Below are some things I wish to add

 

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

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

Book Expo Talk on Insurrecto

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

[13 minutes]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

The task of a publisher

I was honored to introduce Elda Rotor, publisher of Penguin Classics, at the Kundiman gala night. Below is my speech. (Note: sadly, a few hours after the Kundiman event, an Asian American poet who attended it was harassed in the East Village by a racist who was eventually arrested. Talk about orange flames of nativist hatred.)

Mentorship is a two-way gift: both the receiver and the giver eventually possess something of value when the present is right. Perhaps empathy is the most valuable gift of the mentor: and when one mentors a writer, I think it is important to recognize that empathy has to do with understanding art’s labor—that the labor that goes into art (which for the reader paradoxically must seem imperceptible)—is intangible though intensive, arduous but unseen, and too often fraught with waste and a sense of uselessness, a sense that the future, the finished work, will never come.

Mentoring an artist is the gift of believing in the future.

In the best of all possible worlds, the publisher is art’s mentor: her task is to believe in the necessity of that intangible labor, the future of art. We know in this day, in this past week, how much more urgent the work of the publisher is—quite simply—the publisher’s job is to shape a future that will allow our species to survive.

It is terrifying to say that, but it is true.

A publisher’s mentoring job is now possibly world-altering, if the publisher gets it right.

The magician nature of a publisher’s job, a kind of sorcery prophesying the future of books was revelatory for me, when talking to my own publisher & editor: I saw how so much depends on, as they say, a red wheelbarrow, that is, on one publisher’s or one editor’s imagination: that a book might or might not come about without the contents of one stranger’s mind, a stranger’s invention of a book’s future. And if a publisher’s job is world-altering, how important is that publisher’s ability to imagine? Especially to imagine the worlds one’s specific mind does not know? The gaps in one’s imagination? To mentor books outside of one mind’s comfort and bounds?

Kundiman’s great fortune and foresight today is to honor a mentor par excellence, Elda Rotor, an editor and publisher who, in my view, has that gift of empathy for the labor of the writers Kundiman cherishes—these writers of America’s future, these various and powerful voices of Asian America that America must hear so that the project of America’s democracy might go forward with the vigor and fire of America’s historical truth, instead of the orange flames of hermetic, nativist despair.

Elda is vice president and publisher of Penguin Classics, a vanguard of the past to which our future is tethered. She has been in publishing since the 1990s, working first as an assistant then becoming an acquiring editor at Oxford University Press, before moving on to become the editorial director of the venerable Penguin Classics line. Today, she is the only woman of color in an editorial position at Penguin—this is because she is also the only person of color in an editorial position at Penguin—which does not make Penguin an anomaly; in publishing, so I understand (though my stats are not highly researched), there is perhaps only Chris Jackson, publisher of Ta-Nehisi Coates and now with his own imprint at Random House, who in Elda’s generation matches her cred.

So Elda is a unicorn. A minotaur. An entirely lovely one: so glad she is with us tonight: but her uniqueness gives pause for all of us.

I will admit that I was fascinated when I saw Elda’s name once in a book of poems—because I am a fan of Arturo Rotor, a Filipino short story writer, doctor, and scientist, who turns out to be related to Elda. I’m a fan-girl, so I looked out for Elda because of her name. And it is significant that no one in this audience likely knows Arturo Rotor, though he was a leading writer during the Commonwealth, when the Philippines was part of America. But I am happy to say that Penguin is coming out with another Filipino classic, Nick Joaquin, because of Elda: watch out for it in April 2017.

In the times I have had the luck and pleasure of speaking with Elda, my sense is that mentorship is at the heart of Elda’s life work because she came to publishing as a poet, and she remains a poet. With friends from high school and college—she grew up in Manhattan where she went to Catholic high school before studying English at George Washington University—she published her own start-up poetry journal, New Digressions, which with her three friends she created and sold kamikaze style from 1992-1997, a blitzkrieg literary affair that shows the spunk and prepossession and amazing confidence that permeates Elda’s ways of going about her life—she simply acts and does, knowing that if she did not do it, who will? Her job in the world, from the time of her youth as a poet in Manhattan, was to find, as she puts it, points of wonder—and in that way, without quite noticing it, it seems, Elda in herself is a point of wonder for us, writers who understand what it means to exist in a publishing world that is in many ways not yet ready for the multiplicity and complications and wonder of the kinds of stories we wish to write, but which in fact the world needs.

Mentorship is also the work of Kundiman—Kundiman is about providing a space for empathy for the writer’s work—in particular, the intangible labor and urgent work of Asian American art. What luck, what fortune does Kundiman have to honor today a publisher who is a lodestar for the best of all possible publishing worlds, an editor and a poet, a child of immigrants and a publisher of classics, a mother bringing up children of color in a future in which the survival of people of color will be the test of this nation’s humanity. Elda is a touchstone for the ways publishing can usher into the world stories that will allow our children to grow up slightly more hopeful about the possibilities of America’s democracy, this project of the future that is the present, the gift, that the work of Kundiman and the work of publishers like Elda Rotor provide. It’s my great honor to introduce you therefore to one of this night’s honorees, Elda Rotor, publisher of Penguin Classics.

 

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Elda (right) at her Penguin office.

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At the Kundiman gala.