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

11 March 2008

Children at Christ's Table - Joey Velasco's Prayer

Painter Joey Velasco's film is more social commentary than prayer.


06 January 2008

Island Children at Work and at Play

From my travel blog This is Boracay about revisiting Boracay Island in the Philippines

Everywhere on Boracay, there were children working.

Like this boy who tried to sell us coconut drinks while we were on a snorkling trip.

Boracay coconut vendor

And up and down the beach, there were children selling snacks, glow toys and knick-knacks or trying to charm tourists into purchasing parental wares (massage, island-hopping tours, pirated DVDs). Late at night there were children collecting bottles and other recyclables that littered the beach to sell at to a recycler.

A young girl with a broom kept her father's sand sculpture smooth and untrammeled by the passing traffic.

"Please give a donation, my dad built this," she told me, pointing at a date etched in the sand which indicated he had constructed the edifice that very morning.

I noticed during my stay that the sandcastle remained where it was, the date changing daily. The sandcastle was sufficiently magnificent that I didn't mind parting with a few pesos for the privilege of photographing it.

Just a few feet away from the sandcastle, this boy was building his own little version. No question, another future king of the castle.

A boy of about eight years approached me with a handful of glow sticks.

"Buy a glow stick, ma'am?"

"No, thank you."

"For your children?" the boy pointed at my daughter playing with her friend in the sea.

I raised an eyebrow at him. "It's rather sunny, don't you think, to be playing with glow sticks?"

The boy laughed. My logic made sense to him. He performed a perfect Jackie Chan back flip in the sand.

"Wow, you're really good at that," I said appreciatively.

He put the glow sticks down. "Wanna see some more?"

A girl nearby threw down her glow sticks. "I'm much better than him!"

More children joined, each insisting that their acrobatic skills were better than the other's. I sat and oohed and aahed as each in turn performed cartwheels and flips and bridges in the pliant white sand.

The crowd of children grew. They jabbered at each other in what seemed a multitude of languages.

"What language are you speaking?" I asked the first boy.


"Muslim? That's not a language, is it?"

He laughed and told me the name of his dialect which I didn't manage to record. "Have you lived on the island long?"

"A long time," he nodded.

"How long?"

"My dad brought me here in grade three."

"What grade are you now?"

"Grade four."

At which point all the children clamoured to tell me where they were from - which was everywhere. Provinces up and down the Philippines. They came with their parents, they said. And their parents came to work.

Then, almost as suddenly as they had surrounded me, the children gathered together to play a game - the sort you might find in any schoolyard around the world, except they were sitting on the finest white sand, on the shore of a beautiful island.

They played raucously until the sky began to glow orange at sunset.

The sunset was a signal for one of the bars that line the beach to turn on some disco music full blast. The children leapt to their feet. It was like the scene from Where the Wild Things Are ... let the rumpus begin!They danced and they danced.

Then when the night finally closed in and all the fairy lights had switched on in the coconut trees, they collected their glow sticks from the beach and went back to work.


An Acrobatic Childhood in Shanghai

And a happy new year to you all from Shanghai!
Shanghai Acrobats
We caught a performance by this acrobatic troup in an old theatre populated by tourists from all over China. To say the show was amazing is an understatement. I've never seen a more appreciative audience, gasping and squealing at every incredible moment.

Crowd-pleasers were these two contortionists who smiled placidly as they bent their bodies into impossible shapes.
Shanghai AcrobatsLike this:
Shanghai AcrobatsThen there was the boy who performed feats of balance on a tower of chairs.
Shanghai Acrobats
His colleagues kept adding to the chairs until they stood 10 high!
Shanghai Child Acrobats

It was truly amazing.

At the end of the performance, there was a brief burst of applause as the troup bowed then they all stepped back politely as the audience began to quieue to have souvenir pictures taken with them.

The acrobats stood patiently, applauding after every photo was taken. It was obviously part of the job.

Not for them, wild adulation and flowers at the stage door.

Coming away from the performance, heart still pounding, there was one thing that stayed with me.

These performers - they were all children.

The contortionists must have been 10 at the youngest. The boy acrobats - and there was a whole troup of them - were teenagers, voices still unbroken.

My Westernised sensibilities bridle at the thought of rigorous training, daily performances and lost childhoods. And yet my Eastern heart chides me for this soft reaction.

Given the realities and extreme inequalities of China, an acrobat's life and the future it assures on the stage may be as good as it gets for some.

Other childhoods, other places.


21 August 2007

Siobhan Dowd

I was so, so sad to learn from a friend that Siobhan Dowd, author of A Swift Pure Cry and The London Eye Mystery has died.

I was at the London Book Fair when Siobhan appeared at one of PEN’s writing masterclasses. She stood on the stage and gave a deep sigh. Only recently, she said, she had been in the audience of aspiring writers at one of these masterclasses. She couldn’t believe that she was on the stage talking about her book. But when I read her book I realised she was not just a fellow traveller on the thorny path to publication - the emotional honesty and simple beauty of her prose revealed a massive talent.

A few months ago, I asked my husband to read my YA novel but he was reluctant, never having read YA, he didn’t know what standard I was aspiring to. I gave him A Swift Pure Cry. That’s the standard, I said.

A Swift Pure Cry is a beautiful novel with heartrendingly believable characters – from motherless Shell who resorts to shoplifting when she realises she needs her first bra to the alcoholic father who copes by sending the children to pick up the stones in the field.

I do not know Siobhan, but after reading A Swift Pure Cry, I felt like Siobhan knew me.

I grieve for this wonderful writer and, selfishly, I grieve for the books we will not be reading as a result of her death.


07 February 2007

Unbearable Truths

Louise and her brothers from the Channel 4 documentary 'Age 12 and looking after the family'Age 12 and looking after the family was the third in a series of films about children with extraordinary lives.

Many found the story of 12-year-old Louise devastating. Louise and her eight-year-old sister are the primary carers of her four brothers with one more sibling on the way. The parents are both blind and having refused government support, rely on their daughter.

The programme drew shocked commentary – on the digiguide forum, the comments have reached 23 pages at last count, and ran along the following lines:
I have never posted a message before about a programme that I have watched, but I felt compelled to do so and voice how ABSOLUTELY DISGUSTED I am with what I have just witnessed. The 'parents' are blind - not too blind to pour themselves a pint of beer and light their cigarettes tho... The filth that the children were living in, the way they were sleeping on the floor, when the bedroom got really hot - THAT IS SO DANGEROUS. These people need to have their children taken from them.
Interestingly, there was also a strong reaction from visually impaired people, who felt the programme slighted the ability of blind people to care for their children. Here is one reaction on the Radio 4 programme In Touch for people with visual impairment:
As visually impaired people my wife and I were appalled by the portrayal of the couple with visual impairments. They were perhaps emotionally damaged, they were arguably lazy but to suggest that their dependence on their older children had anything to do with their sight is an absolute travesty, which will probably damage perceptions of the rest of us.
The programme strongly criticised the film-maker Jane Treays for her portrayal of blind parents. Treays appeared on the programme to point out that it was about one particular family, and it was about child carers - not blind parenting.

I had great sympathy for Treays as she tried to defend her programme while expressing respect for the feelings of the offended blind people. Truth has its many sides to many people, and observational documentary can't quite present the "on the other hand" stuff you might find in a current affairs programme.
But can observational documentaries reflect any better the truth of everyday lives? "It's a huge question. What is reality? Are they different when I'm not there? I cope with it by literally making it my view of the situation. I write it, direct it, research it, and I ask very deep questions: 'What does that mean to you? What happened next? What are your dreams?' The films are like moments in time, because they are what happens on a particular day when I'm there."

From Jane Treays: Up close and highly personal (By Jane Thynne, The Independent, 7 February 2007)
What, indeed, is reality?

I asked this of myself while writing Volcano Child. The migration phenomenon in the Philippines is not going to go away, leaving many children in the same situation as Louise in Jane Treays' documentary.

And yet there are many who think open discussion of migration’s social cost is not only an insult to the sacrifice of Filipino migrant workers who prop up the country’s economy to the tune of US$12 billion – more than aid and foreign investment.

Besides, we are sensitive folk, we Filipinos. Recently, I caught the screening in London of two brilliant Filipino films The Debt Collector (Kubrador) and The Blossoming of Maximo Olivares (Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros), pictured below. Enthusiastic applause - except from several Filipinos who were worried that the gritty poverty so evident in the films would mar the image of the country.

Ang Pagdadalaga ni Maximo Oliveros

This is one of the reasons why, unlike Jane Treays, I have taken the coward’s route — setting my story in a fictional location that just maybe could be the Philippines.

Nobody likes washing their dirty linen in public.