Bibliolepsy is out from Soho Press January 4!

I began this book when I was nineteen: the year Ninoy Aquino was murdered on the tarmac by Imelda Marcos’s goons. In a weird loop, a circular pattern that mocks my own work’s ways of shaping time, this book, my first novel, is out two-times-nineteen years later—two times the length of my life when I began it. It marks the time I became a writer. To see it in print beyond its home (it was first published in the Philippines in 1997, winning the country’s National Book Award that year) is for me a kind of grace. For personal reasons having nothing to do with the novel, I never tried to sell Bibliolepsy when I ended up living in the United States. Its appearance now does not sum up my life (by no means), but it makes me glad. I’m glad to be experiencing the happiness I had when the book first came out.

I hope you can share in the gladness of this time. Buy the book, share it with others, be glad, I hope, in reading the book—which is about reading, about readers, and about books.

(Of course, the revolt that backgrounds my book only gives us pause—in that the Marcoses are returning, the son with a huge lead in the upcoming presidential elections—two-times-nineteen years later. As the Jan 6 Insurrection anniversary comes upon us here in the United States, the Philippine experience says: Beware when justice is not done to those who wreck democracy 😦 Bad things return.)

I talk with Viet Nguyen about Bibliolepsy at Politics and Prose on January 4, its pub date: link here. I talk with Sabina Murray at Books are Magic Jan 5, with Neferti Tadiar at Vromans Jan 6, with Zack Linmark at Literati on Jan 11, and with Malaka Gharib at City Lights Jan 18

You can read about the book (it’s about sex and revolution, about fucking over dictators as well as writers) from Publishers’ Weekly here, from Soho Press hereThe New York Times reviewed it on its pub date— “Craving Books, Sex, and Revolution”! Link here!

You can preorder and buy it at any bookstore, but I hope you do not choose Amazon. Bookshop link is here

Bibliolepsy was about my wish to preserve ardor—the ardor I had for books the minute I learned to read. It’s about recalling the sense of that very first time. I hope you can find it, Bibliolepsy, both the book and your own recall of that kind of love—in this pandemic, we need that memory of primal ardor (that’s for sure).

My best to you all in this new year—hope to meet up one day again, in person, to toast all books—

still my favorite byline in the New York Times #fuckthisVAR

so sick of the use of VAR in the premiership!! it’s beginning to look like goddamned American football, where the game gets stopped every minute because of a stupid machine!

I once got so worked up about this possibility, way back, in 2010, that I actually wrote about it—to the NYT. I stand by it!


To the Sports Editor:

Those who urge FIFA to use goal-line technology presuppose this argument: technology will provide an absolute truth that referees’ perceptions lack. But FIFA’s reliance on humans to solve existential moments of doubt is correct.

Soccer’s power lies in its poetic narrative—the indeterminacy of each second of the game presents us with something primal: that our lives are subject to the limitations of human perception. Anguish and doubt are endemic to the current rules

We may have fewer dubious decisions if FIFA appropriates goal-line technology. But soccer will lose something more beguiling and lasting: its correct perspective that we will never be able to eliminate indeterminacy.

Continue reading the main story

Gina Apostol, Dobbs Ferry, N.Y.

On Wilfrido Nolledo’s But for the Lovers, originally in Post Road

Writer Gina Apostol wrote this brief paragraph about But for the Lovers for Post Road, a journal from Boston College. Thank you Gina ~ Mimi Nolledo


But For the Lovers, by Wilfrido Nolledo

Practically flawless in its use of free indirect discourse as a weapon of national memory, this novel set in Japanese-occupied Manila during the Second World War is written as if in cold-blooded delirium. When Jane Austen in the early nineteenth century began writing in the free indirect style, she of course could not have imagined how her narrative simulation of the vagaries of consciousness would engender one day the dream-novel of a Filipino expatriate in Iowa. Nolledo, who was a journalist, short story writer and playwright as well, weaves pitch-perfect voices, each haunting and distinct, of multiple misfits on the ragged edges of a war-torn city—a city fractured not only by violence but by language, rent not just by war but by history. Having been plundered for centuries by Spain, then raped by plan by America, Manila in 1945 is in the grip of the lunatic Japanese as it waits in numbed thrall for the arrival of its tardy saviors, MacArthur’s GIs. Witnesses to the country’s dissolution are an aging star of the obsolete Spanish theater, a pensive urban thief, a provincial virgin left for dead, a Japanese ‘ghost,’ a raving, downed American pilot mistaken for a savant. The lush fevered imagery never descends into mere tropical cliché because of Nolledo’s absolute mastery of voice—from the extravagantly worn Spanishisms of his vaudeville Manila clown to the tour de force hallucinations in Midwestern slang of the raving American pilot, Nolledo crafts with conviction the story of a doomed city, ravaged ‘but for the lovers, their arms/ round the griefs of the ages/ who pay no praise or wages/ nor heed…craft or art.’ Nolledo’s prose is a powerful marriage of modernist poetry and disciplined narration. Reprinted by Dalkey Archive in 1994, with an introduction by Robert Coover (!), But for the Lovers has been hailed as a ‘cult masterpiece,’ another term for those great books unjustly unread.

Below are some things I wish to add


My time at National Bookstore’s Philippine Readers and Writers Festival has been rewarding, unsettling, fulfilling, destabilizing, and above all moving. It is the first time I return home only for my books (I usually return for my family). This conjoining of home with such intense focus on Insurrecto, which is a novel about a return home, creates spin in my head, the kind I perpetrate on readers. On top of this, I am deep in the writing of a novel. I’m jetlagged and in the time-free fever-dream of a first draft (actually a revision of the 266 pages of William McKinley’s World, but I have decided to junk almost all of those pages, I’m writing again from scratch). So in between my immersion in this new novel and my interviews on my old one, all enjoyable (this year of Insurrecto I made up my mind to enjoy the book events), this has been a whirl—fun, but intense. So of course I did not eat lunch on the day of my actual public event for Insurrecto—I kept working on the novel. Then I rushed to get to Ambeth Ocampo’s then Viet Nguyen’s then Butch Dalisay’s panels—all great! By the time it was 5, I was lightheaded—I was dizzy and I realized for some reason I was very very hungry. So at the end, I felt I had left gaping holes in the answers, befuddled as I was by my body. So below are some of the things I wished I had elaborated or fleshed out a bit during the discussion. I feel huge gratitude to the Philippine Readers and Writers Festival for inviting me—to the tireless employees of National Bookstore, esp JB Roperos, all of whom made the stay easy, to Xandra Ramos who led it all, to James Abuan who facilitated the prep for the events, to Raffles Hotel (for the breakfast buffets!), to Andrea Pasion-Flores who supports my books at Anvil, to Yvette for moderating the talk. The audience at this festival was wonderful—rapt, intent, intelligent, curious. Above all, they were readers reading these Filipino books. It is a gift that any book festival offers to us, to readers and writers—this gift of connection. So thank you to the festival, to all the readers and writers that I met.

  • The Role of the Reader. A smart reader asked a lovely question: was the name Chiara connected to chiaroscuro, since the filmmaker Chiara began the novel in the dark (oscuro), and as she proceeds to Balangiga she has more clarity (pun on Chiara)? I loved the question. And I said—aha, that is exactly what I mean by “the role of the reader.” What I mean is—if the novel is open enough, and the reader knows detail closely enough, it can produce a creative reader. For me, in a book, it’s not only the writer who creates. I did NOT have to answer his question because his lovely reading made my own intentions as a writer moot. (This does not mean you can have ANY reading; it is still possible to read irresponsibly.) If you create a text that is a labyrinth, parallels and conjunctions and puzzles for the reader to figure out, wordplay such as the questioner’s chiaroscuro can be part of a good reading—the reader also makes his own connections, and that is the fun of a text. In one book group in the States, a reader said to me, You know I’m Mexican so I could see so many connections to Filipino colonization, but [blank], he said, who is Irish read other things—we all had our own connections. (I will say I like this chiaroscuro reading because there is in fact an Italian painter in the novel, the master from Umbria, Piero della Francesca, and the act of painting and capturing and shading in a character’s face [the portrait of Caz—and it is interesting to note which scriptwriter created Caz] is also part of the novel, so the art allusion in the question is proper, in that a close reading of textual detail can explain how chiaroscuro might occur to one: it comes from the text.) A novel that deliberately creates an open role for the reader and requires reader-discovery allows for the creativity of the reader.
  • Parallels in History. Asked about Duterte-era scenes in the novel, I noted how it was sadly easy to include tokhang, though I had begun the novel before Duterte’s election, originally designed to make parallels between violence in Marcos and Phil-Am war era; but it is terrible that I could seamlessly insert Duterte’s violence into the novel. I pointed out in the discussion that the close structural link between the executive and the police was material history: when the executive (governor-general) was set up in the American era, the functions of the police were directly linked to his office, since of course it was an occupying government that still hounded suspected revolutionaries—American rule was first set up as essentially militarist, counterinsurgency-oriented, in my view terrorist. (This is mostly from Al McCoy’s Policing America’s Empire.) The Phil-Am war explains the executive-policing structure of Philippine governance-by-counterinsurgency, which Marcos exploited and Duterte does now, too. It’s odd how the Phil-Am war explains many things we do not think about. I forgot to add this logical extension (which I have pointed out at other Q&As)—in this policing structure, the victims are materially different, of course (Americans killed katipuneros; Marcos killed “communists”; Duterte kills drug “criminals”), but the structural similarities are chilling: e.g., in a transitive effect, the drug “criminals” = katipuneros. All execute extra-judicial killings. Thus, Duterte IS the violent Kano in our age.
  • I regret what I said about Kring-Kring. It’s the Romualdezes who are the devils of Tacloban. The former mayor Cristina just unfortunately married into the family; I should not go after the poor woman. I still stand by what I said about Imelda though.
  • The organism and the reader. A question frequently asked of writers—for whom do you write? As I said, for me, I write for the text—the text is the organism I am trying to keep alive. I seem to be writing for this organism—to figure out how to keep it alive. But the reader is part of that organism: part of the text. So it is not true, as I said in the discussion, that I would not think about the Filipino or white or whatever reader. I’d revise that to say that if the novel’s structure demands an address to Filipino or to white etc, then I’d address or consider those readers in the organism. For example, the Phil-Am war topic of Insurrecto means that any of the scenes might be read differently by 3 key readers embedded in the novel’s design: Filipino, Filipino-American, white/American: the novel directly relates to their histories. So I did work hard in Insurrecto to think about how each might see the scenes I was creating. The organism of Insurrecto required that the scene could have layered, different meanings depending on which of those three is reading it.
  • What Advice Would I Give a Young Writer. My advice about pleasure and enjoyment is often the following: write if writing gives joy, don’t write if it doesn’t, there are other ways to be happy apart from being a writer, the goal is not to be a writer but to take pleasure in living in this world. I would say this advice is hard-won, for me. Also, what I’m saying is that for me, writing gives me great joy—because of course I have kept doing it. But I’d like to add this recurring experience—whenever I find that the work is hard to write, when I labor at it, it is usually not good—my choices are probably wrong. When I find the tone and technique that make it fun to write, a huge pleasure, I know the novel is working. With Gun Dealer, I found writing laborious, excruciating. But I kept working on it—I finished a whole draft. But late in the writing, I found the key—I needed to shift to first person (the original mode of Gun Dealer was snarky, sarcastic third person). Once I did that—the novel was lots of fun to write. Both Raymundo Mata and Insurrecto were just fun fun fun from the start—as I have said, writing Insurrecto was like butter. That’s because I think from the beginning I felt I had made the right choices—tone, technique, structure. From the get-go, Insurrecto was structured like a banig in multiple third person free indirect style, and that was correct. Very recently, just last week, I found the key to Wm McKinley’s World, and I’ve been so immersed in it, and it is so much fun I don’t eat.
  • Syntax and Words. Yvette, the moderator, asked me about my use of language: she read aloud a description of a cockroach: “An obscene dead cockroach, its genitalia splayed out for the world to see, is coming and going in waves, like an upturned boat with frail masts. ” I said instantly I had seen that cockroach—in 1975 during a typhoon when waters flooded our home in Tacloban. But the choice of words was linked to the psychological reality of the character, her moment in time, plus the themes of alienation and historical obscenity in the book, as well, of course, as that personal memory. But I will add—because this is actually very important to me—that the heart of the work is the sentence. I hear syntax and sound—I’m an incorrigible fan of assonance and its twin dissonance! which is both error and pleasure—but most of all I work with the sentence, and I always think the sentence is linked to the character’s voice, her temper and times, as well as the book’s need. So Gun Dealers’ Daughter has florid sentences mirroring the word-bound damage of her storytelling that, in my view, Insurrecto does not—I needed to pare down sentences in Insurrecto because the banig, the weft of voices, was complex (I even used fragments, which I don’t remember much in Gun Dealer); whereas the journal of Raymundo Mata (not the footnotes) was based on late-19th century syntax lifted from Rizal (I more or less plagiarized Rizal’s Memorias of his time in Ateneo, which helped me write the rest of the book). I stuck to reading only work from pre-1896 to write Raymundo Mata, just to get that syntax down. Of course, I claim complete culpability for all those puns, whichever book I write 🙂
  • Insurrecto was Recess. That Insurrecto was recess from writing Wm McKinley’s World is part joke, part truth. I’d write it when I was tired out by the excruciating thing that was Wm McKinley’s World. Then at some point it became the only novel I was working on. Then suddenly I finished it. That recess metaphor is instructive. Why not approach all work as recess—to consider the novel always as experiment and play? I think of that now—I am trying to change my perspective—turn writing into recess, just free play. See what happens.

Book Expo Talk on Insurrecto


I was invited to speak at LibraryReads this year to talk about my book, Insurrecto, to a roomful of librarians (my FAVORITE people!). I know I teared up a bit being in a room with just READERS, but I was also so happy—and just so honored to be invited. This was the talk.

[13 minutes]

First of all I want to say how happy I am to be here, how honored to be among you,
the People of the Book—my compatriots in this country of books for which the
passport above all is passion—I’m so glad and honored to be here among you.
I grew up on an island, in a city called Tacloban in Leyte. It’s the easternmost island
in central Philippines, facing the Pacific, and Ferdinand Magellan the Portuguese
explorer landed on it in 1521, after his legendary naming of that ocean the Pacific, in
the process so-called discovering the Philippines in the name of Spain. In 1944
Douglas MacArthur landed on my island, fulfilling his promise to the Philippines in
1941, when as the commander of the US forces in the Far East, he had left Manila,
saying, “I shall return.” He returned to my town’s beach, Red Beach in Leyte. I grew
up dancing as a child every year on October 20 for soldiers who would return, to
remember their war—they would come as guests of another famous person—my
curse as a kid apart from staring at Douglas MacArthur for so long was that Imelda
Marcos is from my hometown, and as kids from her school we had to dance for her
every time she visited.

So I grew up with tales of grand personages landing on my little beachfront city with
great consequences—but that did not keep me from being bored in it.
I was always being punished for my indifference to my environment—I’d go to
school—it was a Catholic school, I had a uniform—forgetting my necktie, not
bringing my handkerchief, and so on—but the trick to this was, whenever I did not
obey the rules, so bored with the facts of my existence—I would be punished by
being sent to the library. It was like a bee being punished with a bouquet of flowers.

I read everything, and for me, the library in fact was where history begins.

Of course the books I read when I was a kid were pretty haphazard—I was indiscriminate—I read the entire set of Bible Stories for Children—one story in that series about a sick boy named David reading Bible stories turned out to be about Dwight David Eisenhower, for some reason—and I remember my favorite volume in the World Book Encyclopedia was the letter M, because it had all the tales of Greek and Roman and Norse mythology in it—and I gobbled up this series of books about creatures on Cape Cod, it turns out, because I found the Thornton W Burgess Museum on Cape Cod when I first came to America, and among the group of Americans, I was the only one who knew who the writer was—I loved his stories of otters, and buzzards, and minks, and foxes—they’re called The Old Mother West Wind stories—and I loved the tales of these creatures that I never saw in Tacloban.

Doing research on my novel, Insurrecto, which is about the Philippine-American War—1899-1913—I realized much later how that library must have come together.

As part of the pacification of the islands, the United States sent teachers on a boat called USS Thomas, and my school library must have still had the kinds of
books deposited in it from those Thomasites, as the teachers were called, who
arrived in the 1910s and the 1920s. I memorized the poems of Christina Rossetti
and Emily Dickinson and knew the Gettysburg Address and the Song of Hiawatha by
heart and became very comfortable with first names like Waldo or Wadsworth or
Fennimore. In the 1970s, I had a great American 1920s-era education, thanks to my wearing the wrong neckties.

And oddly because of war. It’s odd to me now, having done all this research on the
Philippine-American war—how vestiges of that war hang over my growing up. The
fact is, the Philippine war against America is unremembered in the Philippines, just
as it is unremembered in America. I never studied it as a child. Americans study it, if
they do, only as a sidelight of the Spanish-American war of 1898—in the Philippines,
we call it our war of independence. But the history Filipinos learn is really our revolution against Spain—we barely talk about the war that followed it, when our allies the Americans decided to occupy us when we mistakenly believed we would be given
freedom after helping to wage war against America’s enemy, also our enemy, Spain.

That era of peacetime, as the Philippines oddly calls the period of the American
occupation, 1902 to 1946, is one long era of forgetting. We forgot the brutality of
how we were occupied. And so has America. I think such gaps have consequences.
What I have come to see is that Philippine history is part of America, and American
history is part of the Philippines. In my experience, this twinning of the two is so
weird that for a long time, honest to God, I thought Elvis was Filipino. No, really, I
only learned a few years ago that all the songs my uncles used to sing during their
long guitar-strumming nights were not, in fact, Filipino kundiman, or love songs, but
Elvis. Are You Lonesome Tonight? Love Me Tender—I had no idea they were Elvis. It was a very odd recognition, and to be honest it was a pretty staggering, let’s say, misapprehension on my part—and so let me say this—I put Elvis in my novel of the Philippine-American war.

What my misrecognition of Elvis led me to think about was — how do we really
know the things that make us? We put ourselves in categories— and above all,
others put us in categories— Filipino, islander, woman—when we know very well
we are fragments and fractures and parts of so many others. We are named by our
mothers, for instance, in acts of misrecognition—we carry our mothers’ unknown
desires in our names that we did not choose. We call ourselves American—but the
richness of Americanness lies in its multiplicity, including not only the known
worlds it has occupied but, in the words of Donald Rumsfeld, including also the
unknown unknowns —the things we don’t know we don’t know about ourselves.
And I call myself Filipino—but I have multiple cultures in me—Elvis, Frank Sinatra,
Douglas MacArthur—I claim Warhol’s Double Elvis as irreparably part of my
imaginary—my world of images.

And what I must do is figure out how to include all my worlds as part of my sense of
self and find sense in my fragmentation—in the traumas and the wars and the
violences that have made me.

Of course, as opposed to the colonizer, the world of the colonized is visibly and
thus irreparably multiple—because included in the world of the colonized IS the
world of the colonizer.

Whereas the colonizer is so-called privileged in thinking his world is exceptional and singular. Unfortunately he is mistaken— “privileged” is not the correct word for such a world view—ignorant, or poor, is more correct—because of course such exceptionalism impoverishes and diminishes his reality. And with such a misperception, considering only the known knowns—if he persists in his misperception, he is unable to see himself clearly.

It is only when the world of the colonizer includes the world of the colonized as part
of his reality that such a world can heal itself.

On the other hand, I must inevitably read that world of the colonizer in which I live
with at least two gazes—it’s simply a daily part of how I exist: the colonizer’s world
is in fact also my reality—it is part of me—but I must simultaneously see this world
awry, in an inverse gaze, in order to see myself whole—

This is why libraries have been such a refuge for me, from the time I was a child. It is a place of multiple worlds, it offers multiple identities, and because it is so, in a
library paradoxically one can always be oneself.

I could be part of the world of otters in Cape Cod even as I left the streets and found myself facing the dictator’s bazookas.

By the time I was sixteen, I was going on marches, against the dictatorship—we called it the U.S. Marcos dictatorship because the man’s murderous rule was propped up by the United States during the Cold War as a hedge against communism in Asia—but when the march would pass by the business district, which was also where the US embassy’s cultural center—The Thomas Jefferson library was—I had no qualms about leaving the march in a kind of recess to read Harper’s magazine in their library. And that’s where I learned that this writer that I loved—I loved his book called Chimera and The Sotweed FactorThe Sotweed Factor is an extremely beautifully crafted book about early American history that’s practically footnoted—I love that novel—and I loved the novelist John Barth—anyway, he wrote an article in Harper’s called “Teacher”—and I learned that
this great writer—taught—so the next time the march passed by the American
library, I checked the address of Johns Hopkins, his school, and I wrote John Barth at

And in those days of the marches and the bazookas, miraculously I got this letter
back—it was like getting a letter from Andromeda Galaxy to be honest—there I was,
marching amid rubble, and I had had the temerity—or let’s say ignorance—to send
Barth my novel and asked him what he thought—I thought that is what you did with
writers—and what Jack said was, thank you for your novel, but you need to send an
application. And he included the forms in his reply. So I got into Hopkins, because I
took a detour from being in the revolution, and that is how I came to America, and
what I’ve ended up doing—coming from that island I grew up in—is that I ended up
thinking a lot about history.

The vestiges of the two histories, Filipino and American, exist like a haunting—a
trace that is both invisible and unknown yet whenever I look up around me now, at
this world of Trump and Duterte, for instance, twin fascists who now lead my two
countries—it is relentlessly present.

The book Insurrecto is a trace of that relationship between the Philippines and the
United States, that history that haunts me. Insurrecto is a story of valiant women, starring actors in their own dramas, trying to become whole, some in very ordinary ways—by taking a road trip, by sharing stories and space in a car—and there is of course one mother haunted by Elvis. And there is one actual historical figure in the book, Casiana Nacionales, who becomes an insurrecto, a revolutionary, simply by being a woman in her time and place.

The novel’s structure follows my sense of a self—open to multiple identities,
synchronic, that is, inhabiting multiple eras and stories simultaneously—so that in
my novel the world of the current dictator, Rodrigo Duterte, is linked to the world of
Marcos’s martial law, the world of Trump, and the world of the American invaders
in 1901—that is, the novel grapples with my synchronic sense of history, the way I
think we exist in simultaneous times—of horror but also of resistance—in which by
recognizing the limitations of our human gazes, maybe we will heal. Thank you so
much for including me in your event today. Once again, I am so honored.



Trump, John Pershing, and other dumb stuff

This is a section of an op-ed I wrote a while ago for the NYT, which eventually declined to publish it. So I sent a longer version of it to CNN Philippines. That CNN piece was called “Duterte and Philippine Revolutionary History,” link here. Below are just comments on the Pershing issue that I had included in the original nyt op-ed.

…….”The American commanders of their nation’s first war in Asia, template of the messes that came after—Vietnam, Laos, Iraq, Iraq 2, et cetera—were veteran Civil War generals (Union and Confederate) who also later slaughtered the Sioux, Comanches, Kiowas, or, in the case of Henry Lawton, “was a national hero for his part in the capture of the Apache chief Geronimo.” Russell Roth in Muddy Glory: America’s ‘Indian Wars’ in the Philippines, 1899-1935 quotes Theodore Roosevelt, “The reasoning that justifies our having made war against Sitting Bull justifies our [having made war against the Filipinos].” Arthur MacArthur, father of Douglas and known as General Sherman of Northern Luzon, depended on his fellow ‘Indian-killer’ officers to scorch Luzon, the Philippines’s largest island, into surrender.

Perhaps the most famous ‘Indian fighter’ was John “Black Jack” Pershing, General of the Armies in World War I and in 1911 governor of Mindanao island—where Davao, Duterte’s city, lies, and beyond which Bud Dajo smolders. Pershing commanded a second Battle of Bud Dajo, pursuing Muslim fighters by lining his men at the lip of the volcano and killing 500 at the same crater. By then, Mark Twain [note: Twain had written about the first Bud Dajo masacre in 1906] was not alive to recall it in scathing anathema and patriotic loathing.

The Filipino-American war is barely remembered, even by Filipinos. But Pershing’s obscure exploit saw light in an unlikely moment. Donald Trump evoked Pershing at a California rally, “He was a rough guy—and he had a terrorism problem…General Pershing sat high up in his horse, ramrod…and he caught fifty terrorists and dipped fifty bullets in pigs’ blood. And he had his men load his rifles, and he lined forty-nine of those people, and the fiftieth person, he said, you go back to your people, and you tell them what happened. And for twenty-five years, there was no problem.”

The Muslim insurgency in predominantly Catholic Philippines goes on today [note: this piece was written before Marawi], one hundred years later. The only true part of this garbled story of Pershing in Mindanao is that Trump’s fantasies of Muslims are just loony. But it tells us how this buried story of American colonization of the Philippines erupts. Farcically, in the lurid imagination of a bigoted sham like Trump, a character already thought up by that shrewd teller of American truths, Mark Twain, in his Duke-and-Dauphin con-man sections of Huckleberry Finn. Or tragically, in the sham anti-colonial rage of Rodrigo Duterte….”

Narration and History

(Written for Thirdest World, an anthology published in 2007, with work by me, Eric Gamalinda, and Lara Stapleton. All three of us in the collection wrote essays about our work. I commented on the short story, “Cunanan’s Wake,” and excerpts from The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata. Reading this draft on my computer, I realize the final version was completely edited—don’t remember now how or why. NOTE: I do not write short stories anymore. I like short stories [by others! especially Sabina Murray’s: I admire those very much!], but I have stopped writing them for some reason. And I would offer this caveat about this essay: I do have discomfort about a binary of New Criticism/postmodernism: there is something false about that [which may be why I edited it for the final version of Thirdest World (don’t remember anymore)?]. One day, it might be useful to return to this though and place my choices as a novelist in terms of my own overdetermined purposes: personal, commercial, aesthetic, historical, deeply existential, and of course idiosyncratic. For instance, there is the material fact that I ended up a student of John Barth, to whom I wrote after the workshop in Silliman in 1985: I sent Barth the opening sections of Bibliolepsy: thus my arrival at Johns Hopkins in 1987. Ironies of the postcolonial are quite interesting in that transmigration. But anyway, here is this draft of the essay from my computer.)

Short story and novel—the dichotomy of style in those two genres, shown in the fairly ‘straight’ narrative of the story “Cunanan’s Wake” versus the fairly ‘disjunct’ narrative of the novel excerpt The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, perhaps summarizes the split I recognize in my own self as a writer.

That split denotes a fissure of style—or at least a ‘tangential divagation,’ as Dr. Ed Tiempo liked to say. Dr. Tiempo was the director of the Silliman Summer Workshops, for a long time the pre-eminent seminar for young writers in the Philippines. Dr. Tiempo was a New Critic, trained in the rigor of the ‘realist’ short story popular to this day in America (The New Yorker, for instance, still almost exclusively features short stories in the New Critical vein—like those by Michael Cunningham or John Updike or Jhumpa Lahiri).

The Filipino short story in English was born from the writers who studied under American New Critics in the thirties through the sixties. The New Critical story was marked by a diachronic sense of history, with connected incidents threaded astutely and patterned subtly with motifs, reversals, and recognitions, elements that hark back as far as the Poetics of Aristotle, leavened by gentle modernist sleights of tongue. It is an orderly narration, thus satisfying. Aristotle noted that the best kind of plot was ‘complex’ and that the best kind of ‘complex plot’ possessed these two elements: peripeteia (reversal) and anagnorisis (recognition). Irony and epiphany seem to be the modern devices from which the form of the New Critical short story hangs on to Aristotle for dear life. These are not the only marks of that type of story; nor do irony and epiphany (nor reversal and recognition) occur only in the New Critical story. But the short story that Dr. Tiempo deemed naturally the best, no questions asked, at the beaches in Silliman, where I went in the summer of 1985, distinctly favored carefully plotted ironies and deftly built epiphanies, so that a gun on page one should go off (or at least misfire) by the end. Those stories also threw in an objective correlative here and there, for good measure.

For better or worse, when I write short stories, which tend to be about individuals trying to figure out their place in their culture, or their culture’s place in a wider culture, I keep hearing Dr. Tiempo’s aesthetic. Tangential divagation. I cannot escape its clutches. In “Cunanan’s Wake,” I hadn’t recognized until I finished the work that the figure of the pig runs through the story. I kind of liked how it turned out that way—though I certainly did not set out to make it one fat and roasting objective correlative. It kind of ‘nosed’ its way through the work, I guess. Also, sure enough, in the story the gun appears and, however erratically, goes off. The final scene is typical (though not the best kind) of Dr. Tiempo’s tangential epiphanies—the divagation from inner resolution to outward salute in the firing of the gun. An echo of the beginning. Subtlety. Recognition. The form of the story is essentially one of inherent futility. The gay son is still unspoken, hidden in the mother’s heart. Epiphanies tend to be that way—inward, individual.

It makes sense that America in the 1930s would fetishize an art form constructed around the narrow constraints of an individual’s refined perceptions: America itself collapsed (if one defines America by its stock market) and, as war became inevitable in Europe, America turned isolationist, inward. The Filipino short story in English, that transplanted species grafted directly from a capitalist wound fetishizing the individual, is doubly cankered, it seems to me—not only does it branch from the colonial master’s private agonies, it creates a whole school of Filipino writers from the thirties onward who are unaware that they are nursing the fetishes of their own oppressors.

This is not to say that one should not write short stories in the mold of Ed Tiempo or Paz Marquez Benitez. What it might imply is that the ‘realist’ mode of narration constructed from the theories of New Criticism, boldly accepted in workshops as the standard for narration, may in fact be as imported and ‘unnatural’ as Spam. That is, it is not ‘naturally the best.’ Like almost everything else, it too is a product—a product of history—and like Spam it might be unhealthy.

At the Silliman workshops, I know I felt a kind of castration (for a woman writer always has balls, you know). The Filipino short story in English, as defined by Silliman, seemed too narrow for my—or my country’s—interests. I think I began to write novels to resolve those misgivings. The form of narration I choose for my novels is as much constructed from conventions and discipline (and perhaps even more ancient models) as that of the ‘realist’ story. But the deliberate use of disjunction, or narration by parapraxes and lists, or by footnotes and leaps, or characterization by emergency not by careful coincidence—these devices are often considered ‘awkward,’ ‘wrong,’ ‘misfires.’ They are only tangential and divagate from nowhere. The gun does not go off. It’s hard to get works like these published, though writers as influential as Rabelais and Sterne prod those of us who prefer these funhouse flops.

But for me, a powerful reason to write ‘postmodern novels’ (as some people damn these cursed constructions) is precisely because their construction matches my sense of history. Philippine history is the overt result of various others shaping its sense of self. The so-called postmodern voice (for lack of a better word), which refracts, realigns, and repositions texts and viewpoints from multiple angles, ruptured plots, confused tongues, and an almost heedless anachronistic sense of history, is a potent way to fathom and portray the unfinished ‘reality’ of such a nation.

Here is an example: the notion of the Philippines, in a sense, was produced by a novel. The national hero Jose Rizal’s first work, called Noli Me Tangere (Touch Me Not), inspired the mass movement that launched revolution against Spain. That novel was written in Spanish. At this point in history, we do not read that language. Because we were occupied by America by 1898 and officially ruled by it until 1946, we’ve read in English (at least I have) and speak at least 50 different other languages. I grew up with three languages: Waray, Tagalog, and English. I was required to study a fourth, Spanish: but my learning of it was much removed from actual practice. Thus, we must read in translation the novel that begot us. In a further spin, many of us read that novel in another colonizer’s tongue (as for me, I first read it in Tagalog: quite illuminating for a Waray).

The essence of a country like the Philippines is that it seems to exist in translation—a series of textual mediations must be unraveled in order to reveal who or what it is. More precisely: it exists in the suspension of its myriad translations—it is alive in the void of its borrowed speeches. The New Critical-realist mode cannot hold that overflowing reflexivity—the dictates of its devices are too prissy and neat. On the other hand, the postmodern or ‘metafictive’ narration makes the problem of this translated self both its subject and its form: it unfolds a plot of reflexivity, introspection and narrative disjunction, weighted and measured in texts though alienated by words. These excerpts from the novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, attempt to conjure this dizzy history. In the end it must be that all literary forms are forms of ‘realism.’ Or maybe we just infect all things with words. Short story or novel, writers must choose with care which poison is most ‘real’ for the unnatural purposes we have in mind.


EDSA and Semiosis.

bibliolepsy-picture.jpgOn this anniversary of that week in February in 1986, I go back to my first novel Bibliolepsy, which ends with that week, and wonder if this reading of EDSA still holds.

“It was at about this time, I believe, that the country became afflicted with what one might call semiosis, a sepsis of the semiotic tract, an infection of the sign-making glands. We assign to this event meanings that all lead to questions of life and death, philosophical heartburn and patriotic dread. We revise and revisit our feelings toward it the way Romans of old found omens in the intestines of birds. That, too, was a form of semiosis. The street itself, EDSA, takes on, at odd moments in the present day when I travel through it, a weirdly disorienting sense of a symbol gone awry. Why should it? It’s still just a street, going to seed in an unremarkable third world way.

Other people (e.g., psychoanalysts, romance novelists, air traffic controllers) have pointed out before in different contexts that the ability to see meanings is not necessarily a sign of wisdom, or health. It may indicate intellectual training or acumen, yes, but it may also be a symptom of delusion, fierce heartache, severe ennui, and other renditions of mental weakness. We must take into account that our own revisions of the rebellion we call, eponymously and thoughtlessly, EDSA may be all of the above, and more.

If it is at all possible, in a non-Heraclitean world, to go back, to step into the same river twice, maybe when we do we must ban all meanings, tropes, and symbols—the maladies afflicting EDSA. Maybe if we can stem memory within some filtering contraption, a device of a sort for disinfection, by which we can flush out metonyms, similes, ugly gigantic memorial statues, newspaper editorials, biblical references, mythical allusions, and this entire paragraph, maybe then we might distill something more pure and light, closer to the original weight of a single minute on that street.

The problem with epiphanies is that by definition they cannot be shared. There was no national epiphany in February of 1986; there may have been a million revelations lodged quietly and inarticulately in each heart.

Which may be a flaw in the message, if you wish to see it that way.”