‘My choices kept moving me toward the consciousness of women’ — An interview with Gina Apostol, by Thom Cuell

Gina Apostol’s novel Insurrecto follows a Filipino translator and American film director as they collaborate on, and argue over, a script about a massacre of civilians by the US military in 1901. It’s multi-layered, meta-textual plot features a dazzling number of points of view, as Apostol interrogates the creation of historical narratives, and the subjectivity of storytelling.

Gina Apostol is the PEN/Open Award winning author of Gun Dealers’ Daughter, as well as a two time winner of the National Book Award in the Philippines for her novels Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata. Her short stories have appeared in various anthologies and journals including The Gettysburg Review and the Penguin Anthology of Asian American fiction, Charlie Chan is Dead, Volume 2.

Insurrecto examines the legacy of an incident in the Philippine-American war in 1901, in which revolutionaries attacked an American garrison, which responded by massacring civilians in the surrounding countryside. What was it that drew you to this subject at this moment in time?

I’d already written a novel that I thought was about the Philippine revolution—but it turned out it was only the revolution against Spain (The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, my second published novel). I did not realize the revolution against America was, in a sense, a different war—it was a fierce, anti-colonial, anti-imperialist war that was more or less sui generis. Filipinos fought a group that had been their allies, for a moment, in that war against Spain. The story of this war has an arc of tragedy—I’ve written about this war in a talk at Cornell, its Aristotelian tragic arc: a war steeped in the irony of betrayal and the power of hope, which is what revolution is.  Of course, political matters such as the rise of Duterte and Trump, two deeply authoritarian, violently victimizing figures, were incidental as I wrote this novel, but their regimes are sadly relevant to this history. In fact, during a campaign rally ranting against Muslims, Trump mentioned a massacre in Muslim Mindanao in 1901 led by the WW1 US general of the armies, John Pershing, who had been a military governor in the Philippine south in 1901. The military history of the United States is oddly steeped in that Philippine war. So there is a long shadow that links that era to our times.

You’ve spoken previously about what it means to be an author from a colonised country, ‘the sense that who you are is a fiction’, and you return to this in Insurrecto. How did this experience inform the metafictional approach you took to the narrative?

The layers of narration in Insurrecto,where you hear the free indirect discourse of a white soldier, overlaid with a white woman photographer, overlaid with a brown woman revolutionary, overlaid with a contemporary Filipino translator, and so on, in some way mimic the historiography that I dealt with in uncovering facts of American aggression in the Philippines. The theme of translation, of the Filipino viewing herself from translations because of her colonized past—this mediated sense of self—has long interested me. And this interest shows in the structures of all my novels, I think.

In the book, you explore the way that film, photography and journalism serve to mediate our experience of events – ‘reconstructing the trauma of whole countries through a movie’s palimpsest’. How does the layer of fiction that you introduce interplay with these existing levels of mediation?

“Ambiguity is richness,” says Borges in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote.”The sense that illusions produce us is powerful in my view of reality: to include ‘irreality,’ including the texts we consume and that consume us, as part of our ways to intercept truth, to gain truths, is important to my experience of reality—even in my day to day. I write with that sense of reality as mediation—which does not obviate truth as the core of my search.

Despite my recognition of this mediated world, I believe that there are ways of seeing this reality that are more correct, more productive, than others. Which may be why I write novels. I see them as possible ways of gaining truth.

The events of the novel, both in present day and in the account of 1901, are primarily seen through the female gaze. What impact do you think this has on the colonialist narrative which you are challenging?

It took me a long time to figure out consciously that I had been writing within the default frame of masculinity, the patriarchal gaze, whenever I wrote my books. I’m deeply influenced by the world of Dostoyevski, of Flaubert, of Rizal, of the Filipino male writers, like Nick Joaquin. But I think I learned about my need for the woman’s gaze unconsciously. Also, my favourite Filipino writers are quite woman-centred, to be honest. My revisions of my first drafts tell me that my choices have kept moving me toward the consciousness of women, all the time. My books are fairly often heavily rewritten; I like revision. I was writing two books about this war against the Americans in 1899-1913—William McKinley’s World(about two Filipino brothers, a spy for US and a rebel against US) and this book, Insurrecto. And I kept being unhappy about the other one, and I kept working on Insurrecto instead. It was kind of my revision of that other novel. I guess I wanted the woman’s voices: I believe they, rather than the rebel brothers, were more deeply important in this novel about war. The woman’s voice allows an organic inversion of the received story of the events, an immediate—unmediated—voice of rebellion. A natural synthesis/antithesis flows beautifully once you are within that domestic sphere, which in my view is central, irrevocably part, of the events of war, except one rarely sees it. The woman’s world gave an intimate voice for a series of events that, to be honest, were very foreign and alien to me. It was actually very hard to translate such a distant war into some voice I could believe in. The women gave me that capacity to write confidently and surely about horror.

Throughout the novel, you explore the interplay of class, race and gender. Was it important to you to take this intersectional approach to addressing the events of 1901, and the narratives that have developed from then?

In these days, there is no way out for us writers: we need to be conscious of the political needs of our work—we need to be conscious of our subject-position, of our readers’ positions, of the society producing the injustices we live with, when we write. As a Filipino woman, but also as an educated woman, therefore also a woman of privilege, I am conscious of challenging a number of power-gazes, including my own obdurate belief in art. Grappling with the political in my novels also energizes me—because to be honest art, the pleasure of art, matters above all in my novels—and yet I would also suggest political rigor as an art ‘obstruction,’ or ‘constraint,’ as the OULIPO writers might call it (and I know I am turning that art-craft of the OULIPO on its head when I include political rigor as an obstruction). Our present-day requires this rigor of us as artists. So it is also an art-constraint, political thinking, and to me it’s a powerful ground upon which to contemplate the art of novel-making. It gives me great satisfaction—it is also actually a lot of fun—to figure out how to consider the political in art.

In Insurrecto,the complexity of the art –structures in my view is inextricable from the politics and history that the book contends with.

There are references to Elvis and Muhammed Ali throughout Insurrecto– what made those figures in particular important to you?

Elvis was a figure who came up in my research for one character, Virginie, the mother of the white filmmaker: I needed an anchor for the 50s mom that I was also fascinated with in this novel. I am actually completely fascinated by the 50s mom, who is my mom, of course, the mom that many of my generation have—that woman who was both too early and too late for the revolutions of norms about womanhood and class that came in the 60s, a historical tardiness that gives her pathos. Elvis was my anchor to that 50s mom—and the more I researched him, the more I was fascinated by his ambiguity—he was a tool of capitalism and front for race-desire (racist people could love black music via Elvis), but he was also a guise for freedom. Regarding Ali—I grew up with the Thrilla in Manila—the bout between Ali and Frazier. I was pro-Frazier as a kid—just to be contrary. Filipinos love boxing, and above all Filipinos loved Muhammad Ali (I do, too, actually). Loving Ali was just a given, for me, growing up in the Philippines. That interesting problem of these figures, Elvis and Ali, as central to growing up in the Philippines was catnip, for a person so fascinated by translation and mediation and ambiguity, like me.

The way you deal with collective trauma is interesting; there’s a sense of duty for the victims of trauma to keep the memory of events alive, and tell their own stories, but also of the tremendous psychological burden that this responsibility brings with it. What was the impact on you of addressing these traumatic memories? And what are the advantages of using fiction to do so?

It was emotionally heavy to be dealing with this war—the insistent racism of the texts and the forgotten facts of this genocide. Not so surprising, but still depressing. For one thing, I actually live in America—so I see this country with constant bifurcation, having written about this history; at the same time, I love New York City, and I make no bones about that. So that is my fantastic condition, just on a daily scale. But the advantage of having a sense of duty to this in fiction is that, as an artist, you are given a constraint—an ethics—that actually serves your work. I don’t mean this in a mealy-mouthed way—I’m very aware of the problem of moralism in art. I guess I could write a manifesto in which I could more fully declare why a keen interest in politics and the ethics of readership and artistry is powerful for novel-writing—how it deepens one’s ways of solving artistic problems, and so on. But I have only a finite time in this interview, so I will say: it is not that I feel it as a burden. It is a need—all artists, not just a novelist from a colonized state, need to consider multiple lenses and views, and to confront power. To construct the world of language and plot and character that leans toward embracing multitude can be very freeing, in my experience, for one’s art. It allows you to take risks, be complex or simple as you need to, and so on. It gives one, oddly, a kind of clarity. It is also difficult, but as I also say—it is fun, in the sense that fun for me means something that fills me up, profoundly engages my whole being.

If you were an Egyptian pharaoh and had to be buried with a few key objects to take to the next world, what would they be?

Personally, I wish I would have the heart to leave my husband’s ashes in this world, and take with me a keepsake of my child: an art piece by her, a book she loved. But I do not know if I would have the heart for such leaving. My family is very important to me, as you can see. I have this sense that I would, ultimately, take nothing. I kind of hate the pharaohs. And I do have a strong sense of nihilism, a healthy one though. This nihilism makes me prefer to keep on living.

Do you have a favourite joke, quotation or proverb?

I quote Borges all the time, as you can see above: I couldn’t help myself, even in this interview.

What’s your favourite portrait (it can be a song, a painting, a film, anything)?

I’m a huge fan of Proust. The portrait of time in his novel—especially once you get to the last book, is just indelible: it is fixed in my mind. Also, there’s a section in Proust that basically is the portrait of Madame de Guermantes—the scene with the red shoes (she takes the time to change her shoes, to obey her husband’s sense of fashion, but takes no time to speak to her friend, the dying Swann)—I think a lot about that scene—the way the punchline, the point of the scene (the changing of the shoes) comes after the long, long scene of Swann recognizing his dying. It’s very beautifully done. I admire that way of portraiture very much—where the subject of the portrait is misdirected. There’s also an interesting song by Bob Dylan about Elvis—it is not my favourite, not even my favourite Dylan (I love Dylan), but it comes to mind. Dylan wrote it the day he heard Elvis died. He called Elvis “the gypsy”—the song is called “I Went to See the Gypsy”—and I think it was about the effect of Elvis on Dylan, when Dylan was a young musician. He remembers a moment of Elvis passing with “music in my ears”—and I thought it was a touching song. I learned about the song from researching this novel. Just a song written in the moment as someone passes, and the regret of not making more of an effort to connect. I think the ephemeral portrait, the one that you might recognize as coming from a moment, is moving—I’m moved whenever I listen to that song—maybe because we know that we remember in moments, really, unelaborated, in pieces, so the portrait in passing has a visceral, real feeling. Maybe.

Featured image: Balangiga Massacre Memorial, by Jojit Ballesteros, via Wiki Commons