It is virtually impossible not to get lost in Gina Apostol’s stories. It is particularly mesmerizing when Apostol is telling a story about her stories. Her most recent novel, “Insurrecto,” was published last year by Penguin Random House’s Soho Press to the best reviews of her career, but she’s already working on her next two books.
Apostol was in town as a headliner for National Book Store and Raffles Makati’s Philippine Readers and Writers Festival 2019.
She had been working on a novel to be called “William McKinley’s World,” about the Filipino-American War, except that book has changed. “One of them is a revision of William McKinney’s world, which I’ve taken out all of the Philippine-American War stuff and just concentrated on the relationship between a mother and a child. Okay, so it’s a mother story.” She’s not sure how long it will take to finish. “I don’t know. I’m hoping that I’ll finish it. You know how I work. It takes so long to finish things. And I’m doing a complete revision of something that’s already almost 300 pages. But I am just taking out lines and completely rewriting it. So that’s a problem. But the good thing is I already know the story. Because I’ve already written it. Yes. So, it’s not really a revision, it’s a first draft.”
The other? A novel about Juan Luna’s wife, Maria de la Paz Pardo de Tavera, whom Luna killed in a fit of jealousy in 1892. “I want to do a story where I recover the voice of a woman who was killed by her very talented and important husband. But she is in Paris at the time that Freud is learning to be a doctor. So, in my novel, she becomes one of the ‘hysteria women.’ But she’s analyzing Freud. But she’s also kind of the figure of tragedy.”
The large number of American readers who have found themselves drawn to Apostol’s tricky treat of Filipino-American historical fiction may have found themselves there in a time of savage illumination. “I think it’s the Trump moment. I think it’s Americans recognizing that they need to know their history a little bit better, because apparently, they’re a f__ked up country.”
One big portion of the positive critical reception of “Insurrecto” did surprise her. “My use of moviemaking actually helped people get into the novel, which is interesting. Also, the other one was the use of pop because everyone kept mentioning it. Like, I’m Filipino, it’s all pop culture. So that was weird to me. But what I was hearing was that they recognized Muhammad Ali, Frazier, Elvis Presley, in particular, Frank Sinatra. It allowed them into the story.”
In the thick of all these stories, it is easy to forget Apostol’s own extraordinary story. The award-winning fictionist with a degree from the University of the Philippines Diliman and another from Johns Hopkins University hatched darkly experimental novels such as “Bibliolepsy,” The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata” and “Gun Dealer’s Daughter.” “Gun Dealers’ Daughter” was her US debut, published by W.W. Norton & Co., received the prestigious PEN Open/Book Award.
She had also undergone surgery and chemotherapy to battle breast cancer and looked on in horror as Supertyphoon “Yolanda” leveled her beloved Tacloban, where she had grown up.
But now Soho Press in New York has also bought the rights to “Raymundo Mata” and UK rights to “Insurrecto” have also been successfully sold. Yet this newfound reach she may have has never been about becoming more “popular.” Then as now, she was never afraid to challenge readers and even though she has found mainstream readers with “Insurrecto,” it was never about becoming more mainstream or accessible.
It was just time to tell this particular story, part of Apostol’s ongoing exploration of the Filipinos’ tortured history as a colonized people. “I guess it would be different for different people,” Apostol said. “What I was trying to do is just give them the story of the complexity of the Philippines, you know, and just let them kind of wade into it. And for them to say, oh, it’s okay, I get something. I’m good with what I got. And just be okay with that complexity, you know, and just kind of take it in. For the Filipino reader. I really did want them to remember our history of resistance. I think it’s important for us to remember that history, because we need to keep resisting.”
This then leads to the next story being told by Gina Apostol, an unapologetic, uncompromising stargazer who isn’t afraid to rewrite maps, and travels back through her people’s past but moves ever forward toward the future of her fiction, all part of an uneasy but extraordinary exploration of a people both colonized and undefeated.