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The Novel and Technologies of Empire: A Conversation with Gina Apostol

One of the challenges in this novel was to figure out a way in which time can be manipulated the way it’s so interestingly manipulated in film.

EDITOR’S NOTE: A little over a year ago, literary scholar Paul Nadal and the author Gina Apostol met at Café Cluny in Manhattan’s West Village to talk about Apostol’s latest novel Insurrecto. Hailed as a “bravura performance” (NYTimes) and described as a “deft and labyrinthine depiction of our helpless condition of ever-revolving insurrection” (Eugene Lim), Insurrecto juxtaposes the atrocities that faced Filipinos who rose up against their colonizers during the Philippine-American war at the turn of the century with Duterte’s Philippines today. In the interview published here, which has been edited for brevity and clarity, Nadal and Apostol talk about manipulating time in the novel, the Philippines as the protagonist of modernity, and where Insurrecto fits in the larger landscape of Philippine and Asian American literature.


Paul Nadal: I read an early draft of your novel in 2015. The original title was The Unintended, and now we have Insurrecto. Another major difference is that Rodrigo Duterte was not yet president of the Philippines. Did Duterte’s rise to power change the writing of the novel?

Gina Apostol: I think Duterte made the novel urgent in some way. Duterte in power created a demand to figure out how to include the current political situation in a novel. I wasn’t going to include it in Insurrecto, because I already had a draft. But my first readers, including editors, were curious about Duterte’s possible place in the story I had already written.

The original draft of Insurrecto was just two scripts—that’s it. The second part was very dense, and the question became, how to lighten it up? And that’s when I said, I could put that part of the novel in the temporal present and actually have the characters go on a road trip to Samar during Duterte’s time, which is our time, and which is very different from going on a road trip during the Marcos era. 

PN: It sounds like Duterte inspired structural revisions to the novel. 

GA: You’ll recall that there’s a tryptic that emerges in Insurrecto. First, there’s the scene of the killing of people of Balangiga by Americans. Then there is the scene of the villagers in the 1970s town watching the movie of the children killed. There are three scenes of massacres in the novel: 1901, Marcos era, and Duterte. It was seamless to put Duterte in. 

PN: It is as if the work anticipated a figure like Duterte. 

GA: And Duterte just steps in. Putting it that way, I would much prefer not to have the novel.

PN: In Insurrecto, there is an enveloping sense that everyone is being seen. Everyone is an object of someone’s gaze or of some visual or surveillance apparatus. At one point you write, echoing Derrida, “There is nothing outside the lens.” I think that’s one of the many marvelous effects of the novel—capturing the sense of reality as an always shifting perceptual effect.

GA: Given our technological times, the novel as a literary form seems like a Neanderthal of technology. It’s so text-bound and time-bound. Unlike movies, unlike the serials we see on TV, or even on Twitter, the novel has long been bound by time. By realist time. And so one of the interesting challenges in this novel for me was to figure out a way in which time can be manipulated the way it’s so interestingly manipulated in film.

PN: The Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin long ago theorized the novel as dialogic. He celebrated the novel for its elasticity and its ability to enfold a multitude of voices and perspectives. But I like your point that there’s something stubbornly finite about the novel with respect to time. That sentences have to be read linearly, for instance. Bringing in cinematic techniques is one way of manipulating that linearity.

GA: Because when people read novels, they are very aware of the realist novel. But they don’t really know that they are aware of it. I hear some readers often saying, “Oh I don’t know what happened here.” You know? But I think the film references made it easier.

PN: And film does not just appear as an interpretive code. It is part of the novel’s plot. Not only scripts but also the stereoscope, film’s precursor, whose history the novel spends some time unfurling.

GA: I got that stereoscope reference from going to Napa in California—to Coppola’s vineyard, which has a film museum devoted to the early technology of filmmaking. The stereoscope is there. And the praxinoscope. 

PN: One of the ideas that stayed with me reading your novel was this idea that, if American imperialism involved manufacturing a particular way of visualizing the world, the Philippines played an indispensable role in that process. Nerissa S. Balce’s Body Parts of Empire is an excellent study of this visual archive. It’s significant that in Insurrecto the contemporary moment is seen through the lens of the Philippine-American War and vice versa. It’s the novel’s way of suggesting just how central the Philippines is to any history of technological modernity.

GA: That’s always been my thing. We’re the most post-modern. Think about it. Cambridge Analytica, they first did their shit with Duterte. And the Philippines has like 98 percent— some like very high percentage—of people on Facebook. Because we’re early adaptors.

PN: Of media technologies…

GA: We love it. We’re very curious. It’s one of the reasons why we were colonized (laughs) because we’re so curious. Oh, give me that. That’s a nice ship. (laughs)

PN: Filipinos do not just have a propensity for technology but also a penchant for innovating it. Even hacking it.

GA: We are the hackers. We’re happy doing it. Because it makes money. (laughs) 

PN: The Philippines is super technological. 

GA: Yes, super technological. And super … super-meta. I would even posit this: The Philippines was produced as a meta-nation. The Philippines was created out of a concept of being a nation, and this from a novel. And we just kept going at it.

PN: This takes us to Benedict Anderson’s argument in Imagined Communities, how you can’t really think of nationhood without the role of novels. One thing that frustrates me is that people often forget that Anderson’s oft-cited theory of nationalism begins with a reading of the great Filipino novelist José Rizal, with a Filipino novel. Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere was paradigmatic.

GA: Rizal was so central for Ben.

PN: The Philippines was the paradigm for the “technology” Anderson called nationalism.

GA: Ben Anderson and I became pen pals after I revealed to him that my favorite novel is Rizal’s El Filibusterismo, the sequel to the Noli. I didn’t read Ben’s work for my second novel The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, because I needed primary sources about the Philippine revolution against Spain. I didn’t want Ben Anderson. But I wanted him to read Raymundo Mata, where I continued to experiment with form. And Ben said, I don’t like this kind of novel. He said, I’d prefer that you’d do just a straight realist novel. A straight realist novel about Raymundo Mata. But I asked him, what do you think of the historical account about the revolution in the novel? And he goes, oh it’s perfect. To be honest, I was trying to get him to blurb Raymundo Mata. But anyways turns out he loves El Filibusterismo. I told him, what has not been appreciated in Rizal is his innovation with novelistic form, which is very clear in the Fili.

PN: How would you describe Rizal’s innovation?

GA: El Filibusterismo is a campus novel about wanting to learn, wanting Filipinos to have Spanish. Remember the mirror scene? There’s this whole scene in the Fili taking place in a physics class in Manila about mirrors. So already Rizal is playing with point of view. 

PN: Rizal’s Fili is all about perception, how we see, what we see—perception of perception itself.

GA: Yes! Rizal is already doing it. Very early on. But he does so much with language, too. The Fili is also about language. There is an argument between Simon and Basilio about whether or not Filipinos should be learning Spanish, and Simon’s argument is no, Filipinos should not be learning Spanish because we would be falsifying ourselves. But Simon’s argument itself is in Spanish. Rizal, I’m pretty sure, was very aware of the stupid irony of this.

PN: So already we can detect a strong metafictional impulse in Rizal. I would even venture to say that a great deal of Filipino writers past and present are working within this inheritance from Rizal. We see the metafictional impulse in later writers like Nick Joaquin and Wildrido Nolledo, who pursued novel writing as a way of writing Philippine history otherwise. And in Maximo M. Kalaw…

GA: The Filipino Rebel?

PN: Yes

GA: That novel I’ve just been wanting to re-write! A lot of our novels play on the perceived division between history and literature. But if you think about the novelists you mentioned—Rizal, Joaquin, Nolledo—those are all art novels.

PN: What do you mean by “art novels”?

GA: They have a historical premise, but like Rizal’s Filibusterismo, or Joaquin’s The Woman with Two Navels, they are playing with form. They are all political art novels. Critics conventionally think of the Filipino novel as very flat—more straightforward and more realist, like Bienvenido N. Santos or N. V. M. Gonzalez. But if you think about the novelists that you mention, who are amazing artists, their whole impulse was to do art—to really explode form, to challenge and transform what the novel can do from the inside. 

PN: Speaking of explosion, in Insurrecto there is a line: the Colt .45 was invented to kill Filipino revolutionaries. The stereoscope, if not invented, was similarly refined during the Philippine American War. So to me, these technologies of American empire—the gun, the stereoscope—they are all connected. Or rather their connection comes into view when seen from a specifically Philippine standpoint. And then we have Elvis…. 

GA: And here’s why Elvis is important in the novel. Elvis has a lot of pathos. Elvis without Black music is just a sequin suit, he’s nothing. And that’s the pathos of America. The pathos of America is that without immigration, without this history of slavery, genocide, and war, it is a nothing. It is a sequin suit. You know? When we look at the pathos of Elvis, we’re looking at the pathos of ourselves. 

I was trying to figure out why I included Elvis. And Sabina Murray said to me, well because in the U.S., Elvis is Elvis only because of Black music. And she was doing a parallel with Filipinos. Filipinos are not Filipinos without America. And I was like, no no no, it’s the other way around. Elvis is a machine of desire.

PN: That’s a good way to put it.

GA: Elvis just produces desire. The desire that Elvis produces is actually a desire for nonwhiteness. 

PN: So we were talking about Philippine literature. What about Asian American literature? Do you see Insurrecto in conversation with that body of literature? Insurrecto is all about doubles, and I couldn’t help but think of someone, say, John Okada and the story of Japanese-American double consciousness in his post-Japanese American incarceration novel No-No Boy.

GA: Or Viet Thanh Nguyen.

PN: Nguyen’s notion of refugee as a spy or translator. Or Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior and the numinosity of memory so central to her idea of memoir writing as a kind of ghost-telling.

GA: Those people in Insurrecto are all ghosts, the Balangiga people. Casiana Nacionales, the real-life insurrecto of the book’s title, is a ghost.

I would say one of the things is this concept of narrative plentitude that Viet Thanh Nguyen writes about. This way of thinking about the many different ways of telling a story. So it gives plentitude to the “American” in the Asian American ways of thinking about writing.

PN: To read Insurrecto and The Sympathizer together is to understand how intertwined the history of the United States is with Asia, and that history, especially in the twentieth century, is about military aggression, violence, containment, and surveillance.

GA: Which is connected to U.S. anti-communism, but it’s actually completely connected to a much earlier history, which is America’s imperialist history in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, Guam, and Hawaii. I think that’s important too, to recognize the link to Puerto Rico, the link to Hawaii, the link to Guam.

PN: History suffuses all your novels— from Bibliolepsy to The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata to Gun Dealers’ Daughter to Insurrecto. A second governing motif is the motif of affliction. In all your novels, history is conveyed through characters who are afflicted with one form of physical or mental ailment or another. Significantly, these debilities reveal themselves to be gifts. In Insurrecto we learn Chiara’s mother Virginie has diplopia—double vision. The mother sees two… 

GA: Which is actually a common illness in Freud’s patients—I didn’t know that when I was writing Insurrecto! Freud’s patients were always having diplopia—always seeing two. 

PN: In Gun Dealer’s Daughter, the character Sol is suffering from anterograde amnesia. In Raymundo Mata, the eponymous hero is blind, retinosis pigmentosa. In your first novel, the narrator is afflicted with a voracious appetite for books and words, an appetite that consumes her. History in your novels is tied to the body in these very direct ways.

GA: Well for one it’s good for drama, for storytelling, that the person has a conflict with the self. I think it’s useful. It allows me to, one, attach a personality. They have an issue that they’re trying to figure out.

PN: The self is vulnerable—displaced.

GA: Completely displaced, doubled, multiplied. At the same time, I do think that neurosis is just part of us. 

PN: That was Freud’s point.

GA: I don’t like the concept of universalizing in an abstract way. But Freudian psychoanalysis universalizes through the body. All of us are neurotic in some way. All of us recognize a split in us. For Freud, that split-ness lies in language.

PN: Insurrecto is about how America finds its uncanny double in the Philippines.

GA: Not just Filipinos; all of the people that America victimizes. It’s the way that America can complete itself. But it won’t recognize it. So unless America recognizes that its double is already inside it, it will never be any good. Americans can never be healthy. 

PN: The American century is defined by forgetting.

GA: Whereas it’s so obvious that America is a nation of multitudes.

PN: Ailments become gifts in your novels because they enable a way of perceiving a deeper, if troubling, truth. Illness debouches into a metaphor for representing history in a physical and psychic way. 

GA: It’s healthy to confront the fact that you are a double.

PN: Who is your double? In your novels or in life?

GA: That’s hard. Because it’s hard for you as a person to be aware of it. But in a novel, because it’s textual, and someone else is looking, you can. 

PN: Is José Rizal your double?

GA: I love Rizal. And I know I’m always speaking to him, in the way that all of my novels speak to Rizal.