Tess Uriza Holthe is a Filipina-American writer from San Francisco. Her first novel, When the Elephants Dance, is inspired in part by her father's experiences growing up in the Philippines during World War II. The novel recounts supernatural tales based on indigenous Filipino mythology and Spanish-influenced legends as told by an extended family hiding in a cellar during the last week of the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. Alternating between the gruesome realities of torture, starvation and rape brought on by the war and the magical realism of Filipino folklore, When the Elephants Dance presents a lyrical, multi-layered view of the history and culture of a war-torn nation. It has been called "a remakably rich story... [with] a well-orchestrated chorus of voices" by Kirkus Reviews and "an impressive debut" by Library Journal. Asia Society spoke with the author from her home in northern California.
Can you explain the title of When the Elephants Dance?
It’s from an expression I found in some of the research I did on Robert Lapham, one of the American guerillas in the Philippines during World War II. They used to say, “When the elephants dance, it isn’t safe for the chickens.” The elephants were the Americans and Japanese who were fighting then and the chickens were the Filipino civilians that had to get out of their way or get crushed. I think it was a saying that originated prior to World War II, but they applied it to that time period.
How much of this novel is based on family stories and how much is fiction?
All of it is made up, but a portion of the [Karanalan] family story was based on my family stories. The story about the church that sank into the ground was based on a family story. I had heard growing up that there was a church in Manila that sank into the ground and only about a third of the door was above ground. My family explained to me that in that town the people were really arrogant and an angel came in the form of a dog to test the arrogance of the village's parishioners. They all scoffed at the dog and the dog brushed its paws on the church and the church sunk underground. Another explanation is that the church sunk during an earthquake, but I based the section of the novel about Esmerelda on the legend of the dog. So there were little pieces of stories my family told me that went in the novel.
The story about the fisherman and the bone is also based on one of my father’s stories. My father used to be an errand boy for a neighbor who was rumored to be a magical fisherman. As the neighbor was dying, his wife called my father over and told him that her husband wanted to give him something. When my father arrived, the neighbor took this fishbone out of his mouth and tried to give it to my father. My father was only nine and he didn’t want the fishbone, so the neighbor threw it out of the window. Supposedly a huge storm started the moment he threw the bone, like he was letting go of this giant power. I based the story of Mang Minno and the fishermen in the book on that story my father had told me.
I had also heard so many ghost stories growing up that I wanted to intertwine them within the rest of the novel.
In addition to the supernatural stories, did your family tell you stories about their experiences during WWII even though they were painful?
Yes, we just heard some new ones this weekend from my father. My relatives tell stories from the war repeatedly, which I thought everyone’s family did, but people tell me that they are amazed that my family was so open about it and that their families wouldn’t talk about it. One woman I spoke to at a reading told me that her father would only mention that he met the Emperor of Japan, but wouldn’t say anything else [about the Japanese occupation]. I think with my family, telling these stories was a healing process.
Has your family read the novel?
No, my family is one of storytellers, but not readers. I had to actually tell them what was in the book. My parents don’t read except for the news. I don’t know if my Dad will ever read the book. We were joking that when it becomes a book on tape, then maybe he will pick it up. They are very proud of it, but they haven’t read it.
How did you go about doing historical research for this book? Are there many historical accounts of the Philippines during WWII?
Yes, there are a lot of books and articles, but mainly I relied on historical novels. I went to any library I could find for research, but I really had the meat of it already from my family. I just needed the dates and then added information regarding General [Douglas] MacArthur.
Have you ever been to the Philippines?
No, I’ve never been to the Philippines, though I've heard about it all my life. My family would describe the heat, the scents, the fruits, the animals, the bugs, the terrain, and my millions of cousins. Growing up, I couldn't afford to visit, and then during college I was working just to put myself through. I would love to visit in the near future, but with my schedule lately it may be a year or two before I can. My sister is actually going back this Friday and she would have been the ideal person to go with, only I have been blessed with more Bay Area readings and signings for the book so I can't go with her.