In Her Own Write

To say that 2018 was a good year for Candy Gourlay would be an understatement. In April, the UK-based children’s book author launched her very first picture book, Is It a Mermaid?, a charming story about a pair of Filipino siblings’ encounter with a dugong who’s firmly convinced that she’s a mermaid.

The book earned both Candy and its illustrator, Francesca Chessa, plenty of acclaim. It was called a “highlight of the year” by Pam Dix, the UK chair of the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY). Candy and the book were also featured on “Milkshake,” a popular children’s TV program.

In July, her third novel, Bone Talk, was launched as part of a conference on Cordillera at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Positive reviews came flooding in as soon as the book was released on August 2. The Sunday Times immediately named it as its “Children’s Book of the Week,” while the Observer, another major Sunday paper, hailed it as one of its “Young Adult Books of the Month.” The Times included Bone Talk on its list of “Books of the Year.” The book was also longlisted for various awards, proving that this story of an Igorot boy in the mountains of the Philippines in 1899 has struck a chord among British readers.

Candy and her Costa-shortlisted book,  Bone Talk  (Image courtesy of Candy Gourlay)

Candy and her Costa-shortlisted book, Bone Talk (Image courtesy of Candy Gourlay)

Despite the amount of praise heaped on Bone Talk, Candy was still surprised when she found out that it was shortlisted for the Costa Book Prize, one of the most prestigious literary awards in the UK.  Out of 134 nominees, Bone Talk ended up as one of the four finalists in the Children’s Book category, sharing the spotlight with works by literary heavyweights David Almond and Hilary McKay, and Candy’s friend Matt Killeen.

The Filipino story as an international literary success

Candy and I sat down on an uncharacteristically mild December afternoon to talk about Bone Talk, and its journey from an idea spawned by a photograph to the beloved literary gem that it has become.

 “I loved reading historical books when I was a child, but most of the books I read were about figures like Henry VIII, about princesses, America and its Civil War,” Candy said. “So I began to wonder, is our own history not worth writing about?”

“Most of the books we read as kids in the Philippines were imported from the U.S. [and] the UK—we all grew up reading Enid Blyton. So when you grow up, you have this belief that the Filipino story isn’t worthy of being published.”

Candy had this same mindset when she started writing fiction in the UK. “My children’s books were similar to Enid Blyton’s—they were set in England, with cottages and English heroes.”

After some time, though, she realized that she had to write about Filipino characters, and when she started doing so, she noticed an improvement in her writing. “Maybe because it was really close to my heart. But I did not believe that [my books] would be published.”

This doubt wasn’t exactly baseless—sadly, there is still a dearth of Filipino titles on international shelves.

This is why Candy considers Bone Talk’s literary success as “a breakthrough for the Filipino story.”

“We have so many stories in the Philippines, but we just haven’t been discovered yet. So maybe [my success] will encourage many young Filipinos—who might have been led to believe that their stories will never get published—to actually try [and write] now.”

The germination of a Filipino story

The idea for Bone Talk was planted in Candy’s head in 2004 while doing research for a book she was working on with Jamie Tapales Oakes, Carmila Legarda, Maria Gonzales, and the late Ed Maranan. The book put together personal narratives of Filipino migrants in the UK. When planning the foreword for the book, the team decided to talk about the Filipino migrant experience prior to the migration phenomenon that started in the time of the Marcos dictatorship, which consequently led to the brain drain the country continues to experience.

During her research, Candy found a photo of a Filipino man in a G-string, dancing with a white woman in Edwardian clothes. She was intrigued by the woman’s ease in holding hands with the man, in an era when women were expected to dress and behave modestly.

The photo that started it all: an Igorot with an American woman at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904.

The photo that started it all: an Igorot with an American woman at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904.

She found out that the photo was taken in 1904 at the St. Louis World Fair in Missouri. The world fair was known for exhibiting the latest technology at the time—the X-ray machine, the telegram, and incubators. But it also exhibited people—a human zoo. The man was an Igorot, part of a contingent of Filipinos brought to the fair to display the various degrees of “civilization” in a country that the Americans had just invaded. Out of the nine groups of Filipinos exhibited, the Igorots were considered the least civilized—they were labeled as “savages.” This human zoo wasn’t unique—the concept of living exhibitions was a popular one in the Western world, when practitioners of the infant field of anthropology eagerly showed off their “discoveries” who were then ogled by the public.

The history of the Igorot is part of the Filipino story

Inspired by the 1904 photo, Candy set out to use the St. Louis Fair as the setting for her book, but she would tell the story from the point of view of one of the Igorots exhibited there. However, she slowly realized that using the fair as the setting for her book would mean subjecting the Igorots to the same indignities they suffered in 1904.

Hence came the decision to write about Igorots in their own village in the Cordilleras of 1899, just as the Americans were invading the country.

 “I really wanted to tell the story from the point of view of the Bontoc characters,” Candy emphasized. “There are enough books [written] from the point of view of the Westerner.”

This initially proved to be a tough challenge. “At first, I felt like giving up. When you go to Bontoc and ask the people about their ancient practices, they struggle to come up with an explanation. They tend to hesitate—they don’t seem to want to make the connection to animism because they’re now devout Christians.”

But the animism that the Igorots subscribed to wasn’t remotely like the savagery that Westerners imagined it to be. In fact, American anthropologists who went to visit the tribe were surprised to see how deeply spiritual these people, whom they thought to be heathens, turned out to be. “Actually, they were more devout and faithful than the Christians who were going up to see them.”

It’s this deep communal spirit and sense of morality among the Igorots that Candy deftly conveys when Bone Talk’s main character, a ten-year-old boy called Samkad, goes on his voyage of discovery. As Samkad, his best friend Luki, and the rest of the villagers face the turmoil of the American invasion, their devotion to their faith and respect for nature and the spirits of their ancestors never falter.

“I hope I did the right thing [in the way I told the Igorots’ story]. I was probably wrong in a lot of things, but I hope that [my book] is a stepping stone in some way. I wrote the book, but maybe someone will read it and decide that there’s a better way to tell the story of the Bontoc people. And then hopefully, they will write a book based on that point of view. We need more books [written] from our point of view!”

The Filipino story as a labor of love

One of the most remarkable things about Bone Talk is how evocative it is—various readers have gushed about finding themselves transported to the Bontoc of 1899—all thanks to Candy’s painstaking research. Bone Talk took a few years to complete, and she spent most of that time combing through old photos and historical documents.

Samkad’s village, though fictional, was based on a real one in Bontoc. “I needed to find a village in Bontoc that wasn’t well-known. It had to be off the beaten track,” Candy explains. “I found some Filipino travel bloggers, Oggie Ramos and Ferdz Decena, who were constantly blogging about Maligcong.”

Entranced by what she read in Ramos’s and Decena’s posts, Candy decided to explore the relatively unknown village for herself. She stayed at Suzette Bencio-Chees’s homestay—the go-to accommodation for Maligcong visitors—which is perched on the edge of the village’s rice terraces. The stunning vista helped her visualize the setting for her book. And of course, with her skills as a master storyteller, she managed to create an enchanting place by weaving together the past and the present.

Candy and the rice terraces of Maligcong (Image courtesy of Candy Gourlay)

Candy and the rice terraces of Maligcong (Image courtesy of Candy Gourlay)

The Filipino story is a complicated one

Bone Talk is a story about the Igorots of Bontoc, but not once does the word “Igorot” appear in the book. It was an authorial decision informed by the colonial history of the Philippines. Having failed to conquer the mountain tribes, the Spanish colonizers used “Igorot” as a slur to demean the people they considered to be savages. The prejudice against the people of the region spread even among Filipino lowlanders and lasted for centuries. In recent years, however, the Igorots have decided to reclaim the name and use it to show their pride in their heritage.

Having such a complicated history as a backdrop for a children’s book might have been daunting for some writers, but Candy has succeeded in highlighting the tangled relationship between Filipinos and Americans. In Bone Talk, we get to see why, even now, most Filipinos tend to be ambivalent towards our old colonizers, who employed the policy of “Benevolent Assimilation” in their invasion of the country.  

“We seem to forget that a quarter of our population died [during the Filipino-American War]. How can you blame us? It’s hard to hate somebody who is nice. That’s why in my book, when I portray the Americans. . .there’s a nice [character], and [those] who aren’t nice do nice things.”

“It’s not black and white,” she stressed.

Another thing that stands out about Bone Talk is that it doesn’t shy away from subjects that your average Western middle-school reader might find a bit gory—circumcision and headhunting, which were practiced by the Igorots in the time Bone Talk takes place. Candy decided to include these in the story, as otherwise, the book wouldn’t be true to the Igorots’ history.

Needless to say, Candy always takes her readers’ expectations into consideration. For instance, the first chapter of the book mentions Samkad’s impending circumcision, a ritual that he believes will turn him into a man, and there’s a reason for this. “It was important for me to signal to the readers—especially the ones here in the UK and in America—that this is what the culture is about. It’s going to be very different, so if you’re likely to be freaked out by circumcision, you should stop reading now. [I wanted to make it] clear from the start what the book is about.”

“It’s important to make a promise at the beginning of the book. And that was my promise—this [book] was going to be about a different culture.” 

A special edition just for Filipinos

The Philippine edition of Bone Talk came out towards the end of 2018. The intricate cover artwork, done by acclaimed Filipino illustrator Kerby Rosanes (whose adult coloring book Animorphia was a New York Times bestseller), is a feast for the eyes.

This edition contains new back matter Candy wrote especially for her Filipino readers. Here she answers questions readers are likely to ask about the book. She also wrote a section, “Listening to Voices from the Past,” which emphasizes the importance of critical thinking, based on her experience reading a ton of historical texts, most of which were written by people with their own agendas to promote.

“I think we all need to learn how to think when we read, especially now, when there’s a proliferation of fake news.”

Candy with Philippine Ambassador to the UK, Antonio Lagdameo, at the launch of  Bone Talk  during the Cordillera Conference in London (Image courtesy of Candy Gourlay)

Candy with Philippine Ambassador to the UK, Antonio Lagdameo, at the launch of Bone Talk during the Cordillera Conference in London (Image courtesy of Candy Gourlay)

As a treat for Filipino readers, Candy will be visiting the Philippines this month to launch Bone Talk (published by Anvil Publishing). Readers can catch her at the Glorietta 1 branch of National Book Store on March 19 for the Bone Talk launch, and she’ll also be at Fully Booked on March 16 to launch the Filipino translation of Is It a Mermaid? (Sirena Ba Yan?), which is published by Adarna House. On March 22, she’ll be visiting Mt. Cloud Bookshop to talk about both books.

There’s no stopping the force that is Candy Gourlay. She’s busy working on her next book amid the whirl of school visits and book launches, while continuing to collect nominations for her books. Bone Talk has been nominated for the CILIP Carnegie Medal, while Is It a Mermaid? picked up a nomination for the CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal. These two prizes are the oldest children’s book awards in the UK.

With all the acclaim that Bone Talk has received, Candy continues to hope that it will ultimately benefit Filipino readers. “One of my hopes for the book is that the children who read it will learn to ask questions. It’s okay to ask questions, it’s okay if you’re wrong.”

It’s a beautiful thing to hope for, and with authors like Candy Gourlay to light the path, we might soon have a new generation of young writers who understand the value of telling their own stories in their own distinct voices.

Joy Watford

Joy Watford

Joy Watford is a tech editor and freelance writer based in Cambridgeshire, England. She enjoys making lowbrow art and kakanin, and has an unhealthy obsession with sushi and crime podcasts. 

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