“Papa explains the war like this: ‘When the elephants dance, the chickens must be careful.’ The great beasts, as they circle one another, shaking the trees and trumpeting loudly, are the Amerikanos and the Japanese as they fight. And our Philippine Islands? We are the small chickens.”
Once in a great while comes a storyteller who can illuminate worlds large and small, magical and true to life. When the Elephants Dance introduces us to the incandescent voice of Tess Uriza Holthe, who sets her remarkable first novel in the waning days of World War II, as the Japanese and the Americans engage in a fierce battle for possession of the Philippine Islands. The Karangalan family and their neighbors huddle for survival in the cellar of a house a few miles from Manila. Outside the safety of their little refuge the war rages on—fiery bombs torch the beautiful Filipino countryside, Japanese soldiers round up and interrogate innocent people, and from the hills guerillas wage a desperate campaign against the enemy. Inside the cellar, these men, women, and children put their hopes and dreams on hold as they wait out the war, only emerging to look for food, water, and medicine.
Through the eyes of three narrators, thirteen-year-old Alejandro Karangalan, his spirited older sister Isabelle, and Domingo, a passionate guerilla commander, we see how ordinary people must learn to live in the midst of extraordinary uncertainty, how they must find hope for survival where none seems to exist. They find this hope in the dramatic history of the Philippine Islands and the passion and bravery of its people. Crowded together in the cellar, the Karangalans and their friends and neighbors tell magical stories to one another based on Filipino myth and legend to fuel their courage, pass the time, and teach important lessons. The group is held spellbound by these stories, which feature a dazzling array of ghosts, witches, supernatural creatures, and courageous Filipinos who changed the course of history with their actions. These profoundly moving stories transport the listeners from the chaos of the war around them and give them new resolve to fight on.
With When the Elephants Dance Holthe has not only written a gripping narrative of how Alejandro, Isabelle, Domingo and their community fight for survival, but a loving tribute to the magical realism that infuses Filipino culture. The stories shared by her characters are based on the same tales handed down to Holthe from her Filipino father and lola, her grandmother. This stunning debut novel is the first to celebrate in such richness and depth the spirit of the Filipino people and their fascinating story and marks the introduction of a talented new author who will join the ranks of writers such as Arundhati Roy, Manil Suri, and Amy Tan.
“A formidable first novel, worthy of a Verdi opera.” —The New York Times
“Mesmerizing…truly exciting to read.” —The Washington Post
“A powerful tale of the Philippine Islands and a testament to the resilience and courage of the Filipino people.” —San Francisco Chronicle“Readers who loved Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude or Allende’s The House of the Spirits will welcome this novel.” —The New Orleans Times-Picayune
Q: The opening scene with the young boy being captured by soldiers stemmed from actual events in your father’s life. When did he first tell you about what happened to him? What was that experience like?
A: I can’t remember when my father first told me this story. All I know is that he told it over and over again at my insistence. He was out chopping trees for firewood to sell so they could buy food. He was just a boy, thirteen years old. He and some others got too close to a Japanese military encampment. Suspecting them to be guerilla fighters, the soldiers captured and tortured them. I remember my father telling me how excruciating it was, and how his legs shook from terror and exhaustion. He was released, but the other civilians who were detained never returned home.
Q: The plot of the novel unfolds through the distinct voices of three different narrators, and the myths are told by some of the supporting characters. Why did you decide to write the book this way?
A: One of the exercises in my writing classes was to write about a myth I had heard. I wrote a story which became “A Cure for Happiness” in the book, about a young boy’s infatuation with the beautiful neighborhood witch doctor. I wrote five more myths. When I finished them, I thought they needed a home. And since I grew up listening to stories shared at gatherings, I placed these myths in the same context, told by people whiling away the time. But in When the Elephants Dance, the group is made up of civilians hiding in a cellar during the last week of WWII, telling mythical stories to survive starvation and torture. They feed their bellies with words and images because they cannot fill them with food.
This framework became a story in itself. I fell in love with the three narrators. I cared for them, and I went through the war with them. I made it so that they desperately needed to hear these stories to feed their courage, give them hope, and take some of the devastation away.
Q: Although you have never visited the Philippines, your novel is full of rich detail of the historical events, the citizens, and the landscape of the country. How did you do your research?
A: Well, that’s an easy one. I’ve been studying the material all my life, just being a part of my family. My father was thirteen years old during the war and lived with his family in Paco near the center of the American-Japanese battle for Manila. I’ve heard the war descriptions over and over. I’ve heard how he carried his younger sister on his shoulders while bombs were exploding behind them, and how he put his foot through decaying bodies in the street while trying to run away. My grandfather was in the U.S. Navy during World War II, and his ship was sunk by Japanese planes. He survived by holding onto pieces of the ship. Growing up, there was a mahjongg game at our house almost every night, and friends and extended family would tell their own stories of the atrocities, the harrowing escapes, and the loss of loved ones.
In addition to hearing the stories about the war, I did a year of research, reading books and articles and studying accounts told by American guerillas. They all paralleled the stories I had heard growing up.
Q: How would you describe your creative process?
A: I write six days a week, some nights for three to four hours, other nights for as short as five minutes. But I like to have continuity, to at least touch base with my story so I know where I am the next morning. I feel sick if I don’t write. For me, writing is like building a house. I put everything down on paper, regardless of how it sounds, and that is the foundation. With my second draft, I fill the walls with sheet rock, and with my third I paint the house. The final revision, during which I tweak a few words and images, is like buying furniture to fill the house.
Q: What advice would you give to writers who want to get published?
A: If you’re ready to sell your manuscript, go to a writer’s conference and meet agents. Research them beforehand so you know which agents will like your work and make sure the conference is reputable. The Maui Writer’s Conference was just phenomenal: the energy, the lectures, the networking, and the interaction with fellow writers. And what could be better than being in Maui and working on your story? Don’t be discouraged by rejection–learn from it, and ask questions.
Q: Can you tell us anything about your next project?
A: I wish I could. I read somewhere that if you tell your story, you lose that desire to write it down. My husband doesn’t even know what I’m working on. I kept silent throughout my first novel, and each day I was burning to tell it on paper. I don’t want to lose that tension.