Publications of books about the indigenous peoples in the Philippines are a reason to celebrate! And we are featuring one quality children’s book released last year about the Kalanguya people in the Cordillera. Entitled Shelah Goes to a Da-ngah, it is conceptualised by writer and anthropologist Padmapani Perez.
Padma and her sister Feliz run the famous Mt Cloud Bookshop in Baguio City. She devotes her waking hours to motherhood, writing, her work in the academe, and researching environmental issues. Her anthropological work can soon be read in her forthcoming book, Green Entanglements: Nature Conservation and Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Indonesia and the Philippines, to be published by the University of the Philippines Press. She is currently a Research Fellow of Far Eastern University.
As we added Shelah Goes to a Da-ngah to our growing database of children’s books about/by/for Philippine indigenous people, we sent Padma some questions about the book, and she gladly answered them.
You mentioned in the book that Shela Goes to a Da-ngah is your expression of gratitude to the Kalanguya people in Tawangan for welcoming you in their community during your fieldwork in 2004 and 2005. Why a children’s book?
It took me a long time to figure out what it was that I could give back to the Tawangan community. From the beginning I knew I wanted it to be something I could make or do myself, and something that would reflect our relationship, rather than something anyone could just buy and give away. I also knew that I wanted it be something tailored to the community, something that could be part of their future. For years I lived with the question, What can I do for them? This later became the question, What can I do? The answer was, I can write.
A children’s book fit the criteria I set for myself: it could be about the Kalanguya, it could be about their culture, and it would tell a story that could be a part of their future.
Children’s books about indigenous people in the Philippines usually portray an aspect of the group’s traditional culture. In this book, you chose to feature the Kalanguya’s da-ngah. Can you tell us more about this practice?
The da-ngah belongs to the forms of cooperative labour around the Philippines that we know as bayanihan. Here’s an excerpt from my dissertation describing the da-ngah:
“When a person needs assistance in completing or quickening a difficult task such as carrying timber for a house from the pine forests, or even setting the foundation for building a new house, then this person can call for a da-ngah. In the da-ngah, the person’s kailian gather together to assist in the task at hand. Usually, the size of the group and their collective labour makes it possible to complete the task in one day. Thus, the da-ngah is reserved for tasks that can be completed in a day by a large group of people working together. In exchange for the help, the person who called his/her kailian must feed the assembled labourers for the day with rice and meat, and also provide them with tapey, or rice beer.
Certain rules apply in the da-ngah. A person cannot respond to a call for da-ngah if he/she is not kailian. This is because without the relationship of kailian there is no obligation to reciprocate either the labour or the food. It is this principle of reciprocity that makes the da-ngah effective and the kailian a cohesive group. Also, individuals must not call for a da-ngah often, and take too much of other people’s time from their own work or concerns. In fact, it is considered good practice to wait until one or two other kailian have called for da-ngah before considering to hold a second one in a year. If one is constantly absent from other people’s da-ngah, social sanctions will come in the form of people refusing to attend the transgressor’s da-ngah, and ultimately, the elders may ask such a delinquent kailian to shift his/her membership to one of the other cooperative groups existing in Tawangan. This shows that for the Kalanguya, social cohesion and the maintenance of good relations among community members are of utmost importance, and this is evident in the continuing practice of the da-ngah.”1
I hope this description answers your questions on the da-ngah. There was one da-ngah that was held in Tawangan during my fieldwork there. In interviews and focus group discussions, elders, community leaders, and young parents would often mention the da-ngah as something that was important to them as a community, and as something they hoped would not disappear, no matter how much the Kalanguya were changing over time. That’s why I chose to focus on the da-ngah, in recognition of their desire to make this tradition of helping last. I also decided to set the story in contemporary times to emphasise that this is a story about a living practice that is cherished by today’s Kalanguya – not just a thing of the past.
The part that catches my attention the most is when Shelah found a way to participate in the da-ngah, which is described as something adults do. How did you come up with this idea? Does this reflect your view on children and childhood?
First of all, I’ve always loved storybooks in which children save the day in a grownup world, not necessarily with super powers or magic, but just by paying attention to the things around them and asserting themselves – things which kids are very good at, especially if encouraged.
I guess you could say that Shelah is the kind of kid I like a lot. She’s inquisitive, assertive, independent, has a mind of her own. Kids in Tawangan are incredibly independent. They spend a lot of time playing unsupervised by adults. They also run errands, do household chores, take care of their younger siblings and playmates, and they can handle bolos and other blades like experts, ha-ha. My admiration for their capabilities, responsibilities, and my fascination with the wild, resourceful fun they had made me want to write about a kid like that.
So yes, Shelah’s participation in the da-ngah reflects my views on kids and childhood, and I was also being playful with ideas about tradition and change. Despite their independence, Kalanguya kids are very shy. Most of the Kalanguya I know are generally very shy and don’t like to draw attention to, or claim credit for, themselves. So in that sense, Shelah is a different sort of little girl. She’s more outspoken than most Kalanguya kids. Shelah doesn’t hesitate to speak up, and by finding her own way of participating in the da-ngah, she suggests positive change.
I’ve also noticed that the text layout is somehow different from the usual bilingual books. Instead of having two separate blocks of texts in two languages, the book has translations after every paragraph or lines. How did you reach this layout decision?
To be honest, I think this happened because that’s how the translation proceeded. Shiela (the translator) and I worked on the translation line by line, and it got sent on to the book designer like that. I’m afraid we didn’t give the format much thought. Pfffft.
That said, we got interesting feedback from teachers in Tawangan. They said that the translation was not “pure” Kalanguya and that some Iluko found its way into the book. This brings to mind a point you raised in the kid’s lit fest last year, about the challenges of translation and the lack of translators for mother-tongue languages.
You gathered a team of creators to produce the book. What are the stories behind their involvement in the book project? Let’s start with Mika O. Song who did the wonderful illustrations.
Mika is my childhood friend and one of my best friends. Ever since we were in high school, we had all sorts of crazy ideas for things we would create or produce together. She moved to the US when she was in high school but we kept in touch through letters and emails. She went on to illustrate her own comics, animation for kids, and now illustration for kids. I sent her my draft of the story and asked her what she thought of it, and whether she would like to illustrate it. Working on this book with her was a dream come true – we finally made a book together! She taught me a lot about the process, like pointing out where words were unnecessary because the illustrations could say/show things better.
The pictures I’m attaching of the book development process show a little of how Mika and I worked together. She suggested that we literally cut-and-paste the paragraphs, she drew rough sketches and sent those to me, and then we did more cutting and pasting, moving text and drawings around, we would scan out mock ups and email them to each other, writing notes and emails to each other. The notes in green are mine.
I think it helped a lot that Mika was able to join me on one of my trips to Tawangan. I also sent her a lot of photographs to work with.
Just before we started working on the da-ngah book, Mika won a prestigious illustrator’s award and was signed on by Harper Collins to write and illustrate two children’s books of her own. Mika is still based in the U.S.
And how about of Paolo Y. Lim, who did the layout, and Shiela N. Aniban, who translated the story into Kalanguya?
Paolo is my cousin. He, Mika, and I spent a lot of our childhood and adolescent years together, and we also often shared crazy ideas on things we could do some day. It made perfect sense to ask him to be part of this project and he accepted without hesitation. Paolo is based in Australia. He called this project a transcontinental da-ngah. Ha-ha!
I’ve known Shiela since she was a kid. When I approached the elders to ask them if they could recommend someone I could work with on translating the story, her name came up. She had just graduated from Education and was based in La Trinidad, which is right beside Baguio where I lived so that would make things easier than if I were to work with someone in Tawangan. At the time I approached the elders, she was reviewing for the 2015 LET, so I spoke with her and we agreed we’d work on it after the exam. Shiela was helped a lot in the translations by her Lolo, Joseph Molitas. She and I would sit down together and go through the text line by line. At first, I noticed she tried to stay close to the English, so I asked her to make it sound more like the way they talk in everyday life. If she couldn’t think of a particular word, she would text or call her Lolo. While we were working on the translations she showed me her big book projects for one of her education courses. She made books out of Kalanguya folktales. When we finished the book and I gave her one of the first copies, she said, “Tapos na ang first. Marami pa tayong gagawin!”
How was the process of publishing and printing Shelah Goes to a Da-ngah?
I consulted with writer friends and independent publishers. Erlyn Alcantara, a historian and an indie publisher in Baguio, convinced me to set up my own “publishing house”. This never crossed my mind. I was just going to publish this one book, give it to the Kalanguya of Tawangan, and that would be it. The end. “But,” she said, “What if you come up with other books in the future? Then you would already have a name to use.” I followed her advice and registered the business with DTI as Alam-am Publishing. Alam-am means fern in Kalanguya.
I worked with a print-on-demand press in Quezon City. I never had to set foot in the press. We communicated by text and by email. We agreed on paper for the cover, and the inside pages, the number of copies, the price. I made a down payment, they delivered the proofs, I approved them or sent them corrections, and the first 350 copies were delivered to us. It was very straightforward. The book is a bit pricey because I insisted on nice paper and good quality colours. I wanted to give the community a nice book so I didn’t scrimp on materials. I used my savings to finance the first print run.
Where is the book available or distributed?
The book is available only in Mt Cloud Bookshop, in Tawangan, and in a few other Kalanguya communities in Benguet. (It’s almost out of print!) We had to come up with creative ways to market the book so that I could at least recoup the expenses and still give about 200 copies to the community. I decided to use the buy one-give one model that other companies have used before. I came up with a scheme in which you could pay for two and send one to Tawangan, or you could buy 10 for Tawangan and get one free. I was surprised by the enthusiastic response this got. We reached our goal very quickly. I was also surprised by the interest people took in this story about an indigenous community that very few know about. I think there is more than just a market for books for/about indigenous kids – there is a hunger for them!
And any tips for those who want to venture on a similar track?
What tips do I have for those who want to try something similar? Do it, do it, do it! Here are some of the things I learned along the way: We need more books for indigenous kids. Research helps a lot. Collaborative work is very rewarding and produces better outcomes, especially when community members are involved. Constant communication with the creative team has to be part of the process, from beginning to end. Explore unconventional ways of marketing and selling your book. Bring the book back to the community, always.
Thank you, Padma, for sharing with us your journey in producing a wonderful children’s book about and for the Kalanguya! We hope to see the next books soon!
1 Perez, P. 2010. “Deep-Rooted Hopes and Green Entanglements: Implementing Indigenous Peoples Rights and Nature-Conservation in the Philippines and Indonesia.” PhD diss., Leiden University.
Pictures were provided by Padmapani Perez and from the book’s Facebook page.