Monday, February 27, 2023

The Igorot in Philippine Literature: Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay

Courtesy of this blog, every now and then I would receive an email, mostly from university students, asking for recommendations with regards to books about Igorots. These requests are usually due to them burdened with an assignment or a research project the completion of which requires them to accumulate knowledge about certain aspects of "the Igorot". When it comes to non-fiction books about Igorots, I have quite a pile to recommend. There's a good number of non-fiction books out there that cover Igorot-related topics from our history starting from the arrival of the Spaniards to our cultural traditions (then and now).

Want to read about pre-colonial and colonial Igorots? Read the books by William Henry Scott and Albert Jenks. Want to read about the art of Kalinga tattooing? Analyn Salvador-Amores has you covered. To anyone looking for reading materials about the Igorots, I highly suggest he/she visits the library of the University of the Philippines in Baguio or the bookstore at the Museo Kordilyera (also inside the UP Baguio campus).

Around November of last year, I received an email from a student currently studying at the Polytechnic University of the Philippines. She introduced herself as a half-Igorot and half-Tagalog. Kristine is her name. Her father is from Angono, Rizal and her mother is from Tadian, Mt. Province. She explains that she is very proud of her Igorot origin but she adds that she rarely brings it up to people because aside from having 50% Igorot blood, there's not much else that would identify her as Igorot. She was born and raised in Angono. She doesn't speak nor understand Kankana-ey, the language of her mother. She is completely clueless about the traditions and cultural practices of the Igorots.

She emailed me because she wanted help in looking for reading materials about the Igorots. She specifically asked what books should she read. I sent her a patented reply. I recommended the usual books by Salvador-Amores, Jenks, Scott, and a few others. She thanked me for the recommendations. I didn't hear from her for a couple of months. Then this February, I received another email from her. She enthusiastically narrated that she read all the books I've recommended and that she found them engrossing and eye-opening. She then noted that all the titles are non-fiction. She also wanted another set of recommendations from me. This time, she asked for fiction books about Igorots. Now that she has knowledge about the Igorots and their history, she wanted to move forward and read how they are depicted in works of fiction. How are Igorots portrayed in literature? Do their portrayals in literary works jive with the words and observations of Scott, Jenks, Salvador-Amores, and company? These are questions she wanted some answers to.

At this point, I realized that I haven't read a single fiction book which feature the Igorot as a character. It has never occurred to me to go looking for one. So I told Kristine that I have nothing to recommend because just like her, I haven't read a single fiction book featuring Igorot characters. But I also told her that I'll help her find one. This sent me into a little journey looking for novels with Igorot characters.

And I found out there's very few of them. The one that got the bulk of my attention is Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay. I chose to read Bone Talk first for several reasons. One, the novel's author is a known name in the Philippine writing community. Two, it was published by Anvil which is one of the more prestigious (or should I say reliable) publishers in the country. So far, my experience with Anvil-published books has been within the realms of good to excellent. And three, the book has mostly good reviews with several influential Filipino authors vouching for it.

So for a couple of nights, I had to forego bingeing Trailer Park Boys on Netflix to devour the book. Bone Talk was marketed as a YA (Young Adult) novel. The style and flow of the prose definitely stayed close with the genre. Set in 1899 in a village in Bontoc, the novel is basically the coming-of-age story of an Igorot boy named Samkad. Serving as a backdrop for Samkad's transition from boy to man are real historical events like tribal conflicts and the arrival of American colonizers.

The plot is pretty simple. There are no grand twists and turns. But that doesn't matter because it's a well-written tale made colorful and engrossing with the way Gourlay weaved aspects of Igorot culture and history into the story. I also liked the pace of the story. It wasn't too slow. Gourlay didn't rush things either. So many YA authors these days have this annoying habit of rushing the plot forward in an attempt to drum up excitement. Fortunately, Gourlay didn't commit that grave error here. The pace of the story was close to perfect. Not too slow. Not too fast.

With historical novels like Bone Talk, it's expected that readers inquire about its accuracy. I grew up in Besao, a town in Mt. Province. Besao and Bontoc are neighbors. This should give me a tiny bit of authority to judge the accuracy of the book with regards to its depiction of the Bontoc Igorots and their culture/traditions. I think the book was mostly fair and on point. However, there are certain parts of the story that are not historically accurate. A lot of these are on the culture/traditions front. I am not going to divulge these in this article because I don't want to ruin the story for those who haven't read the book. Suffice it to say that Gourlay used her artistic freedom in crafting her tale to give it more color. To give it more sting, if you may.

To be fair to Gourlay, she doesn't claim her book to be historically accurate. In fact, she is very straightforward in saying that Bone Talk is not a history book. In notes at the end of the book, she wrote: "This story is not history though it is set during a real time, in a real place." It's also worth mentioning that Gourlay is not an Igorot. Some readers especially Igorot readers may feel some doubts after knowing this important fact. But at the end, whether Gourlay is or is not an Igorot is a non-issue. She did her research, she wrote the story, and she used her artistic freedom to craft the final product. It's what writers do.

Still, probably to appease those who might still be harboring doubts because of Gourlay's non-Igorot roots, she has this to say in her notes at the end of the book: "I do not hail from the Cordillera and I beg the forgiveness of its many and diverse peoples for any misreading of their culture. As a storyteller I can only spin a pale imitation of any reality. I hope that this story awakens the world's curiosity about this extraordinary time and place. With utmost respect to the people of the Cordillera."

Gourlay has been more than fair in depicting the Igorot in her book. And she's been more than humble in addressing those who might think otherwise. That's more than good enough for me. So dear reader, read this book.

And lest I forget, Kristine, you should read this book. This serves as a recommendation.

Bone Talk by Candy Gourlay