How Filipino Novelist Gina Apostol Makes the Historical Narrative Gripping
The 'He Said, She Said' format has long been around, exploring the differences and similarities of perceptions of both male and female personas. In contrast to this, Philippine-born U.S.-based author Gina Apostol wanted to tackle the story of the Balangiga Massacre of 1901 through the narratives of two women, leaving out the archetypal male lead.
Her latest novel Insurrecto follows the footsteps of Filipino translator Magsalin and American filmmaker Chiara. As they make their way through modern-day Philippines, they constantly clash as their own backgrounds have them telling two completely different histories.
“I wanted women’s voices,” Apostol tells Town&Country. “That’s the real reason why I kept thinking that the women’s voices were important to me—their stories are untold.”
The novelist spent her childhood years in Tacloban, Leyte, before moving to Massachusetts and now, New York. Insurrecto was chosen as the New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, a Publishers Weekly Top 10 Best Book of 2018, and BuzzFeed’s Best Fiction of 2018. Its predecessor, Gun Dealer's Daughter, won her the 2013 PEN/Open Book award. She has also been published in the New York Times, Foreign Policy, and Gettysburg Review, among other titles.
During an afternoon of catching up with Apostol a day before she was to be at the writer’s Q&A panel at the annual Philippine Readers and Writers Festival, T&C was able to pick up insights from her writing process:
See old stories through a new lens.
Apostol found herself working her way through Philippine history and decided to continue her research until she reached the Philippine-American War. Instead of writing solely for the enjoyment of the reader, she considered writing for herself as well: “There were stories there that were very interesting and I figured out how to do it in a way that would interest me. This included having a Filipino and an American writing a script that went at odds against each other. That would be interesting because I had to make two scripts,” she says. That fun that the writer had in sculpting the story and the characters eventually resonate from the published pages.
Make it a passion project.
While penning Insurrecto, Apostol was simultaneously working on another novel called William McKinley’s World and admits that she was not sure which one she would complete first. She likened writing Insurrecto to recess time. “I didn’t take it seriously at first because the other one was the big novel. That’s constructive,” she adds. Moving forward, her new trick is to think of her next novel as something she won’t be publishing and is just doing for fun.
Give a just perspective.
While many narrations tell the story from a skewed perspective, Apostol’s Insurrecto challenges the one-sided voice of the Americans, as read in the documents of the war. “It was almost always of the point of view from our enemy, and they would characterize Filipinos in this way.” Her novel offers another side of history—the Filipino’s history. In this case, what would be deemed evil for the American soldiers, would be seen as revolutionary and heroic for the Filipino people. Apostol made it a point to double-check her reading of the war to give an unbiased telling of both factions.
Reality can often make fiction much more interesting.
Apostol reveals that Chiara is based on renowned American filmmaker Sofia Coppola, who has famously directed Lost In Translation and Marie Antoinette. For her fourth novel, Apostol diligently studied Eleanor Coppola’s diaries. “Sofia was in the Philippines when I was a child. I thought it was interesting to think about that duality that I was experiencing in Tacloban. She was experiencing the same typhoon.” She also recalls how she once saw Coppola dining at a restaurant and peered over to her table to see what she had ordered—all the more material for her book.
Think of how the outcome will resonate with the modern-day reader.
During wartime, the Philippines was often seen as the underdog. Apostol wanted to illustrate to the reader that Filipinos had a sense of agency. “We were not just victims of something and we’re not just whining. We resisted… That’s something I recognized in my reading of the historical documents. We don’t understand how amazing it was for these people, without shoes even, fighting this really well-funded army.” These would eventually lead to victories.
Insurrecto by Gina Apostol is available in National Book Store branches nationwide.