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It’s taken me a year to put something together on fiction, and the brief has shifted a bit in the process. I dig deep into why I loved this “children’s book” (grade 6 and up) and why it should be read by all ages. If you want to understand the Philippine-American War through a coming-of-age story mixed with a Things Fall Apart-theme, you have to try Bone Talkby Candy Gourlay.
It’s taken me a year to put something together on fiction, and the brief has shifted a bit in the process because I stumbled onto three different Philippine-set audiobooks narrated by the same Filipino American voice artist, Ramón de Ocampo. My de-Ocampo-fan-girling was not intentional, but he narrates so many books published in the US by Filipino and Filipino diaspora authors that it was unavoidable. I wish UK and US publishers built a larger stable of voice actors from the Philippines itself, but Ocampo is fantastic. He is particularly good at giving characters unique inflections, pacing, and tone. You hardly need dialogue tags because the different speakers are so clear.
Blurb by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s Book Dragon: “A Filipino boy on the verge of manhood in 1899 must face mortal enemies, colonial brutality, and his own headstrong, immature self to help save his remote village from annihilation.”
Bone Talk is a sophisticated book that brings little-known history and marginalized cultures to the fore. Sophisticated, but isn’t it juvenile fiction? Award-winning juvenile fiction, you say, but still a children’s book? Yes, the publisher markets Bone Talk for grade 6 to 9, but it is really for everyone. (And in the Philippines, they know it. Here too.) As with To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn, there’s no reason that a nine-year-old or thirteen-year-old protagonist should limit a book’s theme. Better than TKAM and Huck Finn, though, Bone Talk does not view the Cordillera people of 1899 through a white gaze. Instead, our guide is Samkad, a Bontok boy. (Bone Talk is a play on words: about the Bontoc municipality and the Bontok people.)
Samkad’s voice gives the story a directness and vision that matches author Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. As literary scholar Emmanuel Obiechina wrote about the Nigerian novel: “There is no loitering along the wayside for little irrelevant chit-chat, no pseudo-philosophizing, no awkward asides, no finger-pointing and no instant homilies which, though interesting in themselves, succeed only in detaining the reader and slowing down the tempo of the narrative.” The same is true for Bone Talk. I do not think a book written for ten-year-old boys can survive with “irrelevant chit-chat” or “instant homilies.” Boring books will not be read by children with smart phones and Netflix.
Like Things Fall Apart, a significant part of Bone Talk begins without any outside involvement. The village stands on its own. Expectations, ethics, and behavior are traditional and autonomous.
The reader is absorbed into this world through Samkad’s personal journey. More than anything he wants to be like his father and the other village warriors. He anticipates the day that the elders (“the ancients”) will deem him ready for the rite of passage required to become a man: the Cut (circumcision, tuli in Filipino). What does it even mean to “be a man”? Does Samkad understand those expectations, or does he just crave status? Remember, he’s ten, so he’s not the most reliable of narrators. And what are the expectations of dress and duty for women? Luki, his best friend, she wants to be a warrior too—partly because she is quite brave, and partly because she knows that adulthood will create a gendered rift in their childhood friendship. The ending of the book nudges tradition forward a little, and yet it feels authentic, which I think was Gourlay’s intention. There is a lot to unpack here for a modern audience—or a family reading the book together, maybe?
It is worth pointing out that Philippine-born Gourlay is not from the Cordillera Mountains herself. (Originally from Davao City, Ateneo de Manila graduate Gourlay was a journalist and associate editor of the weekly 1980s opposition tabloid Mr & Ms Special Edition, according to Wikipedia.) As a “lowlander,” Gourlay would be almost as much of an outsider as the Spanish and Americans. She admits her limitations: “I do not hail from the Cordillera and I beg the forgiveness of its many and diverse peoples for any misreadings of their culture. As a storyteller I can only spin a pale imitation of any reality.” She certainly did her research, including extended visits in Maligcong and conversations with members of the community, as detailed in her acknowledgments.
As Gourlay wrote, this is a book about first contact, with the additional complexity of Samkad’s soul being tied to a young orphaned Bontok boy who was raised down the mountains among Tagalog-speakers. There are concentric circles of identity at play here, and that is a very appropriate conversation for adults and children alike today. In the end, what best defines identity: birth, upbringing, or beliefs? Maybe all of the above.
Adding to the layers of identity are layers of enemies, including a fictionalized Cordillera people, the Mangili. As in Chinua Achebe’s novel, the distraction of outsiders weakens a society, making it more vulnerable to attacks by insiders.
The outsiders of concern are the Americans. The ancients of Samkad’s village knew that the Philippine-American War was raging, but its irrelevance to their daily life shows how distinct their society was from that of the lowlands.
Samkad had no idea about any of what was happening down the mountain, which is probably a good starting point for most American readers. Gourlay is careful not to downplay imperialism and violence, but the book is not unnecessarily traumatizing for younger readers—though each family and reader needs to make that decision on their own. I am not an expert on the middle school age group, but others have deemed it age-appropriate, and it is published in the US by Scholastic. The text includes death of animals, torture (pulling a man behind a horse to injure but not kill him), corpses and dismembered bodies, and death. There is no sexual violence.
Not all Americans are bad in the book, but the only true heroes are Bontok. There is a teacher figure, Mister William, roughly based on Albert E. Jenks, I think, since the author referenced the letters and memoir of his wife, Maud. (I should say, it’s optimistic and generous portrayal of Jenks, if it is him.) William is too ineffectual to be a hero because he is unable to protect Samkad’s people from the dangers of his countrymen. And his English-language education carries with it the cultural imperialism of his fellow Thomasites. He is not a callous or cruel man, though.
Beware soldiers bearing “gifts” of guns and candy, but you already knew that. The two soldiers who arrive treat the Cordillera people and culture as curiosities, and by this point the reader has been so well assimilated into village culture that the outrage is authentic and personal. That is important because the history of American science—and pseudo-science—in the Philippines is shocking. As Daniel Immerwahr revealed in How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, the overseas territories “functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”
This material will form the background of my upcoming historical fiction novel, so I do not want to dive too deep into the subject here. A relevant example for this novel would be Worcester’s photographs of the Cordillera peoples as printed in National Geographic. Photographs were new to the magazine then, believe it or not, and Worcester’s images shaped the future of Nat Geo as well as the political disenfranchisement of the Filipino people. He used his racist “anthropological gaze” to measure the highlanders—using his own taller-than-American-average body as the yardstick and choosing the shortest people to stand next to him. The results were rigged. Gourlay hints at the role of cameras in the exploitation of the Cordillera peoples, allusions worth exploring in more detail with the help of the MIT Visualizing Cultures website on the topic.
Worcester presented the Cordillera people as “primitive” and incapable of self-government, which then allowed him as Secretary of the Interior to assume legal control of all people, land, and resources in the area. Worcester was a one-man British East India Company. He was not even an anthropologist by training, though he claimed the title. He had a bachelor’s degree in zoology, specializing in ornithology—and the fact that he believed the two overlapped is telling, especially considering what happened next.
Entire villages of Cordillera peoples were transported to the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, known as the St. Louis World’s Fair. There, they and other Filipinos were subject to humiliating, fetishizing, and dehumanizing displays. For example, crowds were repulsed-yet-attracted to the rare ceremonial practice of dog-eating. The Cordillera peoples were required to butcher a canine each and every day for visitors, a cultural insult. (I lay this atrociously inhumane treatment of animals on the Americans who demanded the practice as “entertainment.”) For readers or teachers eager to know more, the Asian American Education Project has put together materials for further exploration.
If you would rather not know too much, this is the beauty of Bone Talk. It gives only a visceral snapshot of this history without going too deep in any one topic. As one reviewer said about the book, Gourlay “never overwhelms the reader with information or makes it feel artificial” but she has “clearly done her research.”
Gourlay also approached the issue of headhunting with care. She admitted that the Cordillera people she met “gave me the impression that they wanted to put headhunting firmly into the distant past.” It makes sense they would want to do so since headhunting was used by Worcester to justify his oppressive and self-interested administrative apparatus. However, as Gourlay found in her research, headhunting is not unheard of in white culture:
Britain, the book [Severed by Frances Larson], reminded me, has had a long tradition of severing heads. One famous head, Oliver Cromwell’s, became an attraction at small freak shows. It deteriorated down the centuries, losing an ear here and the tip of its nose there, before ending up in private hands. It wasn’t until 1960 that it occurred to someone to give Cromwell’s head a break. It was buried in Cambridge….Turns out, unshoed corners of the world do not have a monopoly on head chopping.
Talking about what are acceptable boundaries in war and law is a regular conversation in my classroom of mostly eighteen-year-olds. We see enough images of victims of napalm, white phosphorus, Agent Orange, nuclear bombs, nuclear testing, drone strikes, and enhanced interrogation that my students learn to question what form of killing is “civilized.”
Bone Talk is not an authoritative history of the Philippine-American War, nor should it be. It is a novel, a story set within this world but not encompassing all of it. After reading this book, though, I think every reader will want to learn more. I have lots of history here on this site, and Gourlay has put together a great set of resources appropriate for the age of her readers. More is needed, though. Americans need to know this history.
Fortunately, there is now more than a paragraph in high school textbooks on the invasion and seizure of the Philippines. Still, though, teachers do know enough about this history because they were not taught it; and students do not know enough to ask for more. If every student in the US read Bone Talk by the time they were in 9th grade, they might demand that more attention be given to American imperialism in the Pacific, especially the Philippines. A good book could be the most organic and effective way to combat imperial amnesia and American exceptionalism.
Namrata Patel’s writing “recipe” blends complex heroines, Gujarati food, and global families—a meal in three delicious courses. I have sampled several of Nam’s unpublished manuscripts, as well as her home cooking, and they have all been delicious—but it is her published debut, The Candid Life of Meena Dave,that is the book feast you have been waiting for.
The Candid Life of Meena Dave is available for pre-order now on Amazon, Audible, and elsewhere. It will be released on June 1, 2022, by Lake Union Publishing. It is marketed as women’s and Asian American fiction, not romance, but there is an achingly perfect love interest. (And I think you’ll love Sam as much as I do!)
Thank you, Nam, for coming here to the History Ever After blog. I am going to be geeking out on history with my questions, but that won’t surprise you or anyone else.
1. What inspired you to write Meena’s story?
It was the early days of the pandemic, and we were all trying to navigate this unknown event in our lives. For many of us, we were doing it alone. Overnight, our world shrunk to what was within the four walls. And we were all experiencing some of the same in terms of living inside versus out. For me, I wanted to write about things that I couldn’t quite resolve. This story came from that, especially around what does “community” mean? I used to define that word very broadly in terms of cultural identity, ethnicity, professional networks, family, friends—a catch-all for the people in my life. During the early days of isolation, the scope of that definition changed, narrowed. Through that, this story was born. What if a person felt alone in the world because they define community in a very narrow and perhaps literal sense (e.g. family)? What would it take for them to notice that you can build one, be invited, and find a sense of belonging? Usually what helps inspire a story is something that I’m trying to work through myself.
2. Can you tell us a little of the history that inspired the Engineer’s House?
Oh my gosh, yes! I’ve always been fascinated by my Gujarati American identity and history. Growing up, I was only exposed to it by my parents who told stories about their lives—my father was born right before the Partition, so he’d lived under British rule of India for a bit. I didn’t get much of that in history classes, which are usually taught through an American and/or western lens, even world history.
In college and later grad school, I leaned into diaspora, dual-cultural identity creation, and anything that helped me understand my place in this country. Most of what I’d learned was generalized desi American experiences. Post grad school, I continued to stay current through non-fiction books and academic papers.
A few years ago, I learned about Ross Bassett, a history professor who cataloged every Indian graduate of MIT from the beginning to 2000. He published a paper MIT-Trained Swadeshis: MIT and Indian Nationalism, 1880–1947. When I read through it, a short paper by academic standards, I was floored. It was a part of my history that I never knew. Over a 100 Gujrati Indians came to MIT and studied here before the Partition in order to go back to India and rebuild its infrastructure. I tried to learn as much about them as possible, but there wasn’t a lot. Most of my hyphenated history is around the major immigration of Indians and other desis in the eighties and nineties. This was well before that.
I kept thinking of what it must have been like for them, to be brown, to not have access to their familiar culture like food, language, ability to worship, and all that gives us a sense of community.
That’s when the premises of the Engineer’s House emerged for me. What if there were (fictional, of course), a few who were the constants? What if two or three desi men—they were all men by the way—stayed to welcome each new class and wave off those who graduated? Then they built families here, stayed on, and assimilated to America. Each subsequent generation that followed had more of a connection and a sense of place to this country than India.
So I created the Engineer’s House as a place where they would have lived, became hyphenated, and lived communally. One reason, of several, I chose to set the house in the Back Bay area of Boston is because this is still a very white space historically, and I wanted to put a brown community within it because these aunties had come from wealth in India and continued to live as such by building their own status and wealth here.
I’ll stop here—but as you can imagine, I can talk about this for pages!
3. I know from personal experience that you are a talented Gujarati cook. Can you tell us a little bit about your favorite dishes in the book?
I had fun thinking about food in this novel. One thing that happens to food when immigrants move to a new place is fusion—it’s not just for chefs. Women (mainly) create with what’s available, and the original traditional diet/cuisine evolves as part of assimilation.
My mom does this. I grew up eating desi lasagna which has cumin, coriander, and other traditional spices. Tomato soup came out of a can, but then was mixed with veggies and spices to change the flavor.
So I kept thinking, how and what would the aunties have learned—especially from parents and grandparents who brought spices over in suitcases because Patel Brothers wasn’t a thing yet? That’s where tandoori turkey and fish curry came from. Gujaratis are agrarian and vegetarian, but in the States, we’ve assimilated. I mean I love a good steak once in a while! So the aunties doctored up Thanksgiving and made it their own.
I will say the scene with the sabudana kichdi is my favorite because that is a traditional dish that has stayed the same for generations. As with a lot of desi cuisine, each family makes it their own, and this is my mother’s recipe. However, NYT Cooking offered up one a few years ago, which comes close. I wanted to make sure the book conveyed what changed and what was kept, culturally, via food.
4. Is your second book a part of this same world? Have we met any of the characters yet?
No. The second book is a stand-alone about a perfumer who loses her sense of smell and actively tries to get it back. In the process, she learns how to adapt and discovers that you can have more than one passion. It’s set in northern California and also examines the history of Indian hotel owners in the US.
I am excited to announce that the Hotel Oriente is open after a pretty thorough remodel: better pacing, more hotel tidbits, and—best of all—brunch!
BUT WAIT! If you have not read Hotel Oriente yet, I have an amazing deal for you. You can grab it and nine more books in the Romancing the Past anthology for almost nothing. Yes, all ten swoony romances for the low price of 99¢ until September 15th, and only $4.99 after that.
More from the Author’s Note of the 2021 Revision of Hotel Oriente:
Let’s dig into the history. Yes, the Hotel de Oriente did exist, though it was known by many spellings. Hotel de Oriente was the name plastered across the exterior molding, but I found all the following used: Hotel Oriente, Hotel d’Oriente, Hotel el Oriente, Hotel Orient, and every one of these in reverse order. It was the place to stay until the Insular Government purchased it in November 1903 to use as the headquarters of the Philippine Constabulary.
Many photos exist of the exterior of the building, and Las Casas Filipinas de Acuzar has even built a working reconstruction and conference center in Bataan, which I have visited. Other than a few room photos, though, the interior is known only from traveler’s reports, including those on Lou Gopal’s Manila Nostalgia blog, as well as a variety of journals in the public domain. From these, I borrowed the complaints over “missing” mattresses and excessive egg dishes. I borrowed the bathtub incident from my father-in-law, who managed an American military hotel in Bangkok during the late 1960s.
A real assistant manager of the Oriente was implicated in the true scandal that almost engulfed Moss and Seb. Captain Frederick J. Barrows, the actual quartermaster of Southern Luzon, stole one hundred grand a month for almost a full year, pocketing nearly $1.2 million by 1901 (the equivalent of $38 million in 2020). This was nowhere near the largest war profiteering in world history—that honor goes to reconstruction contracts during the Iraq War—but it is still a lot of money. A court-martial sentenced Barrows to five years in Bilibid Prison, and that may have been getting off easy. He had a better chance at a fair trial inside the military than out of it. This was true for all civilians, Filipino or American. The Insular Cases, a series of 1901 decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court, were the true legal architecture of empire, and they said that the Constitution did not follow the flag. I pushed forward the date of these decisions for my story, but only by a few months.
Much of Della’s article on the scandal is reproduced from the Los Angeles Herald’s April 1st issue, no joke. Please consider this acknowledgment my endnote for “Far Reaching Frauds in Army Commissary,” from page one. I used as much of the original wording as I could because I wanted Della’s writing to match the standards of the profession in 1901. The previous edition of this novella did not do a good job of displaying her talents as a journalist.
Della’s story was inspired by a deaf voyager, memoirist, and teacher named Annabelle Kent. While I was researching Under the Sugar Sun, I found a terrific description of a steamer’s rough entrance into Manila Bay. Kent’s Round the World in Silence proved her to be a thrill-seeking woman impervious to seasickness. (According to later U.S. Navy experiments, those with a damaged vestibular system are less likely to suffer from the bucking motion of the waves.) She circumnavigated the globe, mostly with strangers who did not speak American Sign Language. To me, Kent had the perfect spirit to infuse a romance heroine.
People say to “write what you know,” which is excellent advice—but plot bunnies lead me down precarious burrows. Could a deaf writer have better written about Della Berget? No doubt. Are there better books out there about Deaf Culture? Every single one written by someone who identifies as hard of hearing to profoundly Deaf. But I took a risk and wrote Della as best I could. This meant research: the Limping Chicken blog and the Gallaudet University archives were especially helpful. Of course, all mistakes or errors are entirely mine. At the time, the U.S. Congress required Gallaudet to teach only the “Oral Method” of communication, which is why she speechreads instead of speaking ASL. Della does not yet know other deaf people in her corner of Manila—she is new to the city—so there is not enough treatment of Deaf Culture and its rewards in this story, nor would I be the best person to translate such ideas to the page.
Moss is also loosely based on an actual person: West G. Smith, the American manager who ran the hotel for Ah Gong, proprietor. West Smith became Moss North? His wife Stella became Della? Yes, I amuse myself. Smith arrived with the Thirteenth Minnesota Volunteers and stayed to manage the Oriente, but the rest of Moss’s personal history was entirely fiction. Also, I liked the name and story behind the White Elephant resort in Nantucket, but it has no relation to Moss’s uncle’s hotel, which was instead based on the Windsor in St. Paul.
Hughes Holt’s background was a fictionalized conflation of the two West Virginian congressmen of the era, but his personality hews closer to Senator Albert J. Beveridge of Indiana, an orator who built a career on the embrace of overseas expansion. Beveridge did visit the Philippines—albeit two years earlier, in May of 1899—so that he could “understand the situation” (his words) before assuming his seat in the Senate. Unlike Holt, Beveridge impressed local soldiers with his physical endurance and ability to withstand deprivation. Like Holt, he left the islands more imperialist than ever. Emboldened, the U.S. Army would wage a relentless war, and so would privateers. The anecdote about violent American outlaws in Pampanga was ripped from page six of the 15 May 1901 issue of the New York Times.
Though Moss’s anti-imperialist attitudes were rare among soldiers, his concerns can be found in archived letters, newspapers, and Senate testimony. It was Major General Smedley Butler, USMC—two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor and veteran of the Philippine-American War—who wrote War is a Racket in 1935. He claimed that his three-plus decades of service had been “conducted for the benefit of the very few [commercial and oil interests], at the expense of the very many.”
That brings me to Moss’s use of a condom, which was based on the state of contraception at the turn of the twentieth century. I do not know how hard it would have been to purchase a sheath in Manila, but it may have been easier there than in the United States. The 1873 Comstock Act had made it illegal to distribute birth control or information about birth control through the mail or across state lines, not imperial ones. Yes, the Philippines was a majority Catholic country, but papal pronouncements did not ban “artificial contraception” until 1930. Did Della understand what the condom was? It was possible, given the close contact she had with married friends at her university. Also, hearing people tended to be indiscreet around her, often to their own detriment.
Thanks for getting this far. Remember that your honest review helps readers find books they love. If you have taken the time to rate and review on Goodreads or the retailer of your choice, thank you. For everyone, I hope you enjoyed Moss and Della’s story. Here’s wishing you a History Ever After!