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

02 September 2008

Life After The End of the World

This is what it’s like at the end of the world:

The sky is blue, deep and rich like an ocean, and yet so bright it hurts to look.

It is silent, the cocks do not crow, the dogs do not bark, the water buffalo do not low. The silence is piercing. It hurts my ears.

It is hot, the sun sits forever at its zenith, turning the blood in my veins into molten rivers.
And at the end of the world, there is nothing.
Excerpt from Volcano Child

These are the new opening passages to Volcano Child, imagining what it is like in the aftermath of a volcanic eruption.

My novel is based on the eruption of Mount Pinatubo after my younger sister took me on a trip up the mountain in 2005, 14 years after its eruption (the second biggest in the 20th century) which destroyed huge swathes of countryside.

Ashfall covers the landscape like snow.
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The eruption taught us Filipinos a new word - Lahar - water and volcanic debris combining to create a cement-like torrent that swept the countryside. In some places waves up to six metres high were reported.

View of village buried flows of lahar. Photo: US Geological Survey

By the time we visited in 2005, many of the towns and villages had been rebuilt, there were acres and acres of bright green paddy fields, and people had somehow rebuilt their lives.

Bright green paddy fields have been planted over the devastation.

A village shop. People got on with rebuilding their lives.

Just in case, concrete barriers were built to control lahars which
occasionally still flow down from the mountain.

Life simply carried on ... even with the shadow of another volcano - the massive Mount Arayat - glowering on the horizon.
The next volcano along: Mount Arayat

We visited San Guillermo Parish Church (originally built in 1576 by Augustinian friars) - or what was left of it after lahar buried the church to half its 12 metre height in a flash lahar flood (if you can call a lahar a flash flood).

San Guillermo Church lost six metres
of its bottom

Services are now held where
the rafters used to be

It is only when you go inside that you realise how much of the church was lost. The new floor occupies the space where the rafters used to be. Windows are the tops of the old arches.

Ghostly survivor of the calamity

A walk in the church grounds and there are more chilling reminders of the deadly lahar flood.

Rooftops are all that's left of mausoleums
and church buildings after the lahar

What's left of someone's house opposite the church.

Broken statuary in the church yard.

The only vehicle that could cope with the rough mountain road was this massive juggernaut kindly lent to us by the mayor of Porac Town at the foot of Pinatubo.

From the top, one can see the gullies carved by the lahars flowing down the mountain.

The mountainside was smoking with small fires used by people to "clean" the land before planting it. Slash and burn farming like this is responsible for some of the terrible floods and landslides experienced in this part of the world

we stopped at a village on the way up the mountain. Most of the villagers were tribal people called Aetas. The number of Aetas who died are hard to count because they prefer to live deep in the jungles on the mountain. I asked one old man what the eruption was like. He said: "The sky was red and the children looked like little white statues in the ash."

A small community that has appeared since the area was evacuated

Aeta children crowded round us when we stopped at the village

Our massive truck couldn't make it all the way up the mountain because of a landslide the night before so we switched to a small pick-up truck and followed some really scary windy unpaved trails down to the 'riverbed' carved by the lahar.

The lahar 'riverbed' is flanked by five to six metre walls of compacted debris from the volcano, now overgrown by vegetation. It is like a moonscape, fragile and crumbling.

It was quite an adventure for the teenagers who came along:
my son, Nick, and his cousins, Misha and Coco (not in picture)

A thin stream rushed throught they strange riverbed made of volcano debris

Close up of Lahar and other volcanic debris on the riverbed

Hot springs have sprung up where there were none, and the original river's flow has diverted elsewhere. It was an amazing trip, but I felt somehow a bit reckless, because driving on that river bed (our guides often had to climb out with shovels and dig us through) on the fragile moonscape, we were lucky not to get caught in a landslide!

We visited the Philippines two years later and I was amazed to see this poster (right) in the airport, advertising the lahar riverbed and the crater of Pinatubo as a tourist attraction!

Photographs unless otherwise indicated by Candy Gourlay (Please let me know if you want to use them!)

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21 July 2008

Grace Nono Sings a Lullaby to Migrant Workers

It's a song about journeys and loss and I have to say seeing the pictures of gone away mothers and left behind children never fails to break my heart.

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07 May 2008

Burma: a Natural Disaster or Political Calamity?

A Filipino journalist happened to be in Burma during the terrible cyclone that recently claimed tens of thousands of lives. Here is her account:
Cyclone Nagris that hit this former capital of Myanmar and its neighboring areas last weekend has made the already impoverished people in far worse situation in the months, and maybe years, ahead. Read more
View surreptitious photos taken by Tita Valderama here

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09 April 2008

Selvakumar Knew Better: a picture book on the tsunami

I was moved by this achingly beautiful picture book Selvakumar Knew Better by Virginia Kroll and illustrated by Xiojun Li which tells the terrible story of the 2004 tsunami but manages to light up its message with hope and innocence. Visit LookyBook to view a larger version of the embedded book.

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17 January 2008

People In the News - Real People

The news about the Kabul hotel bombing on Monday looked like just another bombing.

News reporting makes death and destruction so routine.

But I was horrified when I read this eyewitness account in my friend Steve's blog.
I looked at my car, I couldn't believe what I saw. Blood, guts, black marks from the bomb blast everywhere. The Land Cruiser from behind was filled with bullet holes. The 2nd suicide bomber had detonated himself 5 meters away from the car once he got inside and his finger ended up in the back of my Land Cruiser, and his thumb was on my dashboard. I peered inside the back of the Land Cruiser through the broken glass and saw the finger. I am not at all accustomed to seeing those types of gruesome items up-close. It was pretty damn disgusting. The lack of respect for their lives was proven in this heinous crime.
Among those killed were a Filipina girl manning the gym reception, an American on a treadmill, several hotel workers, and some security guards - apart, of course from the attackers themselves.

As an ex journalist I can tell you - these people you read about in the news?

Well, they're people with jobs and things to do and lives to live. Real people.


08 June 2007

Authenticity as Hostage to Expectation

I've seen two strong and sticky-in-the-mind Filipino movies the past few months: The Debt Collector and The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros (which coincidentally is showing at the ICA just until 20 June, catch it if you can!).

Watching them, as I did, in London, far far away from the land of their inception produced some uncomfortable realities.

Did I really want the rest of the world to see the grinding, smelly canal poverty in which these films were set?

Some of my Filipino friends were downright upset. One, a film-maker based in London, said, "There is a huge selection of Filipino movies, why do the gatekeepers of the London Film Festival only support the films that portray the awful poverty in the Philippines?"*

Interestingly, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who just won the Orange Prize for her book Half of a Yellow Sun, expresses the same sentiment (albeit from an African point of view):

Half a Yellow Sun"We have a long history of Africa being seen in ways that are not very complimentary, and in America [where she has been studying for the past 10 years] being seen as an African writer comes with baggage that we don't necessarily care for.

Americans think African writers will write about the exotic, about wildlife, poverty, maybe Aids. They come to Africa and African books with certain expectations.

I was told by a professor at Johns Hopkins University that he didn't believe my first book [Purple Hibiscus, published in 2003] because it was too familiar to him. In other words, I was writing about middle-class Africans who had cars and who weren't starving to death, and therefore to him it wasn't authentically African."

Madonna's not our saviour by Stephen Moss, The Guardian

Adichie by Martin Godwin

She is right. Authenticity, unfortunately, is a hostage to the expectations of the (Western) beholder.

I am currently working on a novel set in a dystopia modelled on the Philippine capital of Manila, for the moment titled Ugly City, a world populated by a range of characters - educated, uneducated, English speaking, familiar with third world poverty and yet well-versed in The Simpsons. In constructing this world I find myself editing the reality to fit reader expectations .

I salute Adichie — only 29 years old and walking the walk I'd love to walk. More than just winning the Orange Broadband Prize she paints a world of people — individual, complex and real — and not just the mass of suffering dark faces so ubiquitous on the television screens on this side of the world.


*I agree to a certain extent that the West tends to open doors to developing world art and literature that conform to expectation. However I think The Debt Collector and The Blossoming of Maximo Oliveros were chosen for being damn good stories.


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

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.


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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