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.


“If this is a symptom, then what is a country? A tumor of ideology?!”

From The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata

“[1]  Enough, Estrella, enough. All readers of history are prey to this revolutionary postscript—dueling memoirs that rose from the ashes of war. Magdiwang writers jumped the Magdalo to the gun: Artemio Ricarte and Santiago Alvarez, both Magdiwang, penned the first memoirs. Then that elegant stylist, Apolinario Mabini, damned Aguinaldo in sublime dudgeon. “Miong” Aguinaldo never recovered from Mabini’s prose style. It took him six decades before he published the Magdalo version of events (though before that the historian Agoncillo did function as ventriloquist). He was too late: by that time he was a villain, a schemer, and a murderer in the eyes of many. The point is: he became so not necessarily because of established fact but because he did not frame the narrative. The question of why Aguinaldo took so long to publish—the Mystery of The Tardy Memoir—is thought-provoking. On one hand, his image as villain was convenient to Americans, the actual combat enemy. The Magdiwang case, the vilifying of Aguinaldo, suited the eventual occupiers (which does not mean that Magdiwang statements were untrue). Aguinaldo’s memoirs show he was perhaps an insecure egoist who lent his instability to others’ schemes. At worst, he killed not only Bonifacio but also Luna. So the Interesting Case of the Dueling Revolutionary Memoirs may be no postmodern mystery; the first president is, as we suspect, less than a hero, and his tardy recollections may be tacit acknowledgment of his sins. This does not lessen the following fact: Estrella’s agony is symptomatic, a fantasist’s angst. The Supremo’s death inscribed trauma—it is the emblematic wound of all Filipinos betrayed by fellow Filipinos. (One notes that Aguinaldo, in turn, was betrayed, though unfortunately  for him not killed, by a Filipino turncoat in America’s pay.) This duplicitous sense of self, the Judas wound, marks the country’s notion of its humanity, so potent in its history. Only in the story of Rizal is there no Judas kiss, which may explain why, given the country’s complex aversion to the past, it clings to the hero with implacable ardor. Rizal’s death is simple: Spain killed him. Filipinos are not complicit in his blood. Emilio Aguinaldo, on the other hand, is troubling—he is the man in us whom we prefer not to see: the sinner in our midst who is ourselves. Just as we will never see Rizal as a man because we idolize him, we cannot see Aguinaldo as a man because we vilify him. (Dr. Diwata Drake, New York, New York, U.S.A.)

” [2]  Whoa, Aramis de Michigan. Calm down. (Trans. Note)

” [3]  Dr. Diwata, let me explain the physical nature of my ‘implacable ardor,’ as you call it—though you do not deserve my patience! I recall distinctly when my illness began. It was late in June in the year martial law was lifted by the tyrant, and yet the country was no more changed than I was by the proclamation. I was a freshman in college taking Philippine History and Institutions 101. I’d always been a bookworm, an idealist—yes, as you say, a fantasist. As a kid, I used to collect the posters of the heroes and labeled them with their corresponding epithets, because I was a nerd with weird compulsions. When I learned about the political assassination of the Plebeian Martyr by the men of the First President of the Republic, I was not only surprised that I had never heard about it before in my high school textbooks: I went into septic shock. My breathing froze in that room at Palma Hall Annex, and my asphyxiated shriek before I slumped sideways from the graffitied desk onto the lap of my blockmate, a pale, kind of palsied kid from Panay, made the entire classroom go still (or so I was told, as I had gone into abasic atrophy, a kind of failure of the nerves). I remember (or fancy I do) the ambulance, the brief blur of flame trees in my rolling vision, the concerned face of my professor (the bifocaled, unwitting perpetrator of my nervous wreckage), as I was strapped onto a trundle, given emergency respiratory help, a blood pump, and whatnot. My classmates waved at me as if calculating already whether or not they could take time off to go to my funeral. It was a minor seizure whose source the doctors could not fathom—whether I was epileptic, schistempsychotic, or just plain pathetic, it was a mystery to them. I returned home for the rest of the term, and in those months all history books, even komiks versions, were banned; but surreptitiously I read. By the end of the year I was back at college, but this time armed with the weight of history—not to mention all the kilos I had gained from provincial puto. In this way I became a vessel of the country’s pain, a small price to pay for truth. If this is a symptom, then what is a country? A tumor of ideology?! (Estrella Espejo, ditto)”

Nice job of research on The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata


This article researches facts in history related to details in the novel The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata. While not ingenious, it is earnest, and I enjoyed looking at how the researcher figured some of the novel’s puzzle out. There are so many pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in this layered novel that it is satisfying when a person at least figures out even one corner of the complex piece. Good job,! (It is hard, I guess, as the writer, not to point out where some spots are missing and how to find them; but I will refrain and maybe in a hundred years others might figure it out, who knows; the novel, if figured out completely, is meant to shed light on multiple resonances among and between history, reading, language and art with the revolutionary period of the Philippines as the emblem of that fascinating intersection, between history, reading, language and art, by which, I think, we experience our humanity.)

An interesting recognition here by the researcher, the last sentence of which is important—a lot more can be said about the metafiction the novel involves, but it is a good start, and smart: “In the novel, glimpses of this historical phenomenon are seen from the point of view of Raymundo Mata who has always been known as a blind man. The first part tells how he learns the alphabet, spends time at the Binakayan stream with his playmates (including Emilio Aguinaldo), begins his formal education, and develops a passion for reading. His childhood coincides with the onset of the revolution, as seen in his entry about the Terror of Cavite which serves as a backdrop for events in his youth. The revolutionary setting is further hinted at by Mata’s inclusion in the manuscript of a short story written before he and Aguinaldo become members of the Katipunan. This part of the novel highlights its metafictive element, being a fiction (the short story) within a fiction (Mata’s journals) within a fiction (the novel) and nonfiction (the execution of Bonifacio) within a fiction (the short story) within a fiction (Mata’s journals) within a fiction (the novel).”

Link to my NYT op ed piece—In the Philippines, Haunted by History: “the bases haunt us because they emerged during a dreamspace, when we still believed in our capacity for revolution.”

Looking ahead to a high-level meeting this spring (2012) between the U.S. and Philippine state and defense ministers, or 2+2, in the parlance of D.C., The New York Times asked me to write an op-ed piece on U.S.-Philippine relations. Having researched and thought about those relations quite a bit in two novels, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata and Gun Dealers’ Daughter, I could not figure out how to narrow the piece’s slant. I think in terms of a novel’s sprawl, not an op-ed’s cramp. The New York Times wanted eleven hundred words; Gun Dealers’ Daughter covered the same topic in seventy thousand. I settled on the “hauntology” (as critic J. Neil Garcia called it) of the U.S. military bases. Here’s the article, printed in the Sunday Review section of The New York Times, April 29, 2012.