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Five More to Go: Gina Apostol’s Insurrecto [in The Booklist Reader]

Insurrecto by Gina Apostol

With shrewd insight, inventive plotting, and stinging history lessons, Gina Apostol, who received the PEN Open Book Award for Gun Dealers’ Daughter (2012), puts the “unremembered” Philippine-American War on literary display. Adjectives such as humorous, playful, and ingenious seem almost disrespectful when describing a book anchored by “the worst massacre of [U.S.] Army soldiers in the decades after Custer’s defeat.” The little-known 1901 Balangiga massacre in Samar, Philippines, resulted in the deaths of 48 Americans. In retaliation, the occupying U.S. military razed the surrounding area, killing 2,500 to 50,000 people, “depending on who is doing the counting, blamer or blamed.”

Through the unlikely relationship between a U.S.-educated Filipino translator and a visiting American filmmaker, Apostol deftly exposes a complicated colonial legacy. Chiara, whose father directed a cult Vietnam film decades earlier – not unlike the modern classic Apocalypse Now – arrives in the Philippines to make a movie of her own. There she hires Magsalin to translate her script, but the collaboration produces two disparate versions. As the two women journey toward the massacre site, their screenplays unfold, overlapping, intertwining, even scattering, which demands the reader’s careful participation in parsing the dueling stories within stories. This multilayered challenge, enhanced by cameos from Elvis, Muhammad Ali, and various Coppolas, as well as a sprawling cast of characters both historical and imagined, proves exceptionally rewarding.

The three novels and two story collections below highlight the many historic entanglements between the U.S. and the Philippines.


Cebu by Peter Bacho

In Bacho’s American Book Award-winning debut, Filipino American priest Ben Lucero arrives in the Philippines for the first time to bury his immigrant mother in her homeland. As a guest of Aunt Clara, his mother’s lifelong best friend, he experiences the life of the wealthy and powerful, while also witnessing the plight of the deprived and oppressed, and finds all his moral and religious beliefs thrown into question.


The Disinherited by Han Ong

Roger Caracera is the black sheep of his prominent Filipino/Spanish family, the youngest child who lacks the ambition and accumulated status of his two older siblings. Shocked to be left half a million dollars by his estranged father, the 44-year-old deadbeat decides to stay in the Philippines after his father’s funeral to give away what he believes to be ill-gotten wealth. But in his quest to purge his inheritance, he learns that so-called charity is sometimes only in the eyes of the beholder. Han Ong, recipient of a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, is also an award-winning playwright.


Dream Jungle by Jessica Hagedorn

Though published 15 years before Insurrecto, Hagedorn’s extraordinary Dream Jungle could nevertheless be read as a companion piece. In it, Hagedorn (a 1990 National Book Award finalist for her novel Dogeaters), often considered the doyenne of Filipino American literature, intertwines memories from her own life with two historic events, the alleged 1970s discovery of an ancient “lost tribe” in the remote hills of the Philippines and the problematic filming of Apocalypse Now. The result is a tense, taut work of fiction that exposes the legacy of colonialism, class struggles, family relationships and responsibilities, all held together by an inevitable love story (of sorts).


Monstress by Lysley Tenorio

Tenorio’s remarkable debut comprises eight stories. In the eponymous “Monstress,” Tenorio spins foreign cult horror flicks, a has-been (or two), and Hollywood’s B-movie scene into a heartfelt love story of loss and (almost) redemption. Other standouts in this collection include “The Brothers,” in which an older brother begins to understand his unconventionally rebellious younger sibling after his death; “Felix Starro,” in which Tenorio achingly depicts one young man’s realizations about his grandfather’s ‘faithful’ business; and “Save the I-Hotel,” in which the forced closing of the legendary I-Hotel, located in what was once San Francisco’s Manilatown, causes two old-timers to recall their intertwined pasts. There may be monsters/monstresses in us all, but as Tenorio proves, even the most tenuous bonds between lovers, parents, siblings, friends, and strangers can eventually – hopefully – serve as reminders of our shared humanity.


People Are Strange by Eric Gamalinda

Gamalinda’s latest collection makes a complementary companion to Tenorio’s Monstress; both collections offer eight contemporary stories that draw on the authors’ shared Filipino heritage and their hybrid identities as foreign-born writers living and creating on the other side of the world. Gamalinda’s titular “strange people” – including an adopted Marcos “son,” a dead man sending emails to his ex-wife, the Elvis of Manila, a fictional Eric Gamalinda who can change skin color at will, and a murderous fly-killer – are all feats of imaginative invention, albeit with varying degrees of curious behaviors, characteristics, and choices. Ultimately, as each character searches for connection in a disjointed, chaotic world, their strangeness makes them more uniquely human. A multi-faceted writer, playwright, filmmaker, photographer, Gamalinda was shortlisted for the 2009 Man Asian Literary Prize for his novel, The Descartes Highlands.

Published: “Five More to Go: Gina Apostol’s INSURRECTO,” The Booklist Reader, November 16, 2018


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