DURING SUMMERS in the United States, teacher and historical fiction novelist Gina Apostol busies herself with her next book. Once she has completed her concept and gathered research, she just keeps writing.
“Usually if I’m writing a book, I don’t go out… And when I’m writing a first draft, it [takes] the whole day,” Ms. Apostol said.
Earlier that day, this writer encountered Ms. Apostol at the lobby of Raffles Makati where she was taking a walk. We met again a few minutes later at the hotel’s conference room.
“To be honest, That’s one of the reasons why I can’t figure out where to go,” she said about her walking around. “Because I’m actually always thinking about the book that I’m writing,” she told BusinessWorld.
The conversation took place the day before the 6th Philippine Readers Writers Festival (PRWF) opened. The three-day festival featured authors and writers in discussions on literature and writing, as well as book signings after each session. It ran from Aug. 2 to 4 at the Raffles Makati.
The Manila-born and Tacloban-raised writer currently shuttles between western Massachusetts and New York City where she works as a teacher at Fieldston School. Her third book, Gun Dealers’ Daughter, won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award. Her articles and short stories have appeared in numerous publications including the New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Gettysburg Review.
In front of us on the conference room’s long table was a copy of her latest novel, Insurrecto. The book revolves around two women, a Filipino translator and an American filmmaker, who collaborate on a film script about the Balangiga massacre in Samar during the Philippine-American War.
In August 1901, American soldiers took over the seaside village of Balangiga in Samar. In September, the townspeople plotted a surprise attack which resulted in the deaths of 48 American soldiers. The Americans retaliated by burning down the town and terrorizing the entire province of Samar.
The book’s cover features a painting from National Artist for Visual Arts Benedicto “BenCab” Cabrera’s “Larawan” series.
According to Ms. Apostol, the woman in the painting served as her visual depiction of Casiana Nacionales — the Geronima of Balangiga or the sole heroine who participated in the surprise attack against American soldiers.
“I wrote him (BenCab), and I told him that I thought the “Lawaran” (painting) titled Woman with Fan (2001) looks like my version of Casiana,” Ms. Apostol said, adding that she was asked to briefly tell the National Artist about her novel prior to his granting permission to use the painting for the book cover.
“What Filipinos think about when we talk about the revolution is really the revolution against Spain. We do not really move into the American War,” she explained, adding that she wanted to get into the American War as she had only lightly touched on it in her earlier novel, The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata (2009).
Ms. Apostol cited her Waray roots and the omission of the incident in her history lessons when she was a student as her motivations for writing the novel. “It was never taught… I don’t remember learning about Balangiga [in school], but my uncle used to talk about it. I think it’s because of its relationship to me as a Waray.
“Since I was living in the States, I thought I should I should know more about [it]. And what I discovered was I don’t know anything about it, because we’re not taught the American War. It’s really crazy that I learned that so late,” she added.
The book is divided into two parts, with the second further subdivided into the two different scripts each by the two main characters; it is also told within different periods. The chapter numbers are placed at random with various “Chapter 1s” appearing several times in the entire story.
“The structure of the book mirrors how I figured out the war, which is layers and layers of other voices and the Filipinos barely heard. In my view, that structure — the absence or the layers of voices, tells us something about the Filipino,” Ms. Apostol said of the book’s style of story-telling. “Americans created a concept of the Philippines, and we never really questioned that concept for a long time.”
As she learned about the Balangiga massacre, Ms. Apostol came to realize its importance in American and Philippine history.
“Americans are ignorant of almost everything outside of themselves… I’m not talking about every single American, I’m just talking about it in general,” she said. “One one hand, that’s a challenge, because people like to hear stories that are familiar to them.
“On the other hand, I think in their Trump moment right now, Americans are learning how deeply hurt and injured they are by the general ignorance and racism… Knowing Philippine history for Americans is knowing themselves.”
Learning about history through a novelist’s words is not just for Americans — she sees how Filipinos are grappling with their history this way too.
“It seems like a lot of the stories right now are about figuring out the Marcos regime. So I imagine in the future, there would be all of these novels of the Duterte regime,” Ms. Apostol said.
“I think there should be novels, period. But honestly, I also think there should be readers. I think Filipinos should read,” she said.
She hopes that her latest book of historical fiction would make Filipino readers understand more about themselves.
“Maybe from that kind of playfulness, that kind of wondering what exactly was true or not true, maybe in the journey through Balangiga, you learn about a different perspective,” she said.
“I [had] a lot of fun when I was writing. My hope is that the reader will also have fun.”
Insurrecto is available at National Bookstore for P649. — Michelle Anne P. Soliman