Notes on Finishing a Novel: Writing Raymundo Mata

I keep getting requests asking about what the novel Raymundo Mata means. I only know what it means from the writing of it. NOTE: This is a revised version of an essay appended to the Anvil publication of the novel. It is almost nine years away from that date of publication: another novena year. 

raymundo mata cover

On Finishing a Novel: Thoughts on Writing about Philippine History

I remember the solitude and satisfaction of beginning the novel that became, nine years later, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, which now arrives a full dozen years after my first book, Bibliolepsy. I remember the stillness of that spring midnight in New Hampshire. I had begun this farcical reconstruction of a solemn evening in the 1890s, in which Emilio Aguinaldo rides the calesa with the blind future katipunero Raymundo Mata, who plays an extremely minor role in history as the blind man who accompanies Pio Valenzuela to Dapitan on a fateful visit to the hero-novelist Rizal (ironically, the pair’s visit became the key incident cited by the Spanish judge in Rizal’s trial in 1896 as ‘proof’ that the novelist was the leader of Bonifacio’s revolution). I was laughing as I wrote what I thought would be the first chapter of a comic novel (it is Entry #25 in the finished draft): my daughter was asleep, my husband was in his hometown Worcester, Massachusetts, at his mother’s home, researching a novel of his own, and I was alone and exhilarated by the moment of starting a new novel.

There is nothing like the first pages of a new work—when one has finally discarded the trepidation and horror of beginning, and one simply begins. The horror of beginning lies in the immensity of a novel’s blankness. Any new novel leaves you on your own, worse than on a desert island, because it is a desertion and a bereavement of your own making. You build toward the angst of those first words, and so the frank release of that first chapter, when you begin, is an unspeakable pleasure, because to be honest—before you begin, it always seems impossible.

It is odd for me to recall now what I did not know then. That at the same time I happily began scratching out that novel, its first words, my husband, also writing, confronted his unspeakable solitude in his mother’s home. Not a word escapes to speak the immensity of his moment’s blankness. His death had no observer. And it is perhaps not so odd, though terrible and cruel, that I recognized this only after I had finished writing The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata: nine years after his inexplicable death. That I began this book on the eve of Arne’s death.

In this way we are blind to our deepest purposes, the gestures we make to survive. I strove against odds to return to this novel, after an abandonment of years, but I did not recognize until it was done why its completion was necessary.

For The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata is, on one hand, a novel about unfinished books.

I am publishing it nine years after beginning it. In the Philippines, of course, the end of the novenas marks the ninth year of mourning. And the ninth year, I guess, is meant to signal one must begin a new life. My recognition now is that despite the end of all novenas, my husband is still with me. And so he will always be. And in my mind’s eye he lives: eternally in the act of writing his undone novel. The past (as I understand it) is always present: our lives are haunted but no one dies, if memory serves us right.

I wrote my novel for my husband, Arne, who loved the Philippines and Rizal.

But the novel, of course, is not about him.


Readers ask me how one comes to write a novel at all. The curse of the Filipino writer, it has been said, is that a first novel (of all things) created us, the stubborn illusion of our nationhood. Not only that, it created us absolutely and early: that book was Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere. The so-called Rizal curse is a fiction that condemns all our novelists to premature obsolescence, so we wail. But on the other hand: it is precisely the futility of our projects that may allow us to act.

Being a Filipino novelist can seem doubly irrelevant. At times it seems to me that being Filipino is fantastical enough—Filipinos are paradoxically ubiquitous yet invisible, a migrant everywhere but a known quantity nowhere; but being a novelist on top of that raises my sense of my absurdity up a notch. Who will read me? I have the strange gall of being comforted by that thought. Precisely because my audience must be invented, I feel freer to create.


The seed for my novel about the revolution was double: one a dream, the other a voice. The first was a dream I had the year before I traveled to America to attend the graduate writing program at Johns Hopkins. It was 1986, the country was in the throes of the EDSA revolt, and I kept going to libraries. In my dream I was on a jeep, and a person was speaking German. I completely understood him (in real life I have absolutely no German): he was telling me I had to write some novel, and in this dust-swirled tongue he explained its entire plot. I woke up thinking—what a good plot. Then of course I had no memory of it. All I could remember was a jeepney (I fancy it was going to Blumentritt Street) and a rattling squall of dust following it, with the stranger exclaiming in German while he hangs from the back of the jeep like extra cargo. All that remained, I guess, was the dust.

At that time, I used to go to the embassy libraries in Manila. By 1986 the rallies were passing by new places, like Thomas Jefferson on Buendia in Makati; but way before that I would detour to the British Council because of its new fiction titles. I also liked to go nearby, to Goethe Institute, for two things: it possessed a facsimile copy of the novel Noli Me Tangere in Rizal’s hand and the double-volume German correspondence between Rizal and Ferdinand Blumentritt. For some reason, it moved me, in those days of the EDSA rebellion: to hold the facsimile copy of Rizal’s novel, even though I would not read it.

I had read the Noli in high school in Tagalog, and I could not relate to its Victorian syrup. I hated Maria Clara and the tragic odium of her sentimental end. I was also, at the time, rather Maoist, and I thought Crisostomo Ibarra was a coño balikbayan, a limited perceiver of his country’s ills. At Goethe, I read instead the letters Rizal wrote to his friend Blumentritt in Bohemia.

I knew my dream of the person speaking in German had something to do with finding Rizal in Goethe Institute—the dream was somehow a demand to write about that past trapped in the strange white walls of a German library during the height of a rebellion. Unfortunately, the dream was gobbledygook.

The voice I heard a few years later at Johns Hopkins was by no means gobbledygook. The clarity of that speaker’s erudition is luminous to me even now. This happened maybe in 1989 or 1990. I was newly married in a foreign country. My husband discovered that a historian was going to speak on campus about a Philippine novel, and he took me and a few others to listen to him. So there was that voice in a Baltimore auditorium talking about Crisostomo Ibarra walking through a piss-soaked cemetery in fictional San Diego, conjuring for me the phantom of my old dream, a return to an incoherent desire to articulate this past. The clarity of the speaker’s commentary on the literary qualities of the Noli Me Tangere struck me also as a kind of blow—a reproach.

I was caught by the profound empathy with which the speaker described the ironic style of Rizal. He rendered the ‘syrup’ text humorous; he called it complex. My husband demanded: why have you never told me about this writer Rizal? I had no defense. It was my husband who ended up looking for the novels, the Noli and the Fili, and making the Noli required reading for his students later on at the International School Manila when I moved my family back home. It was he who bought Santiago Alvarez’s Katipunan and the Revolution, which became so central to my novel because of the quotidian quality of its recollections of revolution (having diarrhea in the middle of battle in the rice paddies of Caloocan because of eating pakwan; the drunkenness of Matandang Leon, a tulisan turned revolutionary; a blind man being blindfolded when he is initiated into the Katipunan; et cetera, et cetera: a joy ride of consequential inconsequence).

We learned that the historian’s name was Benedict Anderson; in those days without Google, we had no idea what that savant did or why he knew so much about Rizal. All I knew was that his view of Rizal in that Hopkins lecture, the way he read him with wit and correctness as a terribly forgotten novelist, haunted me—while my ignorance rebuked me, though for a long time I did nothing to remedy it.


I went back to writing Raymundo Mata in 2005: what drove me to it is a mystery: I have no idea why or how I began to write. Because for seven years, I did not think I would get back to writing at all. I had finished a draft of one novel, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, the year my husband died, and I had begun a page of Raymundo Mata. In the 90s an agent contacted me about publishing Gun Dealer. But I had no heart in me to work on any of my books. I felt guilty about being a writer. I felt dread about being alive at all.

Instead, at his publisher’s request, I edited my husband’s novel, The horror was that his first novel was accepted by a publisher two weeks after his death. The miracle was that it was accepted by a publisher two weeks after his death. I put away my novels’ drafts and worked two years on Arne’s book. It came out from Leapfrog Press in 2000.

On the other hand, in a sort of bravado, when friends asked what they could do for me, I would ask them to to scour the bookstores of Manila for works on the revolution. I don’t know what I was thinking: the fact was, for months I could barely read a newspaper. Those Philippine history books, which sat unread for years, signify for me the faith and support of friends: each book was an express act of generosity that silently told me one day I might work again.

In my mind I wished to return to that first writing night of comic exhilaration. In my heart I knew I couldn’t. But at the very least, I urged myself, I could read the books. Slowly, I did. Given a sabbatical, I began reading full-time. And as I read the history, the novel emerged. I wished to write a comic historical novel written like a puzzle. I made up rules for play, and the strictures I placed on myself seemed both amusing and necessary. I would enclose an entire history of Filipino texts—from balagtasan to bugtong, Bonifacio’s poetry to Mabini’s politics—wrapped in the search for a lost and longed-for novel. The book would have traps for the reader, dead-end jokes, textual games, unexplained sleights of tongue. I wished to write a funhouse-text. (Maybe my curse has never been Rizal; my curse, perhaps, is Nabokov.)

But at the same time, I wished to be true to the past I was plundering. My concept of Raymundo Mata, a cipher of history whose relatives are perhaps still alive, maybe living even now a stone’s throw from the Aguinaldo Shrine, is cut out of wholly imagined cloth. My invention of him as a ‘kelptobibliomaniac,’ a hapless fan of the writer Rizal, is entirely uncorroborated. But the details I conjured had to breathe through the prism of the life he actually lived.

The task was to see Rizal and his history from an ‘awry’ lens: in this case, the nightblind eye of a ‘kleptobibliomaniac,’ a wordy lover of books. From the start, I had this obscure desire to resurrect Rizal the writer—my ambition was to lay him bare for us as a man who, when all is said and done, only wished to finish a novel, not start a war. But the fact is, I know all I could do was clothe him in my own personal delusions.


The task was huge—I needed to acquaint myself not only with the hero’s history but with all his work that I could find. And for some reason, I needed to feel “pure,” as if that were possible: I needed to conceive of history from my own vantage. In this way, I banned theorists and many secondary sources from my diet. First, I read only Rizal’s work itself. My favorites were his Miscellaneous Writings, a wonderful compendium that includes gossip in code and morbidity in scientific notes, and his supple, seductive second novel, El Filibusterismo, a narrative stew of tonal dexterity, a brilliant light polemic and bitter farce. My translation of a text singular in Rizal’s oeuvre, Memorias de un estudiante en Manila, an adolescent narrative I could not find in English, became the chance engine of the entire novel’s prose. In this way, plagiarism by translation has its uses.

Of history, I chose to read only contemporaneous or historiographical texts—those books that give us the history of our history. My aim was not to be comprehensive (I was writing a novel, not a syllabus); I merely wished from these books to catch the quotidian in flux.

So I read around seven revolutionary memoirs, plus French travel books of the 18th century; Austin Coates but no Epifanio San Juan; Father Schumacher but not a word of Anderson. (In fact, it is perhaps the novel’s witless irony that while its trigger was a haunting lecture by Ben Anderson, my actual draft bears none of the blessings that a reading of Anderson might have cast.) The trials of finding those books are, perhaps, grist for another essay (I will only mention here that the many branches of National Bookstore will shelve the same book in as many ways). A cruel and unusual punishment imposed by my accidental writing strategy was that, when I finally began to write the text, I banned myself from reading prose published after 1896. This was tough (I diverged in one item: I kept rereading Borges). Sadly, my friends soon pointed out that a diet of Eugene Sue, Ariosto, hero hagiographers, and obscure history about insane events was not conducive to polite conversation.

My research bore out that not a single incident in the history of the Philippine revolution is, in my view, not subject to ambiguity. This is a truism of all history, true: but it is almost alarmingly so when we read Aguinaldo’s memoirs versus Ricarte’s versus Valenzuela’s versus Alejandrino’s versus even the brief and innocuous testament of the terse musician Julio Nakpil. Every text raises questions. To paraphrase that master of ambiguity, Hamlet: we are all errant truth-tellers all. Thus, in order to tell the story of our history, one must have not one but multiple ways of telling—and so in the novel, the blind memoirist’s text is riddled with critics, and in the margins the critics happily slander one another, throwing footnotes, not stones.

The only way to distill the multiple reality of such a country was to take apart its texts and ‘botch’ them, as the Danish court said of the sad Ophelia: construct a history by pointing out how it unravels. Thus my novel, a deconstructed story, might seem strange to read, though it was fun to write.

The hero I conjured, the character Raymundo Mata, was serendipitously blind in the history books and appropriately blind in my illusory version. It’s through a blurry lens that we might see clearly. What became true to me was that to finish a novel is a miraculous act of recovery. The recovery of a text, a body; the recovery of a hero, a history; the recovery of a country, a past. And so in this novel I came to terms with the reality of who I am: I write. It is an act that makes me, however temporarily, whole, and my husband, a writer, above all would understand. I say this to myself. It is small consolation, but it consoles.

It was odd to me how writing was such a joy: I looked forward to writing Raymundo Mata every day, and finishing the novel was the least of my surprises. It turns out finishing a novel is completing a past, while knowing the act is never quite done. The power of Rizal, and the power of our history, is that this genie—the exemplary postmodern text that is our country’s story—is inexhaustible. This is precisely so because these postcolonial sources are contradictory, unresolved, a cast of maddeningly personal voices with axes to grind (both amusing and not so much).

We must be glad for the patently unfinished and infuriating history that we have—our untranslatable dystranslations—our frank misreadings of who we are—our disingenuous ambiguity. In this way, it seems Filipinos must represent the complexity of everyone’s incomplete and indeterminate self, the one we grope for in the dark, and our surprising, endless resurrections.

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.


EDSA and Semiosis.

bibliolepsy-picture.jpgOn this anniversary of that week in February in 1986, I go back to my first novel Bibliolepsy, which ends with that week, and wonder if this reading of EDSA still holds.

“It was at about this time, I believe, that the country became afflicted with what one might call semiosis, a sepsis of the semiotic tract, an infection of the sign-making glands. We assign to this event meanings that all lead to questions of life and death, philosophical heartburn and patriotic dread. We revise and revisit our feelings toward it the way Romans of old found omens in the intestines of birds. That, too, was a form of semiosis. The street itself, EDSA, takes on, at odd moments in the present day when I travel through it, a weirdly disorienting sense of a symbol gone awry. Why should it? It’s still just a street, going to seed in an unremarkable third world way.

Other people (e.g., psychoanalysts, romance novelists, air traffic controllers) have pointed out before in different contexts that the ability to see meanings is not necessarily a sign of wisdom, or health. It may indicate intellectual training or acumen, yes, but it may also be a symptom of delusion, fierce heartache, severe ennui, and other renditions of mental weakness. We must take into account that our own revisions of the rebellion we call, eponymously and thoughtlessly, EDSA may be all of the above, and more.

If it is at all possible, in a non-Heraclitean world, to go back, to step into the same river twice, maybe when we do we must ban all meanings, tropes, and symbols—the maladies afflicting EDSA. Maybe if we can stem memory within some filtering contraption, a device of a sort for disinfection, by which we can flush out metonyms, similes, ugly gigantic memorial statues, newspaper editorials, biblical references, mythical allusions, and this entire paragraph, maybe then we might distill something more pure and light, closer to the original weight of a single minute on that street.

The problem with epiphanies is that by definition they cannot be shared. There was no national epiphany in February of 1986; there may have been a million revelations lodged quietly and inarticulately in each heart.

Which may be a flaw in the message, if you wish to see it that way.”

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.



Elda (right) at her Penguin office.

FullSizeRender (6).jpg

At the Kundiman gala.

Two American writers of the Filipino-American war period

There are two interesting Americans of the period who wrote about life in the archipelago. One style of writing was to do captive narratives—I imagine those were popular among Americans, the way stereograph pictures of dead Filipino bodies were mass entertainment. Similar to these captive-memoirs would have been narratives of army officers, etc. Those seem to be well published. Of course, there were the travel narratives, many of them by women, Thomasite teachers and such. The other writer I am thinking of is a Conrad-esque one—his work was like a hybrid of Orwell’s Burmese Days and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

James Marie Hopper was an aspiring literary stylist who wrote in the vein of Joseph Conrad (Hopper seems to have been a fan of Conrad, as a letter from Conrad shows, and as the contemporaneous book reviews acknowledge). Some of the stories in Caybigan were published by the literary magazine McClure’s; he was most famous for his reports on the SF earthquake, in Harper’s—he made money enough on it to buy a home in Carmel (now Carmel-by-the-Sea), CA. He was said to have published 300 stories in his lifetime. I looked up whether or not a Filipino scholar had done any research on Hopper; could not find any references. I found him because I was looking for evidence of what seems to be an apocryphal story about Jack London—that in his time as a correspondent for the San Francisco Examiner during the Russo-Japanese war, he passed by Manila and thus owned or stole a Katipunan flag. Anyway, found no source for that rumor, but I found the work of Jack London’s friend James Marie Hopper instead. Hopper, in the Google book of Jack London’s letters, is said to have been known in the literary world as “the Kipling of the Philippines”—an intriguing, if not necessarily complimentary, epithet.

The other writer is Albert Sonnichsen, a former prisoner of war who wrote a 12 Years a Slave-type narrative, called Ten Months a Captive Among Filipinos. Mark Twain wrote Sonnichsen a very nice letter approving of his book: the memoir was, in fact, an evenhanded narration, in some places poignant, of incidents of war. Most powerful to me is his anecdote of a grieving Filipino mother offering food to the prisoner of war Sonnichsen, asking him whether gringos treated their prisoners well. It turns out the old woman’s son was a katipunero captured by US forces—a haunting mirroring in that scene. I saw Sonnichsen’s papers, including that nice autographed letter from Twain, in the New York Public Library’s Manuscripts and Archives Division when I was doing research on my never-ending novel William McKinley’s World. Sonnichsen was a Danish American captured by Aguinaldo’s army in Malolos; he was sailor who left his ship to take pictures of the outbreak of war, then the Katipunan captured him when he got off a train (or something Reds-like like that). He went all around Bulacan then Northern Luzon as a POW of the Katipunan, becoming friends with one of his captors Juan Villamor, an Ilocano general under Aguinaldo (a hero also mentioned extensively in Scott’s Ilocano Responses to American Aggression). The American senators who cross-examined Taft about Balangiga in 1902 in Affairs of the Philippine Islands were very familiar with Sonnichsen’s captive-memoir (it was because of Sonnichsen’s book that the senators insisted to Taft on their belief that Aguinaldo himself killed Luna; Taft dissuaded them). Ten Months a Captive is available online here.

But while Sonnichsen’s captive-memoir was well-reviewed and somewhat famous, James Marie Hopper is the literary writer. He came to the Philippines in 1901 to be a teacher; he was well-known at Cal Berkeley as a football player; he grew up in Oakland (incidentally so did Sonnichsen). His father was an Irish Fenian refugee in Paris, his mother was a Parisian who took her twin sons across the seas to California (don’t know what happened to Fenian dad). Hopper was friends with Jack London, Robinson Jeffers, etc. Hopper’s book of Conradesque short stories, Caybigan, was published in 1906; including its title’s punning use of Tagalism, caybigan, for the saccharine, reflexive term Pinoys used both for themselves as colonized and Americans as colonizer—that is, amigo—I think his book Caybigan is a lot more interesting than John Sayles’s Amigo.

Being something of a modernist, Hopper drew portraits of his fellow Americans that drip with what could pass as anti-imperial critique, in that Conrad way that is both simpatico and repulsive: racist and well-meaning (it seems). I like especially Hopper’s stories of colonist-trauma—the pathetic US soldier in Iloilo from the American South whom Hopper describes with the relish Conrad gave to the nutty Russian in the Congo or the “pilgrims” in Heart of Darkness, Hopper’s beast-like Southerner in his tattered camisa climbing up banana trees in the dark of night in order to eat (the denouement is tragic, an inverse of the balikbayan-OFW tale, quite fascinating); or the farcical life of a maestro (called Thomasites in history books but portrayed with gentle but clear-eyed self-critique in Hopper, who was, of course, a maestro himself)—funny Mark-Twainish scenes of the maestro desperately catching the truant Isidro who refuses his ‘civilization.’ And so on. Hopper liberally uses Tagalog words—baguio, for typhoon, bata, tao—but also racist words like pickaninny and brownie—all in an interesting, arch voice that I cannot quite condemn or condone, so I laugh. The racism, of course, makes the entire book a bit of a travesty, but it is an instructive read. Caybigan is also available online, here.

Those two, Sonnichsen and Hopper, give one a sense of the temper and tone of some of the literary writing about the Philippines at the onset of occupation, during a global period that was, in fact, full of great human radical movement—anarchism everywhere, factory occupations in Italy, communists in Hollywood, etc. They don’t tell us why books of that sort did not have a lasting hold on American letters. Basic American education also does not include Mark Twain as anti-imperialist, for instance, or MLK as socialist. High school students always read Gatsby but never Sinclair Lewis. And so on. The lack of American canonical literary writing on the American occupation of the Philippines does tell us that American letters is highly ideological, and rightwingish: the canon is made by a bunch of twits whose main job is to take wedgies out of their asses; canons aren’t about genuine thought but about lasting reaction. Sonnichsen actually became a freedom fighter in Montenegro, and then a leader of the cooperative movement in Connecticut (whatever that is). Hopper became a World War 1 war correspondent. The 2 were by no means great writers, but they were two of the better ones, and they were more interesting voices than the much-published, stupid “historians,” like money-grubbing, gold-mine-owning, artifact-grabbing Dean Worcester. Or Forbes and Blount.

My sense is that those 2, Sonnichsen and Hopper, were exceptions, ‘better’ Americans than the usual kano in the Philippines. No wonder a writer born of erudite parents of the Spanish period, like Nick Joaquin, had disdain for the era he grew up in, the prewar years of the American occupation (at least I see that in his stories; don’t know much about his personal views); his country’s occupiers were louts, embezzlers, midget minds out to make a buck. Not to mention very tiresome racists. McCoy captures those Americans, with fine portraits of Rough Rider Leonard Wood’s stock-market-swindler son—a son of a governor-general (favorite friend of TR) who used his influence to fleece investors in Manila and New York, etc—and other filthy characters (not excepting the annoying Filipinos, like Quezon), in his essential book Policing America’s Empire (not available online, but available at Ateneo de Manila bookstore).

Both Sonnichsen and Hopper, coincidentally, were sons of immigrant Americans (one man’s father was from Denmark, the other man’s family emigrated from France) who grew up in California. They were not the Midwestern Indian-war veterans or Southern farm goonies who made up most of the U.S. volunteer soldiers. Hopper, I imagine, was also quite different from the pious, semi-literate Christians from Ohio or Arkansas who made up the Thomasites. In general, most of the Americans who came to the country were probably like swamp people in Flannery O’Connor or Faulkner (Hopper tells a story of one of them in the opening tale of his book Caybigan). At least, that is the very unkind interpretation I make from the documents of the Filipino-American war period, which mostly come from US Army files or government documents—such texts not being beacons of enlightenment.

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)