Monday, April 1, 2019

Reading Bone Talk in Bontoc

I actually read Candy Gourlay's newest book, "Bone Talk," enroute to Bontoc last January when I was headed to Maligcong.  At the same time, I brought along another book to read and hopefully finish during my week-long hiatus in the highlands, Dee Brown's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee".  Candy's work is historical fiction; Dee Brown's a true account of how the American West was actually stolen by the white man.   Maybe circumstances have led me to bring books that seek to provoke the reader's mind as to how much the past has been revised, skewed towards the westerner's viewpoint.

I had the privilege of meeting Candy about two years ago, when she was researching for her current book, so it was an honor to have unwittingly help lead her to Maligcong which provided some answers to complete her puzzle, so to speak, and serve as an inspirational backdrop for this lovely book.  During the formal book launch in the Philippines through the auspices of Anvil Publishing, she shared her wonderment at why, growing up, the children's books would always feature fair-haired Dicks and Janes, and no Filipino, nay, even Asians in general, in the stories.  During the course of her research, she came across the St. Louis Exposition in 1904 which devoted 47 acres of allotment -- the largest of the 20 countries represented -- to the Philippines, the big idea of then governor-general and later US President, William Howard Taft (after whom that stretch of road that passes through Manila, Pasay and Paranaque, was named).

As this poster (attribution:  Jonathan Best and John Silva Collection) touted, 1200 natives, 40 different tribes, 6 Philippine villages, 70,000 exhibits, 130 buildings, and 725 native soldiers were showcased.    As noted writer and avid history expert/Filipino culture advocate, John Silva, wrote in his blog, Positively Filipino, "The Philippine Exposition at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair was a stunning visual extravaganza.  It also popularized distorted images of the Philippines and its people."    And distortion seems to be a rather imprecise word of understatement.  

Growing up, I remember reading about how the West perceives the Filipinos as a people living in trees.  Or maybe some sort of little brown monkeys perhaps who have yet to make the transition from the trees to a house.  Maybe it was the naivete/ignorance of the times then, when women can't vote, Indians are all heathens, the black race is less than human, and well, Asians are primitives.    In the St. Louis Exposition, the Igorot Village was a hit flocked by Americans who wanted to witness the tribe boiling a dog daily for dinner.  Oh brother. 

I'm not one to dig up the past but I do share Candy's interest in finding out which part of our history was told from the foreigner's point of view.  Much in the same way that I refuse to accept what the usual school reference books said about Magellan having discovered the Philippines and henceforth, our written history should start from there, I refuse to accept the token reaction/observation that the Americans civilized us.  The early inhabitants of our islands had a social structure in place when the Spaniards "discovered" the Philippines.    Anyway, that's food for thought (and for discerning readers to research about if they care about history told outside the revisionists' point of view) for another day.  

A picture paints a thousand words: Igorot dancing with American woman in St Louis 1904 Exposition • Attribution: Internet/Positively Filipino blog

Maybe, I had emotional baggage from reading "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee" that carried over my reading of "Bone Talk;"  (I admit crying at times over and over again while plodding through chapters upon chapters of ruthless native American genocide).   But both affected me deeply, made me want to search wider, deeper, if not for answers then for more questions.  Maybe, it's part of being older as I was heavily influenced by American and Western culture growing up, but later had an epiphany about being Filipino in a world increasingly sublimated by an alien culture that feels increasingly strange and well, alien (tell me if hearing Beyonce pop trash being sung by local kids on the rice terraces isn't strange). 

"Bone Talk" is available locally through Anvil Publishing • Cover illustration by Kerby Rosanes

Further reading reference: "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West" by Dee Brown, Vintage Books, 1991, 1970

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