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.