LITERATURE

Gina Apostol on historical fiction and our ‘unhealthy’ search for a Filipino identity

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Gina Apostol is an award-winning author whose latest book, “Insurrecto,” was named one of the best books of 2018 by Publisher’s Weekly, and received praise from outlets like BuzzFeed, NPR, and The Los Angeles Times.” Photo by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Novelist Gina Apostol seems to always be either reading or writing.

In the conference room reserved for press interviews at the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, she asks if she can step out to fetch a book while she waits. Earlier that day, in a T.V. interview alongside Viet Thanh Nguyen, author of “The Sympathizer” and “The Refugees,” she says she was writing her upcoming novel “William McKinley’s World” on the plane to Manila. “It’s odd because I’m so happy to be in the Philippines, but I also want to get back to my book!” she says.

Apostol’s novels are steeped in Philippine history and are frequently labyrinthine, full of wordplay and time jumps, and are often structured in less than conventional ways. Her second novel, “The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata,” is a hero’s “memoir” laden with footnotes by a translator, an editor, and a psychoanalyst, whose views of the events of Mata’s life often clash and conflict. In the 2013 PEN/Open Book award-winner “Gun Dealers’ Daughter,” Apostol writes about the martial law period from the perspective of Sol, a woman born into an elite family whose mind is fragmented by some kind of amnesia — Sol frequently misremembers events, repeats and edits her memories. In “Insurrecto,” her latest novel, she centers the story on the Balangiga massacre, or rather, the writing of two conflicting scripts about the moments that led to the brutal incident in 1901. Nguyen, in his blurb, wrote that the novel is “meta-fictional, meta-cinematic, even meta-meta.”

“I’m interested in these structural issues of a novel because it seems deeply entwined maybe in my view of reality — I am hyper-conscious of our multiplicities — how we are quite fragmented, fractured selves, but that is not a burden to carry but a means for imagining others more deeply,” she said in a previous interview with CNN Philippines Life about “Insurrecto.”

“Reflexive texts, the types people call ‘meta,’ at least offer that kind of useful cognitive experience: of being aware of a world in which you are being constructed by someone else,” she added later on.

As it seems, Apostol’s writing lifts the veil on, not merely the brutality of our troubled history, but the way it has been and continues to be told (or rather not). In “Gun Dealers’ Daughter,” as Sol becomes more entrenched in the world of student activism at a state university, she realizes how much of her education at an American school taught her sanitized versions of the 1986 revolution and the Philippine-American war.

“I discovered that our books of history were invariably in the voice of the colonist, the one who misrecognized us,” says Sol.

Thus, perhaps, the reason why she is always reading and writing. “There are historical resonances wherever you go,” she says when asked what she wants her readers to take away from her books. “With historical work, when you're steeped in historical thinking, always thinking about your context, why something's happening there, is, I think, good. I think it's good for a person. Because then maybe, for me, it makes you think, ‘how am I complicit in the world?’”

CNN Philippines Life took the opportunity to chat with her at the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival to talk about writing historical fiction, the necessity of the genre in a country like the Philippines, and what she hopes readers will take away from her books. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Gina Apostol's latest novel, "Insurrecto," centers the story on the Balangiga massacre, or rather, the writing of two conflicting scripts about the moments that led to the brutal incident in 1901. Viet Thanh Nguyen, in his blurb, wrote that the novel is “meta-fictional, meta-cinematic, even meta-meta.” Photo from SOHO PRESS

I read your interview with Laurel Fantauzzo where you talked about “Insurrecto.” She mentioned how, in the book, there was this act of returning and returning to certain moments, and as I was reading “Gun Dealers’ Daughter,” I also found myself returning to certain moments in the narrator's writing because I felt like I would read something and then I would see it later on in the story and I would have to sort of piece things together. Why do you think that you find yourself writing this way?

Actually it happens a little bit in “The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata” ... I think they happen for different reasons. In “Insurrecto,” it happens because there are, in fact, repeating historical moments that I think have parallel significance ... I guess the analysis is that the martial law era and the Duterte era have historical, structural patterns with the American occupation. But in “Gun Dealer,” I think that's a different reason. I think those are psychological reasons. So in [“Insurrecto”], those are historical patterns, in the other one, her mind is working in a way that makes the reversions happen.

I found it interesting because we often talk about our collective amnesia regarding martial law, even though it only happened a few decades ago.

Yeah, and of course, if you do with the structural issues of, where “Insurrecto” is saying, there are structural issues about how our government was constructed because of our historical moment here with the American occupation, our so-called cultural amnesia, our inability to deal with martial law actually has to do with government structures. Repression, actual repression by government.

When I was young, two historical fiction novels that really stuck with me were about WWII, and they really seared images of the atrocities of that time in my mind. What do you hope for your readers to carry with them long after they've finished reading your books?

I do think about that, what would you carry with you. For me, it would be that … there are historical resonances wherever you go. Like, I'm just going around Makati and I'm seeing, “Oh, why is this Arnaiz Street?” And I'm thinking, “What does that mean in terms of why in Makati would you have that?” And with historical work, when you're steeped in historical thinking, always thinking about your context, why something's happening there, is, I think, good. I think it's good for a person. Because then maybe, for me, it makes you think, “How am I complicit in the world?”

I'm very uncomfortable, for instance, in Makati. I think it's a weird business place that creates ruin. So there are places in Manila where I cry. Old Manila makes me cry, even looking at the ruins of Malate. But that also is, for me, like thinking about history so much.

Why do you think you're so drawn to history and historical fiction?

As a child, I still remember when the first sirens of martial law that said “curfew, curfew, curfew” and everyone was really scared. I think I was seared by the childhood memories that I later learned, “Oh, those were actually significant.” I was living weird history, you know? And then I went through the EDSA rebellion, I was on the streets. It's like you as a person has made history.

“If you're going to do history, [it requires] doing the research. And even if you're not even going to include that stuff, just know it. Because maybe you don't want that stuff in your book, you just want the sense that history's there.”

But did you realize those things as you were living them, or only much later on?

The martial law stuff, which happened when I was a child, I didn't realize it. But EDSA rebellion I did. And I think putting those things together, because of course EDSA rebellion I think, “Oh my God, this is like a culmination of the weird fear that I had as a child.” So you can make connections in your mind from what was actually happening to you and what had happened to you before when you didn't understand.

And now with Duterte, when I'm seeing all the weird shit that he's doing, and I'm thinking, “Oh my God, when I was a child, I didn't know how martial law had happened. Now I'm seeing how martial law had happened.”

Do you think that there is a responsibility for people who have lived through certain things in the past to tell those stories because of how often we see them happening again?

Yeah. It's weird, isn't it? I do think it's so. And I did not realize that the martial law stories had not been told. I thought that people were always telling them. And then I learned that it wasn't even taught in the schools. Is that true?

Yeah, it's kind of glossed over, or it's very general, what they teach. And it depends on the school. When I went to college, that was the only time when I really learned about the depths of martial law. In high school, it was just surface-level stuff.

Wow, see I didn't know that. So then I think that's structural. That's what I mean by structural. It's the government that's doing something.

On our yearning to find a clear "whole" identity as Filipinos, Apostol says: "I think that yearning for the simple, the one thing that will save you, is going to be very unhealthy and you will die because of it. I think we need to recognize the complexity of things and go for what might be more ethical. So instead of completeness, why don't you go for ethics?" Photo by JL JAVIER

How do you decide which ideas to pursue for a novel?

I think about things a lot. So I do a lot of research. I try not to write words to paper until I feel I have a grasp on the character, on the milieu, on the moment, and in particular on the structure, how I'm going to structure it. So I do a lot of thinking beforehand. And when I think I have enough is basically when I think I have the structure.

Why do you think the historical fiction novel is important in this country?

Well, as I was saying [in a prior interview], we began with the novel. We began with Jose Rizal, who was very interested in history. Jose Rizal had annotated a historical book by Antonio de Morga. So we have a novelist who's so interested in our past. And I do think that's a healthy thing to do. The weird thing is given that history that we have with Rizal and then even Maximo Kalaw and all of these people who wrote about history, why keep repeating it. It's kind of odd. And I have to think about the disjunction between that literary culture and the economic indignity that remains.

I feel like historical fiction is compelling to a lot of Filipino readers because there's this yearning for forming our identities because of what colonialism has done to that. Do you find that to be true?

I think that is certainly very likely one of the impulses for the work that I'm doing. That the writing of the novel might be able to speak to some kind of expression of the fracture and the fragmentation that is ours because of our colonial history. And through showing that fragmenting and fracturing what actually does in fact show you the history …[“Insurrecto”] is fragmented, but even as it's fragmented it's saying, “Oh it's a fractured people, it's a fractured group that's trying to figure itself out,” you actually tell the story of our history, which is kind of paradoxical.

“I think I was seared by the childhood memories [of martial law] that I later learned, 'Oh, those were actually significant.' I was living weird history, you know?”

What do you think of this need to find a clean narrative or a sort of “whole” identity? In the context of the Philippines, does that even exist?

I think it's unhealthy, because look: I think the vote for Duterte was like a fake concept of order. And when we start doing that simplification, we're gonna get weird shit like that. That was a very simplified concept. “I'm gonna do law and order, I'm going to end endo.” And you did not. And you knew that he was not gonna do it. But that yearning for simplicity, for the simple or the strongman? That's what happened. So I think that yearning for the simple, the one thing that will save you, is going to be very unhealthy and you will die because of it. I think we need to recognize the complexity of things and go for what might be more ethical. So instead of completeness, why don't you go for ethics?

Do you have any tips for writers who want to get into writing historical fiction?

I think one should be open to doing a lot of hard work. I think it requires thinking a lot, if you're going to do history, [it requires] doing the research. And even if you're not even going to include that stuff, just know it. Because maybe you don't want that stuff in your book, you just want the sense that history's there. But you still, in my view, have to know as much as you can.

Can you recommend your favorite or most influential novelists?

My current favorite is Elena Ferrante. I really like her, I just finished The Neapolitan Novels. And being a person who grew up in Tacloban, I understand that kind of provincial horror that she's writing about. So I really, really like the very local word of Elena Ferrante.