Gina Apostol is not in the business of making people feel comfortable
The writer of "Insurrecto" talks representation, the Balangiga massacre, and why you shouldn’t try to make yourself fit into white spaces
Nov 21, 2019
“It’s always very moving for me to return,” says Gina Apostol on a late Thursday afternoon, the clouds outside threatening a storm. She came to the country for the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, a year after the publishing of “Insurrecto,” her third book.
It’s hard not to feel intimidated, or a little bit starstruck in her presence. Part of that comes from how her reputation as a wildly postmodern and deeply political writer precedes her. But also, if you’re a Bisaya writer, like I am—and knowing Apostol, knowing that she’s Waray, that she’s from Tacloban, knowing she made it when making it as a writer here mostly means being birthed at the right place from the right people, it’s hard not to see Apostol as a kind of writing blueprint.
In any case, I sat down to talk to Apostol about being a writer from the province, politics, and what it means to be a writer.
I read that you’re from Tacloban. I myself am from the province, so I know it’s hard to find a name for yourself if you’re from the province.
It’s an important story, the province story. It’s hard to articulate how that world is a world in itself but I think it’s an important thing to recognize. We’re very Manila-centric—is it still?
Yes, we are.
So I grew up with that very Manila-centric thing where people don’t understand what it is to have the doubleness. But that’s an enriching aspect too, it’s very enriching to be from the provinces, because you are always double. You’ll always have an edge over the Manila person because they don’t know the provinces but you know Manila.
We’re always ahead.
There’s always a sense of your experience being a bit more layered if you’re from the province.
And that layering is important for the Philippines because I think the Manila-centric view diminishes the people of Manila.
We’ve talked a little about Manila, but you’re now writing for a more global audience. One thing I’ve noticed about the current writing scene is that even though there’s been steps and bounds for representation and inclusivity, that’s come with a lot of backlash too. How do you situate yourself within that kind of landscape?
Well, I think they have to figure out how to situate me. I don’t think it’s my job to situate myself with them. I think they need to figure me out. That’s the way I think about the world. My job is not to make people comfortable with me. They have to figure out how to deal with that complexity. That’s important. It’s not true of only Filipinos but Filipinos definitely do that, to be thinking of yourself in terms of others, and I think we need to get out of that. We need to see ourselves as important for who we are. Because we are. I think our history, our ways of being, our ability to survive—our ability to survive is crazy—we need to give ourselves credit for that. And we need to recognize that the people who don’t see us, and I will say this again, as with Manila, they are diminished by not being able to see us.
For instance, Filipinos, we are completely part of the global world because we’re taking care of the goddamn sick people. We’re cleaning their homes, we’re making their hotels work, we’re serving the ships. It won’t function without these people. The world doesn’t, you know? And when you don’t see the way your world functions, you’re not able to have a good world. You can’t have an ethical world. And so you get diminished. That’s what’s happening in the Trump world. People like Trump who can’t see that you can’t have a Trump resort without immigrants. So you do an injustice to your own self and you don’t even know it. It’s terrible.
I’ve never thought about it that way before.
That’s the way I’ve been thinking for practically my whole life in terms of this thing because as a probinsyana, you’re there, and people expect all these things from a probinsyana, and just, no. I don’t have to accomodate myself to Tagalog people. I don’t have to accomodate myself to American people. I’ve never thought that that’s my job.
That kind of thinking plays into your novels a lot, especially with “Insurrecto.” One of the things I noticed with that book, too, is that that political and subversive rage is also tempered with humor.
I’m going to be honest, I don’t even hear the humor in my book because it’s just the way it’s written. People always talk about it being funny, I’m just saying, “Well, that’s the way it is.” Or “that’s an important way of looking at this.”
I guess it’s also very Filipino. We’re punning all the time. I think it’s because we have many languages. It’s certainly true of the Waray: you have the Waray, the Tagalog, the English, and of course you have the Cebuano because you’re all around. So you’re beset with instant punning. And I grew up with it, I grew up thinking of language. Because diba you go to school thinking of language because you would be fined if you did not speak English, so you had to be very aware of language even as a child. So that awareness of language is in my novels.
About “Insurrecto,” I want to ask why you included Casiana, a real historical Filipina figure, within the novel?
I knew very well I was going to include Casiana because I was very struck with the fact that she was the only woman named that I found in the list of Balangiga heroes. The Balangiga memorial is [divided like this]: here are the Filipinos, here are the Americans. So her name was on the list. Now I didn’t do a lot of research on her. I wanted to create my own Casiana. But I didn’t know how she was going to appear in my novel, so it’s surprising even to me how she appears there.
What was the thought behind centering it around the very real massacre? It’s not something that people generally know, and it’s not something I was taught.
It wasn’t taught to me either. I’m Waray, and the Balangiga massacre is a Waray event, so my uncle would talk about it. But it was more like a gossip talk, it wasn’t like a historical thing. So it’s part of the history of the Waray people, but it’s also very much part of the history of the Philippines. It’s actually really essential to the Philippine-American War. I didn’t know how central it was, it was only when I was reading about it na, “Oh, so this was a turning point in the war.” When the Americans recognized that they had retaliated and started killing people in the thousands, they investigated Balangiga. It was like the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. And I read the congressional hearings on it. In American history, it’s also very important. It’s studied in West Point.
Yes. I’ve seen dissertations, thesis papers from West Point students about Balangiga. But the lens is very American, you know.
So politics plays a big part in your writing. What do you think about people who say that writers should “just write” and that politics has no space in art?
Well, I just think they’re dumb. I don’t think that’s correct. It’s a fallacy that ends up supporting violence. It ends up supporting injustice. So I think that people should stop thinking that art is separate. With Dante, politics is not separate. With Chaucer, politics is not separate. With Shakespeare, politics is not separate.
Would you say that this insistence on keeping things separate is what led us to the garbage fire situation we have now?
Yeah, really! Like, it’s very interesting that the workshops for a long time were apolitical. When you’re talking about your story, the moment of your story doesn’t matter. It’s more about the craft and all of that. And that creates a weird way of looking at literature. I guess I just don’t agree.
So more intersectional.
You have to think about your position, who you are, your voice, why are you making these choices. I mean “Gun Dealers’ Daughter,” for instance. I had to think why am I making that choice [to make] that very very wealthy girl [the protagonist]. I had to occupy her mind in those 250 pages, and I had to be very clear about my reason for doing that.
What was it?
It was to invert. So she’s very wealthy, and she’s actually the problem. Her group is the cause of horror. So you, the reader, keep working with her voice. I, as the writer, kept working with her voice. I didn’t like her but I occupied her. But you have to recognize at some point that, “Oh! She’s the devil.” And you become the devil along with her. And through that inversion, maybe you recognize something about the society you live in, which is that you’re fucked over all the time by these people.
It’s very subversive.
Yes, but the subversion has to do with your own connection to the text. The readers are really important.
I see that too with “Insurrecto.”
Exactly! You’re going with them, you discover something. The reader’s confusion about who is writing what really matters, that’s part of the text. So your own experience is part of the text.
So we’re characters, too.
Yes! The multiplicity helps with that because you can imagine one of the alternate voice as your own. It allows you that freedom.
I read in one of your other interviews that your next book is a family drama?
It was going to be about two brothers. One of them is a spy during the Philippine-American War, one of them is a rebel, a katipunero, and someone has to kill someone. One brother has to kill the other brother. So that was the story of that. I’m working on it in a way that it’s changed, it’s radically changed. It’ll have history still but there’s a lot of family in it. It was actually difficult to figure it out because I don’t do emotional family stuff, and this has an emotional family thing in it.
At the same time, I’m researching for another novel. I’m doing one on Juan Luna’s wife Paz. I’m trying to recover the voice of Paz. I don’t know how to do it. She’s a ghost. I’m putting her together with Freud, because Luna and Freud lived in Paris at the same time in the 1880s. But that’s just research right now. I’m reading Freud, basically.
Last question: What can you say to young writers who also want to make it in the mainstream global writing world?
I think the idea should not be about thinking about the mainstream global audience. I think you can get to that mainstream global audience if you figure out what it is you want to do as a writer. You have to understand your subject position within the work that you’re doing, and you understand why. And I have to say this to be very didactic, you have to find the right reasons. You can’t just be, “I have to be seen by the global audience.” For me anyway, even if it does work, you got the global audience, if that’s all you want, it’s empty. It’s not all that wonderful. I think the reason why you write, for me, has to do with trying to get out a truth that maybe you don’t understand yourself, and the writing is the discovery of some truth. And if not that’s that, it’s not interesting.
Featured photos courtesy of National Bookstore
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