Your novel showed various layers of Filipino culture, particularly the interaction between indigenous Filipino religion and Catholicism. Does this type of syncretism characterize the religion you grew up with?
It characterized our household and I would venture to guess it does for most Filipino households. There is the belief in God and then there are these dwarves and other [supernatural creatures]. I’ve encountered it in just about every Filipino family I knew growing up.
Filipinos never let go of how they respected the forest. My father would always say, “Watch out for the dwarves [in the forest]. You can crush their homes.” And even now, when I go hiking in Marin where I live, I say in my head, “Excuse me, I’m sorry,” sometimes, just to warn [the dwarves]. It’s a habit and I think a lot of people have that mix of superstition and Catholicism and believe in them hand in hand. Maybe people are in denial of how the two [traditions] conflict.
When the Elephants Dance depicts a world inhabited with supernatural creatures like elves and ghosts, and contrasts it to the stark realities of war and death that pervade the novel. Why did you intersperse these fantastical myths and legends with the grim stories of war?
There are two reasons. First, it was organic because I grew up hearing both [types of stories] side by side and they made sense. I didn’t see the [mythical stories] as anything different. Consciously I knew the war was so horrific and I wanted something as a relief in between the war stories. But then I found myself building the conflict in the mythical scenes as well. I knew that the war was tough to consume, so I interspersed the [mythical scenes with the war scenes].
As gruesome as the war scenes are, I thought When the Elephants Dance was ultimately uplifting in that many of the characters emerge relatively unscathed given the horrors they have just experienced.
I have been getting different reactions to [the survival of some of the characters] at the ending of the book. My father survived and went on to live a full life. I spoke to a woman yesterday whose mother didn’t make it out of the war, so for some people there really are no endings to tie it all together.
You used Tagalog and Spanish in many of the dialogues in the novel, and then translate them in the following text. Why did you decide to include Tagalog and Spanish phrases?
I heard both languages growing up because a lot of Filipino families speak Spanish and because Tagalog was influenced by Spanish during the occupation. I read All the Pretty Horses by Cormac McCarthy and he interspersed Spanish throughout the whole thing, but he doesn’t translate it. I realize how much including the Spanish colored his novel. The characters became authentic to me. Also, I had never seen Tagalog in print anywhere and I thought it would be a nice addition.
One of the main themes explored in the novel is division and infighting among Filipinos in the face of foreign invaders, be they Spanish, Japanese or American. Given the current political situation in the Philippines with the secessionist movement and the arrival of US troops, do you think this message is particularly relevant today?
Yes, there is definitely an amazing parallel for the civilians who are struggling there. There are people in the Philippines who do not want Americans there because they have been occupied by so many different nations for so many years. There are others who are loyal [to the Americans] and want them there to rid the Philippines of these extremist groups like the Abu Sayyaf. Just like in World War II, there were different factions fighting. During World War II, some Filipinos wanted the Japanese to come in order to be pro-Asian. There were groups that wanted to collaborate with the Americans and not the Japanese. And there were still other groups who didn’t want any [foreigners in their country]. It’s the same right now in the Philippines. As American troops come over to help the Filipino army train to purge the extremist groups, there are Filipinos who feel they are being occupied, even though the Americans are there to support [the Filipino army]. The civilians are probably terrified to have any of this go on. The conflict continues.