On 17 July, we publish Filipino novelist Gina Apostol’s novel Insurrecto, her fourth book, all of which were written in English. Insurrecto follows several narrative threads, bouncing between the Philippine-American War in 1901, the 1970s and the present day. In 1901, Filipino insurrectos (as the rebels called themselves) attacked an American garrison on the island of Samar, and American soldiers created ‘a howling wilderness’ of the surrounding countryside in retaliation, murdering thousands of Filipino inhabitants in Balangiga. This real historical event is the backbone of Insurrecto, which also tells the story of the (fictional) American filmmaker, Ludo Brasi, who went missing in Samar in the 1970s while shooting a movie, The Unintended, inspired by these events. Meanwhile, in the present day, Ludo’s daughter Chiara and the Filipino translator Magsalin go on a road trip in Duterte’s Philippines. Chiara is working on a film about the Balangiga massacre, when Magsalin reads Chiara’s film script and writes her own version of the story. Within the spiralling voices and narrative layers of Insurrecto are stories of women – artists, lovers, revolutionaries, daughters – finding their way to their own truths and histories.
The novel, which was first published by the New York-based independent publishing house Soho Press in late 2018, was hailed in the New York Times as a ‘bravura performance in which war becomes farce, history becomes burlesque … Apostol is a magician with language (think Borges, think Nabokov) who can swing from slang and mockery to the stodgy argot of critical theory. She puns with gusto, potently and unabashedly, until one begins reading double meanings, allusions and ulterior motives into everything.’ Ahead of the novel’s UK publication, we caught up with Gina over Messenger while she was on holiday in Venice to get her perspective on gender in the novel, the depiction of war and the puzzle-like, non-linear structure which ‘hopscotches through time and space’ (Financial Times).
Even though you write from the perspective of the American soldiers, the women in Insurrecto are the characters who drive the various narrative threads forward. For example, the filmmaker Ludo Brasi’s story is told by his daughter, his wife and his lover rather than in the first person. The key ‘insurrecto’ in the book is Casiana Nacionales, a revolutionary also known as the Geronima of Balangiga. Why did you decide to make women so central to the plot?
I really wanted to decentre men because they often get to be the story in stories of war. Centring women in all stories will give us a truer picture of anything, I think. If you think about any historical or personal story (from Herodotus to Homer to Hiawatha), if you begin imagining what women were thinking, you’d get a better picture. The world is in deep shit, as far as I can tell, because the stories have been about men, and told by men. We have to keep thinking of that when we consider the stories we tell. Not to say that women tell only ethical stories or only do ethical things – they do not – but the absence of women’s voices through the centuries – the lopsidedness of history – is telling in the way the world is run right now. I gave to this novel Casiana’s ethical figure. She was an actual woman whose name is inscribed in the Balangiga war memorial, but her story is not told in the war stories even though the Filipino women in that war were central – that’s just the way Filipinos are: women are central, that is how I have experienced the world. But their stories are hidden, not told. Regarding the filmmaker, I wished to centre the women’s grief, not the filmmaker’s death, which allowed me to focus on living, and loving, and surviving – I think that’s an important story in such deaths. But in terms of writing about history, I will be honest, at this point: I think men have fucked up humanity’s story.
And yet, your depiction of most of the American soldiers is quite sympathetic. Nothing is black and white and even though we’re cheering on the insurrectos, we’re sad for the loss of young men on both sides. Why did you decide to show the soldiers’ perspectives? And why is an American soldier central to the filmmaker’s story?
My novels are about this idea that all of us have multiple sides, that we are not singular. It’s a healthy way of thinking, and this is important for those in power and not in power to keep in mind. I think of those soldiers as workers – also an exploited class – who do subhuman things and think like jerks, but who are also just drones. Of course, the imperial authority keeps all such positions in check, but that’s also the point, that we are all under the eye of brute imperial force – not just the Filipinos but also the soldier who has the Filipinos under his gun. I am on the side of workers, of the vulnerable; I’m not on the side of nations – or, I am not AGAINST nations, or white soldiers, or foreigners. I am against the effects of insoluble, unjust power – which is almost always one-sided, not multiple in its ways of desire and thought. We all have multiple sides to us – whether colonizer or colonized – and I was interested in showing that fact. This is true for the Filipino woman also – she has agency, too, and we needed to see her power over others as well. A key structural device in this novel about history and colonization is reversal – and considering multiple sides of people allows one to see how reversal of perceptions matter.
Insurrecto has a non-linear narrative and as a novel could be described as an act (or product) of decolonisation. The puzzle-like structure, the different narrative threads, the multitude of voices all build into something that is both outside of ‘traditional’ (read: European) forms and also a part of it. Do you think of your novels as part of the process of reclaiming narratives and histories? And why did you decide to structure the book that way?
I’m a dyed-in-the-wool (or banig) English major, so I am hugely aware of literary history – the history of the novel completely informs what I do. So it is unwise, in my view, to say that I could possibly write outside of the European history of that form. Of course, that history does include Tale of Genji and the looping non-linearity of Indian epics (in my view), and I do include such forms in my ways of thinking. I am in love with that Heian-era novel: I love Genji, and I still think of Krishna’s talking horse in the Bhagavad-Gita and that kind of stuff – the way time is so different in those stories – but I was brought up, being under a colonized world, with Austen, etc. And writers like Austen and Henry James absolutely inform Insurrecto. I love both of those writers, in fact I had reread them very closely and purposefully for the free-indirect discourse form, the moves from one perspective to another that I needed for Insurrecto. The great Filipino novelist, Jose Rizal, is also in my DNA – he infuses what I do. And he’s very instructive about the use of European forms as decolonizing weapons – a lovely irony about literature is that we reuse in order to fight, and art is like that. So I do consciously use those techniques of the novel to write against the brutishness of that history of white-identity-formation that in my view also informs the English-language novel. I’m very aware of the novel as a form that has enabled capitalist-power identity-productions. But how one does that is a trip. I used these various structural ploys – the puzzle, the use of reversal, the shifts in perspective, the cinematic cuts – for play, to have fun as a writer, but also to subvert. But to talk a bit more about how that works out would need another long essay – and right now I am going to have lunch at my favourite place in Venice!
Clare Bogen, July 2019