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In conversation: Preti Taneja and Gina Apostol

Adelaide, Writers Week, March 2019. It was 41 degrees, and it was the furthest I have ever flown. I was standing at the fringes of the opening night event when Gina Apostol arrived. I recognised her: I had seen her on the cover of Publisher’s Weekly magazine, as Fiction Writer of the Year, 2018. I had read her novel, Insurrecto, and fallen for it completely. Gina is a virtuoso stylist, without showing herself to be. She writes as if she already knows who you are, and where you will be when you read her. And as if she is what you need to be reading in order to survive the insanity of the world we live in. We began a conversation that night, sitting down as the rest of the party carried on without us. We kept going for the rest of the week, over dinners, at a Pussy Riot concert… and now, over email, months later, we talk about Insurrecto and We That Are Young, about life, grief, and what matters most in the process of writing, in the doing.

— Preti Taneja

 

 

Preti Taneja: I have so much to ask you about Insurrecto. It’s such a deadly serious story, told with so much fierce verve that it’s also highly amusing and entertaining. It’s both for readers who know nothing about the Philippines and for those who know a lot about it. You have two main characters, a writer and a filmmaker, who also both happen to be women, going on a road trip in a time of political turmoil, dealing with historical trauma. There’s a lot to talk about. But I’m going to begin with something light-hearted. Did you ever want to make movies?

 

Gina Apostol: No. I have never wanted to do anything else but write fiction – then when I began writing novels, I did not want to do anything else but write novels. I’m a pretty boring, monogamous, stubbornly prose-prone person. I’m really just deeply interested in the form of the novel, in ways to challenge and yet also speak to that form. It was odd when I discovered I was writing a novel about a moviemaker, and I barely watch movies or TV (I mainly watch a lot of soccer – or football, as you guys call it – I love the narrative suspense and storytelling of a soccer game). So, I bought this second-hand textbook on moviemaking from a bookstore that serves NYU students, then I asked a friend of mine who makes movies to check out the novel for dumb things. I did absolutely enjoy writing about making movies, though. I loved the frame of constantly pointing out the constructedness of a world, which is my sense of reality, and of history, and moviemaking was a way to ground that sense. Among movies, I do really like the Italian neorealists – I once binge-watched the Italian movies Scorsese had explored in his series on moviemaking. I loved Fellini, of course (hence the reference to E La Nave Va in Insurrecto, which is not my favourite Fellini but it is sufficiently weird). I especially love Bertolucci’s The Conformist all these art-political movies that I am very envious of, as a writer. I like the very slow movies of Lav Diaz – I can get immersed in that filmness and feel very very jealous. But no, I have never wished to make a movie. I’m more like Virginie in Insurrecto. I’m very susceptible to the effects of movies – I’m that scared, naive, easily manipulated watcher of movies who can’t watch thrillers because I think I am being run over by the train or killed by the mobster. A while ago a movie was made of one of my short stories; the film was called ReQuieme!, based on ‘Cunanan’s Wake’, an old story of mine about Versace’s Filipino-American killer. The moviemaker kept asking if it was OK if they expanded on this or cut out that – and I was very puzzled that my views might even matter. I’m a novelist; the moviemaker’s needs are very likely different from mine. Later, because I had written that story on Cunanan, I did binge-watch (I fast-forwarded the gory parts) the HBO series ostensibly about the assassination of Versace, but really it was about Cunanan, it was a Filipino-American tragedy as well. But again, I did not think about the series in terms of its form – I just kept wishing the lives had not turned out so badly. Speaking of series – what about you? Are you going to be working on the series of your novel? As I was reading We That Are Young, I kept thinking of it in terms of the series – I kept imagining the great nervous energy of the novel transported into film. Are you involved in that? And what do you think are the pitfalls and pleasures of that transformation of your novel into television?

 

PT: When I read Insurrecto, I see that absolute commitment to form. I can see the influence of the directors you mention, in the carnival of politics you write, but I think your work has more heart, is more piercing and honest about the absurdity of living in a racialised world. It’s also exciting to read a female friendship that runs against a Thelma and Louise narrative; which foregrounds women of mixed brown backgrounds, with a politics of love in their friendship and artistic endeavour. You find a form and language that is so true to the setting of the novel and the craziness of a road trip, but is also absolutely committed to the anti-exoticisation of narrative.

 

At the heart of your work there is fury, under the laughter – and great sadness as well as hope. And that comes out in the language. Your concept of the ‘alter-native’ – I just had to put the book down for a second and I realised I was holding my breath. It was just pure delight at what you are doing with language. I also love the light way that you pillory class posturing. It was so painful that I had to laugh, reading it (Bumpus IS Boris Johnson). I felt so moved by it – it made me miss talking with you about the landscape you’ve traversed to be able to write like this, which is deadly serious.

 

It’s also rare for me to read a book where I can’t unlock how the author has constructed the story. But I can’t with yours. I look for where you began and how you’ve edited; it’s like trying to solve an infinite Rubiks cube, where the only reality is authorial control. But you, Gina, are also completely invisible in the text. You write lines that teach us how to read the novel, even as the characters do what we are doing as we read it – for example, you write:

 

As she reads, Magasalin 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…

 

and I’m like, Christ, I’m reading her doing what I’m actually doing. And so she is me, but I see her as the author of what I’m reading – so she’s essentially also you. To me, this isn’t a novel about a moviemaker, it’s a novel about the ‘art’ in ‘artifice’ – the state we all live in, and I thank you for that.

 

It’s something that concerned me in We That Are Young – there’s a focus on technological surveillance, the influence of cinema and the public and private performance of selfhood; there is a state of fascist control that a patriarch can perpetrate on a family and that in India acts as a synecdoche for the nation. All of it is maya – illusion – and we all buy into it to a greater or lesser extent. But the larger concern for me is this – what is happening right now in India, shown by the absolute horror of what Modi is doing in Kashmir and the disenfranchisement of Indian Muslim citizens in line with ethnonationalist Hindutva ideology via the Citizenship Amendment Act, the state rhetoric that is tantamount to incitement to religious violence, even genocide, is the thread that runs through my novel, and its ultimate endgame. Like any researcher or novelist or non-fiction writer, I could see much of this coming when I was writing, and especially when I was editing in the final stages, between 2015 and 2017.  Kashmir saw eight million people under lockdown in the world’s ‘largest democracy’ in 2019. They have faced endless arbitrary arrests, been shot at by pellet guns that blind. The situation was caused by the British Partition of the subcontinent in the first place. And all that is happening now is under the guise of the Hindu nationalistic rhetoric of ‘economic development’. I would love to think that a filmmaker would represent that in a series and be true to the world of the book and what is happening in reality. Is there a studio that’s going to do that and a distributor that will programme it? We will see.

 

Reality does make me question the value of political fiction writing in the times we are in. And then I think, cultural silencing happens and we have to work despite it. I think Insurrecto makes that clear, and my own experience trying to publish We That Are Young shows it too. So we have to keep going, that’s all we can do – and with a confidence that is hard-won for me. Is it for you? Do you think you could have written this book as your first novel? I mean to say – HOW DID YOU WRITE THIS BOOK?!

 

GA: Oh my God – maya – illusion. You’ve nailed the symmetry between our books! Let me say how much I am moved by your comments on the novel’s form. It is such a gift to be read by a writer I love, that is, someone who understands without explanation that the trouble we take with our work has to do with form – we have our ideas, which also make us write, but how how how? I don’t know if I can explain how Insurrecto came to be. The way I explained it a long time ago, before it was finished, to my old editor (at Norton) and my agent: there are intertwining stories, as in a weave, but if you pull at the fabric, it actually comes out as one single thread. I remember distinctly that moment when I explained this to them, after the book launch of Gun Dealers’ Daughter – so that was in 2012. I guess in my mind that single thread was grief, history and colonisation, and personal lives as a story of loss, and the fun of it (yes, for me even a novel about grief must be an act of pleasure) was the interlacing of the stories, how to hide from the reader the singularity of this thread. So one way to explain the form is that I knew I was hiding a solution to the puzzle from my reader, and I made moves and revised and created doubled chapters and odd dislocations because I already knew the answer to the puzzle. The beauty and, for me, absolute pleasure of writing novels is that, on the other hand, I have no idea what the puzzle will look like, though before I write I need to imagine the key, or at least the ending. There were crucial matters, though, that emerged from writing – for instance, my understanding of the concept of the locked-room puzzle: how it is grief, and colonisation, and the mystery of suicide, and the absolute privacy and mystery that is the self – all of those at once are ‘locked-room puzzles’, which was an idea that opened up the novel’s form for me. So I do owe something to Poe — the classic and first locked-room puzzle is ‘The Murders in the Rue Morgue’ – which is interestingly also about culture and race and prejudice, and gory misogyny – it’s Poe’s weird orang-utan story. But even earlier, there’s the locked-room puzzle of Oedipus’s self, in Sophocles’s play. I only gradually understood the fascinating possibilities of that concept, which came during revision, funnily enough. It’s an idea that also made me more confident in the book’s form, for some reason. That I could rest on the mystery genre, and think like a mystery writer — that is, I already knew my story’s end, so I could retrace or obfuscate and present clues as I wished. Also, I was very aware of being a woman, and a brown woman, writing this story. So my entire approach to form and how readers should take it was – suck it. It is a very empowering thing to do. To just do what you want, and to hell with all that. I highly recommend the spirit of fuck-it-all. So now I want to go back to the idea you had in your last letter – maya – illusion. I’d like to know how important that is to you – how does it inform your attitude toward writing? I know that given the horrifically salient politics of your book, that awareness of illusion might sound retrograde – but to me it has highly political implications. I mean both the illusion devised by art (for instance, in your case, doubled by the King Lear sub-and-overtext that deliciously runs through the book) and existential illusion, I guess, our ways of experiencing the world, as well as the recognition of illusion, or the fantasy of power, in politics.

 

PT: I agree that we hold grief in our bodies, and we inherit it from our mothers and grandmothers, our aunts who lived through colonisation and its violence taken out on women. I remember growing up in small town England and learning that history as it worked out in India, and in Partition, almost as bedtime stories, because it was not taught at school. I had always felt a void of understanding about why we were in Britain; learning my own history as a brown woman, I was able to start filling that void with everything that suddenly made sense. The illusions of white civilisation that I instinctively felt I could not sustain. The politeness of mainstream society and its power to exclude. The smiling veneer that many brown women must cultivate to survive public life. The locked-room puzzle is the self, as you say. You know that suicide is a mystery: when those we love take their lives we are enraged and bereft, and almost robbed of the ability to mourn. But I think that you’ve stood on the edge of the platform too – I think we all carry the potential to do that within us. To step off is another thing. A connection, a disconnection. Death makes me think that what we attach value to in life (rather than valuing life, of all kinds, in itself) is the ultimate illusion. That’s what I mean when I talk about maya. I learned it young and it comes back to the body. My mother was a life force, but her life was an illusion. As children, we trust that our parents cannot die. I think her death gave me that same sense of fuck-it-all I take to my work; when I write I have to say the things through the work that I can’t say in public, but can’t not say on the page. More importantly, in the form in which I think they must be said. I am going to admit here that it took me a while to actually get to this point with the actual text of We That Are Young  – there was a double-down ‘good British Asian girl’ holding me back for a while. But the fact that I embarked on the book in the first place, I think, was my way of trying to kill her (that girl). Going through the process of trying to get this book published only strengthened that ‘fuck-it’ sense for me. Writing it like this was just something I couldn’t not do. In terms of your question, Lear gave We That Are Young a structural blueprint for me to play with; it also gave me some existential themes to explore. But almost more important were the Indian epic texts I was working with – the Bhagavad Gita, and to an extent the Ramayana, which offer a worldview that is completely aware that physical human life is only a moment long. That entropy is not only a linear force. And attaching one’s sense of self to capitalist or political power is a desperate reaction to that: a chess-move against mortality that is ultimately futile. It’s a point of view outside our construction of linear time. King Lear carries that too.

 

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t write, or act on stage, or protest, or work towards a fairer world. What attracts me to King Lear as a play is that sense of time always moving beneath the surface, disrupting our precious constructed social order. It’s about trappings being stripped away to what? Of masculinity almost realising its own absurdity, almost realising responsibility. Fluctuating between truth and illusion, until the end, when the baton passes not to the final character, but to us.

 

Do the characters in Lear ever go far enough to recognise true equality – between women and men, rich and poor, our own sense of public and private self? No – and that is what makes it a tragedy. But showing us that illusion gives us the chance to see the world differently, and to see our politicians and self-anointed capitalist-Kings and Queens more clearly, and then make decisions about our world and our work in it. When it comes to Kashmir, and settler-colonialism via the creep of tourism – land grabs, leasing, laws that link property to women’s bodies – all of this, and the economic development argument that runs through the novel is there to hold a mirror to this fascist religious nationalism in India and other parts of the world. We have to keep talking about it, keep writing about it, and keep using form to do that without re-inscribing the violence of censorship the Kashmiri people have already lived with for so long. Where a writer stands on how to write about that is so personal; for me it is not by appropriating voices that have little access to power, but by looking at structures of power and enslavement, and at the self as something that can never be controlled.

 

I’m so into the idea that you’re working on the next novel, and you’re hyper aware of the process; and it’s becoming something you are riding now, with joy. It reminds me of the secret pleasure of writing, no matter what is happening to one’s life, or career, or in politics. But what about this thing of hating a draft? Do you think that is a form of self-loathing? Or something just much more simple about process? So much of this is instinct and so much of it is about exerting control – I’m interested in that sense of joy that is partly to do with saying ‘fuck it’, but also about the thrill of putting words down, making them speak, making sense to yourself. How do you move on from a book as joyous and serious as Insurrecto, and leave it behind and yet carry that sense forward into the new work? Asking for a friend!!

 

GA: My parting glass here would be to toast to the process of making novels that, for me, is so energising – the fact that I can always go back and redo. I do not think it is self-loathing. I think it is integrity. We know something is wrong or right about the book by some intuition – which comes from our knowledge and rigour as readers, from the ethical demands we make of ourselves, from the pleasure or not that we get from it. I do a lot of my work on my own: my most expansive revisions come before I show anything to my agent, for instance. But you know, I trust my dissatisfactions. I do know that if I am not enjoying my novel, there is something not quite right. The problem being, I don’t immediately know how to fix it. That takes time. So I toast to the possibility of revision: we cannot do it that much in life, you know. The moment passes, the loved one goes, and that is it. So that is a weird existential gift of novel-writing. Text always gives us possibility – another day, another word, another chance. That idea keeps me writing. And to be honest, that experimentation, the act of writing, is always exhilarating, exciting. That is my experience. And I do hope that translates in the books that I write.


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ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR

’s fourth novel, Insurrecto, was a finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, longlisted for the Dublin Impac International Prize, and named by Publishers' Weekly one of the Ten Best Books of 2018. 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). Her essays and stories have appeared in The New York TimesLos Angeles Review of Books, Foreign Policy, Gettysburg Review, Massachusetts Review, and others. She lives in New York City and western Massachusetts and grew up in Tacloban, Leyte, in the Philippines. She teaches at the Fieldston School in New York City.

teaches writing in prison and in universities. Her novel WE THAT ARE YOUNG (Galley Beggar Press) won the 2018 Desmond Elliot Prize for the UK's best debut of the year, and was listed for awards including the Folio Prize, the Republic of Consciousness Prize for Small Presses, and Europe’s premier award for a work of world literature, the Prix Jan Michalski. It was a book of the year in The Guardian, The Sunday Times and The Spectator, and a top 10 Book of the Decade in India's The Hindu newspaper. It has been translated into seven languages to date and is published in the USA by AA Knopf. It is in development for television with Narcos creators Gaumont US.

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