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Unmuting forgotten voices in history: A review of 'Wild Song,' a YA book by UK-based Filipino author Candy Gourlay

In the vividly imagined novel, “Wild Song,” Igorots are trafficked from their mountain villages to 1904 racist America so they can entertain white people in a “human zoo” with their dances and farming rituals. It would be the crazy stuff of fantasy if it weren’t based on the appalling true story of the Saint Louis World’s Fair.

Author Candy Gourlay turns history’s tables around so the narrator in her newest YA book is a young independent-minded Igorot, Luki, a Bontok woman who goes to America not as a consequence of subjugation but an act of rebellion.

The story of Luki’s adventures in the exotic new land with all its opportunities and injustices is told in an affectionate internal conversation with her dead mother, a clever device that allows the narrator to share her truest feelings as well as convey the outsize role of their deceased ancestors in everyday life.

Depicted as savages in US history narratives, the mountain Filipinos in this book are imbued with a reserved dignity even as they’re hoodwinked by an American huckster.

Candy Gourlay is a Filipina former journalist who covered people power in 1986 and is living now as an acclaimed YA author in the UK.

Widely praised in the mainstream press there, “Wild Song” portrays colonized people as having agency, while it introduces to a general audience an obscure, despicable episode of colonization.

The saga begins in the idyllic mountain village of the quarreling main protagonists, the tomboyish teen-age girl Luki who can hunt as well as a man, and the dashing young warrior Samkad who is madly in love with the dismissive Luki. The tension between the two animates their journey with their villagemates across the Pacific and all the way to a dramatic audience with the president of the United States. As we know of it today, there are two Americas in the book, a bigoted imperialist one and a kinder version amply represented in the real-life African-American band leader Walter Loving.

History is replete with mute masses of movers and victims, people we may never know much about. Novels like this one allow the imagination to fill that void and purvey certain truths that would otherwise be lost.

Candy Gourlay’s novels –“Wild Song” is actually a sequel to “Bone Talk” that tells the story of the budding warrior Samkad in their home village – grant the wishes as well of Filipino parents like myself with young children who are voracious readers but could not find compelling YA books with Filipino themes and stories.

As someone who has traveled extensively in the Cordillera and has long followed an Instagram account that tries to memorialize the old Igorot village in Saint Louis, I can attest that “Wild Song” rings true, the invented characters set in places and events that the author meticulously researched. I will not, of course, reveal here how it ends, but I also wish it were true. — LA, GMA Integrated News