Substantial and truthful with a hint of wicked humor and a bizarre but utterly magnificent way of storytelling — this is what encapsulates a Gina Apostol novel. Readers would undoubtedly find themselves sifting through layers and layers of narrative and meaning when reading a novel by Apostol for the first time. At times, confusing, yet compelling and moving all together, there is always a sense of uniqueness in Apostol’s works: a stunning manner in which she breathes new insights to a history Filipinos are very much familiar with.
Apostol is a decorated Filipino novelist. Insurrecto, her fourth novel, was named by Publisher’s Weekly, “One of the 10 Best Books in 2018”, an Editor’s Choice of the NYT, and shortlisted for the Dayton Prize.
The New York Times calls Insurrecto a “bravura performance, Apostol is a magician with a language.” Her first two novels, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata and Bibliolepsy, both won the Juan Laya Prize (Philippine National Book Award) for the Novel.
Hosted by award-winning novelist Glenn Diaz, Fully Booked Chats presents Gina Apostol, where they talk about historical fiction, her creative processes and women in books, and take readers in the fictive world of her works. Scroll to read key snippets from their conversation.
An encounter with Jose Rizal through the lens of Raymundo Mata
Gina Apostol: It’s really hard to do Rizal straight on. So I did a lot of research and I read. A key moment for the Katipunan is when they went to Dapitan to ask Rizal whether or not they should go to war, which is a funny thing already! But you could only visit Rizal in Dapitan if you were a doctor or a patient. So the Katipunan literally sent a real doctor and a real patient.
It was so odd to think, it was such a pivotal moment because it is shrouded with controversy. Whatever it is that Rizal said. But in that controversial moment, there actually was this guy who happened to be actually blind and his name had “Mata” in it. Which is rare… For a writer, that’s just gold. And so I thought… He was a patient of Rizal, he saw Rizal. No one knows him. An unknown figure in a pivotal moment. That’s really gold for a novelist, I think.
GD: Right! The experience of this world revolved around Raymundo Mata but this is about Rizal.
GA: I love Rizal, there’s no way out. As a writer, I love him very much. Part of the reason why I wrote this is my sense that we don’t see him in terms of being the agony of being a writer. I think ultimately, there was that really core to Rizal. My novel had to build up to the moment when Rizal appears.
GD: There was a jolt of electricity when his presence was referenced. I wonder if you can talk to us more about how you went about the very courageous task of rendering Rizal.
GA: I was really building towards that jolt appearance of Rizal. But how do you do that? Here’s one thing and I don’t talk about this a lot. But in order to get to Rizal, I plagiarized Rizal. There’s a section in the text where Raymundo Mata is supposedly going to La Consolacion and visiting Lady K (Segunda Katigbak). That’s one of the querida of Rizal. I couldn't figure out the ‘how to speak like Rizal,’ so I plagiarized him. There’s a text called Memorias de un Estudiante de Manila… So I translated him.
I translated Memorias into English. That was very interesting, the plagiarism and translating of Rizal, because I managed to get into 19th century diction and syntax. I also felt really more into his being sentimental and awkward and stupid in the Memorias. It was also so human to see him in this way, to see him so awkward. So I love that about the Memorias. It’s so beautifully awkward.
I love those aspects of writing. The ephemera of writing. I love ephemera. I’m always reading the marginalia of the books that writers own. So I did a lot of research. I think I have read everything that has been written, that has been published by Rizal in English — that has been translated. That’s the way I approached it one by one, over-research. I over-researched to have a sense of authority.
GD: We encounter Rizal via text, but we never actually see him writing. Or revising. Our encounter with him is always through these grand essays. I wonder if you can actually talk about reading Rizal and seeing him as a writer, as an artist.
GA: I think it’s important for us to imagine him with moments of uncertainty. In moments of thinking about something beyond the revolution… Something beyond the nation. It’s important for us to see the contingency in Rizal, so that we can also reflect on ourselves in a more healthy way because we always do binary thinking with Rizal.
We are very radical. If we recognize our radical history, that is who we are. From that radicalism, it comes from a very interesting contingency that the radical is very human. And so, when we think about our history, recognize the beautiful ethics of it —which is what we began with saying, you know, with killing Magellan. The ethics of that lies in whom we are fighting. Rizal fought the right fights, I think that’s really important. To understand radicalism and contingency.
The Revolution of Raymundo Mata’s ‘extraordinary’ form
GD: I think that’s kind of reflected in the form. Probably the most striking, for someone who would be reading it for the first time, for the form of this book is quite extraordinary. I wonder if you can talk about structure, you have the main body and you have annotations in the footnotes.
GA: The journal of Raymundo Mata is kind of weird in that it’s really set-up so there’s kind of a history in Filipino text. There’s Bugtong, Balagtas, folktale, all of these things are in the text. And then, there’s his own biography. There’s that: a hole in the part. This is really ambitious, but it’s the whole of Philippine literature in a part of his autobiography.
hen there are the three women who are all historians of some sort. One of them is younger than the others. One of them is a nationalist, one of them is a Lacanan, and the translator, who appears in Insurrecto. I thought it was very important to approach Rizal as a reader in the way that Filipinos approach our history. Even historians approach our history like ‘chismis.’ We think of Philippine history also in personal terms.
GD: Can you talk a bit more about textuality and orality? It is a hyper-textual book, conscious of it being textual, it’s idea of a nation as text of history but at the same time, it is a very oral world. Much of the humor and the pleasure comes from that orality.
GA: When I was doing the research on this book, Philippine history was just so contentious. It’s full of contextual hoaxes. There’s a whole hoax on Rizal’s retraction, that on his deathbed, he retracted Chaucer like, “I didn’t really believe these things about the Jesuits…” I consider it a hoax, some people thought it was real.
The minutes of the Katipunan is a hoax, apparently. I think that textuality has an interesting aspect of our orality where we’re trying to figure out, “Oh, totoo ba yan?” Partly because of our colonization, partly because the texts that we tend to have read were actually not about ourselves. We had to create ourselves. Our desire lies in that textuality and orality — the desire to see ourselves. The mix of the textual and the oral, that is in the novel, that I’m constantly trying to figure out the relationship of each of the text to the orality.
“I love those aspects of writing. The ephemera of writing. I love ephemera. I’m always reading the marginalia of the books that writers own. So I did a lot of research. I think I have read everything that has been written, that has been published by Rizal in English — that has been translated. That’s the way I approached it one by one, over-research. I over-researched to have a sense of authority.”
GD: I was just thinking about it and this is a bit of a segue, in the government’s pandemic response, a lot of it is radiated by a language. I remember just thinking about all these terms like “Community Quarantine” instead of a “lockdown”, etc. there’s really, I suppose, for the colonized, there’s really like a—a specific apprehension of the world via language.
It’s so beautiful to hear you talk about this. Somewhere you mentioned, the Philippines is a country that can be seen as an idea that’s always on the brink of being translated or apprehended. That’s sometimes seen as a position of agony, that you can kind of rephrase that, that it’s actually a position of strength.
GA: It’s a position of strength and opportunity. And it’s a position of ourselves centering in some ways. There’s a weird feeling that I have and I don’t know if it’s just the way I was brought up but there’s a weird feeling that I have that Filipinos, amid all the othering that’s done to us, always, for whatever reason, for good… center ourselves.
Experiential reading & Women in Novels
GD: The reading experience itself is a source of meaning. I wonder if you, like for someone approaching your work for the first time, do you have an idea in a way in which your books will be read?
GA: The readers are part of my books. For me, when I’m confused in the text, that’s when I think about what I’m doing. I think about who I am, “Why am I reading it this way? I actually think about the active reader when I’m confused. I use that in my novels because I’m interested in that very experiential act that is reading. And that experiential act that is reading for me, allows us to tell us why we’re doing what we’re doing.
We have to be very aware of how we’re being led. That’s a healthy way to read. For me, if you’re being introduced to my novels… You’re in the right spot. Trust yourself in that spot. And in fact, to center yourself.
“Philippine history is just so contentious. It’s full of contextual hoaxes. I think that textuality has an interesting aspect of our orality where we’re trying to figure out, “Oh, totoo ba yan?” Partly because of our colonization, partly because the text that we tend to have read were actually not about ourselves. We had to create ourselves. Our desire lies in that textuality and orality — the desire to see ourselves.”
GD: Can you talk about the women in the novel? Of course, we have Rizal and Raymundo Mata but then again, they’re surrounded by women. If you know Rizal’s history, with all these women… You kind of recognize some of the characters and the characters that are not. I’m assuming it’s a very conscious decision to populate this world with all these women.
GA: Yes, I used the names of Rizal’s queridas like Aura, he has two Leonors. I wanted the women to be more knowing than Rizal. To kinda be aware of being put in their different places. I see women as a lot more knowledgeable than men.
Women are othered all the time. You’re always put in this place like you know, the wife and all these things. That puts you in a place, like colonized, of double seeing constantly. At the same time that you’re kind of aware that you know more… You know a little bit more.
They’re being put in their place but consciousness for me, is very interesting. So, they are very deliberate, the names of Rizal’s queridas, I have to say.
On Twitter, Magellan, and Oppression
GD: Do you have any thoughts on social media? In Insurrecto, there’s this preoccupation with mediation and the media, etc. For me, when I do social media and the internet, in general, there’s that same experience.
GA: In fact, I think a lot of my novels, in some ways… Raymundo Mata was way before the social media thing, but I think there’s a weird Twitter form. On Twitter, you can have a whole series of things where everything is just paratext.
Twitter Is all paratext, all the bottom part of my novel. So, there are many drawbacks to having a world that is all paratext. But the reality of the paratext, when we put the paratext just under the rug, we’re also not going to be healthy. But when it’s also the paratext, that’s also going to be a problem.
GD: That’s a wonderful way of thinking about Twitter, it is — when all these official narratives are put out there — they are always undermined by comments from people. Eventually, the official narrative becomes buried.
I’m curious, have you been following the… It’s 2021 so it’s 500 years after the first contact, Magellan… So 500 years ago, Magellan was probably in Eastern Visayas. I wonder if you have anything commemorating something like this.
GA: I think it was correct for him to be killed. I think that was good. I think of it as an emblem of our resistance to power and to authoritarianism. As Aristotle says, “History is only facts but art is true.” So, an art is true in the sense that the multiple ways in viewing that scene are really important.
But the ethical way of seeing that scene, to accept that colonization without recognition of the horror of that colonization is truly, truly for me… If people are still doing that in this date and age, that is a horror. That is despicable. I think we should always rest on getting rid of the powers that oppress us and when we accept the story of colonization in that oppressive way, I think they should just say no to that.
Fully Booked: Paperback or hardcover:
FB: Do you write in your books?
GD: I do.
GA: I write books for school, but never on my own. I keep my own books pristine, that I own. I take pictures, then I put them on Notes on my iPhone.
FB: Okay. Do you read one book at a time or multiple books at the same time?
GD: I’m quite polygamous when I read. I read a lot at the same time.
GA: Yeah, many books at the same time.
FB: Who is your favorite writer?
GD: I’m going to say Rosario Cruz-Lucero.
GA: I actually cannot answer. Maybe right now, Estrella Alfon.
FB: Book/books that you always recommend.
GD: I always recommend Feast and Famine by Rosario Cruz-Lucero.
GA: I’d say, Filipino readers, the poems of Eric Calaminda and for, in general, Machado de Asis, the Brazilian author.
FB: Finally, the Fully Booked signature question for Fully Booked Chats… Do you judge a book by its cover?
GD: Ako, yes and no. I’m attracted to wonderful design and at the same time, I’ll read stuff that’s not so appealing visually.
GA: I would say no. I judge more soccer jerseys, but not book covers.