Saturday 8 August 2009

Digging Deep and Finding Your Heart Elsewhere

corazon aquino as Time Magazine's Woman of the YearI often write about digging deep — about scrounging around deep down to find you know, that essence of who you are, the thing that will make your writing really ring true, really sing.

Well, this week I dug deep and found that my heart was elsewhere.

In my native Philippines, it's been a traumatic week.

Corazon Aquino, the former president, died and there has been a great outpouring of grief and a mass recollection of the tumultuous revolution that catapulted this housewife (who looked remarkably like my mother) to power. She was a woman forced into a role she did not choose, inheritor of the shambles left by a 20 year dictatorship, a president of many imperfections. Her enforced leadership was no gift to this shy, unassuming woman.

My beloved former editor, Letty Jimenez Magsanoc, sent out a message to all us former staff writers now scattered across the world to send in our recollections of Aquino.

Living here in London as I do, I found it difficult to summon memories of that period. Was it the passage of time? Or had my brain grown fat in this country where freedoms are taken for granted, hunger is a concept, and people speak in complete sentences? It's all very well to talk about digging deep to my fellow writers. I had not kept a diary. What if I dug deep and found nothing?

My journalist friend Elizabeth recently wrote a piece for Granta on the conflict between memory and reality in her experience of the Tiananmen Square massacre
We take fragments of memory and weave them together into patterns as best we can. We darn or embroider any holes with threads of things that happened in our readings, in our conversations with others who really were there, in our dreams.Those then become part of the fabric of our storytelling, so that soon enough it is impossible to say what was remembered and what was embroidered. Read her essay here
I searched my photo albums and mementoes of the days leading up to and after the revolution of 1986. One thing is for sure, I took no photos. I had no film. I experienced history with an empty camera. And none of my photographer friends could risk their supplies and spare me a roll.

In the many photos, of the crowds, the journalists chasing the personalities of the day, I know where I am. I was standing on the other side of that tank as the nuns cowered under its tracks. I was on a balcony watching the helicopters descend on the military camp. I was sitting on the bridge as the people stormed the palace. But no, I cannot find myself in any of the pictures. It's as if I was never there.

I did keep the front cover of this magazine, not because of any historical significance but because smiling in the crowd was the face of my future.

Cover of Asia Magazine featuring People Power revolution, 1986

But of myself and of my role, I have kept no mementos.

Except ...

The events of 1986 were a coming of age for me and though I forget so many of the details, I only have to reread the stories I have written, revisit the characters I have drawn, to realise that the story of Cory and the 1986 revolution are all there. In my writing.

The girl who yearns for her mother. The boy who realises that what he wants has been there all along. The burden of a wish come true. The blessing that turns out to be a curse. Love, loss, the struggle to understand what is right and what is wrong - the memories I thought I had forgotten are imprinted in my soul — and manifest in my storytelling.

This is what I find when I dig deep, and it all comes from the growing up I had to do in the era of Corazon Aquino.

I also found this:

image of mad woman singing Bayan Ko on the steps of the Post Office, 1985. Philippines. Photo by Candy Gourlay.
I took this photo of a woman sitting on the steps of the Post Office in downtown Manila, after one of the frequent anti-government rallies of that time had dispersed.

She was quite mad, holding a plastic rose in one hand and singing in a strong alto Bayan Ko, the song that was to become the rallying anthem of that period.

She was somebody's mother, lost and unnoticed by the crowds.

In 2005, I did a radio programme about the migration phenomenon in the Philippines that has left so many families without a mother. The programme was called Motherless Nation.

I think the photo captures how many of us Filipinos feel now, after the death of Aquino, after all the things that have come to pass these last 22 years.

A nation, motherless.


  1. A fascinating and moving post - thank you for writing this. I also feel like I remember almost nothing of the past - but am amazed when I'm writing and find little memories popping up to help me.

  2. A superbly written and very moving post, Candy.

  3. Fantastic piece, Candy. I agree so much about how the past reformulates in our minds, am going to read Elizabeth's piece now. That picture of yours is a classic piece of photojournalism. The way the crucifix around the woman's neck hangs dead centre makes for a powerful piece of symbolism!

  4. Thank you.

    Someday, I have to go back and pump my friends for their memories of where i was in those important times.

    Funnily enough that photograph on the magazine cover, with R in rapt adoration, is reproduced every time it's the anniversary of the revolution and provides my family with endless entertainment.


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