Jose Rizal: Philippine hero, picture book writer

Jose Rizal, Filipino martyr
Yesterday at Chalk Farm Library, I was the speaker on a subject that was most unusual  - how colonialism, calamity and environment impacted storytelling for children in my native Philippines.

Plus I had to tie the whole thing in with the work of Filipino hero Jose Rizal - we're celebrating Philippine Independence from Spain this week.

Heavy? Not too bad but I had to make sure I really did my homework.

My pal Lou Ramos, cultural officer at the Philippine Embassy, came up with the idea for the event and I always find it hard to say no to Lou.

I was expecting an all-Filipino audience and not very many people.

Instead, it was possibly the most diverse audience I've ever had - with plenty of people from the Filipino community, Primrose Hill locals,  Friends of the Chalk Farm Library, a big gun from the British Museum, and direct descendants of Philippine heroes ... uh oh!

So these are Jose Rizal's direct descendants. How would YOU feel if you were about to give a talk about someone really important and it turned out the audience was crawling with his DNA? HP Langer (left) and Sarri Tapales are Rizal's great grandchildren. So very kind of them to attend.
Chalk Farm Library's Nick Durant, Lou and on the right, Brenda Stones of the Friends of Chalk Farm Library
I was dismayed to find out that this beautiful library in the midst of Primrose Hill is scheduled for closure in the coming week. What??????? Please show your support by liking Friends of Chalk Farm Library on Facebook!

I did a little video spot decrying the closure of the library
Rey Catapang, deputy head of mission at the Embassy, introduced Rizal and then me. You can see the apprehension on my face. What if nobody believes what I have to say?

I was quite taken aback by the turn-out. Had dinner later with Angel Arrando, second from left in black shirt, who told us about how as five year old in the second World War he was interned in San Augustin Church and also how as a teenager, he and a bunch of other boys met Emilio Aguinaldo

Here I am trying to sound credible

Because of the diversity of the audience, I had to start with a potted history of the Philippines:

Bunch of islands (7,107), 175 languages. Along comes Spain. Wham bang. We were a country.  Three hundred years of Spanish Rule. Revolution. Then 50 Years of Hollywood after the Americans decide they need a colony ostensibly to Christianize Filipinos (though we'd been hardcore Catholics for 300 years).

Then I talked about the sorts of books I read as a child growing up in the Philippines. A child who had fallen in love with reading.

Me (left) as a short person and my sister,  Joy
Typical reading matter for children of my generation. When I showed this, the Filipinos my age in the audience waxed nostalgic about Dick and Jane.
While I LOVED the stories that I read, they were populated by blonde blue-eyed happy children who did not resemble me.

Most stories for children in the Philippines belong to an oral tradition - stories handed down by mothers, fathers, nannies and grandparents.

The first time I encountered written-down Filipino literature was in school.

Much of written-down Filipino fiction was epic, lyrical and difficult originally written for adults, and usually translated to the majority dialect Tagalog from one of our 175 languages. Growing a written-down literature is problematic, with so many languages ... certainly for a child like me, whose original native language was not Tagalog, the school texts were unloveable and painful.

FYI: Oddly enough the one unifying language was a colonially imposed one: English. Upon the arrival of the Americans, schools across our islands were conducted in a combination of indigenous languages and English. Later Tagalog was required in schools as well, to the disgruntlement of speakers of other languages. But it did help improve literacy across the board. Today, a version of Tagalog has been recreated and taught as a national language - called Pilipino.
Sixteenth century epic hero Lam-ang (with thanks to the Clark Monding blog for the image). Lam-ang looks hunky and exciting but studying him, in difficult Tagalog (translated from Ilocano!) was another matter.  I'm sure the best I got was a C-. 
It was only with the publication of the magazine Liwayway (in the majority language Tagalog) in the 1920s that fiction aimed at children began to emerge.

A 1930s cover from Liwayway. Note the Norman Rockwell style adopted by Tony Vasquez, the illustrator. The magazine took its inspiration from the Saturday Evening Post
What was brilliant about Liwayway was that it published comics (known as komiks in the Philippines) and short story series (Mga Kuwento ni Lola Basyang - The Tales of Grandmother Basyang), that launched the beginnings of published children's fiction in the Philippines.

The cartoon character Kenkoy from the1930s continues to appear in Filipino cinema, comics and short fiction.
Komiks blazed the trail for publishing truly targeted at children.

Today, the proliferation of publishers producing picture books and short fiction for children continue to contend with issues of language and distribution.

Though the marketplace is awash with expensive imported Harry Potters and Twilights from the West, I take comfort in the thought that these today only occupy part of the menu for young readers in the Philippines.

Filipino edition of Tall Story,
 Cacho Publishing 
It was so important to me that when Tall Story was published, I excluded the Philippine rights so that a Filipino edition could be published by  a Filipino publisher.

I know that for the great majority of Filipinos, books are a luxury. Even though the imported US hardback is now available in Manila book stores - I am so happy that readers have the option of an affordable local version.

It is still the same English but with some Pinoy words added in - and it's got illustrations! (available in Power Books and National Book Store)

During the event, I also described how calamity tends to influence storytelling in those parts of the world that sit on the Ring of Fire and how I used these folkloric elements to bring a Filipino sensibility to Tall Story.

Which brings us to Jose Rizal whose writings were influenced not by natural calamity but by political calamity.

Jose Rizal was no brawny revolutionary. But it is a tribute to the power of books that he is commemorated as a hero of the Philippine Revolution against Spain.

His novel Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not) and its sequel El Filibusterismo (The Filibuster) sparked off the revolution that led to the end of Spanish colonial rule in the Philippines.

During his travels, he contributed a Filipino fable to a London magazine - The Monkey and The Turtle. It's one of the few examples of Rizal's writing in English.
And it was an animal trickster story!

Funnily enough I wrote a small anthology of animal trickster stories for Oxford University Press's Treetops series last year.

Rizal's simple tale  - of how a lumbering turtle outwits a far stronger and more agile animal - resonates with outrage against the abuses of the Spanish colonial regime.

Rizal sketched out illustrations for his book in a now lost guest book that belonged to a family friend.  It would have been the Philippines' first picture book! 

I ended the evening with a reading of the Monkey and the Turtle.

It may have been written in the 1880s, but in cadence, page turns and economy of language, it's a perfect picture book.

Thank you to the Philippine Embassy, Chalk Farm Library and the lovely audience who turned up for my talk!