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.

 

The Superhero, Secret-Spy Lacanian Baby: a speech at the National Writers Union, NYC

The Superhero, Secret-Spy Lacanian Baby

 

(I was asked to speak about language and migration in the plenary session of the National Writers’ Union 2nd Annual International Writers Conference on ‘Writing Across Borders.’ I opened with a reading of a section of Gun Dealer and proceeded with the following)

 

I bring up this passage because I have an interesting encounter with the question of language, a question of the use of English, whenever I read my novels to an audience. Why do you write in English? That is a very common question. A corollary question is—wow, you speak English so well, how come?

 

And it is very clear that most Americans do not know their own history. The early imperial history of America is a blind spot both in American history classes as well as, I have to say, in Filipino history classes. The Filipino-American war that began with the so-called Battle of Manila Bay in May 1898 and, in my reading of it, is not quite yet done, as a new military agreement has just been signed between President Barack Obama and President Noynoy Aquino III a few weeks ago, which to my mind seems to extend a historical capitulation that is never-ending—the teaching of English was part of the articles of war that prosecuted this Filipino-American war, part of the counterinsurgency policy of the Americans against the Filipinos.

 

My response to those readers, therefore, might be the following: I write in English because your country raped mine. So you can already see the traumatic expression inherent in the use of English in the Philippines. It is a language of aggression and of capitulation. It is a language of collusion, of delusion, of expediency, of obscenity. It was for a very long time the only language of learning. I used to have to pay five centavos for each word of my own language that I spoke in the classroom. I was required to think and to learn in English. I learned to think critically in English.

 

It’s almost a weird Lacanian dilemma, the dilemma of the Filipino, the postcolonial. We gain our sense of the world through speech—and all speech declares is that we are split selves. Just as when the Lacanian baby learns to speak, all his speech tells him is loss—that he is not a whole self who exists silent and complete within the loving dyad of his mother’s milky gaze—but in fact is a split being who must use words to gain a foothold on himself, on reality—so growing up in the Philippines, we are, as in that Shakespeare myth, Calibans who have learned to speak reality through the language of the magician who has defined us, only to learn that this reality created by words has already betrayed us, made us “un-whole.”

 

I therefore have this double-backing, if I might use a word from picture-framing: I need to be looked at from several dimensions, on at least two sides, in order to recognize my split reality. I am not fully comprehensible without the world of English—the world of aggression and territorial occupation and cultural imperialism—and the world of my other languages. My portrait, the picture that frames me, encloses both—it is not one or the other. So this panel, on the Language of Migration, Adapting the Words of the Foreigner, puts me in an interesting bind—because for me, the language I needed to live here, English, was a language that had already violated me. It lives in me. It is vital to my history. But it is interesting that while a history of violence lies in my use of the language of English, it is with a marked sense of pleasure that I play with the language of English. Which may say something about pleasure, or say something about violence, or say something about me, who knows. So I’ll start here with that premise—the violent pleasure that lies in adapting the words of the foreigner is my fantastic reality. Why is it pleasurable? And in what does that pleasure lie?

 

I remember as a kid, when I lived for around four years with my parents in east Los Angeles—it was kind of a slum, as far as I can tell now, though to my mom it is was just “America”—my mom used to tell me, don’t go to that kid Maria’s house, and I would say, why, because I really liked Maria’s food, her mom’s tortillas, and my mother would say, don’t go there, because they’re not Filipino, and she used to explain to me the white couple next door, the Morses, were dirty, you could tell it on their skin—and because of my mom’s bigotry, there was always this weird pride in the Filipino that I had as a kid in Los Angeles, because no one else ate adobo, and no one else was as Catholic as us, with our too many statues of Virgins praying only for us, Filipinos (since my mom would not let me go into the Mexican Maria’s house), and no one else had a mom as beautiful as mine, and no one else had the power to survive only on rice and bagoong if the apocalypse ever arrived, and so on—and when I was given a fat, five-centavo copper coin by my father when we rode the airplane to return home to the Philippines for good, I remember feeling that five-centavo coin and thinking, wow, it’s so heavy, this Filipino coin, it’s so much more real and, you know, more coin-like, than any American coin. I grew up with this Filipino bigotry, that the one true world was my mom’s Filipino world. And yet, when we returned home to the Philippines, I was not allowed to let go of the language I had acquired in the foreign country, English. I in fact had to relearn my own languages, Waray and Tagalog—I thought I would instantly know the language of my mother, but to my horror, I did not—I was a split, alien being who looked like them but did not know the language, and my teachers and the kids would kind of torture me for not knowing. When I finally did learn Waray, I perversely did not tell the teachers or the kids that I understood their words. So I had this weird experience of feeling like a spy in my own country—everyone thought I spoke only English, but whenever they insulted me for not knowing Waray, I understood them. I have always thought that learning a language is like having the secret pleasure of a pervert—of having a peeping Tom’s thrill of looking in on a world from the vantage of the other, and yet you own it, it was my own kind of occupation, and thus your power has to do with this perversion, with the power of the taboo—your outsider’s gaze.

 

At the same time, I had this magical advantage in school through no great virtue of my own—I was in 2nd grade then, and I already spoke and wrote in English—and because English was the coin of education, the fat, five-centavo copper coin of learning—that, too, made me feel like some kind of superhero, with some special power that I had achieved sadly through no great talent I could claim. All I had done was live in a slum in L.A.

 

So by the time I was seven, my ego was quite interesting. I had already experienced this weird double-backing from at least two delusional dimensions—I had this feeling from the time I was a child of being a double-agent, the weirdo spy who knows two worlds at once and feels superior though also ostracized or at least strange, in both. Of course, to my peers I was mainly strange—I was a schizophrenic person living under the delusion of a superhero complex.

 

This is the odd feeling I have as a foreigner in America. I have the advantage of being adept in at least two worlds, and though I am also a traumatized being coming as I do from two worlds, my double-backing remains an advantage. My existence as a speaker of multiple languages makes me a person of multiple beings—and that multiplicity gives me a vantage, a point of view, necessarily broader and sometimes richer than those of others without my double-agency. Double-agency, secret-spyhood is the advantage of the migrant. There are many ways in which I have already occupied English, made it my own; and there must be many ways in which English has stamped its power over me, making me in its image, in its surds and its slurs and its words.

 

I am as impatient with Filipinos who make fun of Filipinos who don’t speak “correct English” as I am with Americans who do not understand why I write in English. I remember someone who made fun of Manny Pacquiao the boxer’s English—and my response—why should Manny Pacquiao speak English like him, a person from southern California? It is completely rational that a guy from General Santos would speak English like Manny Pacquiao. And as for Americans who wonder about a Filipino who writes in English, those motherfuckers, as Junot Diaz might call them, just need to read their history. The scholar Neil Garcia has told me how NVM Gonzalez, the Filipino novelist, once retorted to an American poet who commented about Filipino writing in English—I notice there is not much irony in it, she said—and NVM Gonzalez said—is it not ironic enough that I am writing in English?

 

There is both a richness and a traumatic, endless loss in the fact that history has given me this choice—to adapt to the words of the foreigner. In a way, I believe that is why I became a novelist. From the time I was a child, I was always beset by the perils of language—of adapting myself to the language of the places in which I lived, whether the city of Los Angeles or the island of Leyte, where I grew up—and I am endlessly wondering how language becomes us—how the language we speak creates and transforms the reality we live. This is a writer’s dilemma, after all, this constant, bedeviling recognition that language is reality. That language is the coin, the currency that negotiates reality. And so in many ways, I imagine, the migrant is always thinking like a writer—beset by the traumas of words that transform her and thus her reality. I sometimes think it would be great if, instead of thinking or wondering about whether we are one thing or another, either a Filipino or a Filipino-American, or a Mexican or Chicano, a Caliban or why not a Prospero and so on and so forth, we can imagine ourselves as some superhero with a special power, this monstrous split self who because of language is, ultimately, both super- and simply human—in our case made adamantly, perhaps emblematically so through the power of our multiple, rich languages, though it’s perhaps a power sadly achieved through no great talent that we can claim, except perhaps for the genius of arrival, of survival, of finding our tongues somehow in some place we can call home.

Image

 

With Ninotchka Rosca, plenary speaker: superhero, secret-spy of Philippine literature.

The Jam’s Going Underground. “The public gets what the public wants”

The Jam’s Going Underground. The public gets what the public wants, but I don’t care what society thinks. Going underground… alternate anecdote for largehearted boy Gun Dealers Daughter

I’d choose it for my playlist, on largeheartedboy (see post below), if I had not been in such a rush to write the piece (because I was packing). Great stuff for Gun Dealer’s Daughter playlist, if only I had remembered. The incident linked to The Jam would be when I was out of school and had no work, no apartment and was looking for a job, and a friend from the movement said, we have an apartment, we have room, stay with us for a while, and I did. It was a nice, lovely place in Quezon City, close to Diliman. Very burgis, no rats, haha, I would never have been able to afford it, and no one ever asked me for rent; I just helped with the chores, helping out with another housemate, who it turns out was pregnant. Another of my Kalayaan (freshman dorm) friends. I think we were 20 or 21 at the time. Anyway, turns out, her lover was underground, and he’d come up from the hills to visit her every so often. I’d just stay away and go out to parties when he was around, to give them privacy—I’d go dancing to The Jam or similar ilk. I told this story recently to my friends from those days and they said, OMG, Gina, I can’t believe you were living in Blabla’s safe house! I said, no I wasn’t. Yes, you were, you were living in a UG safe house. Oh my god. I realized more than 2 decades after, I was living in a goddamned UG safe house, and I had no clue. No wonder they never asked for rent. So that’s my playlist anecdote—there I was, dancing to The Jam while the guy who had actually gone underground got it on above ground. Yeah. “Going underground! But I don’t care what society thinks, going underground!” Oh, the 80s. I’m so ignorant.