My Borgesian Rizal.

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.

Summer Forum speech: “A country like the Philippines haunts America. But it is a trace, a ghost unseen. I think sometimes I write novels to conjure that trace, to make that trace visible.”

Out of the blue last winter, I was invited to speak in the California desert, at the Institute of Mentalphysics (a great, seventies name!) by a wonderful young woman I did not know, Sara Hunter, who created Summer Forum with her husband Michael Hunter, when she was frustrated with the way grad school conceived of education in only one way, it seemed—through lectures and so on. She preferred conversations.

I had never been to the California desert anyhow, and I had never met Sara, but the proposition was intriguing—like nomads of the modern world, people came to Summer Forum to converse and so think ideas through. Sara and Michael gathered people interested in the experience of ideas to have a dialogue about issues that mattered to them. How did they get people? One simply applied. Many were friends of theirs from Chicago Art Institute, but many just read about Summer Forum online and applied because it was a way to converse about ideas in real time with real people. Participants at Summer Forum read collectively a syllabus of readings, listen to speakers, and then create a “trace” of their interactions, most obviously in a booklet called Dilettante. This year’s theme was “Networks of Belonging: Geographies, Citizenries, and the Masses.” Here’s a section of the speech. I interrupted readings of my novel with comments that related to Summer Forum’s syllabus; the rest of the speech was patches from other speeches and articles I have done (on English and the Super-Spy Lacanian Baby, and on the Philippines as a Borgesian Tlon).


….As I said, I have read a few of the readings for the conference. I have, in fact, taken the test for citizenship that appears in the packet, with its 100 questions about America. I remember one of the questions I had to answer was—where does the President of the United States live? It remains one of the most banal, insipid moments of my life, becoming a citizen of America. Basically, they asked me ten questions, then I answered them; then they made me write three sentences on a piece of paper—the lady officer dictated the sentences, and I wrote them down. One of them went something like—a kitten jumps onto the windowsill. Something like that.

I keep thinking that the banality of it was what made it surreal. My experience of becoming a citizen of America was a practical, not ontological, matter anyhow. I remember I was going to go on vacation in Europe—to Spain—in the summer of 2001, and it was extremely annoying to have to go to the Spanish embassy in NYC again with my friend David, who would be my host once again in Spain, and have him vouch for me as his guest, one more time. These small irritants for a middle class Filipino in America were part and parcel of holding a Filipino passport.

And then 9/11 happened.

An immigration lawyer friend of mine called me up to ask me if I were a citizen. I said no, though I had been a resident alien, as a green card holder is called, since 1989, when I married my husband, an American novelist I met in grad school at Johns Hopkins. “Get citizenship now,” my friend the immigration lawyer told me after 9/11. “The laws are changing for immigrants as we speak—I’ve seen even green card holders deported, for the smallest thing—a speeding ticket, a moving violation.” That call made me do it, but really, there was also that recent memory of the annoying trip to the Spanish embassy that summer of 2001 that made me finally apply for citizenship—a practical issue that I had been stalling about since the early nineties—mainly because I am lazy. And my identity is not tied, I think, to passports. Or I’d be happy to have forty passports, forty so-called identities. [I’ve been thinking about getting citizenship with Spain, since recently they have declared they are opening their borders to people with certain surnames—one of which includes my mother’s—they are trying to attract Jewish people to invest in Spain. I guess, I have a Spanish surname linked to the expulsion of the Jews. But then I realize I’m not really Jewish, so I don’t think that’ll work.] And anyway, Filipinos can get dual citizenship (which I have). So I did not stop being Filipino, even in that legal sense. And as I said, getting U.S. citizenship was an entirely banal, routine, insipid event—like getting my driver’s license, except that someone dictated to me some sentences about kittens.

And yet, as I know, getting US citizenship was also a demarcation, a borderline, that I had crossed, a crossing for which people have died—and which, if I pressed myself, I in fact had not wished to cross, until I had to.

In this novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, the girl at the start moves from country to country as if she has no boundaries. She is a fantastical Filipino in some ways—a Filipino who does not seem bound by the restrictions on migration that the ordinary Filipino feels. And yet she is entirely real—Sol lives among a corrupt upper-class that lives lives that Filipinos are currently trying to prosecute, in fact—with varying degrees of failure.

[3 senators are in prison right now for a several-billion peso pork barrel scam—one of whom is the former defense minister, an incredibly malevolent guy who outlasted the dictator—his milieu is also the narrator Sol’s milieu]

During a reading of this novel once, an audience member, a Filipino woman, afterwards came up to talk to me. And what she said to me was: I am so glad your narrator is not a maid.

I was stumped by that. I did not know how to answer.

It’s true that the narrator I chose, Sol, is atypical perhaps. She is an extremely wealthy young woman who, in the beginning of this novel, goes from border to border—the Riviera, to New York, and so on, in what seems a fantasy world of migration—she feels bound by no restrictions that the ordinary Filipino feels. And what the Filipino woman at the reading was telling me was—there is the trope of the Filipino as desperate migrant—maid, caregiver, so on—that the rest of the world, including Filipinos, expects. To be honest, it is a trope that the publishing world also expects—but that is a topic for a different conference—the narrowness within which a person of color in fiction must be framed.

The Filipino is framed narrowly in that trope as a [possibly illegal] desperado who is a victim of neoliberal forces—in the words of the Metahaven reading, a figure like Moussa K who, quote, seems to understand border crossing as a process of extreme desubjectification, unquote—that process by which, quote, as soon as the border is passed, engineers become cleaners, academics turns into sex workers, and brain surgeons become taxi-drivers—ready-made for exploitation on the informal labor markets of late capitalism, unquote.

So you have these, at least, three experiences or notions of migration and citizenship—one, my banal passing of a stupid test so I could go to Spain untroubled; two, the figure of the Filipino maid, who is both a trope and a reality, a figure of tragic economic desperation, in some cases, and basic ordinary human striving, in too many others; and three, this figure in this novel, Sol, whose status both embodies the forces of imperial capitalism that victimize the mass, her countrymen, as well as illuminates the tragedy her own status has wrought—because the horror she tells is self-implicating: it is her horror, her self that her story of nightmare contemplates.

As the novelist Chimimanda Adichie has famously said about the dangers of the stereotype—what is problematic is not that the stereotype is untrue—it is that it is incomplete.

I have always wondered about this—how to speak about the multiple realities of the world that I know. I use Sol, I think, as a kind of inverse character of the victim of capitalism, because her world is the world of the perpetrator, the enemy that the masses fight—perhaps I do this in order to see that system from a self-implicating lens: the reader, like Sol, is part of the problem.

Perspective in this novel was a struggle for me—I had begun in the 3rd person, but I found myself editorializing and pontificating about this class of people, Sol’s people—and it was a very thin, unsatisfying way to tell the story—to me. But when I shifted to first, and I took on the voice of Sol, took on her memory—the novel became more complex—because I, too, was implicated in Sol’s troubling world.

So this, I suppose, is an m.o. for a novelist—to keep seeing through other lenses—I think it is a useful m.o. for any citizen.

In the novel, in turn, Sol is desperately desiring to belong to someone else’s world, the world of her classmate, the activist Soli, and of course you’ll note the mirroring in the naming. The issue of twinhood, of being double, recurs in this talk, and in the novel. …

…Any trace of our world in the post-Anthropocene might always have that hidden perspective, that is, might pose the problem of power: in any phenomenal trace it might be good to ask—who suffered and who conquered? But it is interesting to think in terms of duality also, or beyond the binary, when we think about the traces left behind. When we imagine how the conqueror also suffers from his rapacity, and recognize also how the victim has agency—and that if we shift our lenses and try to view a figure in multiple ways, what happens?

In many ways, my job as a novelist has been to figure out how to narrate the story of the migrant as a person whose story we know very well is one of overdetermined forces—overdetermined being a term from psychoanalysis, meaning, “having more determining factors than the minimum necessary; having more than one cause; giving expression to more than one need or desire.” In short, the migrant is like everyone else. Issues of class, economy, race, gender, all constitute the migrant’s subjectivity, just as it does everyone else’s.

There is not only one type of Filipino migrant, that goes without saying. When I joined rallies and activist calls against the Marcos regime as a kid in university in Manila, my friends, upper-class women destined to become academics, used to make fun of me. I have often joked that the best way to make a Filipino Marxist is to send an upper-class Filipino to America to study—the Filipino sees that in this new country, she is under-class because of race and it turns the tide of ideology in her. So that is one good thing America has done. It has made Filipino Marxists. Good. Place can change your lens.

We all recognize, as this novel does, that these capitalist forces, the imperial economy that subjugates the border crosser like Moussa K, or the Filipino maid that the woman at my reading did not want to hear about anymore, those terrible economic forces also subjugate us—it subjugates you and me. My banal citizenship experience is not separate from the experience of Moussa K, the border crosser in the city of Ceuta in the Metahaven reading, just as it is tied irrevocably, of course, to the lives of Filipino maids, for whom in many people’s eyes I am interchangeable. My experience, and Moussa K’s experience, is tied to yours. Because that economic force subjugates us when we look upon someone and wonder how that person came into the country, though the person might have grown up quite innocuously in Des Moines, it subjugates us when we find we understand completely what the woman means when she talks about not wanting to hear anymore about the Filipino maid. As the readings in the Summer Forum packet are telling us, we all live with and enact the ideological gaze of the economic imperium: no one escapes it.

Despite the banality of my experience before the Immigration Officer the day I took my test for citizenship, I understand how the insipidity of the phenomenon is also what makes it violent, thus its surreality—it was an event of splitting, of division, and not an event of communing, of entering into a pact, a oneness with others. Taking the oath of citizenship to America seemed mainly to separate me from them, the border crossers, instead of uniting me with something, with “America.”

After all, I became a citizen after 9/11.

And though we cannot escape that imperium, maybe the trick is somehow to be inside and outside and figure out how to see from multiple lenses, from different class or race or gender lenses, as much as we can, all the time. But that is very difficult.

In my case, novel writing requires that of me. I have to be inside and outside, see a character from all perspectives possible, keep refracting the position by which to write a scene. And then I have to make a choice. Just as I made a choice when I applied for citizenship. The choice directs the novel—the choice of point of view constructs the possibility for action and detail in the novel. When I chose the first person, I had to cut off more than half of the novel, I think—parts that an amnesiac person would not be able to retell. Point of view dictates the text. [And if someone had told me that the minute I got into writing school, I’d have been so grateful, it would have saved me a lot of paper.]

But my choice to apply for citizenship, oddly enough, did not, in my mind, define me in one way or another. And this is the thing about citizenship versus novel—citizenship is more of a mirage than the choice of a first person perspective—it is less real, less definitive, more phantasmal than an artistic choice. Yet of course the consequences of having this type of citizenship or not are acute. Citizenship to me is not a real thing, but art is. But it’s the mirage that kills.

I will say this—I have absolutely no trouble now whenever I leave the country. Every time I use that miracle passport, I find myself marveling at it—at the ease with which I now travel, when I have not changed at all, not one whit, from the person I had been. My relationship with America is just as fraught as it was before I took that oath of citizenship. I have to say, I would not say it is a relationship I struggle with: instead I see it as a form of existence, a relationship we all have with history—the terrible history of our worlds that also constitutes us (which does not mean that I do not wish to change it, to change that dynamic that history constructs for us). That is, my fraught relationship with America is another banality, perhaps, another mundanity, that is, a surreality, a violence, one more sign of the split self that constitutes us all.

(NOTE: this speech is much longer; it is cut here as the other sections of it are versions of two other talks/articles, one a speech Superhero Lacanian Baby and the other the article on Borges and post-colonialism)

Sarita See, that indefatigable director of Center for Art and Thought, invited me to

a dialogue with wonderful artists and scholars—Kale Bantigue Fajardo, Dylan Rodriguez, Teresia Teaiwa, and Joi Barrios Leblanc on the subject of history, typhoons, unnatural disasters. I remember that we shared that conversation online during the time of the relief efforts for typhoon Yolanda. Here is the link, and below are some passages.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013, 7:49 PM EST
Via: E-mail
Subject: CA+T Dialogue about Haiyan

Dear Teresia, Dylan, Kale, Joi and Gina,

Thank you so much for agreeing to take part in this CA+T Dialogue over email (or Facebook, if folks prefer that). It’s such an honor to bring this particular circle of teachers, scholars, and artists together.

But first I want to send deepest condolences to Kale Fajardo on the recent loss of your mother. Kale was able to travel to the Philippines at the end of last week in order to be by his mother’s side. She lost that struggle this past Sunday, but she departed while surrounded by her family. Kale: I thought long and hard about whether or not to disturb you during this time of loss. Please feel free to completely ignore this email thread. However, as I’ve learnt from my own experience dealing with losses in my own family, it can be good to take a break and reconnect with one’s community of colleagues, even or especially amidst grief. So I’ll leave it entirely up to you as to whether or when you’d like to join our conversation.

In the face of the incomprehensible loss, displacement, and trauma wreaked by Haiyan/Yolanda, I appreciate being able to reach out to the five of you. With this conversation, I hope to draw on our collective hearts, talents, and minds so as to learn from and teach each other about the unnatural histories and conditions that created Haiyan/Yolanda and its aftermath. We then will publish this installation ofDIALOGUES on CA+T’s website so as to provide the broader public with the kind of alternative knowledge and perspectives that we are so desperately in need of. With the waning of the media’s attention, we also hope that the publication of this Dialogue will draw renewed attention to the kinds of relief efforts that demand our continued support and donations.

By way of introductions, Gina Apostol is a novelist. Joi Barrios is a poet, Filipino language instructor and author, and former dean at the University of Philippines.Kale Fajardo is an interdisciplinary anthropologist and queer studies scholar. Dylan Rodriguez is an ethnic studies scholar, and Teresia Teaiwa is a Pacific studies scholar.

I’d like to open up this Dialogue with a prompt for Gina about Jenifer Wofford’s work: What do you make of the other’s renditions of Douglas MacArthur? Jenifer Wofford’s series of drawings, MacArthur Nurses, appeared in Sea, Land, Air: Migration and Labor and explicitly recreates MacArthur’s 1944 landing. In your work you have referenced the history of General Douglas MacArthur and the statue in Tacloban commemorating his 1944 return to the Philippines. You also recently wrote the essay “Surrender, Oblivion, Survival,” which helped me to remember how Leyte “has always attracted opportunists” and has multiple histories of plunder and invasions.

I look forward to seeing where this conversation takes us.

With my respect and gratitude,


Thursday, December 5, 2013, 9:25 AM EST
Via: E-mail
Subject: Re: CA+T Dialogue about Haiyan

I have just finished watching a video of the independence rites of the Philippines, July 4, 1946, while researching this new novel I am writing, William McKinley’s World, and it was interesting to see that the speaker at the center of the independence hoopla is not Paul McNutt, the ambassador and stand-in for Harry Truman at the rites, or Manuel Roxas, the new president (take that, Back to the Future in the Philippines—he’s the granddad of that bumbling botcher of the relief efforts in Tacloban, Mar Roxas!). The man of the hour who gives the speech that the newsreels repeat is Douglas MacArthur. He is smarmy, teary, sincere, and terribly troubling and, to me, repellent all at the same time.

I grew up with MacArthur, as I always say—with MacArthur, Imelda [Marcos], and typhoons. A trifecta of horror, I could call it, except that I liked the typhoons. We used to practice what we called “playground dancing demonstrations” for the rites of remembrance of Leyte Landing: October 20, 1944, a date I’d remember in sleep. We’d be trundled in cleaned-out garbage trucks to dance for the Americans, old soldiers who always mispronounced the name of the city, plus of course Imelda, who liked to go home to Leyte to do the honors, it seems (she was not there all the time, I imagine, but in my recollection she hovered over my childhood in Tacloban, her bibingka of hair always finding its way home, at our school’s Christmas pageants, being our alumna, and so on).

Anyway, what struck me watching that video is how central, in an absolute way, without any question about its rightness, Douglas MacArthur is—the man of the hour on our day of independence. I understand the event’s closeness to war, which makes him the star: World War II has just ended, and thus, the event has an emotional misreading—that our link to our independence is the war, as if this day were a culmination of the American and Filipino response to our recently dead and the horrific suffering we have just come through, though of course Tydings-MacDuffie had already set the independence date in the thirties. (I will not go into the betrayal and history of revolution in the country that makes this independence day, given “voluntarily” by America, problematic, as that is a different though corollary angst.)

But why does the prominence of MacArthur make my skin crawl? That is the question I would ask the scholars, as I am still quite unclear, aware as I am of my own biases being a kid who grew up with a chip on my shoulder about MacArthur, a crummy statue I could not stand. My reasons, if I spoke them, might need a novel, not a polemic. I was horrified on Tacloban Yolanda online sites, just after I had finished writing that op-ed in the [New YorkTimes, to see the reactions of the people of Tacloban to the arrival of the American carrier on Red Beach, MacArthur’s Leyte Landing beach, this November [2013]. People made instant Facebook collages of MacArthur wading into Tacloban side by side pictures in the Times of the US aircraft Carrier George Washington and its soldiers; the Tacloban instant posters repeated, Thank you, America, MacArthur returns! I tried to save those pictures, should have made screen shots; they have disappeared from the sites (the Yolanda Update people cleaned out the weird politics, it seems), but here is a video of MacArthur’s speech in 1946: his voice quavers as he speaks of his love for the Filipinos.

My initial, knee-jerk answer to my question to you, Sarita, about why MacArthur and why he makes my skin crawl, has to do, I think, with the way my own city has long responded to this bipolarizing American vision, which in some ways makes us schizophrenics of history—just as it has responded to the Marcoses and stuck with Imelda’s family, the Romualdezes, all these years. All these histories are somehow connected, a primordial goop of blindness and dysreadings of self and time. I keep having to deal with the historical oblivion that commands the place I am from and the contortions in a heart and troubled brain that must try to understand and love my city all the same. I am part of our blindness, I imagine, too.

So maybe for me, it is my city’s rendition of MacArthur, which may be a pervasive Filipino rendition, I am not sure, that is the “other’s rendition” here that I am grappling with. For me, there is always the “other” in us Filipinos, the voice of the colonizer and history of power that is also ourselves, part of us, that we must constantly struggle to recognize, deconstruct, resolve, if not vanquish.