We have been doing a series of throwback posts of our conversations with storytellers, artists, poets, academics. These posts are found in our Behind the Books website and are being shared here now in our new home. This conversation with Candy Gourlay was posted back in 2012.
It truly is a privilege to feature the much-celebrated and talked-about Candy Gourlay in GatheringBooks for our Festival of Asian Literature and the Immigrant Experience bimonthly theme.
Welcome, Candy! As I was doing my internet-research of various interviews conducted with Candy, I knew that it is inevitable that I would ask fairly similar questions. I would try my best, though, to present a different picture through this informal chit-chat that we have here.
In your author’s bio, it is evident that a great part of your self-definition lies in your being a journalist. Perhaps you could share with our readers some of the ‘journalistic skills’ that proved to be relevant and important for you when you decided to write books for a much younger audience.
The weird thing is, when I was a journalist, I always felt incredibly inadequate. I would look at an event I was reporting and wonder what was going on. I was in awe of the foreign correspondents I met during the Marcos era in the 1980s who could spout instant analyses of breaking news. My kind of reportage was reporting what I saw – the colour of the flags, the number of people in the crowd, the anger in the chanting rallyists. But ask me what it meant or where it was all going and I wouldn’t have been able to reply. It was my youth I guess, and also the fact that I’d never been outside the Philippines.
Now having lived away and watched the Philippines from a distance, I find I can analyze events with far more detachment and at my age (50), far more wisdom.
As for journalistic skills – I think I “came with”. I was drawn to the reporter’s life because I already had a strong liking for writing, words and a desire to tell stories.
On the ground though, I learned practical skills: copious note-taking, organizing and gathering facts – I know how to work a phone to inveigle information from various sources. I also know how to draw the arc of a good story – taking disparate events and constructing a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end. I’m also a dab hand at stenography and I type like a dervish.
More importantly I have no fear of being edited. People who haven’t made their living as a writer are aghast at the ignominy of being edited. But I know from experience that you can’t cling to your words if they’re the wrong words.
Oh and of course, there’s humility: because you’re only as good as your last story. When you’re working for a paper, the glory of a story only lasts until the next big story comes along. It’s good practice for anyone in the writing trade.
What are some of the parallels and divergences of writing for a major newspaper and magazine (Candy was a journalist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer and served as the London correspondent for the news agency Inter Press Service and editor of the pan-European magazine Filipinos in Europe) as opposed to writing fiction? What are some of the things that you needed to learn and unlearn?
When I first started work on a novel I was full of hubris. As London correspondent of Inter Press Service, a third world news agency, I used to knock out two 600 word articles a day (and that’s including research). How hard could it be to write a novel?
But writing a novel is nothing like an article. Forget detachment, a novel is a piece of writing that must come from the heart. Find a scab, then scratch it until you bleed. If you resist revealing yourself, your fiction will not move any reader.
Forget the news article’s swift delivery of the facts, a novel is an unfolding. In writing a novel, you spend all your time concealing the truth from your reader so that the ultimate revelations come as a delicious surprise. As my husband wryly observed when he read the first draft of an early novel, “You’ve got to learn NOT to get to the point so quickly!”
Just like journalism though, every word you write counts. You have to be constantly aware of the reader’s experience of your story, there is no room for purple prose that pleases only yourself. The fantasy writer Ursula Le Guin says she writes to create an experience for the reader. And in creating that experience, there is no room for waffly words, padding or ego.
I am in awe of Candy’s experiences as a journalist and as a news reporter, particularly during the Marcos regime. I was wondering what was it like for a fiercely-nationalistic Filipino such as yourself to live in the UK?
I don’t know if I could describe myself as fiercely nationalistic. What I do have is an aching love for the country of my birth. Aching because as we are all aware, our nation suffers from some of the worst deprivations of the developing world. I feel blessed to have had those amazing adventures at the end of the Marcos regime – but I am dismayed that the evils of that regime continue to permeate every level of Philippine society.
I cringe to read about the corruption of our politicians in the UK papers. Filipinos living abroad constantly moan about the need to improve our national image. Well our image will improve only when the reality behind it improves.
You have spoken time and again of how it was important for you to have Tall Story be made available to the Filipino audience – could you share with us some of your thoughts about this, and whether this ideal, has, in part, been achieved? Are there other parts of the Philippines that you wish this book could be made available to?
I was really keen to be published by a Filipino publisher in the Philippines. I remember how expensive it was to read as a book loving girl, and if Tall Story was published by a Filipino publisher, I thought more Filipinos would have access to my book. Luckily I met Ramon Sunico of Cacho Publishing via a mutual friend on Facebook. And David Fickling, my publisher here in the UK, kindly agreed not to include the Philippines in his territorial rights so that Cacho could publish an edition exclusive to the Philippines.
It was only when I got published in the Philippines that I realized how direly served the country is in terms of books for children. Manila is the only market for books – the rest of the country must get their reading with great difficulty via laborious channels to the capital. Book distribution is a real challenge – and we don’t have a postal system that can support mail order like Amazon.
In the UK, I visit schools and try to inspire children to read. I thought, why not do it in the Philippines as well? So last February when I went home to visit my mother, I organized some visits to schools in Bulacan as well as Batangas. I also remembered all the English teachers who ever inspired me when I was a child, so I also gave talks to audiences of teachers and librarians. I was very anxious that my Tagalog would not be good enough having lived abroad for 23 years, but like a miracle, I opened my mouth and out came the words! I could tell that my audience was touched, not just by my message but my effort to communicate. It was amazing and I hope to do it again when I return.
What was your ‘comfort book’ during those first few years of living in a foreign country? Was there a particular book (or books) that served as your ‘escape literature’ or ‘comfort books’ to ease the loneliness of being so far away from your family of origin and your hometown?
It wasn’t a book – it was the music of Apo Hiking Society, which had all that sparkling humour and wit and kagaguhan I love about home. I must have played Pumapatak Nanaman Ang Ulan a billion times. My children quietly absorbed the music – they just got used to hearing it around the house. Once, a cousin in Manila asked my oldest son what his favourite Filipino band was. “Apo Hiking Society,” he replied promptly. To which his cousin burst out laughing, “That’s so OLD!” she said. He was totally nonplussed. I guess I’d forgotten to inform him that AHS was from another era.
But I make no apologies. Coming home from abroad is like time travel and through no fault of my own I’m still stuck in 1989, the year I left Manila.
What is the best thing about being in London right now? What are the little things that have made it “home” for you now? What are some of the struggles that you still continue to face?
I love many things about living in London. It is absolutely home to me now – this is where my family is, my house, my laundry … er. Despite the fact that I am in charge of my own domestic work, I love the fact that I’m in a culture where servants are not the norm. I also like the fact that it’s a secular society, sometimes the competitive religousity in some parts of Manila can be stifling. I also love the fact that everyone’s reading all the time – you see them on the buses and in the trains.
Meanwhile culture clashes continue. It used to anger me when people expressed surprise that I could speak English and worked as a writer. Mind you, it angered me more when fellow Filipinos pretended that the majority of us in the UK were NOT in domestic work … because we are, making a living is nothing to be ashamed of. But I must be getting old because I don’t bristle anymore when someone makes some terrible generalization about Filipinos. I just smile the smile of the wise, knowing that I know better.
What are some of the things that you miss most in the Philippines? How about the things/social issues that still manage to exasperate or frustrate you?
How much time have you got? I miss people most of all. My family, my friends, watching my nieces and nephew grow up. Not being there for my mother when she needs me. I miss my friends with whom I share a cultural past (much as I love my husband, he doesn’t react when I burst into some song I loved as a child because he had a very different upbringing).
As for exasperating things … that’s another long list although I am a patient person and I can forgive most idiosyncracies of my beloved homeland. But I think the thing that most upsets me about the Philippines is the gaping social divide. I am almost bitter about how one section of society doesn’t seem to be aware of how the other half lives. It is ghastly to see.
When I was waiting for my sister at the airport curb the last time I was home, I saw three fat, clearly rich men arrive with trolleys of suitcases. Their skinny driver carried their gazillion bags to the car, and not a one lifted a finger to help. Not only that, they berated the man for taking so long, looking down their noses as if he was a thing with no soul. I do not miss THAT at all.
What are some of the Filipino books (if any) or authors that you are slowly introducing to your children for them to have an understanding of their Filipino heritage, especially now that you currently live in London?
I bought as many Filipino children’s books as possible while my children were growing up – but there weren’t as many published as there are now. Their favourites were those collections of legends and stories from Tahanan Books and cheeky Pilandok from the Adarna series. Recently I acquired a copy of Subversive Lives by my cousins Susan and Nathan Quimpo – chronicling the harrowing experiences of the ten Quimpo siblings during the Marcos regime, from torture to imprisonment. I think it will appall, move and amaze them to think that people so close to us had gone through all that.
Could you share with us some of your favorite books that deal with the immigrant experience, or living so far away from one’s birthplace and finding one’s home wherever that may be?
I get the feeling from recent reviews I’ve read that it’s become somewhat unfashionable to like Amy Tan but she has to be on the top of my list. The Joy Luck Club, The Kitchen God’s Wife and A Hundred Secret Senses all have the power to make me nod and say, yes, that is exactly the way it is. Or to wince, saying Asian mothers are really like that. I love how she captures that disconnect between East and West. The ghosts that haunt her Western characters are the same as my own.
Thank you so much Candy for agreeing to be our Featured Storyteller here in GatheringBooks despite your extremely hectic schedule. We truly appreciate your finding the time to answer our questions.
It’s my pleasure! Thank YOU for having me – I enjoyed your insightful questions!
If you wish to know more about Candy, click here to be taken to her website.
We are immensely privileged to have Candy Gourlay back for the Asian Festival of Children’s Content this 2015. She will be delivering one of the keynotes for the festival.
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