In Multiplicity Is Truth: An Interview with Gina Apostol

So it’s up to us if we want to be divided so that others conquer. To imagine one is not in one’s books is a writer’s fantasy, and a necessary one. He talks about the way the women of Barugo, for instance, laughed at him when he told them that women should have only one husband. I’d be fined if I did not speak English. Things reverberate. Or as Asian, people of color writers, or whatnot, we’re expected to write certain kinds of novels, sad realist family sagas or something, while narrative play is for Donald Barthelme or Don DeLillo or some other don. I suppose by “insane” I mean that it demands, in that Cortázar/Calvino way, that a reader set aside their expectations for a tonally calm, chronological narrative. The chapters are deliberately out of order, giving us a sense of forever needing to reorient. The eternity of it. The first chapter of Insurrecto — which were the first words of the novel I wrote, and I’ve never moved them — was triggered by reading 53 Days, the last novel by Perec; he never finished it. The two protagonists, Magsalin and Chiara, are women in mourning, and yet very comic in their own ways. He remains a popular wart, unfortunately. It was hard to tell the story of the colonizer and the colonized with just one voice. I am not interested in identity as sadness about my doubleness. I have no angst about that which I cannot undo. The way she comes in was just as surprising to me as having Elvis — I had no idea he would be part of it either. Whenever anyone asked me, at the time, how they could help me, I just said — send me a book about Philippine history. I’m not interested in fighting people who are not on my side. It was important that I gave her a sense of humor, for instance: irony, as well as rage. On one hand, I’m not damaged by having Dante in me, or Chaucer, as well as Iluminado Lucente and Eduardo Makabenta, to name just two Waray writers. I understand the complexity of using English as my language of creation: but this fact is ordinary to me. Tell us more about those horrifying stereo cards. Taking on the best ideals of the ones harming them, to liberate themselves. But Insurrecto is a woman’s world. Your self is a shred, but it’s still a self. I miss my husband. There are multiple conflicts within the Philippines and the diaspora — a marking of territory and setting of rules, if you will. I like to have specific, arbitrary constraints that I make up, which help me write. It reminded me how the pressures of authoritarian leaders like Rodrigo Duterte have complicated the duties of storytelling. I think the structure is very sane, though. I joined this group called MALAYA here in New York City simply because they were clear in their goals and were very organized. I spent two years getting his novel, leo@fergusrules.com, into print. But to turn Oulipo strategies into a political tract — that’s fun! I did not know that. Sometimes I get the sense that if we are interested in radicalism — and my work, in my view, is polemical; layered and multi-tonal as it is, it is nakedly staking political ground — we are expected not to play as much, not to have as much fun with our art. Your argument in Insurrecto seems to be for an embrace of the multiple, rather than a setting of divisions, or a dogma of naming. Insurrecto’s structure rests on trauma, which has a kind of infinity — so the weave, the structure came from its subject — the endlessness of grief, the repeating spiral of it. Basically, I thought everyone was just Filipino. It was a seamless insertion. I mean, you can also love someone else, you can be happy with your friendships. Instead, after he died, I edited his novel. I have a structure, a kind of geometric frame for my novels. I made her the most annoying character in the book, maybe. Part of writing is freedom — this immensely satisfying freedom to figure out reality as it suggests itself to you. But Casiana for me is the key to the novel. And of course their subjects — the posed dead, Mathew Brady–like bodies of Filipinos in the trenches — the gruesome dead. Yeah, I like those uncles a lot. For example, arguments that some voices are distinctly Filipino American, not Filipino; that the convention of naming should be Filipinx to avoid gender markers; that Filipino Americans should actually call themselves American Filipinos. I don’t think I could have written it if I thought I was portraying him. But I think the novel is also funny. But at the time, in the late ’90s, I had no idea what to do with them. One needs to understand that imperialism is really quite a material thing: it’s in the policing structures of the everyday, it’s in America’s current totalitarian surveillance protocols that were first made patent in the Philippine-American War, it’s in the misogyny, racism, xenophobia, fascism of our Trump world — which is no surprise to any of us who read American history as a layered text. Even Elvis. What is the consequence to our sense of being that comes with conquest? Ha ha. I almost fell off my chair when the hologram that survives the android apocalypse turns out to be — Elvis singing “Suspicious Minds”! Laughter can also be a fatal avoidance, an incomplete coping mechanism for suffering that must be addressed. I just began having this Elvis fix — and I was no fan of Elvis as a kid, though my mom loved him. What did the librarian say in response? For one thing, I stopped writing for quite some time. Insurrecto’s voices emerged during the recess time of writing another, very long novel. That would be paralyzing. When I got to the States and made Fil-Am friends, my experience of being Filipino, I knew, was quite different from theirs. Chirino, a Jesuit of the 1600s, chronicled my province, Leyte. Colonizers call our sense of the absurd sneaky. And that is important in this novel, too. It’s so beautiful. They said, what, why should we change to your religion when we can marry as many men as we like? That was his example of Waray women as hopeless devils. But ultimately, when I am writing, I wait for that point when the novel is simply and deeply a pleasure. And I am, and I can. (Again, sanity is important!) So there is always the possibility of the absurd — the possibility of a comic lens, of an eye that might see your tragedy differently. I think it is better to acknowledge the spaces from which the voices come, and say, that is one kind of Filipino, or that is one kind of American. It’s the feeling of mourning that’s in the novel, that’s personal to me. Her latest novel, Insurrecto, follows a filmmaker and a Filipina translator on a kinetic road trip to the site of a Philippine uprising and an American massacre. The history books kept piling up, and I never read them. Wow. Yes, it’s a planned, crafted structure. ¤
LAUREL FLORES FANTAUZZO: Insurrecto is a complex book. Because his novel was accepted for publication two weeks after he died. And when he died, it was a horror to even imagine myself writing again because, well, he could not. I thought — if I cannot write, maybe I can read. Also a key to the conundrum of multiple perspectives. Freud says we mourn because we hate the dead. Everyone seems to be on a kind of stage, with interchangeable roles and names. Which is terrible. The American-led massacre was a really dramatic, epically violent event that kind of changed the way Americans prosecuted the 1899 war. It got a lot of press, but most of all we showed the Filipinos watching the parade that resistance is part of the history of that remembrance day. But in the novel, I also think the humor lies in the fact that every act and character is consciously mediated, so the earnestness is deflected — the filmmaker’s gaze, the photographer’s gaze, the mystery writer’s gaze, and so on. The traumatic reality of the Balangiga massacre is also a marathon comedy, in your novel, with mistranslations and subterfuge. She teaches in the English department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. How odd to imagine that change in power-languages, because language is so elemental. Yes, you feel some kind of obligation. The way grief and trauma do. I love that word — duties. But it is hard for us to express that simultaneity, or to think about it too much, for basic reasons, such as sanity! The problem with suicide is that to talk about it is to recognize the futility of it. But it’s a form of power. But I also wish to say here — and I am talking about my empirical self here, me, the writer — I wish also to say to those who suffer: look, I am writing novels, I brought up a child, and it’s kind of miraculous to keep making this effort to have a meaningful life, of a sort, perhaps, who knows. That novel was a man’s world — I do love those great Filipino revolutionaries against America: Macario Sakay, Apolinario Mabini, Gregorio Aglipay, and the unsung katipunero from my hometown, Barugo, Florentino Peñaranda. Or so I imagined. It’s how others view that identity that becomes a problem. So that’s why a novel like Insurrecto, I think, is useful. Even now, in the US or the Philippines, constantly the news will tell us, Trump is Watergate all over again, or Duterte is Marcosian — simultaneity and repetition in our political worlds. But then our own past, too, is always part of us, a second self in us — it’s called memory. In the case of Insurrecto, it was a weave, a braid. Insurrecto’s jump-cut chapters transport readers into tragicomic scenes of the Spanish-American War, and introduce us to one of its central, forgotten heroines, Casiana Nacionales. The reason why such a war is horrendous, or why atrocity happens, is because the soldier, the white woman, the United States, the invader, failed to imagine her. One grim, funny scene toward the end of Insurrecto haunts me: a police officer claims that a box containing human ashes actually contains narcotics. To call my novel Insurrecto is one of those Filipino jokes on the master, but given its historiographic point, it also makes complete sense. How did your understanding of her role develop over time? It’s a seminal novel about virtual reality that’s now out of print, of course. How should we respond, if at all, to it and to each other? When in your life did you first encounter Nacionales’s story? The katipuneros invoked the American revolution — Washington and Jefferson — in their war against the Americans. I like to join with others because I know I cannot do much alone. Another trigger for the novel was a form of media — those stereo cards of the Fil-Am War that I kept buying on eBay. Not in a trite or moralistic way — but in an urgent way. One feels it in the bone. We had a die-in on Fifth Avenue during the city’s Philippine Independence Day parade. I do think it is because love lasts, too. The policing structures are the same, you know — the policing structures that make Duterte’s goons possible were created under American occupation, way back in 1899. And they just ridiculed Chirino. And Rizal translated The Rights of Man straight into Tagalog — Ang Mga Karapatan ng Tao. Yes — it is an insurrection against the novel form! Years later, I went back, and the folders still had the same title. Do we risk unconsciously playing to industry demands, to make ourselves palatable to a white American audience? That’s what trauma exposes. And then that much earlier book, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, got published. It was that war’s My Lai massacre. DECEMBER 31, 2018

GINA APOSTOL IS a Philippine-American author whose novels confront, and radically reorient, the histories of both countries. Did they precede your idea for the novel and its form? I empathize with that, a lot. That this new, obscene violence easily fits into that history of violence. She’s a mess. That section is the newest part of the novel. But her secret struggle is to keep her sense of self, amid the mess. And the fact is — it was easy to put in, though I had begun the novel years before Duterte. White supremacy is the problem, not our markers of identity. But the Fil-Am experience of being Filipino is just that — different from mine. The repression of this war in American consciousness has already done damage: Americans have not learned from it. Nacionales. To write out of love, though memory hurts: that is an alright place, too. And I’m a writer, so in this novel I inserted a scene about the blood on the hands of Duterte’s government. It was found among his papers when he died. How else did the recent horrors of the country’s murders and political developments affect your writing this novel, if at all? There is a film within the novel; countries and eras clash repeatedly; characters merge and double. Those are the voices I wished to do, not the men’s. That was part of the novel’s structure — a kind of game with free indirect discourse (a technical matter I was working on), to which I added the destabilizing spin of moviemaking. At least, that’s how I thought of it in my novel. It’s no burden, it’s just my history. This novel is saying — let there be many ways of telling stories, of having delight in stories. I first wished to write about this war because I realized — at one point in our history, suddenly, Filipinos had to begin learning an entirely different language, from Spanish to English, and how multiplied their history became. Because I had just finished a draft of my novel Gun Dealers’ Daughter and had begun Raymundo Mata, when my husband died. It does strike me that the narrative is cackling and weeping at the same time, which would seem to me a particularly Philippine way of existing. But then you have to reread it. And who goddamned took those pictures? The person whose story counts here is Casiana. Which I love, by the way, but it’s the repository of the imperial. Ours was the first anti-imperialist revolution in Asia, in 1898; but then, for Filipinos, rebellion is also endemically internationalist — the revolution against Spain and America was informed by readings of Thomas Paine, Voltaire, and of course the work of novelist and doctor José Rizal, a polyglot global mind. GINA APOSTOL: Well, I am a writer and I am always occupying other people’s minds. To read the novel, you have to locate the gaze — which can shift without much warning. Can you discuss the restlessness of your storytelling? But I did make this vow to get back to my novels somehow: to return to this pleasure. And I am still trying to figure out why I included it, what the connection might be between historical trauma and personal grief, my mourning for a beautiful person, my late husband, who died in the middle of writing a novel. We need to make an effort not to take on the power lens that does not read us right. Which of course leads to the massacre of thousands of Filipinos. It’s especially an insurrection against the form of the political novel. Are those of us who write the immigrant family epic somehow less free, held back by the limited gaze of literary capitalism? Maybe it’s a notion of realism? I realized, when Duterte was elected and I was writing this book on the revolution, that I could make a triptych of history — the war against the Americans, Marcos and Imelda’s US-funded martial law, and Duterte’s so-called war on drugs — and my novel essentially would not change. This is true of a child growing up, or of a writer. And stupidly rich. And I kind of wanted to say, well, you would not want to know. It was a thrill to see Casiana’s name etched on the wall when I visited the Balangiga shrine — the only woman’s name. This mourning that just goes on forever. For a Filipino. I think it is a light, comic novel — meant to be read quickly, not belabored. Apostol and I corresponded between Honolulu and New York City by email and Facebook messenger, like members of the diaspora usually do. One does not write according to expectations. You write a family saga or you don’t. I thought their doubleness was so evocative. That apocalyptic movie, Blade Runner 2049, actually uses the exact same video that became a weird muse for me. Yeah. Why is that? So it’s a playground of a novel that insists that in multiplicity is truth. And this book is also about art-making. So I knew Casiana would be in my novel, but I did not know how she would appear. But it is also correct for others to recognize the trauma it signifies. My constraint was that I knew every gaze was mediated, usually by an actual piece of media. Obviously, an effect of colonization is a Philippine oligarchic state long propped up by US military funds. It hurts my body right now talking about it. I first saw the stereo cards — copies of them — in the Library of Congress when I was helping a friend with the biography of President Corazon Aquino’s dad, during the 1990s. For me, it’s been 20 years exactly. Literally fined? So I had the frame, but I didn’t completely know what would fill it. Plus, I grew up speaking three languages, but my primal one, Waray, was oddly repressed in the classroom. It was fun to write! The futility of talking about it. We must imagine Casiana into our history to see it and ourselves more whole. There is one character in Insurrecto that many people might not like — the widow Virginie. I kept thinking — who the hell were buying these commercial 3D cards? It’s my fate to love these imperial libraries, where I find traumatic images of myself. And what a name for a revolutionary! I remember it was so weird to be fined for speaking my own language. We don’t know what he wanted to do with it since, a few months after the translation, the Spaniards sent him into exile in Dapitan. Not that there is only one way of viewing Casiana: she couldn’t be just a heroine in a lace balintawak in some postcard. I fail to agonize over it. The book seems to stage an insurrection, if you will, against our expectation of a single narrative, a single answer. And when I found the actual cards on eBay, I got obsessed. Yeah. I really love that story of revolutionary translation, the best kind of appropriation. Can you tell us more about that? For instance, growing up in the Philippines, I was radicalized to analyze class, not race. For the Filipino in America, our immigrant self is a kind of hyper-humanity. But beautiful still. And, to me, that’s one of the most tragic things about that war. It’s in the deaths of boys in Tondo or Talisay funded by the taxes we pay here in the States — the United States has pledged extra money for Duterte’s police. My husband used to say we laugh at foreigners speaking our own languages because we don’t really want them to learn — because language is our secret weapon. They were just on my shelves, like tokens of a self that I promised to get back to. Why did you stop writing? The Filipino’s eye is used to absurdity — to turning tables on the powerful, in secret, in the mind, through language, through seeming passivity, and so on. The Library can still change those labels. You can’t read Borges without rereading him, for instance. The out-of-order chapters, then, summon the reader to return, and return, and return. Casiana appears in the basic texts by historian Rolando Borrinaga and others about Balangiga, and I came upon her when I was researching William McKinley’s World. Tit for imperial tat. Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual works on this concept of multiple planes. I look for that pleasure. I mean, white supremacy is a thing. I prefer categories that are inclusionary, if one can do that. But grief is always just there. On one plane, we know who we are only seen through the eyes of others, without being quite conscious about that, of course. It’s very difficult to write. You feel urgency under the realm of this criminal, this atrocious wart on the Filipino psyche that is Duterte. In my experience, that possibility of comedy in tragedy is a healthy tonic, a private one, in times of grief. To be writing at all is a personal triumph, a private triumph, for me. I had no angst about my Filipino-ness. But this doubleness, for me, is existential — it’s a human thing. And I did, years later. Also weird, in the sense that I realized that I had dragged in the personal only later. I did want to emphasize Filipino agency in this story. So does Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or Invisible Cities. Photocopies of the cards are in folders labeled “Philippine Insurrection.”
I did tell the librarian the term was archaic and offensive. No, of course not. It’s hard to read myself without the world of the colonizer in me: the world that history has subjected me to. You visibly — or vocally — bear that aspect of the human, that splitness. My students call it “judging.” But I come from a Catholic, Dantesque place, and to be neutral in a case of abuse of power is to be the devil. The demands of any particular novel dictate the work you do — the novel creates its own requirements. So this sense of splitness, rooted in language, was part of my growing up. You cannot make it up. But to put these existential themes alongside issues of current politics is something else. Some of Vladimir Nabokov’s work, like Laughter in the Dark. I mean, Nabokov did not speak Waray. Viet Thanh Nguyen calls it the need for narrative plenitude in the stories of the diaspora — and that narrative plenitude must also be about style — stylistic plenitude. I am okay with my self as a deconstructing thing, inherently unstable. I like Oulipo, for instance, a seemingly apolitical group (though Georges Perec wrote very class-conscious novels). What do you expect of the Library of Congress? I’m reminded here of the unnamed uncles who sing karaoke constantly throughout Insurrecto. Also, very selfish. I know I included my own story in the novel, which really surprised me. So I like that kind of work a lot. Or not a kind of American. It is a bit surprising to me. It does not make one not a kind of Filipino. And I still don’t think identity is a crux for me. But the reason could just as easily be love. It seems to be the soldier’s voice at first, for instance, then it’s really the gaze of the socialite photographer upon him, but actually there is that hint of everything being seen really through the eye of some script-maker, et cetera, et cetera. I actually saw that whole Balangiga affair as one huge play in which the actors, the people of Balangiga, used forms of Shakespearean comedy (transvestism, fiesta-gambit, fake-romance, false identity, coded script, et cetera) to lure Americans successfully to their deaths. And then there’s material history. Historians should really figure that out. Every day. As a novelist, as a human, I empathize with all my characters — the US Army soldier who’s a pawn in war games, the white woman socialite staking an identity in this difficult, foreign, masculine world of war, et cetera — but I do not need to be on their side. It should. I kept buying them, including the Holmes viewers (I have three of them), as I was doing a book on the Philippine war against Spain, Raymundo Mata. Because language is at the heart of our entrapment. The initial Filipino action in Balangiga was an amazing piece of stagecraft. How did the school enforce this rule? I was writing a novel about the onset of colonial occupation — America’s step toward imperialism in 1898 — in the Philippines, and it was very hard not to see that American atrocities then were visibly and historically linked to atrocities now. At what point in your writing process did you feel the structure of this book needed to be slightly insane? I was so focused on what my book needed, and I used whatever I had to make it work. The novel circles a central woman character in the Philippine Revolution: Casiana Nacionales, a real historical figure who participated in the anti-colonial Balangiga uprising. People can sometimes mistake empathy for ethics. To empathize does not mean you cannot figure out, stake out your ethical stance. And so I finished Raymundo Mata. But, for me, the eye of the colonized on the conqueror is the interesting thing. What do you think of the ethical stance the Philippine diaspora has taken, or not taken, on the Duterte government’s narrative of the continuing epidemic of homicide? It is both a Filipino and an American novel, and that is a good thing. I do like rereading books. He was so baduy, but then I got super-obsessed with this one song, “Suspicious Minds,” which is super-duper-baduy. I think we should keep trying to find ways to resist. I was in love with Casiana’s name. It’s a single thread, in that sense — it’s one story. Too many of us live with constant grief: I know I am not alone. And that humor, wordplay, is a weapon of the colonized. The Filipino’s can be a cold eye, in my view — a hugely skeptical, remorseless, even cruel gaze. And now here is this novel, Insurrecto. I mean, let the Filipinx be Filipinx; it does not kill you and it solves a problem of gender. I don’t think I knew exactly what I was doing because I have theories about narration even as I write. What do you think of those ongoing disputes? Reality is, in a sense, produced by the observer. The book also excavates women’s private sorrows and ethical quandaries in the face of political violence. I laughed so hard. That’s just the way it is — I miss him. For one thing, those voices are intertwined, in my view. I had to make a huge effort to get back to writing because we’re both writers — we met at the Hopkins writing program, which is why I came here to the United States, for grad school. Can you talk more about the relationship between mourning and laughter, even as the personal and political histories here hold such grave weight? In this novel, for me, we must be on the side of her revolutionary rage. Virginia Woolf did it, and so many of Borges’s stories are about doubleness. The karaoke uncles. They’re like a chorus of titos, a baduy presence, while the women characters quest and journey. Understanding that there are differences, and thinking about what and why those differences are, can be fascinating. The material reality and the methods of film have a huge presence in the book. And a country like America will be healthier when it recognizes that the voice of the colonized is in it, too: the story of this war is American history. My husband is not in this novel: that goes without saying. Just because we must see from multiple lenses does not mean we do not take sides. You put five centavos in a coconut shell, of course! A global sense of self — confronting your own scars and trauma, but steadfast in your own multiple identities — is healthy. Wordplay is part of that Filipino gaze — we play word games on strangers and on each other. Uppermost in my mind was the issue of free indirect discourse and my so-called constraints, not my own feelings. Someone at a lecture in Manila once asked me — why do you not write anything about your own personal life? When and why did you start collecting them? ¤
Laurel Flores Fantauzzo is the author of The First Impulse (2017). Don’t you know my next novel, William McKinley’s World, is a family saga? This basic human reality can be ruinous in a story of colonization, because the power-lens upon the colonized world is the one that misperceives it — the colonizer’s eye. It survives in his papers without attribution or acknowledgment of its source, which was the French Revolution, of course. In our fraught political times, we can get confused. The trope of the unfinished book is a haunting thing, for me. I wanted to express in her this mystery of mourning — to mourn does not mean you give up who you are, though I know how much grief runs underneath the life I lead, always. A seemingly aimless, clueless person who is also just herself. But I knew my reader would not be fully aware. I think categories are damaging because they can be exclusionary. Which may not be a coincidence. I like trying to figure out how to tell the story so that maybe we can see our traumatic reality more clearly. I saw the war through a media-maker’s gaze. I kept wondering when Casiana Nacionales would appear. That is good advice to all readers and writers. John Barth used to say — never confuse a novel with biography. Ha ha. Also hugely historically inaccurate.