by KRIZETTE CHU
Portrait by NOEL PABALATE
“If I were asked what my novels were,” Gina Apostol says, “I would say that they were Waray novels
first and foremost.”
Her most recent novel, Insurrecto, is about two women on a journey to Samar, tracing their personal and cultural histories as they collaborate on a script about the Philippine-American War.
Gun Dealer’s Daughter, which won Apostol a PEN/Open Book Award, is about a young wealthy girl who is the daughter of an arms dealer—a character inspired by a friend from her high school years in Leyte.
“It’s weird because my novels are centered on the English language, but that’s what being Filipino is, there are many other layers to us. There’s always the heart. And the heart is the hometown, our sense of place,” Apostol says.
After her talk at the recently concluded Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, of which she was one of two headliners, the New York-based Apostol is back home, and by home we mean Leyte, this time to research her next novel (which is taking place in—where else—Leyte.)
Manila Bulletin Lifestyle spoke to the two-time winner of the Philippine National Book Award for her first novels, Bibliolepsy (University of Philippines Press, 1997) and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata (2009) about her writing (“frustratingly elegant,” says the New York Times), how we should view our history differently, and how her “powerful” sense of place inform all her works.
You say that the heart of a novel is the hometown. Why?
I grew up in the ‘70s, in Barugo, Leyte, and we had no electricity. Our house was just beside the highway. We had a weird toilet, you know, sort of an outhouse. Imagine growing up in that kind of environment. And the weirdness of it is really powerful. It made me develop and have this sense of place.
For me, that means there’s always a Waray in my novel.
You always sent out your books to local publishing companies, like your first two books Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, so how was Gun Dealer’s Daughter picked up by an American publisher?
I went to an event, I was reading for a friend. And then he gave my name to an agent. The agent asked me for my stuff. He took Gun Dealer’s Daughter and he sold it. Basically it was very accidental, very random. I was just doing something nice for a friend.
Before that, you weren’t actively selling your books?
I tried for a long time but I stopped. My husband died in 1998, and so I stopped. I just didn’t do anything. I had my child, who was just six. So I just did the work for my child.
There was an agent who wanted Gun Dealer and then he was telling me things to do—and I couldn’t do anything. He asked me to revise things. I couldn’t do that. For a long time I couldn’t write.
Friends would say, ‘Gina, what can we do for you?’ I asked my friends to just send me books on the Philippine Revolution. I said, just send me because I had begun and finished a draft of this book on the revolution. So all of those books that I got from my friends. I didn’t read them. Not for a long time.
Did you become a writer because you were interested in history? Your works are imbued with a lot of historical facts, always anchored on that.
I did The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata because I wanted to explore the story of someone who didn’t get to finish his novel, which is what I think happened to our national hero Jose Rizal. In Europe, at that time, when they published there was always a third edition, so I don’t think El Filibusterismo was his last novel.
I think as a Filipino you really had to deal with—to be honest it’s a cliché—resolve.
Rizal was this writer who was just so complete, where his sense of art and his sense of politics and his sense of ethics and his sense of history are so entwined. A lot of writers say that’s like our cross to bear. Jose Rizal’s art was amazing. His politics, freedom, revolution, concepts of country—so I think that’s one aspect to it, but another is that I grew up during the Martial Law years, and while I didn’t understand it, I understood the fear.
Did you grow up in a household of readers?
Here’s the thing: My mom was an amazing mother, a very, very wise person. She was not a reader but she was an artist who wasn’t recognized as an artist.
She would do things like paint the house. And she would have like, here’s blue, here’s orange, here’s violet, and they would be all these different colors. Once I came home from school and I couldn’t come in because she was doing something on the walls. She’s always doing something. She was very good at papier-mache, all these little lamps, and she sold them. She saw herself as a businesswoman more than an artist. You can’t be an artist in a town like ours.
For me, my mother is a very prominent figure in my memory. She would find a way to get me books. So we had a whole stack of something called Children’s Home Companion, where one side was Little Women and the other side was Little Men. So all of us kids, we all had our little obsessions—I was the reader—and she indulged every one of us. Our mother was very central to us pursuing our passions. I talk a lot about her, and my next novel, I
realized, is going to be about her.
You earned a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Johns Hopkins University. Would you consider yourself a Filipino American writer?
I know where I come from. I know who I am. I consider myself Filipino.
Okay, if anyone were to ask me, as in terms of writing, I would say that I am Filipino. And more than that, I am Waray.
But other people will say, you’re Filipino American because you don’t live here in the Philippines, right? I understand. The Filipino American also says no, you’re not Filipino American because you don’t understand our problems. And they’re also right, because I really don’t understand Filipino American problems. I grew up with a very strong sense of self because I arrived in the US when I was already taking my Masters.
You’ve had great personal traumas in your life—your husband’s death, your own battle with the Big C. But you’ve managed to keep yourself and your struggles away from your own books, unlike many novelists. Why don’t we see you in your books?
I think if the book requires it, if it’s what the book needs, I would do it.
The idea is to get snatches from your experience, or from whatever your psychological need is at the moment. For instance, for the Raymundo Mata book, it was my need to figure out how to resolve unfinished writing. [Ed’s Note: Her husband died days before he found out that his first book was accepted and published.]
A lot of writing is not just writing, they’re also connected to history, to revolution, to resistance.
That’s what writing is for me.
What do you mean?
We have a history of resistance and that’s what Filipinos should remember.
The violence of Marcos is parallel to the violence of the Philippine-American war.
In my novel, those are sort of my themes. That’s my psychological need: How can one see our current reality in the history that we have? Is there a connection, and it’s sad, because there’s a connection, I would prefer that there will not be a connection.
But there will always be always be a connection to colonization. I think our colonization is just a big story. Because of our colonization, we’ve been blinded, or not able to see ourselves, you know, which is very much a human story. So the national story is also a human story.
It’s a very interesting thing to see the way things replicate. It’s not so much that history repeats, but we create the conditions that make for patterns to repeat. I don’t think it’s human nature. I think it’s structural. During the American occupation, the American governor was a tyrant. He was a dictator, he had complete authority, because it was a
That’s replicated in our presidents, if they want to use that structure, they can, because it’s there. But that’s why that’s why I think it’s important that we recognize it.
The fact that we forgot it, or were told not to remember, is very important. Because if we can see pattern, maybe we can analyze it better.
It is a revolutionary act to remember, we are the very first Asian colonized nation that went to war against the occupier, and that’s a big thing. So we need to remember, They go hand in hand. We need to remember the resistance part.