Wild Song by Candy Gourlay

I am calling it early this year! Wild Song by Candy Gourlay is my book of the year for 2023. This is a heart-wrenchingly beautiful book told in a first-person narrative by Luki, one of the protagonists of Candy’s previous book Bone Talk.

You can find out more about Bone Talk in this 2018 interview with Candy in which I discovered that the foundations of Wind Song had already been laid.

If you have not already read Bone Talk I urge you to do so, as it will give you context for Wild Song; as Candy says in the interview: I actually wanted to write another book, set in a World Fair in 1904 where American exhibited Filipinos in a human zoo. But it would have been a disservice to the tribal people AND to Americans not to show the context of that story. So I decided to begin at the beginning, when the United States invaded the Philippines in 1899 and annexed it as “unincorporated territory”. We became a republic in 1945 but Puerto Rico, which was annexed by the US on the same year, continues to be unincorporated territory. It’s odd how so much of the world has no idea of this. I realise that the Philippines is a small state that doesn’t do much to influence the world, but the United States is a major world power.

Wild Song uncovers a piece of forgotten history of the world – a tale that takes us from from the mountains of Bontoc in the Philippines, to the city of St Louis, Missouri, the site of the 1904 World’s Fair, that played host to the largest human zoo in history.

It is the story of Luki, running away from her village to find her place in the world, Samkad who follows her, her frenemy Tilin and her little sister Sidong, as well as people from the other mountain tribes of northern Luzon in the Philippines, known collectively as the Cordilleran peoples. It is about discovering the wider world and one’s place in it and it is about the end of innocence and discovery that people who wield power do not always do so well or justly. It is also an indictment of white saviourism and the commodification of the culture and bodies of Black & Indigenous People of Colour by white people, an ongoing practice that is still hotly debated!

Until I read Bone Talk and Wild Song I had no idea that the Philippines had been a territory of the United States, or that the people of the Philippines had been subjected to a war of conquest and subjugation after Spain had sold it to the US at th econclusion of the Spanish-American War. Seriously I learned more about US imperialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s thanks to Candy than I had ever done so before.

Candy wove historical figures and organisations into this story and provided short biographies about them at the end of Wild Song including Lieutenant Walter Loving and the Philippine Constabulary Band, the most present was Truman K. Hunt, a former lieutenant governor of Bontoc Province who befriended the Igorot and persuaded many to accompany him to St. Louis to participate in the World’s Fair, he gained and lost a fortune off the backs of the peoples he displayed there, and in other parts of the US. He was (no major spoilers here) an utter scumbag, whose mistreatment of the Igorot was so scandalous that he was eventually pursued and arrested by the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

Wild Song is a beautifully told, by turns uplifting, sad and hopeful! Keep an eye out for it on awards lists and make sure that you purchase a copy or request it from your local library in March!

It will be published by David Fickling Books in March 2023.

You can find out more about the exhibition of the Cordilleran people with this video clip from the PBS series Asian Americans:

1.1-1904-Worlds-Fair-Exhibition-of-the-Igorot-Filipino-People from Asian American Education Project on Vimeo.

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