Bare Lit 2018 - Speaking of Morality in Young Fiction

By Candy Gourlay

I was so looking forward to sharing the stage with debut author Rutendo Tavengerwei (Hope is Our Only Wing) and the excellent Bali Rai (The Harder They Fall) at the Bare Lit Festival last Sunday. Our theme – Morality in YA and Children's Fiction – was a corker!

But it wasn't to be.

My vanishing panel

The first shocker was a message early in the morning that Rutendo would not be able to come, through no fault of her own. I don't think it's my place to explain what happened – suffice to say I was gutted I would not be able to meet her.

I frantically messaged lovely author friend Patrice Lawrence to find out if she was free to stand in. She wasn't.

Then, another message: Bali's train had been delayed and then now it was too late to get to London. He wasn't coming either.

I was having visions of sitting alone on a stage babbling nonsense for an hour and a half ... when festival director and co founder Mend Mariwany suddenly appeared with a relieved grin.

He'd managed to persuade Samantha Williams, inspirational multicultural bookseller, to become my fellow panellist, and writer and educator Darren Chetty  (who had come along to attend our talk) to become chair.

Here's a doodle of the three of us from illustrator Sarah McIntyre:

Darren Chetty, Candy Gourlay, Samantha Williams at Bare Lit 2018. Sketch by Sarah McIntyre


We had a quicky FIVE minutes to chat and prepare, and then we were on the stage!

I have to say my two new colleagues were superb. Samantha calls books "weapons of mass destruction" and earnestly believes that reading is key to a child's future wellbeing. Dismayed by the whiteness of books available to her own children, she has thrown herself into bookselling – with the aim to  "source, sell, encourage, self-publish and promote beautiful British multicultural children's books that celebrate diversity particularly children and families of Caribbean/African descent".

Samantha and her display of children's books at the Bare Lit Festival

Darren co-wrote this feature Why Diversity Should Start at Storytime with Karen Sands O'Connor, He and Karen also co-wrote this fascinating piece looking at the representation of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic voices in British chldren's fiction – read it!

This article is not a proper report of the event, though I do repeat some things that were said. It's more like my own take on the themes we explored.

Here is Darren's first question:

British kids lit grew out of a desire to educate and moralise. How do these factors impact your writing?

Darren and Samantha, with me in the middle (in full cultural appropriation mode wearing an Indian kurta and shoes in an African print). Photo by Heather Marks

Writing with an agenda

There is no doubt in my mind that any author writing a book would have an agenda.

Certainly, having once been a book-loving child who never saw herself in the books she devoured, inclusion is number one on my author agenda.

They say children's fictions should be like mirrors and windows, well for me, all the mirrors were broken or, worse, distorted like a carnival hall of mirrors.

This is the story I tell over and over again to white audiences at the diversity panels that have become a regular gig for me as a "diverse" writer.

Gazing across the majority brown faces in the Bare Lit audience, I realised it was not a story I needed to tell this audience. They already lived it.

Long ago I attended an Arvon Writing for Teenagers week with Melvin Burgess and Malorie Blackman. Tbh I was nervous about meeting Melvin, whose every book (Junk, about heroin use ... Doing It, about boys and sex) seemed to spark controversy. But meeting Melvin, I realised that his agenda was as sincere as mine – like me, he was holding up a mirror. To teenagers who didn't recognise the sanitised versions of themselves in books written for them.

"I realised nobody was writing stuff for real teenagers," Burgess said in a Guardian interview, about the seventies and eighties when he was one of a few authors who began to write for the demographic. "It's such a seminal part of your life, the point when you become who you are, and yet nobody made stuff for them."

It is said that the teenager was invented in the 1940s when American film-makers  realised that teenagers had money to spend – I wrote about it over on my writing blog, Notes from the Slushpile, headlined The Invention of the Teenager. Two decades after Burgess first shocked with his books, I can't help the feeling that there has been the same commercial awakening to the spending power of younger demographics. Even though every other movie or TV series seems to be a superhero blockbuster, there are many impressive books published today that marshal the same awareness, respect and sensitivity with which Burgess writes for his young readers.

Mirrors and windows

I couldn't take notes during the panel (because speaker 😳), so I cannot reproduce the words of my co-panellist Samantha Williams, who spoke passionately about the urgent need to put brown faces on the covers of books, about customers begging her for help because their children were desperate to become white and fair like the characters they saw in media.

Darren, as a primary school teacher, told a story that I can reproduce here courtesy of his blog:

A few years ago, I was teaching a Year 2 class in East London. We had been working on writing stories. When it came to sharing what they had written, one boy, who had recently arrived from Nigeria, was eager to read his work to the class.

As he read out his protagonist's name - I had suggested that children might use the names of people in their family - another boy, who was born in Britain and identified as Congolese, interrupted him.

"You can't do that! Stories have to be about white people," he said. This is not an isolated incident.

It is easy, attending a festival like Bare Lit, to rant on about books as mirrors and inclusion and representation. But as a child saved by books that didn't represent me, I want to put in a word for books as windows  – because windows are incredibly important to help a child imagine a bigger, better world in which to live in.

When I visit schools in the posh parts of London and tell the children that I am from the Philippines, the children become animated and tell me that their cook/nanny/cleaner is from the Philippines.

There was a ripple of indignation when I mentioned this anecdote, the audience were offended on my behalf. But why be offended by the truth? Eleven per cent of the Philippine population leave the country to work overseas, mostly in menial jobs. But by meeting me, the children see something outside their ordinary worlds. They realise that Filipinos are as diverse as they are. And hopefully, they will learn to give us permission to be whoever we want to be. Windows.

In 2015, I was invited to contribute to a round-up in the Guardian headlined Banned, burned, or simply life changing: what are the best dangerous books? where children's authors "share the books they probably weren't meant to read that either rocked their world or rocked the world".

My colleagues listed books such as The Color Purple by Alice Walker, Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath ... here was my response:

When I was growing up in the Philippines, there were very few locally published books for children and so everything I read was imported from America and the United Kingdom. When I think back, ALL the books I read as a child were dangerous. They took me out of the ordered rules of my cultural life and proposed that there were other choices out there.

I explored worlds that bore no resemblance to my own in my native Philippines. They made me disgruntled, discontented with my lot. Western characters seemed to travel everywhere, and as a little girl in Manila, I could not imagine ever being wealthy enough to even travel to any of the nearby countries in Southeast Asia. I puzzled over how characters spoke their minds. In my ordinary world, there were complex, unwritten ways of communicating, saying yes even if you mean no is an art embedded in many Asian cultures. 
It was not just culture clash either. Here were child characters who had eye-popping adventures, who ignored boundaries, who took their fates in their own hands. It was terrifying and unimaginable. And oh so delicious.

Whose morality?

So perhaps under the umbrella theme of 'Morality in Children's Fiction', we also need to ask whose morality? Morality, after all is in the eye of the beholder.

In the olden days when infant mortality was high, adults published books designed to save their souls. If you read Victorian fiction, there are plenty of idealised portraits of young orphans like Oliver Twist who are ultimately saved by discovering that they are wealthy after all –  which kind of makes sense when you take into account the materialism of the Industrial Revolution.

Growing up in the Philippines, colonised first by Spain then by America, I grew up with folk tales that I realised later had been repurposed with a racist colonial intent – like the story of the crow whose feathers used to be beautiful and white until he committed some misdemeanor for which his feathers turned black!

One of the first Filipino characters I encountered as a child was Juan Tamad (Lazy Johnny), who rather than climb the guava tree would lie under it, mouth open, waiting for the fruit to drop into his mouth. Again, here are the voices of our colonial masters calling from the past, reinforcing the lazy servant stereotype one can still hear still parroted today by the entitled classes.

Sadly, in the Philippines, one continues to witness toe-curling racism and racial self disgust. Skin whitening is big business and the silver screen is peopled only by fair-skinned actors. In our nonchalant celebration of whiteness, I can hear those colonial voices shouting down the centuries, reinforcing our staunch belief in our racial ugliness.

So yeah, we artists always seem to be engaged in correcting the imbalances of the societies we live in. In my book Tall Story, my loveable hero, Bernardo, has a thick accent because I have always hated the power politics behind accents in the Philippines. As a schoolgirl, I used to be one of the most robust and taller girls. Everyone else was petite – and I had to endure endless Hulk and Baby Huey barbs. So in Tall Story, Bernardo becomes a giant and I write him inside out so that people see who he is before they actually meet him.

Positive representation?

Here is Darren's second question to the panel:

Given the history of erasure and distortion of people of colour in kids lit, there are strong calls for positive representations of POC. There is also the need to tell great stories with morally complex characters. How do you work with these pressures?

So ... imagine what it must have been like when people saw themselves for the first time reflected in a mirror.

Now imagine what it would be like to see one's self in books for the first time.

While we call for representation, it will not be easy to see one's self represented. What do we really want to see? Do we want to see a better version of ourselves or do we want to see ourselves, warts and all? And what about all our secret doubts and insecurities? What about the unbeautiful parts of us, do we want those on display too?

And what is positive representation?

Does it mean characters who are people of colour always have to be the goody and never the baddy?

Does it mean never portraying a Filipino as a cleaning lady or a nurse or a caregiver? Or an African American as a drug-taking rap artist? Or an Indian or Pakistani character as a shopkeeper?

It took me a long time to commit to writing my forthcoming novel, Bone Talk. Watch this video I made to introduce it and you'll see why.

There aren't any novels written about the Bontoc people who are the heroes of my story, which is set in 1899 when the United States invaded the Philippines. When I visited the area, there was a reluctance amongst people I approached to discuss the animist cultural practices I was researching. "We are Christians now," one man told me, resisting my questions about death practices.

I trawled history books and diaries of anthropologists – but they were all written by Americans, portraying the Bontoc people – who were head-hunters –  in either racist or exotic terms. How do I represent them in an era that some of them would prefer not to remember?

Knowing that my readers are going to be children was another challenge. How do I write about a culture that so far removed from that of the modern child reader? How do I write in a way that would have my reader embrace my heroes instead of "othering" them?

The answer, I soon realised, was simple. Write well.

Writing well means writing characters in 3D – multidimensional, complex, with many shades of grey.

Writing well means allowing yourself the time it takes to discover the truth in your story.

Writing well means not settling for your first uncorrected first draft but taking the time to imagine and reimagine your story until it is at its best.

Writing well means your reader, whoever he may be, can see himself in your story.

Write well. It takes a lot of time. It hurts. But it's what we gotta do.

And then, of course, because of the lack of previous representation, we are pioneers. We have a LOT to make up, a LOT to say. All the issues, all the themes, all those things that had previously gone unsaid!

Which tbh would make for a boring read.

Children are true natives of this age of short attention spans and the florid author must be careful to observe the first commandment of writing for children: Thou shalt not be boring.

Sure, have an agenda. But story must always come first.

So my advice to the Bare Lit audience (I could tell that there were many writers by the way they took copious notes), was to remind them that writing is about craft. Craft your agenda into the hidden seams of your story. Craft it to enable your reader, not to educate her. Whatever your message, sew it in carefully and invisibly to serve plot and character  (I know aspiring writers are fed up with hearing it but SHOW DON'T TELL!).

For the sake of readers who might be bored by all this writing talk, may I direct writers to this article I wrote: Exposition: It's about Emotion not Information – which tackles the nitty gritty of building a case without the actual case.

Anything goes?

Here is Darren's final question:

What, if anything, can children NOT cope with in fiction? For example, must stories have a happy ending?

It is tempting to say that children of today can cope with anything. But that isn't true. I think for every child reader, there is a line that can be crossed. And so though I don't think authors should limit themselves in the themes they choose to write about, the books a child reads definitely benefits from the curation of an adult who knows them well.

The other day, I was asked on Woman's Hour what I thought about age banding (which hit the headlines back in 2008). I said I understood the commercial need for it but at the end of the day young readers need a curator, someone who understands how books are safe spaces for children to experience the life they have yet to live, someone who can identify the perfect book for the individual child. That curator – the librarian – is sadly fast becoming an endangered specie.

It is interesting though to note the breadth of "tricky" subjects that books for young people dare to cover today: death, sexuality, violence, abuse, drugs, war ...

I have just finished reading the heartbreaking Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, which imagines the ghosts of black boys shot by American policemen roaming Chicago. Though it describes some of the deaths, these descriptions are sober, quietly painful, and never gratuitous.

On the other hand I've read Mal Peet's posthumous young adult novel, Beck, about a boy who is sexually abused in care homes. Another brilliant, Carnegie-nominated book from Peet, but I would certainly be very careful who I recommend it to as there is a grim hopelessness to the story.

Writing Bone Talk, I worked hard to keep my underlying themes of imperialism and identity covert. I just want readers to enjoy it as a ripping adventure.

The truth is young people have sensitive antennae to these underlying themes. Children are deeply moral creatures, with a strong sense of what's fair and unfair. Sit in any playground and inevitably you will hear the cry "That is so unfair!" 😄

In fact, young people can be quite black and white about right and wrong. The beauty of novels for young people is that it allows us to show them all the shades of grey in between.

Books of earlier times regarded children as unthinking, empty vessels that needed to be instructed on the ways of the world.

But now we live in times inundated by a such a relentless gush of information that I don't think our children need further instruction. What they do need is the wherewithal to make sense of it all.

Books are a safe place to learn how to do just that.

In the past children may have  been instructed to turn to books to find answers. My hope is that children will read my books and find, not answers, but questions that can set them on the path to understanding their world.

One of the things that differentiate children's books from books for adults is that no matter how dark the subject matter, books for young people will always offer hope.

Back in 2011, I attended a panel to hear Morris Gleitzman talk about his searing Holocaust novel Once.  Here is what he said about hope in children's books:

We are handing the world over to our children. The survival of the species depends on their capacity for optimism.

1. With thanks to Bare Lit, and to my lovely friends at Native Province, who recommended me to the organisers.
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3. If you are an author trying to make heads or tails of self promotion, you might want to read my recent post on Notes from the Slushpile: My Year of Launching Prodigiously
4. Hey, I've got a new picture book in the shops and here it is!

Obligatory EUGDPR (EU General Data Protection Regulation) Statement

Yes. This is about GDPR.


I will try to make this as simple and painless as possible!

The air is kerchinging with the gnashing of teeth over the new General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) rules. Please save your dentistry – this is how my website (and I as an author) will comply with the rules.

Who should read this? 

Anyone who has shared their email address with me. You might have done this in a multitude of ways including simply emailing me.

Why should you read this?

So that you know that I am not an evil data farmer who is stealing your data and selling it off to other evil entities who might evilly use it to serve Viagra advertising to your unwitting inbox.

What do you need to know?

• You need to know that I might have your email address in my Gmail contacts list. You need to know that when you email me, Gmail automatically saves your email to my address book.

• You need to know that if you subscribe to my blog, I will have the details you sign up with in a database (which will probably be bloody Mailchimp, who conveniently deleted my account without letting me know).

• You need to know that if ever I set up the online shop that I'd always dreamed of but never had the time to research, or the money to afford, I might collect your email and postal address to deliver products to you. What products you say? Signed copies of my books and perhaps, once I've practiced enough, artwork.

• You need to know that I will not share the information with anyone without your permission.

• You need to know that I will delete your data if you request it. Subscribers to my blog will be able to unsubscribe themselves without contacting me personally and hurting my feelings.

• You need to know that sometimes children do email me and I may reply to them if I don't realise they are children. If I realise they are children, I try to respond publicly through my blog or Facebook page.

• You need to know that I am really good at password-protecting my computer, Google, Mailchimp and other accounts where your data may be stored, with individual passwords that I change regularly. If these entities are ever compromised, I will try not to panic and take their advice on how to protect your data.

• You need to know that I am just a lonely author, sitting in a cave, procrastinating on Facebook, and there are no other people in the cave who have access to your data ... so I have appointed myself my own Data Protection Officer, as prescribed by the GDPR ... I would give myself a massive salary too but sadly will have to do the job for free or go bust.

Subscribe to my blog! ... and hey, did you know my very fist picture book just came out? Check it out!

Is it a Mermaid by Candy Gourlay and Francesca Chessa

How to Become a Picture Book Writer

By Candy Gourlay

Today I became the author of my first picture book.

Image by Francesca Chessa from Is it a Mermaid?

This is a journey that began when I was still embedded in the high energy world of small children (their high energy, not mine). I was skilled in the art of The Deal (‘I raise you five more minutes of TV for brocolli AND carrots’). I had eyes in the back of my head. I was the Mistress of Distraction (‘Don’t cry, sweetie ... oops, look! There’s a rabbit in my bag!’). I was unfazed by wee, poo and vomit. And, at bedtime, I transformed into, not just a reader, but a performer of picture books (which did not have a soporific effect on the audience, but I didn’t care).

Whatever Next, Peace at Last and Five Minutes Peace by Jill Murphy were firm favourites, as were Avocado Baby by John Burningham, The Cat in the Hat by Doctor Seuss, Gorilla by Anthony Browne, and the Mog books by Judith Kerr. In those days, some picture books had more complex narrative styles than what we see in the UK today – one son’s favourite was the story of a boy who is embarrassed that the trainers his mum buys for him lacks the right logo.

This Jill Murphy trio were definitely family favourites.

It is easy for an adult to open a picture book, notice the simplicity and brevity of words, and declare, ‘I can do better than that!’ Which is exactly what I rashly did, as my children and I worked our way through our growing library of best-beloved books.

I thought: I’m a journalist. I can write. I also used to be a cartoonist. I can draw.

Suddenly it was obvious to me that I was meant to write picture books. Fame and fortune were waiting just beyond the diaper pail.

I did my homework. Attended a few talks. Read up about picture books. Learned that you had to design it for 32 pages. Learned about making dummies (read this and this and this). Learned about page turns. Then made my first attempt.

The Baby Who Could Read was based on my baby daughter who used to sit up in bed reading aloud to herself. Except she couldn’t talk yet. My story riffed on a hyper intelligent baby trapped in her own baby talk. Money and glory, here I come!

Well. Publishers far and wide rejected my pithily composed query letter (following all the advice I had gathered on how to ‘hook’ a commissioning editor).

These being my very, very first rejections from the publishing world, the reason for this unexpected turn of events was clear: the world was not ready for my genius.

So I wrote another picture book.

And another. And another. And another.

But nobody wanted my stories. I soon gave up trying to draw them and focused on the words. To no avail.

As I failed, I continued to read about the picture book business. Apparently, all kinds of barriers lay in the way to publication. It could be that my humour was too foreign. It could be that my stories were too long. It could be that I was writing for an audience much older than the publishers wanted to market to. It could be that the publishers considered my stories unsellable to the rest of the world.

After a few years of trying, I put picture books aside and began writing novels for children. It was another long, hard road of rejection. All the knock-backs made me wiser to my own reasons for writing. I learned that writing was about story, not about getting published. I learned that it was me and not the world that was unready. I learned that for a story to live I had to live inside it. And I learned to keep at the job ... I learned how to finish a story.

It took a while, but I did get published. I did become an author ... but not of picture books. And despite the successes of my novels Tall Story and Shine, I continued to write my little picture book stories, yearning for the day that my unfulfilled dream could come true.

The Little Golden Book edition of Little Red Riding Hood, a discard from an American military family. Possibly my first experience of a picture book.

My own childhood in the Philippines of the sixties and seventies did not feature as many picture books as consumed so voraciously by my children. My siblings and I did have some Ladybird Books and those Readers Digest and Colliers Junior compilations that were offered as discounted side deals by the door-to-door encyclopaedia salesmen who my parents invited into our living room. We also had a Little Golden Book edition of Little Red Riding Hood that Mom bought at a PX Goods stall (PX Goods were second-hand American goods – chocolate, toys, what have you – sold outside American military bases in the Philippines).

Mom and Dad with my siblings come lately whose surprise arrival introduced me to nappy-changing ... and picture books.

In the mid seventies, when my parents surprised their teen children with two latecomer siblings, I discovered a profound delight in small children. Suddenly, my baby brothers became the centre of my universe and I found myself eagerly reading aloud to them from Doctor Seuss, Winnie the Pooh, and Noddy – all now available in local bookstores.

As the years have passed, my baby brothers and then my own children passed the age of picture book readerhood. But I didn’t. For me, the picture book continued to hold out that promise of enchantment. Despite my advancing age, I continue to pore over the picture book departments of bookshops, looking for that next hit of delight.

I wrote Is it a Mermaid? at a picture book retreat run by the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. It was fascinating, having written the story – about a dugong (Asian sea cow) who is convinced she is a mermaid – to realise that I was exploring the same themes of identity and culture clash that run through my novels.

I think I may have known, when I finished writing it, that Is it a Mermaid? had a chance ... that it was going to be a contender. But having been down the path of rejection before, I hesitated for many long weeks, months, before I sent it to my agent, Hilary Delamere, to represent to publishers. We submitted to Janetta Otter-Barry, who had just left Frances Lincoln to run her own independent publishing company, Otter Barry Books.

It was a yes from Janetta, but a contract was not forthcoming until she had identified the perfect illustrator for my book. Long months passed before Janetta introduced me to Francesca Chessa, a veteran illustrator based in Italy well known in the UK for illustrating Elliot’s Arctic Surprise, written by Catherine Barr. More months crawled by as Francesca worked on the illustrations. For me, the book’s word-maker, it was an anxious time – would my vision, Francesca’s vision and Janetta’s vision gel into a coherent whole?

Gel they did. And today, I am proud to hold my debut picture book up to the world and say, ‘I did it! I’ve written a picture book at last!’ But of course it turns out that a picture book is not just about me. Picture books are a fusion of imaginations – the writer’s, the illustrator’s and the editor’s.
Perhaps being published as a novelist opened the door to me being published as a picture book author. Perhaps I needed that time writing in longer forms to learn about story structure. Perhaps the time I had spent learning about the kind of writer I am, about who I am as a writer, led me to the picture book story that would get me published.

I suppose the title of this essay is a bit misleading. Aspiring picture book writers looking for hardcore tips and lists of to-do’s may be disappointed (though there are plenty of tips if you look hard enough).

But please cut me some slack ... today is, after all, my first day as a picture book author.
This is the dream come true. And do you know what? It feels great.

Is it a Mermaid is out in the UK from today and will publish in the United States in May 2018.

This article was first published on my Facebook page.

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How to hope when you wake up to hate

By Candy Gourlay

From my Facebook page

This morning I woke up to helicopters circling nearby Finsbury Park where a van had plowed into worshippers at the local mosque. Waking up to hate and despair has become a bit of a regular thing lately – terrorist attacks in Manchester, London Bridge, the Grenfell fire, war in Marawi in my native Philippines, Syria, hate, hate, hate from the either side of every divide in the Philippines, the United States, and elsewhere in the world.

Every time something bad happens, I fortify myself by looking into the upturned faces of the beautiful children I work with as an author in schools. The children always give me hope.

Yesterday my neighbours and I had a mini street party for the Great Get Together, an act of unity and defiance in the name of the MP Jo Cox, who was murdered by a right-wing extremist.

But we couldn't help talking about the long shadows that had of late fallen over our society. 'These are such dark times,' I said to Myra, my elderly neighbour who lives opposite.

Myra smiled and began to tell me a story. 'I lived in China as a child, I remember crossing the Great Wall to get to the beach. I was eight years old when the Japanese invaded. They gave us our lives, but nothing else. We fled with the clothes on our backs. All the railway lines had been destroyed and so we took a bus with all its windows blown out. We were taken to an island where a group of women met us. The first thing they did was hold up some donated clothing against me, measuring me up so that they could find me something to wear.'

Myra went on to tell me about being a teenager in South Shields during the second World War, when bedtime meant queuing into a bomb shelter as German bombers raced up the River Tyne on nightly runs. She remembered sitting in a row with her family on a bench that rocked everytime a bomb landed on a nearby street.

In the morning, they all set off for school, as normal. Except her parents would send her a different route everyday, to avoid the street that had been bombed, so that she would not have to witness the horror of the night before.

Listening to these stories, strangely, gave me hope. It reminded me that I too had once lived in a dark era, the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, which claimed our freedom and many lives with it, including members of my extended family. And I look at Myra, wise and wonderful and sparkling with life despite all the dark times she had experienced, and I think: here is hope.

We must grieve and we must struggle and we must fight against forces that bring darkness to our lives. But at the same time, dear parents, teachers and children, we can take strength from the knowledge that humanity does manage to overcome, and we can build good lives that will bring light into the shadows.

Please look out for announcements of Authors for Grenfell, an online author auction to support the survivors of the disaster (along the lines of Authors for the Philippines, Authors for Refugees) organised by Harriet Reuter Hapgood, Molly Ker Hawn and Sara Bernard. Authors who want to participate can email

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Truth and Fiction in the Age of the Strongman

By Candy Gourlay

Candy and Miguel
Last night, I met Miguel Syjuco, a Filipino journalist and author who won the Man Asian Booker Prize for his novel Ilustrado.

Miguel was the star attraction at an event at the venerable School of Oriental and African Studies titled: Truth and Fiction in the Age of the Strongman.  Miguel gave the keynote address and I delivered a response.

Miguel is highly regarded for his award-winning first novel (the Guardian review described Miguel as 'a writer already touched by greatness'), and he has developed a following of his own through his journalism and commentary in social media – indeed his feed is regularly the target of pretty horrible attacks by defenders of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

But what has caught my attention over the past year has been Miguel's willingness to use his own resources to see for himself the state of affairs in our native land though based in Abu Dhabi where he is a professor of Literature and Creative Writing.

He has written columns for the New York Times about his visits to slums and prisons to witness the "Injustice System" in the Philippines ... he even joined Filipino reporters and photojournalists on the EJK beat  – EJK is the depressing shorthand for extra judicial killings in my native land, which currently stands at more than 8,000 killed both by the authorities and unknown forces since Duterte came to power – to see for himself the nightly toll inflicted on poor communities in our country.

Most recently, he visited the President's hometown Davao City, in an effort to understand the saviour narrative that surrounds our President, who is lauded for transforming this strife-torn city into a peaceful and prosperous place over the 22 years that Duterte was its mayor. He promises to write about his findings soon.

Our topic – Truth and Fiction – are two words that seem poles apart. Surely fiction by definition, is a lie? Can fiction reveal any truths? What is truth? Whose truth?

Miguel teaches a course in Abu Dhabi titled 'Novels that Changed the World' – exploring fictions such as Noli Me Tangere by Jose Rizal, satirising the abuses of Spanish friars in the 19th century Philippines – it led to Rizal's execution and the Philippine revolution – and All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarche, published in the 1930s, condemning Nazi thuggery – Remarche had to flee for his life.

'My students discovered that each novel on our reading list spoke against the injustices of its time, and in doing so highlighted the injustices of today,' he said. 'We found in every book a stubborn insistence on speaking out.'

But here we are now living in the Post Truth era – Miguel describes clashing with someone posting fake news who argued: it's not about the facts, it's about the message!

Is fake news something new? Is it a thing for our time, the age of social media?

Ah but fake news has been around since the beginning of time, I argued. The message has always twisted and turned according to the bearer's intention. Having been a journalist during the twilight years of the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, I knew what it was like to live in the shadow of fake/untrustworthy news when all the major dailies were controlled by Marcos cronies. I regaled the audience with the story of how I somewhat inadvertently ended up working for an opposition magazine against Marcos hilariously named Mr & Ms Special Edition.

I also offered up another example of fake news – from another era.

I have spent the past few years researching a new novel set at the beginning of the Philippine American war. My goal had been to write a novel from the point of view of a tribal child, to describe how his world turns with the invasion of the Philippines by the United States in 1899. The usual way a novelist would create such a voice would be to read up on the era, trying to hear the voices of similar characters through memoirs and accounts.

I found none. There were no primary sources. No memoirs capturing the voices of the Filipinos who lived through a war that killed a quarter of the population.

Another Filipino novelist writing about the era, explains it far better than I could. Gina Apostol, author of Gun Dealer's Daughter, in a talk at Cornell University, describes the black hole she found while researching her book set in the Philippine American War:

In this war the voice of the Filipino is silent occurring mainly in captured documents within military records. The Filipino voice being a text within a text, mediated annotated and translated by her enemy.

So in this case, we only get one side of the truth. The American histories, fully illustrated with photographs (Kodak was rising) of grim-faced natives dressed in g-strings, with unsympathetic captions that discussed the ugliness of the Malay countenance, the ignorance, the savagery, the lack of intelligence ... of people who look like me.

So now novelists like me are trying to fill in the gaps, to show that there is a possibility of a more complex, more human narrative from that voiceless era. But is there truth in it if  I'm making up voices? That is the challenge.

The curious thing about today though is how the unheard have in fact found a voice – through the medium of social media. Suddenly everyone's got a platform. And it's aggressive. Here's a bit from Miguel's presentation:

The aggressive populism we see today seems to be a testament to people refusing to be silent — and rightly so. Our societies have largely failed to provide equally for all, and technology now gives us new avenues through which to to be heard, and with which to rebel against repressive ideas and structures. New leaders have latched onto that and now seek to speak for us, even though many of them are rallying us crudely around fear and mistrust.

What is perilous, Miguel says, is when corrupted stories are believed by others. 'In the Philippines, where I am from, a subtle war is taking place — one of narrative; righteousness is its abiding theme.'

I am not used to audiences like the one we had last night – made up of adults, scholars, intellectuals, people with an interest in current affairs in the Philippines. The audience discussed post-Modernism, there were lots of long words, and when I jokingly threatened to Google 'palimpsest' someone in the audience actually gave me the definition in a complete sentence.

One comment though really caught my attention. A young student who had family in Baguio City, in mountains north of the main island of Luzon, described how, growing up, his elders described a disconnection with our sprawling capital, Manila. Manila dictated everything and yet understood nothing about their lives.

When one thinks about how this feeling is multiplied across our 7,107 islands, the rise of a creature like potty-mouthed, promise-everything, icon-busting Duterte – who is definitely nothing like the Manila technocrats or the dynastic classes that have traditionally held power in the Philippines – becomes somehow more plausible.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is greeted by overseas Filipino workers on a visit to Vietnam.  Photo: King Rodriguez | Public Domain Photo

In his keynote, Miguel said, 'While art itself might not change the world, it's abundantly clear that it can empower those who will.'

Which is a comfort really. As a children's author, I am conscious of the powerful impact my fiction can have on my young readers. And even though I feel helpless in the surging tides of events around me, I do take solace in what my art has the power to do.

Dalisay puts it best:

I submit that the creative writer’s true task is to do what we have always done which is to go beyond the simple truth and the obvious to get at the truth of life, the complicated truth, the inconvenient truth, the truth that will drive evil out of the shadows and into the withering light. By this, I don’t mean just establishing the facts although that is difficult and deserving enough. I mean the persistent affirmation of our worth and our infinite complexity as humans against the political powers that seek to oversimplify and dehumanize people by fixing labels on their bloody chests.

With thanks to the School of Oriental and African Studies and organiser Dr. Cristina Martinez-Juan, who teaches Philippine Literature in English at the Department of Southeast Asia. 

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How to be the Old Man, the Crone, the Spirit Guide, the Mentor

By Candy Gourlay

A few weeks ago, I received this mind-blowing video from Miriam College Middle School created by readers of my book Tall Story:

I was stunned. Every time I watch it, I feel a little bit tearful. How can I even begin to respond to such a mind-blowing message?

Thank you, with all my heart.

Someone, commenting on Facebook, said: 'This is success' ... and she is right. For someone like me who spends long, lonely days wracking her brains in front of a computer screen, your video is a validation. You are why I write.

Your video also makes me think of all the people who figured in my life, took my hand, and led me in directions that, on my own, I would never have taken. All the extraordinary people who mentored me and showed me that the world is more than just the tiny box I was born into.

When I visit schools, I give a presentation on the Hero's Journey, a universal motif that runs through virtually all the world's mythic traditions.

Writers from George Lucas (Star Wars) to Andrew Stanton (Toy Story) have been inspired by the Hero's Journey, outlined by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. 

Campbell writes that at some point in every adventure, the hero meets another character – often 'an old man or a crone' – 'who provides the adventurer with amulets against the forces he is about to pass'. It is the decrepit old woman of East African legend, who leads impoverished Kyazimba to prosperity, it is the Spider Woman of Navaho lore, who provides the charms that lead lost sons to their father, it is the fairy godmother who grants three wishes, it is Ariadne who brings Theseus safely through the labyrinth, it is Beatrice leading Dante through the inferno.

Does life reflect story or does story reflect life?

We meet gazillions of people as we journey through our own lives ... and we must pay attention. Because some very special people have that power Campbell described to lead us out of our ordinary worlds into adventure.

Will you take their hand and accept the adventure? Or will you refuse and remain in your familiar world?

Christopher Vogler – a screen writer who boiled Cambell's mythic template down to story structure for writers in his book The Writer's Journey – calls the wise old woman character the Mentor (Mentor was a character in The Odyssey who guides young Telemachus on his journey).  He writes:

Mentor figures, whether encountered in dreams, fairy tales, myths, or screenplays, stand for the hero's highest aspirations. They are what the hero may become if she persists on the Road of Heroes. Mentors are often former heroes who have survived life's early trials and are now passing on the gift of their knowledge and wisdom. Christopher Vogler in The Writer's Journey

There's Obi Wan Kenobi in Star Wars, teaching Luke how to use the Force. There's Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio, teaching the puppet how to become a real boy. There's Merlin showing Arthur how to be a King.  There's the clever slave girl Morgiana who reveals the deceptions of the thieves to Ali Baba.

There's my primary school librarian, Miss Diaz, who gave me permission to read as much as I wanted. There's my friend Frankie who made me dare to leave home. There's my friend Mandy who showed me how to drive while eating a whole pineapple. There's Letty Magsanoc and Eggy Apostol, editor and publisher at my first job, who showed me that it was possible to tell the truth under a dictatorship. There's my husband Richard who literally extracted me from my ordinary world in Manila and took me to London.

Life is full of mentors, if you try notice them.

Vogler writes:

The function of Mentors is to prepare the hero to face the unknown. They may give advice, guidance or magic equipment ... However, the Mentor can only go so far with the hero. Eventually, the hero must face the unknown alone. Someties the Mentor is required to give the hero a swift kick in the pants to get the adventure going. The Writer's Journey

Interestingly, mentors don't often realise what they are. The amazing video sent to me by these readers told me things that I don't think about as I go about my daily job. It is wonderful to be thanked in such an extraordinary way. It is incredible. Because all I was doing was telling a story.

I think we are all mentors in our own ways.

We all have the power to light a spark in someone else.

So, thank you once more to the girls, who so kindly and imaginatively sent me this video. May the Force be with you. Now make sure you continue to pass it on.

With love to Erin Cacayorin, Zoe Donesa, Sophia Espaldon, Keira Evangelista, Alexis Gidaya, Clarisse Longboan, Mikaela Mendoza, Sam Ubay, Phylicia Abary, Jessica Bandol, Aly del Prado, Angelina Perez, Bianca Villarama and their Spirit Guides: Katrina Concepcion, Ida-Karla Manzo and Emil Pandy. With thanks to Isabela Aguilar who sent the video.

Candy Gourlay is a Filipino author based in London. Her debut Tall Story won the Crystal Kite Prize for Europe and the National Book Award in the Philippines. Her books have also been listed for the Carnegie Medal and the Guardian Children's Book Prize. Like what you see? Click here to subscribe to email updates from my blog

A Letter to the #DubaiLitfest 2017

One of the things that really made me think  at the recent Emirates Festival of Literature in Dubai was hearing an Emirati speak about how hurtful it was to hear the rest of the world call his home a "soulless" place. Well, I have news for anyone who has thought this – Dubai is not a desert, it's packed with souls. The festival had a running theme of letter-writing and this is a letter to all the kind souls I met on that extraordinary week.

Dear Layal, Krishnaa, Massyl, Aarav, Jayden, Tansy, Sharon, Joanna, Shagun, Mondiel, Sheresa, Emily, Muneera, Dolyn, Jane, Chielo Jean, Mona, Ahmed, Anisha, Maryann, Sahar, Tania, Seo Young, Vaania, Xin Xin, Ben, Anya, Sarah, Bhavna, Mishti, Ada, Anna, Tess, Zalal, Robert, Jessica, Aamiraa, Jack, Syed, Natasha, Sarah, Sewar, Ruchika, Kayde, Zoya, Trisha, Brian, Freddie, Sanika, Hditi, Amanda, Rose, Iman, Joao, Maja, Andy, Joe, Isobel, Yvette, Cathy, Maryann, Joan, Gillian, Jo, Mia, Monita and Ronita ...

This is me with the children queuing to have their books signed after my first event
I remember your names

If books are mirrors, where are our reflections?

By Candy Gourlay

I posted this on my Facebook Page on 2 March 2017

What happens if you’ve never seen yourself in a mirror and only ever gaze out a window?

We all say that books should be, not just windows to other worlds but mirrors reflecting the reader’s own experience. Yesterday, I was one of the featured authors in a teacher conference focused on the idea of books as mirrors – Reflecting Realities: British Values in Children’s Literature organised by the very excellent CLPE (Centre for Literacy in Primary Education).

I was astonished to see the word ‘Diversity’ carefully being avoided.

‘We chose “Reflecting Realities” instead,’ said Farrah Seroukh, CLPE’s learning programme leader, ‘because the word ‘Diversity’ presumes the notion of diversifying from a normative standard.’

A live interview with My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish author Mo O'Hara

I interviewed New York Times bestselling author Mo O'Hara (My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish) on Facebook Live for SCBWI in the British Isles (Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators). Mo and I are good friends and doing the Q&A was great fun! I'd love to do more videos, perhaps on my Facebook page (do like my new Facebook page, not that I'm begging) so watch this space!

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May the Librarians Be With You: Top Tips for a Perfect School Visit

 Happy World Book Day er Week! Here's something I posted on my Facebook Page on 25 February 2017.

With World Book Day at hand, schools are gearing up for author visits and I’d love to share some Best Practice demonstrated by the scintillating librarians who had me visiting their schools this week. With many thanks to my kind hosts at the Queen Elizabeth School for Girls in North London and Linton Village College in Cambridgeshire.

So here are four tips I can offer based on these two shining school visits:

The People Power Revolution of 1986

By Candy Gourlay

Posted this note on my Facebook author page today

This photo crops up on my timeline on the anniversary of the 1986 People Power Revolution in the Philippines. It was my only photo during those heady times and you can only just see me behind the crowd of photojournalists and soldiers.

So many people now smirk at that uprising, I am sorry to report. Some say, it didn't achieve anything except unseat the dictator Ferdinand Marcos who had been leaching Philippine coffers for more than 20 years. Some now even say life was better under Marcos’ dictatorship. In fact, the villains of that era are now enjoying a strange ascendance and popularity buoyed by my native land’s personality-led politics and powerplay.