Volcano Child - A YA Novel in Progress by Candy Gourlay
Two weeks ago, Mouse decided to dig his way to London.

20 December 2006

Spare a Thought for the Virtual Mother

She took me into her arms like I was a baby. But the night was hot; you could light a fire where my skin touched hers and I wriggled in her embrace.

"Stop, Mother," I whined, my elbows digging away at soft places. "It’s too hot."

Mother laughed softly, laid her cheek gently against mine, and then quietly left.

When I woke up in the morning, she was gone.

Excerpt from Volcano Child

Following is an article I wrote for a mothering newsletter in 2002. Since I wrote this piece, my friend Frances Luna featured in the Radio 4 programme Motherless Nation, which I wrote and presented. In the original I did not use Frances' real name.

'Tis the season for demented shopping sprees, unmitigated parental blackmail and appalling infantile greed. It’s Christmas, here we go again.

But instead of indulging in the traditional yuletide whinge, let me tell you a story.

Poverty and abandonment by a philandering husband drove my friend Frances to seek work overseas as a cleaner. It was the only way she could support her seven kids.

Virtual Mothering: Frances views a photo of her youngest child who grew up without her

Early each morning before scrubbing her first toilet in North London, Frances pops into the local supermarket in search of bargains. A bottle of Nescafe Gold Blend, a tube of Colgate, a tin of baked beans. At the end of every month, she ships her little hoard of groceries to her kids in the Philippines.

"Why don’t you just send them the money?" I ask her. "These things are cheaper in the Philippines."

"This way," she retorts fiercely, "I feel like I’m really looking after them."

Frances is mothering her children the best way she can from across several oceans. She is a virtual mother.

This Christmas, spare a thought for thousands of virtual mothers like Frances. It turns complaining about Christmas excess into just another unnecessary luxury.

Frances has been working as my cleaner since 1994. She left the Philippines to work as a maid in 1988. Her youngest child was a baby, her oldest was 12. She didn't see them again until 2001 and yet during that time, she watched my own children grow up. This year, she is spending Christmas with them, five years after her last visit.

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10 December 2006

Disaster and the Politics of Forgetting

There was a lot of controversy surrounding the screening last week of Tsunami: The Aftermath, the BBC TV drama series written by Bafta winner Abi Morgan (Sex Traffic and Murder).

Chiwetel Ejiofor plays a father searching for his missing child in Tsunami, The Aftermath

Was it shown too soon after the disaster (it is only the second anniversary of the Tsunami that devastated so many coastlines in 2004)?

A photo from the 2004 tsunamiDid it disregard the feelings of survivors and families of those who died?

A long, long time ago, I wrote an article about a tsunami.

It was rather ignominous journalism — I reported from the comfort of my desk at the Philippine Daily Inquirer in Manila, telephoning the mayor’s office in Tacloban, Leyte hundreds of miles away, to get the stats from a garrulous PR person. Earthquake out there in the sea. Very high on the richter scale. Drove a giant wave to the shore. Hundreds dead, so many casualties. Property destroyed. It was automatic writing as far as I was concerned. Then he said, wait a minute, there’s a man here who was a witness.

The man was sitting in the mayor’s waiting room, hoping to ask the mayor for some help. He took the phone and told me how he and his family took shelter behind a thick concrete wall, thinking the water would simply wash over them. But the wave was so strong, the concrete bowed inwards and cracked. His family ran. They made it but lost everything, their animals, their home. "I don’t know what to do," he said. "What should I do?," "Thanks for talking to me," I replied, eyeing the clock above the subs’ desk to check how much time I had left to file the story.

He was one of the lucky ones.When my piece came out on the front page of the following day’s paper, people complimented me on how moving it was. They said they were so touched they donated money to the tsunami relief effort.

The story was accompanied by a photograph. Four tiny white coffins in a church hall, a woman kneeling, head touching the ground. Weeping for her four dead children.

The photograph was like an accusation.

What did I know about how it felt, to have your life wiped away by an unexpected act of fate?

I knew nothing. I had no idea.

Sometimes I comfort myself, thinking, that photograph, that article, must have moved many to donate money towards helping those poor people.

But I was not to know. The story was over: even as people began reading the article in their morning papers, I was already working on the next story. Something about a clash between government troops and insurgents.

But of course, the victims of that tsunami had not moved on. They were in the thick of their ruined lives. They may still be picking up the pieces to this day, 20 plus years on.

Was it too soon for the BBC to remind the world about the 2004 tsunami? It’s never too soon.

Disaster is not an end. It’s the beginning of a long process of survival.

Please give generously to the Philippine Red Cross appeal for victims of the recent Typhoon Reming Disaster. From the UK, you can contact my trusted Filipino remittance company London Manila Express and cheaply arrange a transfer of funds to the Red Cross account.

Photo of Tsunami, The Aftermath © the BBC, photo of the tsunami in 2004 from freerepublic.com.

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03 December 2006

Calamity is about People

"They fled a toxic cocktail of volcanic gas and ashes and then suffered an avalanche of volcanic debris that has buried most of their homes," he said in an official sounding voice. "Now they shelter where they can —"

He pointed the camera directly at Mouse.

Mouse puckered his lips and made a rude noise, "Pfffttbbbfff."

Excerpt from Volcano Child

When you watch television news videos of calamities in the Far East, do you see sad, hopeless, faces with nothing much to say and nowhere to go?

When I see videos like that, I see my own brown face multiplied a hundredfold.

It happened again the other day.

Around Mayon Volcano, the scenery turned from this:

Mayon Volcano before Typhoon Reming

To this:

The aftermath of super typhoon Reming.


A super typhoon slammed into the Philippines and Mayon Volcano unleashed a torrent of mud and boulders, burying towns and killing (by the most recent count) almost 1,000 people. And there, on the BBC news, were the sad fathers and the sobbing mothers and the homeless orphans.

Living with mud.

This is one of the reasons I wrote Volcano Child. I wanted to show that calamity happened to real people.

Like me.

Like you.

The Philippine Red Cross is on the scene now and I am sure donations will be welcomed. This can be done via a bank transfer (see the bank details on their website). From the UK, funds can be transferred more cheaply via a Filipino remittance firm. The one I use is London Manila Express

Photographs © Tommy Bombon, English Al-Jazeera and Red Cross Philippines

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Who’s afraid of Imelda Marcos? I am

Nowhere in Volcano Child do I name the country in which the story is set. Why? Because of Imelda Marcos.

Article in the Financial Times about Imelda's recent move into the jewellery businessLet me explain.

If you’d never heard of the Philippines and you read my book, your own wonderful mind will colour detail into the story and the setting will be a parallel world which could be anywhere, informed only by the universality of its themes.

If I were to declare that Volcano Child was set in the Philippines, this is what many people are likely to say: "The Philippines? Isn’t that where Imelda Marcos comes from? The one with the shoes?"

Asia Magazine cover at the time of the People Power revolutionIn 1986, Imelda Marcos and her dictator husband Ferdinand fled their palace in Manila when it became clear that they had lost their hold on millions of Filipinos protesting peacefully in the streets. This was called the People Power revolution. When journalists and protesters entered the palace, they found that Imelda Marcos had left a collection of 3,000 shoes (US size 8 1/2) in her haste to leave. Pictured above left is Asia Magazine's cover story at the time of the revolution.

The shoes were an appropriate metaphor for their corrupt regime. Unfortunately as the years passed, the image remained stuck fast in the world’s consciousness. Mention the Philippines now and the 3,000 shoes immediately springs to mind.

Recently, Mrs. Marcos launched her own jewellery collection. It made headline news everywhere — pictured above is the feature the Weekend Financial Times ran about the collection. If you really, really want to read it, here’s a pdf of the press cutting, if you’ve got the bandwidth to download it.

It is very amusing, that one woman’s ridiculous obsession continues to attract so much international attention — nice or nasty, does it matter? She thrives on the notoriety, going as far as to open a museum of her famous shoe collection.

But spare a thought for an entire nation that continues to be represented — at least in the eyes of the rest of the world — by an ambassador of such dubious merit.

SMALL TALK

How is Imelda Marcos?
Are her shoes still on the go?
When I first came to London
It was all they wished to know
I tried to say that there was more
To me than meets the eye
That a flat brown nose and straight black hair
Does not mean I can’t ask why
They don’t try to get to know me
Or find out what I do
Or say Fine Weather Isn’t It
Or ask me How Are You
I tried to talk of normal things
Like Politics and Fashion,
Burglaries, Movie Stars,
Sport and Television
I wanted them to talk to me
The way they talked to each other
But all that seemed to interest them
Was Imelda’s collection of shoe leather.


Small Talk © 1989 by Candy Gourlay

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