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A Country in a Dictator’s Sleep

The minute I arrived at the University of the Philippines as a freshman, I joined the marches.

This piece is part of the notebook Against Forgetting, with art by Neil Doloricon.

Editor’s Note: Novelist Gina Apostol was still in grade school when martial law was declared in the Philippines. She shares the same hometown of Tacloban, Leyte, with the infamous former First Lady and one-half of the Philippines’ conjugal dictatorship, Imelda Marcos. On the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the imposition of martial law in the Philippines, Apostol shares recollections and reflections.

Where were you when martial law was declared? 

I was in elementary school when I experienced martial law’s curfew the first time—my memory is that I was in a sinehan watching Sleeping Beauty with the maids—they liked to take us to watch movies after school. But I think that is my novelist’s memory: I link martial law to watching Sleeping Beauty—a country in a dictator’s sleep, in a forest of violent thorns, for twenty years.

Did you or some friends experience repression of any form? 

The Ate of my sister’s classmate (in Tacloban) disappeared in Manila. Her body was never returned. This is a longer story of horror that I will one day write about in a novel, I think. I’m still haunted by this story of the sister who never returned. 

Were you involved in the anti-dictatorship movement? How?

The minute I arrived at Diliman (University of the Philippines) as a freshman, I joined the marches. I marched against the dictatorship right until February 1986—and I’m still marching now. I’m part of Malaya Movement here in New York, which organizes to pass the Philippine Human Rights Act in the U.S. Congress and similar actions that fight for human rights in the Philippines.

How would you describe the media or literary production during martial law?

Media work was, on one hand, bleak. I remember my aunt was part of the Ministry of Public Information—which sounds and is very Orwellian even as I write those words down. An uncle was part of Malacañang’s PR machine. 

I was very aware of the corruption involved in writers who were so tied to one person’s authority—even as a child, I thought that such fealty, that weird loyalty was corrupt, even evil. I don’t know why I understood that even as a kid—I was very uncomfortable with my aunt’s job, with the concept of such a ministry. 

But at the same time, many journalists remained brave, especially women—I remember in the 1980s Ninez Cacho-Olivares, Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc. There was the Malaya newspaper, even National Midweek had some good stuff (I worked briefly for them), and many others whose names I’d need to Google to remember. Even in the direst times, Filipinos are a resistant people, as we can see now with Maria Ressa, et al. Especially it’s women—I remember women resisters most of all. 

I’d say among the arts, cinema had the most impact—the works of auteur-activists like Lino Brocka and of Ishmael Bernal, Mike de Leon, etc. We could come to a powerful political understanding of that era by watching those films of the 1970s–1980s. The filmmakers used genres like melodrama or romantic comedy to provoke thought wrapped in entertaining, popular visual art. They remain indelible—they’re truly classics of Filipino modern art. 

As for print literature, novels, poems, etc., martial law times are not for me a highlight of that art. I was a kid during martial law, and it seems to me the art now coming up about that era is probably more interesting to check out than the work then—I personally don’t remember being astounded by any political piece of fiction written during that time. 

Writers who published then were “artists”—there was a tendency to downgrade politics as one’s subject and to focus on form and narrative structure as more important. There was a hierarchical notion of art—that’s my memory in writing workshops as a kid. 

Anyway, a painful and not surprising fact also is that many novelists and poets at the time were beholden to the dictatorship—they were speech writers and so on. Their journals were funded by the Marcoses or Marcos minions, which is that other side of art, you know—how people survive in a killing regime. 

But Lualhati Bautista’s martial law novel in Tagalog, Dekada 70, might be coming out in an English translation from Penguin Classics (fingers crossed)—that’s something to look forward to! 

I’d say Tagalog writing, and Tagalog drama, like the plays of PETA (Philippine Educational Theater Association), Rolando Tinio, Nicanor G. Tiongson, Behn Cervantes, who also made movies, or the work of Ricky Lee—those stand out to me also as art from the era. 

It’s interesting to think about why stage and cinema remain, in the Philippines, powerful political forms, the way the zarzuela was in the protest period during the early American occupation.

Would you like to share any analysis or prognosis about the return to power of the Marcoses?

I’m still working through my emotions and responses to this return. I analyze through novels—it’s something that I think I will have to work through in a novel, or novels—it will certainly be a process, for me, as an artist. I’m deeply disappointed. I have to figure out where to put my anger, how to work through it in a productive way. 

It’s too early for me to talk about “analysis, prognosis”—it’s really very scarring, for me, and really debilitating actually to even contemplate this question—even right now, addressing it, it hurts my body. It’s not that I am surprised that a Marcos won (in the last presidential elections), but it’s certainly a wound. It’s the power of this wound in me, the sense of hurt—as if history physically hurts—that, maybe, surprises me. 

My response is physical. So I will have to abstain from an answer—for now.