A Doubling, Troubling Gaze

Singapore Unbound presented the panel “Innovations in Southeast Asian Narratives” at the Association of Writing Programs Conference in Portland, Oregon, 2019. We are pleased to publish in a series of three blog-posts the talks given by the panelists Gina Apostol, Alfian Sa’at, and Laurel Fantauzzo. The moderator Lawrence Lacambra Ypil framed the talks and subsequent discussion with these opening remarks: “Innovation" is a concern with newness of form, yes, but really the newness of a relationship to subject matter. When I think about our panel, I think about what it means to continue to write—in spite of and because of everything that our region has gone through and is going through—and the ways you as a writer have chosen to position yourself in relation to our region—a relation that is political as it is aesthetic. I'm interested to know in what ways you are attempting to "innovate" in your own work. In general, I think it would be great to hear how you see your work in relation to the our region’s literary, political, and cultural history.”

Before Gina Apostol's fourth novel, Insurrecto, hit the shelves, Publishers' Weekly named it one of the Ten Best Books of 2018. Insurrecto was also named Buzzfeed's Best Books of 2018 and Autostraddle's 50 Best Feminist Books of 2018, among many other Best Lists. Her third book, Gun Dealers' Daughter, won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award and was shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize. Her first two novels, Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, both won the Juan Laya Prize for the Novel (Philippine National Book Award). She lives in New York City and western Massachusetts and grew up in Tacloban, Philippines.

Below is the full version of the talk given by Gina Apostol.

I will start with a few points on Larry’s questions for us: What it means to continue to write—in spite of and because of everything that our region has gone through and is going through—and the ways you as a writer have chosen to position yourself in relation to our region—a relation that is political as it is aesthetic.

First I wish to put away this issue that Larry sets up for us: Why is it that a writer from Southeast Asia must position herself in relation to the political as well as the aesthetic?

This is an issue not because it is untrue of my work—I absolutely agree with Larry. My novels are written to be inextricably political art-novels—I am clear about both my novels’ didactic aims as well as the power of that didactic function in my aesthetic play.

For me the most creative art structures occur from grappling with polemical desire.

I’m very adamant about this as part of so-called craft—I believe the political is an absolutely necessary, integral element of craft. Even as, at the same time, the entire effect one desires for one’s novels is simply a pure, artistic pleasure—the two are not irreconcilable. For me, they’re necessarily tethered.

But I just want to address this first: that the presumptuous gaze upon the Southeast Asian writer can sometimes be binary—that is, if you are political, you are not really aesthetic (I call this the New-Critical-realist binary mode: often but not always an assumption in creative-writing workshops); or there’s the fake-nonbinary, equally problematic: of course you’re both political and artistic—you’re from Southeast Asia!—as if such a thing were natural to us, like eating rice, and not a historical condition, a multitudinous vision demanding our rigorous attention because of a complex, usually violent past.

So I just want to set this up first—a rigorous, multitudinous, doubling, troubled gaze should be demanded of any American writer because of the complex, violent colonizing history of America.

So a question I have for the second—the fake-nonbinary. Why don’t white critics and publishing moguls demand of all of their white friend-writers or texts, from Jonathan Franzen to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, from Francine Prose to any old sad prose writer in the New York Times or New York Review of Books etc, from Lydia Davis to Lionel Shriver, from George Saunders to his colonizer twin, Colonel Sanders, etc—to have just as rigorous and multitudinous a gaze as we here writers of Southeast Asia expect of ourselves—to combine a rigorous account of power and hegemony and an interrogation of self, that is whiteness, in white art?

I think we should expect of white writers in this violent, complex America with its violent, complex history also to write innovative, inextricably political art-novels.

I imagine this is a truism, but I do wish to be transparent about problematic assumptions we sometimes have about the link between art and politics.

I will also just say and add, by the way, that there are some amazing and it seems to me quite forgotten interrogators of colonizing systems in such political art-works by some quite white people, such as The Public Burning by Robert Coover or that American postcolonial novel, The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth—but it is interesting how the publishing world / the public does not expect that the white writing world should be so consistently and powerfully political in its art—as if such art-making were a fad. At the moment it is the dystopian Hobbesians who are the prophets of this art, and books such as Mark Doten’s Trump Sky Alpha and The Infernal are taking up that mantle. And of course, there is the burden of American political art-writing that has fallen to black artists and other American people of color—some of whom seemed banished to obscurity at the start of their careers by what seems at the outset a publishing mafia that cannot immediately privilege them, such as John Keene’s Counter-Narratives, an absolute masterpiece, which all major news outlets failed to review when it first came out (shame on them, now that Keene has won the MacArthur etc etc); or the uncomfortable comforts of the poetry of Claudia Rankine; or the great, bitter comedies of Paul Beatty, now a keynote here, of course, at AWP, since he won the Booker—here in these—our fake-nonbinary, pseudo-enlightened—times.

Also, just at the top, I’d like to address that other issue as well—that binary question of if you are political, you are not aesthetic. A straw question here, sure, but it still needs blowing down. I just want to be clear that I do hope our workshops do not still exist in PBS’s Antiques Road Show of Critical Phenomena—that that critical notion dividing politics and art is obsolete. This assumption that art should not be “didactic.” Yes, it can, and to be honest, it can be in very artful ways. I think the question in workshops should always include: e.g., what is your subject-position in this story about slumming in the malls or being a tourist in Ghana, etc etc? Who are you centering and why—what is your gaze for—all of these political questions would make anyone’s art better, whether we are writing about our cats or our catastrophes.

And conversely, that attention to our subject-position does not mean we from Southeast Asia must be writing only novel-rants in outraged monotones.

The opposite is true—

We writers here also have all the agency to write quiet little novels of hallmark inspirations, if we see fit, or journaling epics about crocheting our socks or whatnot.

I think our position here as writers of Southeast Asia in a setting such as this, the Associated Writing Programs conference on writing, already sets us up for some form of innovative dread. I mean, we can choose to see ourselves as little puppets of a neo-colonizing, hemi-semi-demi-imperialist-hegemonic-meaning-making writing machine that is the American creative writing programs actually-also-quite- parochial globe-sphere, hashtag AWP19!

On the other hand, we can also see ourselves as agents of our own desire and writers / resisters of an implacable, intractable history, of a vertiginous, complex story that includes not just Asia but the world that has violently and blithely and at times contritely but not always completely impinged, let’s say, upon Southeast Asia, so our gaze is all too often a doubling and troubling—a multitudinous, multifarious—gaze—a gaze Western and Southeast Asian and Asian and all of the above, all mixed and messed up—that recognizes the blindness of others, the colonizers and the powers—and therefore cannot also fall into blindness upon our many selves, our islands and our tongues and our faiths—and this of course we prefer to do.

We prefer to address here our agency, our desire, our forms of art—which is as it should be. So I will.

I’m going to read from a section in Insurrecto, describing the main character, Magsalin, a mystery writer and translator who grew up in the Philippines, studied in the United States, and becomes embroiled in the filmmaking of a white American moviemaker, Chiara Brasi.

Magsalin… had grown up with a surplus of academic desire. It does not help that her adolescent streets included Harvard, Cubao, and New York, Cubao, twin cartographic jokes that, as is often the case in the Philippines, are also facts. Poststructuralist paganisms, the homonymic humor of Waray tongue-twisters (which descend, as always, into scatology), Brazilian novelists, Argentine soccer players, Indonesian shadow puppets, Afro-Caribbean theorists, Dutch cheeses, Japanese court fictions, and mythopoeic animals in obscure Ilocano epics indiscriminately gobbled up her soul. It is not an uncommon condition, this feeling of being constructed out of some ambient, floating parts of a worldwide emporium (so glum scholars of the Anthropocene appraise this unsettled, hypertextual state). Typical of her sort in Manila, her passions were global (maybe because her options seemed slim). Her grad-school scholarship to Cornell was almost predictable. Some of her youthful attachments were fetishistic, while others were just symptoms of malnutrition.

She adored the concept of signs, without acknowledging the need to understand it.

As she reads, Magsalin keeps track of her confusions, annotating each mixed-up chapter as she goes, taking out from her bag an actual notebook and a fountain pen, a pale green Esterbrook, bought on eBay. In the notebook, she includes problems of continuity, the ones not explained by hopscotching chapters; issues of anachronism, given the short life-span of the male subject (1940–1977) contrasted against the women, who have superpowers: longevity and dispassion; words repeated as if they had been spilled and reconstituted then placed on another page; a stage set of interchangeable performers with identical names, or maybe doubles or understudies as they enter and exit the stage; an unexplained switch of characters’ names in one section; and the problem of lapsed time—in which simultaneous acts of writing are the illusions that sustain a story.

At times, she feels discomfort over matters she knows nothing about, and Magsalin hears rising up in her that quaver that readers have, as if the artist should be holding her hand as she is walked through the story.

But she rides the wave, she checks herself.

A reader does not need to know everything.

How many times has she waded into someone else’s history, say the mysteries of lemon soaps and Irish pubs in Dedalus’s Dublin, or the Decembrists’ plot in Dostoyevski’s The Devils, or Gustave Flaubert’s Revolution of 1848 in what turns out to be one of her favorite books, Sentimental Education, and she would know absolutely nothing about the scenes, the historical background that drives them, the confusing cultural details, all emblematic, she imagines, to the Irish or the Russians or the French, and not really her business—and yet she dives in, to try to figure what it is the writer wishes to tell.

She calls these reader moments the quibbles—when she gets stuck in the faulty notion that everything in a book must be grasped.

Why should readers be spooked about not knowing all the details in a book about the Philippines yet surge forward with resolve in stories about France?

Against her quibbles, she scribbles her Qs, her queries for the author to address later.

As you see here, I kind of just told you what the structures in this novel are—one of the things I like to do is tell instead of show. I heartily commend this—I do think this workshop notion of showing not telling is very problematic. Scholars have already noted how the history of writing workshops, which privilege this tactic, coming as it does from New-Critical-realist notions of the 1950s, is a history tainted with Cold War programs such as the CIA-sponsored Iowa International Writing Workshops.

One of the artists I love is Cy Twombly—he did this piece called The Italians—his huge canvas used to cover a wall in NYC’s MoMA—but all it is is a white canvas of squiggles and crayon-like scribbles. In the middle he just says—Italians—that’s all—he just tells you what he thinks he’s making.

I enjoy the arrogance of that.

Staring at that painting during the year I was writing the draft of Raymundo Mata, for instance, was very useful for me.

Among my four novels’ structures are fractal geometries, psychoanalytic repetitions, doppelgangers, or in Insurrecto, maybe trippelgangers or quadrigangers, time-lapse moments, intercutting voices, hyperbolic absurdity gained ironically from historical facts, paratextual heists, that is, footnotes-within-texts-within-footnotes, proleptic analepsis, or is it analeptic prolepsis—which some people just call memory—all of these kinds of play occur in varying ways in all of my four novels.

Their structures have required this—because I’m concerned with the history of colonization—in which the citizen, in my case the Filipino, has been made the text, or construct, of another—a text within a text within a text—so that the act of construction can seem quite visible and traumatic—a contingent being whose voice in history has been arrested by a geopolitical order that bedevils all of us here, right now, as we speak.

Of course, these structures have occurred in work by Cortazar, or Calvino, or Borges, or Nabokov, or Flaubert, or Georges Perec, who occurs in Insurrecto as the Frenchman Stéphane Réal. My novels weaponize art-fetish moves for my ends: I interrogate the West on its own art-fetish terms.

I will say, I discovered this quite accidentally.

Colonization has made the spiral form, or the doubling narrative, or the multiple-intra-textual mystery, or the infinite circle plot of trauma, which is also the circle plot of the epic, to be honest, imperative ways to tell a story in which one group is constructed by its enemy to the detriment of all concerned, damaging not only the victim but also the conqueror.

A constant inversion of who is hurt in this colonizing ravage occurs in my novels. For me, the blind Cyclops, the colonizer, is very damaged.

In Insurrecto, for instance, in the necessary rewriting of that story of trauma, the tables absolutely must be turned—and the hologram Filipino of history, constructed by the imperial capitalist in some kind of Borgesian Tlon, must become the puppet master, the conjuror of the present, the manager of the narrative, and so on.

But how do you do that?

As one can see in the excerpt, my great fun is often to make visible the act of writing, and to complicate and puzzle the role of the reader, enmeshed in who knows what—the games of the imperialist, the trauma of the oppressed, the manipulations of the translator?—the reader cannot be entirely sure with whom or what she is complicit, stuck in a labyrinth of voices and traps in which the exit, for me, can only be resistance—however illusory or deferred or textual that revolution might be.

And the result must be pleasure.

I wrote Insurrecto with the sense of the impossible that must be told from a resurrectory, insurrectionary lens. The text itself is an insurrection.

Or as the moviemaker in my novel says—there is nothing outside the film.

My work, one might say, is a play on Gayatri Spivak’s question—can the subaltern speak—in which my question is—is it possible to write such a novel that contains my revolutionary yet fraught and fractured Southeast Asia?

And my answer, unlike Spivak who’s a literary critic, whose answer to her question is a rational and reasonable No—my answer is an annoying and arrogant—well, who cares, I’ll write that novel anyhow.

On one hand, I cannot see my work as an innovation: it’s the world maybe that needs to become an innovative reader. One question that arises for me is—it may be correct to call such novel writing unusual, but is it note more important to see such forms as necessary?

On the other hand, the Filipino novel was always an innovation: if we begin with Rizal’s Noli Me Tangere, which is in some way a curse—the Noli is sui generis, nothing like anything else—an impossibility, one might say. A novel that ignited revolution and produced a nation. As I have said in Raymundo Mata, the Philippine nation was created by a novel, which may explain why it remains an illusion.

Once, together in Miami, reflecting on this kind of startling history we were researching, Pat Rosal and I ended up imagining the loneliness of being Rizal, what it must have been like being Jose Rizal, this Filipino-Chinese-who knows even maybe gay novelist walking around Paris and Egypt and Japan and New York and Hong Kong and Madrid and Barcelona in the late 1800s, speaking Latin to German fellow medical students in Berlin (the one common language he had with them), pretend-speaking Japanese to Europeans in Tokyo (he was playing a joke on them), transcribing Tagalog for his Austrian ethnologist friend, including Chabacano and English into his last finished novel in Spanish, El Filibusterismo, then learning Cebuano and reading Dante in Italian in exile in Dapitan—apart from being an ophthalmologist and zoologist and all the other -ologists that he was.

There are too many worlds in Rizal’s novels—too many allusions, and surprises, and innovations—simply because Rizal wrote a straightforward, realist, basic romance portraying Filipinos to themselves in the language of their conqueror, Spanish. As one Filipino writer NVM Gonzales responded to one critic of his earnest agrarian-centered stories, all written in English—the critic said to NVM, it is interesting how the stories lack irony—and NVM’s great reply was—is it not ironic enough that I write in English?

I will say that if any innovation happens in my fiction, it is because I am very attentive to my problematic position in our un-fictional times.

I’m aware of my class, the languages I speak and fail to speak, I’m very aware of the absurdity of being a writer, I’m aware of my outrage and yet the stasis of my sense of injustice.

I’m not a freedom fighter. I’m just a writer. This subject-position has always been my problem.

And yet I remain true to my earliest sense as a child that reading, that writing, that art, is a way to take on power.

As a writer researching the Filipino-American war, I’ve been unable to see the discontinuity between 1899, when American guns first fired on Filipino revolutionaries at a checkpoint in Santa Ana, Manila, so many Februarys ago—and this February when we kept hearing of children separated from their mothers at checkpoints on the Mexican border. History warps and doubles up—and I am unable to un-see that historical continuity, that straight line of racism and cruelty that remains central to too much of the American project—a project of which I am part, as citizen, as writer, as human being before you now—

So that in my novel, that un-seeing of whiteness visible in the damage everywhere we look becomes weirdly an amusing trick for me, using Western allusions as I do, tricks of Western propaganda and technology—film and photography and Elvis songs and such—which are also my own, my Filipino tricks—to collide and collapse those technologies to make visible horrors underneath. And so to reveal also that multitudinous power—the Filipino gaze. The gaze of the colonized that can see more, and not just because too often it is seen as less.