Philippines

I've been observing the reactions to my McSweeney's piece on the great Book Blockade of 2009 from afar, and have been quite astounded by how much attention the piece has received. However, what worries me is that some bloggers in the Philippines are parsing the issues too finely, in such a legalistic manner that they run the risk of diluting the issue entirely. The bottom line is that the Philippines is in direct violation of an international U.N. treaty it ratified in 1979 that prohibits any and all duties imposed on books. It's that simple. No wiggle room. If the Philippines wants to withdraw from the treaty, that's its right, but it hasn't done so. Happily, bloggers everywhere are disseminating my article and continue to be outraged over their government's attempt to tax and regulate the free flow of ideas from one country to another. Now, a Facebook group has cropped up, Filipinos Against the Taxation of Books by Customs, and its signed up about two hundred members in no time. Hopefully, Filipinos will keep the pressure on their government to abide by their international treaty obligations. I, for one, am going to make the various writers organizations in the U.S. aware of the situation so that we can put some added pressure on the Philippines. For many Filipinos, books are a luxury item, and to impose a tax on books might soon make them beyond the reach of many ordinary Filipinos.

I'll keep you posted.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 6, 2009 11:16 PM

Mary Elizabeth Williams' Book Tour Disaster Story

An interlude from the Mishigas (craziness in Yiddish) going on in the Philippines regarding the book importation duty scandal that I've been covering. Here's some lighter mishigas of the book tour gone South variety. Enjoy. Mary Elizabeth Williams writes:

I have a new book out, "Gimme Shelter" (Simon & Schuster, 2009) about my hilarious misadventures in the housing bubble. The very last scene takes place in the cafe in my new neighborhood in uptown NYC.

So I had the brilliant idea to talk to the owners about doing a reading there.

Short version: Readings should be done at bookstores.

Long version: After weeks of checking in to see if he got the books, the owner called me Easter Sunday -- the DAY BEFORE THE READING -- to say they weren't in yet. I told him to let me know if he didn't get them by noon the next day and I'd call the warehouse.

An hour and a half before the reading, I called the cafe to check on the shipment. They'd never received the books.

So I carted down two dozen of my own copies and my laptop. More on that later.

When I got there, I learned

a) the owner had listed the start time a half hour later than I had told everybody to come
b) there was one waitress on duty
c) the mic I'd been given was broken
d) the regular knitting group that meets there once a week was LIVID at sharing the space

A half hour off schedule, I got up and bellowed into my dead mic that I was doing a special "two for one" deal. Anyone who would order my book online would get an ab-so-lute-ly free signed copy on the spot. (Lemons, lemonade, etc.)

I then proceeded to read, above the nonstop din of the incredibly hostile yarn bitches, who aggressively insisted on talking loudly the whole. entire. time.

And my friend's dad, at a loss for a seat, stood in front of me throughout the whole thing.

On the upside, my stalker didn't show up.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 5, 2009 10:43 PM

A More Positive Reaction

I thought this was a moving reaction of a blogger in the Philippines to my story on "The Great Book Blockade of 2009." There are a number of such responses such as hers. It's heartening that people seem to be mobilizing to have the book duty reversed.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 5, 2009 3:53 PM

Some Heat

My McSweeney's column on "The Great Book Blockade of 2009" seems to have generated some heat in the Philippines and the U.S., mostly positive. It seems I got a couple of minor things wrong in the original piece. I misspelled an Undersecretary's name -- it should be "Espela," not "Espele," and she's with the Department of Finance not the Department of Customs, but, well, the DOC is under the DOF, so as one blogger puts it, "shrug."

The larger point stands, that the Philippines is violating an international treaty, The Florence Agreement, by imposing any kind of duty on imported books.

One letter writer, whom I'll keep anonymous, had another disagreement with me, mainly my glancing reference to the blacklist on the Philippines imposed by the G20 nations. The letter writer started out reasonably enough but then took the ad hominem approach to rebuttal . . . I'll print his letter to McSweeney's here as well as my response.

"Dear sir: 

I've read the article you wrote about the recent decision of
Philippine Customs to tax books, and I quite agree with your point.
What disturb me though is that your statement about G20 blacklisting
the Philippines is misleading (and inaccurate). The G20 blacklisted
the Philippines (together with Malaysia, Costa Rica and Uruguay)
because Philippine laws make it hard to open bank records of
individuals; tax standards in the country are different, not because
of "corrupt practices" as you are leading your readers to believe. You
should have also noted that the blacklist was removed already. And
personally, Switzerland and the rest of those tiny European states
have more morally questionable banking practices than the Philippines,
having hidden billions of dollars stolen by dictators such as

It's funny how you Americans gloat and condescend about how
messed up the Philippines is, considering that you colonized us (and
killed a few lot of us in the process) and meddled with our internal
affairs for more than a century now. Maybe you should go back to the
US and help another Bush get to the White House."

My response:

When I wrote the piece several months back, the designation had not
been removed. This seems a bit of a "not seeing the forest for the
trees situation." While on this point, the letter writer might be
technically correct, the larger point is that the Philippines is and
remains one of the most corrupt countries in the world, and is
considered such by the vast majority of its own people, who suffer the
greed of government officials. Virtually every week, a new corruption
scandal hits the front pages of the newspapers in the Philippines,
each example more egregious than the last. The G20 news just happened
to be the story of the week when I wrote up my dispatch. What disturbs
ME is that the corrupt government can always rely on such
nationalistic and defensive sentiments as the letter writer's when
faced with any outside criticism. For the record, while I'm a U.S.
citizen, I didn't participate in the colonization of the Philippines
(which happened well over a century ago) and I didn't vote for Bush.
The fact that the U.S. has its own problems does not in any way
diminish the points made in my piece. The argument, "Bush was bad,
you colonized us, so don't criticize us," doesn't wash. I'm certainly
not gloating or condescending either, as I'm accused. I feel sad that
a country I love as much as the Philippines has to suffer under its
present colonizers, its own government officials, while always able to
rely on knee-jerk reactions as those of the letter writer. Happily,
many Filipino bloggers and book lovers and some in the mainstream
media have reacted positively to my piece and are now creating a stir
to rectify this terrible situation.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 5, 2009 9:32 AM

A Stir in the Philippines

Manuel Quezon III has written about my McSweeney's column in the Philippine Inquirer

And my piece also made today's Shelf Awareness, the book industry web site.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 4, 2009 10:30 AM

The Great Book Blockade of 2009

I'm delighted to report that my latest McSweeney's Internet Tendency "Dispatches From Manila" ( is getting some serious attention in the Philippines. The Philippines is a country that I have long loved -- I'm married into the culture, speak a fair amount of Tagalog, and have spent much time there. Over the years, I've made many great friends. But the country deserves a better government, as practically any Filipino will tell you. With corruption endemic, a common poll question is, "Is there any hope for this country?" I would like to think so. It's also a country that I believe more Americans should be aware of, as we fought a war over it and forcibly made the country our colony for fifty years.

In any case, my latest column, on a mind-boggling case of corruption that Philippine Customs officials have concocted to break international law and extort money from book sellers and book lovers in the Philippines (of which there are many), is something I had to write about when I saw it quickly sinking under the radar of the media in the Philippines. That doesn't appear to be the case anymore - there's been a good deal of blogging about the piece and a column by Manuel Quezon III will appear tomorrow in the Philippine Daily Inquirer in regard to the situation. He writes:

"My column tomorrow will be on Robin Hemley's latest Dispatch from Manila, as published in Timothy McSweeny's Internet Tendency. It details the months-long embargo on book importations that resulted from the Bureau of Internal Revenue's discovering it could reinterpret international treaties with impunity, until booksellers, faced with escalating storage costs, cried uncle and surrendered to the BIR by paying the fees it demanded."

I can't properly express how happy I am that writers and media folks in the Philippines are up in arms about the situation.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 3, 2009 10:55 AM

Philip Graham's Book Disaster Story, a Two-fer!


My book tour disaster stories have been on hiatus for the last week because I was out of internet contact. But we begin anew with these tales courtesy of Philip Graham.


On tour for my first novel, after giving a bookstore reading in Evanston, Illinois I did a radio interview the next day in downtown Chicago, around 2 PM. From there, I was scheduled to give a reading at 8 o'clock that evening at an arts center in Rock Island, on the Illinois-Iowa border. But by the time I hit the road, just before 3, rush hour had already begun--seems that news reports of an impending snowstorm had started an early mad dash of commuters. So I inched along on the highway, counting the minutes, until, a bit desperate and hoping to finally get past the logjam, I started to drive on the shoulder of the road, to the angry honking of drivers in the other lanes.

Eventually, in the western suburbs of Chicago, the traffic began to thin, but by this time the snowstorm had hit, big chunks of flakes that kept coming. Within an hour I was virtually the only one on the highway, which had reduced itself, from the growing snow drifts, to a single lane, yet still I drove on. I'm a professional, damn it, the show must go on, etc, I told myself, and once or twice I parked at a rest stop to call the readings organizer (this was before the era of wide-spread use of cell phones) and tell him that I was on my way, I'd be there, though I might be running behind a little.

By the time I arrived in Rock Island, 40 minutes late to my own reading, the world seemed asleep under a white glaze, and when I trudged through the snow to the arts center the lights were out, and my patient hopeful audience had long gone.

But the best reading story I ever heard concerns a colleague of mine, Paul Friedman, now retired. When he won an Illinois Arts Council Grant for his work, part of the deal then, besides the grant money, was that he had to give a few readings of his work at various libraries across the state. At one library, clearly the advance preparation had been minimal. As Paul sat on the stage of the small auditorium while the head librarian introduced him, he looked out at the single face in the audience. The librarian's intro over, she left the stage--apparently busy, she wasn't going to stay for the reading. So, Paul stood at the podium and began to read from one of his stories to that one fellow. In the middle of his story, two police officers walked in, arrested his audience, and dragged the guy off. Apparently, the fellow was a shoplifter and had been hiding from the police during Paul's reading. And there stood Paul, still in mid-story, his audience taken away.

Philip Graham is the author of two story collections, The Art of the Knock and Interior Design, and the novel How to Read an Unwritten Language. He is also the co-author, with Alma Gottlieb, of Parallel Worlds, a memoir of Africa. His fiction has appeared in The New Yorker, The Washington Post Magazine, North American Review, Missouri Review and elsewhere. He is the recipient of an NEA fellowship, an NEH grant, and two Illinois Arts Council grants. He teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and he is a co-founder and the current fiction editor of the literary/arts magazine Ninth Letter. His dispatches from Lisbon, which have appeared regularly on the McSweeney's website, will be published by the University of Chicago Press this fall, in an expanded edition titled The Moon, Come to Earth.

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Posted by Robin Hemley on May 2, 2009 1:44 PM