The Manila International Book Festival 2020: Social Justice and Children's Books

I had to wake up at 5 in the morning today to appear in the Manila International Book Festival, which went online this year.


Such a treat for this London based Filipino author to be invited to the festival, even though it did mean rising in the winter gloom. The MIBF is an astonishing tribute to a voracious book reading public in Manila – for the past five years, it's featured queues around the block, massive crowds and shoppers laden down with stacks of books they've purchased.

It definitely feels a more sedate affair online (especially if you're appearing from the other side of the world in London), but still filled with the book-loving joy of its original manifestation.

I appeared with moderator Lance Caperal and my friend Zarah Gagatiga, librarian and children's author, to talk about social justice and children's books. You can view Zarah's presentation on this link.

Manila International Book Festival panel with Lance Caperal, Candy Gourlay and Zarah Gagatiga


It's been ten years since I wrote my debut novel Tall Story, and to discuss social justice, I had to revisit the questions I had asked myself as I was writing it long ago.

Time is a funny thing – I am not the same person I was when I wrote Tall Story back in the early 2000s. At the time, I still introduced myself as a journalist foremost. And my experiences as a journalist were still fresh to me. Today, 20 years later, I no longer introduce myself as a journalist.

Tall Story by Candy Gourlay
Cover illustration: Rommel Joson

At the time, the main source of my reportage was Filipino immigration. I interviewed many Filipinos all over Europe who had left home to work abroad. And in 2005, I presented and wrote a programme on BBC Radio 4 called Motherless Nation, exploring what happened to the children left behind by the feminized migration in the Philippines.

In Tall Story, my hero was a boy left behind by his mother to work as a nurse in the UK – something I experienced myself when my father left us to work in Libya and Guinea. Eleven percent of  Filipinos have a close relative who has left the country to work abroad.

Social justice, like right and wrong, is not black and white. There are many shades of grey in between. And a novel is a safe place to ask questions that may not have answers. It holds up a mirror to the child who experiences these situations – and there is something cathartic and enabling to know that you are not alone. It encourages critical thinking that does not jump to easy conclusions – society and humanity are full of contradictions.

Should children be exposed to these hard questions? Well, they are already living it! We cannot underestimate what children notice about our world. Reading gives them the capacity to understand – and if not totally understand (because not everything can be explained) then at least to endure and to forge their way in life, despite it.

read about the 'Notice and Wonder' teaching strategy in a New York Times educational series called What’s Going On in This Graph? which helped teachers use New York Times  graphs and diagrams as a platform for Maths teaching. The students were asked to look carefully at the diagrams and think about, among others, these two questions:
  • What do you notice?

  • What do you wonder? What are you curious about what you notice?


The students then conclude with “The story this graph is telling is …”


(Reading up on the Notice and Wonder® strategy led me to this presentation by teacher Annie Fetter @mfannie called Ever Wonder What They’d Notice? I encourage you to watch it.)

I realised that books do the same thing. Books ask children:  'What do you notice?' 'What do you wonder about?'

There are no right or wrong answers because you are just teaching the children how to open their eyes and see things.

My second novel, Shine, presents as a ghost story. A girl yearning to see her dead mother again. But it also asks questions about how society chooses to treat people who are different. People perhaps who suffer from mental illnesses or from visible disabilities or from homelessness due to poverty. 

Shine by Candy Gourlay
Cover illustration: Ricky Villabona

I have no interest in lecturing children about what is right or wrong, but by 'capturing' them with my novel, I hope they find themselves noticing how my fiction moves in parallel to their own experience, and I hope my storytelling moves them to ask the questions that will help them develop empathy and make the best of their experiences.

My third novel, Bone Talk, harks back to a time when a foreign power, the United States, invaded my native Philippines. American writings from that era constantly portray the savagery of Filipinos as compared to civilized Americans. The invasion was portrayed as necessary to bring civilization to the Philippines. The question I asked in that novel was: what does it mean to be civilized? 

Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay
Cover illustration: Kirby Rosanes

It was not an easy question to ask because my characters, with ritualistic practices, dressed in g strings with a headhunting, animist culture, have all the trappings of what our modern society condemns as savagery. Its hero is a boy who  thinks that being circumcised will instantly turn him into a man. To his frustration, something happens to postpone this declaration of manhood – instead he has an adventure that teaches him there's more to manhood than a ritual. 

I know parents and teachers might find it a challenge to be confronted with this. The Bontok (I spell it with a k to differentiate the culture from the present capital of the Mountain Province) were a headhunting tribe encountered by U.S. invading forces in 1899. American propaganda of the era portrayed them as uncivilized, little better than animals. 

Writing this book, I learned that to be civilized is not about how you dress or what you believe ... it is about being able to see the humanity of someone who is not like yourself. This is the journey that my young reader takes – he or she comes to realize that the Cut does not define who the Bontoc are, just as my hero realizes that it is not the Cut that will make him a man.

By the end of the story, he has experienced life, death, discovered the true meaning of friendship ... and he learns what is important – and it isn't the Cut.

The othering of the Bontok people finds parallels in many issues such as race and gender that bedevil modern society to this day. Fiction is a great vehicle by which our young people can live in the shoes of people who are not like them.  

Here is a video of that morning panel at the Manila International Book Fair. 


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Dear Susan: a tribute to my cousin Susan Quimpo

Susan Quimpo was my cousin but she was also one of my best friends. She died yesterday after a long illness. I want to share the story of our friendship so that not just my children but other young Filipinos will know of her and her struggle. The darkness gathering in the Philippines right now feels so bleak and reminiscent of the Martial Law years that Susan's family endured and fought. I would like to believe that everywhere there are people like Susan who take action, wasting no time on the inertia (and empty performance) of outrage. Through her work, I'm sure Susan touched the hearts of many. Here is how she touched mine.



Transcript:

Dear Susan

 

When we first met, I was a teenage intern at the Philippine Sesame Street Project, making props, clay models and looking after the head of Pong Pagong  the giant turtle equivalent for Big Bird who had tofrequently take off his head because of the heat.

 

Your job at Sesame Street was so cool: you travelled through the provinces, collecting folk stories. Still in the midst of discovering my future self as a children’s book writer, I was instantly drawn to you and delighted to discover that we were distant cousins. 

 

But though we shared a surname and relatives and both grew up in large families, our lives were a contrast. 

 

You were the youngest of a family coming of age in a time of resistance – the 1970s – which began with what was called the First Quarter Storm – when students rose up in protest and the government of Ferdinand Marcos responded with a calculated brutality that drove young people underground, including many of your siblings.

 

I on the other hand was one of the oldest in a family that came of age in a time of apathy – when the activism had been driven underground and  the Marcos dictatorship had already silenced the media, killed its enemies, and stolen the wealth of its people. 

 

This was not an era of fight but of flight, when leaving the Philippines in search of a better life became the norm.

 

I spent my childhood in a typical, middle class Filipino household with too many children and financial struggles.

 

Yours was a childhood that was first shattered by the death of your mother. She pushed you out of the way but then herself was struck down by a jeepney. Then as the Marcos dictatorship cracked down on young activiists, the rest of your childhood was spent wondering when you would see your siblings again. Visiting morgues to identify bodies that might possibly be your next of kin. Packing food parcels to take to your brothers in Marcos detention centres.

 

When a short film I directed won fourth place in an ECP – Experimental Cinema of the Philippines – competition, the prize was the chance to have a short film funded and mentored by the vast resources of the ECP. 

 

Excitedly,  you and I decided to write a film together. Having no privacy, and no money to sit in cafes, we sat in car parks planning a short film about the torture of a political detainee.  We pitched the idea, to the ECP and then … nothing. We were so na├»ve to think a Marcos-created organization would be interested in our film. 

 

Your activism was intense during the years running up to the 1986 revolution. I know because in those years I became a reporter for the Opposition press and how I  looked forward to running into you at those rallies, a chance to chika chika with my favourite cousin. 

 

You were performing with a street theatre group called Peryante … singing and dancing in the middle of slums, inviting slum dwellers to sing and dance with you, to tell their stories. I loved coming along, watching you rehearse. The cover of your family memoir, Subversive Lives shows you at one of those gigs –  I remember taking the photo. You told me it would be too dark so I gathered up all my loose change and bought some really expensive film rated at 1600 iso! I took many terrible photos that night but this one came out almost okay. I was pleased to see it on the cover of your book.

 

In 1984, you and I had an idea to shoot a small documentary about a strike by steelworkers at a company called Globe Steel. We began visiting the strikers, getting to know them, taking photographs. You wrote about the story of the strike in your family memoir. It amazed me because I had forgotten all those details. Unlike me, you had kept a diary through the years. You remember more about what happened to me in my youth than I do.

 

We never made that documentary but we were there to witness men and women lie down in front of trucks bringing scabs into the factory. We were there to see men in Philippine Constabulary uniform use cattle prods to try to disperse them. We were there to see them drag the women away and we were there to see them beating up the men. We were there to see one policeman pull his gun out and shoot at the men who tried to run away.

 

I was supposed to be the better photographer, but it was your photo, of the truck with the bodies piled in front of it, that made the cover of my magazine. I still see those photos now being used in documentaries and stories about police brutality and the Marcos dictatorship. But I wonder what happened to those poor people. Sometimes I feel guilt and I wonder if their resistance became performative, because we were there to take photos.

 

Two days after Globe Steel we met again at a rally by the Welcome Rotonda monument. We greeted each other and chattered away until the megaphones started to call the rallyists into position. I said, ‘See you later!’ and withdrew with the other journalists behind the lines of the riot police with their shields. Because it was safer therealthough we claimed that it was just the better place to take photographs.

 

When the rallyists wouldn’t budge, the police took out water cannons and hosed everyone down, firing tear gas for good measure. I remember 80 year old Lorenzo Tanada and 71 year old Chino Roces, publisher of the Manila Times, two old activists, standing up to the water with their eyes shut titght.

 

And then ...  the police began to fire their guns.

 

There was pandemonium. I ran into the lines of the rallyists calling your name but I couldn’t see you thorugh all the tear gas and the running and the screaming. Later, after phoning all the hospitals to get a casualty count for our news stories, we all met up in Chinatown and there, one of the other reporters told me you were okay. It felt like a brush with death.

 

After the fall of the Marcos Dictatorship we found ourselves in different parts of the world. I married Richard Gourlay, a British foreign correspondent, we left Manila to began to make a life here in London. And you became a teacher and pursued masters in Southeast Asian Studies in the United States where you fell in love with George Chiu. You told me how your heart ached for Filipino Americans who yearned to learn about their Filipino heritage, which was like a missing jigsaw puzzle piece to their identity. 

 

So of course you had to do something about it. So with George, you created Tagalog On Site, to introduce Filipino Americans to the Philippines. 

 

But you being you, it was not enough to teach them how to speak Tagalog and take them to tourist sites. You took them to meet shamans in the Cordilleras. You introduced them to the indigenous people of Mindanao. And movingly, you orchestrated a meeting between Filipino Americans and the Amerasian children of U.S. servicemen with Filipino women whom they squired then left behind, like many thousands of madame butterflies.

 

On one of my visits home,you took me to San Pablo, to scout another experience for these young people. We visited a group that supported Filipino overseas workers in Hong Kong, mostly women working as maids.

 

 The group had several big beige computers that the families left behind used to use new-fangled Skype to visit with their mums. 


Do you remember how we were moved to tears by the stories of children embracing the computers, trying to get closer to their missing mothers. 

 

Later, I made a Radio 4 Documentary called Motherless Nation, about the children left behind by the Philippines’ migration phenomenon that started during the Marcos regime that is now such a massive industry that 11 percent of the population working abroad.

 

Susan, even as your illness worsened you continued to travel all over the country, campaigning to include Martial Law in our history education in the Philippines as well as telling your own story.  You were so tired and yet you were tireless, and everything you do, you do for others.

 

Your life has been so full of meaning and compassion and I feel so lucky to have had a small role in it.

 

You wrote me at the start of the lockdown to tell me you were dying. You said a lot of activists from our generation have been dying. “I wonder,” you said, “if I am part of that harvest. If so , it would be an honour to join them. I’ve had peace with my version of God and I am quite ready.”

 

And when I burst into tears and wondered what I would do without you, you wrote:

 

“Haha! I will creep into your dreams!”

 

Oh I hope so. Knowing you makes me a better person and I will miss you forever.

 



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My Lockdown Keynote on Reading for Pleasure




I am pleased to share the video above of my virtual keynote before the Reading Teachers = Reading Pupils Conference of the Cheltenham Literary Festival – via Zoom, of course. 

The teachers in attendance had been reading my novel Bone Talk as part of the programme.

I was very conscious of the fact that I was speaking to teachers, who know a lot more than I do about the art of seducing children into reading ... so I decided to focus on the PLEASURE in Reading for Pleasure.  The video's 21 minutes, so get yourself a cuppa and put on some headphones!

'Reading is the key to so much,' said Ali Mawle, RTRP Director of Learning and Public Engagement, in her introductory remarks. 

She quoted author Aidan Chambers (Postcards from No Man's Land): 'We are not just reading for pleasure, we are reading for survival'.

After my presentation the conference continued with talks by RTRP teachers Luke Holder, Claire Coates and Kat Wood on their inspirational efforts to bring the joy into reading for their young charges – reading newsletters, bedtime stories, fluency projects, 'reading that reflects where they are now not where we want them to be".

In an article about Cheltenham's year round outreach to put books into the hands of low income children, Ali writes: 

Inspired children need inspiring teachers; inspiring teachers need to be regularly inspired themselves. RTRP does just this, providing the time and space for teachers to talk about the latest books and to share ideas for using them in the classroom. One teacher spoke for many when he wrote: 'The classroom is now alive with literature and inundated with books that the children have purchased for themselves based on our new shared love of reading.'

RTRP has expanded from Gloucestershire to a further eight regions of the UK and includes both primary and secondary groups. The project also partners with other literacy organisations including Bradford Literature FestivalCentre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), Just ImagineNational Literacy TrustKernow Education Arts Partnership (The Writers’ Block), PetersSeven Stories  and The Reader.

Warm thanks to the RTRP  team who got my virtual speech up and running – especially Education Manager for Literature Sarah Forbes and Education Administrator Khazana McLaughlin. 



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My Virtual Keynote Speech at Undiscovered Voices 2020

Standing: Dr Adam Conors, Sharon Boyle, Yvonne Banham, Helen MacKenzie, Laura Warminger, Harriet Worrell, Michael Mann Seated: Angela Murray, Anna Brooke, Claire Harlow, Annaliese Avery, Urara Hiroeh

I've written about my the Undiscovered Voices competition being my big break in children's books. Imagine my delight when the UV crew invited me to be this year's honorary chair, joining such luminaries as Malorie Blackman, Sally Gardner, Frances Hardinge, Alexis Deacon, Chris Riddell and Melvin Burgess! I mean ... skulky, wrinkled, old me in that stellar company?

And then the good news: my daughter announced she was starring as Velma Kelly in her university production of Chicago! My favourite musical starring my favourite daughter (well, my ONLY daughter)! Of course, I couldn't miss it for the world!

The bad news: it was the very same night as the big UV reception, where as honorary chair, I was meant to deliver a keynote. Gah. What to do?

I did BOTH!

Below is the video speech that was screened at the UV reception. If I had still been a UV finalist, this is what I would have wanted to hear. Congratulations forever after to the UV finalists, you are on your way! And big congrats too, to the UV team who made the competition happen. What a generous gift! I will never forget that the Undiscovered Voices opened the door to my own career as a children's author.




This year I was so honoured to be invited to be honorary chair of the Undiscovered Voices, the very competition that launched my own children's writing career back in 2008. But the big night, when the children's book industry gathered to celebrate 2020's winners happened at the same time as a very important family event. So I delivered my keynote via a video. Here is my video message to this year's crop of winners, apologies for the sound. I'm still looking for a good mic. And thank you to Working Partners, the agents and editors who have supported UV since that time 12 years ago, when I found myself on the list. And thank you especially to the hard working volunteers of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators, who have made the dreams of aspiring writers like me come true.
A post shared by Candy Gourlay (@candygourlay) on



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How I work

I dared show a photo of my messy garden office in a guest blog for Words and Pictures last month – complete with the table cloth clamped to stands that I used as a backdrop for a few videos.





You can't tell what a mess it is from the outside. Here's a picture of my garden, which was particularly lush last summer. I'm a mad gardener ... I can't wait for winter to be over! Move, Winter, I want my garden back!



Thanks to Caroline Deacon for featuring me on Words & Pcitures! Read the article about my writing day here

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