July 2012

Denise Scarfi


An Interview with Gina Apostol

When agent Kirby Kim first sent me Gina Apostol's Gun Dealers' Daughter, pitching it as an "obdurately literate tale of rebellion and romance, adolescence and assassins," I couldn't help starting to read immediately, despite the piles of work that crowded my desk (I'm an assistant editor, after all!). And I kept reading and reading, through the end of the workday and onto the subway and before I knew it I was at home, locked out of my Brooklyn apartment because, in my excited daze, I'd left my keys at the office.

I wish I would have included that blurb on the back of the book: "This novel will make you leave your keys at the office" -- Denise Scarfi. But aside from that omission, I have been thrilled with every stage of this book's publication, and especially with the opportunity to get to know a writer who thinks so deeply and intelligently about her craft, and who writes out of pure enjoyment. It is a testament to her skill and sense of humor that she'd managed to have fun (and to create a fun reading experience) writing about Sol, a daughter of arms dealers who attempts to ditch her elitist roots and become a part of the communist movement -- all (or mostly) for a boy!

I feel extremely lucky to have acquired and edited this weird, Borgesian puzzle-of-a-novel that seems to offer infinite satisfactions -- a coming-of-age tale, a love story, an amnesiac thriller, a revolutionary potboiler. In this interview, Gina and I talk about the novel as improvisation, becoming an accidental communist, and Filipinos' singing skills, among other things.

One of the things I most love about your novel is that it has this strong political and historical sensibility, and yet those things seem indistinguishable from your narrator's inner life, from her personal story. This is in contrast, I think, to the many historical novels that read like fictionalized history lessons. How much, then, is the novel (in a general sense) tied up in your history, in the world's history? And why do so many people perceive it as something separate from history?

My first novel, Bibliolepsy, took shape as the country's revolt also took shape. There's something in that: the novel is like a revolt happening in real time, with the end game hoped for but not known. Well, if the novel is a revolt happing in real time, an improvised thing, the interesting corollary is that history also is like a novel. History is surprisingly improvised, which is why tragedy happens. Why irony is at the heart of our experience. Aristotle called irony an element of drama; but it is an element of reality, in the sense that reality is a retrospective construction: it works like fiction.

We often forget this, but it was obvious to me, for instance, in 1986, when I was on the streets with a million people, wondering if the bazooka I just saw pass me by was going to kill me or not. We watched history happen, we were history, and it was like living in a novel, in the sense that we were in suspense about what would happen next. We are always in the middle of history, you know, if you think about it. We are always in some novel, wondering about the outcome. In 2000 with the election contretemps in Florida we were in a novel, we were in the middle of history, and the Supreme Court was a very bad author, creating a deus ex machina over something that, in hindsight, maybe we should have taken authorship of and rejected. It was a terrible day for democracy, and for the novel that is the United States of America, I think, when the election was decided by a Supreme Court verdict: that was a terrible plot. I still don't know how we allowed that to happen, why we were so passive, why as citizens most seemed to think we had no say in the plot, in the story of our democracy. I still have the Newsweek cover story that came a year or so later, September 2011, on the summary of journalists' investigations of Florida -- I believe the idea was that if Gore had been allowed to pursue the case, the results would have shown he had won. Of course, that Newsweek story came out the week of 9/11. Aristotle would have noted the peripeteia in that -- the reversal of expectations, the irony.

The great thing about this idea that by merely existing we are living in the novel that is history is that -- you know, we can be authors of it. We don't have to sit by and let things happen. I don't mean being conspiracy theorists: they make bad plots. The young activists in Gun Dealers' Daughter, including my protagonist Sol, had this notion that history is not a foreign entity imposed upon them: they were makers of it. It's a Marxist view: that the citizen is part of a dialectic, a material maker of one's world. But I think it is also a commonsense, existential view. We are in the middle of history always, we are constructing our reality's novel: what do we do with that? I grew up with this Marxist, existential view as a kid in the university in Manila. I grew up with the notion that if we, citizens, don't recognize we are part of our world, part of history, makers of it, we are destined to be eaten up by stronger, terrible authors -- if you think about it, from the point of view of citizens, it is often the case that our story is written by bad writers -- Napoleon, Dick Cheney, Roger Ailes. Our plot is now being run by Fox News. I guess I keep seeing my existence within that twin frisson -- novel as history, history as novel -- the sense of an inexplicable constructedness of my improvised reality -- and it makes me write.

I love that! I think it does us good to think of history and the novel, fact and fiction, life and art as intertwined. For one thing, it's a comfort to feel we're doing something important and "real" by working in the service of literature -- that we're not just producing pretty things that have no bearing on real life. I think this is something Sol struggles with. She worries that her fascination with novels and ancient history is shallow or useless in the midst of her country's revolt, which is one reason she gets involved with the student radicals. Did you ever feel that way during the '80s? Did you "get involved" in concrete ways?  

As Lacan may or may not have said, it is the world of words that creates the world of things. I have this very odd belief that words are more real than boxes, for instance (since I am packing right now and just looking at boxes). I think I was always clear about this idea -- that art matters, that art and literature are material, concrete ways of being involved in the world. I also grew up thinking any kind of writing has political ramifications: you are addressing the world in an alert and conscious way, always, when you are writing. Whether you are Joyce driving the quotidian into the ground with an esoteric novel called Ulysses, or Ignazio Silone actually writing about revolution, you are engaged in a political act. Reading can be a revolutionary act. I like the Italian communist philosopher Gramsci who believed workers should be taught Dante.

So, unlike my character Sol, I was not divided about the notion that art is a form of action, that novels matter as much as activism. But Sol's problem is precisely her inability to think clearly given the muck of her allegiances. Sol has a very peculiar problem -- it is hard to live in the world if you are a conscientious person whose parents' business kills people. But I think all of us are like Sol, in a way, in that we are always trying to figure out how we fit in a troubling world. Or at least we should be. Sol has the same problems as Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye: a correct revulsion for the world in which he lives and yet an incomplete capacity to figure out how to live with his understanding.

I had a hard time understanding Sol, you know. Her worldview was alien to me. To figure out Sol, I gave her some of my experiences. I knew even as a kid that the fear that happened when martial law descended was not good. Checkpoints, barricades, military stockades -- these became part of my childhood vocabulary. Suspending the writ of habeas corpus. I remember in elementary school wondering what that meant. So yes, when I got to university, I joined the student actions. It was the right thing to do in a dictatorship. It would not have fallen without continual agitation from below. The experience was indelible. It was also absurd. I'm still trying to sort it out. My friends were very smart, intense Maoists. They were very analytical about the world, and it enthralled me. I didn't know I was being recruited until suddenly I was collecting copper coins, for this group. I thought I was just studying history. I asked a friend only last year: were we in a cell? She laughed and said, "Uh, yeah, but we had no idea what to do with you." In the end, I did not join the Party. I was just an English major, hello. I was also only sixteen. Some friends did go underground though, at age seventeen. One of them is now a great housewife who likes to bake pies. I gave Sol some of that experience: this sense of being involved, but not. In my case, I simply did not believe in armed struggle. I'd laugh at the warmongers, my red freak friends. I preferred writing. I believed in books. Sol's case was different: her story is about guilt, the effect of guilt on a psyche.

Right -- and Sol's guilt becomes the engine for the novel's circling, amnesiac structure. Did you always know you'd write this novel from the point of view of a Memento-style amnesiac? How did the idea for this device emerge?

No, I did not start this way. And that is the fun of writing novels. The labyrinth of improvising, the play of being in a puzzle as well as in charge of it. My puzzle was Sol herself. I did not like her, yet she was my protagonist. Writing has a way of teaching one to be human, to be kind, even if it's a relationship with a fictional character, and I had to work out my issues with Sol. The first draft was linear, from her parents' courtship to her birth to the end. It always ended in her being stuck in a mansion, not being able to escape the self. It was in third person. That draft was not working, because the voice was too snarky and editorial; I'd start being vicious about people for no good reason. The novel became a flat satire of Filipino upper class life. I dislike unlayered satire, the kind that does not self-implicate. When I decided to shift to first person, things changed. The novel's voice and structure gained discipline; paradoxically, it became nonlinear: if this was Sol's memory, would it be so linear, how really would she remember? The right point of view is crucial; it manages your effects and organizes the skeletons in the closet, so to speak. So I focused on her story with Jed (this also took me to the main action of the story more quickly). I threw out the blubber, the legends of her family. I had whole episodes about her grandmother Lola Felma, for instance, who's left with one or two throwaway references in the book. I knew the backstories of the drivers, the maid with the damaged eye, the feng shui master Mr. Kow Lung, even her farting dogs. I took them all out but kept the sense of her knowing their backstories. In Sol's mind, offhand details gained odd relevance, or people become these sketchy, unfinished drawings that she had once known more fully. Like the way most people remember, if you think about it: in the end, only ourselves count. But we also don't really control why we remember some things and not others. This becomes more obvious in instances of trauma. Some people became mere emblems of her psyche, but how was she to know? My real problem, actually, was the ending, which ironically never changed. How to get there and make it work. So I doubled it, since doubling was a big theme; her memory echoes, it retreads, retraces, backtracks and doubles over, and yet it can never quite say, quite pronounce what in fact hurts. There's a book I read, called The Unsayable, about trauma. I learned a lot from it. It's the reader who has to figure out, in all the doubling, what it is Sol is missing, what's the gap. There is a hidden double in the story, one who is mentioned only once. But that's a mystery I leave for the reader.

Two writers were instructive: Borges in "Garden of Forking Paths" mentions the different ways one could write an infinite story; one of the ways is to create a circle. I've used this trope before; it's very versatile. Now if you graft this Borgesian concept of fiction to psychology, to the infinity of trauma, you unite plot structure with character, with memory, and the circle theme is then elegant in a story about memory and desire. Borges seems to be only about intellectualizing fiction, but he is actually instructive about everything else, very aware of the human mind -- maybe because he is always thinking about fiction. Calvino in If on a Winter's Night a Traveler also gives a lot of tips about writing, since it is metafictive. I could write a whole album of notes on his tips, like the notion of saturating your story with a faint sense of other stories that you don't tell.

How did you start writing? Who are your influences?

I don't really have a memory of when or how I started writing. I do remember saying to my poetry teacher in college, at the University of the Philippines, I'm sorry, I don't write poetry. I only do prose. So flunk me. Or something of that sort. And about prose, I have been interested only in fiction. I'm not an essay-writer; I don't enjoy writing about myself or "real" life. I like the surprises that come from making things up so that you trick people into thinking them real. I really like the novel. Around 1985, in the middle of the demonstrations that ended up in the rebellion of 1986 that threw out the dictator, I'd take detours and go off reading in the libraries and taking in words and scenes for a novel I began working on in earnest at the same time as the country was breaking out into rebellion.

I love the indeterminacy of the novel. You have an idea but your job is to allow the idea to play out. You have to have a frame, a glimmer of an end; but at the same time the entire seemingly well-constructed book is also a product of a very alert kind of improvisation. I love the puzzling of novel writing, the sense that there's a solution, and if you are patient, you'll find the key. The daily thinking about structure and characters. Borges goes on about labyrinths in his very short stories, and I guess I like the labyrinth of working on a novel. You are both the maker of the labyrinth and wandering around in it. It is very satisfying. I enjoy it very much.

So it is no surprise that the writers that have influenced me are paradoxical in that their work is very structured yet also gives away a sense of the improvising that occurs when one writes. Borges tells us how he's writing as he's writing -- he's very instructive about what writing is about; of course he did not write novels, which is the point. He instructs one about how to write them. I like Dostoyevsky very much: but he's an influence only in the sense that he is so involved in his characters' inner lives, nutty as all of them are; one learns an almost unreasonable empathy from Dostoyevsky; I learned from Dostoyevsky to be bold about the psychology of one's characters: no madness is beyond any seemingly rational person. Nabokov shows us what English can do: the language has range, and one should use it. Right now I really like Georges Perec, though he is not an influence but maybe a late boon companion. I like books that seem unfinished, like Flaubert's Sentimental Education. I went back to the last passage of that novel a few days ago, just because it is so satisfying to see how it ends. It ends as if it had only just begun. I was a student of John Barth, and his influence has been lasting. He told me to read Machado de Assis and I did. My other influences, of course, are Filipino: As a kid growing up in the Philippines, I loved work by writers like Francisco Arcellana and Estrella Alfon and Wilfrido Nolledo, whom most Americans do not know; But for the Lovers by Nolledo is fabulous.

This discussion of your process -- particularly your self-editing process -- reminds me that you worked on this novel for something like ten years. Is that right? Were there moments where you felt you might be putting it away in a drawer for the last time? And how did it feel when you found out it would be published in the U.S.?

I did not work on it for ten years. I went back to it after eleven. I began it during a fellowship at Phillips Exeter Academy, in 1997, and I finished its draft a year later. For personal reasons, I kept it wrapped up; I tried to forget about it. An agent was interested in it once, but I did not have the heart to work on it. It sat in the dust for years until I got back to it in 2009 after a residency a castle in Italy that made me want to keep writing. I don't really go to residencies, but this one was magical. It was in Umbria, called Civitella Ranieri, a rare place, where the avant garde exists in a medieval fortress, postmodern musicians go around looking at Pieros. And back home I had this manuscript, of around 400 pages or so, sitting there. I wrote the revision very quickly, creating the circle structure, within the year. I had a good sense of what to throw away, what to keep. And I wrote a lot of new things. Most of the mansion details are new (I had also moved to a mansion in Westchester that was perfect for a gun dealer's daughter; it had doubles of everything -- double staircases, double oriels, double beveled mirrors, a Gatsby mansion with a view of the Hudson in the winter, when the leaves were down). But I had been thinking about it, off and on, for a very long time. She was in my head. I had been wondering about her, Sol, and her predicament for more than a dozen years. I had been living with her guilt.

I did not expect it to be published here, or even to get an agent; on one hand Gun Dealers' Daughter is a simple book -- a straight psychological thriller, one might call it. But on the other hand, it is complex: it is also a political novel, a romantic tragedy, a postcolonial meditation, a Maoist bildungsroman, and an art novel that is constantly playing with language: like all my books, a question of language is at the heart of its mystery. I think all of us should be asking the question of what kind of political future we are making with the stories we tell; but I look at the books around me and sometimes I am not sure if I fit. So I'd sell my books to Anvil, in Manila, because it is important to me that I am read by Filipinos, and Karina Bolasco of Anvil has long had faith in my work. I was surprised when Kirby gave me the call, and even more surprised when I heard from Kirby that Norton wanted it, within the week of his sending it out. I cried when I heard Norton had bought it. It has been such a long journey, the writing of this novel. All novels are a personal journey, but this one has been tougher than most. I can't begin to tell you what it means, to have this work out in the open. It still seems a little bit miraculous, even now.

It seems like Filipino writers are having kind of a moment in the US right now, with the publication of Alex Gilvarry's book From the Memoirs of a Non-Enemy Combatant and Lysley Tenorio's Monstress. How much do you consider yourself a "Filipino writer," or how much an "American writer," or just plain old writer?

Plain old writer. But maybe it is important for us to recognize that, just as Filipinos understand that American history is inextricably part of their story, so Filipino history is, tragically or not, part of the American story. The Filipino is sovereign, yet attached. So is America. And you know the Filipino experience is very rich; it is tied to America and not, Asian but also Spanish so also Latin American -- old Manila was administered through Mexico. It is old and young, East and West, it's a mongrel history with multiple languages, multiple stories, unable to settle on only one perspective because that would be no truth. It was globalized before globalization. Maybe that's why the Filipino experience matters. It's an emblem of the world, right now. One of my novels is going to be called William McKinley's World, and it will be set in the Philippines. Plus, we can sing.