GINA APOSTOL IS a Philippine-American author whose novels confront, and radically reorient, the histories of both countries. 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. 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 book also excavates women’s private sorrows and ethical quandaries in the face of political violence.
Apostol and I corresponded between Honolulu and New York City by email and Facebook messenger, like members of the diaspora usually do.
LAUREL FLORES FANTAUZZO: Insurrecto is a complex book. There is a film within the novel; countries and eras clash repeatedly; characters merge and double. Can you discuss the restlessness of your storytelling?
GINA APOSTOL: Well, I am a writer and I am always occupying other people’s minds. And this book is also about art-making. Plus, I grew up speaking three languages, but my primal one, Waray, was oddly repressed in the classroom. I’d be fined if I did not speak English.
Literally fined? How did the school enforce this rule?
You put five centavos in a coconut shell, of course! Ha ha. I remember it was so weird to be fined for speaking my own language. So this sense of splitness, rooted in language, was part of my growing up. But this doubleness, for me, is existential — it’s a human thing. But it is hard for us to express that simultaneity, or to think about it too much, for basic reasons, such as sanity!
Virginia Woolf did it, and so many of Borges’s stories are about doubleness. Some of Vladimir Nabokov’s work, like Laughter in the Dark. Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual works on this concept of multiple planes. So does Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, or Invisible Cities. So I like that kind of work a lot. But to put these existential themes alongside issues of current politics is something else. I mean, Nabokov did not speak Waray.
For the Filipino in America, our immigrant self is a kind of hyper-humanity. You visibly — or vocally — bear that aspect of the human, that splitness. And then there’s material history. 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.
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. What is the consequence to our sense of being that comes with conquest? It was hard to tell the story of the colonizer and the colonized with just one voice. For one thing, those voices are intertwined, in my view. It’s hard to read myself without the world of the colonizer in me: the world that history has subjected me to.
Obviously, an effect of colonization is a Philippine oligarchic state long propped up by US military funds. 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. The katipuneros invoked the American revolution — Washington and Jefferson — in their war against the Americans. And, to me, that’s one of the most tragic things about that war.
Wow. Taking on the best ideals of the ones harming them, to liberate themselves.
And Rizal translated The Rights of Man straight into Tagalog — Ang Mga Karapatan ng Tao. It survives in his papers without attribution or acknowledgment of its source, which was the French Revolution, of course. 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. It was found among his papers when he died. I really love that story of revolutionary translation, the best kind of appropriation.
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. A global sense of self — confronting your own scars and trauma, but steadfast in your own multiple identities — is healthy.
I understand the complexity of using English as my language of creation: but this fact is ordinary to me. It’s no burden, it’s just my history. I have no angst about that which I cannot undo. But it is also correct for others to recognize the trauma it signifies.
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. The repression of this war in American consciousness has already done damage: Americans have not learned from it. So that’s why a novel like Insurrecto, I think, is useful. It is both a Filipino and an American novel, and that is a good thing.
The book seems to stage an insurrection, if you will, against our expectation of a single narrative, a single answer. The chapters are deliberately out of order, giving us a sense of forever needing to reorient. At what point in your writing process did you feel the structure of this book needed to be slightly insane?
I think the structure is very sane, though.
Yes, it’s a planned, crafted structure. 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.
Yes — it is an insurrection against the novel form! It’s especially an insurrection against the form of the political novel.
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. 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.
Are those of us who write the immigrant family epic somehow less free, held back by the limited gaze of literary capitalism? Do we risk unconsciously playing to industry demands, to make ourselves palatable to a white American audience?
No, of course not. One does not write according to expectations. You write a family saga or you don’t. Don’t you know my next novel, William McKinley’s World, is a family saga?
I did not know that.
It’s very difficult to write.
We need to make an effort not to take on the power lens that does not read us right. This is true of a child growing up, or of a writer.
Part of writing is freedom — this immensely satisfying freedom to figure out reality as it suggests itself to you. The demands of any particular novel dictate the work you do — the novel creates its own requirements. I like to have specific, arbitrary constraints that I make up, which help me write. But ultimately, when I am writing, I wait for that point when the novel is simply and deeply a pleasure. I look for that pleasure.
I like Oulipo, for instance, a seemingly apolitical group (though Georges Perec wrote very class-conscious novels). But to turn Oulipo strategies into a political tract — that’s fun! 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 trope of the unfinished book is a haunting thing, for me. Insurrecto’s voices emerged during the recess time of writing another, very long novel. So it’s a playground of a novel that insists that in multiplicity is truth.
There are multiple conflicts within the Philippines and the diaspora — a marking of territory and setting of rules, if you will. 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. What do you think of those ongoing disputes? Your argument in Insurrecto seems to be for an embrace of the multiple, rather than a setting of divisions, or a dogma of naming.
Yeah. I think categories are damaging because they can be exclusionary. I prefer categories that are inclusionary, if one can do that.
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. When I got to the States and made Fil-Am friends, my experience of being Filipino, I knew, was quite different from theirs. But the Fil-Am experience of being Filipino is just that — different from mine. It does not make one not a kind of Filipino. Or not a kind of American.
Understanding that there are differences, and thinking about what and why those differences are, can be fascinating. For instance, growing up in the Philippines, I was radicalized to analyze class, not race. Basically, I thought everyone was just Filipino. Even Elvis. Ha ha. I had no angst about my Filipino-ness.
And I still don’t think identity is a crux for me. I fail to agonize over it. I am not interested in identity as sadness about my doubleness. I am okay with my self as a deconstructing thing, inherently unstable. It’s how others view that identity that becomes a problem. I mean, let the Filipinx be Filipinx; it does not kill you and it solves a problem of gender. White supremacy is the problem, not our markers of identity. So it’s up to us if we want to be divided so that others conquer.
This novel is saying — let there be many ways of telling stories, of having delight in stories. 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. 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.
The out-of-order chapters, then, summon the reader to return, and return, and return. The way grief and trauma do.
But I think the novel is also funny. I think it is a light, comic novel — meant to be read quickly, not belabored. But then you have to reread it. I do like rereading books. You can’t read Borges without rereading him, for instance.
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. The two protagonists, Magsalin and Chiara, are women in mourning, and yet very comic in their own ways. Can you talk more about the relationship between mourning and laughter, even as the personal and political histories here hold such grave weight?
Maybe it’s a notion of realism? Reality is, in a sense, produced by the observer. On one plane, we know who we are only seen through the eyes of others, without being quite conscious about that, of course. (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.
In my experience, that possibility of comedy in tragedy is a healthy tonic, a private one, in times of grief. 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.
Laughter can also be a fatal avoidance, an incomplete coping mechanism for suffering that must be addressed.
But, for me, the eye of the colonized on the conqueror is the interesting thing. 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.
Chirino, a Jesuit of the 1600s, chronicled my province, Leyte. 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. They said, what, why should we change to your religion when we can marry as many men as we like? And they just ridiculed Chirino. That was his example of Waray women as hopeless devils.
Colonizers call our sense of the absurd sneaky. But it’s a form of power. The Filipino’s can be a cold eye, in my view — a hugely skeptical, remorseless, even cruel gaze. Wordplay is part of that Filipino gaze — we play word games on strangers and on each other. Because language is at the heart of our entrapment.
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. How odd to imagine that change in power-languages, because language is so elemental.
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. And that humor, wordplay, is a weapon of the colonized.
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. When in your life did you first encounter Nacionales’s story? How did your understanding of her role develop over time?
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. 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.
But Insurrecto is a woman’s world. Those are the voices I wished to do, not the men’s. It was a thrill to see Casiana’s name etched on the wall when I visited the Balangiga shrine — the only woman’s name. And what a name for a revolutionary! Nacionales. You cannot make it up. It’s so beautiful. I was in love with Casiana’s name.
So I knew Casiana would be in my novel, but I did not know how she would appear. I have a structure, a kind of geometric frame for my novels. In the case of Insurrecto, it was a weave, a braid.
So I had the frame, but I didn’t completely know what would fill it. I kept wondering when Casiana Nacionales would appear. 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. I just began having this Elvis fix — and I was no fan of Elvis as a kid, though my mom loved him. He was so baduy, but then I got super-obsessed with this one song, “Suspicious Minds,” which is super-duper-baduy. But beautiful still.
That apocalyptic movie, Blade Runner 2049, actually uses the exact same video that became a weird muse for me. I almost fell off my chair when the hologram that survives the android apocalypse turns out to be — Elvis singing “Suspicious Minds”! I laughed so hard.
I’m reminded here of the unnamed uncles who sing karaoke constantly throughout Insurrecto. They’re like a chorus of titos, a baduy presence, while the women characters quest and journey.
Yeah, I like those uncles a lot. The karaoke uncles. But Casiana for me is the key to the novel. Also a key to the conundrum of multiple perspectives.
People can sometimes mistake empathy for ethics. In our fraught political times, we can get confused. Just because we must see from multiple lenses does not mean we do not take sides. 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.
To empathize does not mean you cannot figure out, stake out your ethical stance. 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 person whose story counts here is Casiana. In this novel, for me, we must be on the side of her revolutionary rage. 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. We must imagine Casiana into our history to see it and ourselves more whole. Not that there is only one way of viewing Casiana: she couldn’t be just a heroine in a lace balintawak in some postcard. It was important that I gave her a sense of humor, for instance: irony, as well as rage.
One grim, funny scene toward the end of Insurrecto haunts me: a police officer claims that a box containing human ashes actually contains narcotics. It reminded me how the pressures of authoritarian leaders like Rodrigo Duterte have complicated the duties of storytelling. How else did the recent horrors of the country’s murders and political developments affect your writing this novel, if at all?
I love that word — duties. Yes, you feel some kind of obligation. Not in a trite or moralistic way — but in an urgent way. You feel urgency under the realm of this criminal, this atrocious wart on the Filipino psyche that is Duterte. That section is the newest part of the novel. And the fact is — it was easy to put in, though I had begun the novel years before Duterte. It was a seamless insertion. Which is terrible. That this new, obscene violence easily fits into that history of violence.
He remains a popular wart, unfortunately.
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. 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. It’s a single thread, in that sense — it’s one story.
That’s what trauma exposes. Things reverberate.
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. 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.
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? How should we respond, if at all, to it and to each other?
I think we should keep trying to find ways to resist. I like to join with others because I know I cannot do much alone. I joined this group called MALAYA here in New York City simply because they were clear in their goals and were very organized. We had a die-in on Fifth Avenue during the city’s Philippine Independence Day parade. 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. And I’m a writer, so in this novel I inserted a scene about the blood on the hands of Duterte’s government.
I’m not interested in fighting people who are not on my side. I like trying to figure out how to tell the story so that maybe we can see our traumatic reality more clearly.
The traumatic reality of the Balangiga massacre is also a marathon comedy, in your novel, with mistranslations and subterfuge.
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. Which of course leads to the massacre of thousands of Filipinos. Tit for imperial tat. The American-led massacre was a really dramatic, epically violent event that kind of changed the way Americans prosecuted the 1899 war. It was that war’s My Lai massacre.
The initial Filipino action in Balangiga was an amazing piece of stagecraft. At least, that’s how I thought of it in my novel. Everyone seems to be on a kind of stage, with interchangeable roles and names.
I did want to emphasize Filipino agency in this story. 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 material reality and the methods of film have a huge presence in the book. Why is that?
To read the novel, you have to locate the gaze — which can shift without much warning. 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.
My constraint was that I knew every gaze was mediated, usually by an actual piece of media. But I knew my reader would not be fully aware. It was fun to write! 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.
Another trigger for the novel was a form of media — those stereo cards of the Fil-Am War that I kept buying on eBay. I saw the war through a media-maker’s gaze.
Tell us more about those horrifying stereo cards. When and why did you start collecting them? Did they precede your idea for the novel and its form?
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. Photocopies of the cards are in folders labeled “Philippine Insurrection.”
I did tell the librarian the term was archaic and offensive. For a Filipino. Also hugely historically inaccurate.
What did the librarian say in response?
What do you expect of the Library of Congress? Which I love, by the way, but it’s the repository of the imperial. It’s my fate to love these imperial libraries, where I find traumatic images of myself.
Years later, I went back, and the folders still had the same title. I mean, white supremacy is a thing. The Library can still change those labels. It should. Historians should really figure that out. To call my novel Insurrecto is one of those Filipino jokes on the master, but given its historiographic point, it also makes complete sense.
And when I found the actual cards on eBay, I got obsessed. 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. I thought their doubleness was so evocative. And of course their subjects — the posed dead, Mathew Brady–like bodies of Filipinos in the trenches — the gruesome dead.
I kept thinking — who the hell were buying these commercial 3D cards? And who goddamned took those pictures? But at the time, in the late ’90s, I had no idea what to do with them. For one thing, I stopped writing for quite some time.
Why did you stop writing?
I know I included my own story in the novel, which really surprised me.
Can you tell us more about that?
Yeah. It is a bit surprising to me. Also weird, in the sense that I realized that I had dragged in the personal only later.
I was so focused on what my book needed, and I used whatever I had to make it work. I don’t think I knew exactly what I was doing because I have theories about narration even as I write. Uppermost in my mind was the issue of free indirect discourse and my so-called constraints, not my own feelings. Or so I imagined. To imagine one is not in one’s books is a writer’s fantasy, and a necessary one.
Someone at a lecture in Manila once asked me — why do you not write anything about your own personal life? And I kind of wanted to say, well, you would not want to know.
John Barth used to say — never confuse a novel with biography. That is good advice to all readers and writers. And that is important in this novel, too.
My husband is not in this novel: that goes without saying. I don’t think I could have written it if I thought I was portraying him. That would be paralyzing. It’s the feeling of mourning that’s in the novel, that’s personal to me.
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.
It hurts my body right now talking about it. One feels it in the bone.
The problem with suicide is that to talk about it is to recognize the futility of it. The futility of talking about it. The eternity of it. This mourning that just goes on forever.
For me, it’s been 20 years exactly. Which may not be a coincidence. Freud says we mourn because we hate the dead. But the reason could just as easily be love.
There is one character in Insurrecto that many people might not like — the widow Virginie. A seemingly aimless, clueless person who is also just herself. I made her the most annoying character in the book, maybe. She’s a mess. Also, very selfish. And stupidly rich. But her secret struggle is to keep her sense of self, amid the mess. I empathize with that, a lot. Your self is a shred, but it’s still a self.
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. I mean, you can also love someone else, you can be happy with your friendships. And I am, and I can. But grief is always just there. Too many of us live with constant grief: I know I am not alone.
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.
I do think it is because love lasts, too.
I miss my husband. Every day.
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. And when he died, it was a horror to even imagine myself writing again because, well, he could not.
Instead, after he died, I edited his novel. Because his novel was accepted for publication two weeks after he died. I spent two years getting his novel, email@example.com, into print. It’s a seminal novel about virtual reality that’s now out of print, of course.
That’s just the way it is — I miss him.
But I did make this vow to get back to my novels somehow: to return to this pleasure. Whenever anyone asked me, at the time, how they could help me, I just said — send me a book about Philippine history. Because I had just finished a draft of my novel Gun Dealers’ Daughter and had begun Raymundo Mata, when my husband died. I thought — if I cannot write, maybe I can read.
The history books kept piling up, and I never read them. They were just on my shelves, like tokens of a self that I promised to get back to. And I did, years later. And so I finished Raymundo Mata. And then that much earlier book, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, got published. And now here is this novel, Insurrecto.
To be writing at all is a personal triumph, a private triumph, for me. To write out of love, though memory hurts: that is an alright place, too.