Luki, the protagonist in Candy Gourlay’s latest novel, “Wild Song” (David Fickling Books, London, 2023), is not your typical female character. The young adult novel opens with Luki on a tree branch, awaiting her catch, a boar. She manages to spear it just in the nick of time to protect her friend Samkad.
Luki and Samkad carry the dead boar to the village, and that there is meat for everyone is celebrated. But Samkad claims the credit for the kill because girls are not supposed to hunt.
That is only one of many taboos Luki has to grapple with in the Igorot village she lives in. And in complaining about them, especially as she is deemed different and unpopular by her peers, she turns to talk to her mother, dead since a year ago.
This is a clever structure in the narrative using a first-person point of view with welcome breaks and deeper insights, as Luki speaks to her mother. In the first such instance, she blames her mother for the independent person she has become, unfettered by the usual expectations of a daughter. This does not make her well-liked by her peers, but does she care? The undercurrents in the story are revealed early on, for in this Igorot village when the American colonizers have begun to make their presence felt, the serene life tied to sacred traditional practices and intrinsically linked to nature’s cycle is disturbed. True, the villagers appear happy beneficiaries of education and the English language, but the elders always seem wary. The villagers are slowly becoming accustomed to seeing how Americans are changing what was normal.
Igorots in America
Truman Hunt is assigned governor of the area, and today he is calling a special meeting with everyone’s attendance mandated. Hunt’s main agenda is the invitation for the villagers to travel to America in a boat the size of a mountain, to live in a village at the St. Louis’ World’s Fair—to be viewed by Americans who would travel just to see them. There is also the lure of earning American cents. And he even drops President Roosevelt’s name, he who appointed Hunt to take care of the Igorots in America.
Those in the meeting are filled with hope, eager to see the wonders of America. But the ancients speak, saying why nobody would be signing up to go. The paddy fields from their forefathers could not be left untended, the long journey was unsuitable for ancients and how to leave the young people on their own, how to leave the invisible world of spirits?
Kinyo, the villager who had been assisting Hunt in translation, is aghast that such a chance of a lifetime at a World’s Fair would be forfeited to plant rice in those fields.
At that point, Luki feels she had heard enough and obviously, is not interested in the trip at all. Hunt calls her attention, especially eager to have someone like Luki in St. Louis—he has, after all, secretly witnessed with much admiration how this incredible girl had speared the boar to death.
After a conversation with Samkad moments after, during which Samkad proposed marriage to Luki, an expected inevitability in the village, she quickly changes her mind, saying she did not want to be his wife—she is after all, an outlier—and would thus submit her name to go to America. Samkad would, of course, also do likewise.
Luki’s physical journey to America is also the journey of the colonial experience, as it begins to be evident what the Igorots were brought to the World’s Fair for. Luki is not enamored by what America promises and offers, but grows in her disillusionment that Hunt has brought them to be a “kind of amusing versions of ourselves… It was all for show.” Hunt’s mission was to show America “his idea of Igorots that he wanted (them) to see.”
The journey begins as is initially promised, full of wonder. There are many hints along the way of how the traveling Igorots are regarded. Experiences which began to jar and disconcert Luki early on. In a hotel in Manila, the security says, “Igorot—they bad for hotel.”
The Igorots’ revered tradition of honoring the dead is impossible on the journey to America. Instead the two deceased passengers are wrapped in blankets and kept in the luggage compartment awaiting burial in St. Louis. Back home in Bontok, they would have joined our ancestors, thinks Luki. It also does not seem right that they took their coats, even if they needed them in the cold. So they throw them out into the darkness.
Luki meets her first American friend Sadie Locket on horseback, a sight that initially impresses Luki. But their initial interaction, a persistent stereotype, shocks Luki: “Dog for breakfast, lunch and dinner? What was she talking about? Pet him one moment and then roast him over a fire? Is that what Americans thought we did?”
At the Fair itself after one of the Igorots’ performances, an American woman in the audience is emotional as she turns to Hunt, “I have never been so proud to be an American. These poor people had been living in darkness and we have gifted them with civilization.”
It is not as if Luki was never lured to what America promised. She resists Sadie’s offer of a job to be her assistant and is drawn to Sadie’s clothes and general demeanor. Then Luki wakes up with contrary feelings of joy and remorse that she genuinely enjoyed such dreams.
Luki is bothered that the Igorots should be compared to the Pygmies from Africa, with Truman Hunt saying that the Igorots are much better. Luki does not like the comparison: “ … how are we better? Is it really possible for one people to be better than another?” Luki could never be totally comfortable in America, not with the two contrasting images of the country she saw. Sadie’s America that offered all kinds of choices and possibilities, something Luki could not have imagined at all. The other America could not bear the thought of Igorots being able to be happy with their art using Crayolas and who took a look at her and said, “Look at this one, all dressed up like a human being.”
Luki and Sambad could never be like friends who renamed themselves Johnny because the Americans could not say “Juan” nor Stanley because “Estanislao” was impossible too.
When Luki decides she could no longer work for Sadie, Sadie is beside herself with anger and blurts out with much condescension, “…based on everything I’ve read, you’re not going home to much. It’s hot, stinky and stupid. It’s the armpit of the world.”
Accompanying her Spanish-speaking friend Johnny to a job interview, they find themselves in a room with collections of skulls for scientific study, making Luki ask herself, so who are the headhunters now?
Luki’s and Sambad’s return to their Bontok becomes inevitable after Luki’s disruptive intrusion on the same stage as the visiting President Roosevelt, earning Hunt the presidential reminder to manage his wards better. “I’d had enough, Mother of the Igorot Village, the World’s Fair, America. I wanted to go home. But did I have a home to go to?”
They are sent home by Hunt who has no more need for whatever trouble they would still cause. But how comforting, how tranquil returning to everything familiar was. After the noise and frenzy of the fair, it seemed hard to imagine the simple joys of the highlands. Luki’s last conversation with her Mother refers to how she left the village with such mixed feelings of resentment—and how she was at the same time guilty and happy, sad and ashamed. She told her Mother then, “I was not afraid to leave, but I was afraid of what would happen if I stayed.”
This is a powerful and emotional tale that Gourlay tells. Although it is a piece of fiction, it is based on the 1904 journey of more than a thousand people, the indigenous Igorots among them, from the Philippines to America to be exhibited at the World’s Fair at Saint Louis.
This may be considered a companion to novel to Gourlay’s earlier “Bone Talk,” with a younger Samkad and his best friend Little Luki the main characters living in a time and place about to experience colonization. It has earned prized citations, among them the Carnegie Medal shortlist, a Washington Post Best Children’s Book and a United States Board on Books for Young People Outstanding International Book.
“Wild Song” can certainly be read as an independent novel. It celebrates indigenous tradition and history and with its engaging storytelling style, makes the learning of history much more interesting. That Luki is her own woman allows an underlying theme of feminism as early as then. Gourlay’s lyrical passages transport the reader to be immersed in the scene and to empathize with the characters especially through the lens of Luki. It’s an intriguing story made more complex—and maddening—with the theme of American colonization.
How much have things changed in America today in the context of the 1904 rule that white and colored do not mix, referring to the separate white and colored entrances? Luki says, “It seemed mad to divide the world according to skin color.”
The choice of title is apt, for the songs in the wild are what truly characterize the serene and picturesque Bontok highlands. And quite lamentably, “wild” had also been used to refer to the savage in the tribes.
It is interesting and timely that just as the book was being launched in Davao and Manila, Washington Post would release an article dated Aug. 16 about tracing the remains of an Igorota, someone named Maura, who was at the St. Louis World’s Fair, died from pneumonia, and whose skull would end up in the Smithsonian as part of its racial brain collection.
Although “Wild Song” is in truth a piece of fiction, Gourlay is herself amazed at how much of the story of Maura and the World’s Fair accounts coincide with her own narrative. Even the illustrations for the Maura story could very well have been for Gourlay’s novel, she says—which is evidence of the amount of historical research the author undertook for her novel. —Contributed INQ