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

 

 

Finished a draft, but the wrong one. The Unintended

is done. At least its first full draft. (I ended up finishing the wrong novel, not William McKinley’s World. Oh well. Still working on that.) A place holder website on some matters that come up in the novel right here. Yep, it includes Elvis. And Muhammad Ali. And Gus, the polar bear of Central Park zoo. And the stories of six women moved by loss. And, of course, Balangiga, which I know too much about. Finishing a novel is like shedding research notes, fact after fact, coming off like scabs.

http://ginaapostol.wix.com/praxino#!articles-of-war-articles-of-interest/c1wiq

 

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.

FROM: SARITA ECHAVEZ SEE
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,

Sarita

FROM: GINA APOSTOL
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.

 

Waray poems by Voltaire Araza, read for a fundraiser in New York City

The video is in honor of poets from Leyte and Samar. It was terrible, in the days after the storm, to hear silence from my friends, the Waray poets, on Facebook. I realized, if one of these poets disappear, we lose a culture. So I wished to read Waray poems when asked to contribute for a typhoon fundraiser by Asian American Writers Workshop. Voltaire is from my mom’s hometown, Barugo—he’s a lyrical writer who puns and plays with Waray and boldly uses the every day to create meaning. Here’s from a review I wrote of his poetry:

The rich use of verbals throughout this collection is not just incidentally an aspect of the Waray; these are also the poet’s choices.  These voluptuously lucid portraits of the Waray by verbs occur because of Oyzon/Araza’s aesthetic: he believes that our ordinary lives are powerful, and the power of the ordinary is the arena of art.  Verbs are the snapshot of that individuation, conjugating, dividing and splicing time and moments, establishing the concrete absolutely.  Oyzon does this well.  His poetry makes apparent and transparent the nature of our language, which is, of course, our self.  And this is why an maupay hini nga koleksyon an paggamit ni Oyzon hin Waray: maabtik, nakakapanguga, pataraw-an, mahinumdumon. [the good thing about this collection is Oyzon/Araza’s use of Waray: shrewd, astonishing, amusing, reflective]

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