Candy Gourlay is of Filipino heritage, and was a journalist before becoming an author. Her novels Tall Story (her debut) and Shine have won the Crystal Kite Prize for Europe. Tall Story was also nominated for the Carnegie Medal and shortlisted for 13 awards including the Blue Peter Prize, the Waterstones Children's Book Prize and the Branford Boase. Her previous novel Bone Talk published to rave reviews and was shortlisted for the Costa Award and Carnegie Medal.
Wild Song (David Fickling Books) January 2024
Review of Wild Song: Wild Song is a powerful, poignant and moving story which, like its characters, is unforgettable. Essential reading!
Bone Talk, Candy Gourlay's award-winning historical fiction novel set in the Philippines, is now joined by a companion novel, Wild Song, which revisits the Bone Talk setting and characters, Luki and Samkad. While Bone Talk focused on Samkad and the arrival of colonialists in the Philippines, in Wild Song we travel to America and learn about its treatment of indigenous people, through the eyes of Luki, when she and Samkad travel to the World's Fair of St Louis, Missouri, in 1904. Here's author Candy Gourlay to tell us more:
Author Q&A: Candy Gourlay tells ReadingZone about her new book, Wild Song; how her research helped develop the novel,
and the challenges in exploring and writing about the treatment of indigenous people at the time:
1. Can you tell us a little about yourself, how you came into writing for children and young people, and about the kinds of stories and themes you like to explore in your writing?
I grew up on the other side of the world, in the busy, noisy megacity of Manila, in the Philippines. As a kid I decided to read everything in the school library, working my way from A to Z - but I got stuck in the B's, where I discovered Enid Blyton. Reading authors like Blyton, Louisa May Alcott and Mark Twain made me desperate to become an author when I grew up but how? Unlike today, there was no publishing in the Philippines then so I became the next best thing: a journalist.
Years later, I married an Englishman and found myself in London, where I began to write books for young people. My stories mirrored my new life, living in a foreign land, yearning for home and family. It was the 1990s and 2000s and London bookshops were very monocultural; it was only after nine years of striving and learning the writing craft that I finally won a publishing deal with my first novel, Tall Story.
2. What happens in your new book, Wild Song, and how is it connected to your earlier book, Bone Talk? Should they be read together?
Wild Song is mostly set in 1904, in the World's Fair of St Louis, Missouri - a vast exposition remembered fondly for amazing new inventions such as the first electric socket, flying machines, the first telegraph machine and the invention of Crayola, among others. But the Fair had a dark, dark side which its memorialists would like to forget: indigenous people from all over the U.S. and the world were exhibited in what effectively was a human zoo. Among them, were nine tribes from the Philippines.
Bone Talk is set in 1899, when the United States invades the Philippines. It is an adventure featuring an indigenous 10 year old boy called Samkad and his best friend, a girl called Little Luki, whose lives are changed after a strange little boy arrives, who can speak in an alien tongue called English and who introduces them to his strange looking friend, with skin the colour of buffalo milk and eyes the colour of the sky.
Wild Song happens five years later, Samkad and Luki are teenagers, and they find themselves travelling to America to become part of the World's Fair. I call them companion novels because though they happen in the same world and are populated by the same characters, have no fear, you don't have to read one to enjoy the other!
3. Why did you decide to focus on Luki's journey in Wild Song, after focusing on Samkad in Bone Talk?
Luki was never supposed to be a major character in Bone Talk. She started out as a baby in a scene where Samkad very incompetently looks after her. But she kept escaping and doing interesting things - like drawing pretend tattoos on her chest - she was so much fun I decided to make her the same age as Samkad and somehow they became best friends and she became the heart of Bone Talk's story. It made me desperate to see the world from her point of view and I had that chance with Wild Song.
It was hard, taking Samkad and Luki to America in Wild Song. When Bone Talk ends, they are sweet ten-year-olds and they are about to go through massive change as the United States begins to rule the Philippines. I felt protective over them and sad, knowing the true story of how colonial rule had erased so much of our native culture in the Philippines, creating a sense of inferiority where there had been pride and a sense of self.
Writing Wild Song, I was aware that the story would turn even darker, and even though Samkad and Luki were now teenagers, it broke my heart to put them in such a terrible place and I was afraid it would be too devastating for young readers too, so I kept rewriting scenes trying to find a palatable way to tell the truth. Luki was such a fun character to write. She's so impulsive and emotional. I loved spending time with her and I hope you readers do too!
4. Why did you want to explore this period in Philippine history, and the period of the Philippine-American war, and why did you focus on the Bantok tribe?
During this period in Philippine (and U.S.) history, the portable camera had become ubiquitous and it was photography from this era that fascinated me. These were American photographs that often juxtaposed 'civilized' Americans with half-naked natives (part of U.S. propaganda to win support for its colonisation of the Philippines).
I identified with the natives, of course, and had so many questions. Did the natives know what those photos said about them? What was it like to meet your colonizer? What was it like in that in between time, before colonization had had its impact, when you still knew who you were? The Bontoks were historically central to the story. They were the ones most exploited by early 20th century propagandists, they were the ones who were put on display in the World's Fair, and they lost so much during that era.
The research was so fascinating that I have included a bibliography at the back of the book for anyone who would like to do further reading. Amongst these, the most precious reading for me were articles written by Filipino scholars Cherubim A. Quizon and Patricia O. Afable; and Mary Talusan and Anthony S. Buangan, who were descendants of Filipinos who went to the Fair.
5. Where did you go to research this period and Philippine culture and traditions of the time? What stood out for you the most in your research?
Before I wrote Wild Song, like many people, I believed that people from the 19th and early 20th centuries did racist things because they were just a bit backward, that they didn't mean any harm, they didn't know it was wrong. They were just creatures of their time.
To research this, I read not just scholarly papers about the era but also the daily newspapers from the time. I was shocked to discover how racial thinking permeated society during the period to the point that a science called 'Eugenics' was invented to justify white supremacy - I also learned that there were always people disputing this: there was no shortage of people calling out racism. In fact, black Americans boycotted the World's Fair which enforced the Jim Crow rules of the era (eg. black people were not allowed to drink from the same drinking fountains as whites). It was upsetting to think of all the naive Filipinos coming to America and finding themselves treated like inferiors. It was especially upsetting to put my characters through it.
I had also assumed that Filipinos had been passive participants in their own colonization. But my research showed that there was a lot of resistance, that many indigenous people at the World's Fair complained, resisted and stood up to their degrading treatment by white Americans.
6. How did you find out about Luki's likely experiences at the World Fair in St Louis, which you detail in Wild Song?
The historical record - histories, accounts and newspaper articles from the era - were overwhelmingly written by white Americans and reflected their biases and prejudices. I learned a lot about gleaning Filipino stories from this narrative monopoly from historian William Henry Scott (Cracks in the Parchment Curtain) who wrote that it was possible to catch glimpses of our history, often unintentional and incidental to the intent of the articles.
For example, I found a strange news item that reported that the Igorots had been given coats before they boarded the train to St Louis, only for them to throw their coats out the train windows. The news report concluded that their savage nature made them prefer nakedness to warmth. But I guessed a more sinister reason after my research revealed that the steam heating in the Igorot carriages had been turned off by the conductor resulting in the death of two men.
7. The attitudes of westerners to the tribes of the Philippines often make uncomfortable reading. What were the challenges in writing these experiences, and how did you approach the gulf in understanding between the two cultures?
I was constantly aware of my young readers, both those of Filipino heritage - who will be sickened by what happened to their forebears - and those of American heritage - who will be mortified by the attitudes of early 20th century Americans. I didn't want this story to do them any harm. At the same time, I myself felt a deep disappointment that my own parents and teachers had withheld this important history from me, perhaps out of shame.
As I researched this story, discovering outrage after outrage, I also felt lied to. I began to understand that many quirky insecurities that I observed in Philippine society were the result of generational trauma, handed down from the World's Fair and the U.S. colonization of the Philippines. Knowledge is weirdly freeing. I was felt compassion for my ancestors and I realised that we all have the ability to change. But to change we need to know the truth.
8. What did you find you most admired in the traditions of the Filipino tribes that you researched?
The deep spirituality of the Bontoks is recognizably the same spirituality that is so characteristic of Filipino society today, even though most Filipinos are now Catholics. But indigenous spirituality is next level, in the way it is profoundly engaged with the natural world and elemental forces. The Bontok sense of death as another life, that those who have passed continue to influence the present, is quite extraordinary - and I have witnessed its continued practice in Filipino Catholicism that you wouldn't see in Catholic countries like Italy and Ireland.
9. Apart from a fascinating story, what would you like your readers to take from Bone Talk and Wild Song?
I would love my readers to spot the interconnectedness of our stories - how an indigenous girl could share the same struggles as a rodeo cowgirl - how nothing is ever what it seems and it takes effort to see clearly - whether it is to look beyond someone's outward appearance, or to understand that every story can be told from different perspectives. Most of all, I would like my readers to be quicker to ask questions than to make judgements, because we live in a complicated world.
10. Do you plan on revisiting this world? What are you writing currently and what kinds of things do you enjoy doing between writing times?
I love Wild Song but I cannot pretend that this has been an easy project. It has taken me years to understand the world of Wild Song, years of research, years of figuring out how to tell the story. During the Covid lockdown, my concentration was a mess. I needed a target at the end of the day to keep going forward. My editor, Anthony Hinton, recruited Linda Sargent, who has worked for my publisher DFB for many years, to help. Every day, no matter how rough my draft, I would email my day's work to Linda. It made me stay on course and keep going forward. I don't know how I would have finished the book without her!
Will I revisit this world? When I finished writing Wild Song, I was suffering from mental and creative exhaustion. I needed to do something else, take my mind somewhere. So I spent 2023 making comics. I signed up for comics courses, I self published an anthology of comics I'd made over the past 20 years, I joined Comicon and I even entered the Faber/Observer/Comica Graphic Short Story Competition and was runner up!
It's been a year of recovering from writing Wild Song and I am in the early stages of various book ideas, but still too early to talk about 😄