Gina Apostol on her new book ‘Insurrecto,’ the Balangiga massacre, and American imperialism

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Gina Apostol's new novel “Insurrecto” has already garnered acclaim from outlets such as Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly Top 10), BuzzFeed (Best Fiction Book of 2018), NPR, Entertainment Weekly, The Boston Globe, and The Los Angeles Times. Photo from SOHO PRESS

Adelaide, South Australia (CNN Philippines Life) — Right before we get to the two competing film scripts at the heart of Gina Apostol’s latest novel “Insurrecto” (Soho Press, 2018), their plucky creators spar over the implications of what Filipino translator Magsalin had done to the original, written by American filmmaker Chiara Brasi. “You are replacing the story,” Chiara accuses Magsalin. “It’s not a version. It’s an invasion.” To which the translator replies: “A mirror, perhaps?” Chiara remains unconvinced: “A double-crossing agent! An occupation!”

The repartee is packed with meaning, of course, especially when we recall that the rival scripts both attempt to reconstruct the events surrounding the Balangiga massacre in some way: Chiara’s follows American photographer Cassandra Chase as she takes stereographs of the American troops stationed in Balangiga at the time of the massacre in 1901, while Magsalin’s focuses on local school teacher Caz’s dalliance with an Italian director on the set of a 1970s film about the massacre.

The dialogue also offers a way of navigating the intricate, funny, hyper-literate puzzles that Apostol’s novels reliably weave (the book’s cast of characters is immediately followed by chapter twenty —“The Insoluble Puzzle at the Heart of the Labyrinth”). Elsewhere lie more hints: “Difference produces perspective.” “There is nothing outside the lens.” Americans “have manufactured how to see the world.”

True enough, the two scripts would soon pleasurably invade and mirror each other, entwine and tangle with other threads, foremost one on the titular insurrecto Casiana Nacionales, the real-life Geronima of Balangiga and the only woman who participated in the surprise attack on the American soldiers. Mercifully, this vertiginous profusion of stories within stories within stories, of names that recur and images that spiral (Cassandra, Caz, Casiana; the people of Balangiga looking “like medieval martyrs” in Italian museums and churches) is propelled by an absorbing road trip that Chiara and Magsalin take to Samar in present-day Philippines.

It’s also the road trip that allows the novel to powerfully engage the horrors of contemporary Philippine experience in the context of such a harrowing history. And as the two women get closer to Balangiga and the events advance toward that September morning more than a century ago, the novel achieves a kind of transcendence symptomatic of the fiery, vehement indignation behind and side by side its formal audacity. How opportune then for “Insurrecto” to hit the shelves of Philippine bookstores just as Balangiga prepares to welcome the return of its historic bells, 117 years after they tolled to signal a town’s righteous revolution.

The book has garnered acclaim from outlets such as Publishers Weekly (Publishers Weekly Top 10), BuzzFeed (Best Fiction Book of 2018), NPR, Entertainment Weekly, The Boston Globe, and The Los Angeles Times.

Here, Apostol discusses why writing novels are fun, history as experienced through media, and the lessons we can take away from the harrowing events in Balangiga. Below are edited excerpts from the interview.

Readers who are familiar with your work, especially “The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata,” will probably recognize the complex, funhouse-like, hyper-reflexive universe that you have built in your fiction in “Insurrecto.” Can you talk about your enduring interest in the ideas that seem to animate this world?

That’s true. “Raymundo Mata” and “Insurrecto” are twins. Whereas “Bibliolepsy” and “Gun Dealers’ Daughter” are first person, singular narrators, there’s this adamant multiplicity in the other two books. “Raymundo Mata” and “Insurrecto” even have both Magsalin and Estrella Espejo, too (wonder what happened to Dr. Diwata — where are you, Diwata! Maybe she’ll appear in my next one, “The Treatment of Paz” — about Filipinos in Paris in the 1880s — love in the time of Freud —Freud and Juan Luna and his soon-to-be-murdered wife Paz are characters [!], Paz will get treated by Freud’s mentor Dr. Charcot, maybe, so the Lacanian Dr. Diwata can be in that).

I see “Insurrecto” as continuing the themes of “Raymundo Mata,” but the Oulipo constraint on this Raymundo-Mata-text was — walang footnotes! So I wanted the braided multiple voices but I had to encode them in the actual narrative. The (arbitrary, of course — I just decided it would be so) constraint in “Insurrecto” is actually that every scene has media or some mediated matter in it.

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. It’s healthy to recognize we are fragmented, we’re unstable, desiring beings, not singular unities. I’d say the two people requiring therapy in my novels are Primi in “Bibliolepsy” and Sol in “Gun Dealer” — the single-narrators who kind of have tunnel vision. Whereas when a character is released through multiple voices, she gets to have some grip on her sanity, a kind of therapeutic power, as far as I can tell.

The value of recognizing the brutality of that war is to see ourselves more clearly in the light of it.

You've written so-called realist fiction in the past, as in the short story “Cunanan's Wake” or “A Tall Woman from Leyte.” In many ways your novels are also about individuals and constructions of history but your way of engaging these ideas via fiction has radically changed. What changed?

I’m not sure if I’ve changed my notion of fiction. I’ve always loved Laurence Sterne or Barth or the Melville of “Moby-Dick” — I love “Moby-Dick.” I love Franz Arcellana but I only admire NVM Gonzales, for instance. I like the unraveling novels, that seem unfinished but are actually quite replete. Of course, I also enjoy Austen very much, Henry James: actually I love them! And I love Butch Dalisay’s short stories — I grew up on those.

But basically, I just really did not enjoy writing short stories. Short stories demanded a realist mode from me, true — though this realism was just my view of what the short story form was, maybe. Some of them I liked, like “Cunanan’s Wake”— but I did not profoundly enjoy writing them. Whereas I very much enjoy writing novels. It’s huge, huge fun. The only thing I liked about short stories was the discipline of figuring out the ending — that’s been useful to me as a novelist. But workshops were better for short stories than for novels. So I’d do stories.

What I really wanted to do when I was writing those stories was to finish “Bibliolepsy.” I did not finish that novel while I was at Hopkins. It was supposed to be my thesis. I ended up writing five stories — “Tall Woman” was one of my Hopkins thesis stories, I think. I don’t remember. I kind of needed to be back home to work on “Bibliolepsy” — and I went back home and finished it there. I wrote about this issue of nationhood and the novel, and why I chose that as my mode when I began thinking about history, in an essay for an anthology called “Thirdest World.” I think people can read about that in that essay.

In the book, we are constantly reminded that our ways of apprehending and imagining history seem to be mediated by various technologies, like photography and cinema and even the internet, which reflect but also refract and even distort our notions of history and reality and even the act of reading itself. Do you think Philippine reality and history lend themselves to these ways of experiencing or reading?

Well, the Philippines is the premier Facebook nation — Duterte won through Facebook and trolls. And one year the most selfies in the world were taken in Cebu City — or so I understand. Uy, mga taga-Cebu: very vain! As I mentioned to [writer] Laurel Fantauzzo once, just wait, before you can count one, two, three, we’ll soon see a lot of Pinoy babies named Selfie.

It’s a country where you can’t look at someone’s mustache or hairdo and say — why do you look like Rizal? — even one’s hairstyle is mediated — there’s uber-referentiality in the ways we relate to the world, beginning with our excellent ways with puns. It’s an aspect of colonization, maybe, about being seen awry, from someone else’s lens — but that’s true of just humans too.

What I don’t think is true is that all this is necessarily damaging or distorting. It’s phenomenologically what reality is, in a way. Referentiality is not necessarily distorting. It can be quite illuminating and reflective, too — which is what art is. As Aristotle says, mimesis is a human instinct — it’s an adaptation to the world. We gain empathy and knowledge through imitative acts or refracted guises, through mimesis. Or through art, through a novel. I mean, we gained a sense of nationhood through a novel, Rizal’s “Noli.” I still believe in it, the uses of that technology — writing.

True, the internet trolling that helped create Duterte is a vicious horror. And true, the onset of cinema — William McKinley was the first leader of the world captured on cinema, you know, by acolytes of Thomas Edison — he mainly looks like Humpty Dumpty walking jerkily, or like a jerk, Pinoy pun, toward the camera — and that globalizing interest in photography, the 3D-vision stereo cards, etc., occurred at the time the Philippines was becoming a nation. We became a nation as the world was also becoming a technologically much more mediated place.

We were ground zero of Tru-Vision World — amplifying the perils of stereopsis. Come to think of it, we were also ground zero in the internet-troll world we have now — that created first Duterte, then Trump, and now they’re just proliferating: Bolsonaro, etc. I guess Mark Zuckerberg had good instincts when he chose to do his FB experiment on the Philippines (fuck him, too). So we are the emblematic Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius — but really, why are we so ineluctably Borgesian — why?? And yes, America in 1899 became imperialist at the onset of a technological revolution — so I guess, yes, that does tie in with the colonizer/colonized theme: the image of the colonized is mediated by the colonizer’s gaze, captured, so to speak, in that dominating lens.

One important difference between art and internet trolling (and obviously there are others!) is that with art, one is conscious of the construction. And with referential, reflexive, meta-fictive art, the construction even gives away its hand — it intentionally makes you aware. To combat being manipulated by the internet, we need to be more conscious, more educated about the ways we are being constructed, perhaps. Interestingly, 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.

Photo from SOHO PRESS

The massacre in Balangiga is an important part of Philippine, and Waray, history but its sheer brutality seems to be deliberately downplayed in official narratives. Do you remember how your interest in Balangiga as a novelistic subject began? What do you think is the value of resurrecting the spectre of the massacre in the Philippines and the U.S.?

General Jacob Smith was court-martialed, and so was Captain Edward Glenn, an infamous user of the water cure who worked first, I think, in Negros. But their punishments were slaps on the wrist. The brutality of the U.S. in the Philippine-American war is downplayed in history, period. Both in U.S. history and in our Philippine history classes. It’s not just the violence in Samar. What General Franklin Bell did in Batangas was heinous, the burning of Northern Luzon by the men of Arthur MacArthur, etc. It’s not just Balangiga. In fact, there were raids on other Samar garrisons before Balangiga — Balangiga was not the first in the Philippines, not even in Samar, to rise up against a garrison of U.S. Army soldiers.

True, the Katipuneros in the grip of the counterinsurgency strategies of people like Franklin Bell or Jacob Smith also responded with viciousness against their comrades — Katipuneros killing Filipino spies, and so on, plus there were the regionalism issues of the Katipuneros, and the elitism of the leaders. But the perverse inhumanity of an enemy that was racist, technologically superior, therefore callously efficient, historically experienced in bigoted cruelty — since many of these U.S. soldiers had just come from subjugating Native Americans in their Indian wars etc. And on top of that, of course, America’s history of slavery, which in reality is America’s “exceptionalism.” Its very long slavery history is quite exceptional among modern nations — this military force willing to win at all cost since it did not quite see its enemies as people like them — a war like this can only be a horrendous episode in history.

Of course, many Americans also protested this war. It’s a tragedy for America, but especially for the Filipinos — and even more so because we have not really had a chance to reflect on this war. It’s so buried — the witnesses of course being long dead, and their stories untold in their lifetimes. It’s a fascinatingly unstoried war.

I got interested in it when I was doing research on the U.S. military in the Philippines for “Gun Dealers’ Daughter.” One book I read was this very dramatic and sensationalizing book, “The Ordeal of Samar.” Turns out most of its facts are wrong, plus the book is unbearably racist, as many of those texts are. But it got me to do more research. I could not use that info for “Gun Dealer.” I thought I could put it in “Raymundo Mata,” because he actually was imprisoned by the U.S. in Bilibid. But I never got to the Phil-Am war in “Mata.”

Clearly, the history of the Phil-Am war, which I knew nothing about by the way — it’s barely taught in school, even in U.P. — was this void in my understanding of both the Philippines and America. Turns out, what we call the revolution is mainly our war against Spain. Most heroes we know about are from that war: Bonifacio, del Pilar, Juan Luna, Rizal, etc. We know only vaguely of the heroes of the American war — Gregorio Aglipay, Manuel Tinio, Vicente Lukban, and my favorite, Macario Sakay — we know Sakay only because his hair was so long. Hippie hero lang siya. He had this plan to kidnap Alice Roosevelt Longworth, T.R’s daughter — wow! He got executed instead. Ricarte and Mabini are the straddlers of the two wars, and of course Aguinaldo. Though now we know a lot about Antonio Luna. And the hero of Tirad Pass.

For Filipinos, the point is to remember that we were victims of that barbarity and we had to survive it. It’s a country produced from the needs of surviving.

The value of recognizing the brutality of that war is to see ourselves more clearly in the light of it. The movie “Heneral Luna” for instance — the Americans occur like jokers with handlebar mustaches, on the sidelines. Hello — they were ruthless military machines going after Aguinaldo! The enemy was the Americanos — not Aguinaldo, no matter how fucked up Aguinaldo is.

We forget it was a brutal anti-imperialist war because we see it through the eyes, in some ways, of the colonizer, who naturally wishes this forgetting. Like the colonizer, we judge ourselves by the effects of colonization, instead of by the actual violence of its presence. In this way, we erase the colonizer’s actions — this erasure of course being very helpful for him. We retain the imperialist’s structuring imagination. So we judge ourselves by this weak, oligarchic state greased by corruption — the state produced by history, symptom of imperialism’s effects.

Wondrously, this state is confounded every so often by the people’s idealisms — citizens who rise up, such as the Hukbalahap, or the student activists, or the peasant resisters, or the Lumads who are still fighting their oppressors even now — and of course, the Muslims who, if we could only make them more central to our notion of the nation, might allow us to see ourselves better — a people who’ve been wanting autonomy and dignity for a long time. So instead of seeing that weak, oligarchic, corrupt state as linked to imperial history, the kind of state wrought from a country produced by vicious military power, “Heneral Luna” instead blames personalan among the Katipuneros. It’s a shallow, really frustrating ahistorical argument.

We still like to essentialize ourselves as tribalistic or whatnot — essentializing the victim being quite an imperial mode of thought. Not to say we’re not tribal in some contexts: it’s just that we need to look at things not ahistorically. Of course, we do this also because we see most immediately our long line of bad governments. So I get that. But we were given a bad hand from the start, you know: the game of nation was rigged. I won’t get into all the ways that American occupation fed the beast of local corruption, perverting relationships among townspeople, even among families — even as of course, Filipino agency and choices are part of this story.

It’s not just that the Americans were barbaric in their cruelty — who cares really at this point how barbaric they were — that’s for an American to think about — and yes, it would be useful for Americans to grapple with that history, to know it. But the point of this novel is not to hate others, or blaming. We can’t go on together — with suspicious minds.

For Filipinos, the point is to remember that we were victims of that barbarity and we had to survive it. It’s a country produced from the needs of surviving.

That’s what this historical void has done for us — we fail to see that actually, we were heroic resisters against an implacable force, and that in fact our history of resistance rises up in forms of activism that we should honor as central to us — except most Filipinos misrecognize activists as marginal to our sense of self, outsiders — “communists,” “Lumad,” “Moros”—when this activism is directly related to someone like Casiana Nacionales, for me. It is what we should be.

We should be resisters. We should look to that history and think about why we did it: we had a deep sense of injustice and a vital sense of our own dignity. We should think about the ways we are perverting that history under Duterte: when we weaken our sense of justice because we allow an imperial, fascist mindset to take over us, the perverse, authoritarian, Kano-like mind of Duterte — and his Congress — in the sense that he is as brutally fascist and inhumane as an antiquated imperialist. He says he’s anti-Kano, but in this iteration of history, he’s the Kano. He’s the brutalizer of his people.

The book is about a dark, violent episode in Philippine history and issues fair warning about the “morbid multiplication” and “repetitive spirals” of our history (Randles the Sergeant turns into Duterte supporter Sergeant Randols), and yet it pulsates with karaoke and Elvis and laugh-out-loud humor about Pricks and mistranslations and such. How does that work out, you think?

Is that not a question for the reader — how does that work out, for you? We are made up of many selves — for Filipinos that’s most obvious in our many tongues — and I think the humorous self, the good humor with which Filipinos have risen to be a vital and, in my view, fascinating nation, I could write about the Philippines forever, a nation that is excruciatingly postmodern, even post-post-modern, just really makes me want to write. It’s a fun thing to do — to come from that complex, insane, frustrating, but very warm and generous and also crazily word-happy, word-triggered world, a very oral world, hence the music that ends this novel, orality being a symptom of our very relational, personal sense of others — and try to give voice to it. I just have immense love for the way the country is so insanely absurd in many ways: so beautifully human as it is.

In a sense, I write out of love — in spite even of its current horror, our complicity with violence. I claim my love for the Philippines. Notice that I made Magsalin’s uncles Duterte supporters — they love her but they voted for Duterte. That’s our reality. I recognize how complex our family ties are. I’m hoping that writing and reflecting on our history might change something, who knows. We’re a country of survivors — a Gloria Gaynor disco country — I Will Survive! — but a country of resisters, too. So this humor, I think, is just my recognition of that complexity — the many ways we claim our agency, despite trauma. But the novel’s message to Filipinos is unambiguous — resist. Do not allow our fellow Filipinos to die unmourned, with justice not done. Sulong, insurrecto — that’s a call for Filipinos then and now.


“Insurrecto” is available at National Book Store and Fully Booked