By Dom Galeon
Images by Noel Pabalate
The other weekend, bookworms and authors gathered at the Raffles Makati for a once-a-year event called the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival. Organized by National Book Store, the event was a book lover’s comicon. Hundreds of books were available for the public, with talks and panel discussions featuring some of the most prominent writers in the country.
On one of these days, Anvil Publishing decided to unveil the latest book from Town & Country editor Yvette Fernandez, with the launch held at the aptly named Writer’s Bar at Raffles. I had a chance to speak with Yvette, one-on-one, before the start of the launch to talk about her new project, a short, illustrated storybook called Life is Good.
Prior to talking to Yvette, I was given a copy of the book to read. I finished it in about 10 minutes or so, not because it was difficult to read. No. It took me that long to go through a 36-paged book, with beautiful drawings by Manhattan-based Filipino illustrator Isabel Roxas, because it wasn’t the kind of children’s storybook I was expecting. In fact, it might not be a children’s story book, at all. At least that’s how Yvette sees it.
“I think it’s a story more for adults in children’s book format,” she says. “That’s how I look at it. That’s why it’s a different size from the usual children’s storybook. I really didn’t mean it to be for kids.”
Without giving away too much details about Life is Good, here’s a quick synopsis of it. The story features two elephant sisters, one a stuffed toy and the other a glass display, both belonging to a little boy. Naturally, because of how different these two elephants are, the little boy doesn’t play with them in the same way. The stuffed toy elephant gets to go places, while the glass elephant just stays in place, on a table inside the little boy’s playroom. Though different, both are still elephants, and that’s why they consider themselves sisters.
I think it’s a story more for adults in children’s book format. That’s how I look at it.
Not knowing much about Yvette’s personal life prior to meeting with her, I couldn’t help but ask her about how much of the book had been drawn from her personal experiences. In fact, I had been wondering about who the other author of the book was, and why I was only meeting with Yvette. On the cover of Life is Good, it says “written by Yvette Fernandez and Jackie Fernandez Suntay.” But an earlier version of the book, which I found online, has the two authors switched, with Jackie’s name appearing first.
Jackie, it turns out, is Yvette’s sister. She was taking her fellowship at a Harvard Medical School hospital in the early 2000s, but was then diagnosed with cancer just when she finished her studies in Boston.
“My sister and I wrote this book in 2005, just a few days before she passed away,” Yvette recalls. “We wrote it on a Tuesday night, then the next day she went on a coma. She passed away that Saturday. So I guess the elephants, they’re us. It’s our story.”
Life is Good isn’t Yvette’s first book. She’s already written a little over a dozen, but mostly non-fiction. She tells me that she never really intended to write fiction. But on that day at the hospital in Boston, she and Jackie decided to write one. Jackie told her to write one about elephants and sisters.
“When I finished writing it, my sister read it,” Yvette continues. “She was still at the hospital then, and I was already tired so I fell asleep. I fell asleep while she was reading what I had written. The next day, the doctors said she could go home, so we brought her home. She fell asleep that night and then she didn’t wake up anymore. This story is what we read at her eulogy,” she adds.
I ask Yvette who chose the title for the story. “There’s a brand in the US called Life is Good, and my sister loves that brand. She was always wearing t-shirts that say ‘life is good.’ And she would always say that, life is good.”
Maybe I should leave this at that. I really don’t want to say so much about Yvette’s book. I think it’s much better that you grab a copy and read it. After all, it’s really not very long, plus the illustrations are amazing. Perhaps the only thing I can say about it is this: It’s not as simple as it looks. At the end of all of it, though, there’s that short phrase that, I think, captures very much how Jackie would’ve wanted the reader to feel after reading the book. Life is good.
Life is Good is published by Anvil Publishing and is available at National Book Store.