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.