“We are many, we are everywhere.”

January 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

Roxane Gay on writers of color.

Asian American women writers on Salon

January 2, 2015 § Leave a comment

“There aren’t a lot of women out there.”

Recollections of a Full Life by Mrs. William Howard Taft

December 24, 2014 § Leave a comment

“My husband had written me that Philippine horses and Philippine cockroaches were just about the same size.” page 94

“Dancing with Dictators” in the L.A. Review of Books

December 8, 2014 § Leave a comment

An essay on David Byrne’s play Here Lies Love.

Screen Shot 2014-12-08 at 5.20.59 PM

I was just sent the PEN American Award Ceremonies 2013 full video, as this year’s awards are coming up.

September 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

PEN awards 2013

My speech above is at 32:26. Click on the picture for the video.

The emcee was Andy Borowitz. He was fun. Clicking on the second picture links to a highlights video newly produced by PEN America. Mark Ruffalo introduced the playwright of the year, Larry Kramer. I was recovering from breast cancer surgery. What a strange year. But to see the events in retrospect is perhaps stranger.

Interview in sumthinblue. I missed reading this interview, done a few months ago.

August 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Screen Shot 2014-08-09 at 6.40.53 PMHere is the link.

My Borgesian Rizal.

August 2, 2014 § Leave a comment

This is a reworking of a discussion I published earlier here on my blog. I cut it up to include only the Rizal stuff.

My Borgesian Rizal: Lessons on Language and Revision in a Re-Reading of the Noli and Fili

I’d like to talk about Rizal here from my perspective a bit, from reading him as a novelist. My favorite among Rizal’s works is the Fili. Recently, I did a rereading of the Noli and the Fili in tandem, mainly for fun (and for the usual occult reasons as I write a new novel, but I still don’t know what those reasons are). I also wished to confirm a thesis I had about his art.

Disclaimer: I love Rizal. He’s a mutant nerd before whom my irony fails. I’m not one of those who’d like to smash the idol with my hip wit—that’s a job, equally entertaining, for some other reader, or maybe my other me. I think we are lucky to have him, period. For this current project, I read first Chapter 1 of the Fili, then Chapter 1 of the Noli, and so on, creating a puzzle reading that I thought might simply be amusing. My thesis, however, was this: the Fili is a mirror text of the Noli—written mainly to revise it. But what I found, oddly enough, was also the converse: read in tandem with the Fili, the Noli gains complexity and texture as a strangely doubled text, as if the rich and fluent Fili also lives in it, a ghost within its machine.

In the end these mirror-texts could tell me a story of Rizal as a novelist. My project really is to recover Rizal as an artist. What might come from the reading is a portrait of a writer questioning his means, wondering through his second novel about his first novel’s choices. Ambeth Ocampo tells me there is yet no book on Rizal as a novelist, which does not surprise me. His use of perspective, or narration modes, for instance, rarely comes up in discussions of Rizaliana, though some social studies thesis on vegetable gardens, or opium addiction, or student life in Manila, could be well served by a close reading of the books’ choices of discourse. (When vegetables come up, the discourse is a woman’s, a priest’s, or an ironic description of fiesta.)

I have always found the Noli a less interesting text: my trite formulation has been that the Noli is great as propaganda but not as artful as the Fili. When I was reading Rizal for my second novel, Raymundo Mata, I began to think that our sensibilities are still tied to his favored nineteenth-century romances: the pop melodrama of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas that so enthralled Jose Rizal. If the Filipino novel is germinated by Rizal, then Rizal’s tastes tell me nineteenth-century French blockbusters, like Eugene Sue’s The Wandering Jew and Hugo’s Les Misérables, are in our DNA. And the Noli’s voice, to me, seems more tuned to the Frenchmen Hugo, Sue, and Dumas than to their younger, seemingly more experimental contemporary, Flaubert. (To be honest, I kept wishing the Noli would read more waywardly, like the eighteenth-century, like Candide.)

As I read his letters and miscellanea, I kept looking for signs Rizal had read Flaubert. I knew he had certainly read Balagtas, a romantic spirit that runs through the Noli. Benedict Anderson in Under Three Flags notes he had one book by Flaubert in his library and many by Dumas. I knew from his letters he loved Eugene Sue, The Wandering Jew in particular, now a fairly unreadable novel (at least to me; I tried, and I sadly found it ghastly), but I wished to know whether he was familiar with that exemplar of style indirect libre, or free indirect discourse—Flaubert. I had this theory that my enjoyment of the Fili has to do with the fluidity of Rizal’s narration modes in the book, an entertaining, complex, para-Flaubertian style. (I recognize this happens to turn on my own taste in novel-making: I accept that my comments are shot through by my own views of art. I also accept that my concerns with his texts are technical: I read all books, from Poe through Perec, for instruction on my own writing.) But I did not need to find Flaubert under Rizal’s pillow to confirm my idea about narration modes; I just needed to read the Noli and the Fili in tandem, one chapter after another, and compare their narration modes.

Free indirect discourse is a supple narration that enters multiple consciousnesses within an omniscient frame. The psychological acuities of Henry James and the comic shrewdness of Jane Austen (to mention just two of my favorite novelists, who teach me a lot) arise from those authors’ fabulous control of this third person form. Free indirect discourse allows for multiple and contingent authorities and in turn also plays tricks with the reader’s consciousness. The nineteenth-century novels of Dumas and Hugo, beloved of Rizal, enthralling in other ways, indulge mostly in the straight omniscient voice. And it’s true, in general, Rizal does use a straight omniscient in both novels: his default mode is a single, ironic voice of authority that delivers his themes with excellent and subtle wit. He’s good at it. He follows a good writing workshop mantra: he sticks to his strengths. Especially in the Noli, his godlike, omniscient perch above the fray is a powerful tool to impel reader response—specifically, outrage.

Rereading Father Damaso’s evil malice at the beginning of the Noli, I still get angry. I hate Father Damaso as much as I hated him when I was a kid, and I want to kick him in his stupid, handsome Roman coño face. Rizal’s Noli begets a powerful reader response. It became clear, on rereading, how Rizal’s omniscient narration in the Noli binds the reader to his seductive bias. It is important to note that his godlike irony is the vessel of speech for the angry Filipino in the text—whom in fact Rizal does not picture in chapters 1 and 2 of the Noli. Instead, he foregrounds the acts and dialogue of the elites, all Spaniards. In those opening scenes, Rizal’s omniscient voice therefore is the sole witness for the otherwise mute, absent, and angry Filipino. It’s a strategic, powerful partnership: His omniscience and our absence whet our anti-Spanish rage. And its result, this sharpening of our knives, that is, our reader response, is a prominent part of his novel.

Reader and narrator are entwined in the Noli and the Fili: we, the reader, are part of Rizal’s narrative moves, and shrewd as he was, his choices of narration inevitably bound us to him—they incited revolt. He clearly had a social studies thesis in mind, and he played his readers with a puppeteer’s skill to create a novel of propaganda that, as we know, worked only too well—it killed him (a narrative consequence I do not necessarily recommend). This keen sense of readership is crucial to the Noli and central to its power. Neglecting the role of the reader in the Noli diminishes our understanding of the text.

The fascinating mirroring of the two novels, the eerie incidences of twinning in the Noli and the Fili, further complicated any superficial reading I had of the Noli. One of the more obvious mirrorings is the twin structures of scenes.

The most powerful among these mirrored chapters, for instance, are the parallel Chapters 24. Fili Ch. 24 is titled “Un cadaver:” Multiple deaths or decays are imagined in this chapter but the corpse in question lies in the news Basilio delivers to Simoun, on the brink of his revolution plot—that Maria Clara is dead. And what is the parallel chapter in Noli Ch. 24? Hauntingly, it is the memorable scene of the picnic, when the young lovers are completely blissful, and Elias the pilot saves them from the crocodile, and we hear a full poem by Rizal sung in Maria Clara’s voice—sweet are the hours in one’s native land. How eerie to have these two chapters side by side, like inverted envelopes in which one scene enfolds the other: so that the news of Maria Clara’s death encloses her voice in the past singing Rizal’s distant poem of his country, and the song of Maria Clara in the Noli encloses her future as un cadaver, destroyed by a priest’s lust.

This twinned incidence, coincidence or not, is chilling and deeply moving. It is correct that the most moving twin-chapters are of Maria Clara—she is the ghost of the dyadic, of the primal memory of wholeness, that haunts Rizal’s twin books (and perhaps Rizal), heightening the social fractures and tragic personal fissions in his texts.

But even in less haunting ways, these seeming accidents of analogy occur. In Chapter 5 of both novels, for instance—in Fili Ch. 5, Basilio, an orphan, returns home to San Diego on Christmas break; in Noli Ch. 5, Ibarra, who has just been told why he is an orphan, is spending his first night home on his return to Manila. Orphan versus orphan returning home in these parallel chapters. These hallucinatory mirrorings kept happening as I reread: funhouse returns of doubling scenes. In the analogy created by this tandem reading, Ibarra, the upper-class victim of priests, is translated in the Fili into Basilio, the lower-class victim of priests. Thus, in the Fili, Rizal recasts his hero, turning the upper class into the lower class, and so in the Noli, vice versa. (Remember Rizal was a sculptor, too, and thus familiar with recasting: of remolding and overlaying forms.)

This structural twinning gets underlined in the mirrored narration strategies of Chapter 6 of both novels: Fili Ch. 6 is a flashback, telling the backstory of Basilio, that is, the saga of the education of a poor servant kid. But interestingly, Noli Ch. 6 is also a flashback, telling the backstory of Capitan Tiago, that is, the saga of how a dumb wealthy kid becomes wealthier. Constantly, the Noli’s chapters on the elite become implicated in the saga of the lower classes through analogous mirrorings in the Fili. Talk about demonio de las comparaciones indeed (to borrow from Ben Anderson quoting the Noli).

Surely one can also say he’s just a writer with a narrow imagination—he doesn’t have too many plots. But as Poe’s detective Dupin might say: that is possible but not interesting. It is fascinating to imagine how these doublings and analogies in the two novels allow us to imagine Rizal’s problems as a writer, his self-critiques. Rizal in his ephemera is garrulous, about boxing or books or bagoong. But he never much talks much about his art: he talks about problems with nation not narration. But the amazingly persistent mirroring of structures, characters, scenes, and tropes in the Noli and Fili tells us that, in some way, the Fili does rewrite the Noli, not, as I imagined, only by his narration modes but also by his weird doublings, capturing, but in elusive and not strictly absolute ways, how Rizal commented, through the Fili, on the Noli’s devices, questioned them, resculpted them, reframed binaries of elites and masses, or indio and Spaniard, or civil and religious, or slave and revolutionary, and so wondered about his art. Someone else can write a whole book on that.

It is only by Chapter 7 in the Noli that Rizal moves into free indirect discourse, in the third person limited voice of Maria Clara; most of the novel otherwise is in persuasive third person omniscient. Rizal is very comfortable in a woman’s voice. The first trace of free indirect discourse in the Fili is also the psychological perspective of a woman: Basilio’s superstitious girlfriend, Juli. But unlike the Noli, by Chapter 4 onward, the Fili moves fluidly into multiple third person perspectives, indirect and free indirect modes of various characters—he ventriloquizes the psychological perceptions of the untutored Juli, the unlettered wit of the coachman carrying the medical student Basilio back home, the grief and terror of Basilio confronting the frighteningly radical Simoun in that creepy place of textual doubling, “Ibarra’s wood” (which is the site of Elias’s death in the Noli and entombs both the focus of Basilio’s grief, Sisa, and the focus of Simoun’s grief, the twin of Ibarra, that is, Elias—an infinite trail of mirrorings) and so on.

So fluid in his use of perspective in the Fili, Rizal seems to have liberated himself from the straitjacket of the omniscient in the Noli, giving consciousness to multiple voices in that new, confident, but experimental style, from Chapter 4 onward. For such a young writer, working only on his second book, Rizal displays no nerves, making unexpected moves, some noted by Ben Anderson already in readings of the chapter “Tatakut” in Why Counting Counts, among other essays on the Fili. It is no wonder the Fili is less taught in high school classes—the book gets weird. Rizal shifts in and out of the minds of casual cynic Pecson, cowardly bully Juanito, opportunistic but oppressed Chinaman Quiroga—a whole panoply of tipos manilenses, as Rizal called them—in ways that seem to acknowledge the flat urgencies of the Noli’s singular propaganda voice. But interestingly, even as he moves into fresh narrative territory while recycling old plots, he honors the problems of Filipino discourse he had solved in the Noli. A novel quite clearly about the ‘social cancer’ of colonialism, the Fili also ponders the art of the novel—Rizal’s first novel, the Noli, in particular.

Chapter 7 is a touchstone passage in both the Fili’s themes and the Fili’s art.

Chapter 7 of the Fili is a gorgeous set piece. Amazingly reflexive, it weaves perhaps one of the most complex reader-writer-text-[language]-nation webs in Philippine writing—that imagined community in novels that I find most persistently engrossing and problematic in my own experience of writing novels.

It’s important to recognize here that the central plot of the Fili puts the novel in reflexive, refractive, mirroring territory—the reading/writing theme of language. The students in Chapter 2 are agitating for a Castilian Academy in Manila: a school for teaching Spanish. A crisis of language is the plot’s pivot. Rizal asks: is it revolutionary for Filipinos to learn Spanish?

One hears loudly the self-critical question of the writer Rizal: what does it mean for him to be writing a Filipino novel “hold[ing] a mirror up to nature” in Spanish?

And it implicates the text-within-this-text, the Noli—because the Noli has the odd effect of being both a bomb, la mecha, set among friars but also the fuse, a call to action, among Filipinos, precisely for its art-crime of convincingly mirroring (considering any number of projections and misrecognitions such mirroring entails) the conditions of Rizal’s Philippines.

In Fili Ch. 7 Simoun says to Basilio, whom he accuses as a lower-order thinker, a reformist, who does not understand that a Filipino’s faith in Spain’s civil authority is a radical failure of self-analysis: “Go ahead, ask for Hispanization and do not blanch from shame when they tell you no…You want to add another language to the forty-odd we already speak here so we can understand one another even less?”

Simoun’s speech is a beautiful expletive that explodes in a singular tongue the problem of having multiple tongues. He delivers his illuminating rant on the Castilian in illuminating Castilian:

“El español nunca será lenguaje general en el pais, el pueblo nunca lo hablará porque para las concepciones de su cerebro y los sentimientos de su corazon no tiene frases ese idioma: cada pueblo tiene el suyo, como tiene su manera de sentir. ¿Qué vais á conseguir con el castellano, los pocos que lo habeis de hablar? ¡Matar vuestra originalidad, subordinar vuestros pensamientos á otros cerebros y en vez de haceros libres haceros verdaderamente esclavos!”

How odd for Simoun to ventriloquize this point that Rizal has, in fact, already made quite moot through the persuasive phrases of his last novel, the Noli:

“Spanish will never be the language of the country, the people of the country will never speak it because for the thoughts of their own mind and sentiments of their heart that idiom does not have phrases: each people has its own tongue, as it has its own manner of feeling. What will you gain with Spanish, the few who will speak it? Kill your originality, subordinate your thoughts to others’ minds and instead of gaining your freedom make yourselves truly into slaves!”

And so Rizal questions both the Noli and himself—wondering about his own originality and subordination, one of “the few who will speak it.” At the same time he frees himself from the bondage of being the iconic author of the Noli, indicted by Simoun as a suspect text, while also, oddly enough, recognizing its power.

The breathtaking reflexivity in this passage is contradictory, provocative, and dizzying on several levels: Simoun, speaking in Spanish, convicts himself as one of the verdaderamente esclavos [truly enslaved]; Basilio, understanding Simoun’s Spanish (he functions, too, as the reader’s proxy in the passage), is thus complicit and so also esclavo; the Filipino reader who understands Simoun’s Spanish is also part of the textual crime and thus esclavo; the novel, written in Spanish, is destabilized explicitly by the writer who devised this passage denouncing el español in español; and the writer, writing in Spanish, convicts himself, too, by the damning words he fashions in Simoun’s oracular voice.

This conviction by language—to play on that English pun—raises that specter (or speculum, Latin for mirror, as Rizal’s pedant Sybila might note, using one more of Rizal’s tongues) of that great mirror-novel hidden in the Fili, that is, the Noli. But he also knows the Noli has paradoxically already opened the eyes of the verdaderamente esclavos—in some sense freeing them (and in terms of the Noli’s reach, this is true not only of those Filipinos who read Spanish, but extends also its voice to us, those who read it in translation).

By what awry, magical stroke, then, does Rizal in this passage complicate his novels but also conjure the problems of the Filipino reader of his novels? He creates a destabilized, reflexive people who must cross-examine who they are, or, in a sense, understand that they must recognize themselves through misrecognition, as a constantly lost and yet found figure of translation, when they read the nation in Rizal’s words.

This is the crux of ourselves as a nation—and the problem of all our novelists—we exist in translation, colonized and mediated and lost yet found in our multiple texts—and tongues. We are condemned to our multiple speech-selves. Very early on, like a prescient prophet of our “postcoloniality,” as some call our traumatic condition, Rizal in his novels grapples explicitly with the labyrinth of language that defines us.

As the student Sandoval exclaims in Fili Ch. 14: “What does the integrity of the state have to do with the rules of syntax?!”

Well, Rizal the novelist might say—everything.

Of course, one must also take Simoun’s speech with a grain of salt: Rizal’s dialogues are diabolically dialectical (to be honest, as a writer I most envy Rizal’s skill as a luminous debater of plural ideas in conversations, powerful in both the Noli and the Fili). One is meant to refract this speech through Basilio’s (the proxy reader’s) modest skepticism in the scene, and as the novel unfolds, Simoun—versus such idealists as the poet Isagani or hopeful cynics like the student Pecson and so on—keeps shape-shifting: he is a masked, unstable truth-teller. We do not know even until the end if we are on his side.

This ambiguity is deliberate. Rizal is very aware of personalities as analogies, comparaciones rather than singularities, existing within a dialectic of ideas and forces, not simply as a flat image without a glass backing—without a mirror of comparisons. It is hard to see the elite Simoun without seeing his translation, or reflection, in the poor orphan Basilio in the scenes they have with each other, or to view poet Isagani without his twin, lawyer Señor Pasta, in that dialogue in which they both appear: scene by scene, Rizal keeps projecting one character in the other, and not only that, one book into the other, mirroring perhaps the multiplicity of his own desires and, more obviously, the rigors of his highly reflexive intellect.

As I have already noted in the novel Raymundo Mata, it is no accident that Ibarra’s middle name is Magsalin, an infinitive verb, a pun, meaning both to translate and to transfuse blood—to me the name shows how aware he was of words, homonyms, and doubling texts running in our veins. In his Miscellaneous Writings, he gossips about his friends, such as the pseudo-novelist Paterno, in code—he’s a word trickster. One hears him laughing as he sets up his unexpected cryptogram for resurrecting that cryptic head in the Fili’s Quiapo Fair chapter—the password Deremof—an anagram not in his novel’s Spanish but in unexpected yet prophetic English, a double-tongued sword, meaning freedom.

Thus, any consideration of the representation of the elite or of peasants or of diaspora or of womanhood and any other social studies themes must consider the profoundly analogical, refractive acts of representation that run through these novels: there is nothing flat in the work of Rizal. There is trickery in his texts: he’s a demonic comparative thinker—and highly aware of readership, or acts of reading and writing in the text. These art gestures in his novels must be front and center in any reading of his words. Even in his practice as a novelist, he exercised reflexivity and found a way to read himself, and so forge his fresh, astonishing style in the Fili. And he creates, in the figure of Simoun, perhaps, his twin of himself, a doppelganger—a desperate, despairing fixer of plots: that is, a fictionist.

Too often we fail to imagine Rizal as a writer who is creating fiction, hence our flat readings of our nation, the Philippines, in the otherwise fascinatingly unstable mirror of his words.

What we often think of as an absolute commentary on revolution—the vacillating revolutionary response in the Fili—that is, the failure of the plot of Simoun—because we view him through that social studies lens, needs also to be seen perhaps as Rizal’s artistic response to the Noli. What psychological acuities, aesthetic considerations, and political moves are gained, refashioned, and lost when one moves into free indirect discourse? You have a more reflective, doubting, politically and psychologically ambiguous character in Simoun, more ambiguous certainly than Elias—because Rizal’s narrative technique has changed. I doubt Rizal was not aware of his conundrum. (I am not saying one cannot extract sociopolitical insights from it, but the aesthetic point is crucial to our understanding of his novel.)

On one level, the Fili is a university novel, and many of its powerful scenes in free indirect discourse are set among students. I’ve written two university novels about revolt, and so it is easy to see why my favorite among Rizal’s student chapters is Chapter 13, “La clase de fisica.” After considering the dizzying puzzle of mirror structures in Rizal’s two novels, how fascinating to read that this chapter centers on the trope that illuminates what I consider Rizal’s major device for evoking the nation in his novel-“diptych,” as Neil Garcia accurately names the pair of novels, the Noli and the Fili, so uniting them as one. In Fili Ch. 13, this satirical chapter set in a physics class, Rizal’s illuminating plot device is—a mirror.

Padre Millon, the sadistic physics teacher who is also an idiot, makes students memorize a numbing definition of that basic subject of materials physics: un espejo:

“Se da el nombre de espejo á toda superficie pulimentada, destinada á producir por la reflexion de la luz las imágenes de los objetos situados delante de dicha superficie por las sustancias que forman estas superficies se dividen en espejos metálicos y espejos de cristal…”

“The name mirror is given to all polished surfaces, destined to produce by the reflection of light the images of objects placed in front of said surface by substances that form these surfaces divided into metallic mirrors and glass mirrors…”

This theme of reflexivity, or reflection, or doubling, or mirroring, that becomes the literal center of this chapter satirizing education in Spanish in the Philippine (and is succeeded by the Quiapo Fair chapter on mirror tricks, and so on), causes a vertigo of refraction in this self-referential text. Because the novel, of course, any novel, really, but especially this novel, is also a trick with mirrors, as is Imuthis/Ibarra’s storytelling deception in the Quiapo chapter: “destined to produce by the reflection of light the images of objects placed in front of said surfaces by substances that form these surfaces….”

This scene of the mirror in a physics class conjures a vertiginous layering of images—an infinite regression of reflections that is the fatal, unstable condition of novel-writing, a knowing deception that attempts truth, a ‘truth’ founded on ‘tricks’ [supercherías]—enclosing as a novel does the projections and mirrorings of the reader, the writer, the novel, and the world it hopes to mirror (which includes the reader, the writer, and so on).

Thus, Rizal becomes Borgesian when encountering the Fili with a close reading of his narrative moves. ‘Whimsical,’ yes, but intriguing.

In Rizal’s two novels, by trying to describe what the novels were doing as novels I found myself in a surprising conversation with Rizal’s books, and experiencing a pleasure that I had not realized before I sat down to describe their effects. I am addressing myself to readers here, ordinary readers of novels: I learned to appreciate the Noli in ways that had escaped me. (And to be honest, I was amazed, even creeped out, by the weird mirror congruencies persisting in the texts—and I had to email Ambeth Ocampo, to make sure I was not hallucinating; he told me that for a new annotated edition of the novels, he found himself grappling with the same hallucinatory doublings.) Rereading the Noli and Fili through the lens of its art-devices, I was excited when I noted an image that had escaped me in early readings, the persistence of that poststructuralist mirror image—a trope in one of my favorite writers, Borges, that I found beautifully enlaced in Rizal: so in effect I could read Rizal as an odd “precursor” of the Argentine, in a funhouse-mirror way. And it gave me a way of imagining Rizal as a writer, and to picture him in that fleeting, mortal act—revision.

An explicit close reading of the work of art and its effects is useful because otherwise the readings you beget, if driven by an extrinsic thesis first rather than led by the engrossing complexities inherent in the art itself, enforce fairly one-dimensional ways that people already read our nation’s novels.

By reading closely an artist’s gestures in his art, we can avoid those ways of reading that so bedevil our artless ways of confronting art—those calloused, prescriptive readings that end up in mere name-calling of novels as ‘revolutionary’ or ‘not revolutionary’ or blaming the novel for framing the ‘elite’ in one way or the other, or praising or condemning a book for serving or not the ends of ‘nation’ (however that word is defined, endlessly differing or deferred, by the artless writer) and so on and so forth—instead of carefully reading how an artist devises his words. Careful close readings might help us avoid such one-dimensional traps of readings—that are dangerously unsurprising and, worse, unsurprised.

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