'Find Me' enters Philippines' culture through child's eyes
By Wanda A. Adams
Advertiser Books Editor
By Wanda A. Adams
"ONLY IF YOU CAN FIND ME" BY PATRICIA LAUREL; MUTUAL PUBLISHING, PAPER, $13.95
In what some say is the first Filipino-American young-adult novel, Honolulu writer Patricia Laurel has imagined a nuanced and layered story — fiction flesh, she says, clothing bones of fact.
The book, though it is fantasy, was inspired by a sad, real-life incident: One of Laurel's 28 nieces and nephews, a little girl named Samantha, was diagnosed with autism shortly after returning to the U.S. from a family trip to the Philippines. A healer who was called in told Laurel's sister that the child's mind had been stolen by a duwende, a type of earth spirit believed in the Philippines to prey upon children. "You must return and ask for her mind back," the man said.
The real-life Samantha remains autistic, living in a world of her own. But, as happens with writers, the healer's words lodged like a grain of sand in Laurel's head, smoothed over like a pearl by the author's imagination. Years later, this book is the result.
Laurel, also known as Patricia Windrow, is a former reporter whose husband, John, is an Advertiser editor. "Only If You Can Find Me" is, in a way, her tribute to Samantha, whom Laurel says is a happy, smiling child despite her remoteness. "Many times, I've sat and just studied her and said, 'Sammy, what goes on in that head of yours?' I imagined that Sam has these adventures in her head. That is my hope for her: That she is having many adventures."
And is, possibly, like the fictional Sammy Plum, facing down dragons — or duwende.
Laurel admits she made Sammy Plum "a young Patty," a version of herself at the happiest time of her life, between the ages of 9 and 12, when her family of mother, father and 12 children were all together. After that, because of political, social and economic conditions in the Philippines, her family began to split apart — elder children emigrating to America and Europe and some of the youngsters, like herself, sent to school abroad.
Like her character, when she was growing up in San Pablo, Laguna, the young Laurel liked to scribble in notebooks, eavesdrop on adult talk-story sessions, and tell stories herself. Like Sammy Plum, Laurel's family owns a farm in a remote part of Quezon province, a place far removed from contemporary life — "our paradise," Laurel calls it. And, as happens in the book, Laurel's clan gathers annually there for a fiesta honoring farm workers and villagers, with each branch responsible in turn for planning and executing the multi-day party. She even puts her adult self in the story, as Sammy's sympathetic Tita ("Aunt") Pat.
It is during a family trip to the Philippines, her first, that young Sammy Plum, daughter of a San Francisco businessman and his Filipina wife, encounters evil and loses her ability to speak. But as in any correctly constructed fantasy story, the good she meets is even stronger. These include spirits of her ancestors, particularly Jose Rizal's brother, her great-uncle Ciano; a Hawaiian kupuna she meets en route, who sends his shark 'aumakua to intercede for her; and the gift of telepathy, which she is surprised to find that she and other family members possess.
Laurel said it was important to her to include Ciano Rizal in the book, because he played a key role in Jose Rizal's career as a writer who encouraged Filipinos to seize their independence from the Spanish colonists. "He was the unsung hero. He sent his brother abroad and he had to stay behind and take care of the family and deal with the Spanish. He was in the background and he deserved to come out," Laurel said.
Besides telling a pretty cool, kid-friendly story, Laurel trumpets a paean of Filipino pride: She wants young people here and in the Philippines to absorb history and culture along with following the battle with the duwende.
She wants Filipino-American children, especially, to learn more about their parents' and grandparents' homeland, from food and language to mythology and values. (A helpful glossary assures English speakers can follow when dialect is used.)
This is one of the most attractive aspects of the book and one to which Isle youngsters should respond: exploring the Philippines through Sammy's eyes.
The book being released in local stores tomorrow is actually the second edition. Laurel wanted to publish "Only If You Can Find Me" in the Philippines first, and she spent months there after it was published, introducing the book to students in talks and readings. That edition also found its way into some California communities, and she has read for students there, too.
"I tell them, 'Look, don't be ashamed of your accent or your parents' accent or of anything about your culture. Be proud. Look at what your families have done. ... Despite the poverty, despite the corruption, despite everything that's not going too well in the Philippines right now, they'll get back up and you shouldn't be ashamed, you should help out."
This book, designed to build bridges of understanding between Filipinos, Filipino-Americans and children of other cultures, is one way that Laurel is trying to help out, too.
Reach Wanda A. Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org.