This is my story and I am not an onion

NEWS! Tall Story recently won the National Children's Book Award in the Philippines! Big congrats to my illustrator Yasmin Ong and publisher Ramon Sunico and thank you to the Philippine Board on Books for Young People and the National Book Development Board. Here's the beautiful trophy - can't wait to visit the Philippines and see it for myself! Meanwhile, here is a piece I've been dying to write since I curated one of the pavilions at the Pop Up Festival. 

It was an act of faith when I invited Lahing Kayumanggi  to perform during my bit of the Pop Up Festival. I'd never seen them perform before, though I'd heard from other Pinoys in London that they were amazing.

Pop Up's website declares that its aim is to"inspire children, families and communities through books and stories".  And I thought - what better way to tell the Filipino story than through dance!

Am I an onion?

When I was a young person, someone dolefully told me that Philippine culture is like an onion.

Peel away all the layers of influence and there is nothing left. The miserable suggestion was that all our layers are borrowed from other cultures and all that borrowed stuff added up to nothing.

Could it be true? The thought that my culture was just an onion really troubled me when I was growing up. Indeed, everything about me seemed to prove the point.

Why was I more comfortable writing in English? Why were most Filipinos Catholics? I was born in the South where the majority were Muslims - but our traditional costumes and music were dead ringers for those of Indonesia and Malaysia, with their  majority Muslim populations.

If you got rid of the American English, and the Catholicism transplanted to us by Spain in the 16th century, if we stripped away the purple and gold of Muslim Asia, was there anything left we could call Filipino?

Layers do not an onion make ...

But then the LK gang marched out before the festival crowd.

I've lived here in London for 24 years now - and I haven't seen Filipino dancing for a long, long while. I'd forgotten much of it (even though Philippine folk dancing was what we did for P.E. when I was growing up - cheers, Mrs Sacdalan!).

So the story they told stunned and surprised me. How could I have forgotten what an extraordinary cultural journey my native land had been through - from proud tribal origins to our emergence as a single country under two colonial masters: Spain for 300 years, and the United States for fifty.

So look, look ... here is the story of me.

Where it all began ... tribal origins

Women in tribal dress chant and dance. This is a dance from a mountain tribe called the Igorots.
The music is primal, rhythmic. This was how stories were preserved, through chants that were handed down from generation to generation
The dance tells the story of a woman proving her worth. A beautiful maiden kneels as the other women prepare a tall tower of clay pots.
She is proud. Confident. Uncowed.

The crowd gasps as the tower of clay pots is balanced on her head.

She leads the women in a dance, triumphant.

Warriors and princesses from the Muslim South

A musician signals the beginning of a dance of warriors by blowing into a conch shell

Swords whirling, the warriors battle it out to the furious beat of drums and gongs
Colourful maidens appear

Followed by men who lay down lengths of bamboo

A princess arrives followed by her maid

She has a suitor - but she leads him a merry dance, stepping swiftly and daintily across the  constantly closing and opening bamboo, her fans whirling al the while .  Her suitor must follow to prove himself worthy

They dance, the bamboo clapping together faster and faster, but they never miss a step, never get caught and in the end the princess must dance with her suitor.

Then we became Christians and dressed like Europeans even though it was too hot

A fiesta! The bright costumes have a European flavour but are made of banana and pineapple fibers native to the Philippines 

The dancing could well be a Spanish corrido
Women spin with glasses of wine on their heads ... 
... and dance with hats garlanded with flowers. 

It seems a world away from the Muslim dance with bamboo - but the bamboo is still there. And the dancers still dance nimbly between the poles. The dancing builds to a joyful frenzy but the dancers are fearless and skilful, never once looking down at their feet.

Write who you are

When I visit schools, I like to tell the children about the big light bulb moment that led to my getting published.

When I started writing fiction, I was careful to keep anything Filipino out, for fear that it would put off publishers.

But then an agent took me aside and told me that it would be impossible to sell my books because there was nothing of me in it ... "The most interesting thing about your work," she said, "is you."

After that, I forced myself to be brave and put myself into my stories.  And how right she was. It's not just about writing what you know, it's about writing who you are.

It's not as easy as it sounds - because a lot of who you really are is hidden away deep down inside. In fact, who you really are is sometimes not the person you show to the world. I had to dig down deep to really discover who I am.

It was wonderful to watch the colour and exuberance and warmth of Lahing Kayumanggi. This was my story! And it made me swell with pride to see the festival crowd loving it.

And I suddenly remembered that terrible anecdote likening Filipino culture to an onion that peels away to nothing. No, no, no. I know better now.

Yes, Filipino culture is a culture of diverse layers. I recently learned that there is a word to describe it. Where some countries are homogenous, we are heterogeneous - and you can't have a whole without the richness of all those layers.

By all means, peel away those layers. You will discover a fierce heart, beating proudly.

The dancers invite children to try the dance with the bamboo poles

As their finale, the group began to sing a song familiar from my childhood and I just had to join them. Here we are at the end of the show.