Since the late 1990s, Gina Apostol has consistently crafted metafiction about the impacts of colonialism and dictatorship in the Philippines. Her fourth novel, Insurrecto (2018), exhibited a unique approach that placed translation at the forefront.
This book is full of wordplay and puns, just like her debut, Bibliolepsy. The latter earned her a Philippine National Book Award upon its release and is now being released in the US.
The two novels, although written decades apart, have a shared love of language and an urge to go beyond what is expected. Primi, the protagonist of Bibliolepsy, is a bookworm stuck in a novel and living during the 1986 People Power Revolution.
She knows her story is political, but she is more interested in pursuing writers than taking action. Primi’s journey to comprehend being a part of a political story is a common theme in Apostol’s works.
Question:In what way could one explain the impact that art has on the world?
GINA APOSTOL states that we are unable to view ourselves as others do, as even in the mirror we are in reverse. We gain an understanding of ourselves through others. Through books we are able to engage with ourselves in the same way an author creates a book.
In life, we may not be able to observe our construction of ourselves, but in narratives we can. This is why meta-narratives are so appealing to her: they make clear that reality, including our own selves, is constructed.
Authors use meta-narratives to point out that everything is made up, that they are constructing the story for the readers. By being conscious of this idea of construction, it is easier to not be influenced by other people’s authority.
THE BELIEVER: Are the translations and language play present in The Revolution According to Raymundo Mata and Insurrecto a product of your love for language and word games?
GINA APOSTOL: Growing up as a Filipino, I had to translate often. My native language was Waray, but my schooling was done in English, making my original tongue something that was kept hidden.
This experience of translation and mistranslation has made me compassionate to those who also have to navigate the power dynamics that come with having to communicate in English.
I have no apprehension when it comes to utilising the power of English myself, as I have always written in this language, never having written anything in Waray.
This issue of language and translation in the Philippines has been a result of colonisation–not me. I do not feel ashamed of using English, but I do have a political issue with colonisation.
I don’t see it as a problem, and it’s certainly not something I’m personally responsible for. Our multiple languages are our way of existing, deeply rooted in Filipino reality. My novels, with all their translators and wordplay, make this point clear.
It is not only Filipinos who experience life in translation; even for those who only speak English, the problems of inaccuracy and misinterpretation are an integral part of life.
Every single one of us is constantly engaged in the act of translation, though it is more apparent in the Philippines and similar countries.
THE BELIEVER: Primi had the idea at one point in Bibliolepsy that the writer had the capacity to “fulfil and [make] whole” the reader’s desires, in contradiction to the idea of an open text. Did you ever believe that a novel has the ability to give someone a sense of fulfilment?
GINA APOSTOL: I never thought a novel alone could bring a person to completeness. Instead, I maintain that it is the crumbling of capitalism that will bring us all to wholeness.
Engaging with the political world is, in my opinion, part of the way that we can achieve our own completeness.
I’m a firm believer in the importance of art. It’s essential for individuals to be able to imagine and appreciate art. We should safeguard its integrity, as it has a beneficial impact on the world.
However, it’s not enough to just promote art; we have to address poverty, too. Art alone won’t make the world complete.
When it comes to the notion of artistic integrity, the priority is not always paramount. For example, when Hannah Black encouraged Dana Schutz to remove her painting of Emmett Till due to potential harm it could cause.
If I were in that situation, I would have destroyed the piece. The relationship is more important than the work of art itself.
Even on a smaller scale, I often write about people I know, but if it could be hurtful, I never share it. I still create it, but the relationship is more important than the art.
THE BELIEVER: It appears to me that the ethics of life and the ethics of art share some similarities, although not completely, and that there is a conversation going on about how much these overlap. It seems you have a considerable amount of commonality between your beliefs in this regard.
GINA APOSTOL: When it comes to these matters, I believe that kindness should be the priority. Even if these are issues of politics and ideology, I’d rather look at them in terms of people and the way they interact with one another.
My priority is not to cause any unnecessary offence. As an artist, I strive to be as truthful as possible, and I believe that if you are honest with your art, the only people you will offend are those in power–which is what we ultimately want. We want to be offensive to those in a position of authority and not to people in general.
THE BELIEVER: What is your response to the discomfort the American public has with overtly political literature? Are there any contemporary authors of political writing that you admire?
GINA APOSTOL: Art that has a bourgeois or political outlook is not something I particularly care for. It’s the works of fiction that deal with current affairs that people still read.
Lolita is an example – even though the protagonist denies it – whereas John Updike’s writing, although beautiful, is seen as somewhat dated.
His ridicule of Rabbit Angstrom’s activist wife is particularly off-putting and the general misogyny evident in his work does not do him any favours. Despite this, I read all the Rabbit books but I’m not aware of many new readers of Updike.
John Keene’s Counternarratives is remarkable in terms of modern political fiction. Keene is often overlooked, but he is one of the leading American short-story writers. Also, I highly admire Elena Ferrante for tying women’s awareness with the political realm.
Her character Lila acts as an organic intellectual, which is rarely seen in the majority of novels. In any other book, she would be a secondary character, yet Ferrante gave her the leading role.
Additionally, I admire Eugene Lim, Paul Beatty, and Ishmael Reed. Specifically, I am fond of Reed’s early, wild books. I personally find it difficult to read “realism” which can be unconvincing and exaggerated.
However, Reed’s novels, even the one with cowboys on Mars, are believable because of his Marxist thesis on politics and history. He includes all people, regardless of wealth, and his political ideas combined with his artistic freedom make his work enthralling.
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