In Her Words: Gina Apostol
A woman of substance and a novelist of great calibre are just a few of the words that have been used to describe Gina Apostol, the award-winning author of Insurrecto – a novel that tackles the historical Balangiga Massacre as the basis for two conflicting screenplays written by an American filmmaker and her Filipino translator.
Insurrecto was lauded by the New York Times as a “bravura performance…a vertiginous narrative.’” The book also made it into Publishers’ Weekly’s list of the 10 best books of 2018, as well as BuzzFeed’s 2018 list of the top 10 works of fiction.
An alumna of the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Apostol was born in Manila and grew up in Tacloban, Leyte. She won the 2013 PEN/Open Book Award for her novel Gun Dealer’s Daughter which was also shortlisted for the William Saroyan International Prize in 2014. Her first two novels, Bibliolepsy and The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata, both won the Philippine National Book Award for Fiction in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
She currently lives in the United States and teaches at the Fieldston School in New York.
You’ve lived in the United States for quite some time now, yet your writing has a distinctively Filipino flavour to it. How have you kept your identity Filipino despite living abroad for so long?
When I look at what my friends went through as young Filipino-Americans, I feel that I didn’t have to deal with that – but that was because I was older when I moved to the States and I was already in my 20s.
Those who were born or migrated young and grew up there, their struggle has been very different from mine. In a sense, I didn’t see myself as struggling because I didn’t get a sense that my identity had changed. As kids, my friends were thrust into a world where they had to take sides: be American or not American – they had to figure their identity out. I didn’t; I was always Filipino.
As a writer, what’s your thought process like?
I think about what I want to do. I need to have a structure that I think I can work with. Structure, for me, is really important: if I have a sense of it [and it evolves], then that’s how I feel that I can do this one.
A number of Filipino-American writers have involved the concept of struggle in their work. Do you think that struggle is, essentially, endemic to the Filipino experience or to writing in general?
I think struggle is endemic to narration. [In writing], there always has to be some kind of conflict, as conflict moves the story. I wouldn’t really say it’s endemic [to the Filipino identity], but it’s certainly part of narration. You have to figure out what the conflict is; it could be banal, but your plot has to move.
For you, do you think that there is room for speculative (sci-fi/fantasy) fiction by Filipinos?
Of course! I just read a really beautiful story where a young boy is training to become a manggagaway [native wizard] – and it was really speculative!
What is important to consider when it comes to Filipino speculative fiction is that it allows use to imagine a prehistoric past of which we know nothing. [The author of the story I read] speculated about how our culture would have evolved without foreign colonisation.
It’s like the Wakanda created by Marvel Comics – in terms of colonisation, it’s a very interesting concept: what if the white men never colonised Africa? Isn’t that a profound reality for colonised Africans? It makes them wonder what they might have become – and that’s the same for us.