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.
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 Factor—The 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
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.