The Lift Up Interviews Gina Apostol on INSURRECTO, Political Organizing, and Gatekeeping in Publishing
V: Welcome, listeners, to this bonus episode of The Lift Up, hosted by Tamara Crawford and myself, Vina Orden. Today, we are so lucky to have with us writer Gina Apostol. As you may know, we featured Gina’s fourth novel, Insurrecto, on The Lift Up this month.
Insurrecto was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize; longlisted for the Dublin Impac International Prize; and named by Publishers’ Weekly one of the Ten Best Books of 2018. Gina’s third book, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award. Her first two novels, Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata (the US edition will be available to readers in January, 2021), both won the Juan Laya Prize (the Philippine National Book Award) for the Novel. Her essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times, Los Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Gettysburg Review, Massachusetts Review, and others. She lives in New York City and western Massachusetts and grew up in Tacloban, Philippines. She teaches at the Fieldston School in New York City.
Welcome, Gina! Thanks so much for making time to chat with us today.
G: Thanks so much for having me!
T: We’re so happy to have you with us today, and we would like to start off our podcast today with something a little bit fun to help us and our listeners get to know you a little bit more by having a lightning round ice breaker. So if you are okay, we have seven questions that we’re just going to throw at you. And if you’re ready, I’ll start with the first one.
T: So, first question … What has been your go-to comfort food or drink during quarantine?
G: Pan de sal!
T: And for those of us who haven’t had this yet, what is that?
G: Well, you know, it’s a breakfast food. I have it for breakfast, and it makes me happy to wake up to pan de sal. My nephew makes it in Vermont, and then my brother mails it to me for his son. It’s great, because I’m supporting my nephew. But of course my brother sends it in a package that’s $20 to send, so it’s like twice the amount it takes to make the bread, but anyway …
T: That is nice — that is amazing. That’s really cool. Okay, second question … What is your favorite football or soccer league and team?
G: Yeah, I’m a huge Barcelona fan. In fact, yesterday, it was just pure … I don’t know what it was, I mean, it was just pure, absolute, adulterated joy to watch the first game …
V: It was just Messi being Messi …
G: It was just … It was just great!
T: Okay, so Barcelona!
V: I didn’t know that. I really thought it was going to be a Serie A team.
G: Serie A, well yeah. I used to follow Serie A — I used to follow AC Milan in the ’90s. That was definitely the team. But, Serie A has been having … One, they had the huge referee scandal. Two, they also had those huge kind of racist — I mean it’s racist in soccer — but, they had very, very overt racist incidents. Remember Balotelli, you know, Mario Balotelli? Those kinds of things. And then it’s very hard not to just follow Messi all the time …
V: I agree …
G: With the small time that you have, just follow Messi! I follow Italia, the national team. Which is, of course, also not a good thing for lots of reasons. I love Italia.
V: Have you adopted a team yet, Tam?
T: I’ve not adopted a team yet. I’ve been told that you’re supposed to adopt the team near where you live …
G: Oh, where are you?
T: I used to live in Northeast London, so my team was supposed to be Arsenal. But then, I’ve moved to Southeast London, so apparently, the closest team to me is Crystal Palace. I like rugby a lot more, but I get excited when the World Cup is on, so I really get into football then. And during the rest of the year, I get into rugby.
G: It seems to me that there’s a kind of class orientation in different places with sports. So, football seems to have non-aristocratic thing in London. And then it’s interesting, in Ireland for instance, where you would think that the Irish would be for football — you know, against English rugby — but they love their rugby. And they love, of course, their Gaelic football. So it’s kind of interesting, class orientations with sport …
T: Yeah. It’s really, really interesting about class orientation. I was told the same thing when I moved here as well. I think that football is kind of like the working-class game, and you really get into it. And then with rugby, it was played in the universities, and it was like the “gentlemen’s game,” so to speak. Then you throw cricket in, and we can have a whole conversation about class …
T: Okay, great — I love this chat about sports … So the next question for you is, if you could travel right now, where’s the first place you would go to?
G: My gut is to say Venice. I love Venice, and I’m very sad over … Well, actually, I’m very happy for Venetians that their streets are empty, but I think the toll on economics might be hard for them. But, I’m a huge fan of that city. The other thing is, really, my family is thinking of just having a reunion, going home, and that’s kind of a nice idea also. But, my gut goes to Venice!
T: It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous city, so I totally understand … Okay, and the first thing you want to do when Covid is hopefully eradicated or brought under control?
G: I would probably want to go out into a nice restaurant — the restaurant that I like is Via Carota — and having a drink there (that we’ve been making here). But having a drink at a restaurant would be nice, very bourgeoisie.
V: They make really good, different kinds of negronis there, so …
G: Yeah, their negronis are really good. My daughter, for instance was saying … She’s going to go and be in my apartment for a while because no one’s there. She’s going to quarantine herself after her protest activities in my apartment. So, she was saying, What should I do in The Village? I said, Go and get … There might be pick up now at Via Carota! And then we were going through what in the menu would you allow yourself to pick up. Because the thing about a good restaurant like Via Carota is that you want to eat it there. Because to take home their cacio e pepe is not going to be as good. So, we were going through the menu …
T: Is there a view as to when they’re starting to open up restaurants in New York? They’ve got a view that restaurants will open up here I think probably next month in July.
G: Wow — that’s early!
T: I know. Everybody’s saying a lot of this is early. They’re opening schools by end of July/beginning of August. They’re trying to open restaurants. A lot of restaurants are doing take-away, but they’re trying to get them to do outdoor seating. So yeah, there’s a lot that we think is moving a little bit too fast. So how about New York, what are their views?
V: I’ve heard that … So, the City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, he was saying that right now they are trying to prepare for street closures, so that restaurants can actually open up into the street, kind of like how Stone Street is, you know? But I haven’t heard officially about that happening yet. Although I think the restaurants probably have an inkling, because I’ve seen a lot more of the takeout restaurants that closed down starting to open up. So, there must be some plan that maybe we don’t know about.
T: So hopefully, you’ll be able to get that lovely drink and the cacio e pepe in the restaurant pretty soon … Okay, best time of day for you and why — morning, afternoon, or evening?
G: I’m not really a morning person. But, I like breakfast, and I like waking up to a fresh day of work — so in the summer, when I can write. So for me, that’s really the best.
T: Very nice … And for the sixth question, what are you reading right now?
G: Well, I’m reading a lot of different books right now. So, the most recent one is something for my research for my novel. So, it’s the Tinio Brigade — it’s about the Ilocos region Filipino-American War stuff. That’s something I started a while ago, and then, I didn’t need it for my last novel, so I didn’t finish it. And now, I’m thinking I need to do it, so I’m reading that. I’m reading a book by a Mexican called Sudden Death, about a tennis match between the poet Quevedo and the artist Caravaggio, which is interesting. I thought I’d really like it, because the structure is really interesting, and the weird historical stuff. But I find, casual misogyny is something, you know, even in the modern day, and I don’t know why that’s not picked up. But, anyway …
T: And if you weren’t reading for research, what would you want to read next, or even re-read?
G: Well, I’m really, really envying my partner right now, who, when he’s not working, has decided to just pick up his book of Borges’ Collected Fictions and read from page one to the end. That’s a very nice way to spend the day. I’ve never read the Collected Fictions in one go, so that’s kind of nice.
V: That’s a very interesting summer reading project. I mean, my beach reads are not necessarily what one would think of as a beach read. So, I totally get it.
G: Yeah, my partner read … You know how I read Ulysses with a kodigo? You know, a Filipino kodigo — you have a book that explains Ulysses. He read Ulysses — well, he’s Irish … He read Ulysses like, Oh that’s funny, because for an Irishman, I think it’s more like, That’s my granddad, or something.
V: That’s impressive. That’s really impressive.
T: Well, thank you for answering the lightning round questions! I’m going to turn it over to Vina to ask the first question for the podcast.
V: I mean, we talked about this a little bit in our outtakes, but it’s such an interesting, really unprecedented time that we’re living in. We’re in the midst of this global pandemic, and there are also all these mass demonstrations out on the streets in support of Black Lives Matter and against rising fascism all around the world. And, you were student activist during the Marcos dictatorship. So I kind of wonder, are you seeing something in the protests that may signal a sea change, either here in the US or in the Philippines?
G: Well, what I think I’m reading or hearing from people is that the numbers are incredible in the United States, and the extension — the fact that it’s prolonged and that people remain on the streets. So, I think that’s very good.
I’m going to go back to my own experience. So, I was in school in the early ’80s. So, you have to understand, it’s before 1986. So, you’re talking about the later years of Marcos, when you’d gone through the First Quarter Storm. And so, for us, the First Quarter Storm is more historical. And we’re in this moment where Marcos says, Okay, I’m going to lift Martial Law, and it’s not a real lifting. So, we’re in that mode where the very fierce student activists who began that work against the Marcos regime, they were all in prison, some of them were already in government, etc. And now that I look back, we were still activists in the slumping years of the Martial Law regime, when most people around us were not into it. You know, the University was very, very activist in its portrayal of itself. The university was already changing. It was already a very bourgeoisie, kind of upperclass university. So, I’d be going off — I was an English major — going to these marches. And I’d have friends saying, I don’t know why you’re doing that , dressed the way you are. You know, they were always commenting on the way I was dressed — you know, I was well-dressed. Why do you think you should be going against the system. I was like, What the fuck, that’s so stupid. And I really am very clear about my class orientation. That I’m not a peasant, but a kind of petty bourgeoisie, highly educated, academic artist. And I’m very aware of my own kind of ambiguity, as a person that was Maoist and Marxist in orientation.
So, what happened was, after the death of Ninoy Aquino, it became a very different protest. And, I think, this is where I’m kind of connecting to the current mass demonstration. There was already a steady, organized, powerfully, ideologically coherent organization that I was part of. Everyone was calling us crazy, or nutty, or whatever it was that people thought. What’s interesting for us to recognize is that there are groups that every day are doing the work. They’re organized — their coherent ideology, their study of class systems, political systems, their very, very clear concept of structural issues. When the mass becomes part of it, I’m interested in seeing how that coherent organizing helps the movement and makes the movement work. That’s why I like Malaya. Malaya, you know, is one of those structural organizations.
But, I’m looking right now at Black Lives Matter. And I’m thinking, the way they manage to turn their organizing, their protest — which are, you know, mass protests — but they managed to turn public perception to, Its peaceful; defund police means this; we’re thinking about structure, etc. I see there really beautiful possibilities. Because it seems that, apart from the sudden growth of numbers, there is actually a thread, an organizational thread, a structural thread in Black Lives Matter. And these are disciplined people. Those are disciplined people. The Black Visions Collective, I think, in Minneapolis. I’ve been following them because I gave them money. They understand … They’ve been studying policing for a long time. So when this happens, they can present to the Minneapolis Council, etc., what it means to defund policing — you know, those kinds of things.
V: It’s just such an interesting lesson. This idea that all of this may seem like it suddenly happened, but it’s actually kind of like the crest of a wave that’s been coming …
G: That’s what organizing means, and that’s the effect of organizing. That people who are actually lifelong or professional organizers … those are amazingly smart people.
T: Thanks for that. I definitely appreciate the connection and your views on what’s happening with Black Lives Matter and what you’ve seen in the Philippines as well.
G: It’s an amazing organization. I think Black Lives Matter is crazy good.
T: And I echo your thoughts as well. I think, for career organizers able to take all of that passion and turn it into tangible, actionable results …
G: And we have to recognize how they’re demonized. When it has not crested, they’re demonized as “reds,” they’re demonized as ideological. But they’re actually the ones that create change. You can’t have change when you’re just randomly coming together — it doesn’t make any sense. So, whenever something is actually really working — like Occupy, for instance. I think Occupy also had a really strong ideological thread that was part of a very clear organizing history.
T: So, I’m going to turn the question in towards Insurrecto. Vina and I had a long conversation about Insurrecto in terms of things that we got from the book, but also around history. And, especially for me, you know, coming into the book with very little Philippine history as a knowledge base. What was important to me was around understanding how much of Philippine history you needed to know to read the book and understand the book — and we’ll go into that a little bit later … But, one of the questions I had for you around that was, in reading one of the interviews, you mention that “Insurrecto hits the spot where many of us are now aware of the harmful blindness in our understanding of our history, and we need to self correct.” I was just wondering, was there a point, as you were going through your research for the book — and I understood it took you 10 maybe years to write this novel …
G: Yeah, my books take a very long time to write …
T: Was there any point where you felt like, Wow, there’s just so much history that I don’t know, as you were researching it, that helped propel you and propel your intention in writing this book?
G: Yeah, I would say that almost all of my novels do come from that. I mean, if I knew what my novels were about, I wouldn’t be writing them. So, all of my novels come from a point of ignorance. Like, Oh my god, I didn’t know that, I didn’t know that … And then, I choose which ignorance I have which really energizes me. For instance, the seed for Insurrecto really came from my writing Raymundo Mata, which is my second published novel about the revolution against Spain. But, in studying the Spanish War — the war against Spain, which I thought was the Philippine Revolution, meaning that I thought it included America, but I realized it didn’t include America — I realized that Filipinos actually know, when they talk about the Philippine Revolution, they’re talking about the war against Spain. In fact, we don’t know anything about the war against America. Everything that I read about the war against America, I didn’t know.
In the Philippines, when you study the American period, you really study the postwar, because the revolution against Spain takes up so much of that revolutionary thought. And then you study what Americans did, and American laws, and Philippine independence — the 1930s, the OsRox Mission, and then the independence after WWII in 1946. So that vacuum, because I was also in the United States and dealing also with questions that Filipino Americans had about that relationship … So, I think it’s because I became an expat in the United States, that knowing about the war against the Americans became very, kind of constantly relevant in my being in New York, in my being a Filipino in the United States, my reading of Filipino writers from the Philippines. I began to see so many ways in which that blindness to the American War actually was very productive for a novelist. You know, What’s going on? It made me keep wondering why.
V: One of the things that, when we were talking about the book, I had mentioned to Tamara was that I immigrated to New York in my teens. And so, I did have a very short sliver of having to learn Philippine history. But, we were never taught about this war. It wasn’t called that either. And you’re right. I mean, we learned a lot about our independence from Spain and that the Americans helped us, but then of course, looking back as an adult, you also realize that colonial system of education that we inherited from the Americans … Of course they’re not going to be critical.
G: It’s a huge blind spot, a huge blind spot. And, it constantly creates weird ways of doing art or weird ways of thinking that, oh wow, you kind of forgot about the fact that actually, it was genocide. So, it’s a very successful propaganda move by the Americans. You can see how powerful it was, what they had done to the Filipinos. And, I know they were trying to replicate that in Iraq, because I would say, it was very successful that the Filipinos don’t have memory.
V: Ugh, heartbreaking … What was so interesting about this book though was that I feel like you created such sympathetic characters but with different backgrounds, right? So, there’s this character Magsalin, who’s the Pilipina-American translator, and Chiara Brasi, who’s interesting in and of herself that she spent her childhood in the Philippines because her father was filming a movie there about Vietnam. And then, both Chiara and Magsalin also create their own version of Casiana Nacionales/Caz, the revolutionary heroine of Balangiga. And so, by creating these layered, very sympathetic characters, what kinds of larger ideas were you trying to explore, and what do you hope that readers internalize about these different characters and their multiple identities?
G: It’s something that I’ve been trying … I think ultimately, one aspect of my project as a writer is trying to articulate this Filipino way of being. It’s hard to articulate the way Filipinos address the world, because we are very open to so many things. This recognition that this multiplicity is just who we are is so powerful to me. I mean, I grew up with three languages, and it didn’t really matter that I had those three languages. And it’s so unconscious for you that you’re just this multiple person, that you’re always code-switching. You don’t think about that … Now I’m doing the Tagalog thing, now I’m doing the Waray thing … I’m in Cebu, now am I going to be Tagalog or Waray? And, you’re constantly in that mode of a very fluid recognition of your multiplicity, and you don’t have angst about that. And I think that is a survivor’s mentality. I think it’s the mentality of someone who’s constantly on the edge of being killed.
I think about, for instance, a restaurant worker I met when I was in Barcelona. First, she spoke to me in Spanish. And then I said, I’m Filipino, and she started speaking to me in Tagalog. And then, she called on her fellow co-worker, and they start talking to each other in Pangasinense because they were both from Pangasinan. And then, the boss talks to her, and she speaks Catalan. So, you see the multiplicity right there. And so I said, Wow, you speak five languages here! And she goes … And this was really very important for me to recognize this. I’m this bourgeoisie lady going into a restaurant, just being a tourist, you know, and eating her food. And I’m Filipino and I have this like exoticizing of her because … Wow, it’s amazing — you’re speaking several languages, and she looked at me and said, I won’t be able to work if I don’t. So, I think the multiplicity of the Filipino sense of self, which some will say, Oh, that’s colonial mentality. Oh, that’s like someone who’s constantly trying to move into the white world. We really have to recognize how our mindset is actually, for me, a very healthy mindset — as long as we recognize that’s what we’re doing.
So, in writing my novel, I’m always trying to figure out how to articulate that very hard to articulate aspect of the Filipino. That we exist, kind of, in the interstices of our multiple selves, almost in translation and in the gaps of translation. It’s an aspect of our desire to live. And it can often be seen as an aspect of damage because you’re colonized, because you’re this, because you’re that. So, the multiplicity of characterizations and the empathy that I have for all the different possible ways of being come from my desire to speak to what I think is a very hard to speak aspect of the Filipino. I call the Filipino “hyper-modern,” “super-postmodern,” or “hyper-human” because it’s a fact of humanity that the moment we learn language, we become a multiple person. We’re split from the self — that’s the Lacanian self, a basic psychoanalytic thing. But, the colonized experience of the Filipino, for me, is simply a replication of a basis of our humanity — the split, the splitness of ourselves that arises, most clear in language. But, it arises from having to be a social being.
V: That’s so true. Because even with language — like the way that you see things and the way that you think about things — that’s also formed by language. So it goes beyond just the actual speech.
G: Yeah, so I think for the Filipino … In order for you to move in your world and survive, be alive, you actually have to have at least two languages. Because, to go to school, we have to do English.
T: All of this is very interesting for me to hear, sitting and listening to your perspective on language and the interplay of language and, I guess, your life. As you mentioned, just surviving, just being able to survive …
G: Could I just … because I think I said something there about English. For me, the Filipino in the Philippines speaking only English is a problem. The Filipino in America who speaks only English … I think there’s something else going on there, because you are moving, I think, in a sense of translation. In some way, the empathy that you need for yourself is even more powerful because you’re existing in translations, and you don’t even know the other language.
T: Thanks for that perspective, and for touching on that particular theme. There was another theme we we also wanted to call out, and that’s around how a lot of themes within the book revolve around women and the strength to women and their various facets. And one of the things we wondering was whether or not, when you originally set out to write the book, did you know that you wanted women to be the focal point in your storytelling, or did that structure sort of make its way into the novel and kind of grow from there?
G: Okay, here’s what was happening when I was writing Insurrecto. I was actually writing this so-called “bigger” book — it was supposed to be more of an epic book. It was called William McKinley’s World, and every time I got annoyed with that book, which has masculine voices, I went and did this other project, my “recess” project, which was Insurrecto. And I liked the women voices in Insurrecto. And of course, it’s the book that I ended up finishing — I’m still working on William McKinley’s World. So, I really did want women in that novel. I was very happy always to be with the women voices in the novel. Because I had a hard time writing William McKinley’s World, which is the revolution from the point of view of a spy for Americans and a Filipino Revolutionary, and they’re brothers. It’s a very masculine take on the revolution. I couldn’t really imagine their life. So, what’s interesting about Insurrecto in terms of the women is that it was very easy to imagine Casiana. All I did was think about my aunts. You know, they would all be going, Fuck you, I’m not going to fuck you if you don’t go to war! And I know how powerful … In my family, anyway, women are very powerful … They just run the world. So it’s so easy for me to imagine a woman revolutionary.
T: Thank you for the strong women characters — we really enjoyed them. I definitely really enjoyed seeing Casiana and her strength, and the way she speaks, and the way she moves within the novel, and kind of getting everybody together, and leading that revolution. But also, the subtler points of strength that you have with all your different characters, in different ways, that came through as you got to know them. I really enjoyed that, so thank you for them.
V: And Casiana is just so sarcastic, and the kind of double-speak that she does with the American characters was so much fun!
G: Yeah, she’s like a triple-language lady. She’s a triple threat!
T: Earlier on, we talked a little bit about why we started the podcast, and one of the things that Vina and I have talked about in the past is that we wanted to do something in response to the issues that came up with the American Dirt controversy — specifically, Latinx authors who had written fiction with more authentic voices were still being overlooked, even as they were recommended as better replacements for American Dirt. So, we wanted your view as a writer and educator … How do we be better readers? How does the industry do better? Do you think we need to find ways to bypass those “gatekeepers,” like this podcast or other alternative venues to keep pushing these voices?
G: I think you guys are doing the right thing. And this is the way I’ve been from the beginning as a writer … If you don’t want my book, I really don’t care. That means you’re not smart enough for me to be dealing with you. I mean I just have that like, Okay, whatever, you don’t like it. And never, ever imagine that an institution is going to save you or make you seen in any way. You know, these institutions are made for the history in which they came up — the white supremacist history, the slavery history. And, I don’t know where that came from — where from the very beginning, if someone said to me, let’s say at a workshop, Blah, blah, blah, blah and I’d say, You’re old. I just think that you’re doing the correct thing. Just do what you want to do, follow the desire that you have, and it is certainly true that the system out there is horrific. And do the work that you need to do within your desire that does something to counter that system. But, I don’t think — and it’s just me, and life’s too short … Yeah, just bypass the gatekeepers and don’t even think about them. I would say, it’s a waste of energy to be thinking about them.
And, I do know that it’s a luxury for me to say that, because other people are doing it, other people are going after the gatekeepers. But that’s their job, and that’s their desire. If your desire is to be a good reader, do this — do the podcast, share the book. Because being a good reader is just important as being a good writer (I just read that from Pat Rosal, who’s a friend of mine, a poet). You know, people don’t do enough to talk about creative reading and how important that is. So, do what you want. Just do the work. I just spend my time here writing my novels, and I don’t care. I’m going to write novels that I want.
V: That’s awesome. It’s so heartening to hear you say that. I mean, I’ve taken all these writing classes, and when you talk about the “craft” of writing, they force you to write the short story …
G: I hate this word “craft.” It drives me crazy!
V: I find that particular form really challenging, I guess because of who I am. But then, I think what you’re talking about, really discovering through reading … So, when I read Daniel Alarcón was really when I realized, Oh, my gosh, you could do so much more with the short story!
G: I think there’s something really wrong in this whole weird construction that occurs of art sometimes and this “craft” … I don’t teach creative writing, and I very deliberately don’t teach it.
V: It’s just interesting and heartening to hear you say that. That we don’t have to “follow the rules” necessarily and go with your gut …
G: Or, you go to … You find the space that actually nurtures you. Okay, there are so many spaces that are bad — just avoid them, don’t go. It’s like my agent when he said, Oh, Gina, if you do this one, you won’t be able to continue with your previous publisher (which was Norton). And I said, If they can’t understand me, then I don’t want Norton. Because if they can’t understand me, then I don’t want them. And, not to say that I hate Norton for that. It’s just that, it doesn’t make any sense for me to have any kind of angst over someone not liking me …
V: Writing is enough angst!
G: Yeah, I don’t think there needs to be angst like, Oh, that person is gatekeeping me. I don’t care.
T: Thank you — thank you for the openness of that answer. Kind of following in on that as well, because I know that you primarily write around the Philippines and the Filipino heritage … But, do you think that, in the way this conversation around who gets to write what, and who gets to tell whose stories, it almost, for upcoming writers, could present them with, I guess a “problem,” for lack of a better word, in terms of what can they write, or is there not really a problem?
G: I guess I have strong, weird reactions to that, because I think that any kind of binary thinking is going to be problematic for us … If we think that American Dirt is about like, You as a white person can’t write about this kind of thing, you don’t have the imagination for that. It seems to me that the problem with American Dirt was that it was just a bad … Like, she’s stupid, like the book was stupid. I mean, if you think about the plot, and I didn’t read the book, I just read the kind of overview of the book … You have a bookstore lady — okay so she owns a goddamn bookstore, but she doesn’t fly out of the goddamn country? That is already dumb, that’s a dumb plot. Because I know that if I owned a bookstore, I would have the money to buy a plane ticket to leave the Philippines. I won’t go cross the goddamn desert — that’s stupid. So again, even the recognition of … It was just a dumb understanding of Mexican people. A middle class person would buy a goddamn airplane ticket and not cross the desert! I can imagine Mexican people just laughing so hard, you know, Oh, my God. She owns a bookstore and she decides to go across the desert. It doesn’t make any sense.
T: Yeah, and I feel like the other reason why this became such a big deal was because there are so many amazing authors who did write amazing things who were constantly told, Oh, your book won’t sell, or No, and then having to find other ways. Whereas, this book that had so many problems with it got this massive advance and this massive following through these gatekeepers that I felt it was almost like, Okay, let’s rub some salt into the wound that is publishing. And I’m not sure if you’ve been following #PublishingPaidMe, but that’s something I wanted to cover in a later version of this podcast, just because I feel that kind of also exacerbates the issues that came up with this.
G: More for me, the way I would go and look at that is, that’s clearly a sign. It gives you another kind of lens on the lack of taste and thinking of the money world. That the money world is not going to understand how a Mexican writer is actually really complex and is going to write about Quevedo and tennis and Caravaggio. That the Mexicans are so advanced that the structures are very likely not like pulp structures (that is the structure of American Dirt). For me, it gave me an insight into the power of the literary world of the Mexicans that they couldn’t be published by America. It meant they were too good, and that the publishing world — the the money making part of the publishing world — doesn’t have any taste. So, they will think that American Dirt is very good, even though the plot itself is clearly dumb.
On the other hand, here’s the other piece to that. That money actually matters. It matters in a very consequential way, because it could allow a writer like Jesmyn Ward to live on the proceeds of her book and just write. And, when you’re dissing her by not giving her the $100K right away that she’s asking for and instead giving this other white writer — who’s a very nice lady, and I imagine she wrote a very good book — $200K right off the bat for a debut novel, that is actually consequential in their actual lives. So, in the actual lives of those women, of those writers.
V: So, I guess the publishing industry is one thing, but then there are also readers … So, I found this quote really interesting in the book, where Magsalin says — I guess she’s talking to herself — “Why should we be spooked about not knowing all the details in a book about the Philippines, yet surge forward with resolve in stories about France?” So, what would your advice be to readers on how to engage with literature that’s unfamiliar to them or that might even make them uncomfortable? And what might they be missing out by not giving those authors and stories a chance?
G: Yeah, I was trying to invert the gaze there, because, of course, you know as a Filipino growing up in the Philippines, I just read those books. I read Proust. I read Márquez. I read Flaubert. I had no qualms about not understanding anything. I didn’t know anything about that Jewish guy … I forget his name now. Dreyfus — so big in Proust. I don’t know anything about the people who lived before the Russian Revolution and all the student activists in St. Petersburg etc., etc., and I had no qualms about it. And so, I just wanted to reverse that and have the reader just make it very open that someone, a person of color, is always doing that. And so you’re doing two things with that passage, you’re giving them the world of reading of the person of color — of the person who is outside of the mainstream in that society — and you’re also giving the reader back a little mirror to whatever subject position that reader is in to get him or her into this novel. So, it’s does like a double reflection, where you allow the voice of the person of color to come in, and you allow them to reflect on themselves. It’s a very basic “doubling” structure that happens in, let’s say, Baldwin or Maxine Hong Kingston.
But in my novel, it’s just explicit. So for me, a reader could come into my novel in many different ways. The reader could come in knowing Waray and having all of those layers if you’re Waray, and not knowing, actually, the history or the literary world that the novel is coming from. So, you’re just a Waray reader out there who doesn’t even really like to read. Or, you could be a very literary reader. Or you could be a reader who really likes to know things, or a reader who’s really open to not knowing things. And, I think the novel, because of the way it’s constructed, can allow all those different ways of reading to come in … Because, there’s always Google — you can always google. So, once you get to that point where the writer says, “It’s okay not to know,” it’s okay to just google. And I do that all the time. And to be honest, the structure of the novel came from googling. So, that whole thing of Chiara Brasi googling her father. I mean, to be honest, almost all of the details that occurred in the story, like even Gus the Polar Bear, all of that came from — I think I googled “Thrilla in Manila” — anyway, I googled something around that, and I just took all the things that came up and put them into the novel! Ali Mall, all of those things. So, that novel came from Google.
V: Yeah, we talked so much about all the rabbit holes that you could go into just from this book. And, I was actually Googling Star Wars — are they really speaking Tagalog in Star Wars? And I found it — they were talking about a beautiful tree in Tagalog!
G: Yeah, you’re gonna find it, ’cause I googled it!
V: And Tamie’s a big Star Wars fan, so …
T: Yeah, when Vina told me about that, I was like, Oh, wow — so now I have another fun trivia fact about Star Wars! But, I think this point as well was also very interesting because one of the things for me coming into it was I wanted to have very little view of the history pre- or during reading the book trying to kind of isolate how much I got out of it from a theme perspective, and also how much to learn once I came out of it …
G: Wow! Again, that’s a great way to read the book. That is excellent.
T: Yeah, and we were very thankful for praxino.org.
G: Some of my googling is there, yeah …
V: That was a fun little thing for people who are ADHD and get curious about like, Are these things real? Which is what happened to me … But yeah, especially with this book — I mean, you were going through a whole bunch of racist primary texts from the 1800s, and these stereo cards of the massacres, and even keeping up with, for the more modern parts, about the news of the killings and unraveling of democracy in the Philippines. And I was wondering, how do you maintain self-care while you’re doing this research that can be hard, or even the writing process, which clearly you can take a decade to write, and then and then putting your work out there? I mean, it’s funny, when I was looking at the different places selling the book and how they’re selling it, right? Like, some will say it’s a war book or a history novel. So that was just funny to me, because it’s all of those things, but then it’s not also.
G: I have to give it to Soho. I have to give it to my press that they managed to sell that book because it’s a lot of different things, and it’s actually hard … We were trying to figure out what it was like, you know how you do in publishing, What is this book similar to? We couldn’t figure it out … It’s not similar to anything!
I think anger is really good for people. So, I maintain my anger as I’m writing. When you cease to be angry over this history, I think you do kind of lose perspective. So, I think rage is excellent. And in terms of self-care … Okay, and again, this might seem annoying, but as a writer, for me, writing itself is self-care. I find huge pleasure, I find huge comfort, I find a huge sense of myself when I’m writing. So, I feel most myself when I’m in the act of writing. So, being able to give myself time to write is my self-care.
And I will say, again, that is very specific to the way I live. My partner is a very good cook. He does everything, and I realize that. I live because I have a partner who does everything else. I write because my partner does everything else. There are material things that you look for, in terms of the ability to write. So, I create my space so that I can write, and I don’t … You know, I teach at a high school, but teaching at a high school gives you medical insurance, gives you a very good daily salary. So, your daily salary is very good — and you can live in New York in the place where you want — in prep school. I did not choose, for instance, to be an adjunct. I did not choose to be in the world of, you know, where people seem to want to be in a University that has a name or whatever it is. Because that kind of world is — I think, for me when I started my world in America trying to bring up my child — to be also in a world that’s not giving you value, in terms of money, but its giving you value in terms of so-called “status.” You know like, Okay, I’m an adjunct at NYU, stuff like that, but it’s not giving you material value. So, I chose to live in a way that would allow me this self-care, this space for writing. I don’t have to worry about health insurance … And I also chose a job that is not destroying the world ’cause I’m teaching. So, I’m not also making a lot of money, doing stupid money in Wall Street. I chose something that makes more sense ethically. Of course, ethically, you know, it’s still a rich person’s school. But, I’m still teaching. They’re still children.
So, I think self-care, for me, lies in making the choices so that I can write. I was able to bring up my child. And, I don’t have ethical baggage. I didn’t make choices in publishing that would make me change the way I write. I didn’t make compromises, because I made choices that would simply allow me to do the work I wanted. And, they were not status choices. I think a lot of young writers come out thinking, I have to be this, I have to be in that magazine, I have to do this, I have to do that … And, I never thought those were a healthy way to go.
V: Wow, that’s beautiful. I love that — writing is self care. May we all get to that point …
G: Yeah, make the choices so you can write.
V: So, toward the end of this interview, I did want to throw this out there … What’s the question that you wish someone asked about the book or writing, but that hasn’t been asked?
G: There’ve been so many good ways that the book has been read. I’ve really been astonished, you know, very happy, appreciative of so many, many different ways very strong, astute readers have read this novel. It’s been astonishing. So, in terms of a question that I wish people had asked — so many people have asked so many questions already — I mean, as you know, there’s so many secrets in the book. I mean the book is just full of little puzzles. And so maybe, I could think about a puzzle that no one has really asked about.
So, if you were to ask what are some of the puzzles that people have not asked about or wouldn’t bother to ask about … I really like the mother of Chiara. I really like her, the wife of the director. I consider her like a woman of the ’50s for whom the revolution has passed her by. Feminism has passed her by. She’s already part of the status quo that has already imprisoned her, and I do think that the women of the ’50s had that experience. And that’s the generation of my mother. And you can imagine — so they were creative, they were imaginative, they had all of these talents, they had all of these possibilities. And, they see this other generation getting to do it, but they’re already imprisoned in theirs. That woman I find very interesting, and the way … And again this question that you had about how you give a sense of agency to a woman who seems to be, from the outside, her agency has been lost. But, it’s simply the fact that she understands that My privacy is mine. My sorrow is mine — I’m not sharing it with you. For me, that woman’s only agency is to say, Fuck you, I’m not going to talk.
Her name is Virginie, which is like a weird French spelling. My mom’s name is Virginia. And so, I thought it was funny that I gave her my mother’s name ’cause she’s not … That’s not my mom’s world, and my mom also wasn’t like her at all. But, it is interesting to me when I think about the choices that I make that have nothing to do with anything, and I make those choices. So, there are a lot of secret things, private things. The novel actually has a lot of private things that are, just for me, a pleasure ’cause they’re very private, and fuck you, I’m not gonna tell you …
V: We’re not gonna put a gun to your head and force you to tell us …
G: Yeah, so that’s one. I think there are lots of puzzles, a ton of puzzles that no one has ever actually brought up.
V: That is so cool. I mean, I read this book twice already. It’s like you have to just keep reading it to see if you can find something new …
G: My brother-in-law said that he read it four times, so he actually knows more of the details than most people!
T: Gina, thank you so much for spending time with us. I feel like we could talk to you forever. We’re really appreciative of your openness with us about this book, and about the state of the world, and publishing. Just one final question for you … Do you have any thoughts that you want to share with us, anything you’d like to promote, any suggestions of we should read right now?
G: So, right now, I’m going to be publishing the US edition of Raymundo Mata. Actually, it’s really a revised novel. Because, when I reread the novel for Soho, I really, really had to engage with something very different right now in the world from what was happening when I wrote it in the early 2000s. And, what’s different is that our reality is so much contaminated, in some way, by so-called “fakeness” — you know, these hoaxes of the Trump world. And, of course, my novel, the novel that I wrote actually is a manuscript, so-called “found” — the diary of a revolutionary soldier that was found by some scholars. And, this whole instability of the text that is, in my view, very much part of our understanding of history … That in order to understand history fully, you have to understand that this text is unstable. It needed to be much clearer, because we have a very unstable text that is running reality now. And I don’t want confabulation of my concept of the instability of history with this current concept, where very bad actors use instability to simply create fascism. So, I really had to work on that in this novel. So, there is a revision of Raymundo Mata for the American audience.
V: That’s so exciting!
T: It is!
G: But again, it’s very deep in history, it’s very steep. So, Tamara, I like your approach — your approach is very good.
T: Vina, I’m gonna have to ask you to send me the US edition to make sure I got the right one …
G: Yes, I’ll send it you guys! We already have galleys — I’ll send you the galleys.
T: Oh, wow! Thank you!
V: Well, this really was so much fun, Gina.
G: Yeah, thank you so much, Vina and Tamara. Good luck! This is an excellent idea that you guys had. Just do what you want. Get it out there.
T: Thank you for that. Thank you for the encouragement, thank you for being on with us. Like I said, this was fantastic, so much fun! So, thank you.
G: Thank you. Bye, bye!