Sunday 5 March 2017

The Danger of Reading

Last week, I wrote If Books Are Mirrors, Where are Our Reflections? about a teacher conference that explored the importance of making sure children of all backgrounds and experiences are represented in the books they encounter.

Photo: John Christian Fjellestad | Flickr Creative Commons

'What happens if you've never seen yourself in a mirror and only ever gaze out a window?' I asked.

Actually I already knew the answer to that question because I had experienced it first hand. Growing up, I never saw Filipinos like me in the books I loved.

In fact, the books I devoured as a child were a respite from my ordinary world. The Philippines of my childhood was a deeply religious, deeply conservative, third world city of shanty towns, where hurricanes and earthquakes caused disasters of biblical proportions, where unabashed corruption was the norm, where a tiny, selfish elite ruled, wilfully preventing the trickle down of wealth.

But the books I read – all imported from America or England – were a window to a different world. A fantasy world where there were no squatter areas, where little girls could rebel against their elders, where young people had incredible independence, where people were ultimately kind and noble, and alway, always, pink of skin.

So what happens when you spend all your time gazing out a window? You begin to believe that who you are and what you have is less than what is out there. You want to escape.

Last year, I was asked to name the most dangerous book I read as a young person for a Guardian article with the title: Banned, burned, or simply life changing: what are the best dangerous books? My response:
When I think back, ALL the books I read as a child were dangerous. They took me out of the ordered rules of my cultural life and proposed that there were other choices out there ... I explored worlds that bore no resemblance to my own in my native Philippines. They made me disgruntled, discontented with my lot ... It was terrifying and unimaginable. And oh so delicious.

Books can be 'dangerous' in a good way – sparking creativity, inspiration, aspiration. Neil Gaiman once said in an interview:
If you were trapped in an impossible situation, in an unpleasant place, with people who meant you ill, and someone offered you a temporary escape, why wouldn’t you take it? ... As JRR Tolkien reminded us, the only people who inveigh against escape are jailers.
But escape is also a kind of rejection. A rejection of self.

Back in 2011, I wrote a blog piece titled Finding the Unmistakeable I Am in which I quoted William Fiennes – author of The Snow Geese  – on his work with teenagers in inner city schools.

He described how his heart sank when his young charges handed him versions of Harry Potter, Twilight and Grand Theft Auto with "more vampires than you can shake a sharpened stick at".

Teenagers with names like Ramendeep, Satvinder and Barveen were populating their writing with characters named Sophie and Alexander.

Thing is, I totally get why Ramendeep, Satvinder and Barveen would do such a thing because I have done it myself.

My very first attempt at a novel took me a long five years and yet it was only when a literary agent pointed it out to me that I realised there was nothing of me in the story. It featured only English characters in an English setting.

'There is a disconnect between the author and the book,' the agent told me.

Now, there were two ways to process this comment.

Did she mean that because of my ethnicity writing English characters in an English setting is not allowed?

I don't want to think so.

When I tell this story in schools, I say I learned something very important from what she said:  I learned that to write a good book – to write a story that will truly move a reader – it was not just about  WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW but WRITE WHO YOU ARE.

To write well, a writer must look hard into a mirror.

Realising this gave me the courage to write Filipino characters and Filipino settings. It's not easy, looking into one's own heart, it feels unsafe, all your vulnerabilities are laid bare to the world. Reading books had made me yearn to escape my harsh life in Manila. Now I had to relive what I thought I had left behind.

And what if nobody wanted to know your story? What if my stories didn't belong? What if books really turned out to be the exclusive preserve of pink-skinned people?

I was surprised at what I discovered. Yes, there was pain and loneliness. But there was also joy, resilience in adversity, endurance, and love. And in finding my Unmistakeable I Am – I think I found my voice as a writer.

It has been a revelation. I sincerely hope that when my readers gaze into the mirrors of my books, they will like what they see.

Candy Gourlay is the author of Tall Story and Shine. She posts book resources for readers and literacy educators, as well as children's book business and craft for authors in her new Facebook Page, do give us a like if this is your thing (please choose 'Follow First' to make sure FB doesn't hide my posts from you)! If you happen to be in Dubai this week, Candy will be appearing in the Emirates Airline Litfest. Do check out her events from 9 to 11 March 2017


  1. A fine blogpost, Candy -and true. We need dangerous books -and that mirror (I was really pleasantly surprised yesterday when I was teaching *not* to have the experience William Fiennes was talking about with names (because I so often do). But it's crazy that I found it surprising).

    Really interesting to read about your experience of 'dangerous' books when you were growing up. And I love what you say about finding the unmistakable I am. If we want our writing to have genuine emotional truth, then we've got to be prepared to dig deeper and be a little more vulnerable when writing. x

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment, Clare. Mind you most people beginning to write do this to pay homeage to the books they love. But too many do it because they do not believe their stories belong on a page. I love the idea of The Unmistakeable I Am. I once got the (so rare!) chance to run a three day afternoon writing workshop for children. I had been keeping a comics diary for a time so I got the kids to keep a small comics diary that they shared everyday. It made them realise how full of story their home lives actually were.

  2. The idea of the Unmistakeable I Am resonates strongly with me at the moment. I tend to write about journeys towards the self. Schools can be very homogenising. I don't think they do nearly enough to help children direct and explore their innate talents, preferences and heritage.

  3. I read this whole post without seeing who wrote it (as I often do when following a link). When I read the top and saw you talk about being Filipino but only reading about English/American kids, my first thought was of "Tall Story", which I read and reviewed six years ago. Imagine my surprise when I read your name at the bottom and realized it was you! So, for what it is worth, your story embodied almost my entire experience of Filipinos in children's stories. Keep writing. We need your special voice.

    1. Thank you, Ben. I remember that review! Publishers, writers, agents talk about looking for that elusive thing called "Voice". The secret I think is buried deep inside the truth of who you are, which is not an easy place to visit. It can't be faked.


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